Los Angeles Rams 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Rams finished the 2015 season at 7-9, but were worse than their record suggested. Five of their 7 wins came by 8 points or fewer, while just 3 of those losses did. Their only wins by more than 8 points came at home against the Browns and 49ers, arguably the two least talented teams in the league in 2015. The Rams finished the season 28th in first down rate differential, ahead of only the Dolphins, Saints, Browns, and 49ers. Their defense played well, finishing 5th in first down rate allowed, but their offense only picked up first downs at a 29.13% rate, dead last in the NFL.

It was clear they needed to upgrade their offense, especially the quarterback position, but because they won so many close games, they had just the 15th pick in the draft, not an ideal spot to find a franchise quarterback. To fix this problem, the Rams made an aggressive move up the draft board to the #1 overall pick, sending #15, #43, #45, #76, and a first and third rounder in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177 from the Titans, who did not need a quarterback and could afford to move down and stockpile picks.

It was a surprising move, as neither of the draft class’ top-2 quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, were the type of can’t miss quarterback prospects that teams are willing give up a king’s ransom to get, but the Rams apparently fell in love with Goff and decided they had to have him. Despite all they gave up to get him, Goff spent the entire off-season behind veteran Case Keenum and did not make his first start until the Rams’ 10th game of the season in week 11.

That’s despite the fact that Keenum hardly impressed in his 9 starts. The veteran journeyman completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. The Rams picked up first downs at a mere 30.25% rate in those 9 games, 2nd worst only to the Texans at that point in the season. Keenum finished the season 29th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

It was confusing to many why they took so long to let Goff play, but the reason quickly became clear as soon as Goff took over as the starter. Goff didn’t look remotely ready for game action. As bad as their offense was with Keenum, they took a huge step backwards in Goff’s 7 starts, as they moved the chains at a ridiculously low 24.62% rate. Goff led the offense to just 88 first downs and 10 offensive touchdowns in 7 games and they finished the season dead last in first down rate for the 2nd straight season at 27.92%, significantly worse than their league worst rank from a season before. The gap between them and 31st ranked Houston (30.62%) was bigger than the gap between Houston and 24th ranked Minnesota.

Their offensive issues are not all Goff’s fault, as they really lack talent around the quarterback on offense, but there’s no denying that this offense got significantly worse when they switched from Keenum, a backup caliber talent, to Goff. Goff completed just 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and took 26 sacks in 7 games. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback behind only Blaine Gabbert. The Rams fired defensive minded head coach Jeff Fisher with 3 games left to go last season and then hired ex-Redskin offensive coordinator Sean McVay this off-season to replace him and hopefully inject some life into Goff’s career.

McVay worked alongside Jay Gruden on one of the best offenses in the league over the past couple of seasons and was instrumental in the development of Kirk Cousins. Goff is still only going into his age 23 season and you can’t call him a bust after just 1 season, but his career couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start and there are major concerns for his future. Given all they gave up for him, the Rams desperately need Goff to pan out. Their only other option at the quarterback position is Sean Mannion, a 2015 3rd round pick who has never made a start. If Goff continues to struggle, it’s conceivable that Mannion could see starts down the stretch, but Goff will be given every chance in 2017.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

After bringing in an offensive minded head coach, their first order of business this off-season was to upgrade Goff’s supporting cast. Without a first round pick due to the Goff trade, the Rams’ best option to immediately improve their offensive supporting cast this off-season was free agency. Fortunately, they had a good amount of cap space to use. Their biggest signing was Andrew Whitworth, who comes over from Cincinnati on a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal and will immediately slot in at left tackle.

Whitworth is going into his age 36 season in 2017 and ordinarily it isn’t a good idea to give a player who is that old that much money, but Whitworth hasn’t shown any signs of age, finishing last season 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s also been a top-15 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made 126 of 128 starts over that time period. It’s possible his abilities will fall off a cliff soon, but the Rams can get out of his deal after 1 year and 12.5 million if they want.

He will replace Greg Robinson, who has been arguably the worst left tackle in the league over the past 3 seasons. The 2nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Robinson came into the league with a ton of upside, but finished 2nd worst, 5th worst, and 8th worst among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in the league (42 starts). The Rams moved him to right tackle this off-season, but ended up trading him to the Lions for a 2018 6th round pick in June when he struggled there and got benched for Jamon Brown. Robinson was one of the biggest busts in recent draft history.

Brown is currently penciled in as the starting right tackle with Robinson out of the picture, but Rob Havenstein has made 28 starts at right tackle over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015 and has played well, finishing 26th and 33rd respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The current plan seems to be to move Havenstein to right guard and play Brown at right tackle, but Brown spent the last 2 seasons at right guard, so they could easily flip them back at some point.

Brown, a 3rd round pick in 2015, has been significantly worse than Havenstein through 2 years in the league, finishing 70th out of 81 eligible guards as a rookie in 2015 and then 55th out of 72 eligible guards last season. He also only made 14 starts over those 2 seasons. Cody Wichmann, a 6th round pick from 2015, actually played the most snaps at right guard last season, finishing 51st out of 72 eligible guards on 594 snaps (11 starts). He also struggled on 424 snaps as a rookie. Regardless of who plays where, the Rams should have at least one hole on the right side of the offensive line.

The Rams will start a pair of veterans at left guard and center in Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan. Saffold was a rare bright spot on this offensive line last season, finishing 26th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. He’s no guarantee to do that again though, as he’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus 4 times in 7 seasons in the league and has missed 29 games with injury over that time period. They will need him to stay healthy and play well again because they don’t have an insurance plan behind him on the depth chart.

Sullivan, meanwhile, comes over from Washington, where he played just 98 snaps as the backup center for Sean McVay’s Redskins in 2016. Sullivan was once one of the better centers in the league. From 2011-2014, he made 63 of 64 starts with the Vikings and finished in the top-12 among centers in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-3. However, he missed all of 2015 with a back injury and didn’t sign with the Redskins until week 3 last season, after being let go at final cuts by the Vikings. Going into his age 32 season, his best days are probably behind him, but he could prove to be a solid cheap signing by the Rams. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Tim Barnes, who finished 31st out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts in 2016. This offensive line as a whole is improved, but they still have some problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Rams’ other big off-season signing was wide receiver Robert Woods, who comes over the from Bills on a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal. He’s really just a replacement for Kenny Britt though, as Britt signed with the Browns on a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He’s also a downgrade from Britt, as he finished 59th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus last season, while Britt finished 39th.

Woods was better than his 51/613/1 slash line suggests as he played on a run heavy offense and averaged a respectable 1.61 yards per route run, but he still was only a league average wide receiver. Last season was also the highest rated season of his career. Still only going into his age 25 season, he’s younger than Britt and could continue getting better, but he’s a solid #2 receiver at best and not the #1 receiver this offense needs.

The Rams also lost their 2nd leading receiver from 2016 in free agency, as Brian Quick (41/564/3) signed with the Redskins this off-season. The Rams replaced him by using a 3rd round pick on Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, who figures to have an immediate role. Kupp was one of the pro readiest receivers in this draft, even if it could take him a little bit to transition from the FCS level, where set pretty much every receiving record.

However, he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie and doesn’t have a huge upside. He’s only 14 months younger than Woods, who is already entering his 5th season in the league. This was also a weak wide receiver class overall, so calling him one of the pro readiest receivers in the draft doesn’t say a ton. Having to rely on a 3rd round rookie as your #2 receiver is not a good situation.

Kupp will compete for playing time with Tavon Austin. Austin was the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but the 5-8 174 pounder hasn’t developed into anything more than a gadget player and return man in his career. He has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league and the 509 receiving yards he had last season were the most he’s had in a single season in his career. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, but that hasn’t translated into him being a good wide receiver.

The Rams’ new coaching staff has talked him up as a deep threat this off-season, but that would be a huge shift in how he’s been used thus far in his career. His average catch has occurred just 3.62 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, as he hasn’t shown the ability to do much other than catch short screens and try to make guys miss in the open field. He’s not going to be Sean McVay’s new DeSean Jackson.

Austin has added 968 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground on 125 career carries and dominates as a return man, but isn’t the traditional receiver they need. Ideally, he’d be only their #3 receiver and a slot specialist because he doesn’t have the size to make catches on the outside. The 4-year, 42 million dollar extension they gave him last season looks like one of the biggest mistakes a team has made in recent years. That contract guaranteed him 28.5 million in new money and doesn’t have an out until after next season.

The Rams also got rid of tight end Lance Kendricks this off-season, as part of a complete overhaul of their receiving corps. Kendricks had a decent 50/499/2 slash line in 2016, but finished 54th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 830 snaps, so he won’t be a big loss. Like Brian Quick, the Rams also replaced him with a rookie, using their 2nd round pick on South Alabama’s Gerald Everett.

Everett is an athletic freak with a huge upside and has been compared to Jordan Reed, who McVay had in Washington, but he could struggle as a rookie because he comes from a small school and is very raw as a route runner and a run blocker. He’ll compete for playing time with Tyler Higbee, a 2016 4th round pick who finished 58th out of 63 eligible tight ends on 402 snaps last season. Both should have roles in what is still a thin receiving corps. They need young players to step up in a hurry.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Perhaps the most disappointing player in the league last season from a statistical standpoint was Todd Gurley. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley burst onto the scene as a rookie by rushing for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.83 YPC), but managed just 885 yards and 6 touchdowns on 278 carries in 2016 (3.18 YPC), ruining many fantasy seasons. Gurley was definitely worse from 2015 to 2016, but he wasn’t as good as his numbers looked in 2015 or as bad as his numbers looked in 2016. He fell from 15th among running backs in 2015 on Pro Football Focus to 33rd, which is still about middle of the pack.

The big difference was in 2015 he busted 11 runs of 20+ yards on 229 carries (4.8%), but in 2016 he had just 2 on 278 carries (0.7%). In 2015, he had 38.7% of his yardage on those 11 carries, but managed just 46 total yards on his two 20-yard carries in 2016. In 2015, he only picked up 45 first downs on those 229 carries, a 19.7% rate. That rate isn’t much better than the 17.3% rate he picked them up at in 2017. He should have more long runs in 2017 and he still has obvious upside going into his age 23 season, but he’s unlikely to match his YPC from 2015, especially given how little talent there is on this offense.

The one area where Gurley actually did improve from 2015 to 2016 was in the passing game. After catching just 21 passes for 188 yards in 2015, he caught 43 passes for 327 yards in 2016. In 2015, he was replaced by Benny Cunningham in most obvious passing situations and played just 456 snaps in 13 games. In 2016, he played 748 snaps in 16 games, including 428 pass snaps. It’s unclear how much of a role in the passing game he will have in 2017.

In Washington, Sean McVay’s offense always used Chris Thompson in a pure passing down role and the Rams have talked up free agent acquisition Lance Dunbar as that type of player, but McVay also was dealing with lead backs like Alfred Morris and Rob Kelley, who are not useful in passing situations. Gurley is a much more well-rounded back and capable of playing every down, so they might not want to take him off the field for Dunbar regularly, especially since doing so would signal to the defense when they are going to pass and when they are going to run.

Dunbar has just 68 career catches in 54 games, but that’s because he spent most of his career as a 3rd or 4th running back. In 2015 with the Cowboys, he was their primary passing down back and caught 21 passes in 4 games before tearing his ACL. In 2016, he was phased out of the offense and had just 25 touches on 143 snaps. The Rams guaranteed him 1.375 million on a 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, so it seems like they have a role in mind for him, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually play. He has a career 4.49 YPC average, but is undersized at 5-8 195 and has just 94 career carries, so he isn’t much of a threat for carries, even if Gurley were to get hurt. Gurley’s primary backup for carries could be Malcolm Brown, a 2015 undrafted free agent with 56 yards on 22 career carries. They would be in serious trouble if Gurley were to get hurt because he’s their only offensive play maker.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams had one of the best defenses in the league in 2015, but fell to 16th in first down rate allowed in 2016. As a result of that and their horrendous offense, they finished dead last in first down rate differential at -7.63%%, a full point lower than Cleveland (-6.22%), and over 2 points lower than San Francisco (-5.08%). On the season, they allowed 80 more first downs and 21 more offensive touchdowns than they scored.

They won 4 games, but by a combined 18 points, while their 12 losses came by a combined 188 points, an average margin of defeat of 15.67. Their -170 point differential was just ahead of San Francisco (-171) and Cleveland (-188). The Browns and 49ers won a combined 3 games last season, but you could argue the Rams were worse than both of those teams, especially after Jared Goff took over as quarterback. They lost all 7 of his starts by an average of 19.4 points per game.

Given their issues on offense, their defense will have to bounce back in 2017 for this team to even be respectable. The problem is their decline from 2015 to 2016 was largely as a result of the loss of several starters last off-season, including talented defensive backs Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins, who signed big contracts in free agency with the Eagles and Giants respectively. They still haven’t done anything to replace those guys and in fact they lost even more talent this off-season. Their talent level is nowhere near their 2015 level. The good news is they hired legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips this off-season, after the Broncos’ new coaching staff let him go. Phillips has always had a way of getting the most out of his talent. If this defense is improved in 2017, his leadership and scheme will likely be a big reason why. Phillips will convert this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Phillips will get to work with one incredibly talented defensive player in Aaron Donald, who will transition from defensive tackle to defensive end in this new defense. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has quickly become one of the best players in the league and, for my money, the best player in the league. He’s finished #1 among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and was their highest rated defensive player regardless of position last season.

JJ Watt has had better sack numbers, but Watt is going into his 7th season in the league and coming off of a back injury, while Donald is just entering his 4th season (his age 25 season) and hasn’t missed a single game with injury yet. Donald is also a better run stopper and plays a position where it is tougher to get sacks from, especially on a team that is consistently trailing and rarely plays with a lead.

Watt actually played the position that Donald will play this season when Phillips was the defensive coordinator in Houston. Donald could easily exceed his career high of 11 sacks this season at a new position, while still playing at a high level against the run. The Rams’ offense will limit sack opportunities for him, but he’s my early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. The combination of his talent and Phillips’ coaching and scheme could be deadly for the rest of the league.

In their 4-3 defense last year, Michael Brockers and Dominique Easley split snaps at defensive tackle next to Donald, with Brockers playing in base packages and Easley playing in sub packages. In their new 3-4, Brockers will stay as a base package nose tackle, while Easley will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Donald. Undersized at 6-2 285, Easley struggled against the run in a 4-3 and was only a part-time player as a result, but he could be an every down player in this new 3-4.

A 2014 1st round pick like Donald, Easley was selected 29th overall by the Patriots, but injuries limited him to just 545 snaps in 22 games in 2 seasons in New England and, even though he played well when healthy, the Patriots surprisingly cut him last off-season. The Patriots’ loss was the Rams’ gain, as he finished 15th among defensive tackles on 470 snaps in 2016 and played all 16 games. Now going into his age 25 season, he has breakout potential in this new 3-4 defense. He profiles similar to Malik Jackson, who had a lot of success as a defensive end in Phillips’ defense in Denver. The one big concern with Easley is he has major injury issues dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, where he tore both of his ACLs.

Brockers is also a former first round pick, going 14th overall in 2012. The big 6-5 326 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons in the league, including 3 straight seasons, but has never once finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 14.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. He finished last season 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but only played 419 snaps as a part-time player.

The Rams gave him a 3-year, 33.25 million extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, but they’re probably regretting that now, given how one dimensional he is and given that he’s locked into a pure base package role in their new 3-4 defense. That deal guaranteed him 25.25 million in new money between his signing bonus and his 2017 and 2018 salaries. He’s the highest paid nose tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. He’ll be a strong run stuffer for them, but isn’t worth what they’re paying him.

Tyrunn Walker will be their primary reserve on the line, after the Rams signed him as a free agent from the Lions this off-season. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Walker showed promise in the first action of his career in 2013 and 2014, finishing above average on 119 and 308 snaps respectively, but he hasn’t been able to translate that to a larger role. He struggled in 4 starts in 2015 before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season and then struggled upon his return in 2016, flashing below average on 377 snaps in 15 games (8 starts). He isn’t bad depth though and this is overall a very strong defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Along with Phillips coming in, one thing that could be a big boost for this defense is if Robert Quinn stayed healthy, after he missed 7 games with injury last season. However, Quinn also missed 8 games the year before, so that’s far from a guarantee, and they finished last season with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, so they can’t really count on being healthier overall. Injuries are a part of the game and the Rams struggled without really dealing with them (outside of Quinn) last season.

Quinn was a top-11 3-4 defensive end in 2013, and 2014, and 2015 before getting injured, so he has bounce back potential, still only going into his age 27 season, but he did not look like himself last season when on the field and has played in just 17 of his last 32 games. He’ll move from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker with Phillips coming in and play the old DeMarcus Ware role. He’d likely struggle if ever asked to cover, but Phillips will put him in spots where he can succeed and likely won’t see his passing down role changed much from what he’s used to.

He will start opposite Connor Barwin, who was signed to 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, replacing William Hayes, who finished last season 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t a good fit for a 3-4 defense. Barwin was cut by the Eagles this off-season, but that was because he was owed 7.75 million and wasn’t a good fit for their 4-3 defense. He finished last season 6th worst among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in 3 of the previous 5 seasons in a 3-4 defense and has experience with Wade Phillips from his early years in Houston.

The biggest concern with Barwin is he’s going into his age 31 season and seems to have lost a step over the past couple seasons, regardless of scheme. He’s an underwhelming starter, but their only other option is Ethan Westbrooks, a 2014 undrafted free agent who has finished below average in all 3 seasons in the league. Westbrooks played 533 snaps at 4-3 defensive end  in a rotational role last season with Quinn hurt and figures to be their primary reserve 3-4 outside linebacker in 2017.

Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree remain as every down linebackers. Ogletree will remain inside with the scheme switch, while Barron will move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Barron, the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, was a bust at safety for the first 3 years of his career in Tampa Bay, but was traded to the Rams for a late round pick during the 2014 season and made the transition to linebacker the following off-season. That move has paid off in a big way, as he’s finished 20th and 32nd among off-ball linebackers over the past 2 seasons, while making 28 straight starts. Still in his prime, only going into his age 28 season, Barron should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

Ogletree started his career at outside linebacker, but broke his leg 4 games into the 2015 season, which allowed Barron to take over, and then, after Barron broke out, Ogletree moved inside for the 2016 season. Ogletree returned to play all 16 games in 2016 and the 2013 1st round pick played all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league before the injury. The problem is he’s finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league.

Ogletree isn’t a bad player, but he hasn’t lived up to his first round draft slot or his immense athletic upside. Owed 8.369 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, the Rams have a big decision to make on him in the next year. He’s still only going into his age 26 season and has a high ceiling, but hasn’t shown it on the field. The Rams have good upside in the linebacking corps, but also considerable downside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As mentioned, the Rams lost safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Janoris Jenkins last off-season. This off-season, they lost their other safety TJ McDonald, who was about a league average starter last season. To replace him, LaMarcus Joyner will move from slot cornerback to safety. A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner is coming off the best season of his career, finishing 30th among cornerbacks on 699  snaps, after barely playing as a rookie and struggling on 730 snaps in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. Joyner has played cornerback, safety, and even some linebacker thus far in his career, but figures to be an every down safety in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. A solid season could earn him a decent sized contract on the open market next off-season.

Joyner will start opposite Mo Alexander, who was a pleasant surprise in his first full season as a starter in 2016. After struggling mightily in the first 5 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 2nd worst among safeties on Pro Football Focus, the 2014 4th round pick shot up to 17th in 2016 in 14 starts. He’s a complete one-year wonder and could easily regress this season, but another strong season would also get him a good sized contract on the open market next off-season. The Rams will have decisions to make in the next year to avoid losing more talent at the safety position.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson will also be a free agent next off-season, although that’s been the case for each of the previous two seasons as well, as he’s been franchise tagged in back-to-back off-seasons. A 2012 3rd round pick, Johnson had a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and was franchise tagged instead of fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams understandably didn’t want to commit to a long-term deal with him until he proved himself again, which he did in 2016, when he finished 25th among cornerbacks, but now they don’t want to give him a long-term deal until he’s proven himself in Wade Phillips’ defense.

The Rams will pay him 30.7 million fully guaranteed between 2016 and 2017 on the two franchise tags, which is probably more than he’s worth, and franchise tagging him for a 3rd time next off-season would cost them at least 24.11 million, making that not a realistic option. If he has another strong season, the Rams would likely be forced to either let him walk or pay him at least what Desmond Trufant got on his extension this off-season (68.75 million over 5 years). Johnson is a good player, but he’s not a top level corner and might not be worth that kind of dough.

With Joyner moving to safety, incumbent #2 cornerback EJ Gaines will compete for playing time with a pair of free agent acquisitions, Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Gaines burst onto the scene as a mere 6th round rookie in 2014, finishing 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts, but his career has since been derailed by injuries. He missed all of 2015 with a foot injury and then was limited to 10 starts by more leg injuries in 2016. He also did not remotely resemble his old self in 2016, finishing 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He’s entering a make or break final year of his rookie deal and could easily lose his starting job this off-season.

Webster only has 2 career starts in 4 seasons in the league, but got 7.75 million on a 2-year deal and is familiar with Wade Phillips’ scheme from Denver, so he’s much more likely to earn a role than Robey-Coleman, a slot specialist who signed for near the minimum this off-season. Webster never played much in Denver and didn’t show much when he did play, but he was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and Phillips seems to like him. Robey-Coleman, meanwhile, is a capable slot cornerback, but isn’t a realistic option outside because of his lack of size at 5-8 165. This should be an underwhelming secondary once again.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams do have a few things going for them. They have one of the youngest rosters in football and could easily be better this season if some of that young talent develops. They also should be much better coached with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips coming in. And they adding a much needed blindside protector in free agency when they signed Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals.

However, they were one of the worst teams in the league last season, arguably the worst once Goff took over, despite barely having any injuries. They also lost more talent on defense this off-season, with talented starters like TJ McDonald and William Hayes going elsewhere. On paper, this is one of the least talented rosters in the league and, while they could exceed their talent level because of good coaching, especially on defense with Phillips, it’s hard to see them winning more than 5 or so games. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Arizona Cardinals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, after winning 13 games the previous season, but they were much better than their record suggested. In fact, they finished 1st in first down rate differential for the second straight season, though they did drop from+8.45% to +5.92%. The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. They should have better luck this season.

The area in which they had the biggest decline last season was their passing game  After completing 62.8% of their passes for an average of 8.50 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2015, they completed just 59.3% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. Their receiving corps was not nearly as good (more on them later), but there’s no denying that Carson Palmer declined in a big way. Palmer’s QB rating fell 17.4 points and he fell from 4th to 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The decline shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, as 2015 was easily the best season of his career. His QB rating was his highest in a full season in his career by over 10 points. On top of that, 2016 was his age 37 season. Palmer has always been a solid quarterback and has finished above average among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but he is now going into his age 38 season, so he could easily be in his final season in the league and a big decline is certainly possible.

Many thought they would take a quarterback early in the draft, but they didn’t draft one at all. Adding a developmental quarterback would have made sense, not only given Palmer’s age, but also given the fact that their veteran backups Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are among the worst in the league and have always struggled when forced to start in their careers. Stanton has a 66.3 QB rating in 13 career starts, while Gabbert has a 71.5 QB rating in 40 career starts. If Palmer does end up struggling at his advanced age, the Cardinals won’t really have another option. They need him to hold it together for at least one more season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the Cardinals’ receiving corps got a lot worse in 2016, after they had one of the best receiving corps in the league in 2015. In 2015, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown were one of four wide receiver duos to both finish with over 1000 yards and ended the season ranked 8th and 27th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Michael Floyd, meanwhile, finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and had 52 catches for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season, despite playing only 652 snaps as the 3rd receiver. In 2016, however, Floyd managed just 33 catches for 446 yards and 4 touchdowns and was cut after week 14 when he was arrested for DUI. Brown, meanwhile, was limited to 39 catches for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns on 594 snaps by a mysterious sickle cell disease that limited his explosiveness and his snap count.

The only one who repeated his strong 2015 season was Larry Fitzgerald, who has been one of the best receivers in the league over the last decade plus. Fitzgerald finished last season 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, just 2 spots lower than his 2015 rank. His slash line fell from 109/1215/9 to 107/1023/6, but most of that was as a result of the overall decline of the passing game. Going into his 14th season in the league, Fitzgerald has 1125 career catches (3rd all-time) for 14,389 receiving yards (9th all-time) and 104 receiving touchdowns (8th all-time) in 202 career games, despite not always having great quarterback play, and has finished in the top-10 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 10 seasons. The only concern is he’s going into his age 34 season and is far from a guarantee to continue playing at a high level. He is also rumored to be considering retiring after this season.

John Brown is reportedly back to 100% after the illness he dealt with last season, which could be huge for this offense. He had a strong season in 2015, in just his 2nd season in the league, and could easily bounce back in his age 27 season in 2017. Going into the final season of his rookie deal, Brown could cash in as a free agent this off-season if he proves himself again. With Brown and Floyd struggling, JJ Nelson actually finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season, catching 34 passes for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns. A 2015 5th round pick, Nelson is a one dimensional speedster at 5-10 160 and finished below average on 472 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but is one of the fastest players in the league. He will compete with 3rd round rookie Chad Williams for the #3 receiver job to start 2017.

The #3 receiver has a pretty big role in this offense because they don’t throw to tight ends often. Jermaine Gresham returns for his 3rd season as the Cardinals’ starting tight end. He was used more in the passing game last season out of desperation because Brown and Floyd were not themselves, almost doubling his target total from the previous season (61 vs. 32). However, he didn’t really produce, averaging just 6.41 yards per target on 61 targets. The 6-5 260 pound Gresham is a capable blocker, but has finished below average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and is coming off of one of his worst overall seasons, finishing 59th out of 63 eligible tight ends in 2016. He has averaged just 31.8 yards per game in 105 career games, despite starting 93 of them. He won’t be much of a factor in the passing game again this season.

Darren Fells only played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. He signed in Detroit as a free agent this off-season, so Troy Niklas will take over his old role. Niklas was a 2nd round pick in 2014, but his career hasn’t gotten off the ground because of injuries, as he has just 8 catches in 26 career games in 3 seasons in the league. Niklas will get one last chance in the final year of his rookie deal, but he’s unlikely to do much with it, though he still has upside going into only his age 25 season. The 6-6 270 pounder at least has the frame to be a strong blocker, which is about the most the Cardinals can hope for out of him. This team really lacks a good 3rd option in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production from the passing game, the Cardinals still finished 6th in first down rate at 38.31%. That’s a significant decrease from their league leading 40.73% rate in 2015, but they were still one of the best in the league in that metric. Their offensive MVP was definitely running back David Johnson, whose breakout 2016 season offset some of the issues they had in the passing game. Not only did he have a strong season on the ground, rushing for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), but he was also their 2nd leading receiver by a wide margin, catching 80 passes for 879 yards and another 4 touchdowns. Johnson finished the season 1st in the league in yards from scrimmage and in total touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked overall back and their 1st ranked back in receiving grade.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson flashed some of this ability as a rookie when he started the final 5 games of the regular season and then 2 playoff games, rushing for 537 yards and 5 scores on 120 carries in those 7 games (4.48 YPC) and adding 32 catches for 327 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. Going into his age 26 season, Johnson should be able to keep up his high level of play in 2017. Johnson looks like a modern day version of Marshall Faulk with his all-around ability. The 6-1 224 pounder has good size, speed, and runs routes like a receiver. They’ll need him in a big way in the passing game again, given that they lack another good 3rd option.

Johnson will carry the load again for the Cardinals, but, if he were to get injured, the Cardinals would use a committee of Kerwynn Williams, TJ Logan, and Andre Ellington. Williams is a bottom of the roster special teamer who has averaged 5.56 yards per carry on 98 career carries in 3 seasons in the league. Logan is an undersized (5-9 195) 5th round rookie. Ellington is the most experienced of the trio, with a 4.26 career YPC average on 398 carries and 112 catches in 4 seasons in the league, but he is always an injury risk and has never proven capable of carrying the load at 5-9 199. The Cardinals briefly tried him at wide receiver this off-season before moving him back to running back. He might be their primary change of pace back, but wouldn’t become an every down back even if Johnson were to get hurt.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive line is another area where the Cardinals took a step back in 2016. Injuries were a big part of it, as left tackle Jared Veldheer missed the final 8 games of the season with a torn triceps and right guard Evan Mathis missed the final 12 games of the season with an ankle injury. Both were big losses, but Mathis’ was probably the bigger one because he was a top-3 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 5 seasons prior to 2016 and replacement Earl Watford struggled mightily in his absence, finishing dead last among guards on Pro Football Focus in 11 starts.

Watford is in Jacksonville now, but Mathis retired ahead of his age 36 season this off-season, so the Cardinals might not get much better play at the position this season. Evan Boehm, a 2016 4th round pick who was underwhelming in 2 starts last season, is penciled in as the starter, but he will face competition from 2016 5th round pick Cole Toner, who played just 10 snaps as a rookie, and Dorian Johnson, who was a 4th round pick this year. Their only veteran option is Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who has made just 4 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is already going into his age 31 season. Regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness in 2017.

Veldheer returns from injury, but the Cardinals are planning on keeping DJ Humphries at left tackle and playing Veldheer at right tackle. Humphries was their 1st round pick in 2015 and was about a league average starter in 13 starts last season, first at right tackle then at left tackle, after not playing a single snap as a rookie in 2015. Veldheer would probably be the better option at left tackle because he has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in each of his last 4 healthy seasons and hasn’t played right tackle since college, but he is going into his age 30 season and has lost 2 of the last 4 seasons to torn triceps injuries. Humphries, meanwhile, has tremendous upside and is still only going into his age 24 season, so the arrow is definitely pointing up for him. The Cardinals could also flip their tackles at any time if this arrangement doesn’t seem to be working out. Owed a non-guaranteed 7 million in the final year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal, Veldheer could be entering his final season in Arizona if he doesn’t have a strong season.

Veldheer is one of two well-paid veteran linemen on this offensive line. The other is left guard Mike Iupati, who is going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. Originally a 2010 1st round pick by the 49ers, Iupati has started 103 games in 7 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 7 seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-14 among guards on Pro Football Focus. He fell to 33rd among guards last season, which is a bit of a concern, as he’s now going into his age 30 season. He should still be at least a solid guard for them for another couple seasons though.

Rounding out the offensive line at center is veteran AQ Shipley. Shipley is already going into his age 31 season, but last season was his first as a full-time starter. His 16 starts at center last season were more than he had at center in the rest of his career (13). Shipley struggled mightily at left guard in 2013 with the Ravens, but has finished above average in all 4 seasons in which he’s made starts at center and he finished 14th among centers in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, but he should be a solid center once again in 2017. This offensive line should be solid if they can be healthier this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals’ offense took a bit of a step backwards from 2015 to 2016, their defense was remarkably consistent. In 2015, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.28% rate, 9th best in the NFL, and, in 2016, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.39% rate, 5th best in the NFL. Unfortunately, they lost 4 defensive starters in free agency this off-season, including a few very talented players, so they could take a big step back defensively this season. That and Carson Palmer’s age are likely to prevent them from bouncing back to 2015 form.

Their biggest defensive loss was defensive end Calais Campbell, who has quietly been their best defensive player for about a decade. Drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Campbell played 9 seasons with the Cardinals and finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons. Last season was arguably the best season of his career, as he finished 1st among 3-4 defensive ends, but he signed a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season, leaving a very big hole on their defensive line.

The Cardinals have an obvious internal replacement in Robert Nkemdiche, their first round pick in 2016, but he played just 83 snaps as a rookie because the Cardinals were not confident in him. With Campbell gone, they won’t have any choice but to play him, so they will obviously be hoping for a huge 2nd year leap from a naturally very talented player. The Cardinals called out his conditioning and he reportedly has responded well this off-season, so a solid 2nd season in the league for him is certainly a possibility. He’ll be an obvious downgrade from Campbell though.

Nkemdiche will probably work in a rotation at defensive end with the three players who rotated opposite Campbell last season, Frostee Rucker (304 snaps), Josh Mauro (388 snaps), and Rodney Gunter (243 snaps). Nkemdiche probably won’t play the 828 snaps that Campbell did last season, so those three will all likely have bigger roles in 2017, even though all three finished well below average. Rucker is the veteran of the bunch, going into his 11th season in the league, but he’s only finished above average twice in 10 seasons in the league and is unlikely to be any better now, going into his age 34 season. At this point in his career, he doesn’t offer much beyond veteran leadership. Meanwhile, Mauro is a 2014 undrafted free agent who the Cardinals signed off the Steelers’ practice squad in 2014, while Gunter is a 2015 4th round pick. Neither has ever finished above average.

Nose tackle Corey Peters finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played last season with 497 and was also their 2nd best defensive lineman, finishing just above average overall. He’s only finished above average twice in 6 healthy seasons in the league though and already has two torn achilles on his resume. He’s best as a run stuffer, but he has some experience as an interior pass rusher and could be counted on for a larger role and more sub package snaps with Campbell now in Jacksonville. This defensive line is much worse without Campbell and needs a breakout year from Nkemdiche to even be respectable.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

One defensive starter they didn’t lose as a free agent this off-season was Chandler Jones, who was franchise tagged and eventually signed to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar long-term deal. The Cardinals traded a 2nd round pick to the Patriots for Jones last off-season and he responded with the best season of his career, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so there was no chance the Cardinals were going to let him go, even with other key players hitting free agency.

When they traded for him, they essentially committed to him long-term over Campbell because Campbell likely would have been tagged and re-signed if not for that trade and they didn’t have the money to keep both. Campbell has had a more impressive career, but Jones is significantly younger, still only going into his age 27 season. The 2012 1st round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level player he was last season, but has finished above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2014 season in which he finished 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He should continue being at least a solid edge defender going forward and is the Cardinals’ best pass rusher.

Opposite him, Markus Golden had a breakout year, giving the Cardinals a pair of edge rushers with 10+ sacks. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden was solid on 518 snaps as a rookie, but finished his second season in the league 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’s only really been a starter for one year, so he will need to prove it again in 2017, but he looks like one of the best young edge rushers in the league. The Cardinals also signed veteran Jarvis Jones in free agency and he’ll be the primary reserve. A bust as a 2013 1st round pick, Jones had just 6 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league, but is a solid run stopper and will have an early down role. He won’t take any sub package snaps away from Jones and Golden though, as those two are too good at getting to the quarterback to take off the field in passing situations.

The Cardinals did lose middle linebacker Kevin Minter in free agency, but, although he had a solid contract year, he’s easily the most replaceable of the 4 defensive starters they lost in free agency. There’s a reason he had to settle for just a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal from the Bengals in free agency. The Cardinals also replaced him very quickly, using the 13th overall pick on Temple’s Haason Reddick. A great edge rusher at Temple, but undersized, Reddick shot up draft boards when he showed he could play off-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl and figures to be pretty much an every down middle linebacker for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals may move him around the formation some because of his versatility and he’ll probably get about 100 or so shots at rushing the quarterback between blitzes and snaps where he lines up outside, but his best pro position is going to be middle linebacker, given his 6-1 237 frame. He’s drawn comparisons to Jamie Collins because of his ability to rush the passer, cover backs and tight ends, and stop the run as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He has excellent upside and could be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He should start opposite another former first round pick Deone Bucannon, who went 27th overall in 2014. I say “should” because Bucannon had off-season ankle surgery and is a questionable for the start of the season. He could begin the year on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games of the season at least. If he misses any time, he’d be a big loss, as he’s played at a high level over the past two seasons, since converting from safety to middle linebacker, finishing 15th among middle linebackers in 2015 and 27th in 2016. Undersized at 6-1 211, Bucannon was a trendsetter for box safeties moving to linebacker. Many teams now use box safeties in at least hybrid roles.

In his absence, the Cardinals would start Karlos Dansby, a 13-year veteran who is now on his 3rd stint with the Cardinals. Originally a 2nd round pick by the Cardinals in 2004, Dansby has also played for the Dolphins, Browns, and Bengals. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of the last 10 seasons, but he is going into his age 36 season, so he’s a major question mark going forward. When Bucannon is healthy, Dansby will be a pure reserve. This is still a talented linebacking corps, but much depends on Bucannon’s health.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Along with Campbell and Minter, the Cardinals also lost starting safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger in free agency. Both will be big losses, as they finished 5th and 9th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus on 931 and 839 snaps respectively. To replace them, the Cardinals signed veteran Antoine Bethea and drafted Washington’s Budda Baker in the 2nd round. They also have Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch back healthy after they were limited to 10 games and 6 games respectively by injury last season. Mathieu is expected to start at one safety spot in base packages with Bethea, Baker, and Branch competing at that other spot.

Mathieu is healthy now, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus as a hybrid cornerback/safety. However, his rookie season was cut short when he tore his ACL week 14 and missed the rest of the season. In 2014, he was limited to 438 nondescript snaps as he was eased back from the injury. In 2015, he seemed to be all the way back, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd highest ranked defensive back, but he again tore his ACL week 15 and missed the rest of the season.

He returned for week 1 of 2016, but he missed another 6 games with a shoulder injury and looked nowhere near 100% all season. He’s only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2017, but the 5-9 185 pounder is undersized for how physical he plays and may just be a permanent injury risk. The Cardinals bet a lot of money on him, guaranteeing him 40 million dollars on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension even after his 2nd ACL tear last off-season. They’re obviously hoping he can return to form and stay healthy. He covers the slot in sub packages and plays safety in base packages, often playing around the line of scrimmage.

Like Mathieu, Tyvon Branch can also cover the slot in sub packages, and, unfortunately, like Mathieu, he has major problems staying healthy. He’s finished above average in 5 of his last 6 seasons, but has missed 37 of 64 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and hasn’t played more than 428 snaps in a season since 2012. Going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can make it through an entire season anymore. Budda Baker, who the Cardinals traded up to 36 to get, was selected as insurance for both Mathieu and Branch and could see significant snaps as a rookie. Like Mathieu and Branch, he can cover the slot and play safety. The downside with Baker is that he is just 5-10 195 and received just a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft.

Antoine Bethea is the lone true safety in the mix. He’s also easily the most durable safety they have, as he has played all 16 games in 8 of the last 9 seasons and once went 5 seasons without appearing on the injury report once. The problem is he’s in his age 33 season and has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 67th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. The Cardinals are deep at safety, but there should be opportunity for everyone to have a role this season because they like to use 3 and 4 safety sets in nickel and dime packages and because their 2 best safeties are very injury prone.

The Cardinals depth at safety is especially beneficial because they don’t have much depth at the cornerback position. They do have one side locked down though, because Patrick Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Peterson has finished in the top-16 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at #5 in 2015 and finishing 14th last season. The only season he struggled was in 2014, when he dealt with complications from undiagnosed diabetes all season, issues that have since been resolved. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has been as advertised, making all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Their safety depth will help them in sub packages, but they still need someone to play outside every down outside Peterson and cover opponent’s #2 receivers. That position was their achilles heel last season and they didn’t do much to upgrade it this off-season. It looks like they will turn back to Justin Bethel to start the season, although he’s far from locked into the job. Solely a special teamer for the first 3 seasons of his career, Bethel has been unimpressive on 703 snaps over the past 2 seasons and lost his starting job early last season to Marcus Cooper, who finished 100th among 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts. Bethel’s main competition is Brandon Williams, who struggled mightily on 241 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016. Harlan Miller, a 2016 6th round pick who flashed on 140 snaps as a rookie, and Jonathan Ford, a 6th round rookie, could also be in the mix. It’s a major flaw in a secondary that will need to stay healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Cardinals could have easily been an 11 or 12 win team last season and they won 13 games the season before, but their window might have closed. They lost way too much talent on defense this off-season and too many of their key players are either injury risks or getting up there in age. This team still has good talent on offense and could still make the playoffs, but they could also end up at 6-10 or worse if older players show their age or injury risks can’t stay on the field. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

New York Jets 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets had a surprise 10-6 season in 2015, but it looked unlikely they would repeat that season in 2016. Not only did they enter the 2016 season with one of the oldest starting lineups in the NFL, but they also had a bunch of veterans coming off of career best seasons who were unlikely to repeat those seasons. As a result, they declined in a big way in 2016, finishing at 5-11 and dead last in the AFC East. Their 5 win drop was big, but their decline is even worse than that suggests as they fell from 5th in first down rate differential at +5.11% in 2015 to 29th at -4.30% in 2016. That was the biggest decline in the NFL, just ahead of the Carolina Panthers. In 2015, the Jets finished 15th and 1st respectively in first down rate and first down rate allowed, but they fell to 28th and 18th respectively in those two metrics in 2016.

One of those veterans coming off a career best season was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who completed 59.6% of his passes for 6.95 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 2015. An aging journeyman, Fitzpatrick wanted to cash in on his big season as a free agent last off-season and he and the Jets played hardball into training camp, before he eventually re-signed on a 1-year, 12 million dollar deal. Once he finally returned to the team, the Jets probably wished he hadn’t, as he completed just 56.6% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. No eligible quarterback finished the season with a worse QB rating.

Missing off-season work likely had something to do with it, but the fact is he’s an aging journeyman who was unlikely to repeat his 2015 season regardless. Fitzpatrick was actually benched on two separate occasions last season. He was first benched for backup Geno Smith, but then Smith tore his ACL, which forced Fitzpatrick back into action. Then, after the team fell to 3-8, Fitzpatrick was benched for 2nd year quarterback Bryce Petty, who made the first 4 starts of his career, before suffering an injury of his own and forcing Fitzpatrick back into action once again for week 17.

None of the Jets’ three quarterbacks even resembled a capable starting quarterback in 2016, as the Jets finished dead last in the NFL with a 67.6 QB rating. Not only was that the worst QB rating in the league last season, but it was the worst by any team in a season since the Jets in 2013. Fitzpatrick, now going into his age 35 season, and Smith were both not re-signed this off-season, as they signed with the Buccaneers and Giants respectively as pure backups. Bryce Petty returns, but he was abysmal in his 4 starts, completing 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Only a 4th round pick in 2015, Petty doesn’t even look like a long-term backup.

The Jets also return another young quarterback, 2016 2nd round pick Christian Hackenberg, but he didn’t throw a pass last season, despite all 3 quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart struggling. There’s a good reason for that as Hackenberg didn’t look remotely ready for game action in the pre-season, completing a comical 36.2% of his passes for an average of 3.38 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in 2 games, even though he was playing against 3rd and 4th stringers, many of whom didn’t even make a final roster in 2016.

Hackenberg was a high pick, but could go down as one of the biggest reaches in recent history. Hackenberg was a top recruit coming out of high school and showed promise as a freshman at Penn State, but completed less than 55% of his passes over the next 2 seasons with just 28 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. The Jets took a flier on his upside and it already seems to have backfired. Wildly inaccurate with horrendous pocket presence, Hackenberg wasn’t even given a draftable grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and it’s very telling that he couldn’t get on the field even in a lost season in 2016.

Both Petty and Hackenberg will likely see action at some point in 2017, but the Jets are expected to start the season with veteran journeyman Josh McCown under center, after the Jets signed him to a 1-year, 6.5 million dollar deal this off-season, passing on more expensive veterans like Mike Glennon, Colin Kaepernick, and (before his retirement) Jay Cutler. Those other three players would have been better options, but the Jets seem to be expecting a lost season in 2017 and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the quarterback position.

The Jets didn’t seem to want to spend a lot of money in general, releasing several highly paid veterans and not signing any high priced free agents. Rather than pushing forward with a mediocre, expensive veteran roster, the Jets smartly seem to be embracing the rebuild, building up cap space and letting young players play, though the immediate results on the field could be very ugly. The Jets didn’t draft a quarterback, but 2018 is a much better quarterback class and this is going to be much more than a one-year rebuild, so it was smart of them not to reach for someone in this year’s draft, especially with needs all over the field.

McCown will more or less be the sacrificial lamb as they need someone to start games under center for them this season. McCown does have experience with this kind of thing, starting 11 games for the 2-14 Buccaneers in 2014 (#1 pick), 8 games for the 3-13 Browns in 2015 (#2 pick), and then 3 games for the 1-15 Browns in 2016 (#1 pick). Over those 3 seasons, he’s completed 58.7% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions and is 2-20 as a starter. That’s not all his fault, but that record is unlikely to improve much this season.

Prior to that, McCown flashed in 5 starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler with the Bears in 2013, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and an interception, which is probably why he’s continued to get chances, but prior to 2013 he made just 2 starts from 2008-2012 and didn’t have a QB rating higher than 70 since 2005. Now going into his 16th season in the NFL, the fact that he’s still in the league is a testament to what he provides in terms of leadership and intangibles, but he’s never had a good arm and that’s highly unlikely to change going into his age 38 season. He also has not been able to stay healthy over the past couple seasons, so Petty and Hackenberg will both likely have opportunities to play by the end of the season. The Jets have the worst quarterback situation in the league.

Grade: F

Receiving Corps

Two of the highly paid veterans the Jets parted ways with this off-season were wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. An example of how quickly things can change in the NFL, Marshall and Decker one of four wide receiver duos in 2015 to both top 1000 yards, but the rebuilding Jets decided to let both of them go this off-season, rather than paying them 7.5 million and 7.25 million respectively in their age 33 and age 30 seasons respectively.

Marshall finished 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns in 2015, totalling 1502 yards and 14 touchdowns on 109 catches, but fell to 59/788/3 in 2016 and caught just 46.1% of the targets thrown his way. Quarterback play was a huge part of the problem, but he still fell from 15th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 to 67th out of 115 eligible in 2016. Decker, meanwhile, had a 80/1027/12 slash line in 2016, but missed all but 3 games with injury last season. Now neither are with the team anymore.

Fortunately, Quincy Enunwa did have a solid year in Decker’s absence, though he’ll likely be overmatched as a #1 receiver. He’s also a one year wonder who caught just 22 of 46 targets (47.8%) for 315 yards and 0 touchdowns in 2015, finishing 103rd out of 108 eligible wide receivers on 522 snaps in the first significant action of his career. Last season, the 2014 6th round pick was much better in a bigger role, catching 58 passes for a team high 857 yards and 4 touchdowns on 106 targets (54.7%) and finishing slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, but, even at his best, he’s only a competent #2 receiver.

Not only is Enunwa overmatched as a #1 wide receiver, but the Jets have no depth behind on the depth chart. Robby Anderson finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among wide receivers with 717 last season, and the undrafted rookie was predictably was overwhelmed, catching just 42 passes for 587 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 108th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s unlikely to be much better this season, but he’s the early favorite to start opposite Enunwa. He’ll be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie ArDarius Stewart, the early favorite for the #3 receiver job. Fourth round rookie Chad Hansen and 2016 7th round pick Charone Peake, who struggled on 324 snaps as a rookie, will also be in the mix for snaps in the league’s thinnest wide receiver group.

Things aren’t any better at tight end either. Former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey never used the tight end in the passing game, so the Jets never addressed their need at tight end. In 2 seasons under Gailey, the Jets completed just 26 passes to tight ends, easily the fewest in the league over that time period. Gailey is no longer with the team, but their lack of tight end depth remains. In fact, 5th round rookie Jordan Leggett, an unremarkable prospect, is currently the favorite to be the week 1 starter. That could change after week 3, when Austin Seferian-Jenkins returns from suspension, but Leggett will have a significant role as a rookie regardless.

Seferian-Jenkins had first round talent coming out of the University of Washington, with great pass catching and run blocking ability at 6-5 262, but fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2nd round because of concerns about his alcohol use. Those concerns have proven to be legitimate, as ASJ has struggled with discipline and conditioning throughout his career and was arrested for DUI last September, which led to the Buccaneers releasing him. He was also arrested for DUI in college. He’ll serve a 2-game suspension to start 2017, but reports have been very positive about him and his maturity this off-season. Still only going into his age 25 season, there’s time for him to turn it around and turn into a productive player in the league if he can be disciplined and stay out of trouble, but that’s far from a guarantee. With Josh McCown throwing to this receiving corps, it’s a mystery how the Jets plan on moving the ball through the air.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

In addition to Marshall and Decker, the Jets also got rid of a couple highly paid offensive linemen who were going into their age 30+ seasons, center Nick Mangold and left tackle Ryan Clady. Mangold, the Jets’ first round pick in 2006, started 164 games in 11 seasons with the Jets, but was no better than average over the past 2 seasons and was not worth his 9.075 million dollar salary to a re-building team in his age 33 season. Mangold will be replaced by Wesley Johnson, who made 8 starts when Mangold was injured last season. The 2014 5th round pick struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2016 though, finishing 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a very underwhelming replacement.

Unlike Mangold, Clady has only been with the team for one year and didn’t play well, finishing 62nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in just 9 games in an injury shortened season. That made it an easy decision to cut him, rather than paying him 10 million in 2017. Clady once had a promising career, but it has been completely derailed by injuries. After making all 80 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, Clady has played just 27 games over the last 4 seasons and remains unsigned as a free agent. Going into his age 31 season, he could just be completely done physically.

The Jets did spend some money on offensive linemen this off-season though, signing ex-Jaguar Kelvin Beachum to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal and re-signing Ben Ijalana and Brian Winters to deals worth 10.25 million over 2 years and 29 million over 4 years respectively. Beachum is expected to take over for Okung at left tackle. He struggled mightily in 15 starts at left tackle in Jacksonville last season, finishing 63rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t healthy all season in his first year back from the torn ACL that ended his 2015 season after 6 games.

In 2014, he finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and looked on his way to another strong season in 2015 before the injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only going into his age 28 season. However, it’s worth noting that Beachum finished below average in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013 as well, so he’s a bit of a one-year wonder. The Jets are essentially guaranteeing him 16 million over the next 2 seasons, so it’s a risky deal, but he could easily be a capable starter with upside.

Ijalana saw time at left tackle last season when Okung was hurt, but he’ll likely move back to right tackle with Beachum coming in. Ijalana struggled mightily on the blindside, but didn’t play well on either side last season, finishing 60th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts. Those 13 starts were actually the first of his career, as the 2011 2nd round pick struggled mightily with injuries early in his career and didn’t play an offensive snap in 2013, 2014, or 2015. Given that and his struggles last season, it’s very puzzling why the Jets decided to give him decent money on a two-year deal. He was a high pick, but he’s already going into his age 28 season, so it’s not like he’s some hot young prospect anymore. He figures to struggle on the right side.

Winters’ deal made a little bit more sense, as he finished 31st among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts at right guard last season, a rare pleasant surprise for this team. However, the 2013 3rd round pick is a complete one-year wonder who struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league (28 starts). Prior to 2016, his best season came in 2015, when he finished 58th out of 81 eligible guards. Still only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting guard for them going forward, but he’s the 15th highest paid guard in the league in average annual salary, so the Jets are risking a lot of money to find out.

Rounding out the offensive line at left guard is James Carpenter, who has probably been their best offensive lineman for the past 2 seasons, finishing 17th among guards on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. A 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, Carpenter was largely a bust in Seattle, making 39 starts in 4 seasons, but never finishing above average in any of them. However, the light seems to have clicked for him in 2 seasons with the Jets. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Carpenter should have another solid season again in 2017 on an overall weak Jets offensive line.

Grade: C

Running Backs

One veteran I’m surprised the Jets didn’t let go of in their off-season purge is Matt Forte, who is going into his age 32 season. Forte’s 4 million dollar salary is now fully guaranteed, but the Jets had a window at the start of the off-season to let him go before the salary became guaranteed and decided against it. Signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, the ex-Bear was once one of the best all-around backs in the league, excelling as a runner and a pass catcher, but he was outplayed by the younger Bilal Powell in both aspects last season. Forte averaged just 3.73 yards per carry on 218 carries last season and caught just 30 passes, while Powell averaged 5.51 yards per carry on 131 carries and caught 58 passes. Given his age and that he has 2,770 career touches, Forte is at the point where he could just be done as an effective back.

Powell will be the starter this season in his age 29 season, while Forte will be the backup in what could be his final season in the league. Powell has never had more than 212 touches in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so there will still be a role for Forte, but Powell is the better back at this point. He has a career 4.37 YPC average on 533 carries and has caught 105 passes over the past 2 seasons, including 58 last season, tied for 2nd most on the team. Running back is the one position on the offensive depth chart where the Jets aren’t completely devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Jets also tried to part ways with defensive end Sheldon Richardson and his 8.069 million dollar salary this off-season, but they couldn’t find any takers in a trade and cutting him wouldn’t have made any sense because he is still talented and could get a significant deal in free agency next off-season if he has a strong year in 2017, in which case the Jets would get a 3rd or 4th round compensation pick. It’s been a swift fall for Richardson, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, after the Jets drafted him #13 overall in the first round out of the University of Missouri.

Richardson finished 2nd at his position in 2014, but was arrested the following off-season and also failed a drug test. Richardson was suspended for the first 4 games of the season in 2015 for the failed test and then for the first game of the season in 2016 for the arrest. He still played at a pretty high level in 2015 and 2016, but not as high of a level as 2013 and 2014 and reports came out that the Jets were not happy with his discipline, conditioning, and focus. That’s likely a big part of why no one would trade for him this off-season, even though he’s theoretically still in his prime, going into his age 27 season. Perhaps he’ll be more motivated in his contract year this season and return to his 2013 and 2014 form.

Another reason why the Jets tried to move Richardson this off-season is because they already have a pair of 3-4 defensive ends in Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams is probably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, finishing 6th and 4th among 3-4 defensive ends in two seasons in the league, since going 6th overall in 2015, while Wilkerson is also a former first round pick (2011) and was re-signed to a massive 5-year, 86 million dollar deal last off-season. Williams, Wilkerson, and Richardson played 896, 845, and 762 snaps respectively in 2016, so the Jets find ways to get all 3 on the field at the same time, but that usually requires playing someone out of position. Not only do the Jets have little talent on either side of the ball, but their most talented players all play the same position and are not as effective together as they would be apart.

Wilkerson actually struggled mightily in the first year of the huge contract the Jets gave him last off-season, finishing 90th out of 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football focus. That’s very out of character for him, considering he was a top-15 3-4 defensive end in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of it was that he did play out of position on the outside more than he was used to and part of it was that he was coming off of a broken leg that he suffered at the end of the 2015 season and was never fully healthy, but Wilkerson also reportedly had issues with discipline and focus in 2016, which is very concerning, considering how much money the Jets gave him. Owed a non-guaranteed 17 million in 2018, the Jets might just cut their losses and move on from him next off-season if he doesn’t bounce back in 2017. Now healthier, he does have some bounce back potential, but Wilkerson could also struggle to stay motivated on what should be one of the worst teams in the league.

Steve McLendon is the Jets’ nose tackle when they use a pure nose tackle, which isn’t often because he played just 381 snaps in 2016. The 6-3 310 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper in 6 straight seasons, but has never finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 8.5 sacks in 7 seasons in the league. He’s also never finished above average overall in a season in which he played more than 355 snaps. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are probably behind him, but the Jets don’t need him to play a big role and he’s still a useful player in base packages. The Jets’ defensive line is easily their best unit.

Grade: A

Linebackers

In addition to their strong depth at the 3-4 defensive end position, another reason why guys like Wilkerson and Richardson line up outside frequently in base packages is because they have very little talent at the 3-4 outside linebacker position. A pair of recent 3rd round picks, Jordan Jenkins (2016) and Lorenzo Mauldin (2015) led the position in snaps played last season with 513 and 353 respectively. Jenkins showed promise in pass rush situations and finished about average overall, but both players struggled mightily against the run and Mauldin finished the season just 82nd out of 109 eligible edge defenders. They’ll both likely play a bigger role in 2017, so the Jets will need at least one of them to take a step forward this season, but that’s far from a guarantee. They also really lack depth at the position, as Freddie Bishop, a former CFL star who struggled in the first 151 snaps of his NFL career last season, will be their primary reserve. Fifth round rookie Dylan Donahue could also be in the mix for snaps.  

The Jets will also need Darron Lee, their 2016 1st round pick, to take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league. Lee struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 3rd worst among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 641 snaps. Lee was primarily a coverage specialist and sub package linebacker as a rookie, but will have to play every down this season and could be a major liability against the run. The 6-1 232 pounder is a great athlete, but has had issues with tackling dating back to his collegiate days and was considered a major reach by Pro Football Focus in the first round. He has upside and could be improved in his 2nd year in the league, but he could be largely improved by default and may never develop into the player the Jets were expecting him to when they drafted him.

David Harris played every down at middle linebacker last season, but he was part of the veteran purge this off-season, being let go ahead of a 6.5 million dollar salary in his age 33 season in 2017. Harris might have only had a couple years left in the league, so it makes sense for the Jets to part ways with him as part of this rebuild, but he was still a solid player last season and won’t be easy to replace. The Jets will attempt to replace him with a familiar face, Demario Davis, who they acquired in a trade from the Browns for safety Calvin Pryor this off-season.

Davis spent the first 4 seasons of his career in New York, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012, and finished 15th among middle linebackers in 2014, but fell to 77th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and had to settle for a cheap two-year deal with the Browns last off-season. Davis continued to struggle with the Browns, finishing 59th out of 87 eligible linebackers and barely played by season’s end, playing just 144 snaps over the final 5 games of the season. Even though he’s making a reasonable 3.8 million this season, he likely would have been cut by the Browns if they couldn’t trade him. With the Jets, he’s a cheap replacement for Harris, but an obvious downgrade. 2014 remains the only season in his career in which he finished above average. Like the rest of the Jets’ roster, their linebacking corps leaves a lot to be desired.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Calvin Pryor, who was sent to Cleveland in that trade for Demario Davis, was a first round pick by the Jets in 2014 and started 38 games over the past three seasons, but, after two solid seasons to start his career, he fell to 74th out of 90 safeties in 2016 and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. If the Browns didn’t trade for him, the Jets might have just cut him outright at final cuts, even though he was owed just 1.58 million. The Jets also got rid of Marcus Gilchrist, their other starting safety last season. Gilchrist was a solid player in 2016, but suffered a torn patellar tendon late in the season that will likely sideline him for all of the 2017 season, so the Jets decided against paying him 6 million non-guaranteed.

Instead of Pryor and Gilchrist, the Jets will start a pair of rookies Jamal Adams, the 6th pick in the draft, and Marcus Maye, a second round pick who went 39th overall. Adams was one of the best players in the draft and was an easy choice for the Jets when he fell to them at 6. He’ll make an instant impact and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Maye, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie, but has the tools to be a long-term starter. Both were good selections by the Jets.

The Jets also parted ways with Darrelle Revis this off-season. Revis was once one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he was a massive bust on a 5-year 70 million dollar deal that the Jets signed him to after he won a Super Bowl with New England in 2014. Revis fell to 30th among eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and then 65th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Even though they still owe him 6 million guaranteed this season, it was an easy decision for the rebuilding Jets to cut him and get out of the 9 million non-guaranteed that he would have been owed if they hadn’t. The 39 million that they guaranteed him total was a sunk cost and it was smart of them to cut their losses, with Revis unlikely to bounce back in his age 32 season in 2017.

Buster Skrine was also signed to a significant contract by the Jets two off-seasons ago, as the Jets gave the ex-Brown a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. Skrine still remains on the team, but hasn’t been worth that deal at all, finishing 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and 87th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. A 2011 5th round pick, Skrine has 58 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but hasn’t finished above average in any of those 6 seasons. Skrine is probably locked into one of the starting jobs, but figures to struggle once again.

The Jets signed ex-Cowboy Morris Claiborne this off-season and he figures to start opposite Skrine. The Cowboys traded up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, but he didn’t do anything of value for the Cowboys last season. He finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but shot up to 12th last season, though he was limited to 406 snaps in 7 games by injury. Claiborne has always had the talent, but he struggled to adapt to the NFL early on and then suffered a huge setback when he tore his patellar tendon in the 2014 season.

Injuries have always been a huge issue with him, as he’s missed 33 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and he obviously comes with a lot of risk, but he wasn’t a bad signing on 1-year prove it deal worth 5 million. He proved his upside last season and is still only going into his age 27 season. He could be a good starter if he can make it through the whole season, but he could also regress or get hurt, so he’s kind of boom or bust. The Jets are in a position where they can afford to take risks like that in hopes of striking gold.

Marcus Williams finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks last season with 455, behind Revis and Skrine, and is expected to remain the 3rd cornerback behind Claiborne and Skrine in 2017. Williams wasn’t bad in 2016, but finished below average in the first significant action of his career. The 2014 undrafted free agent is unlikely to be better in 2017. He rounds out a secondary that has potential with Morris Claiborne and Jamal Adams coming in, but that should also struggle once again in 2017.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Jets have probably the worst roster in the NFL and maybe one of the worst rosters in recent years. Like the Browns last off-season, the Jets are purging veterans and going all in on a rebuild. Next off-season, they could have a good amount of cap space and a high pick to rebuild with, but, like the Browns last season, the Jets are going to be very bad in the interim and will take at least 2-3 years get back into playoff contention. The Raiders are a good example of a team that purged veterans and built a much more competitive roster from basically scratch very quickly, but it doesn’t always go that way. Finding a quarterback will be key. In 2017, it’ll be a struggle for them to win any games, but they should pull out a couple wins simply because it is very tough to go 0-16. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Buffalo Bills 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills found a steal at the quarterback position in free agency two off-seasons ago, a very uncommon occurrence. They gave a 3-year, 3.55 million dollar deal to Tyrod Taylor, who, at the time, was a 2011 6th round pick with 35 career pass attempts in 4 seasons as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, and Taylor came in and won their starting quarterback job, beating out veteran journeyman Matt Cassel and 2013 1st round pick bust EJ Manuel. Not only did Taylor win the job, but he kept it all season and performed at a high level, completing 63.7% of his passes for an average 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He only attempted 380 passes in 14 games on a run heavy offense, but he also took off 104 times as well, rushing for another 568 yards (5.46 YPC) and 4 touchdowns on the ground. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback

He was a bargain in 2015, making just 1.15 million despite the strong season, but, because of how many starts he made, language was triggered in his contract voiding the 3rd year of the deal and making 2016 his contract year. That put a lot of pressure on the Bills to extend him before the season and they did so with a “5-year, 90 million dollar deal.” I put that in quotes because all that was guaranteed was that he’d make 9.5 million in 2016. It was a significant pay increase, but provided no long-term security.

In 2016, he started another 15 games, but only completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on 436 pass attempts on once again a heavy run offense. However, the dip in statistical production is not really his fault, as his #1 receiver Sammy Watkins missed most of the season with a foot injury, leaving him with arguably the worst receiving corps in the league (more on them later). He also once again added significant value on the ground, rushing for 580 yards (6.11 YPC) and 6 touchdowns on 95 attempts. He finished 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, just two spots behind 2015.

Despite that, there were many reports that the Bills would not be picking up Taylor’s option for next season, allowing him to hit free agency. The Bills even sat Taylor in week 17 of last season after they had been eliminated from the playoffs because they didn’t want to risk him getting injured and guaranteeing his salary for 2017. It’s possible they never really wanted to part ways with Taylor and that much of that might have been an act by the Bills in order to scare Taylor into renegotiating his contract, which he ultimately did, but they still don’t seem sold on Taylor long-term. His renegotiated contract guarantees him 14.5 million this off-season, but nothing beyond that, so he and the Bills could go through this situation all over again next off-season.

The most likely reason why the Bills are not sold on Taylor is because he’s always been supported by a strong running game and hasn’t had to throw many passes, even if he has contributed on the ground. The Bills’ defense hasn’t been great in the past 2 seasons, so the Bills and the new offensive coaching staff under first-year head coach Sean McDermott may want a more traditional quarterback so they can open their offense up more. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has always worked with pocket passers like Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning, and Joe Flacco, though he was the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore in 2014 when Taylor was the backup there.

They drafted a more traditional quarterback in the 5th round in Nathan Peterman, who was regarded to be a steal that late in the draft, so they may be preparing to part ways with Taylor next off-season. I think that would be a mistake and that a poor receiving corps is what’s preventing this team from opening up the playbook offensively much more than Taylor. Taylor is actually the perfect fit for this offense right now, because he can make plays with his legs when receivers don’t get open, which is often. Fortunately, Taylor will have at least one more season to prove himself.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Sammy Watkins’ injury was a big problem for this receiving corps last season and a big reason why Taylor’s numbers declined. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, who the Bills traded two first round picks (#9 in 2014 and #19 in 2015) to move up and draft, Watkins came into the 2016 season with huge expectations, after catching 60 passes for 1,047 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games on a run heavy offense in his age-22 season in 2015. Unfortunately, he had foot surgery before the season and never got right, catching just 28 passes for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games on 235 routes run.

Not only did he miss time, but he wasn’t himself when on the field and finished just 47th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 10th in 2015. The foot injury didn’t just limit his explosiveness, but it also limited his snaps and forced the Bills to basically only use him in passing situations. The Bills passed on 61.7% of the snaps he played, significantly higher than their team average. That allowed opposing defenses to guess run or pass much more easily, a big problem for a wideout who is at his best on deep shots off of play action.

Still only going into his age 24 season and dripping with natural talent, Watkins has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy and play every down again. The Bills seem to be hedging their bet with him though, declining his 5th year option for 2018. That makes more sense than it seems given his injury situation. If the Bills picked up the option and Watkins was to seriously re-injure his foot, the Bills would be locked into paying Watkins the average cap number of the top-10 highest paid receivers in the league in 2018, regardless of whether or not he plays.

By declining the option, the Bills avoid that scenario and, because they have the franchise tag available, they can still keep him for 2018 if he has a big year. The franchise tag value is the average of the top-5 cap numbers for wide receivers, a little bit more than his 5th year option would have been, but, if they’re really not sure about his health long-term, it might be worth the risk. Regardless, the move casts a shadow of doubt on his ability to return to form this season, which makes this receiving corps a big question mark.

Robert Woods led the Bills in receiving last year in Watkins’ absence, but he signed with the Rams this off-season. He only had 613 yards on 1 touchdown on 51 catches, but his numbers were kept down by how run heavy this offense was. Those numbers came on 382 routes run and 74 targets in 13 games and he finished about average on Pro Football Focus, so he’s no small loss. He’ll be replaced by 2nd round pick Zay Jones, who will immediately slot in as the #2 guy in this weak wide receiver group and could have a significant role as a rookie.

Outside of Woods, no Buffalo wide receiver had more than 29 catches last season. Marquise Goodwin was their de facto #2 receiver when Watkins was out. He averaged 14.9 yards per catch, but he also only caught 42.6% of his targets and finished 94th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. A one-dimensional speedster, Goodwin signed with the 49ers on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season and won’t really be missed, even on a team with a thin receiving corps.

With Goodwin gone, free agent acquisitions Corey Brown and Andre Holmes will compete for the #3 receiver job. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Brown has 19 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has finished below average in both seasons and was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Panthers this off-season, even though the Panthers also have a thin receiving corps. Holmes, meanwhile, made 13 starts in 2014 with Oakland, but finished 103th out of 121 eligible receivers on Pro Football Focus that season and has been the Raiders’ #4 receiver in 2 seasons since. The 2011 undrafted free agent has made just 7 starts in his other 6 years in the league. Both he and Davis are poor options.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Bills need their tight ends to step up in the passing game. Charles Clay finished second on the team with 57 catches for 552 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 6.34 yards per target on a team high 87 targets and finished below average on Pro Football Focus as a pass catcher. Meanwhile, #2 tight end Nick O’Leary caught just 8 passes. Fortunately, Clay and O’Leary were strong run blockers, finishing 4th and 2nd respectively among tight ends in pure run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. O’Leary was a 6th round pick in 2015 and played just 373 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but Clay actually has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. Unfortunately, he’s averaged just 611 yards per season over those 4 seasons. A strong run blocker and a reliable set of hands at 6-3 255, Clay is useful player, but he isn’t the weapon they need in a weak receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production in the passing game, the Bills actually picked up first downs at a much higher rate in 2016. In 2015, they ranked just 25th in first down rate at 33.37%, but in 2016 they jumped to 36.96%, 11th in the NFL. They had 31 more first downs and 4 more offensive touchdowns on 4 fewer offensive snaps. That’s because the Bills’ running game was much improved in 2016. It wasn’t that they had a bad running game in 2015. In fact, they had one of the best in the league, finishing 2nd in carries with 509, first in rushing yards with 2432, and first in yards per carry with 4.78.

However, they took it to another level in 2016. On 17 fewer carries (492), they rushed for 198 more yards (2630), and their YPC of 5.35 was more than 4/10ths of a point higher than any other team in the league and close to 6/10ths of a point higher than the number they led the league with in 2016. They led the league with 146 rushing first downs and got 44.51% of their first downs on the ground, more than 4% higher than any other team in the league and the highest run first down percentage of any team since Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos.

Tyrod Taylor’s 6.11 YPC average on 95 rushes was a big help, but the Bills also got great play from their top-two running backs. Feature back LeSean McCoy rushed for 1267 yards and 13 touchdowns on 234 carries, an average of 5.41 YPC, and was also their 3rd leading receiver, catching 50 passes for another 356 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back, not a huge surprise, considering McCoy has been one of the better backs in the league over the past few seasons.

The surprise was backup Mike Gillislee rushing for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, considering he entered the season with just 53 career carries. That’s an average of 5.71 yards per carry, best in the league among backs with more than 100 rushes. Gillislee signed with the Patriots this off-season and, because of how run heavy this team is, that could prove to be a significant loss. Second year back Jonathan Williams is expected to take over as the #2 back, but he rushed for just 94 yards on 27 carries (3.48 YPC) as a 5th round rookie in 2016 and he’s highly unlikely to have the kind of breakout season that Gillislee had in 2016.

LeSean McCoy could also take a step back too. He’s a talented back, but his YPC average of 5.41 was a career high and significantly higher than his career average of 4.72 YPC. In 2015, his first season with the Bills, he averaged just 4.41 yards per carry on 203 carries. What he did last season is simply very tough to repeat. Since the AFL/NFL merger, 76 backs have averaged more than 5 yards per carry on more than 200 carries in a season. Only 7 of them did so again the following season. McCoy is also getting up there in age, going into his age 29 season with 2,280 career touches. He could still have a strong season, but he’s likely to be significantly less effective than last season, which would have a very noticeable impact on this offense.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This strong running game was definitely helped out by a strong run blocking offensive line. They are a solid offensive line overall, but they excel in the run game, which makes them a perfect fit for this offense. Their best offensive lineman over the past 2 seasons, as surprising as this may be, has been left guard Richie Incognito. Incognito is infamous for his role in the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal and sat out a year and a half from 2013-2014, but the Bills took a chance on him after the 2014 season and it has paid off in a big way, as he has finished 2nd and 6th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Incognito has been especially good in run blocking.

In 2014, the Bills averaged just 4.11 yards per carry on the ground, but they have been significantly better over the past 2 seasons as a direct result of the additions of Richie Incognito and LeSean McCoy that off-season. The one concern with Incognito, besides his checkered past, is that he’s going into his age 34 season, so he could decline soon. He’s finished above average in each of the past 8 seasons he’s been in the league though and could easily be a big asset for the Bills upfront again this season.

Incognito forms a strong left side of the offensive line with highly paid left tackle Cordy Glenn, who should be healthier this season, after missing 5 games last year with ankle problems that limited him throughout the season. Even playing through injury, he still finished 22nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he finished 10th in 2015, so he could be even better in 2017 if he’s 100%. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league at left tackle and finished in the top-33 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons. The Bills locked him down with a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 28 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and should have another strong season on the blindside.

Also returning from injury is center Eric Wood, who broke his leg and missed the final 7 games of last season. Backup Ryan Groy wasn’t bad in his absence, but Wood has started all 104 games of his career and is likely to remain the starter. He’s been about a league average starter throughout his career, but he finished last season 32nd out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus and he’s going into his age 31 season, so he could be on the decline. Groy actually outplayed him last season.

Groy was offered a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent to start at center for the Rams this season, but the Bills matched it, suggesting they see him as a starter in 2018. Wood is going into the final year of his contract. Groy also has experience at guard and could be a long-term replacement for Incognito at left guard. He’ll also provide insurance at right guard, but he’s unlikely to be needed there. Right guard John Miller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is coming off of what looks like a breakout 2016 season, finishing 29th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder who struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 77th out of 81 eligible guards in 2015, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting option going forward.

Rounding out this offensive line at right tackle is likely going to be 2nd round rookie Dion Dawkins. The Bills moved up from the 3rd round to grab him at the end of the 2nd at #63 overall and he has the tools to be a starting right tackle in the NFL. He could struggle as a rookie, but has little competition for the job. Seantrel Henderson and Jordan Mills, their last two starting right tackles, are both still on the roster, but both struggled mightily in their opportunities. Henderson finished 81st out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2014 and then 69th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on 10 starts in 2015. Mills then took over and finished 57th out of 77 eligible in 6 starts in 2015 and 64th out of 78 eligible in 16 starts in 2016. It wouldn’t be hard for Dawkins to be an upgrade over them. Outside of right tackle, this is a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

In 2014, the Bills had one of the best defenses in the league under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz was let go when the Bills fired head coach Doug Marrone and replaced him with Rex Ryan, who wanted his own defensive staff and to implement a 3-4 defense. The results were not good, as the Bills finished 20th in first down rate allowed in 2015 and then 24th in first down rate allowed in 2016, a big part of why the Bills made the decision to fire Rex Ryan this off-season.

Ryan will be replaced with another defensive minded head coach, ex-Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who will convert this defense back to a 4-3. Unfortunately, the Bills have just 4 starters left from their 2014 defense and McDermott isn’t working with the most talented group, but his defenses always outperformed their talent level in Carolina. It’s unclear if that will continue with McDermott in a head coaching role with less of a hands on approach with the defensive players, but he was a wise hire by the Bills.

Two of those four starters that return are defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle WIlliams, who both played at a high level last season, finishing 23th and 16th respectively among interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Dareus should also play significantly more snaps than last season, when he was limited to 417 snaps in 8 games by suspension and injury. Prior to last season, Dareus missed just 5 games in his first 6 seasons in the league. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus finished in the top-15 at his position in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t play at that level again in 2017.

Williams was limited to 6 games by injury in 2015, so Dareus and Williams haven’t been healthy in the same season since 2014. Having them back together inside in this 4-3 defense should be a good thing for them, as they were once arguably the best 4-3 defensive tackle duo in the league, but Williams’ age is a bit of a concern, as he’s going into his age 34 season. Williams still played at a high level last season and has been one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league when healthy over the past several seasons, finishing in the top-7 at his position in his 4 previous healthy seasons prior to 2016, so he could have another strong season, but it’s far from a guarantee. Owed 8.4 million in the final season of his contract, this could be his final season with the Bills. His long-term replacement is likely Adolphus Washington, a 2016 3rd round pick who was alright on 331 snaps as a rookie. Washington will be the primary reserve at defensive tackle this season.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes was also with the Bills in 2014. Hughes finished in the top-14 at his position in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, but fell to 32nd among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2016, slightly below average. Hughes is scheme versatile and had a strong season in a 4-3 in 2014, so he has bounce back potential, still going into only his age 29 season. If the Bills can get strong seasons from Williams, Dareus, and Hughes, like they did in 2014, that will go a lot way towards fixing this defense.

Mario Williams, the 4th member of the Bills’ dangerous 2014 defensive line, is no longer with the team, but the Bills replaced him in the first round in 2016, taking Clemson’s Shaq Lawson. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery limited him to 236 unimpressive snaps as a rookie, but he is healthy now and is moving back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive end, so he could have a solid second season in the league. Ryan Davis, a journeyman reserve who has always flashed in limited action, but has never found a permanent home, will be the primary reserve at defensive end this season on what could be a very strong defensive line if all goes well.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While there are some familiar faces on the Bills’ defensive line, the Bills’ back 7 has been almost completely remade over the past few off-seasons and they have a lot of problems. Preston Brown is the only back 7 player who started on the 2014 team that remains on the 2017 team and he’s far from a lock to be a starter this season. Brown has made 46 starts in 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in Rex Ryan’s 3-4, after finishing 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, a significant dropoff.

A switch back to a 4-3 could be good for Brown, but McDermott seems less than convinced, bringing in veteran Gerald Hodges to compete with him and talking up 2016 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland as a starter, after he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. Hodges and Ragland are the favorites to be the two starters, although Brown could still see a passing down role because Ragland is best as a two-down thumper and Hodges has never played more than 584 snaps in a season. Brown isn’t great in coverage though, so the Bills are likely hoping Ragland and Hodges can breakout in every down roles this season.

The 6-2 252 pound Ragland has good upside, but wasn’t very good moving in reverse even before the torn ACL. Hodges, meanwhile, has finished in the top-14 at his position in 2 of the last 3 seasons and has experience at both outside and inside linebacker, but is much better against the run than he is in coverage and has never been used as an every down player. The 2013 4th round pick was a solid cheap signing late in free agency on a 1-year deal, but he doesn’t give the Bills the coverage athlete they need. They could really miss Zach Brown, who finished 11th among middle linebackers last season and excelled in coverage. He signed with the Redskins this off-season.

Lorenzo Alexander isn’t the coverage athlete they need either, but he’ll play a two-down role at outside linebacker and either come off the field in passing situations for a 5th defensive back or move to the defensive line and rush the passer off the edge in a rotational role behind Hughes and Lawson. Alexander played 788 snaps at 3-4 outside linebacker last season when Lawson was injured and improbably finished with 12.5 sacks, after totalling just 9 in his previous 9 seasons. He also played the run well. A complete one-year wonder who isn’t a great fit in a 4-3 defense at 6-1 245, Alexander probably won’t come close to having the kind of impact he had last season, but could still be an asset for them as a hybrid player off the edge. This linebacking corps should be good against the run, but they’ll have serious problems covering running backs and tight ends and playing zone coverage underneath.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to losing Zach Brown to the Redskins, the Bills were dealt a shocking blow this off-season when Stephon Gilmore signed with the the division rival Patriots on a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Gilmore was a first round pick by the Bills in 2012 and seemed like someone the Bills would keep long-term after he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but he fell to 60th among 111 eligible in 2016, so the Bills declined to franchise tag him. No one saw the Patriots snatching him in free agency because they never sign big money free agents and letting him go could prove to be a mistake if he bounces back and the Bills have to face him twice a year, but the Bills at least did a good job of replacing him, drafting Tre’Davious White 27th overall.

White isn’t a flashy player, but he’s a rock solid cover cornerback who can play in any system and ranked 12th among draft prospects on Pro Football Focus. Not only does he fill a huge need, but the Bills picked up a 2018 1st round pick when they traded down from 10 to 27. With White, Zay Jones, and Dion Dawkins, the Bills ended up with three solid players in the draft who will start immediately at positions of need. Add in the future first rounder they got and that they got Nathan Peterman in the 5th round and they were one of the obvious winners on draft weekend.

White will start opposite Ronald Darby, a third year cornerback that the Bills need to step up in Gilmore’s absence. Darby, a 2015 2nd round pick, had a great rookie season, finishing 6th in pass deflections with 21 and ranking 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts. However, his play was much more average in 2016, as he finished 66th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and deflected just 12 passes. Still only going into his age 23 season, Darby still has a great upside and could easily be closer to his rookie year form in 2017. He could develop into a long-term #1 cornerback, probably part of the reason why the Bills were so comfortable letting Gilmore walk in free agency.

Gilmore wasn’t the only defensive back the Bills lost this off-season, as slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams are no longer with the team. They added veteran cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright in free agency, but neither of them is any good. Johnson has 20 career starts in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2012, but hasn’t finished above average since his rookie season and finished 104th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 436 snaps last season.

Wright, meanwhile, is a 2011 3rd round pick and has made 42 starts over the past 4 seasons, but only finished above average once in those 4 seasons. That was in 2015 when he made just 6 starts, but he fell to 75th out of 111 eligible in 2016 in 9 starts, which led to his release. Second year cornerback Kevon Seymour is also in the mix and he might be their best option, which says something about Johnson and Wright because Seymour was just a 6th round pick and played just 287 snaps as a rookie. Their depth at cornerback behind White and Darby is very suspect.

At safety, the Bills signed Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in free agency. Hyde was a hybrid cornerback/safety in Green Bay and, though he started most seasons as a reserve, the 2013 5th round pick ended up making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers because of his versatility and finished about average in all 4 seasons. He’ll be a pure every down safety in Buffalo, for the first time in his career. He was more expensive than I would have guessed, signing for 30.5 million over 5 years, but he should be at least a capable starter for the Bills.

That’s a lot more than you can say about Jordan Poyer, who came much cheaper, 13 million over 4 years, but for good reason. Poyer, a 7th round pick in 2013, has just 10 career starts and didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2016 with the Browns, who had arguably the worst safety group in the league. Poyer only lasted 6 games before getting injured and finished the season 70th out of 90 eligible safeties. He’s never proven himself as a starter and could easily be one of the worst starting safeties in the league again this season. He’s likely locked into a starting job out of desperation though. The Bills’ secondary is far from what it once was.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

On one hand, the Bills should be healthier this season, after having the 8th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, including injuries to key players like Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Sammy Watkins and their top-2 draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland. The Bills also drafted well, filling major needs with their first 3 picks, all of whom are projected week 1 starter. On the other hand, they lost key players like Stephon Gilmore, Zach Brown, Mike Gillislee, and Robert Woods in free agency and didn’t sign any replacements. Their rookie class is strong, but they are still just rookies and could have growing pains in their first year in the league.

Their passing game should be better with the return of Sammy Watkins and their defensive line should be better as well, but their running game is unlikely to be as good as it was last season and their defensive back seven still has a lot of problems. They were slightly better than their 7-9 record last season, finishing 17th in first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time exceeding that record in 2017. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Miami Dolphins 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins made the playoffs last season for the first time in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career and just the second time since 2002, but Tannehill was not able to play in the playoff game after a late season knee injury that cost him the final 3 regular season games and their playoff game. Prior to the injury, Tannehill was having arguably the best statistical season of his career, completing 67.1% of his passes for an average of 7.70 YPA (both career highs), 19 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

He finished the season 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, the second best rank of his career, and has finished 11th, 17th, and 15th respectively in each of the past 3 seasons. Tannehill hasn’t quite lived up to expectations as the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he has stabilized the quarterback position for this franchise, after they started 16 different quarterbacks from 2000-2011, following legendary quarterback Dan Marino’s retirement after the 1999 season. Tannehill had made 77 straight starts to begin his career before getting hurt last season.

Despite that, the Dolphins didn’t actually seem to miss him when he was injured, as backup Matt Moore is one of the best in the league. Moore started 22 games from 2009-2011 and was solid, but hadn’t started a single game from 2012-2015 behind Tannehill, so there was some skepticism that Moore could continue his solid play, especially since he had drawn little interest as a free agent in the 2013 and 2015 off-seasons. Moore proved the skepticism wrong, completing 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.21 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 starts. Even going into his age 33 season, Moore remains a very capable backup, giving the Dolphins a pair of capable quarterbacks.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Even though they have a pair of capable quarterbacks, the Dolphins were significantly worse than their 10-6 record suggested last season and it’ll be tough for them to make the post-season again unless they improve. They went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, meaning they had just two wins by more than a touchdown, while 4 of their losses came by 13 points or more. That’s despite the fact that they had the easiest schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league in 2016 and the Dolphins played all 4 of them, including the Jets twice. The Dolphins won all 5 of those games, but just 1 of them came by more than a touchdown (a 34-13 win week 15 in New York), meaning they had a tough time beating some of the worst teams in the league.

Ironically, aside from that win over the Jets, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against the team that eventually eliminated them in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Dolphins beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers were also the only playoff team the Dolphins beat all season. The Dolphins’ 2016 season featured a lot of close wins against bad teams and big losses against capable or better teams (15 point loss vs. Cincinnati, 13 point loss vs. Tennessee, 32 point loss vs. Baltimore, and 21 point loss vs. New England). That week 6 game with the Steelers was a total outlier when you look at their whole season and that was proven in the Dolphins’ 30-12 loss in Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs. Winning the way the Dolphins won last season is not sustainable.

That being said, the Dolphins were noticeably improved on both sides of the ball from 2015, when they finished 29th in first down rate differential and were lucky to even win 6 games. After finishing the 2015 season 24th in first down rate and 27th in first down rate allowed, the Dolphins improved to 18th and 19th respectively in those two metrics, unspectacular and not quite playoff caliber, but still significantly better. The Dolphins’ slightly improved passing game was part of it, but their biggest improvement came on the ground.

Their YPC didn’t significantly improve, as they went from 4.35 yards per carry in 2015 (9th in the NFL) to 4.50 yards per carry in 2016 (8th in the NFL), but they went from dead last in the NFL in carries with 344 in 2015 to 18th with 405 in 2016. Their passing attempts, meanwhile, fell from 588 (17th) to 477 (31st), as they showed much more balance on offense. They lost starting running back Lamar Miller in free agency last off-season, but second year back Jay Ajayi had a breakout year in his absence.

Despite being a healthy scratch week 1 and totalling just 31 carries in his first 5 games of the season, Ajayi finished the season in 4th in the league in rushing yards, rushing for 1272 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries (4.89 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus #3 ranked running back overall and their #2 ranked back in pure rushing grade, behind only Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Ajayi is just a one-year wonder and fell to the 5th round in 2015 because of long-term concerns about the stability of his knee, so he’s not a lock to repeat his 2016 season, but he’s still one of the best young running backs in the league.

Ajayi also doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 27 passes for 151 yards in 2016, so either Damien Williams or Kenyan Drake will be their primary passing down back. Williams served in that role last season, playing 161 snaps and catching 23 passes for 249 yards and 3 scores, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has just 152 career touches and Drake went in the 3rd round in 2016 and has much more upside. Drake hasn’t been a starting running back since high school, backing up a number of talented running backs at Alabama, but has great athleticism for his size at 6-1 216, great hands out of the backfield, and can return kicks. After just 42 touches as a rookie, he should have a larger role in 2016, but the Dolphins also rarely pass to their backs, which will limit his role.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Part of the reason why the Dolphins rarely pass to their backs is because they have a trio of talented wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills, who all topped 700 yards last season. They were just one of three trios of wide receivers to do so (Michael Thomas/Brandin Cooks/Willie Snead and Pierre Garcon/DeSean Jackson/Jamison Crowder), despite the fact that the Dolphins had the 2nd fewest pass attempts in the league. Most thought Stills would sign elsewhere for more money this off-season as a free agent, but his market didn’t develop as he expected and he ended up taking a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal back with the Dolphins. With Landry, Parker, and Stills only going into their age 25, 24, and 25 seasons respectively in 2017, it’s very possible this trio could be even better this season.

Landry is the best of the bunch. The 2014 2nd round pick has caught 288 passes for 3,051 yards and 13 touchdowns in 3 seasons in the league and has finished 16th, 14th, and 9th among receivers in the last 3 seasons respectively. The Landry is best on the slot, but can also play some outside receiver and is on the field for pretty much all passing plays. He’s primarily an underneath receiver (10.6 yards per catch) and isn’t a touchdown threat, but his 288 catches over the past 3 seasons are tied for 4th in the NFL over that time period, behind Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas and tied with former LSU teammate Odell Beckham. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Landry should get a lucrative deal somewhere in the next calendar year. After the money they committed to Stills this off-season, it’s unclear if Miami will offer Landry what he wants to stay.

Whether or not the Dolphins give Landry top receiver money could largely depend on what Devante Parker does this season and whether or not he looks like a long-term #1 receiver. The 14th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Parker could be the Dolphins’ most improved receiver in his 3rd year in the league in 2017. Last season looked like a potential breakout year for Parker too, given how he finished his rookie season (22 catches for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 6 games), after being hobbled by a foot injury early in the season. However, Parker ended with just 56 catches for 744 yards and 4 touchdowns in 15 games in 2016, solid numbers, but not what many were expecting.

Nagging injuries were a big part of the problem again, as he dealt with back and hamstring problems throughout the season. Even though he’s only actually missed 3 games with injury in 2 seasons in the league, injuries have had a big effect on his career thus far. The Dolphins called out Parker’s conditioning and said he needed to be in better shape to avoid these lingering injuries and so far he seems to have responded well, showing up to off-season practices in much better shape and making impressive plays. If he can keep it up, he could push for a 1000 yard season in 2017.

Stills was the Dolphins’ de facto #2 receiver last year, playing the 2nd most snaps on the team among wide receivers (795), so he could see a smaller role in 2017 if Parker has a breakout year, but the Dolphins didn’t pay him to sit on the bench and the Dolphins run enough 3-wide receiver sets for everyone to have enough playing time. Even as the 3rd receiver last year, Parker played 736 snaps. A 2013 5th round pick, Stills has been up and down in his career, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2015, but above average in both 2014 and 2016.

His best season in the league was in 2014, when he caught 63 passes for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns and finished 23rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus as a member of the New Orleans Saints. However, he was strangely traded to the Dolphins for a 3rd round pick and a backup linebacker after that season and then struggled in his first season in Miami (27/440/3) before bouncing back in 2016. Despite having 4 years of experience under his belt, he is still going into only his age 25 season, so his best football could still be ahead of him. He was a solid re-signing at 8 million annually. Tannehill has to be happy that all 3 of his top receivers are back in 2017.

Tannehill also has to be happy that the Dolphins added a potential receiving threat at tight end this off-season. While Tannehill had one of the best wide receiver trios in the league, Dolphin tight ends caught just 55 passes last season. Jordan Cameron was the starter to begin the year, but caught just 8 passes in 3 games before going down for the season with injury. In his absence, blocking tight end Dion Sims and journeyman MarQueis Gray were the primary tight ends and they put up slash lines of just 26/256/4 and 14/174/0 respectively.

Cameron retired this off-season because of concussions and Sims signed with the Bears in free agency, but the Dolphins traded for ex-Jaguar Julius Thomas and will be hoping he can have a bounce back year. Thomas put up slash lines of 65/788/12 and 43/489/12 in 2013 and 2014 respectively with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, landing him a 5-year, 46 million dollar deal from the Jaguars, but his numbers fell to 46/455/5 and 30/281/4 respectively in two seasons in Jacksonville, which led to him being traded for a late round pick this off-season.

Owed 7.1 million non-guaranteed in 2017, Thomas likely would have just been cut if the Jaguars couldn’t find a trading partner, but Dolphins’ head coach Adam Gase was his offensive coordinator with the Broncos and saw him as worth a trade, after he agreed to a 2-year, 12.2 million dollar restructured contract. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus just once in 6 seasons in the league, doesn’t run block well, and has played in just 53 of 96 possible games in his career, but he figures to be better than what the Dolphins had at tight end last season with upside for more. He’ll especially be a threat in the red zone, given that the big 6-5 256 pounder has 33 touchdowns in 53 career games. Off-season reports have been encouraging, but staying healthy once the games count is going to be the key for him.

Thomas wasn’t the Dolphins’ only veteran tight end addition, as they also signed journeyman Anthony Fasano to a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. It’s a reunion, as Fasano spent 2008-2012 with the Dolphins, but he isn’t nearly as big of a name as Thomas. He also isn’t a threat in the passing game, coming off an 8-catch season in Tennessee, with just one season of 40+ catches in 11 seasons in the league. However, he’s still a talented run blocker, even going into his age 33 season. He finished last season #1 among tight ends in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus on 533 snaps and has been an above average run blocker in 8 of the last 9 seasons. He’ll play exclusively in two-tight end sets and will primarily be a run blocker. It’s an improved receiving corps, even over last year’s solid group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

While the Dolphins have good talent at the offensive skill positions, they have had issues on the offensive line in recent years. Things were a bit better upfront last season, but the Dolphins have used 3 recent first round picks on the offensive line (2011, 2014, and 2016) and still have a couple glaring holes. That speaks to their inability to develop offensive linemen drafted in the later rounds and their inability to find adequate starters in free agency. Recent first round picks Mike Pouncey (2011), Ja’Waun James (2014), and Laremy Tunsil (2016) will start this season at center, right tackle, and left tackle respectively, but they have depth issues and nothing resembling a competent starter at either guard position.

Laremy Tunsil played pretty well at left guard last season as a rookie, but he will move to his collegiate position of left tackle this season with incumbent left tackle Branden Albert getting traded to Jacksonville this off-season, following a 2016 season in which he finished 65th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Tunsil was the 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and was seen as a top-5 talent before a draft day video was released of him smoking marijuana, so he has a lot of upside on the blindside if he can stay out of trouble, but the Dolphins are left with a trio of mediocre veterans, Jermon Bushrod, Ted Larsen, and Kraig Urbik, competing for two starting jobs at guard.

Bushrod made all 16 starts at right guard last season, but he is far from locked into a starting role, considering how bad he was last season, when he finished 69th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That should not have been a surprise, considering Bushrod had never played guard before and that he’s had just one above average season on Pro Football Focus in 10 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 33 season, things are unlikely to be better for him this season, but he could have to be a starter once again out of desperation.

Neither Urbik nor Larsen are better options. Urbik was a 42-game starter at guard from 2011-2013, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, but has made just 19 starts over the last 3 seasons combined and graded out below average in all 3 seasons, including 66th out of 72 eligible guards on 388 snaps in 2016. He’s also going into his age 32 season and shouldn’t be anything more than a backup. Larsen, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season and has graded out below average in all 7 seasons in the league. It’s possible the Dolphins try backup center Anthony Steen at guard, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked center out of 38 eligible in his first 7 career starts in 2016 and is unlikely to be better at guard. The Dolphins could also try 5th round rookie Isaac Asiata at some point in his rookie season. That’s how bad things are at guard for them.

Making matters worse on the offensive line, Mike Pouncey, who is an above average center when healthy, is still dealing with hip problems, after being limited to 5 games by injury last season. He also missed 4 games with hip problems in 2014 and hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012. The 2011 15th overall pick is still only going into his age 28 season and has finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among centers in his last 3 healthy seasons, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s breaking down. If he’s not healthy for the start of the season, Steen would likely fill in again, but Larsen can also play center. Regardless, the interior of their offensive line would be in big trouble if Pouncey can’t get healthy and play like he’s used to.

Rounding out the offensive tackle at right tackle is Ja’Wuan James, the 19th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. James was a surprise pick at the time and struggled mightily as a rookie, but he was much better in 7 starts at right tackle in 2015 before getting hurt and then finished a career high 32nd among offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2016. James is an unspectacular player, but he might be their most dependable offensive linemen in 2017 and could take another step forward in his 4th year in the league. It’s an improving offensive line, but one that still has obvious flaws.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As mentioned, the Dolphins were also noticeably improved on defense from 2015 to 2016, even though they lost one of the best defensive linemen in football, Olivier Vernon, in free agency last off-season. The biggest reason for their improvement was probably the return of Cameron Wake from a torn achilles that ended his 2015 season after 249 snaps and 7 games. Wake finished the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ #4 ranked 4-3 defensive end. Prior to his injury, he was one of the best pass rushers in the league year in and year out, finishing in the top-4 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons from 2009-2014. However, his return to form was far from a guarantee, given that he’s in his mid-30s. Now going into his age 35 season, Wake is entering the twilight of his career and could have a steep drop off at some point soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs of that yet, even after enduring a brutal injury.

The Dolphins planned for life without Wake this off-season, using the 22th overall pick on Missouri defensive end Charles Harris. The Dolphins also locked up Andre Branch, who led all Dolphin defensive ends in snaps last season with 774, on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season, which likely means he’s locked into a starting role, so Harris will begin his career as a rotational reserve. The Dolphins also traded for veteran defensive end William Hayes this off-season, so Harris could spend his rookie year as the 4th defensive end. The Dolphins like to limit Wake’s snaps to keep him fresh though (589 in 2016), so there should be snaps available for all 4 ends.

Even though he was well-paid this off-season, Andre Branch is not that good of a player. In fact, last off-season, he had to settle for a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal from the Dolphins in free agency, after grading out below average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Jaguars. Branch was about a league average starting edge defender in 2016, so he was definitely improved, but it’s still tough to justify the pay increase they gave him. Going into his age 28 season, the 2012 2nd round pick could be a bit of a late bloomer, but they’re paying him like he’s an above average starting defensive end, which is something he’s never been. He also missed 13 games with injury in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, so he’s not durable either. He was one of the bigger overpays of the off-season.

Hayes is a much better player, although he’s going into his age 32 season. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 514 snaps last season with the Rams and was only traded because he wasn’t a good fit for the Rams’ new 3-4 defensive scheme and he was owed 5.75 million. With the Dolphins, he agreed to a lower salary of 4.75 million, so he’s a great value, especially when compared to Branch. He’s primarily been a rotational defensive end throughout his career and has never played over 600 snaps in a season, but he’s also been a top-14 4-3 defensive end in each of the past 5 seasons and should be a valuable part of this defensive end rotation, even though he’s getting older. The Dolphins have a deep group of defensive ends with Hayes and Harris coming in, deeper than last season when Jason Jones was their 3rd defensive end and finished 97th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 516 snaps.

Unfortunately, they are not nearly as deep at the defensive tackle position. In fact, they have just two defensive tackles on the roster that have ever played a defensive snap in the NFL. Those two players, Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips, will be the starters, but 5th round rookie Davon Godchaux and 6th round rookie Vincent Taylor will likely have to play snaps immediately as reserves unless they add a veteran or two later in the off-season. Both reserves could be overwhelmed as rookies.

Fortunately, Ndamukong Suh is about as dependable and talented as any defensive tackle in the NFL. The #2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Lions, Suh took a couple years to develop into a complete player, after struggling mightily against the run early in his career, but he has finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the past 5 seasons, including a #3 finish in 2016. The Dolphins signed him to what was at the time a record deal for a defensive player two off-seasons ago, giving him 114 million over 6 years to come over from the Lions. It was a lot of money, but it’s hard to argue he hasn’t lived up to expectations and defensive salaries have jumped in the past 2 years, so his deal looks a lot more reasonable now. The one concern with him is he’s going into his age 30 season and could start to decline over the next couple seasons, but he’s been as reliable as anyone over the past 5 years and should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

Jordan Phillips is a much shakier player, but was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and could have his best year yet, going into his 3rd year in the league and his age 25 season. Phillips struggled mightily on 430 snaps as a rookie, but finished just above average on 622 snaps in 2016. In an effort to stay on the field more and play every down, Phillips reportedly lost 15 pounds this off-season, dropping from 335 to 320. Still a bigger tackle, Phillips’ strength is always going to be stopping the run, but the Dolphins are counting on him to show more pass rush, with no other reliable interior pass rusher on the roster besides Suh. This defensive line has a couple issues, including Cameron Wake’s age, but they’re a talented overall unit regardless.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Dolphins had a pair of free agent linebackers this off-season in Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins. They let Jenkins sign with the Raiders on a cheap one-year deal, but he was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in an injury plagued season last season, so he won’t really be missed. Alonso, meanwhile, was kept on a 3-year extension worth 25 million in new money as a restricted free agent. He’s under contract for a total of 28.91 million over the next 4 seasons. Alonso was about a league average starting linebacker in 2016, so that deal is a bit of an overpay, especially when you considering his injury history.

A 2nd round pick in 2013, Alonso was one of the best rookies in the league that year, finishing 9th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he tore his ACL the following off-season and has never been the same. The Eagles traded LeSean McCoy for him after the 2014 off-season, hoping to trade a highly paid veteran running back for a promising young linebacker on a cheap rookie deal, but Alonso was a huge flop in his one season in Philadelphia, finishing 92th out of 97 eligible linebackers on 472 snaps and dealing with lingering knee issues throughout the season. The Eagles then traded him to Miami last off-season.

He was healthy again in 2016, making 15 starts, but was not the same player he was as a rookie. He’s had knee issues since college, so it’s possible he’ll never be the same player again. He’s still a useful linebacker when healthy, but the Dolphins are betting a lot of money that his knees can hold up long-term. They are also moving him to outside linebacker this season, even though he said he wanted to remain in the middle, which is where he’s played throughout his professional career. That could prove to be a mistake.

The reason they’re moving him outside is because they signed veteran middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He will replace Alonso inside and Alonso will move outside to replace Jenkins. The problem is Timmons is going into his age 31 season and appears to be on the swift decline. A 2007 1st round pick, Timmons was a great player with the Steelers in his prime and has graded out above average 6 times in 10 seasons in the league, but he’s finished well below average in each of the last 2 seasons, finishing 87th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and 70th out of 87 eligible linebackers in 2016. He’s unlikely to be better in 2017 and could prove to be a complete waste of money.

The Dolphins used their 2nd round pick on Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan as a potential future replacement for Timmons, but he may need to see action earlier than expected. He could be an upgrade over Timmons by default if he takes over as the starter later in the season. McMillan is also theoretically an option at the other outside linebacker position opposite Alonso, but veteran Koa Misi is the favorite for the job, after taking a paycut to stay on the roster this off-season. Originally owed 4.3 million non-guaranteed, Misi is now owed 1.25 million fully guaranteed.

The reason he had to take a paycut is because he was limited to 127 snaps in 3 games by a neck injury last season. He also hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2010, but he had graded out above average in 4 straight seasons prior to 2016, so he has some bounce back potential. The 6-3 256 pounder isn’t good in coverage, but is a tough player against the run, which makes him an ideal fit for the other outside linebacker job because he will come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Going into his age 30 season and coming off a serious injury, he’s tough to trust, which is why having McMillan as insurance is useful, but he could easily be a useful player for them in a pure base package role. He won’t play much more than 400-500 snaps. The Dolphins have solid linebacker depth, but Timmons seems washed up and Alonso is a constant injury risk, so it’s overall a position group with problems.

Grade: C

Secondary

Along with the return of Cameron Wake from injury, one of the biggest reasons why the Dolphins improved on defense from 2015 to 2016 was the addition of Byron Maxwell. Signed to a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal in free agency by the Eagles two off-seasons ago, Maxwell was a massive bust in his first season in Philadelphia, finishing 75th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Because of that, when the Eagles traded him to the Dolphins last off-season (along with Kiko Alonso and the 13th pick for the 8th pick), it looked like a pure salary dump, as Maxwell was owed 8.5 million guaranteed in 2016. Instead, Maxwell ended up having arguably the best season of his career and being a huge help to a Miami defense that had major problems at cornerback in 2015.

Maxwell finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback and was a legitimate #1 cornerback, shadowing opponent’s top receivers with regularity. Maxwell is a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback like that and is already going into his age 29 season, so last season could prove to be a bit of a fluke, but he’s finished above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and has made 44 starts over that time period. He should continue being a solid starting cornerback for the Dolphins for another couple seasons, though he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2013.

The Dolphins also had a few young cornerbacks who exceeded expectations in 2016 in Tony Lippett, Bobby McCain, and Xavien Howard. All three return to compete for roles. Lippett, a 2015 5th round pick, actually led all Dolphin cornerbacks in snaps played last season with 863 and wasn’t bad, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of his career, but Howard was the starter opposite Maxwell when healthy and is the favorite for the #2 job this season. Howard’s play was comparable to Lippett’s and played much fewer snaps (528 snaps in 7 games), but the 2016 2nd round pick has a much higher upside and could have a solid second season in the league as the opposite starter across from Maxwell if healthy.

McCain, meanwhile, is the favorite for the slot job, where he’s been adequate in his first 2 seasons in the league, on 308 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2015 and then on 620 snaps in a larger role last season. He’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, but just barely and he could be better in his 3rd season in the league. The 5-9 195 pounder isn’t an outside option, but he’s probably their best slot guy. He’ll face competition from Lippett, 3rd round rookie cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, and hybrid defensive back Michael Thomas at a position group that’s suddenly pretty deep.

Thomas is also a starting option at safety. He played 572 snaps last season, primarily at safety. Isa Abdul-Quddus led all Dolphin defensive backs with 951 snaps played last season and finished 35th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but he was waived this off-season after suffering a potentially career threatening neck injury. Fortunately, the Dolphins do get back Reshad Jones back from injury, after his 2016 season was cut short after 6 games thanks to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.

Jones was a top-12 safety on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2014, and 2015 and ranked 6th before getting hurt last season, so he’s a big re-addition to this defense. Before last year’s shoulder injury, he had never missed any significant time with injury and he is still only going into his age 29 season. He should be a significant upgrade over his replacement Bacarri Rambo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked safety last season. The Dolphins seem very confident in Jones’ ability to bounce back, giving him a 5-year, 60 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his contract and guaranteeing him 35 million over the next 3 seasons. He’s the 3rd highest paid safety in the NFL in average annual salary.

WIth Abdul-Quddus and Rambo no longer with the team, Thomas will compete with free agent acquisition Nate Allen for the starting job. Allen made 69 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career with the Eagles, but he was very up and down as a starter there and he has made just 7 starts over the past 2 seasons with the Raiders and has not looked good in limited action. He also tore his ACL in 2015 and is now going into his age 30 season. He’d be a weak starting option. Thomas, meanwhile, has finished above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and has just 22 career starts. The 5-11 197 pounder best as a versatile reserve and special teamer.

The Dolphins also signed TJ McDonald in free agency, but he’s suspended for the first 8 games of the season for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. A 2013 3rd round pick, McDonald has started in all 53 games that he’s played in 4 seasons in the league, but has only had one above average season. He’ll probably be their best option when he returns from suspension though and he’s still young, only going into his age 26 season in 2017. This is a solid secondary overall, but their issues at safety opposite Reshad Jones can’t be ignored.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins made the playoffs last season, but they’re unlikely to be as good in close games (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2016) and their schedule looks much tougher on paper than last season’s. Reshad Jones’ return helps this defense immensely, but players like Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, and Cameron Wake could all regress this season. They have solid talent on both sides of the ball and could still compete for a playoff spot, but they will have to play better than they did last season, when they struggled mightily against most of the average or better teams they played. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

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New England Patriots 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At the end of the 2013 season, it looked like the Tom Brady era in New England was going into its twilight years. The Patriots won 12 games and made the AFC Championship the season before, but 7 of those wins came by a touchdown or fewer and they were no match for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship. Brady also completed just 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, both of which were his lowest since 2003. With Brady going into his age 37 season and stuck on 3 Super Bowls, the Patriots prepared for the future by using their 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

When things went from bad to worse with the Patriots the following season, after a 41-14 week 4 loss in Kansas City, their biggest loss since the 2003 season, there were actually calls for the Patriots to bench Brady in favor of Garoppolo. Coach Bill Belichick scoffed at the notion and then a funny thing happened. The Patriots would lose just one meaningful game the rest of the way en route to their 4th Super Bowl championship. That Super Bowl victory would be dogged by allegations of playing with underinflated footballs and Brady would eventually miss the first 4 games of the 2016 season with suspension, but then he returned to lead the Patriots to their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 seasons.

Even though they didn’t win the Super Bowl in 2015, they did win 12 games and make the AFC Championship, despite the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the NFL. All in all, the Patriots have won 12+ games in 7 straight seasons, the longest streak in NFL history, and have made the AFC Championship in 6 straight seasons, also the longest streak in NFL history. Seemingly on the decline after the 2013 season, Brady has actually improved his YPA, completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, and QB rating in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season was arguably the best of his career, as he completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in 12 games, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season by a wide margin. At an age where most quarterbacks are done playing, Brady is seemingly getting better.

Garoppolo got a shot last season when Brady was suspended, although he only made it about 6 quarters before getting injured and getting replaced with 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Still, for the short time he was out there, he was very impressive, leading the Patriots to victory against the Cardinals in Arizona and then giving the Patriots a big lead at home for the Dolphins before getting hurt. He’s only thrown 94 career passes, but he’s completed 67.0% of them for an average of 7.34 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He’s also apparently impressed the Patriots in practice because they did not plug the trigger on any offer to trade him this off-season, despite being offered multiple high picks.

Garoppolo is going into the final year of his rookie deal and his age 26 season and the conventional wisdom seems to be that he wants to test the free agency market next off-season to become a highly paid starting quarterback somewhere. Brady, meanwhile, seems to show no signs of stopping and Garoppolo’s trade value is never going to be higher. Of course, the Patriots are not known for their conventional wisdom. They know things can change in an instant with a quarterback going into his age 40 season like Brady and they believe Garappolo can be a franchise quarterback someday.

There’s also talk that the Patriots could convince Garoppolo to re-sign next off-season and stay as Brady’s backup for another couple seasons before taking over as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. It would certainly be an unconventional move, but it’s possible Garoppolo would rather be the Patriots’ quarterback in 2020 than the Jets’ quarterback in 2018 and may be willing to return at the right price. The Patriots will also have the option to franchise tag him and trade him next off-season, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2009, though Garoppolo’s trade value in a year could be significantly less because whoever acquires him will have to give him a huge contract immediately.

Keeping Garoppolo keeps their options open and they clearly see that as more valuable than a couple high picks, even with the team in win now mode. Garoppolo could also prove to be handy if Brady gets hurt and misses some time mid-season. He’s never missed any time with injury outside of when he tore his ACL in 2008, but injuries are always a risk, especially for a player in his 40s. If Brady misses 4-6 games and Garoppolo wins them a game or two that Jacoby Brissett wouldn’t have, that’s more valuable than anyone they could have gotten in the first round of this year’s draft, especially for a team in win now mode. They don’t have other pressing needs, with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, and they possibly have two legitimate franchise quarterbacks on the roster, when many teams are struggling to find one

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode was when they sent their first and 3rd round picks to the Saints for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. The Patriots have never traded away a first round pick to acquire a veteran player and they have also never used a first round pick on a wide receiver, but they seem to have made an exception to their rules for Cooks. With Brady getting up there in age, it makes sense why they’d make a move like this now and Cooks is no ordinary veteran player.

Even though the 2014 1st round pick has topped 1,100 yards in each of the past 2 seasons, he’s still only going into his age 24 season. The pick New England sent to New Orleans was #32. The next five wide receivers off the board after pick #32 were Zay Jones, Juju Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Taywan Taylor, and Ardarius Stewart. Cooks is 18 months older than Jones, 38 months older than Smith-Schuster, 3 months YOUNGER than Kupp, 20 months older than Taylor, and 3 months older than Stewart. The Patriots will have to give Cooks a lot of money at some point to stay, but he’s under contract for the next 2 seasons for a combined 10 million.

It’s not often that a player like Cooks gets moved in a trade, but the Saints have two other talented wide receivers in Michael Thomas and Willie Snead and had needs on other parts of the field. Cooks is a great fit in New England because he has experience playing on offenses with a lot of other options. Even though Cooks ranks 8th in the NFL over the past 2 seasons in receiving yards with 2,311, he ranks just 18th in targets with 246, a very impressive 9.39 yards per target.

Part of that is because he had Drew Brees throwing to him, but a lot of that was Cooks himself and now he goes from Brees to Brady at quarterback, which is arguably an upgrade. Brady is used to throwing to undersized, unathletic slot types like Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman, so getting someone like Cooks is a change of pace for him. He could be arguably the 3rd most talented offensive weapon Brady has ever played with behind Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski.

Speaking of Rob Gronkowski, he returns from the back injury that ended his 2016 season. Gronk also essentially missed 4 games with a hamstring injury, but produced at a ridiculous rate in the 5 games he was healthy, catching 24 passes for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns. He averaged 22.04 yards per catch, 14.70 yards per target (both best in the NFL among players with at least 20 catches), and his per game averages would have translated to a 77/1697/10 slash line over a full 16 game season.

Those numbers are probably unrealistic for him, but he’s caught at least 70 passes for 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of his last 3 healthy seasons. Despite missing 24 games with injury over the past 6 seasons, he’s been a top-3 tight end on Pro Football Focus in all 6 of them, excelling as both a pass catcher and a run blocker. Injuries have always been his achilles heel, as he’s had 3 back surgeries, 5 arm surgeries, and 1 knee surgery just since college, but he’s still going into his age 28 season and reportedly looks good this off-season. Along with Houston’s JJ Watt, Gronkowski is one of the early favorites for Comeback Player of the Year. If he’s healthy, it’ll be like Brady is adding two top weapons to his arsenal, which should be a scary thought to opposing defenses. If both are healthy, Cooks and Gronk could both easily 1000 yards.

Julian Edelman topped 1000 yards last season, but will play more of a secondary role this season with Gronkowski returning and Cooks coming in, after a career high 158 targets last season (3rd in the NFL behind Odell Beckham and Mike Evans). Edelman has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 15th in 2015 and 21st in 2016, but is going into his age 31 season and could be best as a complementary player. Most teams would kill to have a 3rd option in the passing game like him though and that’s what he could be if Gronkowski is healthy. He’s going into the final year of a bargain 4-year, 17 million dollar deal, but reportedly is willing to take less money than he could get elsewhere to return to New England and continue winning with Tom Brady. Unlike his predecessor Wes Welker, Edelman seems to realize New England is the best place for him.

Chris Hogan was the #2 receiver last season and flashed as a deep threat, catching 38 passes for 680 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns on just 57 targets. However, he still graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd straight below average season. With Cooks coming in, he’ll be no better than the 3rd receiver and he’ll face competition from 2nd player Malcolm Mitchell for that role. A 2016 4th round pick, Mitchell played 538 snaps last season and showed some promise. Despite being a rookie, he caught 32 passes for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns and has more long-term upside than Hogan. Hogan might not be much more than a situational deep threat in 2017. The Patriots also have two accomplished veteran slot receivers in Danny Amendola and Andrew Hawkins who are competing for the final roster spot at wide receiver, so they have plenty of depth even if injury strikes.

In addition, the Patriots acquired ex-Colt Dwayne Allen in a trade this off-season to replace free agent departure Martellus Bennett, so they have good depth at the tight end position too. Allen isn’t as good as Bennett, but, assuming Gronk is healthy, he’ll play a smaller role than Bennett, who played 868 snaps and had 73 targets (3rd on the team) in the regular season in 2016. Allen was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end on 905 snaps in 16 games as a rookie, but he has missed 23 games with injury in 4 seasons since.

He still graded out 9th in 2014, but injuries seem to have taken a toll on him, as he’s finished below average in each of the past 2 seasons, including 41st out of 63 eligible in 2016. He’s still only going into his age 27 season, so there’s some bounce back potential with him, but the Patriots aren’t counting on him to play a huge role in the passing game. The 6-3 265 pounder is a better run blocker than receiver and is also a threat around the goal line (19 touchdowns on 126 career catches). He’s part of a loaded receiving corps, one of the best Tom Brady has ever had.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Patriots also have a good group of running backs. They lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency and he had 299 carries last season, but they signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, two younger backs, to replace him and they also still have passing down backs James White and Dion Lewis. All 4 running backs will likely see action. Blount rushed for 18 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 3.88 yards per carry, so Gillislee and Burkhead could be an improvement for a team that finished just 25th in yards per carry last season with 3.89 yards per carry.

Gillislee is the favorite to lead the team in carries. He was given a 2-year, 6.4 million dollar deal by the Patriots as a restricted free agent this off-season and the Bills declined to match, taking New England’s 5th round pick as compensation instead. Buffalo’s loss could be New England’s gain as Gillislee was one of the best backup running backs in the league last season, playing behind LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. A 2013 5th round pick, Gillislee has just 154 career carries, but has averaged 5.62 yards per carry and is coming off of a season in which he rushed for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, a 5.71 YPC average. That was the highest YPC average in the league last season of any back with more than 100 carries and he finished 14th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on 285 snaps. At 5-11 219, Gillislee will also likely be the Patriots’ primary goal line back. It’s unclear how he’ll translate to a larger role, but 150+ carries and 8+ rushing touchdowns is a safe bet from him in 2017.  

Gillislee doesn’t do much on passing downs, but he won’t play much in passing situations. James White will and he has 113 catches in his last 26 overall games, including a whopping 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Falcons. The 2014 4th round pick isn’t a threat to run the ball and has averaged just 3.71 yards per carry on 70 career carries, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2015 and their 2nd ranked running back in pass catching grade in 2016. The Patriots re-signed him to a 3-year, 12 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season and he’s a good bet for another 50-60 catches, even with all of the other options Brady has to throw to. White can catch passes both out of the backfield and lined up in the slot as a receiver.

Dion Lewis is also a good receiver out of the backfield and in the slot and can also provide a change of pace to Gillislee as a speed back at 5-8 190. A torn ACL has limited him to just 7 regular season games in each of the past 2 seasons, but he has 113 carries for 517 yards (4.58 YPC), 53 catches for 482 yards (9.09 yards per catch), and 4 total touchdowns over that time period. Injuries have always been the problem for the diminutive running back, as he’s played in just 38 of a possible 96 regular season games since entering the league as a 5th round pick in 2011. Even if healthy, he won’t see as many touches per game as he has over the past 2 seasons in a more crowded backfield, but he should still be in the mix for touches because of his versatility and his ability to make guys miss in the open field.

Rex Burkhead’s role is a little bit more uncertain, but they paid him 3.15 million on a one-year deal, so they clearly have a plan for him. He was signed before Gillislee and the addition of Gillislee makes it unlikely that Burkhead will have a huge role on early downs, but he’s a good pass protector and pass catcher and can line up at running back, receiver, and fullback, in addition to playing special teams. The 2013 6th round pick also has a career 4.31 yards per carry average on 87 career carries in 4 seasons in the league, with 74 of those carries coming last season, and can handle goalline work at 5-10 210. He could still have about 100 touches between catches and carries. The Patriots don’t have an elite back, but they have plenty of guys to mix and match. Expect Bill Belichick and the coaching staff to use them correctly. They could easily have a more productive running game in 2017, which makes this offense even more dangerous.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots dealt with way more than injuries in 2015 than 2016, even with Gronkowski dealing with injuries throughout last season. Their biggest absence in 2015 might have been left tackle Nate Solder, who missed 11 games with a torn biceps. Pass protection was a major problem for the Patriots’ offensive down the stretch in 2015. In 2016, Solder stabilized the left tackle position in a big way, finishing 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and making all 16 starts.

Outside of 2015, Solder has only ever missed 1 game with injury and he has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2013, when he finished 9th among offensive tackles. The 2011 1st round pick has 81 career starts, but is still only going into his age 29 season, so he should continue playing well in 2017. He’s going into the final year of his contract and the Patriots may have drafted his long-term replacement in the 3rd round, when they took Troy’s Antonio Garcia, but Garcia is no threat to his job this season.

Not only did Solder’s return upgrade the left tackle position, but it also upgraded the right tackle position, as 2015 fill-in left tackle Marcus Cannon made 14 starts at right tackle in 2016 and finished 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, highest ranked among right tackles. That was a massive improvement over 2015, when he finished 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. Cannon is the definition of a one-year wonder though, as he graded out below average in 3 straight seasons prior to 2016 (18 combined starts).

The 2011 5th round pick is also already going into his age 29 season, so he’s already in the tail end of his prime. He could prove to be a bit of a fluke this season, but it’s clear he’s much more comfortable at right tackle and having legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia back after a 2-year retirement helped him immensely. The Patriots seem confident in him keeping this up, giving him a 5-year, 32.41 million dollar extension during the season. He’s the 6th highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary.

Right guard Shaq Mason also had the best season of his career in 2016, albeit in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2015 4th round pick out of Georgia Tech, Mason was a solid run blocker in 10 starts as a rookie, but struggled mightily in pass protection, no surprise, considering he rarely had to pass protect in Georgia Tech’s run heavy wishbone offense. In 2016, his pass protection was much better and he finished 15th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s still just a one-year wonder, but he’s also just going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be ahead of him. He’s very athletic for an offensive lineman.

The Patriots got subpar play at both left guard and center last season, from Joe Thuney and David Andrews respectively. Neither player was bad though, so both are probably locked into starting jobs again. Thuney made 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, but finished 46th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league though. Andrews, meanwhile, finished 22nd out of 38 eligible centers in 2016, after finishing 21st out of 39 eligible as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Andrews is an unspectacular starter, but has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons and does a decent job. The Patriots locked him up on a reasonable 3-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season. The Patriots return all 5 from a solid offensive line in 2016 and have better depth with Garcia being added in the draft, but it’s unclear if Cannon can have as good of a season on the right side as he did last season.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Patriots didn’t have many needs this off-season, but the defensive line was a bit of a concern because defensive tackle Alan Branch (625 snaps) and defensive ends Chris Long (677 snaps) and Jabaal Sheard (580 snaps) were set to hit free agency. The Patriots lost Long and Sheard to the Eagles and Colts respectively, but they kept Branch on a 2-year, 8.45 million dollar deal. They also signed ex-Raven Lawrence Guy to a 4-year, 13.4 million dollar deal. Guy, Branch, and Malcom Brown will rotate snaps at defensive tackle.

Branch led Patriot defensive tackles in snaps played last season and finished 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The mammoth 6-6 350 pounder is primarily a base package player who doesn’t get any pass rush, but he finished 6th at his position in pure run stopping grade last season. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and has finished in the top-7 at his position in pure run stuffing grade in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2016. He was a solid re-signing, even going into his age 33 season.

Guy is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-4 305 and played a career high 487 snaps last season in a purely base package role with the Ravens. He’s graded out well below average as a pass rusher in each of the last 2 seasons, but he’s also graded out above average as a run stopper in both seasons, including 11th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stuffing grade in 2016. A 2011 7th round pick, Guy was a late bloomer and didn’t start seeing regular playing time until 2015, but is still only going into his age 27 season and could have a solid season for the Patriots in a situational role.

Malcom Brown has the highest upside of the trio, as he was a first round pick in 2015 and is still just going into his age 23 season. He struggled on 555 snaps as a rookie, but was much improved in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, finishing 19th among defensive tackles on 596 snaps. Brown was better as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher in 2016, though he too is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-2 320. He finished last season 10th among defensive tackles in run stuffing grade, but finished below average as a pass rusher. He could be a better pass rusher in his 3rd season in the league in 2017, but both Branch and Guy are purely base package players.

That’s not a big deal because the Patriots often lined up defensive ends Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard inside in sub packages last season and they figure to do the same thing this season with Flowers and Kony Ealy, who replaces the departed Sheard. Flowers and Ealy are bigger ends at 6-2 265 and 6-4 275 respectively. This limits snaps for Branch, Guy, and Brown, but allows the Patriots to get their best four pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Veteran Rob Ninkovich and 3rd round rookie Derek Rivers will be their primary edge rushers in sub packages. Rivers is a direct replacement for the departed Chris Long.

Long and Sheard might have played more snaps than Flowers did last season, but Flowers was the best of the three and saw the most playing time down the stretch. He finished the season 17th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus on 563 snaps. Flowers is a complete one-year wonder, after being limited to just 4 defensive snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015, but could easily develop into a future starter. He’ll likely have a bigger role this season with Long and Sheard gone and could lead this defensive line in snaps played.

Ealy, meanwhile, comes over in a trade from the Panthers, in which the Patriots moved down 8 spots from 64 to 72 in the draft. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Ealy has always had athletic talent, but he graded out below average in all 3 seasons with the Panthers and the Panthers gave up on him this off-season, with 3 well-paid, veteran defensive ends locked in ahead of him on the depth chart. Ealy played a career high 624 snaps last season, but finished 78th among 109 eligible edge defenders. The Panthers never really tried him inside in passing situations, but he has the size to do it and it could really help him, considering he managed just 14 sacks in 3 seasons with the Panthers. He could have a big role for the Patriots as a hybrid defensive lineman and could have his best season to date, even if that’s not saying much.

Ninkovich is the veteran of the defensive end group and is coming off of the worst season, finishing last season 86th among 109 eligible edge defenders. He also played just 461 snaps, down significantly from 891 in 2015. Ninkovich is going into his age 33 season and has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, so he shouldn’t play much larger of a role than he did last season. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be Ninkovich’s final season with New England and his final season in the league. In his prime, he graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013.

Because of Ninkovich’s age, rookie Derek Rivers will have to play a significant rookie year role in sub packages. Despite coming from Youngstown State, Rivers is an NFL ready edge rusher and also has experience playing linebacker. The 6-4 248 pounder may struggle against the run as a rookie, but the Patriots will work to his strengths and probably won’t play him on the defensive line on many run snaps. Ninkovich also has some experience as an outside linebacker, so it’s possible both him and Rivers see some action at the outside linebacker positions in base packages, as the Patriots like their front 7 players to be able to play multiple spots.

Likewise, outside linebackers Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy could also see some time as edge rushers in obvious passing situations. McClellin rushed on 30% of his 382 snaps last season, while Van Noy rushed on 16% of his 250 snaps (in 7 games after spending the first 7 games of the season with the Lions). McClellin and Van Noy were both high picks, going in the first round in 2012 and the second round in 2014 respectively, but neither has ever graded out above average in a season in their career. It’s hard to call either player anything other than a bust, but the Patriots like them in situational roles because of their versatility. The Patriots have a lot of versatile defensive linemen and should be able to mix and match their way to an effective defensive line. Flowers is probably their best defensive lineman, but I don’t see any defensive lineman playing more than 700 snaps this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Patriots made a shocking trade during their bye week last week, sending outside linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns for their 3rd round compensatory pick. Collins was going into the final year of his rookie deal and was expected to leave after the season anyway, but he was a top-3 player at his position on Pro Football Focus the previous 2 seasons and was on his way to another similar season. Besides, they would have gotten a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2018 if they had just let him walk for nothing at the end of the season, so they basically gave him up for nothing. On top of that, they were 7-1 and chasing a Super Bowl and it was hard to imagine the Patriots would be better defensively without Collins, who had been one of their best defensive players in recent years.

However, statistically, that is exactly what happened. After allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.54% rate in the first 8 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 29.54% rate in the final 8 games of the season. The numbers don’t give the full context, as 6 of their final 8 games were against offenses that finished 26th or worse in first down rate and the other two were against Miami, who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle, who won. However, they also only allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 32.96% rate in 3 post-season games, even though they faced a pair of tough offenses in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Even if they weren’t a better defense without Collins, they didn’t seem to miss him.

Collins was replaced with a combination of base package players like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts as well as safety Patrick Chung dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. As I already mentioned, McClellin and Van Noy are underwhelming players, while Roberts graded out below average on 270 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2016, but all three players are capable run stuffers and they don’t count on any of them for big roles. They didn’t add anything significant to their linebacking corps this season, so those 3 will compete for base package outside linebacker snaps with potentially Ninkovich and Rivers. In sub packages, the Patriots will continue using Chung as a linebacker and the recently re-signed Dont’a Hightower returns as their only true every down linebacker.

Also a pending free agent like Collins was, Hightower was allowed to hit the open market by the Patriots, but ended up returning on a 4-year, 43.5 million dollar deal, 6.5 million dollars less than Collins got on the same length deal from the Browns. Hightower isn’t as athletic as Collins, but he’s a great run stuffer and moves well for his size at 6-3 265. He’s capable of stopping the run, dropping into coverage, and blitzing. A 2012 1st round pick, Hightower has finished in the top-12 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 straight seasons in the top-8. Injuries are a bit of a concern for him, as he’s missed 11 games in the past 3 seasons combined, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so that should be money well-spent for a team that needed to keep at least one of their talented young linebackers.

Chung, meanwhile, has spent most of his 8-year career at safety, but had arguably the worst season of his career last season, 83rd out of 90 eligible safeties, and did a little bit better after they moved him to linebacker in sub packages and started using him as a hybrid player. Chung had graded out above average in 6 of the prior 7 seasons before last season, including 6th among safeties in 2015, but he’s going into his age 30 season and he’s always been better closer to the line of scrimmage at 5-11 215, so moving to linebacker in sub packages could be good for his career. Even though he’s coming off a down year, he could easily be a useful player for them for another couple seasons in his new role. Even without Collins, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another reason why continuing to drop Chung to linebacker in sub packages makes sense for the Patriots is they have good depth at safety. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, who comes in when Chung moves to linebacker in sub packages, are both significantly better deep cover guys than Chung. McCourty is actually one of the best safeties in the league and should continue to play at a high level in an every down role for them. An adequate cornerback early in his career, McCourty has spent the last 4 seasons at safety, where he has really excelled, finishing in the top-8 among safeties in all 4 seasons, including a #4 rank in 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons at least. He’s also only missed 5 games with injury in his career.

Harmon, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and was re-signed to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season. Harmon actually finished last season slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including a 2015 season in which finished 31st among safeties on a career high 603 snaps. He only has 12 career starts and isn’t anything more than a part-time player, but the Patriots don’t need him to be much more than that. He’s a nice piece in the secondary and the Patriots were smart to re-sign him on a reasonable deal.

Along with the trade for Cooks, the biggest indication that the Patriots were in win now mode this off-season was when they signed ex-Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Like using first round picks on receivers or trading high picks for veterans, spending big money on other teams’ free agents was just simply something the Patriots have never done, as they have always opted to build through the draft and used their money to re-sign their own players, if anything. Gilmore is by far the most expensive outside free agent signing they have made in the Belichick/Brady era.

Gilmore is actually coming off of a down year in which he was burned deep in coverage more than usual, finishing 60th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Patriots obviously don’t seem concerned though. The 2012 1st round pick finished above average in both 2014 and 2015, with his best career season coming in 2015, when he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback like that, but he’s at the very least a capable starter with upside for more. He’s made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 27 season, so he’s right in the prime of his career. He’ll replace free agent departure Logan Ryan, who finished last season 16th among cornerbacks and signed with the Titans on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season.

Gilmore’s addition all but guaranteed that fellow starting cornerback Malcolm Butler is going into his final year in New England, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season and the Patriots already gave the money he wanted to Gilmore instead. With the Patriots in win now mode for 2017, that’s not a huge deal and the Patriots will have one of the better cornerback duos in the league in the meantime. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Butler has gotten significantly better in all 3 seasons in the league, playing just 187 regular season snaps as a rookie, but making all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and finishing 24th and 7th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. He might be a better cornerback than Gilmore, but he could also prove to be largely a system cornerback and the Patriots seem to prefer the bigger Gilmore (6-1 195 vs 5-11 195) over him long-term.

Eric Rowe was their 3rd cornerback last season and he was solid on 452 snaps, but Gilmore replacing Ryan complicates matters for Rowe. Rowe’s best attribute is his size and ability to match up with bigger receivers at 6-1 205, but Gilmore is also perfectly capable of defending bigger receivers. Also, while Ryan played the slot in sub packages, Gilmore is not a good fit on the slot and neither is Rowe. If Rowe wins the #3 cornerback job, that would likely mean that Butler would be tasked with slot duties in sub packages and he has very little experience in the slot. A 2015 2nd round pick who showed promise in his first season in New England after being traded from the Eagles for a conditional 2018 mid-round round pick, Rowe will still see playing time in certain games against teams with bigger receivers because the Patriots like to be matchup specific with their cornerbacks, but might not be any higher than 4th on the depth chart officially.

That leaves 2nd year players Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones to compete for the slot cornerback job between Butler and Gilmore. At 5-10 200 and 5-10 190 respectively, both are more natural fits on the slot. Cyrus Jones was a 2nd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so he’s probably the favorite, but he only played 147 nondescript snaps as a rookie, so he’s still very unproven. Jonathan Jones, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2016 and only played 64 defensive snaps as a rookie, but the Patriots have been much more impressed with him on special teams than Cyrus Jones and he reportedly has a chance to beat out the higher drafted Jones for a job in at cornerback. If he does, it’ll probably say more about Cyrus’ lack of development than anything positive about Jonathan. If Gilmore can play at his highest level and Cyrus Jones shows more in his 2nd year in the league, this secondary could be improved even over last year’s strong group, but the pieces don’t fit together as well as they did last season with Ryan signing in Tennessee.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were the best team in the league last season and they got even better this off-season, particularly with Brandin Cooks coming over from New Orleans and Rob Gronkowski set to return from injury. They have no glaring holes on either side of the ball. The one concern with them is that Tom Brady is going into his age 40 season, but he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career and has arguably the best overall supporting cast of his career. If Brady plays like we’re used to, this team has a good chance to repeat as Super Bowl champs. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Indianapolis Colts 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Colts made the no brainer selection taking Andrew Luck #1 overall in 2012, but have otherwise done a very poor job of rebuilding their roster. Aside from Luck, the Colts have drafted just one other Pro-Bowler since 2012, wide receiver TY Hilton, and have pretty much struck out completely in free agency, despite handing out several significant contracts. Considering this was a 2-14 team when Luck came in, they haven’t done nearly enough to improve his supporting cast over the past 5 years.

The Colts are 49-31 over those 5 years, but that’s largely because of Luck, who has been a top-12 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons and finished last season a career high 4th at the position. The Colts have also had a weak division and have pulled out a lot of close wins. They are 23-7 in the division over the past 5 seasons, as opposed to 26-24 against non-divisional opponents, and are 30-12 overall in games decided by a touchdown or less. Over the past 2 seasons, the division has gotten better and the Colts have not been pulling out as many close victories (12-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past 2 seasons), so they have finished just 8-8.

As a result, the Colts fired GM Ryan Grigson, who was hired back in 2012 before Luck was drafted. In 2015, they could blame their disappointing season on Andrew Luck missing 9 games with injury, but last season Luck was healthy. Their supporting cast around him just took a huge step backwards, which makes sense, given that they were the oldest supporting cast in the league. The offense still performed at a high level, ranking 7th in first down rate, but their defense ranked 28th in first down rate allowed, no surprise, considering they had a whopping seven week 1 starters who were in their age 30 season or older. Grigson needed to be let go for his inability to bring in good young talent.

Now with new GM Chris Ballard in place, the Colts hope they can build the supporting cast Luck needs to take this team to the Super Bowl, but it’s going to take more than one off-season. Complicating matters even more is the fact that Andrew Luck is coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and might not be ready for the start of training camp. Luck is a big, tough quarterback at 6-4 240, but has taken way too many hits because of a bad offensive line and the injuries are starting to pile up for him as a result. He didn’t miss a single game in the first 3 seasons of his career, but missed 9 with a shoulder injury and a ruptured kidney in 2015, then missed another game with a concussion in 2016, and now needs surgery to repair that 2015 shoulder injury. The Colts don’t have a capable backup, so they are obviously hoping he can get healthy and play all 16 games again in 2017. His status for week 1 is probably not in doubt, but it’s a situation worth monitoring.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Grigson and the Colts tried to upgrade the Colts’ offensive line in the 2016 NFL Draft, after Luck’s injury plagued 2015 season, using 3 picks on offensive linemen and ignoring major holes on defense in the process. It was too little too late though and none of the offensive linemen showed much as rookies. Ryan Kelly was the best of the bunch, but the #18 overall pick finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, 21st out of 38 eligible centers. Kelly still has potential, but he needs to be more than just a solid center to validate his draft slot, considering he’s one of just eight pure centers drafted in the first round since 2000.

Fifth round pick Joe Haeg also saw significant action as a rookie, making 14 starts between left guard, right guard, and right tackle. His versatility is a plus, but he finished 52nd among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus and may be best long-term as a versatile reserve. He’ll compete for starting jobs at both right guard and right tackle out of desperation. Third round pick Le’Raven Clark will also be in the mix for snaps, but he struggled on just 201 snaps as a rookie. He’s more of a right tackle, but can also play right guard if needed.

Also in the mix for snaps are veteran free agent acquisition Brian Schwenke, 4th round rookie Zach Banner, and 2015 7th round pick Denzelle Good. Schwenke is one of their most experienced offensive lineman, making 28 starts with the Titans from 2013-2016, after they drafted him in the 4th round in 2013. Schwenke graded out below average in all 4 seasons though, his first 3 at center and then last season in 3 starts at left guard. He’s theoretically a candidate at right guard, but would be best as veteran depth if he even makes the roster.

Banner is also an unlikely option, though the massive 6-8 353 pounder could play both right tackle and right guard if they need him to. Good is a more likely option, considering he started 10 games last season. He didn’t play well either though, finishing 67th among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Like their other offensive linemen, he can play both right guard and right tackle, but they need two players to step up and stabilize those positions so they aren’t changing their offensive line every week in 2017 like they did in 2016. Haeg, Clark, and Good are the most likely options, but none of those three are any good.

Fortunately, things are a lot better on the left side of the offensive line, where left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Jack Mewhort remain as starters. Castonzo is a rare holdover from before Andrew Luck and has played well in 6 seasons in the league since the Colts drafted him #22 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Unspectacular, but consistent, Castonzo has made 89 of a possible 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including three straight top-20 finishes. Going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t continue to play well.

Mewhort, meanwhile, is a rare solid draft pick from the Grigson era, going in the 2nd round in 2014. Mewhort has made 40 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including 9th among guards in 2015 and 25th among guards in 2016. He can also play some right tackle, but has settled in at guard, where he has been best. He missed 6 games with injury last season, but should be healthy this season and could earn a big contract with another big season in the final year of his rookie deal. Considering how little success the Colts have had developing capable starters or signing other teams’ free agents, they would be wise not to let Mewhort go. He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet, but he’s a valuable part of an overall mediocre offensive line.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Wide receiver TY Hilton is the only other Grigson draftee besides Luck who did make a Pro-Bowl, making it in each of the past 3 seasons. Over the past 4 seasons, he has caught 324 passes for 5000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Demaryius Thomas have more receiving yards than him over that time period. A lot of that is Andrew Luck throwing him the football, but Hilton is a legitimate #1 receiver in his own right, finishing 34th, 10th, 17th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in the past 4 seasons respectively. Last season was his best season to date as he led the league with 1,448 receiving yards and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He was a steal in the 3rd round in 2012.

The Colts also drafted a wide receiver in the third round in 2014, though with different results. Donte Moncrief has all the physical tools to be a great wide receiver, but hasn’t put it together yet through 3 seasons in the league. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie and then was a league average wide receiver in 16 games (10 starts) in 2015, but was limited to 470 snaps in an injury plagued 2016. He still graded out above average for the third straight season though and is still only going into his age 24 season. He could have a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 if he can stay healthy.

The Colts also used a 1st round pick on a wide receiver in 2015, taking Miami’s Phillip Dorsett in what now looks like one of the worst decisions of the Grigson era. Not only did Dorsett not remotely fill a need at the time, but he also hasn’t shown anything positive on the field in 2 seasons in the league. He was limited to 215 snaps as a rookie and then made 7 starts last season when Moncrief was hurt and played terribly, finishing 105th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 796 snaps in 15 games. He caught just 33 of 60 targets for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has game-breaking speed, but he’s been a one-trick pony thus far in his career and the new regime has no loyalty to him, bringing in ex-Raven Kamar Aiken on a 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal to compete with him for the #3 job.

Unlike most of the free agent signings made by Ryan Grigson, Aiken has a good chance to pan out on a relatively inexpensive contract. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Aiken played just 295 offensive snaps in his first 4 seasons in the league, but had a breakout 2015 season when the Ravens had injuries in the receiving corps, catching 75 passes for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns on 937 offensive snaps and finishing 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He struggled on just 595 snaps in 2016, when the Ravens were healthier in the receiving corps, but he’s still just going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a capable 3rd receiver for them. He’s considered the favorite for the #3 job, but Dorsett will get a fair look.

The Colts also gave a decent sized contract to tight end Jack Doyle this off-season, bringing him back on a 3-year, 18.9 million dollar deal. A 2013 undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off the Titans’ practice squad during his rookie year, Doyle had just 7 starts in 3 seasons going into 2016, but had flashed in limited action and earned the #2 tight end job after Coby Fleener signed with the Saints last off-season. Doyle then broke out on 750 snaps in 2016, finishing 17th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus and finishing 2nd on the team with 59 catches and 584 receiving yards. He also added 5 touchdowns. The 6-6 267 pounder lacks explosiveness and only averages 8.44 yards per catch in his career, but has also caught 80.0% of his career targets and Andrew Luck is very comfortable with him as a safety net. He’s also a good run blocker. He’s still inexperienced and basically a one-year wonder, but bringing him back wasn’t a bad idea. They didn’t overpay for him.

In order to justify signing Jack Doyle, the Colts had to trade veteran tight end Dwayne Allen and his 5 million dollar salary to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks. Allen finished 41st out of 63 eligible tight ends last season though, so he won’t really be missed, and the Colts like 4th year tight end Erik Swoope. A collegiate basketball player at the University of Miami, Swoope barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league after going undrafted in 2014, but flashed on 246 snaps last season and caught 15 passes for 297 yards and 1 touchdown. Dwayne Allen played 611 snaps last season, so Swoope could have a significant role in 2017. We’ll see if he’s up to the task. He’s part of a deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As big of a mistake as using their first round pick in 2015 on Phillip Dorsett was, they made an even bigger mistake a year earlier, sending their 2014 1st round pick to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson. Richardson, the 3rd overall pick in 2012, averaged just 3.09 yards per carry on 316 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts and fell out of the league shortly afterwards. The Colts replaced him two off-seasons ago with veteran Frank Gore, who they signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal.

Gore is in the twilight of his career though and has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry on 523 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts. Part of that is the offensive line’s fault, but a lot of that is on Gore. Gore has been especially sluggish in the second half of the season, averaging just 3.41 yards per carry on 277 carries in games 9-16 in the past two seasons combined. Gore is still an effective player in pass situations, especially as a pass protector, but the Colts should cut his carries from 250 to around 150 to keep him fresher, as he goes into his age 34 season. Gore is the oldest active starting running back in the league and it shows. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in the league.

The Colts drafted Marlon Mack in the 4th round, likely in an effort to keep Gore fresher and to find a potential long-term replacement. Mack is explosive, but is probably best as a change of pace back early in his career. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t jump up to the top of this weak running back depth chart by the end of the season, but he’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd back behind veteran backup Robert Turbin. A 2012 4th round pick, Turbin has averaged just 3.94 yards per carry on 328 carries in 5 seasons in the league and 3.49 yards per carry on 47 carries last season. He’s a poor option for carries. The Colts finished 23rd in yards per carry last season with 3.99, despite Andrew Luck averaging 5.33 yards per carry on 64 carries. That could easily happen again this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

While the Colts had some offensive talent last season, they had next to nothing on the defensive side of the ball, which is why they finished 28th in first down rate allowed. The new regime rightfully saw defense as the side of the ball to focus on, making several signings in free agency and using their first 3 draft picks on defensive players. The Colts could have 6 new starters week 1 and are much younger than last season, when they had the oldest defense in the league.

Their biggest free agent signing was Johnathan Hankins, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal from the Giants. He fills a huge need for a defensive line that was led in snaps played last season by David Parry, who played 644 snaps and finished 110th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Hankins will take over for Parry at nose tackle and could lead them in snaps played this season. Parry, meanwhile, was arrested for DUI this off-season and is no lock to even make the Colts’ final roster, given how poorly he has played in the past 2 seasons.

The 6-2 320 pound Hankins is primarily a base package nose tackle, but can also play some in sub packages. Hankins has graded out above average against the run on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, though 2014 was the only season he graded out above average as a pass rusher. 2014 was easily the best season of his career, when he finished 7th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He finished in the top-20 at his position again in 2015, but he fell to the middle of the pack in his contract year last season. The Colts are giving him a lot of money, so they are betting the 2013 2nd round pick can bounce back and has a lot of good football still ahead of him. Given that he’s still only going into his age 25 season, it’s a bet that could pay off.

Defensive end Henry Anderson is also a candidate to lead this defensive line in snaps played. The 2015 3rd round pick has flashed in limited action in 2 seasons in the league, finishing 12th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 on 453 snaps in 9 games before tearing his ACL and then finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2016 on 308 snaps in 11 games upon his return last season. Now another year removed from the injury, Anderson could have the best season of his career in his 3rd year in the league and breakout as an every down defensive end in the Colts’ 3-4 defense.

Veteran Kendall Langford is penciled in as the 3rd starting defensive end, but he will be pushed for playing time by youngsters Hassan Ridgeway and TJ McGill, following a very disappointing 2016 season for Langford. After playing all 16 games in each of the first 8 seasons of his career, Langford was limited to 300 snaps in 7 games by injury last season and finished 125th out of 127 eligible interior defenders when on the field. Langford was largely a league average starter for the first 8 seasons of his career and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, which is why younger players will push him for playing time.

McGill flashed on 302 snaps last season, after playing 222 underwhelming snaps as a rookie in 2015. An undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off waivers from the Seahawks at final cuts during his rookie season, McGill could see a larger role in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. Ridgeway, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick by the Colts in 2016 and played 442 underwhelming snaps as a rookie. Both McGill and Ridgeway will play in rotational roles in 2017 even if Langford technically keeps the starting job. With Hankins coming in and Anderson healthy, this has the looks of a much improved defensive line, even if it’s largely by default.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Colts also have a completely new group of outside linebackers, with free agent acquisitions Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo replacing veterans Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden, a trio of 30+ year old players who are no longer with the team. Sheard, Simon, and Mingo will compete for snaps with veteran holdover Akeem Ayers and 3rd round rookie Tarell Basham. Sheard and Simon were signed to deals worth 25.5 million over 3 years and 13.5 million over 3 years respectively and are the favorites for the starting jobs.

Sheard is the biggest name was the most expensive to acquire, coming over from New England where he finished in the top-20 among 4-3 defensive ends in both seasons with the Patriots. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 5th at his position on Pro Football Focus on 558 snaps. That kind of looks like a fluke when you look at his whole career, but he’s still graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons and he has experience both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker.

In Indianapolis, he’ll be the latter and will probably see at least 600-700 snaps again, which is around what he’s used to. Still only going into his age 28 season, the 2011 2nd round pick is a solid addition for this defense, Simon is probably the better value though. The ex-Texan has graded out above average in each of the past 2 seasons and played 500+ snaps in both seasons. He could see an uptick in snaps with the Colts, after spending the last 2 seasons stuck behind Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney for snaps in Houston.

Barkevious Mingo is an upside signing, but he only played 48 snaps with the Patriots last season. Mingo was the 6th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Browns and showed his potential in 2014, finishing 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in the other 3 seasons and made just 6 starts combined in those 3 seasons. Still only going into his age 27 season, he was worth a flier on a low risk 1-year, 2 million dollar deal, but I wouldn’t expect much for him on defense.

Ayers played 360 snaps for the Colts last season and could see a similar role, after grading out slightly above average last season. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, but has never been much more than a rotational player. Rookie Tarell Basham will also be in the mix for snaps and could open the season as the top reserve with a strong off-season. Sheard and Simon will lead the way in snaps, but Mingo, Ayers, and Basham will also get shots behind them. They should get better outside linebacker play than last season.

Middle linebacker Sean Spence was also signed in free agency, coming over from the Titans on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Veteran D’Qwell Jackson, who led Colt middle linebackers in snaps played last season with 708, is gone, after struggling in his age 33 season in 2016, and Spence will compete for playing time with young linebackers Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson. A 2012 3rd round pick, Spence didn’t play at all in his first 2 seasons in the league because of a potentially career threatening knee injury. He returned to a reserve role in 2014 and has played 510 and 504 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively. Undersized at 5-11 231, Spence isn’t great against the run, but has developed into a decent coverage specialist, grading out above average in coverage in both seasons. With the Colts, he could be an every down player, which would be a first for him. He may be overmatched, but he was a decent value signing for a team that needed linebacker help.

Morrison and Jackson saw playing time down the stretch last season and will have the opportunity for more playing time in 2017, even though both were underwhelming. They finished 64th and 56th respectively among 87 eligible linebackers on 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively. For both players, it was their first career action. Morrison was a 4th round rookie, while Jackson went undrafted in 2015 and spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Neither is a good starting option. Morrison did a decent job against the run and Jackson was adequate in coverage, so it’s possible the Colts will use them in a platoon type situation, with Jackson coming in for Morrison in sub packages. Safety Clayton Geathers could also play some linebacker in sub packages at 6-2 220. Like on the defensive line, it’s an improved linebacker corps, but largely by default.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Geathers playing some linebacker makes sense on two fronts. Not only are the Colts thin at linebacker, they’re also pretty deep at safety. Despite losing veteran 15-game starter Mike Adams, safety was not seen as a pressing need for them going into the draft, with Geathers, a 2015 4th round pick, and TJ Green, a 2016 2nd round pick, penciled into the starting lineup. Geathers was Pro Football Focus 29th ranked safety last season when healthy, but missed 7 games with a number of injuries. Green started in his absence and, while he struggled mightily, he was still a high pick that was expected to get another shot in 2017.

However, no one expected Malik Hooker, the draft class’ top free safety, to fall into their laps at #15 overall. At one point, some expected Hooker to go off the board ahead of fellow safety Jamal Adams, who went 6th to the Jets, but Hooker needed off-season shoulder surgery, which probably dropped him on a few team’s boards. Still, most expected him to be a top-10 pick on draft day, but he fell into the Colts’ lap after an early unexpected run on offensive skill position players. Even though he didn’t fill a pressing need, he was too good to pass on.

When Hooker returns from his injury, he will likely start alongside Geathers, who is also nursing an injury, still coming back from the neck strain that ended his season in 2016. Hooker is expected to be back for training camp, but Geathers’ status is a little bit more uncertain, as neck injuries tend to be. He’s reportedly not a lock to return for week 1. Green will provide insurance at both spots and could come into the game in sub packages if Geathers moves to linebacker part-time. He was Pro Football Focus worst ranked safety last season on 478 snaps as a rookie, but is still only going into his age 22 season and has a high ceiling, so he could be better in 2017.

The Colts also used a 2nd round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Florida’s Quincy Wilson #46 overall. He could start as a rookie opposite #1 cornerback Vontae Davis. Prior to 2016, Davis was their best defensive player and ranked 4th, 4th, and 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. In 2016, however, he fell to a very uncharacteristic 98th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. A 1st round pick in 2009, Davis has graded out below average in just one other season in his career.

Injuries are almost definitely the culprit. Davis suffered an ankle injury before the season that he rushed back from and then later suffered a concussion and a hip injury. He only missed 2 games with injury, but he was pretty banged up all year. Still only going into his age 29 season, Davis has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. Wilson, meanwhile, will compete with Rashaan Melvin, Darryl Morris, and Darius Butler for playing time. Melvin and Morris are both 2013 undrafted free agents who graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season for the first time in their careers, doing so on 655 and 359 snaps respectively. They have just 11 and 3 career starts respectively and are both underwhelming starting options, so Wilson will probably end up as the starter sooner rather than later, even if someone like Melvin gets the first crack at the job.

Butler, meanwhile, is a pure slot cornerback. There was talk earlier this off-season that he could be moving to safety, but those plans seem to have changed with the Colts taking Hooker in the first round. Butler actually finished last season 33rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though he’s graded out below average in 6 of 9 seasons in the league and is going into his age 31 season. He’s penciled in as the slot cornerback, but could lose the job if he struggles this off-season. Along with Kendall Langford, Butler is one of just two remaining from those seven week 1 starters over 30 last season. The Colts have completely remade their defense and are much younger on that side of the ball than last season. Their secondary could be their best unit if everyone’s healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s going to take more than one off-season to rebuild this supporting cast, but the Colts’ new front office has done a good job of re-making this defense. They might not be a great unit, but they seem to be on the right track and are much younger. Offensively, they could still have issues on the offensive line and at running back, but, as long as Andrew Luck is healthy and throwing to a talented group of receivers, this passing game should be able to carry their offense once again. Luck’s health is not a guarantee though and safeties Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker are also working back from injuries. It’s concerning that they are already this banged up this early in the off-season, but they have a good chance to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and should compete for a playoff spot. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD