Polling has become incredibly difficult, so we’re flying a little blind here. These are my best guesses as to the results.

2022 Gubernatorial Races

Alabama: Kay Ivey [R] safe.

Alaska: Mike Dunleavy [R] safe.

Arizona: Kari Lake [R] safe. Note: The Cook Political Report has this race as a toss-up. It is not.

Arkansas: Sarah Huckabee Sanders [R] safe.

California: Gavin Newsom [D] safe,

Colorado: Jared Polis [D] safe.

Connecticut: Ned Lamont [D] safe.

Florida: Ron DeSantis [R] safe.

Georgia: Brian Kemp [R] safe.

Hawaii: Josh Green [D] safe.

Idaho: Brad Little [R] safe.

Illinois: J.B. Pritzker [D] safe.

Iowa: Kim Reynolds [R] safe.

Kansas: Amazing that Kansas is a toss-up, but here we are. My best guess is Derek Schmidt [R] squeaks by Laura Kelly [D].

Maine: Janet Mills [D] isn’t quite safe, but should defeat Paul LePage [R].

Maryland: Wes Moore [D] safe.

Massachusetts: Maura Healy [D] safe.

Michigan: Gretchen Whitmer [D] isn’t safe, but should defeat Tudor Dixon [R]

Minnesota: Tim Walz [DFL] safe.

Nebraska: Jim Pillen [R] safe.

Nevada: One of the hardest states to poll. I expect Joe Lombardo [R] to defeat Steve Sisolak [D].

New Hampshire: Chris Sununu [R] safe.

New Mexico: I expect Michelle Lujan Grisham [D] to defeat Mark Ronchetti [R].

New York: I expect Kathy Hochul [D] to defeat Lee Zeldin [R].

Ohio: Mike DeWine [R] safe.

Oklahoma: Kevin Stitt [R] safe.

Oregon: An open-seat toss-up. My best guess is Christine Drazan [R] defeats Tina Kotek [D].

Pennsylvania: Josh Shapiro [D] safe.

Rhode Island: Dan McKee [D] safe.

South Carolina: Henry McMaster [R] safe.

South Dakota: Kristi Noem [R] safe.

Tennessee: Bill Lee [R] safe.

Texas: Greg Abbot [R] safe.

Vermont: Phil Scott [R] safe.

Wisconsin: I expect Tim Michels [R] to defeat Tony Evers [D].

Wyoming: Mark Gordon [R] safe.

2022 Senate Races:

This is presumably why you are here. People care about their over Governor, but generally not for other states across the country. Senators though… that’s a national concern.

Alabama: Katie Britt [R] safe.

Alaska: Lisa Murkowski [R] safe.

Arizona: Betting markets have this race as a coinflip. I do not. Expect Mark Kelly [D] to defeat Blake Masters [R]. Note: Kelly is currently +105 at Pinnacle.

Arkansas: John Boozman [R] safe.

California: Alex Padilla [D] safe.

Colorado: Michael Bennet [D] safe.

Connecticut: Richard Blumenthal [D] safe.

Florida: Marco Rubio [R] safe.

Georgia: Pinnacle is currently offering +173 on Raphael Warnock [D]. I get it. Georgia has historically been a fairly safe Republican bastion. Warnock, Jon Ossoff, and Stacy Abrams did yeoman’s work to see Warnock and Ossoff defeat their GOP challengers in runoffs in 2020. Governor Brian Kemp is a lock to defeat Abrams. And yet, Herschel Walker [R] is in real trouble. Ticket-splitting is rare these days, so yes, Warnock is in a very tough race. Still, Walker has done significant damage to his reputation and has embarrassed his supporters. I expect Warnock to pull this out, either on election night, or in another runoff.

Hawaii: Brian Schatz [D] safe.

Idaho: Mike Crapo [R] safe.

Illinois: Tammy Duckworth [D] safe.

Indiana: Todd Young [R] safe.

Iowa: Chuck Grassley [R] safe.

Kansas: Jerry Moran [R] safe.

Kentucky: Rand Paul [R] safe.

Louisiana: John Kennedy [R] safe.

Maryland: Chris Van Hollen [D] safe.

Missouri: Eric Schmitt [R] safe.

Nevada: Catherine Cortez Masto [D] is a sizable underdog to Adam Laxalt [R]. Pinnacle is currently offering +320 that she wins reelection. I agree she’s the underdog. I expect a Laxalt victory.

New Hampshire: Maggie Hassan [D] isn’t safe, but should defeat Don Bolduc [R]

New York: Chuck Schumer [D] safe.

North Carolina: Ted Budd [R] safe.

North Dakota: John Hoeven [R] safe.

Ohio: J.D. Vance [R] safe.

Oklahoma: James Lankford [R] safe.

Oregon: Ron Wyden [D] safe.

Pennsylvania: Pinnacle has John Fetterman [D] at +139. I’m guessing the debate performance did not help him. However, I was in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago and I want to note something. Driving through Trump country there were plenty of Trump signs and Mastriano signs. There may have been one or two Oz signs. Oz isn’t beloved by the hard-core GOP base the way Mastriano is. And yet, Mastriano is a sizable underdog while Oz is the slight favorite. I suspect there are a number of Oz supporters who find Mastriano unpalatable. Additionally, Josh Shapiro is a very strong candidate. Ultimately, I expect Fetterman to pull this out. His base likes him more than Dr. Mehmet Oz’s base likes Oz. Polling is a nightmare these days, so I’m going to trust (gulp) enthusiasm. My lying eyes tell me Fetterman takes this.

South Carolina: Tim Scott [R] safe.

South Dakota: John Thune [R] safe.

Utah: Mike Lee [R] safe.

Vermont: Peter Welch [D] safe.

Washington:: Patty Murray [D] safe.

Wisconsin: Ron Johnson [R] safe.

With a GOP pickup in Nevada and a Democratic pickup in Pennsylvania, the Senate would remain 50-50, and thus under Democratic control. Pinnacle has a Democratic Senate at +265. I have the D’s sweeping Georgia/Pennsylvania/Arizona. They are underdogs in all three, particularly Georgia. Realistically, the expectation has to be the GOP takes at least 51 seats, but I stand by my calls in each of the individual races. Think of it this way. If you had to roll three six-sided dice, no single die will expect to roll a five or six, but the odds of at least one of the dice having a five or six is 19 out of 27. Dems need to pull off the unlikely sweep.

2022 House Election:

I’m not going to go over individual races. My expectation is GOP 230 seats, Dem 205 seats.

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Bill Barnwell has returned with his Five Teams Most Likely to Improve and Five Teams Most Likely to Decline yearly columns. Let’s see how his projections have faired over the past three seasons vs. market prices:

2021:

TeamLineRiskedTo WinResult
Buffalo BillsU11.51.111
San Francisco 49ersO10.51.11-1.1
Cleveland BrownsU10.51.0511
Tennessee TitansU9.511-1
Green Bay PackersU10.511.2-1
Jacksonville Jaguarso61.21-1.2
Philadelphia Eagleso711.151.15
Kansas City ChiefsU12.51.111
Atlanta FalconsO7.51.11-1.1
Denver Broncoso91.051-1.05
Net Result-2.3

Hmm. 4-6. Some close calls, but that’s to be expected. How about 2020?

TeamLineRiskedTo WinResult
Detroit Lionso711.1-1
Dallas Cowboyso101.21-1.2
Cincinnati BengalsO5.51.41-1.4
Los Angeles Chargerso81.151-1.15
Green Bay Packersu91.31-1.3
Seattle Seahawksu911.1-1
Houston TexansU7.5111
New Orleans SaintsU10.51.131-1.13
Net Result-7.18

Yeah, it was ugly. 1-7. :/

2019?

TeamLineRiskedTo WinResult
Carolina Pantherso81.111-1.11
Dallas Cowboysu91.211
Los Angeles ChargersU10.51.3711
Los Angeles RamsU10.51.4611
Miami DolphinsU4.511.05-1
New Orleans Saintsu101.111-1.11
New York Giantso611.38-1
New York JetsO7.511.04-1
San Francisco 49ersO8.511.051.05
Tampa Bay BuccaneersO6.5111
Net Result-0.17

5-5. Just a slight loss of vig.

So far over the past three seasons Barnwell has gone 10-18 for a loss of 9.65 units. Back into the breach my friends!

TeamLineRiskedTo WinResult
Billso12110
Lionso711.050
JaguarsO6.51.110
RavensO10.511.050
BroncosO9.51.310
SteelersU7.511.050
Packersu1111.150
FalconsU4.511.150
RaidersU8.511.20
Titansu91.210

All prices are from Circa. Best of luck Mr. Barnwell.

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

AFC North:

Kansas City Chiefs: 11-6

Los Angeles Chargers: 11-6

Denver Broncos: 10-7

Las Vegas Raiders: 8-9

Denver Broncos:

2021 Record: 7-10

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 9.80

DVOA Wins: 9.0

FPI Wins: 9.60

Market Wins: 9.80

Implied Pythag: 61.00%

Embrace the variance, Broncos fans. Glib, I know. It’s what the team signed up for when they traded for quarterback Russell Wilson. On the plus side, it will be nice to have a deep passing attack in Denver again:

2019: 4,110 yards, 31 TD, 5 INT, 6.8 NY/P, 24.3% DVOA, 1,298 DYAR

2020: 4,212 yards, 40 TD, 13 INT, 6.4 NY/P, 8.1% DVOA, 872 DYAR

2021: 3,113 yards, 25 TD, 6 INT, 6.6 NY/P, 7.5% DVOA, 525 DYAR (in 14 games)

Three years ago, Wilson was elite. Two years ago, he was dominant early in the season, but after a few interceptions spooked the coaching staff, they reined him in. Last year, Wilson played hurt and it showed. Note: During all of this time he was protected by one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Wilson takes a lot of sacks.

Wilson is not blameless in that regard, as he tries to make big plays downfield. Wilson is comfortable holding the ball and waiting for his receiver to break open. That doesn’t excuse Seattle’s offensive line for missing a shitload of blocks. They simply weren’t very good and that’s a major reason why he wanted out of Seattle. Now he’s free to cook in Denver.

Wilson’s presence will give Courtland Sutton, 2020 first-round pick Jerry Juedy, and 2020 second-round pick K.J. Hamler a new opportunity to prove themselves. I would have included Tim Patrick on that list, but he’s out for the season with a torn ACL. Let’s look at Sutton first:

2019: 72 receptions, 1,112 yards, +1.1 +/-, 5.7% DVOA, 189 DYAR

2021: 58 receptions, 776 yards, +3.0 +/-, 3.7% DVOA, 131 DYAR

Sutton missed almost all of 2020 with a torn ACL. An occupational hazard. Sutton is a natural deep threat and his skills perfectly mesh with what Wilson wants to do. This should be his breakout season.

Jerry Jeudy had a rough rookie campaign. Things improved somewhat last year:

2020: 52 receptions, 856 yards, -13.3 +/-, -22.9% DVOA, -92 DYAR

2021: 38 receptions, 467 yards, +3.0 +/-, 0.0% DVOA, 53 DYAR (in ten games)

It helped that he cut his drop rate in half. With Wilson in town, it’s put up or shut up time for Jeudy. Jeudy looked like an elite threat coming out of college. A third year breakout and his past indiscretions will be forgiven.

Patrick’s injury opens the door for K.J. Hamler:

2020-21: 35 receptions, 455 yards, -6.7 +/-, -20.1% DVOA, -38 DYAR (in 16 games)

Hamler has suffered through hamstring and knee injuries. That doesn’t excuse his poor play. He presents a small catch radius and has had drop issues since college. He’s dropped 11% of the passes sent his way in Denver, which does not endear you to your quarterback or the coaching staff. Hamler will need to earn Wilson’s trust.

Rookie fifth-round pick Montrell Washington is a return specialist who might eat into Hamler’s playing time.

2020 fourth-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam has been promoted to #1TE:

2021: 33 receptions, 330 yards, +3.0 +/-, -1.0% DVOA, 16 DYAR (in 14 games)

Russell Wilson never played with the departed Noah Fant, so at least he won’t miss him. If Okwuegbunam is ready for his close-up, he’ll get plenty of opportunities.

Rookie third-round pick Greg Dulcuich is the new #2TE:

Greg Dulcich: Dulcich would be a very slow wide receiver, so let’s focus on his solid athleticism for a somewhat undersized tight end. Over the past two seasons he’s been fairly productive for UCLA:

2020/21: 107 targets, 68 receptions, 1,242 yards, 10 TD, 0.56 points-per-target, 11.6 yards-per-target

He could have been even more productive if not for six drops in 2021.

He’s not much of a blocker, particularly in-line. This is an area he might improve in with more practice, but the power is going to be limited by his size.

Dulcich’s main value will come out of the slot as a tough cover for a linebacker or a nickel cornerback. He has an enormous catch radius, so if he cuts down on the drops he’ll become a trusted target for his quarterback. He also has some explosiveness to his game that’s hard to find at the position. I am okay snagging him around the middle of day two onward.

Given the lack of WR depth, look for plenty of 2TE sets.

2021 second-round pick Javonte Williams will split time with Melvin Gordon. Williams had a productive rookie campaign:

2021: 256 squid, 1,219 yards, -5.9% DVOA, 46 DYAR

Having a real quarterback should help open up holes for Williams.

Melvin Gordon was remarkably average last season:

2021: 241 squid, 1,131 yards, 0.0% DVOA, 103 DYAR (in 16 games)

Williams has more upside and will likely receive more playing time this season.

Left tackle Garrett Bolles was mediocre last season. So was 2019 second-round pick left guard Dalton Risner. At this point, Russell Wilson will settle for mediocrity on his blind side.

2020 third-round pick center Lloyd Cushenberry was lousy last season. There’s been some evidence this preseason that he’s gotten his shit together. Or it could all be smoke. We’ll see.

2021 third-round pick right guard Quinn Meinerz struggled last season. Hopefully, he’ll be better with a year of seasoning.

Free-agent pickup Billy Turner will start at right tackle. I thought it was a nice pickup, as he finished seventh in my rankings last year.

Free-agent pickup Tom Compton provides decent depth.

(Update: Or not. Compton is starting the season on the PUP list.)

The pairing of Bradley Chubb and Von Miller didn’t pan out for Denver last season. Chubb battled injuries and managed zero sacks in seven games. Von Miller was traded to Los Angeles for draft picks. Chubb had 7.5 sacks back in 2020 (39 hits+hurries). He’s in his fifth-year option season and is playing for a new contract.

Chubb will start across from premium free-agent pickup Randy Gregory (six sacks, 35 hits+hurries). Rookie second-round pick Nik Bonitto will join the edge rotation:

Nik Bonitto: Great athlete, albeit undersized. 15 sacks over his past two seasons (21 games). Phenomenal pressure rate. SackSEER likes him a bit. I loved his film. Absolutely loved it. Flies off the snap. Puts the offensive tackle on the back foot from the get-go. Adept at slicing inside or turning the corner off the edge. I’m convinced he has what it takes to get to the quarterback at the next level.

Active hands to bat the ball down if stopped at the line of scrimmage. Does a nice job of swiping to produce fumbles. Won’t be able to hold the point of attack against the running game. He’s a true pass-rush specialist.

The lack of versatility might hurt Bonitto’s draft stock. He’s not a three-down linebacker. But what an addition to your pass-rush rotation! He’s got the skills teams need. I’d be fine with using a late first-round pick on Bonitto. He’s something special.

Denver should be a perfect fit for Bonitto.

2019 third-round pick defensive end Dre’Mont Jones (5.5 sacks, 31 hits+hurries) will join defensive tackle DeShawn Williams and free-agent pickup nose tackle D.J. Jones on the defensive line. Jones is a quality run-stuffer.

Rookie fourth-round pick Eyioma Uwazurike and rookie sixth-round pick Matt Henningsen will provide depth. I love the idea that Henningsen got 10 yards into his 40-yard dash and said, “Fuck it, I’m out.” The film suggests he’s a pretty hard worker.

Uwazurike impressed at Iowa State. He’s a big dude who’s played along the defensive line. He should provide some special teams value as well.

Inside linebacker Josey Jewell is coming back from a torn pectoral. Pre-injury, he was a quality performer. The Broncos have a few choices on whom to pair Jewell with. One option is Jonas Griffith. He impressed in limited usage last season.

Another option is budget free-agent pickup Alex Singleton. I thought Singleton did a poor job in 2021, and would lean towards giving Griffith a shot.

There’s also the option of starting 2021 third-round pick Baron Browning. I suspect Browning is a more natural fit at edge, where he can provide depth.

2021 first-round pick #1CB Patrick Surtain was absolutely awesome last season. His four interceptions only tells part of the story. He was a monster, which is quite rare for rookie cornerbacks. If he continues to improve he could be one of the best defensive players in the league.

#2CB Ronald Darby had a rough season. It’s not going to get easier, as offenses will prefer to target whichever receiver Surtain isn’t covering.

Free-agent pickup K’Waun Williams is a natural slot defender. He’s coming off of a rough season, though.

Rookie fourth-round pick Damarri Mathis is probably the long-term option here. He was a flag-magnet at Pittsburgh. 2020 third-round pick Michael Ojemudia just suffered a dislocated elbow, so Mathis will get a chance to develop as the dime cornerback.

Ojemudia missed almost all of last season with a serious hamstring injury. When healthy, he’s looked like a potential impact player.

Free safety Justin Simmons did his job quite well last season. Five interceptions tells part of the story. I was impressed at the job he did as the last line of defense.

Strong safety Kareem Jackson played through nagging injuries last season. It affected his performance. I would have considered bringing in a potential replacement. Rookie fifth-round pick Delarrin Turner-Yell is fast but undersized. He’ll likely make his impact on special teams.

The Broncos’ kick return coverage unit was awful in 2020. Last season, it took a huge step backward. Hard to believe, I know. Given the high number of touchbacks in Denver, it’s possible they were the worst coverage unit in NFL history. I have no way of verifying that. I just want to raise the possibility.

Usually, poor units come down to a lack of athleticism on the back end of the roster. Some of it can be coaching (or lack thereof). The Broncos were probably somewhat unlucky as well. Whatever the case may be, this is something that the coaching staff (and the GM) needs to solve.

The return units were lousy as well (just not historically bad). Rookie fifth-round pick Montrell Washington will try to help out there, handling both kickoffs and punts.

Corliss Waitman has defeated incumbent Sam Martin in a training camp battle for the punter job. Waitman has a strong leg and should be fun to watch in Denver.

Kicker Brandon McManus is solid.

Usually when we break down a football team into three units we think of offense, defense, and special teams. It might be a useful thought experiment to break it down into four units, with quarterback being a unit all on its own. Going from Teddy Bridgewater to Russell Wilson is a huge upgrade and it turns the Broncos into dark horse contenders.

It’s fair to ask if Wilson will return to his elite peak level of play. How well the offensive line performs will have a considerable effect on that. So will the play of his talented but thin receiver corps. No quarterback is an island.

Defensively, the Broncos will need more from Chubb. Acquiring Gregory will help. D.J. Jones should strengthen what had been a poor run defense. The Broncos’ defense should be a bit better this season.

The special teams should be MUCH better if only due to regression to the mean.

Brutal AFC West games aside, Denver’s schedule isn’t that bad. I expect the Broncos to capitalize and return to the playoffs. Let’s see what Russ can cook up at altitude in Denver. 10-7.

Kansas City Chiefs

2021 Record: 12-5

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 9.79

DVOA Wins: 9.0

FPI Wins: 9.45

Market Wins: 10.72

Implied Pythag: 69.23%

Sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation. #1WR Tyreek Hill wanted to get paid. The Chiefs couldn’t match his price, so they traded him to the Miami Dolphins for a basket of draft picks. Had I been the Chiefs GM, I would have done the same.

The problem is there’s now a Tyreek Hill-sized hole in the Chiefs’ WR corps. It wasn’t just his production (111 receptions, 1,239 yards, 11.6% DVOA, 313 DYAR). Defenses had to play soft to limit the damage Hill could do. That opened up holes for other receivers, such as the departed Byron Pringle (42 receptions, 568 yards, 29.6% DVOA, 202 DYAR). Losing Hill causes a cascade effect that will force quarterback Patrick Mahomes to work harder:

2019: 4,031 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT, 7.8 NY/P, 30.0% DVOA, 1386 DYAR (in 14 games)

2020: 4,740 yards, 38 TD, 6 INT, 7.5 NY/P, 31.7% DVOA, 1764 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 4,839 yards, 37 TD, 13 INT, 6.8 NY/P, 18.6% DVOA, 1,452 DYAR

Mahomes’s performance declined a bit last year. Part of it was defenses adjusting to what the Chiefs wanted to do. Part of it was some poor turnover luck. Mahomes will have to play on All-Madden difficulty this season. Let’s look at his new WR corps. Meet free-agent pickup Marquez Valdes-Scantling:

2021: 26 receptions, 430 yards, -4.5 +/-, -14.6% DVOA, -8 DYAR (in 11 games)

Marquez produced 91 DYAR over the past three seasons in Green Bay. That’s… not great.

The Chiefs also acquired a new slot receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster:

2020: 97 receptions, 831 yards, +4.7 +/-, -10.0% DVOA, 28 DYAR

2021: 15 receptions, 129 yards, -2.6 +/-, -34.7% DVOA, -47 DYAR (in five games)

I’m going to cut Juju some slack for his 2021 performance. What we saw from him in 2020 suggests he’s a fungible slot receiver. I’m sure his numbers will improve now that he’s working with Mahomes and not the decrepit corpse of Ben Roethlisberger.

The Chiefs added one more new target for Mahomes via the draft, rookie second-round pick Skyy Moore:

Skyy Moore: Small and fast. Produced for Central Michigan:

2021: 133 targets, 95 receptions, 1,292 yards, 10 TD, 0.43 points-per-target, 9.7 yards-per-target

One drop last season. His cuts are marvelous. Aggressive run blocker. Between his hands and his agility, I have confidence Moore will be an effective slot receiver. He has more upside than his numbers might suggest. He’s still learning the position. He switched to wide receiver as a true freshman and proceeded to make the All-MAC First Team. Dude is still getting better.

I’d be fine using a late round two pick on Moore. I truly believe he will find success at the next level.

Moore will have a great opportunity to make an immediate impact.

There’s one holdover, 2019 second-round pick Mecole Hardman:

2020: 41 receptions, 560 yards, -0.4 +/-, 6.4% DVOA, 90 DYAR

2021: 59 receptions, 693 yards, +1.0 +/-, 5.2% DVOA, 121 DYAR

The book on Hardman was that he had a fairly limited route tree. That’s proven the case in Kansas City over the past three years. He’s going to have to show an ability to expand beyond that this season.

The Chiefs new #1WR is #1TE Travis Kelce:

2020: 105 receptions, 1,416 yards, +8.9 +/-, 35.7% DVOA, 415 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 92 receptions, 1,125 yards, +2.1 +/-, 21.2% DVOA, 257 DYAR

As with the rest of the receiver corps, Kelce will miss the space that Hill opened up. I trust he’ll do his job. His efficiency will likely drop a bit.

I should probably take a minute to explain what Tyreek Hill meant to the Chiefs’ offense. With Hill, safeties generally played back, opening up space underneath. That created opportunities for Kelce (and other receivers) to work 1-on-1 with little safety help. I expect to see the strong safety work closer to the line in 2022.

Having a strong safety in the box will also affect the Chiefs’ running game. 2020 first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Halaire has yet to live up to his draft status:

2021: 142 squid, 646 yards, 5.9% DVOA, 104 DYAR (in ten games)

He played through illness and injury. He should be healthy now. A word of warning: fumbles might put his butt back on the bench.

It would bring me great joy if rookie seventh-round pick speed score king Isaih Pacheco ended up making a bigger impact on the offense than CEH. Taking running backs in the first round is bad and the Chiefs should feel bad. Pacheco will get a chance to return kicks. A nice performance there could endear himself to the coaching staff.

Jerick McKinnon (33 squid, 169 yards, 17.4% DVOA, 49 squid in 13 games) and free-agent pickup Ronald Jones will be in the mix as well. McKinnon was phenomenal in the playoffs FWIW. As for Jones, he under-performed in Tampa and will try and rejuvenate his career.

It was a pretty good season for left tackle Orlando Brown. He earned a Pro Bowl appearance and, more importantly, he finished 12th in my rankings.

Left guard Joe Thuney was solid as well.

2021 second-round pick Creed Humphrey finished fourth in my rankings. That’s a tremendous accomplishment for a rookie. His presence helped stabilize the line.

2021 sixth-round pick right guard Trey Smith struggled. That’s to be expected for rookies. The key is that he builds on his performance.

Right tackle Andrew Wylie was the weak link on the line, finishing 44th in my rankings. He’s a replacement-level backup being pressed into starting duty. Rookie fifth-round pick Darian Kinnard looks like his eventual replacement:

Darian Kinnard: When you have the size and length teams covet, you don’t have to sweat the other stuff. The question for Kinnard is whether he’s a tackle or a guard. He’s a dominant run blocker. He’s been able to hold his own at right tackle in the SEC. Moving inside would mitigate some of his weaknesses in pass protection while leveraging his strength inside. However, it’s not just a downgrade of difficulty.

Moving inside to guard entails learning some new skills. Tackles don’t have to coordinate with the center on interior blocking. Kinnard’s enormous wingspan is less of an asset on the inside. He’ll have the power he needs to succeed whatever position he plays. The question is whether he’ll be able to handle pass protection on the outside.

I watched extra film of Kinnard to try and solve this question and I think I have my answer. He may take some time to develop, but I’d draft him with the expectation that he’d play right tackle for me. He has tremendous upside and can provide much more value on the outside. Also, run blocking aside, I think that’s a more natural position for him in the long run.

I don’t want to call Kinnard a project, as he’s played right tackle in the SEC for years. Let’s say he needs a bit of polish. Late second round value for me.

Note: Here’s his OT RAS grade.

2020 third-round pick Lucas Niang will start the season on the PUP list. He hasn’t impressed when healthy.

Overall, this isn’t a bad offensive line. Improved play on the right side would go a long way.

Giving up Hill allowed the Chiefs to reload their defense. They traded up in the first round to grab cornerback Trent McDuffie. They used a second first-round pick on defensive end George Karlaftis. They used their second second-round pick on safety Bryan Cook. That’s not a bad haul and should pay long-term dividends. Here’s what I wrote about Karlaftis before the draft:

George Karlaftis: A lot of chatter around Karlaftis. Solid combine. SackSEER sees him as just a bit behind the top prospects. He had 7.5 sacks his freshman year. Only 4.5 sacks his junior year before declaring for the NFL draft. Did he regress?

No.

Offenses knew he was the man they needed to block. Karlaftis may have broken the 2.0 barrier (average number of blockers faced per play). He regularly saw double teams with a third guy keeping an eye on him. The rest of the Purdue pass rush was LOL. Despite that, Karlaftis did a good job generating pressure, if not sacks. He’ll face better blocking in the NFL, but fewer blockers. A fair trade.

Karlaftis was generally strong against the run. He was able to stand his ground. However, his role was to attack, so in general he didn’t maintain lane integrity to shut down the run. I anticipate he’ll be able to do whatever his coaches ask of him at the next level.

I was initially skeptical of Karlaftis’s high praise. I changed my tune when I saw that he was playing on hard mode. I’m buying in. He’s my edge#5 and a top 20 value. If there’s a run on edges, I wouldn’t fault a team for taking him in the top 15.

Karlaftis will join Frank Clark (4.5 sacks, 41 hits+hurries) and free-agent pickup Carlos Dunlap (8.5 sacks, 26 hits+hurries) in the edge rotation. 2020 fifth-round pick Michael Danna (three sacks, 21 hits+hurries) will provide depth. 2021 fourth-round pick Joshua Kaindoh is the wildcard here. He missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury. He was always going to be a project. With a year of seasoning, he might be able to make an impact.

Defensive tackles Chris Jones (nine sacks, 49 hits+hurries) and Derrick Nnadi (three sacks, six hits+hurries will start on the defensive line. Jones has continued to play at an All Pro level. Nnadi is just a guy. Tershawn Wharton and 2019 third-round pick Khalen Sounders will provide depth.

2021 second-round pick Nick Bolton had a fine season. His upside is an inside linebacker you can trust to do his job. He’ll be paired with 2020 second-round pick Willie Gay in the base 4-2-5 defense. Gay has failed to impress in two seasons. Rookie third-round pick Leo Chenal might see limited usage:

Leo Chenal: Holy shit! Apparently there was a reason Chenal had eight sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, and 111 tackles. Excellent at attacking the line of scrimmage. Has the power to hold his ground.

His vision and recognition still need improvement. Clearly was guessing vs. various blocking schemes.

His coverage skills are surprisingly raw. Not much man-to-man work. Basic zone skills. With this kind of size and athleticism he should be able to match up vs. larger tight ends and lock them down. Alternatively, he could level up his zone coverage skills.

Having said all of that, his best use in the passing game is rushing the quarterback. Chenal is a premium blitzer who has high upside in this area.

Until his coverage skills improve, he’s not a three-down linebacker. Those should come. Alternatively, his pass-rush skills could end up keeping him on the field. Chenal doesn’t have first-round versatility. I’m fine snagging him in the second.

The Honey Badger went home to New Orleans. Free-agent pickup Justin Reid is replacing him. They cost roughly similar amounts. This looks like a move where the Chiefs wanted to get younger and avoid any age-related decline. Reid has had trouble staying healthy. If he can play a full season, I’m sure the Chiefs will be happy with their purchase.

Reid will be joining Juan Thornhill. Thornhill has a bad habit of getting in Andy Reid’s doghouse. That might explain why the Chiefs reached for rookie second-round pick Bryan Cook:

Bryan Cook: Couldn’t run at the combine, as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. This is a case where it may end up hurting his draft stock; there are questions about his agility and raw athleticism.

He did a fine job for Cincinnati last season (two interceptions on 27 targets). Had some weaknesses deep. It’s not clear if they were a case of bad angles or limited closing speed.

Very good at attacking short-to-midrange routes. Excellent reaction speed to action happening in front of him. Solid tackler. Knows how to attack the running game.

Had he been a healthy scratch at the combine it would have counted against him. Given the medical issue, teams will have to take their best guess. I’ll stick with my grade and say a late round three value.

For now Cook and budget free-agent pickup Deon Bush will provide depth.

Rookie first-round pick Trent McDuffie is joining an underwhelming cornerback unit:

Trent McDuffie: Allowed -0.38 points-per-target over his career at Washington (84 targets). Excellent athlete. Patient in coverage. Will let the WR declare first and trust his athleticism to stay tight. Not particularly physical. Opposite of a ball hawk (ball dove?).

Size and length may prove problematic at the next level. Larger receivers will be able to box him out and win 50-50 balls. I trust him to be able to stay tight, which may prove to be more valuable in the slot or against #2WR’s.

Aggressive in the running game. Clearly wasn’t afraid of contact. Did a nice job returning punts and may prove to be a valuable special teams contributor in coverage as well.

May be able to develop into a quality zone cornerback. His vision and reaction time could mitigate his lack of length.

McDuffie should be able to hold down a starting job at the next level. I’m just not sold on him as #1CB. High floor safe(ish) first-round pick. My #4CB (presuming good medicals for the top three).

McDuffie will start across from 2019 sixth-round pick Rashad Fenton. Fenton hasn’t impressed me with his coverage skills. Where he has impressed me is with his tackling. It’s exceptional.

2020 fourth-round pick L’Jarius Sneed will start in the slot. He did a decent job there last season.

Rookie fourth-round pick Joshua Williams and seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson will provide depth. Williams has a good mix of size and speed. It’s a large jump from division II to the NFL. He’ll need some time to adjust. Jaylen Watson is likely the more polished player right now and should be able to contribute (as a backup) immediately.

Placekicker Harrison Butker is quite good. Punter Tommy Townsend did a fine job last season. He made a name for himself with some trickery. The Chiefs’ coverage units are solid.

Rookie Isaih Pacheco will take over the kick return responsibilities, with an assist from fellow rookie Skyy Moore. Mecole Hardman looks to have kept the punt return job, although Moore is an option there as well. Overall, the Chiefs’ special teams should give them a slight edge.

There’s been a lot of roster turnover in Kansas City. The offense will have to adjust to life without Tyreek Hill. Defensively, there’s been an influx of young talent. One issue is that the schedule has gone from hard to ridiculously hard. When you look position by position and game by game, the Chiefs look like they are in a rough spot.

There are two reasons to be optimistic about the Chiefs’ chances. One is head coach Andy Reid. He remains one of the best coaches in the NFL. The other is quarterback Patrick Mahomes. I have Mahomes as the best quarterback in the league. Having a quality coach and an elite quarterback is a great pairing. I’m going to trust them to outperform their projections. 11-6.

Las Vegas Raiders:

2021 Record: 10-7

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 8.97

DVOA Wins: 8.5

FPI Wins: 8.85

Market Wins: 8.71

Implied Pythag: 56.12%

Let’s turn back the clock to January 9th. The Raiders are hosting the Chargers. It’s an unusual situation because both teams will make the playoffs with a tie. Strange incentives make for strange results. The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t care who wins. They just need someone to do so. By all appearances, both teams are playing it straight. With 8:23 left in the fourth quarter the Raiders kick a field goal to extend their lead to 29-14. They still have that lead when the Chargers have 4th and 21 from the Raiders’ 23 yard line.

Heroics ensued.

That link above has everything that happens from that point on. It culminated in a 35-32 Raiders victory on a last second 47-yard field goal in overtime. Absurd drama.

All of that somewhat obscures the fact that the Raiders were a lousy team. They were outscored by 65 points over the course of the season, finishing 21st in DVOA.

Quarterback Derek Carr is now considered the worst starting quarterback in the division:

2019: 4,054 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT, 7.2 NY/P, 18.7% DVOA, 1,015 DYAR

2020: 4,103 yards, 27 TD, 9 INT, 7.3 NY/P, 14.0% DVOA, 928 DYAR

2021: 4,804 yards, 23 TD, 14 INT, 6.9 NY/P, 9.5% DVOA, 861 DYAR

Perhaps we’re seeing a gradual decline from Carr. Still, if he’s the worst quarterback in your division, the division is stacked. He’s going to have a new #1WR to work with, as the Raiders traded for Devante Adams:

2020: 115 receptions, 1,374 yards, +13.6 +/-, 19.7% DVOA, 395 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 123 receptions, 1,553 yards, +13.6 +/-, 17.6% DVOA, 423 DYAR (in 16 games)

Aaron Rodgers might be especially cranky this season without Adams around.

Adams gives Carr an elite target and a legitimate deep threat. Carr likes to work deep. If your receivers can’t generate separation, it looks a little bit like the “draw DPI offense.” Adding Adams should pay immediate dividends.

2019 fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow is the clear #2WR:

2020: 56 receptions, 656 yards, +1.8 +/-, -3.2% DVOA, 59 DYAR

2021: 103 receptions, 1,038 yards, +14.6 +/-, 14.1% DVOA, 269 DYAR

Renfrow works almost exclusively from the slot. The Raiders don’t have a clear #3WR. Right now it looks like free-agent pickup Mack Hollins will get the job (14 receptions, 223 yards, 9.2% DVOA, 50 DYAR). There is not a lot of depth here.

Given the situation with the WR corps, look for #1TE Darren Waller to be the true #3WR:

2019: 90 receptions, 1,145 yards, +9.5 +/-, 22.0% DVOA, 234 DYAR

2020: 107 receptions, 1,196 yards, +8.5 +/-, 11.4% DVOA, 190 DYAR

2021: 55 receptions, 665 yards, -4.8, -9.1% DVOA, -12 DYAR (in 11 games)

Waller dealt with knee and back issues last season. When healthy, he remains a respected downfield threat.

New head coach Josh McDaniels has historically been comfortable with 2TE sets. The paucity of wide receivers suggests #2TE 2019 fourth-round pick Foster Moreau should see a fair amount of playing time:

2021: 30 receptions, 373 yards, +0.3 +/-, 1.6% DVOA, 26 DYAR

The Raiders declined 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs’s fifth-year option. Producing 164 DYAR in 43 games (-5.3% DVOA) didn’t cut it. He’ll lead a committee, along with free-agent pickup Brandon Bolden (93 squid, 631 yards, 22.5% DVOA, 164 DYAR) and rookie fourth-round pick Zamir White:

Zamir White: Dude’s fast. His combination of size and power made him tough to tackle head on. Defenders found success taking his legs out from under him. Major medical red flag due to a history of torn ACLs in both knees. Georgia used him in a committee role.

Frankly, for a five star recruit who starred at Georgia, I was expecting more from White. His film was good. Not great, just good.

White has the body to be decent in pass protection. He needs to develop better technique. Mediocre receiver out of the backfield. I’d like to see him in space up against safeties and cornerbacks, but his hands and skill-set didn’t allow for that to happen regularly.

White has size and speed, so put him near the top of the fungible pile. Day three pick.

Left tackle Kolton Miller finished fifth in my positional rankings. He’s a dependable blocker.

2020 fourth-round pick left guard John Simpson struggled last year. The Raiders hope it was just a step in his development.

Center Andre James did a solid job, finishing in the top ten of my positional rankings.

The Raiders waved 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood. Leatherwood was a reach who turned into a disaster. Lester Cotton has spent a fair amount of time on the Raiders’ practice squad. It looks like he’ll get the chance to start while rookie third-round pick Dylan Parham develops:

Dylan Parham: Originally a tight end, then a guard, then a tackle, then a guard again, and finally a center at the Senior Bowl. Probably could play fullback with proper training. Athletic, albeit a tad undersized. He impressed me with his awareness. Even if he lost at the point of attack, he’d do a great job of preventing the defender from cashing in. The expectation is that he doesn’t have the power to play guard in the NFL. It’s tough for me to grade him at a position he’s barely played. I will say his size and weight is less of a concern at center.

Given his history, my guess is he’ll be able to adapt. Also, this is a fairly shallow center class, so if teams have faith he’ll be able to make the switch, he should be off the board early day three (if not sooner.) I would red flag him and keep him off my board.

Jermaine Eluemunor did an excellent job in limited usage last season. He’ll start at right tackle.

There’s not a lot of quality depth here. Let’s hope for good health, especially for Kolton Miller.

The Raiders have upgraded their pass-rush. 2019 fourth-round pick defensive end Maxx Crosby (eight sacks, 71 hits+hurries) will start across from premium free-agent pickup Chandler Jones (10.5 sacks, 40 hits+hurries).

Pass-rush depth might be an issue. 2019 first-round pick Clelin Ferrell has eight career sacks. That didn’t impress the Raiders, as they passed on picking up his fifth-year option. Budget free-agent pickup Tashawn Bower has two sacks in four seasons. 2021 fourth-round pick Malcolm Koonce had two sacks in five games in his rookie campaign. 48 total snaps if you’re curious. There aren’t many men ahead of him on the depth chart, so he should get more snaps this season.

Run stuffing nose-tackle Jonathan Hankins will pair with free agent pickup defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (three sacks, 21 hits+hurries) inside. Nichols was a nice pickup IMHO.

Rookie fourth-round pick Neil Farrell Jr. and fifth-round pick Matthew Butler will provide depth:

Matthew Butler: Mixed bag at the combine. His film backs up the lack of agility. Wins with a quick first move off the snap. High effort player who takes few plays off. Managed five sacks and 35 hits+hurries last year despite not having any premium pass-rush moves. Hard to fool, as he has good field awareness and vision.

I expect Butler to hold his own in a 4-3 system. His pass-rush skills will improve in time. His film and positional value say he’s an early day-three selection. I will say that I liked his effort and expect he’ll reward whoever drafts him.

Farrell Jr. was a good sport for doing the drills at the combine. He’s a solid nose tackle prospect.

2021 third-round pick Divine Deablo will pair with middle linebacker Denzel Perryman to form the second line of defense in the Raiders base 4-2-5 defense. Perryman is a dependable veteran. Deablo failed to impress in limited usage last season.

Budget free-agent pickup Jayon Brown will provide depth.

(Note: Divine Deablo is a cool name.)

The Raiders traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (ten sacks, 48 hits+hurries) to the Indianapolis Colts for 2019 second-round pick cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. That saved the Raiders $12M and improved their secondary. I should note that offenses saved their double teams for Maxx Crosby. Ngakoue benefited from Crosby’s presence. Crosby and Chandler Jones will each benefit from the other’s presence.

As for Rock Ya-Sin, he’s been solid in Indianapolis. He’ll start across from… Hrm. I’m not sure I know the answer to this.

My best guess is 2021 fifth-round pick Nate Hobbs. Hobbs had a rough time working out of the slot last season. He could be moved to the outside to make room for 2020 fourth-round pick Amik Robertson. Robertson had a solid training camp, playing his way off of the roster bubble. He could be the nickelback, with Hobbs being the new #2CB.

(Update: That’s the plan the Raiders are going with.)

Free-agent pickup Anthony Averett will be in the mix as well. Opponents went after Averett last season in Baltimore. He held his own, grabbing three interceptions. He’ll provide nice depth if he doesn’t win a starting job.

The Raiders are set at safety. 2019 first-round pick strong safety Johnathan Abram did not have his fifth-year option picked up. He’ll be playing for a new contract. It would help if he could impress the new regime with improved coverage skills. He’s spend a fair amount of time in the box providing run support. It’s a contract year, so expect to see his best effort.

Abram will pair with 2021 second-round pick Tre’von Moehrig. Moehrig looked good playing deep centerfield last season. He makes up for his athletic limitations with quick play recognition. He’ll never be an elite tackler, which limits his usage in the box.

Free-agent pickup Duron Harmon will provide depth.

Punter A.J. Cole earned his All-Pro award last season. Better coverage units would have made him a dominant weapon.

Placekicker Daniel Carlson was weak on kickoffs, excellent otherwise. The Raiders will take that. This is another area where improved coverage units could make a big difference.

Hunter Renfrow is mediocre returning punts. I’d like to see the Raiders give D.J. Turner a crack at the job, if only to prevent Renfrow from getting injured on special teams.

Free-agent pickup Ameer Abdullah will take over the kick return duties. This was a weakness for the Raiders last season. Abdullah might help if he can get decent blocking in front of him.

With the additions of Davante Adams and Chandler Jones, the Raiders are making a push to get back to the playoffs. Their schedule is challenging. I think I like their starting lineup. Depth is going to be an issue. The Raiders have a lot of key players they can’t afford to lose. They were also outscored by 65 points last season. I can’t see them repeating their performance from last season. With good injury luck, yeah, nine or ten wins is reasonable. This is a next man up league. The lack of quality depth is going to bite them. 8-9.

Los Angeles Chargers:

2021 Record: 9-8

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.04

DVOA Wins: 9.8

FPI Wins: 10.0

Market Wins: 10.38

Implied Pythag: 64.14%

(Note: If you’d like to watch the final hour of the Chargers season, it was kind of awesome until the unfortunate ending.)

The Chargers are different from all other NFL franchises. There are other franchises that have fully embraced analytics. There are other franchises that are cheap. There are other franchises that have a young elite quarterback on a rookie contract. What makes the Chargers special is their willingness to go off the map. Imagine if you knew a few things to be true:

1. Offense is more important than defense.

2. Passing is more important than running.

3. Teams don’t go for it enough.

Now, imagine that you don’t know where the inflection points are. At what point are you being too aggressive? At what point do you need to direct more resources towards your defense? Particularly your run defense?

These are hard questions to answer. They get even harder when you need to account for opponent adjustments. This gets at the aphorism that all models are wrong, but some are useful. We can read into the Chargers’ decisions and begin to reverse-engineer their internal valuations. In short, the Chargers price things differently than the rest of the NFL. I find this fascinating.

Let’s talk about that elite young quarterback on a rookie contract. Joe Burrow just took Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Justin Herbert would like to make the playoffs:

2020: 4,336 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, 6.6 NY/P, 10.2% DVOA, 832 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 5,014 yards, 38 TD, 15 INT, 6.8 NY/P, 17.4% DVOA, 1,432 DYAR

Herbert has achieved “scary mofo” status. His presence (and contract) provide the Chargers with a fairly wide Super Bowl window. His wide receiver corps is returning intact. Let’s start with #1WR Mike Williams:

2021: 76 receptions, 1,146 yards, -2.7 +/-, 9.6% DVOA, 234 DYAR (in 16 games)

Here’s a situation where a good season could have been a great one with better hands. Over the past two seasons, Williams has dropped a little over 5% of the passes sent his way. Apart from that little blemish, he’s a fine deep threat.

Last year I wasn’t worried about #2WR Keenan Allen’s drop in efficiency. Now I am:

2020: 100 receptions, 982 yards, +0.9 +/-, -8.1% DVOA, 53 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 106 receptions, 1,138 yards, +6.3 +/-, -2.3% DVOA, 133 DYAR (in 16 games)

Let’s talk about the good news first. Allen’s yards-per-target increased from 6.75 in 2020 to 7.25 last season. He also caught 4% more passes than would be expected given the routes he ran.

The problem is his drops per target increased from about 2% to about 5%. Additionally, that 4% I just mentioned has a lot more to do with Herbert’s accuracy (and arm strength) than Allen’s hands. Herbert was putting Allen in a position to have a monster season. Instead, he had a good season. Yes, technically it was a below-average season from an efficiency standpoint. Allen faced the issue of being the target when no one was open. Think of it as shooting percentage when you have to take the shots before the shot clock goes off. I’ll cut Allen a bit of slack. He still should be doing more for the offense.

This is an area where an additional weapon could have helped both Herbert and Allen. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

2021 third-round pick Josh Palmer has played himself into the #3WR job:

2021: 33 receptions, 353 yards, +1.3 +/-, 3.7% DVOA, 63 DYAR

Palmer lived up to his billing as a contested-catch specialist. Making big plays on crucial downs is a good way to endear yourself to your quarterback and the coaching staff.

2019 undrafted free-agent Jalen Guyton has earned the #4WR role:

2021: 31 receptions, 448 yards, +0.9 +/-, 18.7% DVOA, 120 DYAR (in 16 games)

Budget free-agent pickup DeAndre Carter will provide depth:

2021: 24 receptions, 296 yards, -0.4 +/-, -3.0% DVOA, 33 DYAR

Carter is a return specialist who will provide the bulk of his value on special teams.

Free-agent pickup Gerald Everett is taking over as the new #1TE:

2021: 48 receptions, 478 yards, +4.5 +/-, 1.2% DVOA, 37 DYAR (in 15 games)

Everett has produced 24 DYAR in 185 targets over the past three seasons. That’s… bad.

Backups Donald Parham and 2021 third-round pick Tre’ McKitty are old school block-first tight ends. I feel like the Chargers are expecting Everett to build on his 2021 performance.

#1RB Austin Ekeler had a phenomenal season:

2021: 300 squid, 1,558 yards, 12.1% DVOA, 325 DYAR (in 16 games)

Rookie fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller will share the load with Ekeler this season:

Isaiah Spiller: Kind of surprised his agent didn’t tell him to skip a few of the combine drills. Solid one cut runner with excellent vision. Runs with power, ripping through most arm tackles. His natural running style puts the ball a bit further away from his body than is optimal, leading to increased fumble risk.

I was impressed with his hands as a receiver. Particularly his ability to bring the ball in quickly and get his vision back upfield. His combine numbers aside, he looked like a dangerous threat on film. He had five 75+ yard touchdowns. You don’t do that without having jets with the pads on. With practice and effort, I think Spiller can provide decent value as a receiver.

His pass protection skills need significant work. Far too many shoulder throws and not nearly enough squaring up. I get that it’s more fun to deliver hits than to take them, but your job is to protect the quarterback, not drill the defender. Given his size, he should be able to do a decent job of it.

Spiller is my #1RB and it’s not particularly close. He’s the only one I’d be willing to use a round two pick on. There are some concerns about the tread left on his tires. That could be a problem for him when he’s looking to get paid on a second contract. That would not be my problem, though.

2020 fourth-round pick Joshua Kelley will provide depth (39 squid, 140 yards, -35.4% DVOA, -44 DYAR). I’m not sure of their plan for budget free-agent pickup Sony Michel (-3.3% DVOA, 56 DYAR). The Rams cut him, the Dolphins signed him, the Dolphins cut him, and now he’s back in Los Angeles.

2021 first-round pick left tackle Rashawn Slater finished fourth in my positional rankings. That’s absurd. Just a tremendous performance from the rookie. He’s already a star.

It looks like Matt Feiler will start at left guard. He did a fine job there last season.

Center Corey Linsley was excellent, finishing sixth in my rankings. If he can find a way to cut down on flags, he’ll join the elites.

Rookie first-round pick Zion Johnson will start at right guard:

Zion Johnson: Elite athlete. That makes his film a bit odd. Johnson was dominant when you had to work through him. He wasn’t great when he had to come to you, particularly in space. Johnson is a solid run blocker. Excellent at getting in front of defenders in pass protection.

Johnson has a season of experience at left tackle. That helped him improve his pass protection technique. I expect he’ll move back inside in the NFL.

I anticipate his athleticism will allow him to become much better at working in space. Johnson is a rare case where the combine has materially affected my view of a player. He worked himself up from Davidson to Boston College. Between his talent and work ethic, I think Johnson will prove to be a first-round value and I would take him late in round one.

It looks like 2019 third-round pick Trey Pipkins has won a training camp battle over Storm Norton. Pipkins will start at right tackle. We didn’t see much from Pipkins last season. We saw Norton get destroyed. In this case, the Chargers are going with the devil I don’t know.

The Chargers could have looked for a right tackle in the draft or in free agency. They knew it was a weak spot on the line last season. There’s a pretty good chance that will be the case this year as well.

Right tackle aside, offense wasn’t the problem for the Chargers last season. They finished fourth in offensive DVOA. Defense (26th) and special teams (28th) were the real issue. They traded for Khalil Mack, which is helpful. I feel like they could have done quite a bit more.

The Chargers had a couple of major defensive issues last season:

1. They only managed 35 sacks. That was despite blitzing more than the league average. A high blitz rate paired with an average sack rate is a poor combo. Adding Khalil Mack might help with this.

2. They couldn’t stop the run. That was true in 2020 as well. Things were even worse last season. To help with this, the Chargers signed nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day.

Joseph-Day will start alongside free-agent pickup defensive tackle Austin Johnson. This isn’t a bad pairing. Joseph-Day looked like he was developing into a monster before injuries derailed his 2021 campaign (three sacks, nine hits+hurries in seven games).

Rookie fifth-round pick Otito Ogbonnia will provide depth. Don’t sweat his 40 time. His job will be to occupy space and stuff the run. He’s got the size and length to do it.

The Chargers passed on 2019 first-round pick defensive end Jerry Tilery’s fifth-year option. 4.5 sacks and 31 hits+hurries didn’t get it done. He’ll split time with budget free-agent pickup Morgan Fox (1.5 sacks, 23 hits+hurries).

Edge rusher Joey Bosa (10.5 sacks, 52 hits+hurries) will start across from Khalil Mack (six sacks, 15 hits+hurries in seven games). Mack played through pain before having season-ending foot surgery. If he’s healthy, this should be an excellent pairing.

Free-agent pickup Kyle Van Noy (five sacks, 22 hits+hurries) and 2021 fourth-round pick Chris Rumph will provide depth. Rumph has paid his dues on special teams.

2019 fourth-round pick inside linebacker Drue Tranquill will start alongside 2020 first-round pick Kenneth Murray. Injuries have slowed Murray and we haven’t seen what he’s capable of. What we have seen wasn’t impressive. Tranquill has been… fine.

Budget free-agent pickup Troy Reeder is a trustworthy mediocrity. He’ll provide depth and might push for a starting job if Murray doesn’t perform.

Strong safety Derwin James is awesome. The Chargers broke the bank for him. He’s an elite defender who helped keep a weak secondary respectable last season.

2019 second-round pick free safety Nasir Adderley sucked last season. He’s playing for a new contract. I wish him best of luck with that. Rookie third-round pick JT Woods had six interceptions at Baylor last season. That was six more than Adderley managed. Woods is an excellent athlete.

Premium free-agent pickup J.C. Jackson gives the Chargers an elite #1CB. He has seventeen interceptions over the past two seasons. He’s managed that feat without giving up many big plays. There’s some fear that Bill Belichick deserves some of the credit. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

After that, the roles aren’t quite clear. I expect 2021 second-round pick Asante Samuel will end up as the #2CB with budget free-agent pickup Bryce Callahan starting in the base nickel. Samuel took his rookie lumps and should be much better this season. Callahan will likely work out of the slot.

(Update: That’s the plan.)

It’s kind of comical how bad the Chargers’ special teams have been. They’ve averaged a 30th-place finish in DVOA over the past five seasons. That shouldn’t be possible.

From my 2020 NFL Preview:

“I don’t know why the Chargers’ special teams are always bad. They simply are. Three years ago, the Chargers were roughly 37 points below average on special teams. In 2018 they rallied and were only 14 points below average. Last year they split the difference and were 26 points off par. They were poor at all aspects. On some level this has to be an organizational blind spot. The Chargers are a notoriously cheap organization and that might manifest in the form of a lack of depth here. I suppose we can hope kicker Michael Badgley and punter Ty Long have good years. Best of luck to return man Desmond King.”

From my 2021 NFL Preview:

“I must confess that I thought the Chargers’ special teams sucked in 2017. I thought they were pretty bad in 2019. I had never considered the depths they could sink to. Last year they were 42 points below-average on punts alone. That’s inconceivable, and yet they pulled it off. They gave up another 16.9 points on the rest of the special teams which, while awful, is also par for the course for the Chargers. They replaced the kicker. Tristan Vizcaino should come in and provide competence, unless the organization is somehow cursed. Keep your expectations for this unit very low.”

Last year the Chargers had a banner year, finishing 12.9 points below league-average. Woohoo!

J.K. Scott has won the punter job. He appeared in one game last season with the Jaguars. Hrm.

Kicker Dustin Hopkins did a decent job last season. If it weren’t for the Chargers’ history I’d expect good things from him.

Free-agent pickup DeAndre Carter is taking over both return jobs. I’m sure he’ll be fine, save for the fact that the Chargers’ blocking is usually sub-par. That’s one of the issues created by cheap ownership. It leads to a lack of roster depth, which shows up on special teams. On the plus side, no unit has more variance, so maybe this is the year it stops being a drag on their performance.

The Chargers are built to make the playoffs. Their division may have gotten tougher, but they are catching some nice schedule luck. Their three unique games (not shared by the rest of the AFC West) are at Atlanta, at Cleveland (pre-Watson), and home against Miami. For comparison, Kansas City goes to Cincinnati, to Tampa Bay, and hosts Buffalo. My concern is that there isn’t much depth behind the starters.

On the plus side, they have the one unreplaceable piece: quarterback Justin Herbert. This is a strong team. This is a flawed team. They should be fun to watch. 11-6.

AFC Playoff Standings:

1. Buffalo Bills: 12-5

2. Kansas City Chiefs: 11-6

3. Baltimore Ravens: 11-6

4. Indianapolis Colts: 10-7

5. Las Angeles Chargers: 11-6

6. Denver Broncos: 10-7

7. Cincinnati Bengals: 10-7

AFC Wild Card Round:

Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs

A rematch of the AFC Championship game. This time the Chiefs finish the job. Chiefs 31, Bengals 21.

Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson out duels Russell Wilson. Ravens 28, Broncos 27.

Los Angeles Chargers @ Indianapolis Colts:

Now that he’s finally in the playoffs, Justin Herbert wants to enjoy his time there. Chargers 24, Colts 17.

AFC Divisional Round:

Los Angeles Chargers @ Buffalo Bills:

A classic AFL matchup. The Bills are ready to begin their Super Bowl run. Bills 38, Chargers 28.

Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs:

A close matchup. Andy Reid defeats his bitter rival, the clock, as Mahomes has the last drive. Chiefs 20, Ravens 17.

AFC Championship Game:

Kansas City Chiefs @ Buffalo Bills

For the past two years the Chiefs have ended the Bills season. They can’t pull off the three-peat. Bills 38, Chiefs 24.

Super Bowl LVII @ State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

Buffalo Bills vs. San Francisco 49ers

Old school ESPN fans will remember this was a common prediction from Chris Berman. It came close to happening a few times, but the Bengals and Cowboys prevented the matchup.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Bills use the wisdom of Bill Walsh to vanquish the 49ers:

“The key to success in the NFL is a fourth-quarter pass rush.” -Bill Walsh

The Bills generate enough pressure to protect a late lead. Bills 28, 49ers 23.

Enjoy the season!

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

AFC South:

Indianapolis Colts: 10-7

Tennessee Titans: 9-8

Jacksonville Jaguars: 7-10

Houston Texans: 4-13

Houston Texans:

2021 Record: 4-13

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 5.57

DVOA Wins: 7.9

FPI Wins: 5.9

Market Wins: 4.56

Implied Pythag: 26.60%

I didn’t realize it at the time, but last season was the Texans’ 20th. In that time they have never made an AFC Championship game. They’ve never hosted a divisional round game. All six playoff appearances came from winning the decrepit AFC South. In other words, they’ve never made the playoffs as a wild card team. Apart from the Deshaun Watson scandal, it’s difficult to think of reasons the Texans have merited national coverage.

The current roster feels like it’s been populated with random NPCs. Case in point, starting quarterback 2021 third-round pick Davis Mills:

2021: 2,664 yards, 16 TD, 10 INT, 5.8 NY/P, -8.7% DVOA, 61 DYAR (in 13 games)

We’ve seen rookie third-round picks start at quarterback before. Russell Wilson won a training camp battle to do so in Seattle. That was because Wilson was awesome (19.7% DVOA, 1,019 DYAR). Mills was not awesome. Mills started because the Texans didn’t have anyone else he was better than or more worth investing in. He’s a cheap option. Nothing more. Presumably, he’ll be replaced with a younger option in the 2023 draft.

The Texans have tried to acquire some talented receivers for this quarterback-to-be-named-later. They traded three picks to move up in the second round to acquire John Metchie:

John Metchie: Tore his left ACL in the SEC Championship Game. Couldn’t run at the combine. Small, under six feet, and under 190 pounds. Metchie has an additional red flag in the form of an enlarged heart. He was given medical clearance to play at Alabama, but it’s something teams will keep an eye on.

Over the past two seasons he’s been productive for Alabama:

2020: 79 targets, 55 receptions, 916 yards, 6 TD, 0.59 points-per-target, 11.6 yards-per-target

2021: 130 targets, 96 receptions, 1,142 yards, 8 TD, 0.42 points-per-target, 8.8 yards-per-target

The dude can play. Or, at least could pre-injury. He beat defenders with separation, not his hands (they weren’t great), or power (LOL). If his athleticism and agility are compromised, it’s tough to know what he’ll be able to accomplish at the next level.

I need to elaborate on this. He beat press coverage with his legs, not his upper body. He had a great set of moves to get off the line of scrimmage. In space, he excelled at making defenders miss. Metchie ran a fairly deep route tree and ran it well. This is a man who used his ACLs. If he gets the speed back, but not the agility, 😦

If your medical staff gives him a clean bill of health and the expectation is that he’s going to recover 100%, then I see Metchie as a mid-day-two value. If not, he might be off the board entirely.

Metchie is going to miss the season with leukemia. I wish Metchie all the best and hope he has a full recovery.

They traded up for 2021 third-round pick Nico Collins:

2021: 33 receptions, 406 yards, -4.0 +/-, -7.7% DVOA, 25 DYAR (in 14 games)

Collins is a large target. His problem is separation. For now he’ll try to develop his route-running skills.

The Texans extended #1WR Brandin Cooks:

2020: 81 receptions, 1,150 yards, +6.2 +/-, 8.9% DVOA, 207 DYAR (in 15 games

2021: 90 receptions, 1,037 yards, +6.3 +/-, 3.5% DVOA, 177 DYAR (in 16 games)

All things considered, Cooks has been a solid investment for the Texans.

Chris Moore has the edge on winning the slot job:

2021: 21 receptions, 227 yards, +4.1 +/-, 3.0% DVOA, 26 DYAR (in 12 games)

My sense is that Mills likes Moore and will try to increase his usage this season.

Chris Conley looks to have won the #4WR job:

2021: 22 receptions, 323 yards, +0.2 +/-, 4.7% DVOA, 50 DYAR (in 16 games)

On a team with a league-average quarterback, this would be an interesting unit.

I can’t say the same for the tight ends. Pharaoh Brown:

2021: 23 receptions, 171 yards, -1.3 +/-, -35.3% DVOA, -63 DYAR (in 15 games)

He’s a plus blocker. He was a more efficient receiver pre-Mills in 2020 (37.4% DVOA, 49 DYAR). Perhaps he’ll bounce back this season. He’s still the #1TE.

2021 fifth-round pick Brevin Jordan was decent in limited usage (-0.2% DVOA, 13 DYAR).

Rookie fifth-round pick Teagan Quitoriano has the size to be a decent blocker. He’ll probably get most of his snaps on special teams.

Last season, the Texans accumulated -163 rushing DYAR. I’d solve for their DVOA, but I don’t care. This is an NFL franchise on a technicality.

Rookie fourth-round pick Dameon Pierce doesn’t bring much to the table. That’s fine. With a weak offensive line and no deep passing game to soften up defenses, a good running back would be wasted here.

Free-agent pickup Marlon Mack will provide depth.

Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is excellent. If he could play a full season he’d have a good shot to finish first in my rankings. He missed 12 games last season and has never played a full season in his six-year career. He should be fully recovered from the thumb injury that ended his 2021 campaign.

Rookie first-round pick Kenyon Green will start at left guard:

Kenyon Green: Played both tackle and both guard positions in college. I’ll be focusing on his play at guard, as that’s where I expect him to play in the NFL. Regularly dominant on film. Passes the arm length test. I loved his reaction time off of the snap. On stunts he was able to attack before the defender could make a move. Elite power. His handwork and leverage allowed him to excel at creating holes. He was quite good when working to the second level. If he got his hands on linebackers (or god forbid, defensive backs) that was usually the end of their role in the play.

Green was elite in pass protection. Excellent lateral movement. Green’s a clear high first-round talent. The real question here is positional value. From my 2021 NFL Preview:

“Over the past eight years I’ve given six guards first-round grades. Four were selected in the first-round:

2018: Quinton Nelson: Selected 6th overall. Elite. Fifth-year option picked up.

2018: Isaiah Wynn: Selected 23rd overall. Quality left tackle (when healthy). Fifth-year option picked up.

2019: Chris Lindstrom: Selected 14th overall. Missed most of 2019 with a foot injury. Played well for the Falcons in 2020.

2021: Alijah Vera-Tucker: Selected 16th overall.”

Lindstrom is going to have his fifth-year option picked up at approximately $13M.

There simply aren’t many guards with first-round value, but the rare few with that kind of talent appear to be worth quite a bit to their teams. I would have no problem selecting Green in the first half of the first round. He’s a rare talent and someone I would trust on the interior of the line.

Center Justin Britt is a mediocrity. He finished 29th in my rankings. That earned him a two-year extension.

Free-agent pickup right guard A.J. Cann finished DFL in my rankings. He was better (and healthier) in 2020. We’ll see how he performs this year.

The Texans picked up 2019 first-round pick Tytus Howard’s fifth-year option. That was a good decision. He’s a solid right tackle and should continue to improve.

2020 fourth-round pick Charlie Heck will provide quality depth at tackle. 2019 second-round pick Max Scharping will provide mediocre depth on the interior.

This was the worst run-blocking offensive line in the NFL in 2021. Getting Tunsil back will help quite a bit. His presence bumps them from awful to lousy.

2020 third-round pick defensive end Jonathan Greenard (eight sacks, 17 hits+hurries) is developing into a solid player. He’ll need more help for this defense to turn the corner.

Free agent pickups Rasheem Green (6.5 sacks, 28 hits+hurries), Jerry Hughes (two sacks, 41 hits+hurries), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (two sacks, eight hits+hurries), and Mario Addison (seven sacks, 29 hits+hurries) will all join the rotation. That’s a solid amount of depth.

Defensive tackles Maliek Collins (2.5 sacks, 20 hits+hurries) and 2021 sixth-round pick run stuffer Roy Lopez will start inside.

2020 second-round pick Ross Blacklock provides a decent pass rush (two sacks, 18 hits+hurries). He’s notably weak vs. the run, which has limited his playing time. Blacklock and rookie fifth-round pick Thomas Booker will provide depth.

Middle linebacker Christian Kirksey did a fine job last season. The Texans would love to get a full season from him.

Kamu Grugier-Hill was hit or miss. He did some nice work, picking up three sacks and an interception, but overall, his coverage and tackling skills need to improve.

Rookie third-round pick Christian Harris should start immediately in the base defense:

Christian Harris: Elite athlete. Don’t worry about his size. Worry about his decision-making. Great range, but what is it worth when he misses the tackle? Or fails to diagnose the play and can’t get to the spot? Let me give some context: Harris appeared in 40 games for Alabama. In that time he had one interception. One. He’s a natural safety/linebacker hybrid, save for the lack of safety skills. It’s maddening.

What blows my mind is he’s a former wide receiver who played defensive back in high school. His college coverage numbers were dreadful (0.06 points-per-target). Yes, he had six sacks last season. He’s not going to be an edge-rusher in the NFL. Harris has first-round talent. His upside should land him in the second round. I just hope it’s not in New York.

If he learns how to handle himself in coverage, he may end up in the base nickel package. That would be the best-case scenario for the Texans.

Free-agent pickup Jalen Reeves-Maybin will provide depth. Depending on how well he adapts to the new system, he might end up as the #2LB behind Kirksey.

2021 fifth-round pick Garret Wallow, Neville Hewitt, and Kevin Pierre-Louis round out a surprisingly deep unit.

Free-agent pickup Steven Nelson is expected to start across from rookie first-round pick Derek Stingley:

Derek Stingley Jr.: Appeared in 15 games in 2019. Targeted 94 times. Six interceptions, four drops. Appeared in 10 games combined in 2020/21. 35 targets, 0 interceptions, 1 drop.

I love film but I can’t do much with six targets. Most of my Stingley data is going to be from 2019/20.

Stingley didn’t run at the combine due to a Lisfranc injury suffered early last season. Phenomenal pro day. A bit thicker than Gardner, albeit not as long. Great technique to stick with his receiver in man coverage. Excellent vision and awareness in zone coverage.

Looked better in 2019 than he has since. It could be an issue where opponents simply played keep away after realizing what they were dealing with.

Decent against the run. Well trained at poking at the ball.

Stingley can provide some value on special teams as a return man, and possibly as an elite gunner as well.

Overall, I’m more impressed by (Sauce) Gardner than Stingley, but I acknowledge it’s close. Gardner has a clean bill of health, while I’m somewhat concerned the Lisfranc injury might have long-term consequences. Stingley is my #2CB. Medical red flags aside, I’m fine taking him in the top 10.

In retrospect I should not have been surprised to see Stingley come off the board so early. He was a monster in 2019. It’s quite possible he coasted through the next two years.

As for Nelson, he kind of sucked in Philadelphia. Hopefully, he performs better in Texas. His addition will put incumbent Desmond King on the bench. King was terrible too.

Tavierre Thomas was excellent in the slot. Opponents avoided challenging him, which is pretty much the highest praise they can offer.

(Update: Tavierre Thomas is out indefinitely with a pulled quad. King will start in his place.)

It looks like safety Eric Murray will pair with rookie second-round pick Jalen Pitre:

Jalen Pitre: Fast undersized safety? Or well-rounded cornerback? That’s a pretty big jump in athletic grade. Pitre did most of his work in the box or in the slot. Played very fast. Didn’t always make correct decisions, but he made them swiftly. I loved his aggression and how much he trusted his read of the play.

Pitre picked up four interceptions on 57 targets over the past two seasons (-0.56 points-per-target). I appreciate that his coverage skills look a bit unrefined on film. He was effective despite that. With more experience and NFL-level coaching, he stands to improve quite a bit.

For now, NFL-caliber receivers can take advantage of his willingness to bite on moves. That’s a correctable flaw. Wasn’t flagged in 2021. Pitre has extensive special teams experience and will provide additional value in coverage. Like (Jaquan) Brisker, Pitre is a solid second-round value. Preference between the two would be based on whichever is a better schematic fit.

Jonathan Owens will provide depth.

Kicker Ka’imi Fairburn is among the worst in the league. He’s currently in a training camp battle with Matt Ammendola.

On the plus side, punter Cameron Johnston is excellent. Given the quality of the Texans’ offense, he gets plenty of practice.

Kick returner Desmond King and punt return Tremon Smith are both solid. Kicking issues aside, the Texans have quality special teams.

New head coach Lovie Smith has his work cut out for him. Quarterback Davis Mills would be a cheap backup on a better-managed roster. It’ll be very difficult to build a quality offense with Mills at the helm.

The defense might be quite a bit better. The pass rush depth is helpful. The secondary has seen an infusion of young talent. The schedule is reasonably soft. But the Texans are what they are. The run of four-win seasons continues. 4-13.

Indianapolis Colts:

2021 Record: 9-8

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.56

DVOA Wins: 7.9

FPI Wins: 9.6

Market Wins: 9.92

Implied Pythag: 57.32%

I just had to double-check that the Colts didn’t have a 2022 first-round pick due to the Carson Wentz trade. Originally, it was a conditional second-round pick, but it got bumped up to a first when Wentz played 75% of the offensive snaps. Just a last little dagger on the way out of town.

Enter Matt Ryan:

2021: 3,968 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT, -4.3% DVOA, 173 DYAR

Ryan turned 37 in May and isn’t the quarterback he once was. Is he better than Carson Wentz? Yes. The Colts have upgraded at quarterback. Ryan is under contract through 2023 and might end up being a two-year starter in Indianapolis.

There’s also the possibility that his arm continues to deteriorate. Since the Manning/tank/Luck transition, the Colts haven’t found a good long-term plan at quarterback. A win-now mindset without a competent leader under center is an odd pairing. On the plus side, the Colts play in the AFC South, so winning the division should just require having an edge on Tennessee.

This is a roster that was built to compete. 2020 second-round pick #1WR Michael Pittman will give Ryan a reliable target:

2021: 88 receptions, 1,082 yards, +6.7 +/-, 7.1%, 202 DYAR

That +6.7 blows me away when put into context. Wentz used Pittman as his outlet when he didn’t see anyone open. Pittman did an excellent job at winning 50-50 balls. Hopefully, he won’t have to win so many with Ryan. Pittman will start across from rookie second-round pick Alec Pierce:

Alec Pierce: Another athlete with the size and speed the NFL covets. The agility drills matched what we saw on film. Great straight line speed, but has difficulty making sharp cuts without losing his balance.

Pierce offers some value as a zone-buster. He can sit short and use his size to his advantage. He also has the speed to go over the top, particularly once he learns how to defeat press coverage off the line.

His lack of agility hinders him in the open field. YAC usually requires making the first man miss. That’s not a Pierce specialty. He also had five drops last season. As I mentioned earlier, drops can be a tradeoff vs. turning upfield. Pierce has suspect agility, so he needs all the help he can get after the catch. In his case, I might emphasize controlling the ball first and treating any YAC as a bonus.

Speedsters with few other skills and suspect hands don’t have a great track record in the NFL. Pierce offers some additional versatility via his blocking. I could see taking him late day two/early day three

Oft-injured 2019 second-round pick Parris Campbell has a bead on the #3WR job:

2019-2021: 34 receptions, 360 yards, 0.0 +/-, -39.4% DVOA, -101 DYAR (in 15 games)

I want to revisit what I wrote about Campbell before the 2019 NFL Draft:

Parris Campbell: Lord help me, I have no idea what to do with Parris Campbell. He ran a 4.31-40, caught 74.5% of the passes sent his way, yet only averaged 9.2 yards-per-target. How is that combination of things possible?

The answer is that he was used as a short-range target who was given the opportunity to try and break big plays. Like other receivers on this list, he still has to learn how to run a full route tree. My question is this: Why didn’t Ohio State use him more as a deep threat? If they didn’t trust him to work the routes D.K. Metcalf ran, why should I?

Tavon Austin was a disaster. Campbell is a lower-risk prospect with a second-round grade.

I suppose it’s fair to say Campbell has been a disaster too. Either injured or awful is a bad combination. He’s playing for a new contract. Perhaps this is the year he puts it all together.

Return specialist Ashton Dulin (7.6% DVOA, 38 DYAR) will provide depth.

#1TE Mo Alie-Cox just got paid. I’m unsure why:

2021: 24 receptions, 316 yards, -3.1 +/-, -3.9% DVOA, 10 DYAR

2021 fourth-round pick Kylon Granson will compete with rookie third-round pick Jelani Woods for the #2TE job:

Jelani Woods: Wowsers! I wasn’t planning on giving Woods a write-up. That combine was off the charts. Woods joins the TE perfect 10 club, along with Anthony Becht and Jordan Cameron. Becht was a first round pick for the Jets. Cameron was a fourth round pick for the Browns. They combined for -107 DYAR over their collective careers. Not great.

Woods transferred to Virginia last season (from Oklahoma State):

2021: 70 targets, 44 receptions, 598 yards, 8 TD, 0.27 points-per-target, 8.5 yards-per-target

Touchdowns aside, this is nothing particularly special. Let me assure you Woods did not look like an elite athlete on film. He looked like a big guy who muscled defenders to create space. At Oklahoma State he was utilized as a blocking tight end. At this point, I expect Woods to come off the board on day two. I am going to trust my lying eyes over his amazing combine (and pro day) results. Day three value for me.

As for Granson, he failed to impress in limited usage last season (-22.3% DVOA, -17 DYAR).

2020 second-round pick Jonathan Taylor was the best running back in the NFL last season:

2021: 383 squid, 2,171 yards, 21.1% DVOA, 532 DYAR

I shudder to think of what he could have accomplished if defenses respected the Colts’ passing game.

Backup Nyheim Hines is solid (6.7% DVOA, 78 DYAR in 2021. 9.6% DVOA, 180 DYAR in 2020). He’s a trustworthy receiver who should see plenty of targets this season.

Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure novels? The Colts have four options at left tackle.

If you want to start Matt Pryor, turn to page 108:

Matt Pryor: Roughly league-average backup right tackle who picked up flags at roughly 2.3x the normal rate. Note: Over The Cap lists his position at right guard. That’s never good when you’re talking about a potential starting left tackle.

If you want to start Braden Smith, turn to page 46:

Braden Smith: Missed six games with a leg injury last season. Did a solid job run-blocking. Finished second in my rankings in 2020 when healthy. Trustworthy option… on the right side.

If you want to start rookie third-round pick Bernhard Raimann, turn to page 171:

Bernhard Raimann: Excellent athlete. Alas, the numbers teams may end up focusing on are 303 and 32.875. Kent Lee Platte (@mathbomb on Twitter) created RAS scores. He examined the RAS scores and arm lengths of Pro Bowl offensive linemen. The data suggests that while arm length isn’t strictly necessary to reach the Pro Bowl, if your arms are shorter than the gold standard you’d better be an elite athlete. Raimann is. He’ll just be playing on hard mode.

Raimann is a converted tight end who is still learning the left tackle position. Great lateral movement. A bit of an issue in terms of setting his base. He can set and lower his center of gravity, but if he does he’s unusually vulnerable to outside moves. Alternatively, he can keep his mobility, but this makes him vulnerable to bull rushes. This is something his coaches will need to help him with.

Excellent at moving in space and finding targets downfield. He doesn’t have much power relative to his peers and won’t be a mauler in the running game.

Raimann’s an interesting prospect. He was quite successful in college despite having fairly unpolished technique. With time to develop and proper training he might be a very effective left tackle in the NFL. Raimann is not a natural fit on the right side, nor at guard. Unless he’s able to learn how to play center, it’s stick at left tackle or bust in the NFL. Finding starting left tackles outside of the first round is hit or miss. My grade DOES NOT take his arms into account. The film says he’s a second-round value (or higher with positional value). His measurements make me leery. My gut says he’s value outside of the top 50.

If you want to start budget free-agent pickup Dennis Kelly, turn to page 126:

Dennis Kelly: You break the huddle only to realize only to realize you have 10 men. You look back to discover that quarterback Matt Ryan was devoured by a bugbear. Your last thought before you lose consciousness is a troubling one: Just who was it who calling out the play in the huddle?

Kelly’s actually a decent depth option at right tackle. If he’s the starting left tackle, something has gone horribly wrong.

My expectation is that the Colts will go with Pryor until they think Raimann is ready. They’ll keep Smith at right tackle and lean on him in the running game.

(Update: It is indeed Pryor on the left side, Smith on the right.)

Left guard Quinton Nelson remains one of the best in the NFL. The Colts would appreciate it if he could play a full 17 games this season. The four games he missed in 2021 were the first missed games of his career.

Center Ryan Kelly had a poor season, finishing 28th in my rankings. He was excellent in 2020 so let’s hope it was just an off year.

We last saw 2020 fifth-round pick Danny Pinter at center, covering for the injured Ryan Kelly. He didn’t embarrass himself in limited usage. The Colts feel he’s ready to start at right guard.

The Colts traded 2019 second-round pick cornerback Rock Ya-Sin for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. This trade makes sense in the context of the $10.5M difference in salary between the two players. Rock Ya-Sin is a pretty good young cornerback. Ngakoue had ten sacks, 48 hits+hurries last season. He’ll start across from 2021 first-round pick Kwity Paye (four sacks, 33 hits+hurries).

Tyquan Lewis (2.5 sacks, 17 hits+hurries), 2021 second-round pick Dayo Odeyingbo (0.5 sacks, three hits+hurries), and budget free-agent pickup Ifeadi Odenigbo (zero sacks, seven hits+hurries) will provide depth. Odeyingbo was recovering from an Achilles tear last season. The Colts will need him to step up this year.

Star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (seven sacks, 43 hits+hurries) returns to start alongside run stuffer Grover Stewart. It’s a strong pairing.

R.J. Mackintosh, rookie fifth-round pick Eric Johnson, and rookie sixth-round pick Curtis Brooks will provide depth. Johnson is an excellent athlete who is still a bit raw and will need some time to develop. Brooks is undersized at tackle, unathletic at end.

2019 third-round pick Bobby Okereke made 132 tackles last season. He also had two interceptions. He did a lot of work. He also missed a fair amount of tackles and gave up a lot of yards in coverage. Overall, his play was a mixed bag.

The more important Colts linebacker is Shaquille Leonard. Leonard had four interceptions and was an all-around impact player. He’s currently dealing with a back issue and might have to start the season on the PUP list. That would mean he’d miss the first four games and wouldn’t be able to practice with the team. The Colts might bite the bullet and keep him on the active roster even if he can’t play just to allow him to practice and get back into game shape.

(Update: No PUP list. We’ll see how he looks early in the season.)

Zaire Franklin and 2019 fifth-round pick E.J. Speed will provide depth. Look for Franklin to start if Leonard is out.

Free-agent pickups Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Facyson will take over as the Colts’ starting outside cornerbacks. Gilmore is still quite good when he can get out on the field. He’s missed 14 games with quad, hamstring, groin, and finger issues over the past two seasons. He’ll be a premium addition if he stays healthy.

Facyson was mediocre in Las Vegas. 2020 sixth-round pick Isaiah Rodgers might end up pushing him for playing time. Rodgers had three interceptions last season.

Slot cornerback Kenny Moore is excellent. Even without his four interceptions, he’d still grade out as a quality player. He’s the most trustworthy player in the secondary.

Rookie third-round pick Nick Cross is taking over at strong safety:

Nick Cross: Another elite athlete. Prototype ball hawk with six interceptions on 46 targets. However, he was a highly flammable gambler, giving up 0.45 points-per-target.

Given his size he should have been a much more forceful tackler. Perhaps this is something that his coaches can improve on.

He’s still learning the position. That might explain why his processing speed doesn’t match his combine results. Cross has a fair amount of upside if you can teach him to play faster. Also needs to clean up his issue with flags.

High risk/high reward pick. Third-round value for me given the high bust rate.

Cross will pair with 2020 third-round pick Julian Blackmon. Blackmon is coming back from a torn Achilles. Blackmon was terrible in 2020. He didn’t look much better in limited usage in 2021. Budget free-agent pickup Rodney McLoud might end up seeing significant playing time. McLoud was mediocre in Philadelphia.

Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed 12 games last season with a hip injury. When healthy, he has a strong leg. I’m not sold on his accuracy. The Colts might be forced to find a replacement on short notice if the injury lingers.

The Colts signed punter Matt Haack after he lost his job in Buffalo. Haack was mediocre last season.

The return units are strong. Punt returner Nyheim Hines and kick returner Isaiah Rodgers should produce solid results this season. I should note the Colts’ special teams coverage units are well above-average. This looks like something the front office pays attention to.

The Colts don’t have a particularly brutal schedule this year. On offense, there are a few concerns about depth at wide receiver and who will start at left tackle. Defensively, the linebacker corps will be fine so long as Shaquille Leonard is fine. If he’s sidelined, the unit looks soft. There are a few other issues, such as #2CB and defensive tackle depth. No roster is perfect. The Colts look solid. That’s presuming quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t washed.

Age-related decline isn’t a straight line. He might be better than he was in 2021. He might be much worse. His quality of play will determine how far the Colts go this season. I expect them to get the tenth win that eluded them in 2021. After that? We’ll see. 10-7.

Jacksonville Jaguars:

2021 Record: 3-14

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 6.45

DVOA Wins: 7.6

FPI Wins: 6.2

Market Wins: 6.46

Implied Pythag: 36.93%

Two years ago, the Jaguars were the worst team in football (by both DVOA and record). That was intentional. They were tanking. They out-tanked the Jets and I’m still mad about it. Last year, they were the worst team in football (by both DVOA and record). It was unintentional. They hired Urban Meyer and it did not go well.

I don’t want to read too much into the Meyer fiasco. The Jaguars simply were not prepared. Trevor Lawrence didn’t have a fair chance to compete:

2021: 3,641 yards, 12 TD, 17 INT, -19.5% DVOA, -321 DYAR

My man, here is your one free mulligan. You’ve now adjusted to the speed of the NFL and will have a real head coach. In fact, we should talk about that.

New head coach Doug Pederson is back from his NFL exile. For those who don’t know or may have forgotten, Pederson followed orders and coached to lose the final game of the season vs. Washington. The players realized it and were pissed. He lost the locker room and got canned. Apart from that, he was a decent coach. He won a Super Bowl with Nick Foles. He’ll give Lawrence proper coaching. We’ll see what Lawrence is capable of this year.

Given the carnage of the past two seasons, we need to look upon the wide receiver corps with a measure of kindness. Marvin Jones was impressive in Detroit in 2020. He did his best in Jacksonville in 2021:

2020: 76 receptions, 978 yards, +4.4 +/-, 12.3% DVOA, 235 DYAR

2021: 73 receptions, 832 yards, +1.5 +/-, -6.1% DVOA, 63 DYAR

I can dig it. Marvin will be joined by free-agent pickup Zay Jones:

2021: 47 receptions, 546 yards, +3.9 +/-, 5.8% DVOA, 102 DYAR

Premium free-agent pickup Christian Kirk may end up as the new #1WR:

2021: 77 receptions, 982 yards, +13.4 +/-, 23.2% DVOA, 286 DYAR

Kirk did most of his damage from the slot last season. I expect the Jaguars will try and repeat that performance.

With the new additions, 2020 second-round pick Laviska Shenault’s role (if any) is unclear:

2021: 63 receptions, 619 yards, -5.6 +/-, -27.7% DVOA, -112 DYAR (in 16 games)

Shenault was more effective in 2020 (-2.4% DVOA, 101 DYAR). Perhaps the new administration will try to see if they can find him a proper niche.

Jamal Agnew wasn’t much of a receiver (-14.9% DVOA, -7 DYAR). He had huge success in a few gadget plays (7 carries, 111 yards, 129.2% DVOA, 65 DYAR). I figure the new administration will throw him a bone or two.

Free-agent pickup Evan Engram will be the #1TE:

2021: 46 receptions, 408 yards, -4.8 +/-, -24.2% DVOA, -81 DYAR (in 15 games)

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Let me show you what he did in 2020 to provide context:

2020: 63 receptions, 654 yards, -11.4 +/-, -24.0% DVOA, -114 DYAR

Don’t laugh. He made the Pro Bowl. It has hard to find offensive success in New York. Look for Engram to work out of the slot.

#2TE Dan Arnold will see plenty of playing time:

2021: 35 receptions, 408 yards, +0.9 +/-, -10.8% DVOA, -12 DYAR (in 11 games)

To be fair, I’ll provide his 2020 stats for context as well:

2020: 31 receptions, 408 yards, +3.9 +/-, 26.7% DVOA, 101 DYAR

I expect Arnold made a good first impression on Pederson. Chris Manhertz will provide depth.

2021 first-round pick Travis Etienne is set to return from the Lisfranc injury that derailed his 2021 rookie campaign:

“Travis Etienne: I could see Etienne being the first RB off the board. He is the most explosive option. When he breaks into the open field he has the speed, agility, and vision to take it to the house from anywhere on the field. He’s also a competent receiver. The problems with Etienne are twofold. He isn’t a consistent runner. He’ll look to break big plays instead of just attacking the line of scrimmage. This means he’ll produce a lot more negative plays than your average RB. That’s the kind of thing you might be able to modify with coaching. The bigger problem is his pass protection. He doesn’t have great instincts or technique. There’s also a lack of size and power, which might be part of the reason he hasn’t put more effort into this skill. If I were choosing between Harris and Etienne I’d choose Harris in a heartbeat. I prefer the back more likely to keep the chains moving and my quarterback safe. Just know Etienne is probably going to produce the better highlight reel. Like Harris, he’s a coin-flip to come off the board in the first round.”

James Robinson gave a great effort in Etienne’s absence (164 carries, 767 yards, 15.4% DVOA, 170 DYAR). He’s recovering from a late season Achilles tear and might not be 100% in week one.

Left tackle Cam Robinson finished tenth in my positional rankings. He missed three games last season. His replacement, 2021 second-round pick Walker Little wasn’t close to the player Robinson is. Good health here will be key for the Jaguars’ offense.

Right now it looks like Tyler Shatley will play left guard while rookie third-round pick Luke Fortner will start at center. Fortner played well last season at Kentucky. I dropped his grade after he got his butt kicked at the Senior Bowl. We’ll see if he has NFL-level power. As for Shatley, he was solid at center last season.

Free-agent pickup Brandon Scherff has missed 24 games over the past five seasons. Injuries have taken their toll and he’s not the monster he once was. He’ll still be an upgrade for the interior line.

2019 second-round pick right tackle Jawaan Taylor was mediocre last season. On the plus side, he was healthy, which meant less talented backups weren’t called into duty. Hopefully, he’ll improve with a better coaching staff. It’s a contract year, after all.

2020 fourth-round pick Ben Bartch did fine work at right guard last season. He’ll provide quality interior line depth.

(Update: Bartch will start at left guard. Shatley will be the one providing depth.)

I don’t know about Fortner, but the addition of Schreff should help the line improve this season.

First overall pick edge-rusher Travon Walker was eighth on the consensus big board. I say that to make it clear that I was not the only one skeptical of him:

Travon Walker: Superfreak. 9.5 sacks over his college career. SackSEER is pretty much a shrug emoji trying to separate the top three from this class. Walker’s issue is that he hasn’t developed pass-rush skills on par with those of Thibodeaux or Hutchinson. Walker had six sacks in 2021, but his pressure numbers were anemic.

Walker can provide some versatility. He’s reasonably comfortable dropping back into coverage. He’s solid against the run. Excellent at holding his position and sliding to make the tackle.

Walker can provide value by playing off the ball, but let’s not kid ourselves. He’s rising up draft boards as a potentially elite edge-rusher. I’m not buying the hype. He has length and power, but he lacks the raw explosion or elusiveness of elite edges. Yes, his technique can improve, but let’s not forget he’s seen significant playing time at Georgia. They know how to teach pass-rushers. You can argue that the scheme didn’t showcase Walker. That’s a fair point, but even on a per-snap basis, his rate wasn’t great.

This is a case of a player with a very high ceiling without the film to match. I trust Hutchinson. I believe in Thibodeaux. I… hope Walker succeeds. That combine has moved him to edge #3 on my board. I wouldn’t touch him until the first two were gone. Frankly, I wouldn’t roll the dice in the top 10. Top 15 value. Let’s leave it at that.

Who knows. Maybe he’ll develop into an elite edge in Jacksonville. We’ll see. Walker will start across from 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen (7.5 sacks, 30 hits+hurries). 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson (one sack, 14 hits+hurries) and Jamir Jones will provide depth.

3-4 defensive ends Dawuane Smoot (six sacks, 39 hits+hurries), Roy Robertson-Harris (three sacks, 23 hits+hurries), and free-agent pickup Arden Key (6.5 sacks, 29 hits+hurries) form a solid rotation.

It looks like 2020 third-round pick DaVon Hamilton will pair with free-agent pickup Folorunso Fatukasi inside. Fatukasi is very good. He’ll be a nice upgrade over the departed Malcom Brown.

Adam Gotsis and 2021 fourth-round pick Jay Tufele will provide depth. Tufele looked destined for the practice squad before Brown was released. Interior line depth might be an issue.

The Jaguars traded up from 33rd to 27th to grab linebacker Devin Lloyd:

Devin Lloyd: Premium athlete with prototype size. Flew to the edges. Eight sacks, 22 tackles for a loss, 104 tackles, four interceptions. Baller numbers. A former high school safety. Elite in coverage (-0.48 points-per-target). Lloyd has everything you want: Range, power, vision, awareness.

(Nakobe) Dean earned a slightly higher grade than Lloyd due to the differences in the level of competition. Having said that, the Pac-12 is still a major conference. I watch Dean on film and I see a dude who excels at playing football. I have no problem with him beating Lloyd out for the Butkus award. When I watch Lloyd I see a manimal. Lloyd’s ceiling is first-ballot Hall of Fame. A linebacker who can cover, blitz, and shut down the run is a linebacker who should come off the board early. Dean is easily my favorite non-edge linebacker in the class. Top-15 value. Future star.

After the trade and selection I was the incarnation of the Superhero two button meme. On one hand, I love the addition of Lloyd. I still think he’s a manimal. On the other hand, giving up a fourth and a sixth-round pick to move up from 33rd to 27th is bollocks. Oh well, they’re not my picks and not my problem. I think Lloyd’s gonna be great. He’ll start alongside free-agent pickup Foyesade Oluokun. Oluokon is excellent. This should be a very strong pairing. 2020 fourth-round pick Shaquille Quarterman will provide depth.

I have to say that the additions of Fatukasi, Walker, Lloyd, Key, and Oluokon should massively improve this front-seven. There’s a lot more talent here than there was in 2021.

There are three reasons to expect better results for the Jaguars’ secondary. The first is the improved pass-rush. The second is the development of 2021 second-round pick cornerback Tyson Campbell. He got his ass kicked last season, as rookies usually do. This year, he should be more polished and better prepared to handle his coverage responsibilities.

The third reason is the addition of premium free-agent pickup Darious Williams. He’ll take over in the slot. Williams is quite good.

#2CB Shaquill Griffin put up the kind of coverage numbers that seem fine until you realize he had zero interceptions. It’s fine not to gamble, but in that case, you need to force more fourth downs.

2021 third-round pick Andre Cisco is taking over at free safety. He looked decent in limited usage last season. As with the rest of the roster, better coaching should help him reach his potential.

Strong safety Rayshawn Jenkins will have to hold off Andrew Wingard and 2020 fifth-round pick Daniel Thomas to keep his job. Wingard is terrible. Thomas is a safety/cornerback hybrid who gets most of his playing time on special teams. I like Jenkins’s chances.

Punter Logan Cooke is quite good. James McCourt is competing with Jake Verity for the placekicker job. I am rooting for McCourt. The coverage units were terrible. That had a lot to do with a total lack of talent on the roster. I’m expecting some competence from them this season.

Return specialist Jamal Agnew is excellent. I know, field goal, no coverage team. The Hall of Fame didn’t care. They have his cleats on display. 🙂

The Jaguars have been the worst team in the NFL two years running. I don’t think they’ll make it three. The defense has seen a massive infusion of talent. The offense should be much better with a competent coaching staff. Trevor Lawrence is going to have a realistic chance to compete and succeed this season. I’m expecting the AFC South kitties to be frisky too. 7-10.

Tennessee Titans:

2021 Record: 12-5

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.04

DVOA Wins: 7.9

FPI Wins: 8.2

Market Wins: 8.96

Implied Pythag: 54.39%

Five thoughts:

1. DVOA has three AFC South teams at 7.9 wins and one at 7.6. All four have between a 30-40% chance of making the playoffs per DVOA.

2. Speaking of DVOA, it had the Titans as the 20th-best team in the NFL last season. It also had them having the 20th-best offense.

3. The Titans had both my least favorite draft selection (Treylon Burks) and my favorite draft selection (Malik Willis). Go figure.

4. The market is more optimistic than any of the projection systems. To be fair, last year the Titans bullshitted their way into the #1 seed despite not being an elite team. Perhaps they can over-perform due to good coaching.

5. It helps to play in the AFC South. If the South had an elite team, they’d have a huge edge over their AFC competition in terms of playoff seeding.

We’ll talk about #1QB Ryan Tannehill shortly. First, I’d like to look at Malik Willis:

Malik Willis: Time to ask the tough questions: Should the Detroit Lions draft Malik Willis second overall?

Remember Willis’s 17th percentile passing EPA? Let’s put that into context.

Not a good list to be on. Willis added 0.01 points-per-dropback (From SIS). So why did I give him a first round grade? Why are teams looking to snag him in the top 10, and maybe as high as #2 overall?

(Note: LOL, no. I stand by my grade, but apparently teams were NOT looking at snagging Willis in the top 10, or as high as #2 overall. Whoops!)

In a word: Upside. His arm strength is exceptional. He can challenge defenses with his legs. He has the leadership and intangibles teams look for. We’ve seen Josh Allen and Justin Herbert take huge leaps in the pros. Willis’s athletic potential gives his coaching staff a chance to mold an elite QB.

Let’s talk a bit more about his legs. Over the past two seasons Willis rushed for 146.1 expected points added (EPA). His yardage after contact would have ranked second among running backs. When the pocket breaks down he can still gash you for 15 yards, or toss the ball for 60+ yards to a receiver breaking downfield. That’s a terrifying scenario for the defense to consider. Turning broken plays into huge plays wins games. If we could turn injuries off, Willis at #2 would make some sense to me.

The problem is, we can’t do that. The more Willis runs in the pros, the more he exposes himself to hits from linebackers and safeties moving at high speeds. That’s bad. Willis will need to modify his running style to get past the sticks and get out of bounds or slide. Maximizing rushing yardage is not the best strategy in the pros. Also, he’s had some issues with ball security. Taking extra hits won’t help with that.

So, it comes back to his arm. His accuracy on short passes needs improvement. Same with his accuracy on deep balls. Oddly, I think these are two different problems. With his short passes it feels like he was either trying to over-control them or he used his natural motion and the ball was just too fast. Imagine the smooth easy motion a pitcher has when pitching. When throwing to first, he can use that, and we should all pray for the first baseman. Alternatively, he can use a heavily awkward motion and hope it works out. This is an extreme example, but I never felt like he found the right speed/motion for short throws.

On deep passes it’s a question of touch. I expect this is something that will be easier for coaching staffs to fix with practice and proper technique. There are some concerns about his decision-making here as to whether he knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. He had a tendency to try to extend plays longer than is optimal. I’m not too concerned about that. Better coaching (and better offensive line play) will allow him to more properly calibrate the risks/rewards.

In terms of his poor passing EPA, it’s only fair that I point out Willis wasn’t given a lot of help from his offensive line. His wide receivers didn’t create much separation, either. Additionally, Liberty’s passing scheme either forced him to make a quick decision on a short pass or no decision whatsoever on a long one. Unlike Pickett, Willis wasn’t playing in a scheme designed to maximize his strengths and protect him from his weakness. Or protect him at all, really. That’s the crux of it.

Willis has the arm strength to force defenses to protect the whole field. He can beat soft coverage with lasers to the sideline. If you creep up with your safeties to protect against him on the ground, he can go over the top. Improvements in his throwing technique (read: lower body stability) will enable him to become more accurate, particularly downfield. His ceiling dwarfs that of any other player in this class. The problem is that his floor is an athletic but inaccurate QB. Any GM pulling the trigger on Willis has to trust his coaching staff to get the best out of him.

There’s something else I should note. In 2021 Willis took 51 sacks against 339 pass attempts. He only took 19 in 2020 (264 pass attempts). In 2020 his completion percentage was 64%, with an ANY/A of 8.1. In 2021 his completion percentage dropped to 61%, with an ANY/P of 6.4. Liberty’s offense broke down, Willis resorted to hero-ball, with poor results.

Would I take Willis second overall? Absolutely not. Would I take Willis ahead of Pickett? Not unless my coaching staff was banging the table for him. (Scouts can bang the table as much as they want, but it’s the coaches that have to help Willis develop.) Willis is the ultimate “Embrace the variance” selection. I believe he can be a monster in the NFL. It’s just more likely that he fails (and costs me my cushy job.)

Belay that. If a third-round quarterback fails, don’t sweat it. In 2021 the Vikings took Kellen Mond with the 66th overall pick. He didn’t make their 2022 53-man roster. That won’t be a big deal.

So why did Willis fall to the third round? I thought I was skeptical of him, but clearly not, at least not when compared to NFL GMs. We’ve seen an increased value on raw athleticism and tools. Josh Allen fixed his accuracy issues. You can correct flawed mechanics. You can’t coach popgun into a cannon.

The only thing I can think of that there’s real skepticism that their coaching staffs can fix him. There aren’t many success stories like that of Josh Allen. What strikes me is the rewards for doing so are enormous.

The reality is that while Thor Nystrom loved Malik Willis, NFL GMs weren’t sold.

Should Tannehill be looking over his shoulder?

2019: 2,742 yards, 22 TD, 6 INT, 8.1 NY/P, 28.0% DVOA, 855 DYAR (in 12 games)

2020: 3,819 yards, 33 TD, 7 INT, 7.2 NY/P, 19.6% DVOA, 1,1873 DYAR

2021: 3,734 yards, 21 TD, 14 INT, 5.9 NY/P, -11.7% DVOA, 101 DYAR

That is not a good trend. Tannehill struggled to beat defenses that regularly put eight men in the box. He also took more than his fair share of sacks. Tannehill was abysmal under pressure, which means that opponents will look to blitz him in 2022. That also has the added benefit of potentially short circuiting Derrick Henry in the backfield:

2020: 377 carries, 2,027 yards, 15.5% DVOA, 377 DYAR

2021: 219 carries, 937 yards, 2.2% DVOA, 99 DYAR (in eight games)

That’s a ton of carries for less than half the season. He had 154 yards receiving (27.3% DVOA, 45 DYAR), so he did manage to produce close to 1,100 yards-from-scrimmage. I’m not worried about Henry recovering from his broken foot. I’m worried that the accumulated wear and tear has taken away his power and explosiveness. He used to run through tackles. Now he gets the extra yard.

Rookie fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins is of a similar, if slightly smaller, mold.

Dontrell Hilliard (65 carries, 350 yards, 22.3% DVOA, 65 DYAR) will provide depth.

The Titans have added a pair of starting receivers. They traded a sixth-round pick to acquire Robert Woods:

2021: 45 receptions, 556 yards, +0.7 +/-, 12.7% DVOA, 139 DYAR (in nine games)

Woods is coming back from a knee injury. If healthy, he’s a quality target. He spent roughly 70% of the time working out of the slot and might have to spend more time outside to make space for rookie first-round pick Treylon Burks:

Treylon Burks: Not the traditional athletic profile of a potential first round pick who worked mostly from the slot. Burks is both larger and slower than the slot standards. Also, much less agile. Honestly, that was a terrible combine result for a player who looked to come off the board in the top 20. Only one first-round draft pick in NFL history was as poor in the vertical jump and three cone drill: Kelvin Benjamin. (Note: My #1WR of his class Laquon Treadwell makes an appearance in that sad tweet.) It didn’t work out for Benjamin. Anquan Boldin and Chad Johnson succeeded with that profile. That’s a short list given that there are 39 such players per Pro Football Reference.

What Burks has going for him is college success. 0.66 points-per-target in 2020, 0.63 points-per-target last year. He averaged 12.2 yards-per-target over the past two seasons. Arkansas worked hard to scheme him open. They succeeded. I’m concerned that Burks didn’t create his own opportunities as much as it was a team effort. The film makes it clear that he knew how to do his job. He found the holes in the zone, and ran his routes the way he was instructed to. I’m just not sure his skills will translate well to the next level.

If you’re showing up on lists with Kelvin Benjamin and Laquon Treadwell, we need to take a step back. Those aren’t good lists. His college production was excellent. His film was solid, but it doesn’t provide a rebuttal to his combine results. We didn’t see elite cuts to shake tight man coverage. Burks has size and competes hard. He’s a fine blocker in the running game. He might succeed in the NFL. I’m not spending a first round pick on him. Hard pass. Athleticism matters. He also needs to get the “slot penalty” applied to his college stats, as he wasn’t beating #1CBs on the outside. Burks is a day two pick for me, preferably outside of the top 50. In other words, he’ll be off the board long before I’d touch him. I wish him best of luck, hopefully outside of NY.

2020 undrafted free agent Nick Westbrook-Ikhine looks like he’ll keep no worse than the #3WR job:

2021: 38 receptions, 476 yards, +2.6 +/-, 7.6% DVOA, 91 DYAR

Like Woods and Burks, he did most of his damage from the slot. Something has to give here and I’m guessing it’s Woods moving outside.

2021 fourth-round pick Dez Fitzpatrick and rookie fifth-round pick Kyle Philips will provide depth. Fitzpatrick disappointed last season and might be playing for his job. Philips is a return specialist who will handle punt returns. He’s also a natural fit in the… slot.

Free-agent pickup Austin Hooper is the new #1TE:

2021: 38 receptions, 345 yards, -4.5 +/-, -7.9% DVOA, -3 DYAR

Hooper pays the bills with his blocking skills.

Backup Geoff Swaim is also a blocker first and foremost. He’s coming off a rough season on that front. His receiving wasn’t much better (-15.8% DVOA, -24 DYAR).

Rookie fourth-round pick Chigoziem Okonkwo is a WR/TE hybrid. My sense is he’s a developmental prospect who will do most of his damage on special teams.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan was solid, finishing 12th in my rankings. He may have been slowed by his recovery from a torn ACL. The Titans hope he can return to his previously elite form.

Aaron Brewer might be taking over at left guard from the departed Rodger Saffold. Saffold was lousy. Brewer is terrible. I say might because 2021 second-round pick Dillon Radunz is another option. Radunz is also an option at right tackle. Let me say that Radunz got obliterated in limited usage last season. He wasn’t ready to make the jump from North Dakota State to the NFL. My sense is the Titans want to give him another crack at right tackle before condemning him to the interior.

Center Ben Jones finished 12th in my rankings. I think he’s the kind of player my metrics overrate, as my eyes told me he was just league-average.

2019 third-round pick Nate Davis has developed into a mediocre right guard. They can’t all be winners.

The other option at right tackle is rookie third-round pick Nicholas Petit-Frere:

Nicholas Petit-Frere: Some awkward athletic results at the combine. Petit-Frere was one of the most highly rated OL prospects coming out of high school and I’m not sure he lived up to the hype. He played on both sides of the line at Ohio State. That may be why he’s struggled to master the position. He regularly makes mistakes in pass protection. Sometimes his natural athleticism and raw power let him get away with it. In the pros the consequences will be harsher.

I will say he was more athletic on film than his combine numbers would suggest. His real weakness was play strength. Petit-Frere wasn’t physically dominant as much as he was generally effective. Stronger NFL defenders might simply overmatch him.

I don’t think there’s anything magical about 3/8ths of an inch. Having said that, the shorter your arms are, the less margin of error you have in terms of nailing hand placement off of the snap.

Petit-Frere looks like a serviceable offensive lineman who might be able to hold a job for many years. I am not seeing elite upside from him, particularly at left tackle. Late day two value.

I’m not sold that the Titans have any good options here. I suppose it depends on how well Radunz develops after his trial-by-fire.

(Update: Brewer will start at left guard. Radunz will start at right tackle. Pray for Tennessee.)

Last season the Titans got monster seasons from 2019 first-round pick defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (8.5 sacks, 41 hits+hurries), free-agent pickup defensive end Denico Autry (nine sacks, 45 hits+hurries), and 2018 second-round pick Harold Landry (12 sacks, 47 hits+hurries).

They did not get a monster season from premium free-agent acquisition Bud Dupree (three sacks, 22 hits+hurries). He’d had 19.5 sacks in his previous 27 games. Dupree rounding back into form would go a long way helping make up for any regression from Simmons/Autry/Landry.

(Update: Landry will miss the season with a torn ACL. Ola Adeniyi will start in his place. Adeniyi had 2.5 sacks last season in Tennessee. He played mostly on special teams.)

Nose tackle Teair Tart will join Simmons and Autry on the line. Free-agent pickup DeMarcus Walker (two sacks, 22 hits+hurries) will provide depth.

2021 fourth-round pick Rashad Weaver missed most of last season with a broken fibula. He’ll provide edge depth behind Adeniyi and Dupree.

If you combined Zach Cunningham’s tackling skills with David Long’s coverage ability you’d have a solid linebacker. As is, each is a deeply flawed player. Cunningham is a poor tackler. Long is a liability in coverage. 2021 third-round pick Monty Rice might be able to put one of them on the bench when he recovers from his Achilles injury. He’s currently on the PUP list.

2020 second-round pick cornerback Kristian Fulton did a marvelous job last season. He’s been promoted to #1CB.

2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley is a known unknown. He missed almost all of last season with an ACL injury. Here’s what I wrote about him before the 2021 NFL Draft:

“Caleb Farley: This is where things get hairy. Farley has had multiple back surgeries and a torn ACL. He opted out of 2020. Farley couldn’t run at his pro day. For a lesser talent these would be a major issues. For Farley, teams will have to weigh this against the chance to pick up a potentially elite #1CB.

Farley was dominant in 2019. Four interceptions only tells part of the story. He was an absolute bitch to throw against. Elite press coverage skills. He’s a bit of a ballhawk in zone. That leads to a tradeoff where you get some interceptions and pass breakups, but you can also end up out of position and give up some big plays. I don’t generally focus on a CB’s run defense, but I have to note that Farley’s tackling is abominable. Surtain and Horn have no problem attacking the ball-carrier. Farley would rather avoid that.”

If Farley is healthy he could develop into an elite cornerback. Or not. Life’s like that sometimes.

If Farley’s sidelined, we may see rookie second-round pick Roger McCreary fill the void:

Roger McCreary: Lacks optimal measurables. Short arms showed up on film. Targeted 72 times last season. Produced -0.07 points-per-target. Comfortable in press coverage. Showed more strength on film than one would expect from his build.

McCreary has played on the outside at Auburn. He knew how to leverage the sideline as an additional defender. I’m a bit concerned he won’t be able to stay with NFL receivers outside. Larger players will overcome the press and win 50-50 balls. Speedsters will create separation. If McCreary moves inside, he’ll have to improve his route awareness.

He provided some value on special teams. That should continue at the next level.

McCreary has five interceptions over the past two seasons. That boosted his grade. However, I’m concerned that opponents felt so comfortable targeting him. With his measurables I’m not touching him until round three. Sorry Roger.

2021 third-round pick Elijah Molden developed into a quality slot cornerback. I’m expecting great things from him this season.

Free safety Kevin Byard took advantage of his centerfield role, snagging five interceptions. He was, in a word, clutch.

2019 third-round pick strong safety Amani Hooker had an odd season. On one hand, he personally gave up very few yards per-snap in coverage. However, it’s tough to tell if that was because he regularly covered the tertiary target. With cornerbacks it’s easier to tell if a player is forcing throws away from his man. Perhaps Hooker was preventing throws. If so, that is a useful skill. My issue with him is that when Hooker’s man was targeted, his numbers were poor. His tackling was also unimpressive. I will note that while there have been rumors of contract talks, the Titans didn’t rush to extend Hooker.

Free-agent pickup A.J. Moore will provide depth.

The Titans have had real trouble finding a quality kicker. Randy Bullock did a mediocre job last season. That was good enough for Tennessee, who invited him back.

Punter Breet Kern had been excellent for years. Last year his leg strength started to fade. He just got cut and has been replaced by undrafted free agent Ryan Stonehouse. Stonehouse did nice work at Colorado State.

Rookie fifth-round pick Kyle Philips is in line to return punts. Dontrell Hilliard will get a crack at the kick return duties. Returning kicks has been an issue in Tennessee for a while now. Hopefully, they’ve gotten their issues ironed out.

If Tennessee wants to host another divisional round game this season they’ll need much better play from Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill turned 34 in July and is likely well past his prime. He has a revamped wide receiver corps, but it’s anyone’s guess how it all works together. Derrick Henry is likely slowing down. Finally, there are offensive line issues that give me pause.

Defensively, the hope is that Bud Depree, Caleb Farley, and Roger McCreary boost the defense. It could happen. Defensive play is symbiotic. A strong pass rush boosts coverage and vice-versa.

One thing going for the Titans is head coach Mike Vrabel. He’s done a good job putting his team in a position to succeed. I’m expecting the Titans to be roughly league-average this season. Given the schedule, that equates to 9-8.

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens: 11-6

Cincinnati Bengals: 10-7

Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-9

Cleveland Browns: 7-10

Baltimore Ravens:

2021 Record: 8-9

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.33

DVOA Wins: 9.7

FPI Wins: 9.35

Market Wins: 10.30

Implied Pythag: 60.20%

It was weird seeing the mighty Ravens collapse last season. On November 28th, they beat Cleveland to go to 8-3. They proceeded to lose their final six games, five of them by a combined eight points. Quarterback Lamar Jackson missed the final four games with a bone bruise.

The Ravens were wrecked by injuries last season. From 2018-2020 they had gone 35-13. It would be easy to dismiss last year as a fluke. Before I dig into this season, I want to review their draft:

1-14: Safety Kyle Hamilton. 1st on my board, 4th on the consensus big board.

1-25: Center Tyler Linderbaum. 8th on my board. 14th on the consensus big board.

2-45: Edge David Ojabo. 24th on my board. 29th on the consensus big board.

3-76: Nose tackle Travis Jones. 65th on my board. 40th on the consensus big board.

4-110: Offensive tackle Daniel Faalele. 49th on my board. 60th on the consensus big board.

4-119: Cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis. 118th on my board. 110th on the consensus big board.

4-128: Tight end Charlie Kolar. 99th on my board. 117th on the consensus big board.

4-130: Punter Jordan Stout. 232nd on my board. 276th on the consensus big board.

4-139: Tight end Isaiah Likely. 75th on my board. 97th on the consensus big board.

4-141: Cornerback Damarion Williams. 222nd on my board. 256th on the consensus big board.

6-196: Running back Tyler Badie. 109th on my board. 149th on the consensus big board.

No other team picked up close to this kind of value on draft night. The Ravens focus on cornerbacks who fit their system. I don’t know what was up with the Jordan Stout selection. Every other selection was clear value on the consensus big board. Most were even more value on mine. I’m getting the sense they look for a lot of the same things I look for. It’s a shame that’s making me hate them.

Well, that’s not quite fair. Or accurate. I don’t hate the Ravens. I hate that the Jets and Giants aren’t as smart as them. The Jets passed on Hamilton and traded up for a running back in the second round. The Giants had a great first round and then were the Goofus to Baltimore’s Gallant.

Finding a franchise quarterback is the tricky part. After that, you need to give him the talent to succeed. The Ravens are doing that.

It was a rough season for franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson:

2019: 3,127 yards, 36 TD, 6 INT, 7.2 NY/P, 34.9% DVOA, 1,534 DYAR (in 15 games)

2020: 2,757 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT, 6.5 NY/P, -0.7% DVOA, 331 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 2,882 yards, 16 TD, 13 INT, 6.5 NY/P, -2.9% DVOA, 272 DYAR (in 12 games)

I should break down his rushing statistics as well:

2019: 176 carries, 1,206 yards, 20.5% DVOA, 273 DYAR (in 15 games)

2020: 159 carries, 1,005 yards, -3.6% DVOA, 69 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 133 carries, 767 carries, -2.0% DVOA, 66 DYAR (in 12 games)

The halcyon days of 2019 are long gone. We know he’s capable of carving up defenses with both his arm and his legs, but he’s struggled to do so lately. He’s going to have to try and succeed this season without his former #1WR Marquise Brown:

2020: 58 receptions, 769 yards, -2.9 +/-, -6.5% DVOA, 48 DYAR

2021: 91 receptions, 1,008 yards, -0.4 +/-, -13.9% DVOA, -14 DYAR (in 16 games)

Play below replacement-level, get replaced. Brown was part of the trade that allowed the Ravens to select Tyler Linderbaum. Jackson is going to have to make do with:

2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman

2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay

2020 sixth-round pick James Proche

2021 fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace

Bateman was slowed by a groin injury last season. He ended up with respectable results:

2021: 46 receptions, 515 yards, +3.2 +/-, 5.6% DVOA, 104 DYAR (in 12 games)

He’s now the #1WR by default.

Duvernay has done most of his damage on special teams:

2020-21: 53 receptions, 473 yards, +2.8 +/-, -14.7% DVOA, -11 DYAR (in 32 games)

He can keep a roster spot with his special teams skills (he’s excellent returning punts as well). He can’t keep the #2WR job without significant improvement.

Proche hasn’t made much of in impact:

2021: 16 receptions, 202 yards, +2.6 +/-, 36.1% DVOA, 74 DYAR (in 14 games)

Proche has seen almost all of his action from the slot. Duvernay has generally worked from the slot as well. Alas, that is a limited resource.

Wallace saw very little play in his rookie campaign (two receptions, 23 yards, -58.0% DVOA, -22 DYAR).

I’m going to level with you. I have no problems with the Ravens trading away Brown to pick up Linderbaum. I have no issue with them letting Sammy Watkins (-12.5% DVOA, 1 DYAR) walk. I was a bit surprised the Ravens weren’t more aggressive in looking at wide receivers in free agency or the draft. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a fair amount of 2TE sets.

The Ravens did make one small move in free agency, signing Demarcus Robinson:

2021: 25 receptions, 264 yards, 0.0 +/-, -8.5% DVOA, 13 DYAR

Robinson had a knack for getting in Andy Reid’s doghouse. I have very low expectations for him in Baltimore.

#1TE Mark Andrews is coming off of an excellent season:

2021: 107 receptions, 1,361 yards, +8.3 +/-, 24.6% DVOA, 310 DYAR

He did yeoman’s work in the passing game. He’ll have some help this year from two rookie fourth-round picks: Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar. Likely:

Isaiah Likely: Likely may have trouble outrunning NFL defenders, but at least he’ll leave (Jalen) Wydermyer in the dust. Likely worked in-line, out of the slot, and even on the outside at Coastal Carolina. It’s tough seeing him maintain that level of versatility at the next level.

Over the course of his college career, Likely averaged 10.8 yards-per-target (0.49 points-per-target). Last season, he scored 12 touchdowns with only one dropped pass. He didn’t face elite competition at Coastal Carolina. Even so, that’s an impressive season.

Likely was effective at blocking smaller defenders. I’m not sure that skill will translate when facing NFL-caliber defensive ends.

The hope is that Likely will be a matchup problem out of the slot. Too large for nickelbacks, too skilled and athletic for linebackers. I’m not sold the latter will be the case. Tight ends have a tough transition to the NFL, especially when jumping up from smaller schools.

I can’t fault Likely’s production or his film. The question is will he be able to develop to handle the massive leap in competition. I’d say that’s a coin-flip at best. Mid-round three value.

Kolar:

Charlie Kolar: Not bad, Mr. Kolar! He’s got size and speed. Kolar scored 20 touchdowns for Iowa State over the past three seasons. He earned his quarterback’s trust, which is what you want from a receiving tight end. Spatial awareness to be a zone-buster. Can turn on the jets (relatively speaking) to force man coverage to defend the next level. Excellent job of presenting a large target to his quarterback.

His blocking skills aren’t great. NFL strength training will help in that regard. His value will come from his receiving ability. The dude averaged 0.32 points-per-target over his college career (260 targets). He can play.

Given his NFL-level athleticism, Kolar’s ceiling is higher than his film might suggest. Solid day two selection.

It’s tough for rookie tight ends to make a huge impact, so look for Andrews to receive a ton of targets this season.

2020 second-round pick #1RB J.K. Dobbins missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The Ravens have high hopes for him this season.

#2RB Gus Edwards also missed all of last season with a torn ACL. They aren’t contagious, it just felt that way last season in Baltimore. Edwards is still on the PUP list and his return date is uncertain.

Dobbins produced 187 DYAR in his rookie campaign. Edwards produced another 212 DYAR back in 2020. The Ravens are happy to have them back.

Rookie sixth-round pick Tyler Badie will provide depth:

Tyler Badie: Small and fast. Badie is explosive in a way few backs in this class are. He did a great job of reading the play and getting upfield ASAP. I wasn’t impressed with his lateral movement. He’s a North-South runner, but not in the traditional sense of the large back who works with power. Badie likes to turn upfield and turn on the jets. He can break tackles with forward momentum if the defender can’t get square.

I would have expected him, a former basketball player, to have better hands in the passing game. He was fine with on-target throws, but anything he had to work for was an adventure.

His pass protection skills are adequate. His heart was in it. His size limits his power. His technique and instincts weren’t bad. Oddly, I’d say his best asset in pass protection is recognizing when he should release and give his quarterback a check-down option. He’ll have to improve as a receiver to provide real value in the passing game.

Badie’s explosiveness gives him a slight edge over the running backs in the bulk bin marked “fungible.” I’d be fine grabbing him late on day two.

The Ravens are praying left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns in good health. Back in 2019, he made All-Pro. He then proceeded to miss 26 games over 2020 and 2021. The root cause was an ankle injury that required multiple surgeries. Hopefully, he’ll be 100% soon.

If Stanley can go, free-agent pickup Morgan Moses will start at right tackle. Moses did a solid job there last year in NY.

(Update: Stanley is good to go.)

2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers did a solid job at left guard last season. He missed four games. 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland did a decent job filling in for Powers.

Rookie first-round pick Tyler Linderbaum is taking over at center:

Tyler Linderbaum: A tale of red and green. If you have size and strength requirements for your center, Linderbaum is not going to meet them. If you’re looking for an Iowa-trained elite athlete who knows how to play the position, you’re golden.

Linderbaum looked stronger on film than his combine results suggest. He’s a former wrestler who understands leverage. Iowa’s offense was ground-based, so most of his film shows how he handles various run-block responsibilities. He did a fine job in that respect.

Iowa’s passing game featured very few traditional five step drops. From what we’ve seen, he’s potentially vulnerable to strong bull rushes. Realistically, he’s going to need a scheme that offers him some protection in this respect. Jason Kelce played at a listed weight of 295 pounds, so it is possible to succeed at sub-300 in the NFL.

Linderbaum’s film was excellent. He faced solid competition. He’s a great athlete who lacks prototype size. Kelce was a sixth-round pick who proved he could play in the NFL before commanding a seven-figure salary. Taking a short, lightweight, short-armed center in the first round is a tough sell. My read is that the tape doesn’t lie. Linderbaum should have a long and successful NFL career. Solid first-round value so long as his limitations are mitigated by your offensive scheme.

The Ravens knew what they were getting with Linderbaum. I’m confident he’ll succeed in Baltimore.

Right guard Kevin Zeitler did excellent work with the Ravens last season, finishing in the top five of my rankings.

If Stanley can’t go, Moses might have to move to left tackle and let rookie fourth-round pick Daniel Faalele start at right tackle:

Daniel Faalele: Might be my favorite RAS profile of all time. Dude knows his times are gonna suck. Ran anyway. He’s 6-8, 384.

Faalele is a former rugby player and it shows on film. He moves better in pads than you’d expect from his combine numbers. He’s still adapting to football. Faalele’s pass protection skills are a work in progress. Because of his length and his size, it is very difficult to beat him quickly. If he can learn to play faster (IE, off of trained instincts), his upside is enormous.

I can’t stress enough how rare athletes like Faalele are. Even in the NFL, there simply aren’t men with his stature and power. Bull rushing him just isn’t going to be a thing. His length is exceptional. You can teach technique. You can’t teach 6-8, 384. I adore his upside and would be happy snagging him early round two.

(Update: Faalele will provide depth.)

Patrick Mekari can pretty much play anywhere and hold his own. That earned him a nice extension. He’ll provide quality depth wherever needed.

If Stanley is healthy, this line can be very good indeed. Without him, we might see a repeat of last season. Lamar Jackson struggled against the blitz. He didn’t trust his offensive line (or his running backs), and handled pressure quite poorly.

Even after all the injuries, the Ravens’ offense was roughly league-average. The defense finished 28th in DVOA. It, too, was hit by the injury bug. The Ravens only generated a measly 34 sacks. That’s worse than it looks because under former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale they blitzed aggressively. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has claimed he’ll remain aggressive. We’ll see.

2021 first-round pick edge rusher Odafe Oweh (five sacks, 36 hits+hurries) did a decent job. His continued development is key for the Ravens’ pass rush. Oweh will start across from Tyus Bowser (seven sacks, 27 hits+hurries) once Bowser has fully recovered from the Achilles tear he suffered in the season finale vs. Pittsburgh.

Justin Houston (4.5 sacks, 38 hits+hurries) provides quality depth. Rookie second-round pick David Ojabo will NOT be providing depth this season:

David Ojabo: Strong combine. 11 sacks last season. Strong SackSEER projection puts him a hair behind the elites. Tore his Achilles at his pro day.

Ojabo is still somewhat raw as a prospect. He’s only played American football for a few years. He’s more familiar with futbol. That may be why he is better developed in his lower body than his upper body. He wasn’t particular effective against the run. It’ll be interesting to see if he can bulk up a bit to better stand his ground without losing pass-rush explosiveness.

Even if he hadn’t injured himself, Ojabo would be viewed as a project. Offenses schemed to shut down Hutchinson, giving Ojabo freer reign. He didn’t record a single tackle in the loss to Georgia. I don’t share SackSEER’s optimism. SackSEER doesn’t take blocking into account. Ojabo is going to have to refine his game quite a bit to maintain his sack production at the next level.

Sans injury I’d view Ojabo as a borderline first-round pick. There’s no guarantee he returns to his pre-injury form. Given the setback I’m dropping him out of the top 50. Late second-round value.

It is going to take some time for Ojabo to contribute.

Defensive end Calais Campbell is getting up in years (he’ll be 36 when the season starts). He’s seen is production drop each of the past five season (14.5 sacks, 10.5 sacks, 6.5 sacks, 4 sacks, 1.5 sacks & 38 hits+hurries).

2020 third-round pick Justin Madubuike (two sacks, 11 hits+hurries) was the more effective of the two against the run.

Free-agent pickup nose tackle Michael Pierce (three sacks, four hits+hurries) will start between them. Rookie second-round pick second-round pick Travis Jones will rotate with Pierce:

Travis Jones: Excellent combine. Did serious work for Connecticut with 49 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 25 hits+hurries last season in 11 games. Second best nose-tackle prospect in the draft after Davis. I can see him developing into a player that regularly commands double teams. His technique could use a fair amount of improvement, which suggests he has a lot of upside with proper coaching.

I gave Jones a mid-day-two grade. The more I watch him the more I think he’s the second-best defensive tackle prospect in the draft. He’s a converted offensive lineman who’s still learning the position. The raw talent (plus the size) have him as the other “planet theory” lineman in the draft. I’m calling him a late round one/early round two value. I was born and raised on planet theory and I’m not changing now.

Budget free-agent pickup Brent Urban and 2020 fifth-round pick Broderick Washington (one sack, eight hits+hurries) will provide defensive line depth.

The Ravens play a base 3-3-5 most of the time. When they are in the 3-4, 2020 first-round pick Patrick Queen will start alongside Josh Bynes. Queen has been a thorough disappointment. Awful pass coverage paired with poor tackling. At least be good at something man!

Bynes is a mediocrity, which placed him well above Queen last season. He received fewer snaps, though, as the Ravens are still hoping Queen reaches his potential.

I remember thinking back in 2020 that Queen didn’t necessarily have the size and power to be a traditional linebacker and was potentially more of a linebacker/safety hybrid. I could forgive the poor tackling if he covered like a safety. Perhaps this is the year the light comes on.

2020 third-round pick Malik Harrison will provide depth. FWIW, he, too, has been a disappointment.

The Ravens’ coverage numbers collapsed pretty much across the board last season. Losing #1CB Marcus Peters for the entire season to a knee injury caused a cascade effect. #2CB Marlon Humphrey missed five games as well.

Back in 2020 Peters put together average coverage numbers, with four interceptions, against elite competition. Humphrey was excellent with Peters around. The Ravens are hoping for a return to form.

I’ll note that last season the Ravens’ pass rush might have been let down by the secondary. Fewer coverage sacks makes life harder on the edge-rushers.

Free-agent pickup Kyle Fuller looks to start in the slot. Fuller is coming off of a rough season in Denver.

2021 third-round pick Brandon Stephens might compete with Fuller for the job. Stephens played at safety last season. More on this shortly.

Rookie fourth-round picks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams are expected to provide depth while they learns the defense. Davis:

Jalyn Armour-Davis: Great straight-line speed. Three interceptions on 38 targets (-0.22 points-per-target) last season. Doesn’t have much starting experience and isn’t the kind of finished product we’re used to seeing from Alabama.

His lack of agility shows up on film. Great closing speed, but shifty receivers will create separation. It’s possible that injuries have prevented us from seeing him at his best. He’s been slowed by knee and hip injuries. This creates a fairly broad range of outcomes for Armour-Davis. He might have trouble staying on the field in the NFL, either due to injuries or diminished athleticism. Alternatively, his best football might be ahead of him.

I see Armour-Davis a project. It will take time for him to polish his skills. If medically cleared, he can provide value on special teams while developing at cornerback. I could see taking a late round three flier on him. There’s upside here (if the docs sign off).

As for Williams, he’s not an elite athlete. He played fast on film, making quick, accurate decisions. Able to handle man or zone responsibilities. Could even play free safety in a pinch. Athletic limitations aside, Williams can ball.

The Ravens revamped their safety unit. First, they signed premium free-agent free safety Marcus Williams. He’s a quality player and should provide an immediate upgrade. Then, they picked up Kyle Hamilton in the first round:

Kyle Hamilton: Long-limbed explosive athlete. Doesn’t have the premium speed that excites evaluators. Safety isn’t one of the higher-value NFL positions. He’s my highest-graded player in the draft.

Hamilton can tackle with rare power, even controlling for his size. Plays faster than his combine numbers. Can play centerfield or in the box. Averaged -0.64 points-per-target over his career at Notre Dame.

Hamilton had his share of bad angles leading to missed tackles, but he’s also been involved in far more plays than one would expect from an average safety. His quick reaction time boosts his range.

There isn’t another player in the draft I consider less likely to bust. There are players with higher ceilings. No one has a higher floor. Thus, positional value is key to determining Hamilton’s landing spot.

An elite safety can have subtle impacts in the box score, such as dropped passes or even preventing passes from being thrown in the first place. When a competent safety is replaced by a yutz, we see a cascade effect as offenses attack the weak link. My best guess is even with the positional value penalty, Hamilton is a top-five value. The expectation is that he’ll go 10th or later. I see him as a fine value pickup at that point. I’d love to see him end up in New York.

Sigh.

With Hamilton and Williams in the fold, the Ravens need to decide what they want to do with strong safety Chuck Clark. He played well last season and is a good fit with Williams. Perhaps Hamilton will inspire the Ravens to play a base big nickel with three safeties. That would allow them to put their five most talented defensive backs on the field. It does force someone to play out of position in the slot, though. We shall see.

Justin Tucker is by far the best kicker in the NFL. His presence alone makes the Ravens’ special teams the best in the league. Rookie fourth-round pick Jordan Stout is the new punter. Stout did a fine job at Penn State. He’s not a punting deity though.

Devin Duvernay did a nice job as return man, particularly on punts. Tyler Badie might chip in on kick returns. Normally, I’d be concerned putting a starting wide receiver back returning punts, but who are we kidding? The Ravens have one non-fungible WR and it’s not Duvernay.

That’s the rub. The Ravens have drafted for value and perhaps pinched pennies in free agency. Apart from 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman, the wide receiver unit is shallow. I had no problem with the Ravens selling high on Marquise Brown. Not picking up another quality wide receiver in either the draft or free agency puts Lamar Jackson in a tough spot.

It could be tricky for a value-based front office to adjust to price changes in a position. Wide receivers have clearly gone up in value. They cost more in trade, more in salary, and more in draft capital. Six of the top 18 selections were wide receivers. I’m sure the Ravens would like to give Lamar Jackson more assistance. It’s just gotten more expensive to do so.

I’m not a doctor. I’m guessing left tackle Ronnie Stanley will be available for most of the season. That might be overly optimistic. Getting back Marcus Peters and adding Marcus Williams will be huge boons to the secondary. The Ravens’ defense should be much improved. Finally, kicker Justin Tucker should be good for one win a year.

I’m not expecting Lamar Jackson to return to his 2019 form. Not with this wide receiver corps. No matter. The Ravens should still be able to grind out wins. They’re well coached with an overall solid roster. 11-6.

Cincinnati Bengals:

2021 Record: 10-7

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.46

DVOA Wins: 8.6

FPI Wins: 8.8

Market Wins: 9.63

Implied Pythag: 58.99%

Hold on, I want to give you a few more numbers.

Offensive DVOA: 18th

Defensive DVOA: 19th

Overall DVOA: 17th

2021 schedule difficulty rank: 30th

# of regular season sacks surrendered: 55

# of playoff sacks taken by Joe Burrow: 19

Time to put all of these numbers into context. The Bengals were much better than their DVOA suggests for two reasons. First, they rested their starters in the week 18 loss to Cleveland. Second, it’s a regular season measure. The Bengals were quite good in the playoffs.

As for the schedule, that is what it is. They face a much tougher slate of opponents this season.

Sacks were an enormous issue for Cincinnati. Those 19 sacks prorate to 81 over a full 17 games. Joe Burrow is tough, but c’mon man.

As for the projections, DVOA and FPI are skeptical that Cincinnati will be able to sustain success. The scouts disagree, mostly because of faith in Burrow. Let’s dig into the details and see what we find.

Joe Burrow had an excellent sophomore campaign:

2021: 4,611 yards, 34 TD, 14 INT, 7.5 NY/P, 5.1% DVOA, 585 DYAR (in 16 games)

Don’t sweat the low DYAR total. Burrow was dealing with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Burrow is a potentially elite franchise quarterback. If he can get some protection, Cincinnati will be tough to stop. Let’s take a look at where the offensive line stands heading into 2022.

2019 first-round pick left tackle Jonah Williams was the star of the line, finishing 15th in my positional rankings. Just be grateful that Burrow’s blind side received slightly above-average protection.

2021 second-round pick Jackson Carman had a miserable time at right guard last season. He’s a potential option at left guard. So is rookie fourth-round pick Cordell Volson. Volson did solid work at North Dakota State at right tackle last season. He’s played at guard as well. I’d trust his run blocking week one. I think he might need some time to learn how to block NFL interior linemen. FWIW, I did not have Volson as a round-four value. Closer to round 6-7.

(Update: It looks like Volson has won the job.)

Free-agent pickup Ted Karras did an excellent job at left guard in New England (fourth in my rankings). He’ll be moving to center, where he should be a sizable upgrade over the departed Trey Hopkins.

Free-agent pickup Alex Cappa did a fine job at right guard in Tampa Bay (sixth in my rankings). He’ll perform the same roll in Cincinnati.

Free-agent pickup right tackle La’el Collins did a mediocre job in Dallas. Flags were the major issue. I think Cincinnati won’t mind so long as he keeps Joe Burrow upright.

Cincinnati has thrown money at the problem. Is this line good? Eh, maybe? The additions of Cappa and Karras should help quite a bit. Collins is… fine. Williams is fine. I’m a bit worried about the situation at left guard, but at least there’s only one problem area. Last year, Cincinnati had four.

2021 fourth-round pick D’ante Smith will provide depth along the line.

2021 first-round pick #1WR Ja’Marr Chase is an absolute beast:

2021: 81 receptions, 1,455 yards, +4.3 +/-, 19.3% DVOA, 326 DYAR

Opponents knew Burrow was going to Chase and they still couldn’t stop him. His one weakness was drops. He dropped almost 9% of the passes sent his way. If he fixes that issue, he’ll be in the running for the title of best wide receiver in the NFL.

2020 second-round pick Tee Higgins enjoyed the space Chase provided:

2020: 67 receptions, 908 yards, +1.8 +/-, 3.9% DVOA, 142 DYAR

2021: 74 receptions, 1,091 yards, +5.3 +/-, 25.0% DVOA, 334 DYAR (in 14 games)

Higgins’s rookie season was better than it looked. Burrow was out for six games and the backup QB play was abominable. Last year he put up monster numbers. Higgins averaged 77 yards-per-game in the playoffs. Chase averaged 92.

Having Burrow, Chase, and Higgins all on rookie contracts gives the Bengals a rare opportunity to spend freely elsewhere. Hence, the offensive line rebuild.

Slot wide receiver Tyler Boyd had a fine season:

2021 67 receptions, 828 yards, +7.0 +/-, 2.2% DVOA, 109 DYAR (in 16 games)

He’s a nice third option for the Bengals.

Mike Thomas and budget free-agent pickup Trent Taylor will provide depth.

With former #1TE C.J. Uzomah now in NY, free-agent pickup Hayden Hurst will take over the job:

2021: 26 receptions, 221 yards, +3.3 +/-, -18.5% DVOA, -23 DYAR (in 13 games)

Times were tough in Atlanta, especially with Kyle Pitts getting most of the attention. Hurst has shown he can be a useful piece of the offense (28.1% DVOA, 89 DYAR in Baltimore in 2019). This is a great opportunity for Hurst to jumpstart his career.

2019 second-round pick Drew Sample is mostly a blocker. He’s good at it, so don’t feel too bad for him.

#1RB Joe Mixon had a rough season:

2021: 340 squid, 1,519 yards, -4.2% DVOA, 71 DYAR (in 16 games)

He averaged 3.9 yards-per-carry in the playoffs. 5.1 yards-per-target. Not great, Joe. Perhaps improved offensive line play will help. Run blocking wasn’t their weakness last season, though.

Samaje Perine (86 squid, 442 yards, -3.5% DVOA, 29 DYAR) and 2021 sixth-round pick Chris Evans (34 squid, 228 yards, 24.6% DVOA, 67 DYAR) will compete for the #2RB job.

The Bengals only managed 17 sacks in 2020. Last season they had a much more reasonable 42. Premium free-agent pickup defensive end Trey Hendrickson (14 sacks, 52 hits+hurries) performed admirably. Sam Hubbard (7.5 sacks, 43 hits+hurries) was much more effective with Hendrickson across the line.

2021 third-round pick Joseph Assai and 2021 fourth-round pick Cam Sample will provide depth. Ossai missed last season with a knee injury. Sample had minimal impact (1.5 sacks) in limited usage.

Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi had an excellent season (seven sacks, 34 hits+hurries). He attempted to parlay that into a huge deal with the Bears. The deal didn’t work out, as he failed his physical. He ended up signing a one-year deal with the Steelers.

His departure leaves incumbents B.J. Hill (5.5 sacks, 18 hits+hurries) and D.J. Reader (two sacks, 16 hits+hurries). Reader is a legit run-stuffer. Josh Tupou and rookie third-round pick Zachary Carter will provide depth. Carter has the size and power to play inside, but can also kick out to defensive end and rush the passer.

2020 third-round pick inside linebacker Logan Wilson had four interceptions and 98 tackles in 13 games last season. He had an additional interception in the playoffs. He’s a converted safety. If we ignore his interceptions, his overall coverage numbers are awful. It’s rather strange. I’d expect him to be generally strong in coverage given his skills. As is, he’s a gambler who’s managed more than his fair share of big wins.

Wilson has also had health issues, missing games with shoulder and ankle issues. I’m very curious what he’ll look like on the field in 2022.

2019 third-round pick Germaine Pratt is the other starting linebacker (Cincinnati runs a base 4-2-5). I still feel the same way about Pratt as I did last year: “Pratt is awful.”

Like Wilson, Pratt is a converted safety. Pratt is a terrible tackler who doesn’t produce turnovers at the same rate of Wilson.

2020 fourth-round pick Akeem Davis-Gaither might prove to be a better option if he can stay healthy. A foot injury knocked him out for half of the season. Truth be told, he’s not much of a tackler, either.

2020 seventh-round pick Markus Bailey looked solid in limited usage. He’s made most of his impact on special teams. Given the poor options ahead of him, Bailey might be able to work his way up the depth chart.

This is a weak linebacker corps. I’m not sure Cincinnati cares.

Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie had a phenomenal season. He was coming off of a poor performance in Dallas and bounced back in a huge way. Awuzie will start across from the much maligned Eli Apple.

Apple did a decent job last season. His soft coverage style does not endear him to fans. Or me for that matter. The results were fine, though.

Nickelback Mike Hilton was strangely better against the run than in coverage. Legit elite run support, but he’s got to handle the day job better.

Rookie second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt will provide depth:

Cam Taylor-Britt: Mixed bag at the combine. The straight line speed shows up on film, but so does the questionable agility and explosion. Britt had a notable number of missed tackles. He also overestimated his speed and took poor angles, leading to whiffs.

Britt has six interceptions over the past three seasons (120 targets). That goosed his grade, but they came at a cost: 0.00 points-per-target over that time. He’s taken some bad gambles and gotten burned.

It’s not all bad for Britt. He’s very good at working in a zone. He trusts his teammates and will attack when he knows he has backup. He’s played both cornerback and safety. Britt may end up as a centerfielder free safety in the NFL. With some training to properly calibrate his pursuit angles, he could be a quality ballhawk. Sub-4.4 speed is nothing to sneeze at. Solid round-three value.

Strong safety Vonn Bell and free safety Jessie Bates are one of the stronger pairings in the league. Rookie first-round pick Dax Hill provides excellent depth:

Dax Hill: Safety-cornerback hybrid. A bit small for a safety. Elite profile for a cornerback. Hill has the skills to shut down slot receivers or play free safety and fly around the field. His ceiling is quite high. Just one problem: Hill allowed 0.10 points-per-target at Michigan.

For all of his elite talent, Hill was prone to making errors in coverage. I’m not sure if it was a case of poor coaching or Hill needing more time to hone his instincts. Hill has the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. What he doesn’t have is elite results.

My feeling is Hill’s upside is as one of the top nickelbacks in the NFL. He has the tools to be great. He’s just never had a negative EPA season (negative on defense is good). First-round talent. I just wouldn’t want to be the one taking him there.

Hill might end up pressing Hilton for playing time. With the additions via the draft, this has become a fairly deep defensive backfield.

2021 fifth-round pick placekicker Evan McPherson had an excellent rookie campaign. Cincinnati has to be happy with this selection.

Incumbent punter Kevin Huber might be losing a training camp battle to Drue Chrisman. Chrisman did a fine job at Ohio State. Huber was a fifth-round pick back in 2009 and might be getting a bit past his prime. He was solid last season, though.

(Update: Huber survived.)

The Bengals return units were bollocks last season. Undrafted free-agent pickup Kwamie Lassiter II is in the running to take over both jobs. That seems odd to me, as he handled 30 punt returns and one kick return at Kansas, for zero touchdowns. Hrm.

The Bengals are looking to repeat as division champions. They’d also like to get back to the Super Bowl, but first things first. The offensive line should be much improved. Burrow might be capable of amazing things if given time. I’m not sure about tight ends or running backs. I trust Chase, Higgins, and Boyd.

Defensively, I’m worried the pass rush will regress without Larry Ogunjobi. He was a legitimate difference-maker. On the plus side, the secondary has received an injection of young talent. The depth there should pay dividends.

The Bengals look like a better team overall then they were last year. The schedule is much tougher. I expect those two things will cancel each other out. 10-7.

Cleveland Browns:

2021 Record: 8-9

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.22

DVOA Wins: 7.6

FPI Wins: 9.65

Market Wins: 8.00

Implied Pythag: 47.08%

I can’t speak for ESPN’s FPI, but I can tell you scouting wins does NOT take suspensions into account. Normally, the effects are minor. In this case, we’re looking at a material difference.

That material difference illuminates the reason the Browns were so willing to do anything to acquire Deshaun Watson. In terms of winning football games, he matters:

2020: 4,823 yards, 33 TD, 7 INT, 7.7 NY/P, 20.2% DVOA, 1,222 DYAR

That’s what he accomplished on an awful Houston Texans squad that ended up going 4-12. At last sighting, Watson was one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’ll turn 27 in September. The fact that he’s a sexual predator didn’t stop teams from prostrating themselves before him. He was able to negotiate an unprecedented $230M guaranteed deal with protections against the presumed incoming suspension.

I should point out that he wasn’t a free-agent. He was still on his rookie contract. The fact that the Texans wanted him gone gave him unique leverage. Note: the Browns gave him that contract on top of sending Houston three first-round picks, plus a third-round pick, and two fourth-round picks. The Browns also got a sixth-round pick back.

That’s how much a team is willing to pay to acquire a franchise quarterback. Damaged goods? Facing a suspension? Ain’t no thang. After the suspension was finalized, Watson immediately backtracked on any half-hearted apologies. His position could be best summed up by the modern philosopher Cartman.

So, after 12 weeks (11 games) the Browns will have their franchise quarterback. Until then, Jacoby Brissett has the wheel:

2021: 1,283 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT, 4.7 NY/P, -183 DYAR (in 11 games)

Make no mistake: This is team looking to compete in 2023 and beyond. Expectations for Brissett can be found somewhere in the Mariana Trench. The Browns would be happy to sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card. If that happens, who knows?

The Browns made another roster move that should have been controversial: releasing, and then not re-signing center J.C. Tretter. Tretter played through injuries last season but finished eighth in my positional rankings. He was quite good. Being NFLPA President is hazardous to your career.

In fact, it can be hazardous to your legacy as well, as Billy Howton can attest. TLDR: Howton was one of the founders of the NFLPA. He served as president, which led to Vince Lombardi shipping him out of town. He was enshrined into the Packers Hall of Fame. When he retired, he led the league in career receptions and yards. He never was considered as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To quote the bomb defusing robot from Robot Chicken: “This is some serious bullshit!”

Look, I don’t imagine you care about sixty year-old HoF snubs. I just wanted to point out what NFL teams find damaging. As the record shows, sexual assault can be worked around. Player advocacy is a deal-breaker. Marvin Miller’s Hall of Fame candidacy in baseball told the same story.

(Update: Tretter remains a free agent.)

FWIW, the Browns have replaced Tretter with budget free-agent pickup Ethan Pocic. Pocic finished 24th in my positional rankings. Not exactly a “win-now” move.

The Browns upgraded their wide receiver corps. First, they traded for #1WR Amari Cooper:

2019: 79 receptions, 1,189 yards, +6.2 +/-, 22.3% DVOA, 324 DYAR

2020: 92 receptions, 1,114 yards, +7.1 +/-, 4.7% DVOA, 184 DYAR

2021: 68 receptions, 865 yards, +5.6 +/-, 8.0% DVOA, 179 DYAR (in 15 games)

Watson-to-Cooper will likely be one of the better combos in the league fairly soon.

Cooper will be joined by rookie third-round pick slot receiver David Bell:

David Bell: Welp! And yet, his film was impressive! He produced for Purdue despite defenses knowing he was getting the ball:

2021: 133 targets, 93 receptions, 1,275 yards, 6 TD, 0.51 points-per-target, 12.6 yards-per-target,

Bell does so many things right, from route-running, to ball protection, to getting extra yards in traffic. He wasn’t gifted with elite athleticism. Even so, he’s learned how to beat defenses. His catch radius is larger than his size suggests.

Bell has impressed me with his toughness. I wish he brought more of that toughness to his run-blocking.

Does Bell have the athleticism to play in the NFL? I… don’t know. His film says he’s got what it takes to get open and catch the ball. The stats back that up. But his combine numbers are truly dreadful. That could doom him if he can’t separate from NFL coverage. Third-round value for me with unusually high variance.

2020 sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones is a legitimate deep threat:

2021: 58 receptions, 597 yards, +0.4 +/-, 13.1% DVOA, 122 DYAR (in 14 games)

He’s never played with an elite NFL quarterback with a strong arm. He might be a scary mofo when paired with Watson.

2021 third-round pick Anthony Schwartz is likely going to do most of him damage on special teams. It’s a shallow depth chart, so any injuries would open up a window.

Free-agent pickup return specialist Jakeem Grant might be out for the season with an Achilles tear.

Rookie sixth-round pick Michael Woods does a nice job of presenting a large target while muscling out smaller cornerbacks. He may end up winning the #4WR job.

#1TE David Njoku is finally ready for his close up:

2021: 36 receptions, 475 yards, -0.4 +/-, 12.8% DVOA, 71 DYAR

Backup 2020 fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant will receive plenty of playing time as well:

2021: 21 receptions, 233 yards, +2.9 +/-, 19.6% DVOA, 54 DYAR

#1RB Nick Chubb is among the best in the league:

2021: 253 squid, 1,433 yards, 12.2% DVOA, 241 DYAR (in 14 games)

Look for the Browns to lean on Chubb before Watson makes his premiere.

The oft-injured Kareem Hunt is battling rookie fifth-round pick Jerome Ford for the #2RB job:

Jerome Ford: Small and speedy. His build suggests he’s a bit like a human bowling ball, but he was actually more of a boom-bust runner. Showed some nice jump-cuts at the line of scrimmage to find the hole.

Ford has the build to excel in pass protection. He may have better receiving skills than he was asked to showcase at Cincinnati. He was an efficient receiver, if not an oft-targeted one.

My sense is that Ford has more upside than his college statistics would suggest. I would have liked to see better pass protection on film, as well as a larger role in the passing game. With what I’ve seen, Ford is an early fourth-round value.

Ford makes for a nice change of pace from Chubb. As for Hunt:

2021: 106 squid, 560 yards, 10.7% DVOA, 99 DYAR (in eight games)

Hunt is much better than the fungible replacement player… when healthy. That’s the rub. He had 212 DYAR over a full season in 2020. Missing 17 games over three years is the kind of thing that makes GMs nervous.

2020 first-round pick left tackle Jedrick Wills finished 25th in my positional rankings last season. He hasn’t taken the leap the Browns were expecting. Perhaps this is the year things come together.

Left guard Joel Bitonio is elite. He finished fifth in my rankings.

As noted earlier, the Browns are replacing former center J.C. Tretter with Ethan Pocic. That’s a clear downgrade.

Right guard Wyatt Teller is the kind of player my rankings misevaluate. He finished 17th in my rankings due to penalties. He was an absolute monster in the running game. He’s an asset for the Browns.

Right tackle Jack Conklin is trying to come back from a torn patellar tendon. If healthy, he can play at an elite level.

2021 fourth-round pick James Hudson struggled last season. He may need more seasoning. I’m not sure the Browns have better options, though. Blake Hance got obliterated in pass protection last season.

Getting a healthy Conklin back will more than make up for the loss of Tretter. The real potential gain is if Wills can finally live up to his draft status.

Defensive ends Myles Garrett (16 sacks, 61 hits+hurries) and Jadeveon Clowney (nine sacks 41 hits+hurries) can play. That’s an elite pair of starters.

Rookie third-round pick Alex Wright will provide depth. Wright had six sacks last season at UAB. This is going to be a tougher challenge. We don’t have much athletic data on Wright. He’s considered a project. I guess the good news is that he’ll get plenty of reps early.

That’s partly because free-agent pickup Stephen Weatherly is out for the season.

Budget free-agent pickup Isaac Rochell is going to get a chance to reboot his career in Cleveland. Rochell had five sacks in San Diego in 2018. None last year.

Chase Winovich fell out of favor in New England last season. He had 11 sacks over the previous two years. Given the depth chart, he should see some playing time in Cleveland.

Free-agent pickup Taven Bryan will pair with 2020 third-round pick Jordan Elliott on the interior. 2021 fourth-round pick Tommy Togiai and rookie fourth-round pick Perrion Winfrey will provide depth:

Perrion Winfrey: Hmm… He was a bit slow off the ball. 5.5 sacks and 18 hits+hurries for a player primarily playing nose-tackle is nothing to sneeze at. Decent at knifing through double teams, but if that fails, they’ll put him on roller skates. Not the strongest space-eater. Can be moved off the spot, particularly if the offensive lineman gets the jump on him. That’s the rub with Winfrey. He wasn’t bad at creating tackles for a loss, but opponents could attack him with success.

Will Winfrey be able to improve his reaction times off the snap? If not, success will be hard to come by at the next level. He only had 23 tackles last season. He had 40 in his career (20 games). I’m highly leery of trusting Winfrey to produce in the NFL. He’s got the size and physique. I’m just not sold on his consistency. Third-round value for me (due to his impressive Senior Bowl and potential upside).

Togiai was used sparingly last season. Bryan might spend some time at defensive end given the paucity of options there. Winfrey might end up getting a lot of playing time. Like Chong Li, this unit might be a little soft in the gut.

Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are returning at linebacker. Owusu-Koramoah excelled in coverage. He’s a linebacker/safety hybrid. His tackling wasn’t great. That’s what the Browns signed up for. His range and coverage skills suggest he’ll be a quality player fairly soon.

Walker was… fine I guess? He does a good job diagnosing plays and getting to the point of attack. I was never impressed watching him.

2019 third-round pick Sione Takitaki will start in base 4-3 formations. He played sparingly last season. This year it’s go time.

2020 third-round pick Jacob Phillips will provide depth.

#1CB Denzel Ward is elite. The Browns would love to get a full season out of him.

2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams has shown flashes of greatness. He’s found it hard to take the next step. It’s a solid pairing given Ward’s pedigree.

2021 first-round pick Greg Newsome is moving into the slot. I thought he had a rough season. Other viewers were more charitable. We’ll see how he does in his new role.

Rookie third-round pick Martin (MJ) Emerson will provide depth. Emerson only had one interception in his college career. That might not be his fault, as his presence steered passes towards other targets. His profile suggests the Browns want him to help avoid mismatches from athletic tight ends or larger wide receivers.

Free safety John Johnson did a commendable job last season.

2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit is competing with Ronnie Harrison for the strong safety job. Harrison is the better tackler. Delpit is… exciting? Here’s what I wrote about Delpit before the 2020 draft:

Grant Delpit: Can play centerfield or in the slot. Solid man and zone coverage skills. Elite range and athleticism. Plays a physical brand of football. Perhaps too physical. He played through numerous ailments and it clearly hampered his performance. There’s also the issue of his tackling technique. He goes for the knockout hit, with inconsistent results. His ceiling makes him my favorite safety in the class. However, it’s McKinney who is the consensus first safety off the board. Delpit will need to learn how to play without taking so much punishment. I expect he’ll be a tremendous value to whomever drafts him, especially if he falls to the second round as expected.

We’re still waiting for Delpit to reach his potential. I don’t think he’s as good in the box as Harrison. However, Johnson has the deep safety job locked up. Delpit might be the wrong fit for the Browns. Or, perhaps the light will come on, he’ll win the starting job, and never look back. If so, Harrison will provide quality depth.

Rookie fourth-round pick Cade York is taking over the placekicker responsibilities. He should be an upgrade. Free-agent pickup punter Corey Bojorquez is solid.

With Jakeem Grant injured, Demetric Felton looks like he’ll handle the bulk of the return responsibilities. He’s mediocre. The Browns tried to improve here. It just didn’t work out.

There’s going to be a media circus when Deshaun Watson returns for his first game back. In Houston. Until he returns, the Browns’ offense looks set to struggle. Jacoby Brissett is nothing more than a stopgap option.

The defense will be weak against opposing running games. As weaknesses go, that’s the right one to choose. Still a weakness, though.

The Browns have a fair amount of talent. If they sneak into the playoffs, they’ll be a dangerous out. I don’t see that happening, though. Brissett is going to put them in a huge hole. Watson won’t be able to dig them out. 7-10.

Pittsburgh Steelers:

2021 Record: 9-7-1

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 5.2

DVOA Wins: 8.2

FPI Wins: 6.6

Market Wins: 7.54

Implied Pythag: 46.53%

Whoa boy. Those projections are all over the place. The scouts don’t think Pittsburgh has a quarterback. I can’t speak about FPI. DVOA thought Ben Roethlisberger and his backup Mason Rudolph were terrible (42 combined DYAR). As such, it has the Steelers quite similar to how they were last season.

As for the market, the expectation is that the Steelers will be lousy. Not terrible. Just lousy. Let’s dig in.

New #1QB Mitch Trubisky has produced 66 DYAR over the past three seasons (-10.5% DVOA). You could blame his troubles in Chicago on multiple factors. He was still below replacement-level in Buffalo last season (-15 DYAR). Not great, Mitch. He’s a placeholder until rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett is ready to start:

Kenny Pickett:

The last time a quarterback prospect with 8.5 inch hands was in the draft, he went first overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Alas, Michael Vick ran a 4.33 40 and Pickett ran a 4.73. Michael Vick only completed 192 passes in college (3,299 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT).

Last year Pickett completed 334 passes for 4,319 yards, 42 TD, 7 INT. He averaged 8.8 ANY/A. Solid athletic profile. Frankly, these are the kind of numbers we’d expect from a potential 1st overall pick. The dude broke Dan Marino’s passing records. Additionally, Pickett’s thumb is double-jointed, so he can get a better grip on the football than his hand size would suggest.

So why did I gave him a late first round grade?

1. One year wonder.

2017 EPA: 0.0

2018 EPA: -81.4

2019 EPA: -60.8

2020 EPA: 1.3

2021 EPA: 88.4

He went from meh to suck to suck to meh to a Heisman candidate. Before 2021, his TD-INT ratio was 39-25.

2. Arm strength. He gets a passing grade here, whereas Malik Willis gets an A+. Pickett’s deep balls had a tendency to end up underthrown. Sure, that will get you the occasional DPI, but it also allows the coverage to make a play on the ball.

3. Age. Normally that isn’t something I focus on, but Pickett turns 24 in June. When it comes to NFL success, early success is more predictive. Having said that, Joe Burrow was a late bloomer as well.

4. Grace under pressure. Pickett actually had decent numbers against pressure due to his athleticism and mobility. The problem is, years of poor offensive line play taught him not to trust his offensive line, so he created pressure by breaking the pocket (usually to his right) when he didn’t need to.

5. Scheme. In college he was asked to make the reads and throws that fit his skill set. In the NFL, defenses will take away what he wants to do, so it’s a bit tougher. I’m reasonably confident Pickett can succeed in a West Coast offense that takes advantage of his mental processing and accuracy, especially on short-to-midrange balls. Think of him as a proper heir to old man Drew Brees.

I’m willing to cut Pickett some slack on his prior seasons performance. He really did develop, both mentally and physically. He’ll be able to develop a (marginally) stronger arm in the NFL. The “happy feet” in the pocket issue is something coaches will be working with him on from day one. If they can get him to properly calibrate the clock in his head, he’ll be in good shape.

Pickett is legit. I don’t buy the takes that his ceiling is low. He’s my #1 QB in the class, both by grade and personal opinion. He developed into an elite college quarterback last season. I’d be fine taking him early in the first round, especially if I had a flexible and enlightened coaching staff that would design their offense to maximize Pickett’s strengths. The hand size thing is a red herring. Top 10 value IMHO.

It’s fair to say that the Steelers are in a transitional period. I expect them to start Pickett as soon as they feel like he’s ready to take his lumps. Most likely he’ll get his ass kicked, as that is the norm for rookie quarterbacks.

2019 third-round pick wide receiver Diontae Johnson is playing for a new contract:

2020: 88 receptions, 923 yards, -7.9 +/-, -19.1% DVOA, -73 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 107 receptions, 1,161 yards, -2.6 +/-, -7.6% DVOA, 68 DYAR (in 16 games)

Playing with Old Man Roethlisberger did not help his cause. Now he will try to put up big numbers with Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett. Good luck with those contract negotiations, Mr. Johnson.

George Pickens: Good news: He’s tall and fast! Bad news: He suffered an ACL tear that caused him to miss most of 2021. He ran a fairly limited route tree so it’s tough to get a good read on his skills.

Pre-injury he looked like a potentially elite outside receiver. He had shown both separation skills and excellent hands. His speed has returned. It’s less clear that he’ll have the agility to separate.

He played with decent power given his thin frame. It would be great if he could bulk up a bit without sacrificing speed or health. As is, larger NFL cornerbacks will be able to bully him

I love Pickens’s hands. Combine that with his large catch radius and you have a receiver whom quarterbacks can trust. What I don’t know is how much agility he’s retained post-injury. He only had five receptions last season. This bomb in the NCAA Championship Game was sweet, but it only showed off his speed. It was also his only catch in the game.

So what to make of Pickens? He’s a medical red flag. I can’t speak to whether or not he’s damaged goods. If he’s expected to return to his pre-injury form, he’s a second-round value. If not… sorry.

Since I wrote that, we’ve received two bits of good news on Pickens. The first is that the Steelers felt comfortable selecting him in the second round. Had Pickens slid into day three, that would have told us something about his medical review.

The second is his preseason play. He’s looked good. He’s shown an ability to beat vanilla defenses. His blocking has also been a plus. He hasn’t reached his pre-injury form. That will take time if it happens at all. There are reasons to be optimistic about Pickens.

2020 second-round pick Chase Claypool had a rough go of it in Ben’s final season:

2021: 59 receptions, 860 yards, -5.9 +/-, -5.2% DVOA, 64 DYAR (in 15 games)

To be blunt, Claypool hasn’t lived up to the Steelers’ expectations. That’s true for Johnson as well. It’s hard to say how much of that is due to them playing with a decrepit quarterback. Roethlisberger’s limitations affected the kind of routes they could run. The defense knew it too, which made it more difficult to create separation.

Rookie fourth-round pick Calvin Austin is an undersized speedster. His job will be to stretch defenses. He should also get a look as a return specialist.

2021 second-round pick #1TE Pat Freiermuth had an impressive rookie campaign given the circumstances:

2021: 60 receptions, 497 yards, +2.5 +/-, 2.6% DVOA, 51 DYAR (in 16 games)

A rookie tight end having a positive DVOA when defenses are putting eight men in the box to stop the short passing game is insane. I expect Freiermuth’s future is so bright he has to wear shades.

2019 fifth-round pick Zach Gentry and rookie sixth-round pick Connor Heyward will provide depth. If you’re wondering if Heyward is related to the late Ironhead Heyward and Cam Heyward, the answer is yes. He’s Ironhead’s son and Cam’s brother. Connor is a former running back who switched to tight end. He may end up as a fullback in Pittsburgh.

2021 first-round pick #1RB Najee Harris was an absolute workhorse:

2021: 401 squid, 1667 yards, -7.0% DVOA, 47 DYAR

Again, we have to note the context. Defenses were sitting shallow. The Steelers’ offensive line was bollocks. Harris gave a monster effort. That’s not to say he was worth a first-round pick. Fixing the offensive line and finding a quarterback has more relevance to team success (and rushing success FWIW).

2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell will provide depth.

2021 fourth-round pick Dan Moore made 16 starts at left tackle last season. His pass protection is a work in progress. The best-case scenario is last year proves to be a learning experience and he returns as a more polished player.

2021 third-round pick Kendrick Green got his butt kicked at center last season. He’s competing with 2020 fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson for the starting left guard job. Dotson has dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries, missing 11 games over two seasons. He did a decent job when available in 2021. He hurt his ankle in the preseason. If he’s healthy enough to start week one, he should get the nod.

(Update: Dotson is indeed starting.)

Free-agent pickup Mason Cole is taking over at center. He was mediocre in Minnesota. To be fair, mediocre is an upgrade over what Pittsburgh dealt with last season.

Free-agent pickup James Daniels will start at right guard. He finished 24th in my rankings. His run-blocking is a plus I have difficulty quantifying. I’d suggest he’s a downgrade over the departed Trai Turner, but Turner signed for peanuts. Money talks and Turner is clearly not the player he once was.

Right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor finished 12th on my rankings. Penalty issues aside, he was solid.

As you might imagine, the depth here is shallow. There’s something amusing about the Steelers’ offensive line. In an Andy Kaufman-esque kind of way.

The Steelers’ defense fell from 1st overall in DVOA in 2020 to 14th in 2021. It wasn’t TJ Watt’s fault, though (22.5 sacks, 41 hits+hurries). Watt is the premier edge-rusher in the league. He’ll start across from 2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith (six sacks, 31 hits+hurries).

The Steelers traded for Malik Reed (five sacks, 21 hits+hurries) to add some pass-rush depth.

Free-agent pickup Larry Ogunjobi (seven sacks, 34 hits+hurries) will join nose tackle Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward (ten sacks, 41 hits+hurries) to form a loaded defensive line. Alualu missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury. He was elite in 2020. Without his veteran presence, the Steelers’ run defense collapsed.

I should note Ogunjobi almost signed with the Bears, but he failed his physical. The Steelers seem to think he’ll be fine.

Chris Wormley (seven sacks, 17 hits+hurries), 2021 fifth-round pick Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Montravius Adams will provide depth. There’s a reason the Steelers had 55 sacks last season, 56 in 2020, and 54 in 2019.

Rookie third-round pick DeMarvin Leal will join the rotation as well:

DeMarvin Leal: Solid athlete. Coming off an 8.5 sack season (30 hits+hurries). Did most of his damage at end. Two problems for Leal

1. What position is he? Despite the 8.5 sacks, he doesn’t project to be an edge rusher in the NFL. He’s undersized on the interior. Where will he be able to find his niche?

2. Beat up against weaker competition. Didn’t manage a sack against Evan Neal of Alabama. Managed some coverage sacks against Charles Cross of Missisippi State, but clearly lost the battle.

Whoever takes him should do so with a plan for how Leal should develop at the next level. My guess is he’ll be best served a 4-3 DT with some pass-rush upside. Late round two value.

Given the 3-4 system, I expect Leal will be used mostly at defensive end.

2019 first-round pick Devin Bush and free-agent pickup Myles Jack will start at inside linebacker. The Steelers declined Bush’s fifth-year option. He’s never become an impact player. It’s a contract year, so if he has another gear, now’s the time to show it.

Jack was awful last season. The hope is that his knee is finally healthy and he’ll live up to his star promise. Either that, or both Jack and Bush might be off the roster in 2023.

In terms of depth, Robert Spillane is much worse than a clearly hobbled Myles Jack. We haven’t seen much from 2021 fourth-round pick Buddy Johnson. Perhaps he’ll surprise us.

Free-agent pickup cornerback Levi Wallace will join Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon. Wallace had good numbers last season but the money (or lack thereof) is telling. He also did not have a good final game with Buffalo, but I can’t imagine one game would have a huge effect on his market value.

Sutton will likely be returning to the slot, which is a better fit for his skill set. That leaves Witherspoon to start across from Wallace.

Witherspoon only appeared in nine games last season. He put up excellent numbers in limited usage. Three interceptions in 368 snaps is big game.

James Pierre and Arthur Maulet will provide depth. I don’t trust either as the dime cornerback. 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne contributes mostly on special teams. Good health is key for this unit.

Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick remains elite. The Steelers recognized his value to the defense. Dude got paid.

The Steelers had passed on strong safety Terrell Edmunds’ fifth-year option. He played well enough to earn a one year deal. He’s going to try and build on his performance from last season.

Budget free-agent pickup Damontae Kazee and Tre Norwood will provide depth.

Kicker Chris Boswell is quite good. 2021 seventh-round pick punter Pressley Harvin had an awful rookie campaign. He’ll need to do better to keep his spot on the roster.

Free-agent pickup Gunner Olszewski and rookie fourth-round pick Calvin Austin will boost the return units.

The Steelers are in a transitional period. They will eventually be Kenny Pickett’s team. It’s just a matter of when. They made one nice move I haven’t talked about yet, signing Brian Flores. His presence should boost the defense. Dude can coach. The pass rush should remain elite. Getting back Alualu will help the run defense.

The sooner Pickett starts, the better things are for the Steelers long-term. For now, Trubisky can take the heat off. The Steelers have a habit of bouncing back quickly. I expect them to be reasonably tough this season. 8-9.

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

AFC East:

Buffalo Bills: 12-5

New England Patriots: 9-8

Miami Dolphins: 8-9

New York Jets: 5-12

Buffalo Bills:

2021 Record: 11-6

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.55

DVOA Wins: 10.2

FPI Wins: 10.95

Market Wins: 11.89

Implied Pythag: 71.90%

The Bills have now ended their last two seasons with losses at Kansas City. This time they had the Chiefs close to down and out:

But Patrick Maholmes and Andy Reid are built different.

The Bills’ prevent defense surrendered a field goal and the Chiefs won in overtime. Another long offseason in Buffalo.

One question to ask: Why was the game in Kansas City in the first place? Buffalo had the easiest schedule in the NFL last season. Why did they end up going 11-6? The biggest reason: Josh Allen regressed quite a bit:

2019: 3089 yards, 20 TD, 9 INT, 5.8 NY/P, -11.8% DVOA, 79 DYAR

2020: 4,544 yards, 37 TD, 10 INT, 7.3 NY/P, 25.9% DVOA, 1,534 DYAR

2021: 4,407 yards, 36 TD, 15 INT, 6.3 NY/P, 4.9% DVOA, 842 DYAR

After 2020, the thought was that Allen had figured it out. He was going to be a monster and rule the AFC East, and perhaps the AFC itself. Instead, he pretty much split the difference between 2019 and 2020. His accuracy issues came roaring back, particularly on short-to-midrange touch passes. Somehow, Jacksonville held the Bills to six points. Brutal.

Allen turned it on in the playoffs, producing 390 DYAR in two games. My guess is he’ll correct some of the issues that plagued him last season. We know he’s capable of greatness. Now he just needs to find more consistency.

#1WR Stefon Diggs bore the brunt of Allen’s regression:

2020: 127 receptions, 1,535 yards, +17.4 +/-, 15.8% DVOA, 377 DYAR

2021: 103 receptions, 1,225 yards, +5.2 +/-, 0.5% DVOA, 178 DYAR

Diggs had a particularly brutal playoff game at Kansas City, producing a grand total of 7 yards on six targets (-32 DYAR). I’m sure he’s very excited to get the season started and move on.

2020 fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis had a breakout game in Kansas City:

2020: 35 receptions, 599 yards, -1.3 +/-, 10.7% DVOA, 115 DYAR

2021: 35 receptions, 549 yards, -2.5 +/-, 9.2% DVOA, 111 DYAR

2021 Div Round: eight receptions, 201 yards, 121 DYAR

He’s now firmly entrenched in the #2WR role.

The Bills signed Jamison Crowder to take over the slot from the departed Cole Beasley.

2021: 51 receptions, 447 yards, -0.5 +/-, -12.3% DVOA, 2 DYAR (in 12 games)

I can forgive the poor production. I watched this Jets offense every week. It wasn’t pretty. The real concern is the missed games. Crowder has missed nine games over the past two seasons. If Crowder has trouble staying on the field, Isaiah McKenzie will try to take his job:

2021: 20 receptions, 178 yards, +2.4 +/-, 6.2% DVOA, 40 DYAR (in 15 games)

McKenzie also did some damage on the ground:

2021: 9 carries, 47 yards, 87.8% DVOA, 49 DYAR (in 15 games)

Perhaps he’ll be a poor man’s Deebo Samuel in Buffalo.

2019 third-round pick tight end Dawson Knox is coming off of his best season:

2021: 49 receptions, 587 yards, +0.9 +/-, 18.4% DVOA, 126 DYAR (in 15 games)

He’d produced -36 DYAR in his first two seasons. His development gives Allen at least three targets he can trust.

2019 third-round pick Devin Singletary has struggled to break out in Buffalo:

2020: 206 squid, 956 yards, -9.2% DVOA, 12 DYAR

2021: 238 squid, 1,098 yards, -2.1% DVOA, 66 DYAR

He’ll be part of a committee with 2020 third-round pick Zach Moss (-3.0% DVOA, 39 DYAR), free-agent pickup Duke Johnson (13.9% DVOA, 80 DYAR), and rookie second-round pick James Cook:

James Cook: Another fast Georgia back. James is the younger brother of Dalvin Cook. He was the third-down scatback for Georgia. He’s can work out of the slot and torment linebackers. Solid receiving skills out of the backfield. A bit too small to be an elite blocker. I respected the effort he gave in that role.

Cook prefers to run outside and turn upfield as soon as possible. He had a tendency to run out of bounds instead of sacrificing himself for some extra yardage. It didn’t bother me watching on film, and I suspect his coaches accepted that’s just his style.

James isn’t as big as his older brother, which will limit his effectiveness as a runner. His value as a scatback makes him an early day three value for me.

Between adding Johnson and Cook, it’s clear the Bills want running backs whom they trust as receivers. As you might expect, I was not a fan of the Cook selection. I don’t know why contenders like drafting running backs. I do know I would have been more focused on improving the defense or the offensive line.

To be fair, I only see one clear weak link on the offensive line. Left tackle Dion Dawkins is solid. So is free-agent pickup left guard Rodger Saffold. Same with center Mitch Morse. They finished 14th, 16th, and 11th in my respective positional rankings. Free-agent pickup right tackle David Quessenberry finished 16th as well, although in his case I have suspicions it was more about the system than his individual performance.

My real concern is right guard. 2019 second-round pick Cody Ford was awful last season. Ryan Bates took over and did a bit better. My sense was that Bates was a bit overmatched. This is a position to keep an eye on. If Bates struggles, I’m not sure the Bills have good options.

2021 third-round pick Spencer Brown will provide depth at tackle.

Had Allen not declined, the Bills would have been juggernauts last season. Their defense went from good to great, finishing first in DVOA. They played base nickel almost exclusively.

The defense is going to look different this year as they are replacing:

Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: 474 snaps, one sack, 18 hits+hurries

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei: 317 snaps, three sacks, eight hits+hurries

Defensive tackle Vernon Butler: 285 snaps, no sacks, six hits+hurries

Defensive end Jerry Hughes: 558 snaps, two sacks, 41 hits+hurries

Defensive end Mario Addison: 482 snaps, seven sacks, 29 hits+hurries

Defensive end Efe Obada: 237 snaps, 3.5 sacks, 13 hits+hurries

Cornerback Levi Wallace: 994 snaps, two interceptions

They are also losing linebacker A.J. Klein, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. This is a lot of turnover, particularly on the defensive line. Let’s see how the Bills can try and make up for the lost production.

2021 first-round pick defensive end Gregory Rousseau (four sacks, 24 hits+hurries) is going to start across from premium free-agent pickup Von Miller (9.5 sacks, 38 hits+hurries). 2021 second-round pick Carlos Basham (2.5 sacks, six hits+hurries) and 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa (1.5 sacks, 20 hits+hurries) will provide depth. The expectation is that Basham and Epenesa are ready to break out if given the opportunity. As for Von Miller, he just needs to keep up the good work.

2019 first-round pick defensive tackle Ed Oliver (four sacks, 33 hits+hurries) is returning. He’ll work with free-agent pickup DaQuan Jones (one sack, 19 hits+hurries). Jordan Philips is also returning to Buffalo after an injury-plagued run in Arizona. Tim Settle will provide depth.

Tremaine Edmunds is effectively the Bills’ box linebacker. Matt Milano is the coverage linebacker. Edmunds excels attacking the line of scrimmage and is a real weapon against opposing running games. Milano is superb in coverage. He also picked up three sacks last season. Rookie third-round pick Terrel Bernard is an excellent undersized athlete. He could end up being a pass-rush specialist while providing most of his value on special teams.

#1CB Tre’Davious White is trying to come back from an ACL tear. The hope is that he’ll be available for week one, but the Bills could stash him on the PUP list and have him back in week five. He was dominant last season. His health will be key for the Bills’ Super Bowl chances.

(Editor’s note: He’ll start the season on the PUP list.)

The Bills hope to start White across from rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam:

Kaiir Elam: Good athlete, but the agility issues showed up on film. Flagged seven times in 2021. Was only targeted 25 times last season (-0.40 points-per-target).

Comfortable in press coverage. Does a nice job of staying in contact with his man on shorter routes. Despite his speed, has real difficulty sticking close on deep routes. Loses too much speed turning his hips.

His run support is often graded N/A. Preferred to be blocked and not have to make a play on the ball carrier. You can coach him up, but you can’t change what’s in his heart.

It’s tough to pin Elam down. He has the build of a #1 cornerback. I don’t think the penalties are a fluke. He might have real trouble sticking with #1WR’s at the next level. First-round measurables, but I’d pass. Round two value.

2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson will start if White isn’t available. He did a mediocre job in limited usage last season.

(Editor’s note: The Bills secondary is going to be vulnerable for the first month of the season.)

Nickelback Taron Johnson is coming off of an excellent season. He’s an elite slot defender.

Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer each snagged five interceptions last season. They excelled at defending deep without committing penalties. This is a solid pairing with no clear weakness. There’s no proven depth behind them, so continued good health is key.

2020 sixth-round pick kicker Tyler Bass had another excellent season. His strong leg gives the Bills an edge. Punter Matt Haack struggled last season. Enter rookie sixth-round pick Matt Araiza:

(Note: The following has all been rendered moot, but I’m leaving it in because it provides some context to the Bills’ offseason.)

Matt Araiza: I’ve never done a writeup for a punter or kicker before. Had I been doing writeups back in 2000, Sebastian Janikowski would have merited one. Araiza is a special punter and might come off the board day two, so I figured I’d make an exception for him.

Araiza is the best college punter I’ve ever seen. His length (51.1 yards-per-punt career average) is one thing. His control is another. I trust him to boom it or drop it on a dime. Can handle kickoffs as well. Decent athlete if you’re curious.

I remembered Bryan Anger going at 70th overall to the Jaguars. Anger was a very good punter, he never had a year in college like Araiza just had. Two notes:

1. It’s not Anger’s fault the Jaguars took him over Russell Wilson. The Jags were all in on Blaine Gabbert.

2. Anger had an amazing nickname of Banger.

Before Anger, Todd Sauerbrun went 56th overall to the Bears in the 1995 draft. It’s tricky to compare eras but Sauerbrun’s 48.6 yards-per-punt his senior year was impressive for the time. He made one Pro Bowl with Chicago.

The gold standard is Ray Guy. He went 23rd overall to the Oakland Raiders. It’s amazing to imagine a first-round punter, but Guy was worth it. He’s the only punter in the Hall of Fame. The major punting awards (insofar as they exist) bear his name. Guy was a master of both distance and hang time. He averaged 46.2 yards-per-punt in his final college season. He also made a 61 yard field goal and kicked a 93 yard punt that year. Ray Guy was special.

Matt Araiza might be special. Rare is the punter worthy of highlights. He can be that guy. How much surplus value can he produce with a third-round pick? Tough to say. Michael Dickson did some nice work in Seattle and got paid. Araiza has a higher ceiling than Dickson. I wouldn’t fault a team for using a third-round pick on Araiza. After that he probably becomes a solid value pickup.

I was shocked when Araiza was the third punter off the board. The disrespect made Punt God angry. I expect more great things from him this season.

(Note: Nope. Araiza’s days in Buffalo were numbered as soon as the gang rape allegations were made public. Neither the San Diego Police Department nor the Buffalo Bills have covered themselves in glory here. As for San Diego State, I expect they are going to face some very difficult questions in the days to come.)

The Bills’ return units were mediocre last season. They are still deciding who will handle returns this season. Rookie fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir is in the mix to return punts. Rookie second-round pick James Cook might return kicks.

Bass and Araiza punter Sam Martin should give the Bills strong decent special teams.

The Bills are looking to get to the Super Bowl this season. Even with the defensive exodus, the Bills’ defense should be fine if White is healthy and the young pass-rushers do their jobs. Offensively, all eyes are on quarterback Josh Allen. He needs to find something closer to his 2020 form. The schedule is tougher than it was last year, with games at LAR, Kansas City, Baltimore, Green Bay, and Cincinnati. Still, playing in the AFC East is a nice plus. Facing the Dolphins, Patriots, and LOL Jets is much easier than facing the Raiders, the improved Broncos, and the Chargers or Chiefs.

I think Allen is a better quarterback than he looked like for much of last season. His performance in the playoffs was championship-worthy. I think the Bills are battle-tested and ready to take the next step. 12-5.

Miami Dolphins:

2021 Record: 9-8

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 8.96

DVOA Wins: 8.2

FPI Wins: 8.1

Market Wins: 8.92

Implied Pythag: 53.68%

Let no one say the Dolphins aren’t trying to help 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailova succeed. Let’s take a look at the Tyreek Hill trade.

The Dolphins gave up the 29th and 50th picks in the 2022 draft, as well as a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 fourth-round pick and a 2023 sixth-round pick. Then they opened their checkbook. Between the picks and the cash, that was a staggering amount of resources to give up for a player. What are they getting in return?

2020: 87 receptions, 1,276 yards, +3.3 +/-, 17.3% DVOA, 322 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 111 receptions, 1,239 yards, +8.3 +/-, 11.6% DVOA, 313 DYAR

Hill is an elite deep threat and potential YAC monster. Miami is going to try and scheme him open in space. The problem is that defenses don’t respect Tua’s arm. They will be sitting on the short-to-midrange passing game.

When I saw this trade I had two thoughts:

1. Miami massively overpaid.

2. The Chiefs made a good long-term move, but they’re trying to win now.

I suppose Miami is trying to win now too. They’ll pair Hill with 2021 first-round pick Jaylen Waddle:

2021: 104 receptions, 1,015 yards, +5.9 +/-, 0.3% DVOA, 146 DYAR (in 16 games)

This is a fast pairing. Waddle had a nice rookie season, catching 74% of the passes sent his way. I wonder what he’d be capable of in a less conservative offense.

Hill isn’t the only new addition to the wide receiver corps. The Dolphins signed slot receiver Cedrick Wilson as well:

2021: 45 receptions, 602 yards, +4.7 +/-, 18.6% DVOA, 154 DYAR (in 16 games)

Wilson gives Miami a solid trio.

I was a bit surprised when Miami selected Erik Ezukanma in the fourth round. He’s not great at creating separation. He’s physical and capable of bullying smaller cornerbacks.

#1TE Mike Gesicki is effectively another slot receiver:

2020: 53 receptions, 703 yards, -1.2 +/-, 10.4% DVOA, 108 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 73 receptions, 780 yards, -0.5 +/-, -7.6% DVOA, -2 DYAR

Lest you think the Dolphins were disappointed with Gesicki, they hit him with a franchise tag.

#2TE Durham Smythe is in an odd spot. He’s an effective blocker who could do a bit of damage when left open (9.9% DVOA, 47 DYAR). The Dolphins are shifting from an offense heavy on 2TE sets to one that eschews them for 3WR sets. We’ll see how much playing time he gets.

Miami’s running backs weren’t very effective in the passing game last season:

2021: 61 receptions, 351 yards, -15.6% DVOA, -9 DYAR

They weren’t much better running the ball:

2021: 387 carries, 1,406 yards, -11.9% DVOA, -46 DYAR

As they were collectively below replacement-level, they’ve been replaced. Free-agent pickups Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert will share the load in Miami. Edmonds did a decent job last season in Arizona (7.0% DVOA, 130 DYAR). The hope is that he’ll be a good fit for the new zone-running scheme Miami is installing.

We know Mostert is, as he’s familiar with it from his time in San Francisco. He’s missed 24 games over the past two seasons. Mostert and Edmonds are (were?) among the fastest running backs in the NFL. We’ll see if Mostert still has his Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson speed.

Alright, I’ll admit it, I’m stalling. I’ve tried to avoid talking about Tua. The Dolphins have done everything they could to set the table for him.

2020: 1,814 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT, 5.4 NY/P, -8.5% DVOA, 74 DYAR (in ten games)

2021: 2,653 yards, 16 TD, 10 INT, 6.1 NY/P, -0.7% DVOA, 298 DYAR (in 13 games)

Tua is just so limited. Post-injury, he doesn’t have the arm strength to threaten defenses. When the defense puts eight men in the box to stop your passing game, it’s a problem. Miami’s running game caught splash damage. I feel bad for him. I don’t think he has an NFL arm. I don’t think he’s the best quarterback on the roster, and that might create friction in the locker room:

2021: 3,052 yards, 18 TD, 7 INT, 6.2 NY/P, 9.7% DVOA, 633 DYAR (in 14 games)

That’s what backup Teddy Bridgewater accomplished last season in Denver. Like Tua, Bridgewater is limited by a weaker arm. This offense has so many weapons, but it lacks the key piece under center. Finding an elite franchise quarterback is hard.

The Dolphins tried to find their franchise left tackle via the draft. They failed. This season, they’ll entrust the position to premium free-agent acquisition Terron Armstead. Armstead can be elite when healthy. He’s never played a full season, missing nine games last year.

2021 second-round pick Liam Eichenberg was in over his head at left tackle last season. It was a disaster. The Dolphins are still deciding whether to stick him at left guard or right tackle.

2020 first-round pick Austin Jackson did a lousy job at left guard last season. He might end up getting the right tackle job, with Eichenberg replacing him at left guard.

(Update: That is indeed the plan.)

I thought 2019 third-round pick Michael Dieter did a decent job at center last season. He missed nine games due to injuries, though. He’s been replaced by free-agent pickup Connor Williams. Williams drew 15 flags last season. That’s bad. We’ll see if he left his outlaw ways behind him in Dallas.

2020 second-round pick Robert Hunt did a solid job at right guard last season, finishing 11th in my rankings. He and Armstead are the only players on this line I trust. Dieter can provide solid interior depth. We’ll see what happens with Jackson or Eichenberg at right tackle.

(Update: It’ll be Jackson. That’s a potential area of concern going forward.)

Over the last two seasons, the Dolphins’ defense has been respectable, finishing 11th in DVOA in 2020 and 10th in 2021. I suspect that had a lot to do with former head coach Brian Flores.

It also had a lot to do with a deep pass rush:

Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins: 4.5 sacks, 30 hits+hurries

Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah: 9 sacks, 53 hits+hurries

Edge rush linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel: 4 sacks, 47 hits+hurries

Edge rush linebacker Jaelan Phillips: 8.5 sacks, 30 hits+hurries

Inside linebacker Jerome Baker: 5.5 sacks, 31 hits+hurries

The Dolphins ended up snagging 48 sacks last season. They’ve added edge rusher Melvin Ingram (two sacks, 39 hits+hurries).

Ogbah and 2019 first-round pick Wilkins will start alongside 2020 second-round pick nose tackle Raekwon Davis. Zach Sieler, John Jenkins, and Porter Gustin will provide depth.

2021 first-round pick Philips will start across from Ingram. 2019 fifth-round pick Andrew Van Ginkel will provide depth.

Baker will start alongside inside linebacker Elandon Roberts in the base 3-4. Baker was terrific last season, excelling in coverage while providing pass-rush support. Roberts was thoroughly mediocre.

Rookie third-round pick Channing Tindall is an interesting option:

Channing Tindall: More speed from Georgia. Couldn’t crack the starting lineup. Has the speed and range to be a great zone linebacker. Unfortunately, he’s a read, read some more, wait for it, and react player. It was like his controller had lag or something. Was at his best when he understood his responsibility pre-snap. Nice job blitzing, snagging 5.5 sacks.

It’s possible Tindall just needs a lot more playing time to develop his football instincts. It’s highly disconcerting that he finished his career with zero interceptions or tipped balls. The physical gifts aren’t enough if your reaction times are slow. Right now, he’d be a sitting duck in coverage in the NFL.

There are two ways Tindall can earn a starting gig in the NFL:

1. Develop into a true edge rusher. Might be a little undersized right now. The fact that he didn’t fill that role at Georgia, beyond spot duty, suggests that isn’t his future.

2. Reach his potential as a coverage linebacker. It’s tough to outrun Tindall, so if he develops proper coverage instincts, he ceiling is quite high.

I am highly skeptical that the light ever comes on. Four years at Georgia is a lot more (and better) coaching than most prospects receive. Borderline day-one talent. Round-four grade.

Tindall is a much better athlete than Roberts. For now, he’d likely be a pigeon. He’s going to need to learn how to handle basic coverage responsibilities before he cracks the starting lineup. Or he’ll transition to being a pure edge-rusher. That would work too.

Overall, the Dolphins have a deep front-seven. They should continue to produce significant pressure this season.

#1CB Xavien Howard pulled in five interceptions last season. That’s good, because otherwise his coverage skills have started to slip a bit. The people at EA noticed and Howard is pissed.

#2CB Byron Jones has sucked in Miami. He’s currently on the PUP list recovering from ankle surgery. I’m not sure when he’ll be back. 2020 first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene has failed to earn much playing time. He’s looked awful in the preseason, but he might be the best option the Dolphins have. We may see a late panic move in free agency.

(Update: Jones is still on the PUP list. There were no panic moves.)

Nickelback Nik Needham did a decent job last season. I don’t think the Dolphins want to move him to the outside.

We may end up seeing free-agent pickup Keion Crossen start if Jones is out. Crossen has only started four games in his four-season career. There’s probably a reason for that.

Things are better at safety, where 2020 third-round pick strong safety Brandon Jones will pair with 2021 second-round pick free safety Jevon Holland. Jones had five sacks last season. Holland had 2.5. That should give you a sense for how aggressively the Dolphins blitzed last season.

I must confess, neither safety has impressed me with his coverage skills. Holland might be able to improve in this area. Jones blitzed 93 times last season. He is what he is.

Eric Rowe provides excellent depth here. He could end up returning to the starting lineup if the new regime loses faith in either of the youngsters.

Kicker Jason Sanders is coming off of a poor season. He was excellent in 2020 and Miami is hoping he returns to that form this year.

Punter Thomas Morstead is in a training camp battle with Sterling Hofrichter. Morstead is getting up in years and might not have as powerful a leg as the Dolphins desire. He hasn’t had any of his punts blocked in over a decade, which is a neat trick.

Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are sitting on top of the Dolphins’ punt return depth chart. That would scare the shit out of me if I were a Dolphins fan. There are plenty of other options on the roster. I would suggest the Dolphins find one.

Raheem Mostert is in line to return kicks. If healthy, he has the speed to be explosive.

I am a bit leery of Miami’s special teams. There’s a lot of variance here, so perhaps they’ll catch the better end of it this year.

The Dolphins have tried to build an elite offense to compete with the Bills and Patriots, but it looks like they’re missing the key piece. Tua looks like damaged goods. Bridgewater has his own limitations. There’s a ton of team speed at the skill positions. It’s a shame that it might go to waste.

Defensively the Dolphins look prepared to pressure the passer. Can they cover? 😐

The schedule is going to be much harder this season. Between that and the loss of former head coach Brian Flores, I’m expecting Miami’s run of winning seasons to come to an end. 8-9.

New England Patriots:

2021 Record: 10-7

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.1

DVOA Wins: 8.7

FPI Wins: 9.2

Market Wins: 8.29

Implied Pythag: 51.12%

The scouts do not like the roster Bill Belichick has constructed. They aren’t fans of either side of the ball. Nor are they particularly enamored with Mac Jones:

2021: 3,801 yards, 22 TD, 13 INT, 6.5 NY/P, 6.1% DVOA, 605 DYAR

As rookie seasons go, that’s not too shabby. He even held his own in the playoff loss at Buffalo (24 completions for 237 yards, 58 DYAR). So why the disrespect?

There are two issues with Mac Jones. The first is that his arm strength is only adequate. His accuracy is a strength, but if defenses don’t have to defend the deep ball, he’s going to have to hit some very tight windows.

The second issue is that much of his success is attributed to Belichick. The Patriots did a good job putting Jones in a position to succeed. They schemed receivers open, not too far downfield. To be fair, that’s what the Patriots are supposed to do.

I wouldn’t read too much into his preseason offensive struggles. I haven’t found much predictive value in such things. I can’t imagine Jones is looking over his shoulder at rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe:

Bailey Zappe: Remember when I talked about EPA per game? Zappe led the field at 13.7 per game. He ran the Air Raid offense for Western Kentucky and he ran it well:

2021: 687 attempts, 479 completions, 5,964 yards, 62 TD, 11 INT, 9.4 ANY/A, 186.7 EPA

Note: Zappe did not face any SEC defenses over that stretch.

It’s tough to know what to make of Zappe. He did an excellent job of running an explosive offense. His touch and timing were elite. His arm is meh. Could he run a similar style scheme in the NFL? It would help if he could make defenses defend him as a runner as well, but that’s not the case.

Zappe’s ceiling is as a tier 2 starter who can take what the defense gives him short-to-midrange. Might that be worth a late day two pick? I don’t think so. Zappe just doesn’t have an NFL arm.

One thing I want to note is that a live arm isn’t just the difference between a completion and a pass where the defender makes a play on the ball. It can also be the difference between giving the receiver enough time to make a move and break a tackle vs. catch & hit. Against weaker college defenses, Zappe’s touch and accuracy were dominant. In the NFL, raw physical attributes are more important to success. I genuinely like Zappe and hope he earns a chance to start in the NFL. I just don’t expect that to be the case. Day-three pick for me.

I was a bit surprised when the Dolphins traded wide receiver DeVante Parket to their divisional rival. I suppose Parker hadn’t been having a good run in Miami:

2020: 63 receptions, 793 yards, -3.0 +/-, -4.7% DVOA, 70 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 40 receptions, 515 yards, -3.7 +/-, 0.0% DVOA, 74 DYAR (in ten games)

In theory, Parker is a quality physical deep threat. In practice, he’s struggled to create separation. Sure, underthrown deep balls are a good way to draw defensive pass interference. I’d still suggest expectations should be low for the Jones-Parker pairing.

Rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton broke his collarbone in the preseason. I’m not sure when he’ll be back. He’s a blazing speedster who didn’t impress me much during his time at Baylor. Cornerbacks were effective at moving him off the spot. I didn’t expect him to come off the board on day two, let alone in round two. Raw speed + small hands isn’t a great combo IMHO.

Kendrick Bourne is coming off of an amazing season in New England:

2021: 55 receptions, 800 yards, 7.0 +/-, 30.1% DVOA, 228 DYAR

He also had 12 carries for 125 yards (140.2% DVOA, 90 DYAR). Those are phenomenal numbers. The story they tell is of a great complimentary piece. He only averaged about four targets a game, plus a carry. He was a bit of a gadget player who caught some positive variance. In short, don’t expect him to dominate defenses this season.

If you’re curious who earned the most targets for the Patriots, look no further than Jakobi Meyers:

2021: 83 receptions, 866 yards, +3.3 +/-, -10.6% DVOA, 21 DYAR

That’s what happens when you don’t have a true #1WR. Meyers wasn’t worthy of this level of offensive attention.

2021 premium free-agent acquisition Nelson Agholor disappointed in his first season in New England:

2021: 37 receptions, 473 yards, +3.1 +/-, -1.3% DVOA, 60 DYAR (in 15 games)

With Thornton out, Agholor should get a second chance to show what he can do.

Budget free-agent pickup Lil’Jordan Humphrey gives the Patriots an additional deep threat. He did nice work in New Orleans in limited usage last season (13 receptions, 249 yards, 62.6% DVOA, 99 DYAR). The question will be whether Jones has the arm to get the best from Humphrey. We shall see.

Last offseason, the Patriots handed out $31.25M in guaranteed money to tight end Jonnu Smith. They handed out another $25M in guaranteed money to Hunter Henry. Henry’s deal has paid off:

2021: 50 receptions, 603 yards, +5.2 +/-, 25.8% DVOA, 174 DYAR

Henry formed a quick bond with quarterback Mac Jones. I’d expect Henry to remain a top target for Jones this season.

Smith’s deal…

2021: 28 receptions, 298 yards, -5.5 +/-, -28.6% DVOA, -66 DYAR (in 16 games)

He mitigated the damage a bit via his nine carries for 40 yards (44.5% DVOA, 26 DYAR). Smith will need to find his niche as a receiver. Not dropping 9% of the balls sent his way would be a good start.

2020 third-round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are available to provide depth if needed. Neither has made much of an impact so far.

2019 third-round pick Damien Harris did excellent work for the Patriots last season:

2021: 223 squid, 1,061 yards, 12.7% DVOA, 225 DYAR (in 15 games)

He’ll split time with 2021 fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson:

2021: 151 squid, 729 yards, 6.7% DVOA, 102 DYAR (in 12 games)

Rookie fourth-round pick Pierre Strong looks to spruce up New England’s kick return game:

Pierre Strong: Exceedingly fast. Hasn’t shown elite agility. He’s a one-cut runner who wants to hit top speed ASAP. Strong isn’t the guy who breaks tackles. He’s the guy who tries to beat you to the edge and leave you in the dust.

For a guy with his speed, you’d like to see him play faster. That may be why we haven’t seen much out of him as a receiver. He was fine in pass protection, but we need to take the level of competition into account.

Strong may need to find his initial niche in the NFL on special teams. Pure straight line speed isn’t enough to get it done in the pros. Day three pick.

We might think of Bill Belichick as a cold, unemotional man, but the truth is he can be romantic when it comes to football. That’s why, when 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn skipped voluntary workouts, Belichick’s feelings may have been hurt.

That might explain why Wynn (who is playing out the fifth-year option of his rookie contract) has been moved from left tackle to right tackle. Trenton Brown is taking over at left tackle.

Brown did a fine job at right tackle last season, finishing in the top five of my rankings. He has started at left tackle in New England before, back in 2018.

As for Wynn, he was mediocre last season. He wants a new contract. The Patriots want him to play better. We don’t always get what we want.

We’re seeing new starters at both guard positions. Former right guard Shaq Mason was traded to the Buccaneers. Former left guard Ted Karras signed with Cincinnati. Both finished fourth in my respective positional rankings.

Rookie first-round pick Cole Strange is taking over at left guard:

Cole Strange: Eye-popping combine. Excellent film, mostly versus lower level competition. Played well versus Kentucky when given the chance to face, um, SEC talent.

Excellent hand usage. His positioning and spatial awareness impressed me. My main concern about his transition to the NFL is raw power. In college he was able to bend without breaking. NFL defensive linemen will provide a much stiffer test. Strange will have to learn how to maintain a lower center of gravity and strengthen his base.

Strange has played both tackle and center. He’s not an NFL-level tackle, but the ability to snap the ball provides some versatility. I expect him to be a quality interior lineman in the NFL. Second-round value.

Center David Andrews was a bit above-average last season.

2020 sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu did respectable work along the line last year. He’s earned a starting job at right guard.

We haven’t seen much from 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste. Injuries have short circuited his career. He might provide depth at tackle. 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Heron and Yasir Durant are available as well. I’m not sure who will provide depth on the interior. Rookie sixth-round pick Chasen Hines may well be the next man up.

This line may have four starters at different positions. The Patriots received solid offensive line play last season. This season is an open question.

The Patriots’ defense finished fourth in DVOA last season. Edge rusher Matt Judon (12.5 sacks, 52 hits+hurries) was a major part of that. Defensive end Deatrich Wise chipped in with three sacks, 19 hits+hurries.

In between them, 2021 second-round pick Christian Barmore did a fine job, picking up 1.5 sacks (37 hits+hurries). Nose tackle Lawrence Guy is dependable. Davon Godchaux will be a part of the defensive tackle rotation as well. He’s fungible. Rookie sixth-round pick Sam Roberts will provide depth.

As for pass-rush depth, 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche did excellent work in limited usage last season (three sacks, 11 hits+hurries). Henry Anderson missed most of last season. He’s only had 1.5 sacks in his last 33 games. 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings spent last year on IR. 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins spent last year inactive. We’re still waiting for either to make an impact in the NFL.

Linebacker Raekwon McMillan missed last season with a torn ACL. He hasn’t been much of an impact player when healthy. He’s set to pair with incumbent starter Ja’Whaun Bentley. Bentley was solid last year. Mack Wilson will provide depth.

Former #1CB J.C. Jackson has taken his talents to LAC. Jackson was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season. His loss shall be missed.

Frankly, I’m not sure what the post-Jackson plan is. Jalen Mills is a natural #2CB. Jonathan Jones did a decent job in the slot last season. He’s not a good option outside.

Free-agent pickup Terrance Mitchell is mediocre. Malcolm Butler is going to miss the season with a hip injury.

(Update: Mitchell has been moved to the practice squad. Myles Bryant was promoted from the practice squad to the nickel job. We’ve seen Bryant make a few brief appearances. The bulk of his career has been spent on the practice squad though.)

Rookie third-round pick Marcus Jones might be able to provide some help in dime formations:

Marcus Jones: Couldn’t run at the combine or his pro day due to surgeries on each shoulder. Undersized. Four kick returns for touchdowns last season. Nine touchdown returns in his college career (between punts and kickoffs). Five interceptions on 64 targets (-0.25 points-per-target) last season. The dude can play.

Jones seems tailor-made to play the slot in the NFL. He’s got elite quickness and agility, although perhaps not the top end speed you might hope for. He’s battled injuries and availability will be a concern.

His special teams value could prove enormous. His vision and ability to shift gears is special.

Some teams will have no use for Jones because of size requirements. Others will see him as a contributor on multiple units. If you have faith in his ability to stay on the field, he’s a third-round value (one round bonus for his return ability).

Rookie fourth-round pick Jack Jones looked like a reach to me. He’s had serious off-field issues. Undersized and slow. In theory, he could provide depth both outside and in the slot, while starting on special teams.

I need to talk about J.C. Jackson a bit more. He had eight interceptions while shadowing the opponent’s #1WR. The Patriots will miss him dearly. Marcus Jones and Jack Jones will not replace him. This is a rough spot for New England.

Free safety Devin McCourty is getting up in years but is still playing at a high level. Strong safeties Adrian Phillips and 2020 second-round pick Kyle Duggar both did good work last season.

It’s odd to see a defensive backfield with three solid safeties and no cornerbacks I trust, but here we are. I’m guessing Jalen Mills will be asked to step up as the new #1CB. Good luck, Mr. Mills.

(Update: Free-agent pickup Jabril Peppers will provide additional safety depth. Cornerbacks are harder to find than safeties.)

2019 fifth-round pick punter Jake Bailey was awful last year. He’d previously been an All-Pro, so I’m not sure what happened there. Kicker Nick Folk was perfect inside 50 yards, having one of his best seasons. He’s facing a training camp battle against Tristan Vizcaino. I’m not reading too much into it.

Marcus Jones and Pierre Strong look to boost the punt and kick return units, respectively.

So long as Bailey returns to form, the Patriots should have their usual solid special teams again this season.

The Patriots had the fourth-best defense and finished fourth overall in DVOA last year. That’s not going to happen in 2022. The loss of J.C. Jackson is enormous. The offensive line is being rebuilt. Mac Jones should be better with more experience. Even so, it will be tough for him to materially improve on his solid rookie campaign. Finally, the schedule will be significantly tougher.

I am trusting head coach Bill Belichick to get the most out of an underwhelming roster. By rights, this team has no business sniffing a winning record. Perhaps I am overrating an old (washed up?) head coach. 9-8.

New York Jets:

2021 Record: 4-13

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.46

DVOA Wins: 7.4

FPI Wins: 5.6

Market Wins: 5.74

Implied Pythag: 34.62%

Well, we have a clear disagreement. DVOA and the scouts think the Jets will be bad. FPI and the market thinks the Jets will suck. The play of 2021 first-round pick quarterback Zach Wilson will determine who’s right. I’ll get to Wilson shortly. First, I’d like to talk about the 2000 NFL Draft.

Back in 2000, the Jets had four first-round picks. Two came from the Keyshawn Johnson trade to Tampa Bay, and one came from the brokered settlement regarding Bill Belichick. They ended up taking defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham with the 12th and 13th picks, respectively. They selected quarterback Chad Pennington with the 18th pick. Pennington was the first quarterback off the board, one selection after kicker Sebastian Janikowski. Finally, they took tight end Anthony Becht with the 27th pick. If not for the Tom Brady selection with the 199th overall pick, I’d look back on this draft fondly. It is, as far as I know, the only time a team have ever had four first-round selections.

The Jets almost had four first-round selections in the 2022 NFL draft. We knew about the first two heading into the draft. The Jets had Seattle’s first-round pick at tenth overall. The Jets traded the 35th, 69th, and 163rd selections to Tennessee for the 26th and 101st picks. That was to select falling edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. Johnson was 11th on the consensus big board and 19th on mine

The Jets tried to trade up at the tail end of the first round but were rebuffed. They ended up trading into the 36th spot with the Giants to select running back Breece Hall. The Jets gave up the 146th pick to move up two spots in the second round. To select a running back.

You can imagine how I felt about that.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas has a plan. He drafted Zach Wilson and has surrounded him with premium weapons. The Jets paid handsomely for 2021 free-agent pickup wide receiver Corey Davis. Davis will be joined by 2022 second-round pick Elijah Moore and rookie first-round pick Garrett Wilson. Zach Wilson can also throw to premium free-agent tight end pickups C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin. Alternatively, Zach Wilson can hand off to rookie second-round pick Breece Hall.

This is all what Douglas has envisioned. But it all comes down to Zach Wilson:

2021: 2,334 yards, 9 TD, 11 INT, 4.6 NY/P, -32.3% DVOA, -531 DYAR (in 13 games)

We Jets fans didn’t really care about results last season. We just want hope. It’s tough to say Wilson has given it to us. His accuracy was problematic. It behooves the Jets to tighten up Wilson’s footwork and mechanics. He can worry about making big plays once he learns how to run the offense at a reasonable level.

If the light does come on for Wilson, the rest of the offense looks loaded. #1WR Corey Davis:

2020: 65 receptions, 984 yards, +6.7 +/-, 22.5% DVOA, 261 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 34 receptions, 492 yards, -1.6 +/-, 1.2% DVOA, 68 DYAR (in nine games)

Real talk: Those are fantastic numbers in the context of the Jets’ offense. Hip and groin injuries took him out of action last year. Davis staying healthy would be very useful for Zach Wilson’s development.

2021 second-round pick Elijah Moore missed five games with a quad injury (and one with a concussion):

2021: 43 receptions, 538 yards, -3.1 +/-, -8.9% DVOA, 23 DYAR (in 11 games)

Again, taking the overall offensive production into account, I was happy with Moore’s season. He also had five carries for 54 yards (116.1% DVOA, 48 DYAR). As with Davis, now it would be nice to stay on the field.

Rookie first-round pick Garrett Wilson will take over the slot:

Garrett Wilson: Averaged 0.61 points-per-target over the past three seasons (10.8 yards-per-target). Solid athlete. Sub 4.4, but also sub six-feet. Highly explosive on film, with excellent hands. Former basketball player (usually noted about tight ends). Some of the best double-moves you’ll find from a college player. Speed + agility + hands = potentially elite WR.

Like (Jameson) Williams, Wilson lacks power. Solid press coverage can jam him at the line and remove him from the play. He worked as an x-receiver at Ohio State (outside receiver on the line). He may be better served moving to the slot in the pros. Willing run blocker, but limited power.

Wilson is excellent in space, which is why it’ll be up to his offensive coordinator to help him create it.

He has experience returning punts in college. I’m not sure I’d be too excited to have him do so in the pros. It’s not just that I don’t want to risk my first-round WR on special teams. It’s also that I found him much more effective as a receiver working with forward momentum than as a punt returner.

Pure slot receivers aren’t as valuable as outside receivers. Think of it as the difference between a player who can create his own shot vs. a player that needs some help from his teammates. There’s nothing wrong with playing elite outside receivers in the slot if that’s advantageous. The important thing is for a player to be able to produce outside without the advantages offered from the slot. That’s my question for Wilson. My guess is that he’s going to need some time to develop his ability to beat NFL-level press coverage. Once he does that, he should be a quality X-receiver who can work out of the slot as well. Top-15 pick.

The truth is I did not like the Wilson selection. Let’s look at the Jets’ options:

QB1: No.

RB1: No.

WR2: That would be Garrett Wilson or Jameson Williams. Williams was an injury red flag. He ended up going 12th overall (WR4). Chris Olave went 11th overall (WR3). Without knowing Williams’ medical information, I suppose Wilson would have been my first choice among the receivers. Douglas wanted to give Zach Wilson another quality target. Still, that could have come later.

TE1: No. Tre McBride, my top rated TE, ended up as the first TE off the board at 55th overall.

OT4: Trevor Penning went 19th. That was fine. 10th would have been too soon.

OG1: I could have lived with Kenyon Green (he went 15th overall) had the Jets not already signed Laken Tomlinson.

OC1: Tyler Linderbaum would have been an interesting pick as the long-term replacement for Connor McGovern. Probably not optimal, as he went 25th overall.

DE4: Coincidentally enough, the Jets DID go DE4 with the 26th overall pick. In retrospect, 10th would have been too early.

DT1: Philadelphia traded the 15th, 124th, 162nd and 166th picks to Houston for the 13th pick to select Jordan Davis. I would have been fine with the Jets taking that deal for the 10th pick. I understand that’s not something they would be comfortable with. Given the prices for elite receivers these days, I see why that would be their preference.

As for selecting Davis, I had him as a top-20 value. 10 would have been mighty early.

LB1: I loved Devin Lloyd. He ended up going 27th, one pick after the Jets’ selection of Jermaine Johnson. Tenth would have been a bold call on Lloyd.

CB3: Trent McDuffie was 14th on my board, 19th on the consensus big board. The Jets had already taken Sauce Gardner fourth overall. Not a realistic option. Went 21st overall.

S1: This was the question. Kyle Hamilton was the top rated player on my board. Fourth on the consensus big board. I wanted him to come to NY so badly. Instead, the Ravens patiently waited for him to fall to them at 14th overall and he did. GDI.

We can talk about positional value, but what this pick came down to is that the Jets wanted a potentially elite wide receiver for Zach Wilson. If Wilson fails, Douglas fails. Everything else is details.

I would have taken Hamilton.

Braxton Berrios is an excellent return specialist. Did a decent job when injuries decimated the WR corps last season:

2021: 46 receptions, 431 yards, -0.3 +/-, -13.2% DVOA, -3 DYAR (in 16 games)

He also had seven carries for 40 yards (83.6% DVOA, 57 DYAR). Like Elijah Moore, he was clutch on gadget plays. Always a nice bonus.

2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims failed to make an impact last season (eight receptions, 133 yards, -41.7% DVOA, -51 DYAR).

Like the Patriots before them, the Jets have attempted to solve their tight end woes by bringing in a pair of premium free agents (C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin). Uzomah:

2021: 49 receptions, 493 yards, +2.3 +/-, 11.4% DVOA, 75 DYAR (in 16 games)

It was a breakout season for Uzomah. It’ll be a tough trick to repeat without quarterback Joe Burrow.

Conklin:

2021: 61 receptions, 593 yards, -0.7 +/-, -14.8% DVOA, -41 DYAR

Conklin has -44 DYAR over the past three years. Just incredible work by his agent netting him $10M guaranteed. Oh, in case you’re wondering if Conklin is an elite blocker and that’s why he got paid… um… he’s… not that.

You know who is an elite blocker? Rookie third-round pick Jeremy Ruckert:

Jeremy Ruckert: A foot injury suffered during the Senior Bowl practices kept Ruckert from running at the combine. We’ll have to go with what we’ve seen on film.

Ruckert is a plus blocker. In addition to size and power, he’s proven explosive off of the snap. 54 receptions in his career. It’s tough to earn targets at Ohio State:

2021: 38 targets, 26 receptions, 309 yards, 3 TD, 0.16 points-per-target, 8.1 yards-per-target

He was more efficient in limited usage in 2019/20:

2019/20: 34 targets, 27 receptions, 293 yards, 9 TD, 0.82 points-per-target, 8.6 yards-per-target

The truth is we’re dealing with small samples here. Ruckert did most of his damage blocking. At worst, Ruckert should be able to work well in 2TE sets and may be able to start as a block-first #1TE. Staying on the field at Ohio State is an accomplishment in and of itself. Third-round value.

Just to be clear, the Jets signed Conklin, then signed Uzomah, then drafted Ruckert. I don’t mind the Uzomah signing, or the selection of Ruckert. The entire sequence in concert seems a bit odd. Mostly, it would look a lot better without the Conklin signing. That sucked at the time, though. I’m not really sure what GM Joe Douglas was thinking.

I know what Douglas was thinking when traded up to select Breece Hall:

Breece Hall: Another elite athlete. Nice vision to find the right spot to hit in zone running schemes. Didn’t bring the power you’d like to see. His pass protection skills made me sad. Just not enough power, awareness, or desire. As a receiver he was a bit odd. Great hands if the ball was on target, kind of awful if the he had to work to make the catch. One nice thing about Hall is he doesn’t try to be a hero. He’ll get the yards the defense gives him, deliver a hit to gain one or two yards more, and move on to the next play.

Ratings aside, I’m not using a day-two pick on a running back I don’t trust in pass protection nor want to use as a receiver. Bring value in the passing game or be a cheap day-three pick that will also contribute on special teams. Sorry, Breece.

Hall is taking over as the #1RB. 2021 fourth-round pick Michael Carter will back him up:

2021: 203 squid, 964 yards, 0.9% DVOA, 95 DYAR (in 14 games)

Nice work, all things considered. I’m a bit concerned that Carter’s presence in the lineup will be a bit of a tell. Breece will need to work to make himself an asset in the passing game, either as a reliable target or a trustworthy blocker.

Tevin Coleman and Ty Johnson will provide depth.

Just thinking about 2020 first-round pick Mekhi Becton makes me sad. I have no idea what an avulsion fracture is. I just know that it means Becton is going to miss another season. The Jets are going to have to make a decision what to do about his fifth-year option. He’s only appeared in 15 games. He’s been great when available. The team doctors are going to have to figure out if this is a long term thing or just a few freak injuries.

It’s tough, as Becton is enormous, even by NFL standards. He can be dominant. Can he stay on the field? I’m wincing just thinking about the options.

By the time you read this, Duane Brown will have turned 37 years old. Letting Zach Wilson go unprotected was not an option. Remember: If Wilson fails, GM Joe Douglas fails. Brown did a decent job in Seattle last season. When Becton went down, Brown had Douglas by the balls. He’ll take over at left tackle in Becton’s absence.

Free-agent pickup Laken Tomlinson is taking over at left guard. He’s developed into a fine player and finished third in my positional rankings last season.

Center Connor McGovern is roughly average.

2021 first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker is moving over to right guard. He did a fine job at left guard last season.

George Fant did a respectable job at left tackle in Becton’s absence last season. With the Brown signing, Fant will move over to right tackle.

Rookie fourth-round pick Max Mitchell will provide depth:

Max Mitchell: It’s rare for me to like a player who doesn’t project as an NFL starter. Mitchell is an exception to that. He provides rare versatility, having played both sides of the line, as well as on the interior. He’s a decent athlete. Solid technique in both the run and the passing game. Particularly good hand placement.

One of my favorite traits from Mitchell is how rarely he straight whiffs. He might get beat, but he won’t get his quarterback killed. Now, he wasn’t facing top level college competition. If he produced the same stats while in the SEC, I’d have given him a much higher grade.

If Mitchell can add 20 pounds without giving up agility or quickness, he might be able to start at guard or right tackle in the NFL. To me, Mitchell is an early day-three pick who provides insurance along the offensive line. In a next man up league, that’s worth something.

I loved the Mitchell selection.

Apart from quarterback Zach Wilson, this offense looks ready to rock.

You might be surprised to learn that as bad as the Jets’ offense was last season (22nd in DVOA), the defense was far worse (32nd). Injuries were an issue but not the main problem. A lack of team speed left the Jets hopeless against receivers working in the middle of the field. It was painful to watch. A weak pass-rush didn’t help. I’m concerned that the Jets have not done much to solve this problem.

The good news is the Jets are getting defensive end Carl Lawson back from an Achilles tear. He missed all of last season. He had 5.5 sacks and 52 hits+hurries in 2020. He’ll start across from rookie first-round pick Jermaine Johnson:

Jermaine Johnson II: Solid combine. Skipped the agility drills, which is a least a little suspicious. SackSEER puts him a bit behind the top 3. Transferred from Georgia to Florida State to get a chance to start. Had 11.5 sacks in 12 games last season (18 tackles for a loss).

Johnson has solid pass-rush instincts. His technique will improve with more reps. He was very good at closing and bringing the quarterback down. Not quite as good at generating pressure when blocked, although it’s clear the effort was there. Part of the issue is he faced a fair amount of offensive attention via double blocks. He was clearly on the offensive coordinator’s radar.

He’s a mixed bag in the running game. Does a nice job penetrating. Less effective at holding his ground. Doubleteams put him on roller skates. Pursuit was pretty good when he felt he had the energy to spare.

He didn’t drop into coverage at Florida State, but he has some experience with it from his time at Georgia. I don’t expect that will be a key part of his game going forward. One thing to note: At Georgia in 2020 when he wasn’t the center of the offensive attention, he snagged a sack on 2.65% of his snaps. He did so on 1.63% of his snaps at Florida State. At the college level, you either focused on him or gave up sacks to him.

Johnson is a very good edge prospect. I like what I’ve seen on film. He’s a bit older than the other top prospects, which is something teams will take into account. Success at a younger age is more predictive here. I’d be fine spending a top 15 pick on him due to the positional value if the top three were already off the board.

As it turns out, the Jets didn’t have to spend a top-15 pick on him. They just needed to trade up and stop his fall. This could be a strong pairing.

John Franklin-Myers (six sacks, 37 hits+hurries) can either provide depth at edge or kick inside. We’ll see him play along the line this season.

Bryce Huff (two sacks, 13 hits+hurries), free-agent pickup Jacob Martin (four sacks, 32 hits+hurries), and rookie fourth-round pick Micheal Clemons will provide edge depth. Clemons had seven sacks last season at Texas A&M. Look for him to provide some additional power on the line.

2019 first-round pick defensive tackle Quinnen Williams has been good (six sacks, 21 hits+hurries). The Jets may have been hoping for more from him. There was no question they’d pick up his fifth-year option.

Sheldon Rankins (four sacks, 18 hits+hurries) was less impactful than the Jets had hoped he’d be. Perhaps it was just a down year.

Free-agent pickup Solomon Thomas will provide defensive line depth.

Switching to a 4-3 defense generally makes life easier for linebackers. C.J. Mosley averaged 10.5 tackles per game. That might lead you to believe he had a good season. Alas, he did not. He was obliterated in pass coverage. He also made too many of his 168 tackles on the wrong side of the sticks.

Coaches loved Quincy Williams’s raw aggression. Dude played fast. Too fast? It was easy for offenses to trick Williams or simply deke him. He had some nice highlights, but they came at the expense of giving up huge chunks of yardage. His coverage numbers suggested he did a nice job. He did not. There were too many plays attributed to a hole-in-the-zone when that should have been his responsibility.

Budget free-agent pickup Marcel Harris and 2021 sixth-round pick Hamsah Nasirildeen are competing for the final spot in the base 4-3 defense. Both are converted safeties. Harris might have the edge due to his time at San Francisco.

The Jets’ secondary has been rebuilt. Premium free-agent pickup D.J. Reed is taking over the #1CB job. He’ll start across from rookie first-round pick Sauce Gardner:

Sauce Gardner: Tall, fast, and long. 33.5 inch length arms can poke footballs out of the air before receivers can snag them. Excels at press coverage. Those long arms are good at jamming receivers at the line. Good at sticking to his man. Excellent closing speed to handle routes that go over the top. Can be a little grabby. Something for his coaches to correct. Subtlety is key here.

Gardner was dominant last season, allowing -0.64 points points-per-target. As you might imagine, opponents were loath to target him. He only gave up 0.1 yards-per-snap. He led both stats last year. Intercepted 10% of the balls sent his way. Had he faced SEC competition, those numbers would eliminate any debate as to the top CB in the class. Having said that, Gardner looked good vs. Jameson Williams in the semifinals.

Penalties were his Achilles heel, picking up 12 in his first two years. He cleaned his game up a bit and only picked up two last season. It’s an issue that could resurface in the NFL.

His tackling skills are commensurate with his build. He’ll go lower on larger running backs. Does a nice job of at least making contact for gang tackle purposes.

Gardner is my #1CB. His physical gifts and college resume put him atop the class. I’d be fine taking him in the top ten, and even in the top five if I wasn’t happy with the edge/OL prospects. Positional value arguably puts him above Kyle Hamilton. I’m fine with Gardner ending up in NY.

It turns out he did end up in NY. He’ll be a future #1CB as soon as he adjusts to the NFL.

2021 fifth-round pick Michael Carter has been demoted to nickelback. That’s fine with me. He faced a trial-by-fire last season and should be prepared to handle the easier role. 2020 fifth-round pick Bryce Hall is currently listed as the dime. Stylistically, Carter might be a better fit in the slot. Hall was the better player in 2021, but remember that Carter was a day-three rookie. Either way, it’s good that the Jets have two blue-chip starters.

Free-agent pickup Jordan Whitehead is taking over at strong safety. He did a nice job last season in Tampa Bay.

Free-safety Lamarcus Joyner missed almost all of last season with a torn triceps. Ouch. 2020 third-round pick Ashtyn Davis filled in for him, with mediocre results. Davis will provide depth.

I really wish the Jets had taken Kyle Hamilton. 😦

2020 sixth-round pick Braden Mann is a pretty good punter. Eddy Pineiro and Greg Zuerlein are competing for the placekicker job. Zuerlein has the stronger leg, but Pineiro is likely the more accurate of the two. Mann can handle kickoffs, so I’m rooting for Pineiro.

(Update: Zeurlein won.)

Braxton Berrios did a good job returning punts and a great job returning kickoffs.

GM Joe Douglas has remained true to his vision. Build an elite offense around a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie contract. To his credit, he’s put the Jets in a position to succeed. Defensively, the secondary has been rebuilt. The Jets will effectively be looking at two new starting cornerbacks and two new starting safeties. They’ll also have two new defensive ends. The defense should be much improved.

It also comes down to Zach Wilson. And… I don’t think he’s going to be the guy. This feels like Josh Rosen 2.0. He doesn’t have NFL-level accuracy. At BYU, he dominated weaker opposition while having plenty of time in the pocket. The NFL requires quick decisions and accurate throws. I’d like to believe in Wilson. I just don’t. The only reason I’m predicting five wins is I know this team won’t quit and will win at least three games after they’re eliminated from playoff contention. 5-12. Bollocks. 😦

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

NFC South:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11-6

New Orleans Saints: 9-8

Carolina Panthers: 7-10

Atlanta Falcons: 4-13

Atlanta Falcons:

2021 Record: 7-10

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 5.28

DVOA Wins: 7.5

FPI Wins: 6.4

Market Wins: 4.69

Implied Pythag: 26.49%

Last season, the Atlanta Falcons were outscored by a cumulative 146 points. They finished with the same record as the Seattle Seahawks, who outscored their opponents by 29 points. Football is a funny game.

The Falcons were terrible on both sides of the ball, finishing 28th in offensive DVOA and 30th in defensive DVOA. They signed budget free-agent quarterback Marcus Mariota to take over from Matt Ryan:

2019-2021: 1,433 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT, 6.1 NY/P, -13.1% DVOA, 29 DYAR (in 18 games)

Mariota has spent most of the past three years as a backup. He hasn’t started a football game since 2019. He’s a cheap rental with decent name recognition. I wouldn’t even say expectations are low for Mariota. If he somehow leads the Falcons to a 2-15 season and they get the first overall pick, I don’t think anyone in the front office will be mad (or disappointed).

Rookie third-round pick Desmond Ridder might as well be a lottery ticket:

Desmond Ridder: Let’s give the good news.

Premium Athlete*

Solid production:

2021: 387 attempts, 251 completions, 3,333 yards, 30 TD, 8 INT, 8.2 ANY/A, 21 EPA (oof)

Made quick decisions in the pocket. Note: I didn’t say good decisions. I said quick decisions.

Nice touch when working short. Had excellent results on deep shots.

Okay, I need to stop here. Look back at that EPA. He averaged 0.07 EPA per dropback. Not great. That was down from 0.19 in 2020. He improved his grace under pressure in 2021, but the overall results are not inspiring.

His arm strength will not threaten NFL defenses. That nice athletic profile doesn’t take height/weight into account the way NFL front offices do. When you’re small for your position, you’d better have elite speed/quickness/explosiveness. That’s why I added the asterisk.

Ridder didn’t display consistent NFL accuracy. That was partially a function of arm strength. If you can’t rifle a ball on target, you have to nail the touch and timing, which raises the degree of difficulty.

I simply do not see Ridder as a potentially great NFL quarterback. I prefer (Matt) Corral as a backup with more (gulp) upside. Ridder still provides some value as a backup who may have some slash potential. I wouldn’t touch him before round three.

If Ridder somehow pans out, great! I expect that the Falcons are planning on finding their quarterback of the future in the 2023 draft.

Rookie first-round pick Drake London is stepping into the locker room as the Falcons’ new #1WR:

Drake London: Another basketball player. Prototype size. Excelled at winning contested balls. Was elite in limited usage in 2020 (48 targets, 33 receptions, 502 yards, 0.61 points-per-target). Fell back a bit as the #1WR last season (122 targets, 88 receptions, 1,084 yards, 0.33 points-per-target). It’s tougher being efficient when you get targets whether you’re open or not. That’s the burden of a #1WR.

Note: He only appeared in eight games due to an ankle injury. USC really was force-feeding him the ball.

Passed on running the 40 on his pro day (which had been pushed back to April 15th). That raised some eyebrows. He might not be healing as fast as teams would have hoped. The estimate was a 4.5 (if healthy.) He’s 6-4, with a playing weight around 220 or so. On film he was smooth and athletic. He knew how to get open, if not leave defenders in the dust. It’s obvious that he’s a potentially elite NFL #1WR. Smaller cornerbacks run the risk of getting overpowered. Larger cornerbacks and safeties better have elite athleticism or risk being left behind. London is going to be a problem defenses will have to work to solve.

His run block skills could stand to improve. He has the power to be a plus blocker. He’s also shown some ability to run jet sweeps to catch defenses off guard.

London plays fast. He gives his quarterback a large target and will fight for the ball if it’s anywhere close. Potential medical concerns with his ankle aside, London would be my first WR off the board (due to Jameson Williams’s injury).

I was happy with the London pick and feel he should be an effective receiver in Atlanta (once they find an NFL-caliber quarterback).

The Falcons swapped a 2023 fifth-round pick for a 2023 seventh-round pick to acquire 2020 third-round pick Bryan Edwards from the Raiders:

2021: 34 receptions, 571 yards, +0.4 +/-, 10.4% DVOA, 112 DYAR (in 16 games)

Edwards is an odd case. He’s been efficient (15.7% DVOA, 176 DYAR) without being productive (764 receiving yards in two seasons). He’s never proven to be anything more than a complimentary piece. Perhaps in Atlanta he’ll blossom into a true #2WR.

2019 undrafted free-agent Olamide Zaccheaus is in many ways the opposite of London. He’s small (5-8, 193 pounds) and not a premium athlete. With Calvin Ridley suspended for gambling, Zaccheaus may end up being Atlanta’s #3WR:

2021: 31 receptions, 406 yards, -2.3 +/-, 2.9% DVOA, 66 DYAR

On most rosters he’d be providing depth or be the #4WR at best. Here, he should see regular playing time out of the slot.

Speaking of #4WRs, it looks like budget free-agent pickup Damiere Byrd has the inside track on that job in Atlanta:

2021: 26 receptions, 329 yards, +0.4 +/-, 1.6% DVOA, 43 DYAR

Look for the Falcons to try and use Byrd to stretch the defense.

2021 first-round pick tight end Kyle Pitts is the Falcons’ true top receiver:

2021: 68 receptions, 1,026 yards, -2.2 +/-, 8.8% DVOA, 120 DYAR

In the context of the 2021 Falcons offense, those numbers are amazing. Pitts lived up to his billing. Pitts will spend most of his time working out of the slot. He and London may prove to be a formidable pair of targets for many years to come in Atlanta.

WR/RB-hybrid Cordarrelle Patterson is coming off of a phenomenal season:

2021: 222 squid, 1,166 yards, 6.6% DVOA, 213 DYAR (in 16 games)

He did his best work as a receiver (particularly running routes from the backfield). Patterson is also one of the best kick returners in NFL history. He’s coming off of a bit of a down year in that regard. Patterson gives the Falcons’ offense a bit of versatility.

Rookie fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier has the inside track on the #2RB job. Over the past two seasons, Allgeier ran for 2,731 yards and 36 touchdowns (6.41 yards-per-carry). The dude was productive at BYU. I’m not sure how much value he can provide at a blocker or as a receiver in the passing game. My guess is the Falcons are going to focus on his rushing ability.

Budget free-agent pickup Damien Williams will also see some playing time:

2021: 63 squid, 267 yards, -7.3% DVOA, 4 DYAR (in 12 games)

Left tackle Jake Matthews finished eighth in my positional rankings. He’s excellent in pass protection. His run-blocking is a bit of a concern. Moving people off the spot is not where he shines.

2021 third-round pick left guard Jalen Mayfield got destroyed last season (38th). He has lost his job to budget free-agent acquisition Elijah Wilkinson. Mayfield will have to prove to the Falcons’ coaching staff that he can be trusted before he wins his job back.

2020 third-round pick center Matt Hennessy got destroyed as a rookie and finished 33rd in my positional rankings last season. I feel for the Falcons. They’ve tried to improve their offensive line. It just hasn’t worked out like they hoped.

2019 first-round pick right guard Chris Lindstrom has lived up to his lofty draft status, finishing third in my positional rankings last season. As expected, the Falcons picked up his fifth-year option.

2019 first-round pick right tackle Kaleb McGary struggled in pass protection last season. That’s been a bit of a trend for him. The Falcons declined his fifth-year option so McGary is playing for a long-term contract this year.

Budget free-agent pickup Germain Ifedi will provide depth. He was terrible last season. I have no idea why the Falcons sign so many ex-Bears.

It’s difficult to describe how poor the Falcons’ pass rush was last season. They only managed 18 sacks. The league average was 38.875. The Eagles were next-worst, with 29. It was just a lack of opportunities, as they were last if we’re going by rate stats. They were also league-worst at generating pressure.

It would take a fairly massive investment of draft capital and free agency cash to fix this quickly. Instead, the Falcons let Dante Fowler (4.5 sacks, 23 hits+hurries) walk and replaced him with Lorenzo Carter (five sacks, 23 hits+hurries). That’s a wash.

2020 second-round pick defensive end Marlon Davidson will start the season on IR. 2021 fifth-round pick Ta’Quon Graham will start in Davidson’s place.

Nose tackle Anthony Rush and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will start inside. Lest you think this group traded pass rush efficiency for run-stopping power, let me assure you they sucked against the run as well. They were particularly bad in short yardage.

Edge-rusher Lorenzo Carter is slated to start across from 2021 fifth-round pick Adetokunbo Ogundeji (one sack, eight hits+hurries). Rookie second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie and rookie third-round pick DeAngelo Malone will see plenty of time in the edge rotation. Ebiketie:

Arnold Ebiketie: Athletic undersized defensive end. He may end up as a 3-4 linebacker. 9.5 sacks last season in 12 games. SackSEER likes him. His pressure numbers, while consistent, weren’t special.

Ebiketie has long arms that allow him to get the first strike in against the offensive lineman. They also help him close, converting pressure into sacks. His repertoire of moves is a bit thin. Offensive linemen generally predicted he’d go for an outside reach and were usually right. That may be because Ebiketie didn’t trust his power. Bull rushes weren’t a great option and he didn’t have the power to brawl inside.

I gave Ebiketie a third round grade for a reason. His rate stats were unimpressive. He played a ton of snaps. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare a 3-down lineman vs. a guy who can expend more energy in pass-rush situations. The bigger issue is the lack of play strength. If we move him to linebacker, his athleticism isn’t special.

There’s something else. I just didn’t love his film. He was a non-factor in terms of tipping passes. For a dude that occasionally dropped back into coverage, that’s hard to figure. He’s also a bit slow off the snap. Helps avoid penalties, I suppose.

I see him as a decent prospect with a lot of room for improvement in his pass-rush technique. I don’t see a guy with the first-round upside. SackSEER (and perhaps a few NFL teams) have more faith in Ebiketie than I do. Third-round value. He’ll be long gone by then.

Malone:

DeAngelo Malone: Fast, if undersized. SackSEER likes him. 25 sacks over his last 38 games at Western Kentucky. He was productive. The level of competition is a bit of an issue, as was his unimpressive pressure rate.

It’s obvious on film that he doesn’t have NFL-level power. He won with speed and athleticism. Good vision and pursuit in the running game. Doesn’t have the ability to hold his ground. I expect he’ll have to move to linebacker. At that point his athleticism is less impressive, but at least he won’t invite attack.

I’m not as optimistic as SackSEER. I respect his productivity. It’s just a huge jump from Conference USA to the NFL. As for his combine, I’m a bit harsher in my size adjustments than RAS. I don’t see the edge skills to survive purely as a pass-rush specialist. I wouldn’t touch Malone until early day three.

I didn’t love either pick. Having said that, there’s not much talent ahead of them on the depth chart so we should see what they’re capable of fairly soon.

Inside linebacker Deion Jones played through a shoulder injury last season. He had offseason surgery to deal with the issue and is currently on the PUP list as he recovers. There is speculation that the Falcons want to trade Jones and will cut him if that doesn’t work out. Jones was awful last season, but it’s hard to know how much of that was due to him playing through pain. Jones was decent in 2020.

2020 fourth-round pick Mykal Walker only saw 171 snaps last season. He wasn’t great when he played. It’s a bad sign that he can’t earn more playing time on such a talent-starved roster.

Budget free-agent pickup Rashaan Evans is likely to start. He was decent last season in Tennessee, but it’s never a good sign when you don’t make the playoff roster.

Rookie second-round pick Troy Anderson will likely start if Jones gets removed from the roster:

Troy Andersen: Quarterback. Running back. Linebacker. We’ve got the videotape. Incredible athlete. He’s not going to play quarterback in the NFL (except perhaps in short yardage situations). Might be able to provide value in the running game (on offense).

Andersen is still learning how to play linebacker. He had 150 tackles last season. Also, he rushed for 21 touchdowns in 2018.

I’ve never seen a prospect like Andersen. He had the size and speed to start for Alabama or Georgia. He was a late bloomer who ended up in the FCS and dominated on both sides of the ball. I guess he’s the closest thing we have to a 1940s player, but with a dominant speed score of 127.3. To put that into context, Breece Hall leads the RB class at 118.5.

Andersen has unique upside. He could end up as one of the best running backs in the NFL. He could become a dominant middle linebacker. Or he could never quite master any position and have trouble seeing the field. Montana State doesn’t face the level of competition Andersen will have to adapt to.

The fewer decisions on the field Andersen has to make, the more effective he’ll be. A wise coaching staff will find a ton of value here. Mid day-two grade.

If Anderson starts from week one it will be a trial by fire, but what do the Falcons have to lose? On-the-job training might end up working out.

(Editor’s note: Deion Jones is starting the season on IR. Walker and Evans will start while Andersen develops.)

2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell just had one of the best coverage seasons in NFL history. Next-gen stats had him as the top cornerback in the NFL last season, and remember, that’s with the worst pass rush in the league protecting him. Football Outsiders ranked him second overall in success rate and first overall in yards-per-pass allowed. He was a marvel.

Terrell will start across from free-agent pickup Casey Hayward. Heyward was decent last season in Vegas.

Isaiah Oliver has the inside track to return as the nickelback. He missed most of last season with a knee injury. He was playing well at the time. He signed a one-year deal with the Falcons. We’ll see what kind of player he is post-injury.

2021 fourth-round pick Darren Hall had a tough rookie season. Hopefully, it will prove to be a teaching experience.

Former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Dee Alford and budget free-agent pickup Mike Ford will provide cornerback depth.

Safety Erik Harris is trying to come back from a torn pectoral injury he suffered last December. If he wins his starting job back, 2020 fourth-round pick Jaylinn Hawkins will compete with 2021 second-round pick Richie Grant for the other starting job. There’s also the possibility that budget free-agent pickup Dean Marlow will win the job. That would be a very bad sign for both Hawkins and Grant, as Marlow is a mediocrity at best.

I should note the most exciting pairing would be Hawkins and Grant. Grant played out of position at nickelback last year (with no pass rush ahead of him) so his rookie numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Hawkins had some nice moments, including two interceptions. Erik Harris would be a very reasonable third safety if the two youngsters can push him down the depth chart.

(Editor’s note: It looks like the Falcons are going with the youngsters.)

Kicker Younghoe Koo is quite accurate. If he could handle kickoffs well, he’d rank among the elite kickers. Bradley Pinion is competing with Seth Vernon to win the punting job. Pinion is favored there. Pinion might also be asked to handle kickoff duties.

Avery Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson give the Falcons a nice pair of options for kick returns. Patterson may see his special teams snaps decrease as he becomes a more important option for the offense. Williams will also lead the punt return unit. He wasn’t great at that job last season. If the Falcons can find a good option for kickoffs, their special teams should be fine this season.

The Falcons are currently in salary cap Hell and are built to lose. If Mariota looks too frisky out there, there’s a chance that orders will come down from on high to give Ridder more playing time. It’s possible that both the pass rush and the secondary will be much improved. This feels like a five win team, but incentives matter. 4-13.

Carolina Panthers:

2021 Record: 5-12

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.22

DVOA Wins: 7.1

FPI Wins: 7.05

Market Wins: 6.49

Implied Pythag: 36.12%

Baker Mayfield’s average season in Cleveland:

2018-2021: 3,531 yards, 23 TD, 14 INT, 6.4 NY/P, -1.1% DVOA, 340 DYAR

In the end, Mayfield had to give up $3M in salary just to be traded for a 2024 fourth or fifth round pick. That is a rough ending for the 2018 first-overall pick. Shoulder injuries (torn labrum) limited his effectiveness. He also dealt with knee injuries. Mayfield played hurt to give his team the best chance to win. This was his reward.

The fact that so much of Mayfield’s career has to be “injury-adjusted” makes projecting his future somewhat challenging. He’s coming off of shoulder surgery to repair the torn labrum that limited him last season. He didn’t give up $3M to ride the pine, so if he’s healthy, he’ll be starting in Carolina.

Backup quarterback (and third overall pick from the 2018 draft) Sam Darnold put up another consistent Darnoldian season in Carolina:

2021: 2,527 yards, 9 TD, 13 INT, 5.2 NY/P, -31.6% DVOA, -503 DYAR (in 12 games)

Darnold was well below replacement-level, so he has again been replaced.

Rookie third-round pick Matt Corral is waiting in the wings:

Matt Corral: You’d think I’d be higher on a quarterback who added 8.1 points-per-game in the SEC. For reference, Pickett added 10.1, Willis added 6.8 (mostly with his legs), and only one other member of the class was above 6.0.

One of the knocks on Corral is that he’s a bit small for the position. That hasn’t stopped him from performing on the field:

2020: 326 attempts, 231 completions, 3,337 yards, 29 TD, 14 INT, 9.2 ANY/A, 86.1 EPA

2021: 385 attempts, 261 completions, 3,348 yards, 20 TD, 5 INT, 8.2 ANY/A, 49.1 EPA

He suffered an ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl. It prevented him from running drills at the combine. He looked fine on his pro day and the injury isn’t a long term concern.

So why no first-round grade on Corral? The offensive scheme was heavily run-pass-option-based (RPO). It’s unlikely he’ll be able to replicate that success in the NFL. He has a quick release, but it lacks firepower. The dropoff in his accuracy when under pressure was steep. He did some nice work with his legs (75.8 EPA over the past two seasons), but as with Willis, that’s a risky strategy in the pros.

The weirdest thing about Corral is that his receivers were plagued with drops, yet he threw some of the softest interceptions I’ve ever seen. In 2021 he got better at avoiding interceptions, but at the cost of completion percentage and yardage per attempt. Effectively, he shifted to a less aggressive spot on the curve, but he didn’t improve his overall efficiency.

He hasn’t been asked to run a pro-style offense. We don’t have much data on his ability to work through his progressions and beat a defense. That’s a concern, but not my main issue with Corral.

Ultimately my issue with Corral is that when I watched him I never felt like I was watching a potentially elite NFL quarterback. There are good NFL quarterbacks. There are great NFL quarterbacks. There are replaceable NFL quarterbacks. I don’t see the elite upside from Corral. That makes him a day two cost-controlled backup. I’d love to be proven wrong. After all, the NFL needs quarterbacks, so whoever takes him should expect that he can develop into a competent starter in the NFL.

The fact is that the Panthers probably don’t expect much from Corral. It’s possible he’ll be the Panthers’ starting quarterback in 2023. It’s also possible a healthy Mayfield earns an extension and rejuvenates his career. It’s not possible that Darnold somehow finds his game. Sorry. The Panthers probably expect to find their quarterback of the future in the 2023 NFL draft. For now, we’ll just wait and see.

(Editor’s note: Both Darnold and Corral are on IR. Backup P.J. Walker has produced -381 DYAR in only 233 snaps in Carolina. If Mayfield goes down, it’s tank city in Carolina.)

#1WR DJ Moore should have received a medal for producing 59 DYAR in this offense last season. As is, he’ll have to live with an extension that pays him $41.6 million guaranteed. Moore is an excellent receiver and the only player in the NFL with at least 1,150 receiving yards each of the past three seasons. He’ll give Mayfield someone he can trust when targeted.

To give you a sense of how impressive Moore was, let’s look at how Robby Anderson fared with his old quarterback from their NY Jets days:

2021: 53 receptions, 519 yards, -17.0 +/-, -33.7% DVOA, -176 DYAR

Anderson was a bit better when paired with Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 (-10.3% DVOA, 19 DYAR). We’ll see what he’s capable of when paired with Mayfield.

2021 second-round pick Terrace Marshall struggled in his rookie season:

2021: 17 receptions, 138 yards, -4.1 +/-, -42.3% DVOA, -70 DYAR (in 13 games)

Yes, the Panthers had terrible QB play. Those are still truly awful numbers. A mid-season concussion didn’t help. I want to note that Marshall’s agility was considered a problem before the draft. He skipped the agility drills at the combine and it was an issue in his college film. He’s going to have to prove to the Panthers’ staff that he’s capable of performing at an NFL level.

Budget free-agent pickup Rashard Higgins has won the #4WR job. Higgins was great in Cleveland in 2020:

2020: 37 receptions, 599 yards, +7.1 +/-, 29.4% DVOA, 176 DYAR (in 13 games)

Last season things didn’t go nearly as well:

2021: 24 receptions, 275 yards, -4.0 +/-, -16.9% DVOA, -16 DYAR (in 15 games)

Mayfield knows him so he’ll have a slight edge when it comes to earning playing time.

2021 third-round pick tight end Tommy Tremble had a tough rookie season:

2021: 20 receptions, 180 yards, -1.8 +/-, -24.0% DVOA, -36 DYAR (in 16 games)

Tremble is a quality blocker and should see plenty of playing time this season.

Ian Thomas has been consistently awful:

2019: 16 receptions, 136 yards, -27.1% DVOA, -41 DYAR

2020: 20 receptions, 145 yards, -30.1% DVOA, -48 DYAR

2021: 18 receptions, 188 yards, -21.9% DVOA, -26 DYAR

Note: He received 30 targets in 2019 and 2021, 31 targets in 2020. Given that context, the contract extension Thomas received blew my mind. I guess being trustworthy is worth $8M guaranteed. A few days after he signed the extension, news of his arrest became public. This Panthers franchise is something.

Christian McCaffrey has missed 23 games over the past two seasons. When healthy, he’s been effective:

2020-2021: 219 squid, 1,159 yards, 14.7% DVOA, 275 DYAR (in ten games)

Over the course of a full season we’d be looking at 1,970 yards, 467 DYAR. Here’s hoping McCaffrey has another healthy season left in him.

2021 fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard picked up the load in McCaffrey’s absence:

2021: 209 squid, 786 yards, -13.2% DVOA, -31 DYAR

Hubbard didn’t receive much help from the offensive line. On the other hand, he didn’t provide much help to his quarterback, dropping almost 20% of his targets. Woof.

Free-agent pickup D’Onta Foreman might end up getting most of the carries if McCaffrey goes down:

2021: 144 squid, 689 yards, 7.0% DVOA , 113 DYAR (in nine games)

The Panthers have rebuilt their offensive line. I can’t blame them. It was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Rookie first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu is taking over at left tackle:

Ikem Ekwonu: An excellent athlete who only looks small when compared to Evan Neal. Ekwonu is a former state champion wrestler as well as a former track athlete. Plays with a rare physicality. Wins with technique as opposed to raw power. Excellent at moving through space to attack defenders. If his coaches were so inclined, Ekwonu could be an elite pulling guard.

The question about Ekwonu is whether he’ll be able to develop the skills to stay at left tackle in the NFL. I am certain he can be an elite offensive lineman. I am less certain he can be an elite left tackle. Defenders that can force him to move and then reset his base have had success overpowering him. That’s not to say he was weak against pure bull rushes. Ekwonu’s technique rarely failed him there. My expectation is that he’ll take his lumps in practice and fix his flaws (hand placement and balance chief among them). Ekwonu has the physical gifts to be a quality left tackle in the NFL. He just needs to fix the flaws in his game.

2021 third-round pick Brady Christensen will compete with Michael Jordan for the left guard job. Christensen got demolished at left tackle last season. Moving inside would make his life much easier. Jordan got destroyed at left tackle. He’s a veteran so we know what he’s capable of. Christensen has significantly more upside.

(Editor’s note: Jordan won the job.)

Free-agent pickup Bradley Bozeman was my second-ranked center last season. He’ll be a huge improvement over the departed Matt Paradis. The Ravens declined to bring him back, which raised a few eyebrows around the league. Frankly, the Ravens should know quite a bit more about Bozeman than I would. I expect his numbers will drop this season.

Premium free-agent pickup Austin Corbett is taking over at right guard. He made my top ten and should do a solid job in Carolina. Note: Bozeman’s style isn’t necessarily impressive on film until you realize he avoids getting flagged while avoiding giving up sacks. Coaches appreciate such things.

Right tackle Taylor Moton finished third in my positional rankings. He’s the only Panthers offensive lineman who kept his job. This offensive line looks like it will be much better than it was last season.

Last year the Panthers’ pass rush was one of the best in the NFL. Defensive end Haason Reddick had a monster season (11 sacks, 30 hits+hurries). 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns was even more disruptive (nine sacks, 39 hits+hurries). Alas, Reddick parleyed his performance into a new deal with the Eagles. 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos (3.5 sacks, nine hits+hurries) is going to get a chance to replace Reddick.

On a per-snap basis, Marquis Haynes (three sacks, 11 hits+hurries) was as productive as Reddick. He’ll now have a larger role in the edge rotation. Rookie sixth-round pick Amare Barno will get a crack as well:

Amaré Barno: Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast. 10 sacks over his last 23 games. Lousy pressure numbers. His pass rush move set is still a work in progress. Did not have the power to take on offensive linemen.

So why do I like him enough to take him early in the fourth round? He’s fast. Really, really fast. SackSEER likes him well enough. He certainly might develop into a solid edge in time. I see a player who can be more than that.

Barno has played linebacker before. Additionally, he has significant special teams experience. His combination of size and speed makes him a potentially elite off-ball linebacker. His ability to blitz can be gravy if he learns how to cover in space. Let me again mention his speed. Jamin Davis, 19th overall pick to the Washington Football Team (now Commanders), ran a 4.48. That was blazingly fast. 4.36 is otherworldly. Barno’s range off the ball is potentially unprecedented for a man his size.

There’s a second-round value here somewhere if Barno can develop the skills. His college production says day three. I get it. If you can dominate, why didn’t you do so vs. weaker competition? That’s why I would take him early in round four.

Barno was one of my favorite day three gems. I’m not sure where he fits best in a 4-3 system. He might be a pass-rush specialist defensive end who can also slide over to linebacker. Let me say again how much I love Barno’s potential range. If he learns how to cover NFL tight ends and running backs, he’ll earn his keep regardless of his pass-rush skills.

Frankie Lovu (1.5 sacks, ten hits+hurries) rounds out the edge rotation. Lovu might also see some time at outside linebacker if the Panthers’ depth is tested. He’s an elite special teams ace and one of the most versatile players on the roster.

2020 first-round pick defensive tackle Derrick Brown (three sacks, 19 hits+hurries) will pair with free-agent pickup Matt Ioannidis (2.5 sacks, 30 hits+hurries) inside. There’s talk about Derrick Brown under-performing his draft status. It’s true he hasn’t put up huge numbers. What he has done is soak up blocking, allowing his teammates to succeed. What impresses is how often he draws double-teams. He’s been an impact player even if it’s not showing up in the box score. 2020 sixth-round pick Bravvion Roy and 2021 fifth-round pick Daviyon Nixon will provide depth.

Free-agent pickup Damien Wilson will start inside at middle linebacker. He did a nice job in Jacksonville. There’s some question as to his availability, as he may face a suspension due to an assault charge. Note: The tire iron was not the first deadly weapon he’s brandished. If we had video of these incidents, I suspect his NFL career would be in jeopardy, but out of sight, out of mind.

Wilson will be flanked by Shaq Thompson and free-agent pickup Cory Littleton. Thompson is currently on the PUP list as he recovers from knee surgery, but should be ready to start the season. Littleton struggled last year. He’d like to show he’s still capable of the form he showed with the Rams in 2018 and 2019. His play with the Raiders in 2020 and 2021 was not on the same level. As for Thompson: If healthy, he’s a quality player.

Rookie fourth-round pick Brandon Smith will provide linebacker depth. Smith is an elite athlete. His film suggests he can excel in coverage. His reaction skills and body control both need work. In his case, it would be worth trading some speed and aggressiveness for control and play diagnosis skills. If the light comes on for Smith, he could end up being a draft steal.

No rookie was having a better season than cornerback Jaycee Horn through the first three games. He had only allowed two completions. He was dominating. Then he broke three bones in his foot and missed the rest of the season. Horn was placed on the PUP list at the start of training camp, but has since been cleared to play. Horn returning to 100% would give this defense a huge boost.

Donte Jackson has been quite good when healthy. He missed five games last year and ten over the past three years. The Panthers’ defense is better when he’s on the field.

Last season, the Panthers traded for cornerback C.J. Henderson. Henderson was the ninth-overall pick in the 2020 draft. He never played to that level in Jacksonville. He’s missed 13 games over the past two seasons. To be blunt, Henderson sucked last season. We’ll see if the light comes on this year. If not, he may find himself out of the league.

2021 fifth-round pick Keith Taylor has the inside track to the #4CB job. He took his lumps last season.

2020 second-round pick strong safety Jeremy Chinn is a LB/S hybrid. I trust him as the eighth man in the box. He’ll pair with free-agent pickup Xavier Woods. Woods picked up three interceptions last season after having none in 2020. He was excellent in coverage back in 2020, though. Woods gives the Panthers a quality pair of physical safeties. 2020 fifth-round pick Kenny Robinson will provide depth.

Kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Johnny Hekker give the Panthers a quality pair of specialists. Hekker isn’t the star he once was in Los Angeles. He should still be an improvement over the dreck Carolina trotted out last season. Gonzalez did a nice job before going down with a quad injury.

The Panthers punt coverage unit was quite good last season. The kickoff coverage… notsomuch. Perhaps they’ll both even out this season.

Andre Roberts is taking over the return responsibilities. He led the league in kickoff return yardage last season and is a three-time All-Pro return specialist.

The Panthers’ roster looks a lot better than it did going into last season. If Baker Mayfield is healthy, the Panthers could threaten to steal a wildcard spot. That’s the rub. Does Mayfield still have the arm strength to be a quality NFL quarterback? Last season’s film can’t answer that question because he was playing hurt. If Mayfield has a fork in him, then this team could collapse again. All NFL teams have a fair amount of variance. This Panthers team has more than most. I’ll go with 7-10 with the expectation that I’ll be wrong by multiple wins. I just don’t know which way.

New Orleans Saints:

2021 Record: 9-8

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 8.76

DVOA Wins: 9.4

FPI Wins: 8.8

Market Wins: 8.83

Implied Pythag: 51.33%

The 2021 Saints’ season can be split into two parts. Part 1: Jameis Winston:

2021: 1,170 yards, 14 TD, 3 INT, 6.3 NY/P, 13.6% DVOA, 338 DYAR (in seven games)

The Saints went 5-2 over that stretch. I want to note Jameis had 70 rushing DYAR and 268 passing DYAR. He was playing with more control and efficiency than we’re used to from him. Then he went down with a knee injury. That brought us the Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, Ian Book trio. Sounds like a decent jazz band if we’re being honest:

2021: 2,267 yards, 15 TD, 10 INT, 5.7 NY/P, -13.4% DVOA, -52 DYAR

The Saints went 4-6 over those games. I should point out that 2021 fourth-round pick Ian Book drags those numbers down (-122.8% DVOA, -207 DYAR), but he only appeared in one game. Book somehow took eight sacks, threw two interceptions, and only completed 12 passes against the Dolphins. I was already low on Book. That performance forced me to recalibrate what he’s capable of. Book was waived and claimed by the Eagles. Siemian is now gone to Chicago. Hill has transitioned to tight end. The Saints signed veteran Andy Dalton to be Winston’s backup:

2021: 1,515 yards, 8 TD, 9 INT, 5.4 NY/P, -21.2% DVOA, -161 DYAR (in eight games)

Hrm. It appears the Saints will go as far as Winston can take them. He’ll have some new (to him) weapons to throw to this season. Michael Thomas is preparing to return to the field:

2019: 149 receptions, 1,725 yards, +24.9 +/-, 23.9% DVOA, 538 DYAR

2020: 40 receptions, 438 yards, 3.4 +/-, -2.6% DVOA, 45 DYAR (in seven games)

Back in 2019, Thomas was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. He injured his ankle in week one of 2020 and struggled through a poor season. He should be fully recovered from ankle surgery. Now he just needs to recapture his elite form. If Thomas is healthy, he’ll start across from rookie first-round pick Chris Olave:

Chris Olave: He’s fast, but the hit rate on sub 190 receivers is rough. Over his first three seasons he averaged 0.60 points-per-target (155 targets). Last season that dropped to 0.30 (102 targets). It’s tough being “the guy.”

I’m a little concerned that he skipped the agility drills. I’m sure that was on the advice of his agent. On film, his 90 degree cuts were elite. He was good on comeback routes, but not as sharp as some of his peers. He also had seven drops last season. That hasn’t been an issue for most of his career.

As you might expect, press coverage from physical cornerbacks can cause move him off the spot. His run-blocking skills were commensurate with his size.

Olave doesn’t have the profile of a #1WR. I like him as a potential deep threat who can also work short. As with (Treylon) Burks, his athletic profile drops him out of the first round (for me anyway). Size matters, and Olave hasn’t shown me the kind of elusiveness to make up for it. Round two value (who won’t be there).

At 6-1, 188 pounds, Olave is a skinny dude by NFL standards. He’ll be able to stretch the field. If Thomas is healthy, Olave will get to work as the #2WR. That’s a better fit for his current skill set.

Free-agent pickup Jarvis Landry gives Winston a third new target:

2020: 72 receptions, 840 yards, +4.8 +/-, 4.0% DVOA, 130 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 52 receptions, 570 yards, -4.6 +/-, -10.1% DVOA, 18 DYAR (in 12 games)

Landry was playing hurt last season. If healthy, he gives the Saints a quality option out of the slot. On paper, this can be a formidable trio.

I’m amazed that all three of the Saints’ top wide receivers from last season remain on the roster. Marquez Callaway was forced into the #1WR role last year:

2021: 46 receptions, 698 yards, -3.0 +/-, 3.5%, 104 DYAR

Admittedly, that isn’t a stat line you’d want from your #1WR. He’ll be competing for the #4WR role.

Deonte Harty (née Harris) is coming off of his best season:

2021: 36 receptions, 570 yards, -1.1 +/-, 17.3% DVOA, 132 DYAR (in 13 games)

His ability to work deep out of the slot will keep him in the mix for the #4WR job.

Tre’Quan Smith is the last of the three amigos competing for the #4WR position:

2021: 32 receptions, 377 yards, +0.3 +/-, -1.7% DVOA, 42 DYAR (in 11 games)

Smith is a pretty good blocker, which might be enough to earn him some playing time.

2020 third-round pick Adam Troutman failed to follow up his successful rookie campaign (39.7% DVOA, 50 DYAR):

2021: 27 receptions, 263 yards, -2.2 +/-, -21.6% DVOA, -41 DYAR (in 15 games)

Woof! Injuries limited Troutman last season. This will be his chance to show he can be efficient as the #1TE.

I am not sure what to expect from tight end Taysom Hill. He had four catches for 52 yards last season (24.8% DVOA, 13 DYAR). It’s silly to read anything into that small a sample. I can’t imagine him as more than a gadget player, so perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

We’ve known for a while that Alvin Kamara might be suspended, but as of now that’s still up in the air. Kamara was mediocre last season:

2019: 268 squid, 1,330 yards, 2.6% DVOA, 164 DYAR (in 14 games)

2020: 294 squid, 1,688 yards, 21.6% DVOA, 448 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 307 squid, 1,337 yards, -11.0% DVOA, 7 DYAR (in 13 games)

Without Brees forcing teams into nickel or dime defenses, Kamara couldn’t find rushing lanes (-95 rushing DYAR). He’s still an effective receiver (102 DYAR), but that’s not enough if he can’t carry the ball.

Mark Ingram will inherit the #1RB role if Kamara is suspended:

2021: 195 squid, 716 yards, -19.6% DVOA, -84 DYAR (in 14 games)

The Saints’ running game was collectively below replacement-level last season, and that’s with Winston producing 70 DYAR. Brutal.

As you might imagine, the Saints’ offensive line struggled at run blocking. They weren’t great in pass protection either. Left tackle James Hurst is just holding down the position while rookie first-round pick Trevor Penning develops:

Trevor Penning: When an elite prospect plays in the FCS, you want to see him consistently dominate. Penning was indeed able to dominate, but not consistently. He also had no business picking up 16 flags last season. Evan Neal had six in his college career.

Penning has the size, length, and athleticism teams covet. He added 100 pounds to his frame in college. That… concerns me. At 6-7, he has the build to support the weight, but it also means he’ll have to work hard to keep it on. Ekonwu and Cross also bulked up, but nothing like this. (Neal has to work to keep his weight down.)

I’ve seen suggestions that Penning’s skill-set is better suited to play right tackle. I don’t think that’s the case. We’ve seen him play exactly one game at right tackle in college. His left tackle skills are somewhat unrefined. His right tackle skills are absolutely raw. It’s going to be hard enough for Penning to make the jump from the FCS to the NFL. Asking him to effectively learn a new position seems unwise.

Penning was able to win with pure play strength in college. That meant he wasn’t required to develop techniques to handle strong competition. Penning’s hand technique in particular will need a lot of refinement. The good news is his upside is enormous. Penning is a project and thus a high risk/high reward pick. Solid first-round grade and my #4OT.

Penning will be fun to watch once he cracks the starting lineup.

(Editor’s note: That won’t be in the first four games as he’s torn a ligament in his foot.)

Left guard Andrus Peat only appeared in six games before a torn pectoral ended his season. He was having a terrible year before he got hurt so we’ll have to wait and see how much he has left in the tank.

2019 second-round pick center Erik McCoy missed four games with a calf injury last season. His play was fine, save he draw flags at roughly double the league-average rate.

2020 first-round pick right guard (mostly) Cesar Ruiz gets a lot of flack from Saints fans. Attributing sacks to offensive linemen is tricky. PFF credited him with five last season. Football Outsiders credited him with 2.5. Both agree he didn’t give up any in 2020. He’s only drawn one flag in his NFL career. I have him as a player who’s avoiding major mistakes that put his team in bad situations. Frankly, if the Saints decide that they don’t want him, I’d be happy to see him come to New York.

Right tackle Ryan Ramczyck missed seven games with a knee injury last season. He still put up solid numbers and will be a key player for the Saints if he can stay healthy.

This line was decimated by injuries in 2021. It has the potential to be solid if they have better injury luck this year.

You might not have noticed, but the Saints’ defense was pretty darn good last year, finishing third in DVOA. Strong pass coverage turned a decent pass rush into an elite one. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks, 40 hits+hurries) and Marcus Davenport (nine sacks, 32 hits+hurries) certainly appreciated the support. Davenport is currently on the PUP list, as he had a truly brutal offseason. He should be good to go week one. These guys are tough.

Tanoh Kpassagnon did yeoman’s work in limited usage (four sacks, 12 hits+hurries). 2021 first-round pick Payton Turner missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. Here’s what I wrote about him last year:

Payton Turner: My favorite edge rusher to watch on film in the class. His agility is shocking for someone of his size and build. He had five sacks in five games this season. Phenomenal Pro Day (results). I’m amazed he had the balls to pass on running the 40. He’s had knee and foot issues that caused him to miss games. Like many other rushers in this class, he needs more moves and better technique. My lying eyes are telling me Turner is special. I’d take him late in the second round. I will be very happy if he ends up in NY.

The Saints loved him and he should join Kpassagnon in the defensive end rotation.

Defensive tackle David Omenyata did nice work (two sacks, 27 hits+hurries). That was down from the 6.5 sacks, 34 hits+hurries he produced in 2020. He missed the first six games with a PED suspension and will try to return to form this season. He’ll be paired with run-stuffer Shy Tuttle.

Free-agent pickup Kentavius Street (three sacks, nine hits+hurries) may end up being a tackle/edge hybrid for the Saints.

Demario Davis is the star linebacker that allows the Saints’ 4-2-5 defense to shine. He had another solid season patrolling the middle of the field. He’s strong in coverage and when attacking the line of scrimmage. 2021 second-round pick Pete Werner has been promoted to starter after playing well in limited usage last season. His coverage numbers were elite, albeit over a small sample. 2020 third-round pick Zack Baun will provide depth.

#1CB Marshon Lattimore is a bit of a gambler. That led to three interceptions and plenty of tipped balls, but it also meant he gave up more big plays than we’re used to seeing against him. I should note that his tight coverage also created some sacks. Putting fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks has multiple benefits.

2021 third-round pick Paulson Adebo had some rough stats, but he also pulled in three interceptions. Expect his numbers to improve quite a bit this season.

Dime cornerback P.J. Williams got in on the act, picking up three interceptions of his own. He’s been promoted to the nickel.

Bradley Roby is available to provide cornerback depth as needed.

I’m not sure how the Saints plan to use rookie second-round pick Alontae Taylor:

Alontae Taylor: Excellent athlete. Much more comfortable in tight coverage on the line than off coverage or zone coverage. Solid punch at the line (when it connected). Needs to be more consistent in his jam technique as he could get juked and start the play from behind. Having said that, his recovery speed was truly special. Reaction times looked slower when forced to process the play rather than just react and stay tight on his man.

(Note: His zone vision was a strength. He just needs to play faster once he makes his read.)

Taylor was particularly good at using the sideline as a defender. He needs a lot of small improvements in his technique, particularly with swiveling his hips on changes of direction. Right now, NFL receivers will likely find it easy to create separation.

There’s some talk of moving him to safety. He’d have elite range, and he would bring the physicality to cover tight ends. I am agnostic on this. I’ll trust his coaching staff to maximize his effectiveness. Late third-round grade, or early day three.

The Saints took him pretty early. I have to say, he’s a good fit for their scheme.

The Saints have replaced strong safety Malcolm Jenkins and free safety Marcus Williams with free-agent pickups Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. A torn Achilles limited Maye to six games last season. He’s a quality safety when healthy. The Honey Badger should fit right in, having snagged three interceptions last year. He’s also a three-time All Pro. This looks like one of the best safety combos in the league and an elite secondary overall.

Daniel Sorensen got repeatedly clowned last season. I was surprised the Saints signed him. He’ll provide… depth.

Kicker Will Lutz is returning from multiple surgeries to repair a core issue. His return should stabilize what had been a spotty kicking game. Punter Blake Gillikin had a fine rookie season. The Saints’ coverage units are well above average. Deonte Harty will return kicks and will share punt return duties with Easop Winston. Overall, the Saints’ special teams should be a slight strength.

The Saints are the clear rival to the Buccaneers in the NFC South. Jameis Winston has shown signs that he’s ready to take the next step. The receiver corps has been rebuilt. This offense should be much improved if Winston stays healthy. That would compensate for any defensive regression. I’m penciling them in for nine wins. I think ten wins is a more likely result than eight. 9-8.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

2021 Record: 13-4

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.34

DVOA Wins: 10.0

FPI Wins: 9.5

Market Wins: 10.80

Implied Pythag: 63.70%

Last season, the Buccaneers had the best offense in the NFL per DVOA. They pulled that off with a quarterback older than me. Tom Brady at age 44:

2021: 5,316 yards, 43 TD, 12 INT, 7.0 NY/P, 26.5% DVOA, 1,931 DYAR

At this point he’s such an outlier there’s no one to compare him to. He pondered retirement after one of the best seasons of his career. His return makes the Buccaneers the NFC favorites. Brady can’t make a mockery of the age decline curve forever. As great as he is, it’s not realistic for him to repeat his 2021 performance, so the Bucs will need some of the other players to step up.

Mike Evans raised his game when his fellow receivers were unavailable:

2021: 74 receptions, 1,035 yards, +7.7 +/-, 23.9% DVOA, 340 DYAR (in 16 games)

Evans is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Last season, he cut his drop rate in half, albeit at the expense of his yards-after-catch. Traditionally, he’s formed an elite pairing with Chris Godwin. Godwin is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last December:

2021: 98 receptions, 1,103 yards, +9.6 +/-, 10.6% DVOA, 245 DYAR (in 14 games)

Godwin is good enough that those numbers reflect a bit of a down year for him. He’s likely to start the season on the PUP list. The Buccaneers won’t rush him back until he’s ready to play at a high level.

(Editor’s note: He’s not on the PUP list. Good for him and the Bucs.)

With Godwin out around, free-agent pickup Julio Jones steps into the #2WR #4WR role:

2021: 31 receptions, 434 yards, +1.6 +/-, -1.1% DVOA, 45 DYAR (in ten games)

Jones was effective in 2020 (29.8% DVOA, 231 DYAR), but he struggled through injuries last season. This is a perfect situation for Jones. He doesn’t have to be the #1WR, and he’s paired with an elite quarterback. If Jones still has one good year left in the tank, we’re going to see it.

Premium free-agent pickup Russell Gage gives the Buccaneers a deep threat who can also work short out of the slot:

2021: 66 receptions, 770 yards, +3.6 +/-, 1.4% DVOA, 102 DYAR (in 14 games)

Evans, Godwin, and Gage will be a nice grouping.

2021 fourth-round pick Jaelon Darden is a return-specialist. He had roughly the same small sample as Grayson. It went… poorly (six receptions, 43 yards, -68.4% DVOA, -49 DYAR). Don’t miss those special teams meetings, Mr. Darden.

Like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski also retired this offseason. Unlike Brady, it appears Gronk intends to stay retired. He was still playing at a high level (19.9% DVOA, 166 DYAR) and his presence will be missed. New #1TE Cameron Brate is a huge downgrade:

2021: 30 receptions, 245 yards, -4.6 +/-, -20.8% DVOA, -53 DYAR

It gets even worse when you remember Tom Brady was the guy Brate was letting down. Free-agent pickup Kyle Rudolf wasn’t much better last season:

2021: 26 receptions, 257 yards, -0.8 +/-, -14.4% DVOA, -20 DYAR (in 16 games)

Rookie fourth-round pick Cade Otton might get a chance to contribute this season:

Cade Otton: An ankle injury prevented Otton from running at the combine. Otton was phenomenal in four games in 2020:

2020: 20 targets, 18 receptions, 258 yards, 3 TD, 12.9 yards-per-target, 0.97 points-per-target

That’s some small sample dominance. Otton’s eight games in 2021 were a different matter:

2021: 46 targets, 28 receptions, 250 yards, 1 TD, -0.16 points-per-target, 5.4 yards-per-target

Oof! If we combine the two years we get a decent (0.17 points-per-target) result. Otton has irritated his coaches both via fumbles and poor awareness at preventing interceptions on off-target throws. FWIW, Washington head coach Jimmy Lake was in over his head and got fired nine games into the 2021 season. At that point, Otton was recovering from surgery. Quarterback Dylan Morris eventually lost his starting job. Thing is, Morris was also the guy who went 3-1 and paired so well with Otton in 2020.

In theory, Otton has the size, strength, and polish to work at the next level. He’s comfortable as an in-line blocker. He knows how to run routes. I’m not worried that he’s coming off of an ankle injury. I’m just concerned that his production at Washington foreshadows what we’ll see from him in the NFL. Day three value.

There’s no way around the fact that losing Gronk hurts this offense.

Running back Leonard Fournette is coming off of his finest season:

2021: 264 squid, 1,266 yards, 13.7% DVOA, 321 DYAR (in 14 games)

He’s only 27 and should still have some gas left in the tank.

2020 third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn (-3.5% DVOA, 12 DYAR) is competing with rookie third-round pick Rachaad White for the #2RB job. Vaughn was unimpressive last season, so consider White the favorite. White was a capable rusher and receiver at Arizona State. As an aside, it feels like teams have begun to feel comfortable grabbing “their guy” in the third round. I’m guessing running backs are still being overdrafted.

The Buccaneers’ elite offensive line has taken multiple blows this offseason. There was the unexpected retirement of left guard Ali Marpet. He was my top graded player at the position last season. Center Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury early in training camp. He’ll start the season on the PUP list and might not be available until 2023.

Left tackle Donovan Smith finished third in my rankings. Playing with Brady helps. I suspect he’d still be a top-ten performer with an average quarterback under center.

Aaron Stinnie is holding down the left guard job until rookie second-round pick Luke Geodeke is ready:

Luke Geodeke: Had to eat 7,000 calories a day to get his weight up to play offensive line. Just the thought of that is horrifying to me. Geodeke is a converted tight end who started at right tackle for CMU. Missed 2020 with a knee injury. His film is solid. He shows great awareness. Managed to generate significant power if he could get a good grip on the defender. I can’t see him playing tackle in the NFL. Frankly, I’m leery about playing him at guard as well. NFL interior defenders have more play strength than anyone he saw on the outside at CMU.

Goedeke’s work ethic is impressive. I’m confident he’ll bust his ass to play whatever position his team asks of him (including potentially center). I’m less confident he’ll have the physical tools to do so. Day three value.

The Buccaneers saw something in Geodeke that I must have missed. Either that, or he’ll end up being a reach that didn’t work out.

Jensen’s injury has forced 2021 third-round pick Robert Hainsey into the starting lineup. I had suspected the Bucs viewed Hainsey as Jensen’s eventual replacement. The injury just moved up the timetable.

Going from Marpet and Jensen to Stinnie and Hainsey is quite the downgrade. We’ll see how much interior pressure Brady faces.

The Bucs have also changed starters at right guard, where Shaq Mason is taking over from Alex Cappa. I have this as a slight upgrade.

2020 first-round pick Tristan Wirfs is probably the best right tackle in the NFL. His ankle injury vs. the Eagles helped derail the Buccaneers’ playoff run. Buccaneers fans (and perhaps coaches as well) shit bricks as Wirfs was carted off the field in training camp. Thankfully it turned out to just be bad cramps. Losing Wirfs might make Brady contemplate re-retiring.

It was a bit of an off year for the Buccaneers’ defense, finishing ninth in the DVOA rankings. They had finished fifth in 2020 and sixth in 2019. They made some changes this offseason, replacing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (six sacks, 25 hits+hurries) with free-agent pickup Akiem Hicks (3.5 sacks, 12 hits+hurries).

I view this move as a downgrade for a few reasons. Hicks has had trouble staying healthy, missing 20 games over the past three seasons. Additionally, Suh has commanded more offensive attention. Hicks was easier to sign, though, as Suh is considered a fairly tough negotiator. Hicks will start alongside nose tackle Vita Vea (four sacks, 27 hits+hurries). Vea is one of the best nose tackles in the league.

Defensive end William Gholston (4.5 sacks, 19 hits+hurries) will start at defensive end. Rookie second-round pick Logan Hall will join the DE rotation:

Logan Hall: Not a true edge. I considered putting him in the defensive tackle group. He’s a great athlete if you consider him to be an interior lineman. He can play as a 4-3 DT or a 3-4 DE. Pulled in six sacks last season playing mostly in the interior. That’s the kind of production that gets my attention.

Explosive off the snap. Plays tall, which is a mixed blessing. Offensive linemen can get leverage on him if they catch him cleanly. However, Hall is pretty good at splitting them. He excels at taking passing lanes away from the quarterback when blocked one on one. Hall was generally poor against double teams unless he beat them off the snap. This is an area where he’ll improve with more training.

Hall isn’t quite a “planet theory” player, but he’s close enough to perk my interest. His future role will depend on what kind of defense he lands in. I think I like him more a 4-3 DT with some interior pass-rush potential. If he’s a good fit for your defense I can see snagging him at the tail end of round one. Otherwise, and early round two value. (Note: Hall has a medical flag due to elbow surgery, but it doesn’t appear to be a major concern.)

Hall is a good fit for this defense. He can move inside and provide interior pressure in pass-rush situations.

Jason Pierre-Paul has departed, leaving outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (ten sacks, 51 hits+hurres) and 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (four sacks, 30 hits+hurries) to provide the edge rush. 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson (five sacks, 20 hits+hurries) will be a part of the rotation as well.

Barrett is a complete player and one of the stars of the defense. Tryon-Shoyinka is still learning the finer points of the game. He was notably poor against the run. I expect he’ll have corrected some of the holes in his game. Nelson impressed me quite a bit in limited usage. He should see more playing time this season.

It was an off year for Lavonte David. He was slowed by a foot injury. When healthy, he’s one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. He’ll be paired with 2019 first-round pick Devin White. In 2020 White had nine sacks (20 hits+hurries). Last season he had 3.5 sacks (42 hits+hurries). Tons of sizzle. Less steak. At least his pass coverage skills improved. He has elite range, so this is an area in which he should excel. The Bucs would like to see fewer broken tackles from White this season. It was a bit of an issue in 2021. I should note the Bucs picked up White’s fifth-year option so he’ll be back in 2023.

I’m not sure who the next man up is if either White or David go down. It might be 2021 fifth-round pick K.J. Britt. I suppose we will find out soon enough. Let’s hope the Bucs have good injury luck here.

The Buccaneers would be very happy if starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis and 2019 third-round pick Jamel Dean could stay on the field. They missed a combined nine games last season. When healthy, both are pretty good. Dean might be on the cusp of stardom if he continues to improve.

2019 second-round pick nickelback Sean Murphy-Bunting missed eight games with a dislocated elbow last season. He played poorly when available. He struggled in 2020 as well, although he had three interceptions in an exceptional playoff run. He’s in a contract year. The Bucs want to see what he’s capable of.

2020 second-round pick free safety Antoine Winfield was phenomenal last season. The only issue was that he missed four games and dealt with a foot injury. The Bucs have given some indication that Winfield may get some snaps from the slot this season. I’m not sure that’s the best use of his skill-set. We’ll see.

Right now it looks like Winfield will be paired with 2019 third-round pick Mike Edwards. Edwards put up great numbers last season, including three interceptions.

Budget free-agent pickup Logan Ryan and LB/S hybrid Keanu Neal will provide depth.

Rookie fourth-round pick Jake Camarda is taking over the punting and kickoff duties. He was my highest rated punter. He excelled at kickoffs at Georgia as well. Kicker Ryan Succop had another lousy season. I’m a bit surprised he hasn’t faced more competition for his roster spot. Jaelon Darden is a roughly average return man. He handles both kickoffs and punts.

Overall the Buccaneers’ special teams are a bit below-average. They don’t have a lot of quality depth to spare to special teams, which leads to slightly weaker coverage and blocking units.

This Buccaneers’ roster took some major blows this offseason. Losing Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen weakens the offensive line. No more Gronk means Brady has to make do without one of his favorite targets. Defensively, losing Suh is a bigger deal than one might suggest from his stats. He led the Bucs’ defensive linemen in snaps last season for a reason. This is still a strong roster. It’s just not as deep as it was. The biggest issue is Brady’s age. Can he keep Father Time at bay for one more year? I have difficulty believing his play won’t slip. The Bucs are still the class of the division, but the gap has closed. 11-6.

NFC Playoff Standings:

1. San Francisco 49ers: 11-6

2. Green Bay Packers: 11-6

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11-6

4. Philadelphia Eagles: 10-7

5. Los Angeles Rams: 10-7

6. Minnesota Vikings: 10-7

7. Dallas Cowboys: 10-7

NFC Wild Card Round:

Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers

A classic NFC playoff matchup. The Packers grind out a tough one. Packers 24, Cowboys 20.

Minnesota Vikings @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kirk Cousins brings the Vikings to the playoffs. For a game anyway. Buccaneers 31, Vikings 13.

Los Angeles Rams @ Philadelphia Eagles:

The Rams title defense begins on the road. Stafford keeps the dreams of a repeat alive for one more week. Rams 20, Eagles 17.

NFC Divisional Round:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Green Bay Packers:

It’s funny when the 39 year-old quarterback is the youngster. Rodgers gets revenge for the loss two years ago. Packers 27, Buccaneers 21.

Los Angeles Rams @ San Francisco 49ers

Trey Lance does what Garoppolo failed to do: Out duel Stafford when it counts. 49ers 30, Rams 20.

NFC Championship Game:

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

More deja vu. The 49ers deliver more playoff sadness to Mr. Rodgers. 49ers 28, Packers 17

San Francisco is off to Arizona to Super Bowl LVII.

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

NFC North:

Green Bay Packers: 11-6

Minnesota Vikings: 10-7

Detroit Lions: 7-10

Chicago Bears: 5-12

Chicago Bears:

2021 Record: 6-11

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 5.99

DVOA Wins: 7.7

FPI Wins: 5.65

Market Wins: 5.65

Implied Pythag: 29.80%

As a Jets fan, I can empathize with Bears fans. Bad ownership leads to poor management. Bad management produces poor processes. Take this case in point: The previous Bears regime was somehow given the opportunity to draft multiple franchise quarterbacks, but not given the opportunity to develop the final one. The new regime has come in and is doing a full rebuild. Giving the young franchise quarterback (Justin Fields) the tools to succeed isn’t necessarily a part of the rebuilding plan.

The lack of internal consistency in this process creates deadweight loss. In simple terms, the Bears are destroying the value of a pricey asset they had acquired. While he’s financially cheap (being on a rookie contract), he was not cheap in terms of the assets spent to acquire his services. The only way to recoup those assets would be to develop Fields. What the Bears are actually doing is… not that.

To be fair, the previous regime didn’t do a great job of putting Fields in a position to succeed:

2021: 1,870 yards, 7 TD, 10 INT, 5.3 NY/P, -28.4%, -332 DYAR (in 12 games)

Not great. Veteran Andy Dalton didn’t do much better (-21.2% DVOA, -165 DYAR).

Fields looked indecisive, holding onto the ball for far too long. That’s something that can be fixed with proper coaching. His arm strength showed up on film. He’s still capable of punishing defenses and forcing them to defend both deep and the entire width of the field. The Bears replaced most of their receiver corps, but… well, let me explain.

The one main holdover was 2020 fifth-round pick Darnell Mooney:

2021: 81 receptions, 1,055 yards, -5.2 +/-, -7.9% DVOA, 54 DYAR

Those are exceptional numbers in the context of the Bears’ offense. The problem is that the bulk of Mooney’s production came from the slot. The Bears have brought in Byron Pringle to take over the slot role:

2021: 42 receptions, 568 yards, +5.4 +/-, 29.6% DVOA, 202 DYAR

Pringle took advantages of defenses shading deep to stop Tyreek Hill. Patrick Mahomes took advantage of Pringe’s YAC skills, hitting him underneath and letting him work in space. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears try to pair Pringle and Mooney.

Budget free-agent pickup Equanimeous St. Brown is set to start in Chicago:

2020-2021: 16 receptions, 215 yards, -3.0 +/-, -6.5% DVOA, 13 DYAR (in 25 games)

Ankle and knee injuries has hampered St. Brown, forcing him to take multiple trips to injured reserve. Expectations have to be low here.

The Bears picked up 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry (12 receptions, 184 yards, 1.9% DVOA, 26 DYAR) for a 2024 seventh-round pick. The concern about Harry coming into the NFL was separation. He has the ability to make tough contested catches, but it would be better if he could give his quarterback a larger target so he could make more routine catches. We’ll see if he can live up to his first-round potential in Chicago.

I had rookie third-round pick Velus Jones as a day three value. I was focusing on his raw wide receiver skills. The Bears may be more interested in what he can do for them on special teams. Jones has elite speed, if not much agility. He left college with the 14th-most kickoff return yards in FBS history. He averaged 15.1 yards-per-punt return last season, second in the FBS. We’ll see if he cracks the WR depth chart or is a pure return specialist.

2020 second-round pick tight end Cole Kmet did the best he could last season:

2021: 60 receptions, 612 yards, -2.7 +/-, -9.3% DVOA, -11 DYAR

It’s not that Kmet was below replacement-level, it’s that the Bears’ offense was. With Pringle and Mooney competing for slot targets, Kmet may find himself squeezed. He wasn’t drafted for his blocking skills, so he’ll need to find his niche in the new offensive scheme.

The Bears brought in Ryan Griffin to be a true in-line tight end:

2021: 27 receptions, 261 yards, -3.2 +/-, -16.9% DVOA, -27 DYAR (in 14 games)

2019 third-round pick David Montgomery was better than his numbers would indicate:

2021: 276 squid, 1,150 yards, -7.2% DVOA, 38 DYAR (in 13 games)

Over the past two seasons, Montgomery has produced 2,658 yards-from-scrimmage for one of the worst offenses you could imagine. I’m not sure how well he fits in the new scheme. Montgomery may end up one of the players who was never truly given a chance to succeed.

2021 sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert had a fine rookie season:

2021: 119 squid, 529 yards, 8.7% DVOA, 90 DYAR

That’s great work from a #2RB, particularly in this offense.

The Bears’ offensive line didn’t do the running game many favors. They also weren’t great in pass protection. They weren’t 58 sacks bad, though. Some of that has to fall on Fields.

Right now it’s unclear who will start the season at left tackle. None of the options look good:

Plan A: 2021 second-round pick Teven Jenkins. Jenkins struggled with back issues. He only appeared in six games. When he was on the field, he was by far the worst left tackle in the NFL. From my 2021 NFL Draft Preview:

I confess it never occurred to me to draft Jenkins and plug him in at left tackle. I’m a bit concerned Jenkins doesn’t have the length and range to hold his own at left tackle. If not, budget free-agent pickup Elijah Wilkinson will have to move over to the blind side.

At this point I suspect the Bears will give Jenkins a shot at right tackle before putting him on the blind side again.

Plan B: 2021 fifth-round pick Larry Borom. Borom played quite a bit at right tackle last season. He was bad. Not Teven Jenkins bad, though. I don’t see Borom as an NFL-level left tackle. He hasn’t shown the athleticism or technique you’d want. This would feel like a move born of desperation.

Plan C: Rookie fifth-round pick Braxton Jones. The Southern Utah prospect looked great when facing lower level competition. He struggled vs. Arizona State. I liked his hand power if not his technique. Jones feels like a guy who might be a nice value project for right tackle in 2023. If he’s starting at left tackle this season it says bad things about Jenkins and Borom.

Plans D & E: Free-agent pickups Riley Reiff & Julie’n Davenport. Both are natural right tackles. Reiff was pretty good last season and is slated to start at right tackle for the Bears. Davenport was awful and is currently providing depth.

I do not envy the Bears’ coaching staff here.

(Editor’s note: The Bears are going with plan C Braxton Jones and moving Teven Jenkins to right guard. Not right tackle. Right guard. Riley Reiff will start at right tackle.)

Left guard Cody Whitehair was mediocre last season. It’s possible he would have looked better in other circumstances.

Center Sam Mustipher wasn’t great last season. It looks like he’s been replaced by free-agent pickup Lucas Patrick. Patrick did nice work last season in Green Bay.

Justin Fields is going to need to keep his head on a swivel.

(Editor’s note: The following was written before a wave of cuts:

“It’s astonishing how many linemen the Bears have in camp, and how few of them are quality NFL starters. It’s easy to find players. It’s much harder to find good ones. It looks like another rough season for the Bears’ offense.”

The Bears picked up 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood after the Raiders waived him. Leatherwood was an absolute disaster in Vegas.)

The Bears’ defense was a bit above-average last season. The two men most responsible for that performance were edge rusher Robert Quinn (18.5 sacks, 23 hits+hurries), and inside linebacker Roquan Smith.

Quinn’s performance was even better than it looks from his pressure numbers. The Bears rarely held the lead so he had fewer opportunities than one would expect from his snap count. He was exceptional at turning pressure into sacks. That’s a tough trick to repeat.

Smith is the rare off-ball linebacker who’s a difference-maker. He was great in coverage and at stopping the run. His athleticism turned a lot of third downs into fourth downs. He’s currently requesting a trade. He’s currently in the final year of a rookie deal that pays him $9.7M this season. He’s going to want a contract extension that puts him among the top paid defenders in the league. As such, it’s hard to see what kind of trade value he’ll have.

We might have an unusual situation where no deal comes together, either in trade or between Smith and the Bears. In that case I’m not sure how it would play out. Smith could decide to use this year as a free agency audition. There would still be the possibility the Bears would hit him with the franchise tag. There’s any number of ways this could play out.

Between Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Bilal Nichols, the Bears lost 12.5 sacks and 48 hits+hurries of production.

2020 fifth-round pick Trevis Gipson (seven sacks, 16 hits+hurries) and free-agent pickup Al-Quadin Muhammad (six sacks, 28 hits+hurries) will join Quinn in the pass rush rotation. Rookie fifth-round pick Dominique Robinson will provide depth. Robinson is a converted wide receiver. Not a normal path for most NFL edge-rushers.

Expect the Bears’ sack rate to drop this season.

It looks like Angelo Blackson and free-agent pickup Justin Jones will pair inside. Jones did nice work for the Chargers. Armon Watts and budget free-agent pickup Mike Pennel will provide depth.

The Bears picked up defensive end Armon Watts (five sacks, 27 hits+hurries) after the Vikings waived him. If he’s still got gas left in the tank he’ll provide a nice boost to the defensive line.

Depending on Smith’s availability, we may see free-agent pickups Nicholas Morrow and Matthew Adams start at inside linebacker. Adams worked mostly on special teams in Indianapolis. Morrow missed the 2021 season with an ankle injury. He has the speed the Bears would want from a middle linebacker, but perhaps not the power. Without Smith (and the already departed Alec Ogletree) this unit can go from a major strength to a weak link rather quickly.

(Update: The Bears have held firm. Smith will start inside and play for a new deal. He’ll start alongside Morrow while Adams provides depth.)

The Bears upgraded their secondary via the draft. Rookie second-round pick cornerback Kyler Gordon is looking to start immediately:

Kyler Gordon: Nice athletic grade. That may put him into the first round. Managed two interceptions on 34 targets last season (-0.19 points-per-target).

Gordon has the tools. Neutralized deep threats with ease. Impressive field awareness to maximize the value of his safety help. Truly impressive speed out of his cuts. Has the ability to scare the shit out of quarterbacks if they’re off or late.

What he doesn’t have is experience. He can be slow to process his responsibility. Was prone to misreading the receiver’s intentions and forced out of position.

Played a physical brand of ball in the running game. I liked his aggression, if not his tackling technique. Poor tackling technique as also an issue in coverage.

Gordon provided value on special teams. Aggression + athleticism = boom!

Gordon has elite upside. If the game slows down for him he could be an absolute monster in zone coverage. Enormous range. His potential man coverage skills are nothing to sneeze at. The issue is how confident can you be that he’ll be able to develop field instincts? He’s a potential #1CB. For me, the reward outweighs the risk around the middle of round two.

I’m expecting Gordon to get torched on multiple occasions this season. That was a recurring theme for the Bears last season as well. In this case, it could be part of the developmental process for a highly talented cornerback. Gordon is slated to start across from 2020 second-round pick Jaylon Johnson.

Johnson needs to improve on his performance from last season. He made too many major mistakes. In some cases, mistakes can be excused if they’re part of the risk/reward calculation of a ballhawk. Johnson will need more than one interception to balance against the yardage he gave up.

Free-agent pickup Tavon Young is looking to start at nickleback and cover the slot. He’s a nice addition if he can stay healthy. That’s been a bit of an issue for him.

(Editor’s note: It’s still an issue. He’s going to start the season on IR.)

It was a rough season for 2020 fifth-round pick Kindle Vildor. With the additions of Gordon and Young, Vildor should hopefully be reduced to providing depth.

(Editor’s note: With Young on IR, Vildor’s back in the starting lineup.)

Rookie second-round pick Jaquan Brisker is taking over at strong safety:

Jaquan Brisker: Elite athlete. Five interceptions over his college career. Averaged -0.20 points-per-target over that time (42 targets). Linebacker-level tackling skills. Power to play as a box safety. Has the range to play deep. You can trust his coverage skills in the slot.

Brisker played bigger than his size. Had a bit of a bad habit of staring into the backfield and losing track of the receivers. That’s something his coaching staff will fix. I liked the fact that he knew how to cover without drawing flags. None in the past two seasons.

Brisker is reasonably polished overall. He should be able to make an impact in year two at the latest. Solid second-round value.

He’ll pair with free safety Eddie Jackson. Jackson was good in 2019. That earned him a contract extension. After getting paid, he sucked in 2020. He sucked again last season. I may have spotted a pattern here.

Budget free-agent pickup Dane Cruikshank might end up being the best safety on the Bears’ roster. He did nice work last season in Tennessee.

Rookie seventh-round pick Trenton Gill is taking over the punting and kickoff responsibilities. The dude has a strong leg and did some nice work at North Carolina State. Cairo Santos is keeping the placekicking job, which he’s handled well. It might help that he practices on poor fields to simulate the Soldier Field experience.

I’m expecting Velus Jones to return both kicks and punts. Fellow rookie Trestan Ebner might join him on kickoffs. Jones is explosive and should help the Bears retain solid special teams.

I winced quite a bit when examining the Bears’ roster. The offensive line looks like a disaster. The receiver corps lacks a true #1WR. Fields is not being given the help and tools he needs to succeed. Defensively, the back seven will face a trial-by-fire if Smith is gone. Part of me is wondering if the Bears have gone into stealth tank mode. That’s an odd thing to do with a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, but it is a new regime. I’m expecting brutal results in Chicago. 5-12.

Detroit Lions:

2021 Record: 3-13-1

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.58

DVOA Wins: 8.0

FPI Wins: 7.5

Market Wins: 6.87

Implied Pythag: 36.06%

I don’t normally begin my team reviews with a discussion of the backup quarterback, but I am going to make an exception for Tim Boyle. Last season Tim started three games for the Lions:

2021: 526 yards, 3 TD, 6 INT, 5.6 NY/P, -43.0% DVOA, -190 DYAR (in five games)

You might think his was a poor result for Tim. After all, the Lions lost all three of his starts. However, Tim has been through worse. Let’s go back to 2013.

Tim finishes his high school career at Xavier High School in Middletown, Connecticut. He decides to stay in state and goes to the University of Connecticut. His stats at Uconn:

2013-2015: 275 attempts, 133 completions, 1,237 yards, 1 TD, 13 INT, 4.5 NY/P (in 19 games)

Tim transferred to Eastern Kentucky:

2017: 327 attempts, 201 completions, 2,134 yards, 11 TD, 13 INT, 6.5 NY/P (in 12 games)

The Packers signed Tim as an undrafted free agent. He managed to impress the coaching staff and stuck around as a backup for three years. He was a restricted free agent, but the Packers didn’t offer him a deal. This may be because in 2020 he put up the DVOA of The Beast (-666.1%). He became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Lions. Frankly, I am in awe of his lifetime earnings.

If you want to hear more of Tim’s story, you can check out this interview he gave back in February.

And now you have been fully briefed on backup quarterback Tim Boyle.

(Editor’s note: Tim has been replaced by Nate Sudfield and is a free agent. NOW you’ve been fully briefed on Tim Boyle. Sudfield is the quarterback Doug Pederson turned to when tanking the final game of the 2020 regular season. Not much of an endorsment.)

This is the last year the Lions are stuck with Jared Goff. After 2022 it becomes reasonable to cut him. At this point we have a pretty good sense of who Goff is:

2019: 4,638 yards, 22 TD, 16 INT, 6.9 NY/P, 2.0% DVOA, 520 DYAR

2020: 3,952 yards, 20 TD, 13 INT, 6.6 NY/P, -1.1% DVOA, 379 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 3,245 yards, 19 TD, 8 INT, 5.6 NY/P, -3.6% DVOA, 200 DYAR (in 14 games)

He’s fine in a clean pocket, a disaster under pressure, and the heir to the Captain Checkdown throne. Apologies for the awful mixed metaphor. It’s true though. Goff is remarkably comfortable throwing short down-after-down. He’ll have one more season in Detroit to show off his skills. After that, we may see what he’s worth in free agency.

Goff had a very good rapport with 2021 fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown:

2021: 90 receptions, 912 yards, +8.6 +/-, 6.9% DVOA, 181 DYAR

St. Brown is a natural short range possession receiver. Goff’s instinct is to target St. Brown around eight times per game. Look for St. Brown to get plenty of work out of the slot again this season.

Rookie first-round pick Jameson Williams will not be available week one. It’s possible he’ll start the season on the PUP list:

Jameson Williams: He’s coming off of a torn ACL in the National Championship game. My grade for him does not reflect this. I’ll come back this shortly.

Pre-injury Williams was expected to run a sub 4.4 40. At 6-2, 180 that’s big game. His ability to stop and start put tremendous pressure on defenses. He was able to create separation with the threat of beating defenses deep. When he cut routes short, he gave his quarterback an enormous window. While working deep he changed direction with ease. Between his speed and route-running ability, he was a very tough cover. He produced 0.66 points-per-target (and led the class with 13.1 yards-per-target).

He was comfortable catching the ball with his hands, although his instinct was to let the ball come to him as opposed to snatching it out of the air. Occasional drops when he was looking to make a move before securing the ball. While that is something his coaches can work on, it’s a trade-off. If you always look the ball in, you’re going to be slower making your first cut. Yes, drops suck, but they happen because receivers are redlining. It’s not just a matter of lost concentration.

He didn’t win with physicality, either against press coverage, or when going after contested balls. He can bulk up a bit, but that might come at the expense of his (formerly?) elite speed.

He was a willing run-blocker, but not an effective one.

The concern for Williams is that the skills that made him great required him to put a lot of torque on his knee. He may recover his speed post-injury, but not the elite cutting ability. It’s a shame because he was my #1 receiver if healthy. Now it’s a medical question and I can’t answer it. Pre-injury I’d have been fine taking him in the top 10. Now? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Lions took him twelfth overall. I’m not sure what to read into that. If Williams had been the first receiver off the board, it would have suggested to me his medical prognosis was a 100% full recovery. If he had fallen to the end of the first round, it would have meant it was a significant red flag. At twelve, as the third receiver off the board, it looks like Williams’s draft stock only took a small hit from the injury.

If Williams does make a full recovery, he’ll give the Lions an elite weapon. The Lions have no need to rush him back. I look forward to seeing what he’s capable of in a few months.

(Editor’s note: He’ll start the season on the Non Football Injury list.)

Free-agent pickup D.J. Chark is coming off of a lost season due to a broken ankle. I was floored when I saw his contract. He made the Pro Bowl in 2019:

2019: 73 receptions, 1,008 yards, +1.8 +/-, 1.9% DVOA, 134 DYAR (in 15 games)

Since then:

2020-2021: 60 receptions, 860 yards, -7.0 +/-, -9.4% DVOA, 29 DYAR (in 17 games)

Chark isn’t to blame for the dysfunction in Jacksonville or his injuries. Still, a $10M guaranteed deal with void year shenanigans? Clearly the Lions think they might be getting the 2019 version of Chark, except with a bit more experience and veteran savvy. Apparently Chark has looked great in camp. I hope this works out for him and the Lions.

Josh Reynolds (1.3% DVOA, 40 DYAR), Trinity Benson (-30.0% DVOA, -35 DYAR), and 2020 fifth-round pick Quintez Cephus (26.0% DVOA, 71 DYAR) are competing for the #4WR job.

Cephus is coming back from a broken collarbone that ended his 2021 campaign after only five games. If he’s healthy, he should be the favorite to win the job. Goff is highly familiar with Reynolds because they played together in Los Angeles, but he offers less upside than Cephus. Benson offers straight-line speed and little else.

(Editor’s note: Reynolds has won the job.)

The Lions picked up 2019 first-round pick T.J. Hockenson’s fifth-year option. While he’s listed as the #1TE on the depth chart, he’s effectively a second slot receiver:

2021: 61 receptions, 583 yards, +3.2 +/-, 5.2% DVOA, 71 DYAR (in 12 games)

The Lions’ offense might have lacked big plays last season, but no one should doubt Goff’s commitment to the short passing game. Hockenson missed the final five games of the season with a hand injury and should be back to form week one.

2021 undrafted free-agent Brock Wright impressed in limited usage last season (5.0% DVOA, 14 DYAR). His combination of speed and blocking should land him the #2TE role in Detroit this season.

2020 second-round pick D’Andre Swift played hurt last season and it showed:

2020: 171 squid, 878 yards, 14.4% DVOA, 190 DYAR (in 13 games)

2021: 230 squid, 1,069 yards, -16.4% DVOA, -45 DYAR (in 13 games)

Smith dealt with groin issues early in the season. Those would slow anyone down. He was sidelined later with a shoulder injury. When healthy, he can be an effective back, both on the ground and in the passing game. He should be healthy to start the season.

#2RB Jamaal Williams did a decent job in a tough situation:

2021: 181 squid, 758 yards, -0.4% DVOA, 76 DYAR (in 13 games)

Williams has two traits that endear him to coaches. The first is his running style. He doesn’t dance. He attacks and pushes forward for every yard available. The second is his pass protection. His combination of size, field awareness, and technique make him a formidable blocker against blitzing linebackers/defensive backs. He’ll see a fair amount of playing time this season.

I feel for left tackle Taylor Decker. He struggled after missing the first half of last season with a finger injury. The Penei Sewell selection made him expendable. However, he was a top ten left tackle in 2020 and the Lions want him to keep his job. That meant Sewell had to move over to right tackle.

Sewell was an elite left tackle at Oregon. The Lions took him seventh overall. That’s a high pick to use on a right tackle. There are some reasons why the Lions are doing this:

1. Moving Decker over to right tackle would be silly. He’s proven himself at left tackle and that’s the position best suited for his skill-set.

2. Sewell is already an elite run-blocker. His combination of size and power is brutal. Defense ends can’t hold their position if he gets his hands on them (LOL linebackers).

3. The Lions’ running game improved tremendously when Decker returned at left tackle and Sewell moved over to right tackle.

4. Decker is only 29 and signed through 2024. The Lions want to keep and start both Decker and Sewell.

5. Sewell struggled early in the season at left tackle. At 33.25 inches, he doesn’t have prototypical left tackle arm length.

Given these facts, it’s understandable why the Lions feel comfortable moving Sewell over to right tackle. Sewell might end up playing right tackle through 2024 and then moving back over to left tackle. We’ll just have to wait and see. With Decker healthy, the Lions do appear to be set at the position.

2020 second-round pick left guard Jonah Jackson struggled last season. He had a solid rookie campaign. The Lions were missing multiple starters last season so perhaps Jackson will be better now that they’re back.

Center Frank Ragnow missed most of last season with a foot injury. When healthy, he’s among the top ten at his position. He should be 100% week one.

Right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai was fantastic last year, finishing second in my positional rankings.

There’s a possibility the Lions will have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Decker, Ragnow, and Vaitai were all top ten players in their last healthy season. Sewell has shown the ability to dominate on the right side. Jackson was effective as a rookie when the line was intact.

Evan Brown gives them decent depth on the interior. Matt Nelson showed he’s not a disaster at right tackle. The Lions hope neither has to see much playing time this season.

The light came on last season for defensive end Charles Harris (7.5 sacks, 45 hits+hurries). This season he’ll have more help as he’ll be starting across from rookie first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson:

Aidan Hutchinson: SackSEER is a tougher grader than RAS. My personal opinion is that it was a phenomenal combine for Hutchinson and it solidified his hold on the top spot in the draft.

Hutchinson is coming off of a 14-sack season. The downside risk on him is that he’s only had one elite year. He missed most of 2020 with a fractured leg. I’m not going to hold that against him.

Hutchinson projects as a very good pass rusher. He’s also a complete player. He’s quite good against the run, either holding the edge or attacking the running back behind the line of scrimmage. His backside pursuit is impressive. It’s hard to trick him with misdirection.

As a pass-rusher he wins with power and numerous hand moves. Doesn’t have the same flexibility and bend as some of the elite prospects of the past few years. His arms are also a bit shorter than optimal. Thibodeaux and Walker both have longer arms (much longer in Walker’s case). Both Bosa brothers also have longer arms.

Is Hutchinson a slam-dunk #1 pick? No. He’s viewed as close to a finished product with a lower ceiling than some of the other options in this class. If you’re not taking a quarterback first overall, you’d prefer to draft an athletic freak. Hutchinson is a beast in the weight room, a connoisseur of the film room, and a shvere arbeter on the field.

Given the positional value, he’d be my first non-quarterback off the board in a year when no quarterback merits the first overall selection.

2020 third-round pick Julian Okwara (five sacks, 17 hits+hurries) and 2019 fourth-round pick Austin Bryant (4.5 sacks, 10 hits+hurries) will provide depth. Julian’s older brother Romeo Okwara will join them when he returns from the Achilles injury he suffered in week four last season. He had ten sacks and 39 hits+hurries back in 2020. He’s currently on the PUP list as he’s still recovering.

Michael Brockers can play either defensive end or defensive tackle. Right now it looks like he’s going to play more at tackle this season, starting alongside 2021 third-round pick nose tackle Alim McNeill. Brockers has seen his level of play drop over the past few years.

2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike impressed in limited usage last season. I’m expecting a lot more from him this year. He may end up pairing with McNeill quite a bit.

With linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin in Houston, the Lions don’t have any good options in their base 4-2-5 defense. Alex Anzalone’s coverage stats were helped by JRM’s range. His tackling skills are another issue.

2021 fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes had a rough rookie season. Perhaps he’ll be able to use it as a learning experience. Free-agent pickup Chris Board was mostly a special teams ace in Baltimore. He may be pressed into starting duty here. Jarrad Davis and Josh Woods will provide depth.

The Lions’ options at cornerback, presented in alphabetical order:

2019 third-round pick Will Harris: A failure at free safety. Could try and salvage his career with a move to cornerback.

Free-agent pickup Mike Hughes: Was considered one of the two pigeons in the Chiefs’ secondary, along with Daniel Sorensen. Unlike Sorensen, Hughes at least had decent coverage statistics.

2021 undrafted free-agent Jerry Jacobs: Currently on the PUP list after suffering a torn ACL in week 14 last season. Made nine starts in 2021. Would have provided depth on a better roster.

2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah: Ruptured his Achilles in week one last season, but not before getting torched both in the running game and in the passing game. The Lions’ coaching staff was not happy with him. He’ll have to earn his starting job back.

2019 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye: Decent coverage numbers + six interceptions = the #1CB job.

2021 undrafted free-agent A.J. Parker: Did a decent job at nickelback. On most teams he’d have struggled to see the field. I suppose that Detroit is a land of opportunity.

Optimally, Okudah will develop into an elite cornerback, Oruwariye will do another fine job, and Hughes will hold his own. More realistically, this secondary will get demolished again in 2022.

Relax, I didn’t forget about the safeties. Tracy Walker did a fine job all things considered. He was rewarded with an extension for $16M guaranteed.

Budget free-agent pickup DeShon Elliot is competing with rookie third-round pick Kerby Joseph for the other starting job:

Kerby Joseph: Always disconcerting when a defensive back declines to run the 40. Five interceptions last season. Natural zone ball hawk. Only one season as the starter. We haven’t seen much man coverage from him.

Joseph has the skills to get to the ball carrier but doesn’t bring much pop. Has contributed on special teams and should continue to do so at the next level.

It’s rare to find someone with this many takeaways, but with no 40 and only one year of starting experience I’m not touching Joseph before day three.

The Lions have a ton of options. Few good ones though.

(Editor’s note: It looks like Elliot will start.)

Punter Jack Fox is excellent. That’s helpful given how often his services are needed. It would be nice if the coverage units were as good, but that’s not realistic in Detroit.

Austin Seibert is competing with Riley Patterson for the starting kicker job. Seibert is considered to have the stronger leg, while Patterson might be the more accurate of the two.

Kalif Raymond is an above-average punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike impressed when given the chance to return kicks. He’ll return as the starter there this season. Tom Kennedy may also see some snaps.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell has exceeded my expectations. Initially I thought he was just a meathead. His loud aggressive attitude isn’t an act. He’s shown balls on fourth down. The team has bought in to his style. They’ve played hard despite a fairly hopeless situation. The roster was mismanaged for years. It will take a number of good drafts just to get it back to respectability. For now, the Lions are just going to do their best.

Quarterback Jared Goff should have better weapons this year (presuming Jameson Williams can return later this season). The offensive line looks quite strong. Running back D’Andre Swift should return to form now that he’s healthy. The offense might actually be reasonable this year. The defense still sucks, though. The linebacker corps is barren. The secondary looks weak. Adding Aidan Hutchinson will help improve an anemic pass rush. A soft schedule gives the Lions a shot at 7-8 wins, but I just can’t bring myself to believe it. 6-11.

Green Bay Packers:

2021 Record: 13-4

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 11.13

DVOA Wins: 9.3

FPI Wins: 10.6

Market Wins: 11.14

Implied Pythag: 64.51%

In 2019, the Green Bay Packers went 13-3. They defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, but got crushed by San Francisco in the NFC Championship game 37-20. They saw the writing on the wall with their 36-year old quarterback Aaron Rodgers:

2017: 1,675 yards, 16 TD, 6 INT, 6.0 NY/P, 7.8% DVOA, 389 DYAR (in seven games)

2018: 4,442 yards, 25 TD, 2 INT, 6.3 NY/P, 8.1% DVOA, 883 DYAR

2019: 4,002 yards, 26 TD, 4 INT, 6.2 NY/P, 9.0% DVOA, 855 DYAR

The once-great star had faded. They weren’t fooled by their gaudy performance and knew they needed to draft their quarterback of the future. They boldly selected Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

2020: 4,299 yards, 48 TD, 5 INT, 7.6 NY/P, 33.7% DVOA, 1,673 DYAR

2021: 4,115 yards, 37 TD, 4 INT, 7.0 NY/P, 27.8% DVOA, 1,531 DYAR (in 16 games)

Rodgers was so mad, he decided to win back-to-back NFL MVP awards. Alas, playoff success did not follow. In 2020 they beat the Rams in the divisional round, but lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game. In 2021 they lost to the 49ers in the divisional round in a snowstorm.

From 2019-2021 the Packers are 39-10 in the regular season, and 2-3 in the playoffs, with two of those losses coming at home. It’s been rough.

Rodgers will turn 39 in December. He’s elite when protected, but overly conservative when put under pressure. He’s excellent at reading defenses and getting the ball out, so pressuring him is a tall order. I’ll come back to this when I review the offensive line.

Rodgers won’t have elite #1WR Davante Adams:

2020: 115 receptions, 1,374 yards, +13.6 +/-, 19.7% DVOA, 395 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 123 receptions, 1,553 yards, +13.6 +/-, 17.6% DVOA, 423 DYAR (in 16 games)

The Packers traded Adams to the Raiders for a first and second round pick. Perhaps a good long-term move, but it weakens them in the short run. They used the extra first round pick on linebacker Quay Walker. They ended up trading that second-round pick along with one of their own to move up to grab wide receiver Christian Watson with the 34th overall pick:

Christian Watson: Excellent athletic profile. Prototype NFL size. Clean bill of health. FCS cornerbacks were terrified of challenging him in press coverage for fear of getting dusted by his speed. Given his size, I’m sure it wouldn’t be easy to try and jam him on the line.

Oddly, his run-blocking skills are more refined than his route-running skills. North Dakota State runs a ground-based offense. Watson will need to diversify his game to get the most out of his athleticism. I’m sure NFL coaches will be happy to teach him how to find the holes in the zone.

He had a pair of kick return touchdowns in 2020. His film and combine show that he’s an exceptional athlete, even by NFL standards. He averaged over 20 yards-per-catch over his college career. Watson’s upside is as high as any receiver in this class. Given the issues I have with the rest of the class, I’d be tempted to snag him late in the first round.

Watson injured his knee in training camp and is currently on the PUP list. It’s not considered too serious and he should be back for week one.

With Adams gone, Allen Lazard is inheriting the #1WR job:

2021: 40 receptions, 513 yards, +3.2 +/-, 24.8% DVOA, 187 DYAR (in 15 games)

Nice results, but it’s different when you’re the guy facing the #1CB or double coverage.

Free-agent pickup Sammy Watkins may inherit the #2WR role:

2019-2021: 106 receptions, 1,488 yards, -7.5 +/-, -9.0% DVOA, 61 DYAR (in 37 games)

That’s from his time in Kansas City and Baltimore. Watkins has never recovered his pre-injury athleticism. I’ll note that he is a plus blocker in the running game. Combining him and Watson will gives the Packers rare flexibility. That’s not to say I’m a fan of this signing. I think Watkins has a fork sticking out of his back, which is why two other contenders waved him goodbye over the past two years.

Randall Cobb did nice work in his return to Green Bay last season:

2021: 28 receptions, 375 yards, +3.3 +/-, 23.5% DVOA, 117 DYAR (in 12 games)

Cobb is a slot receiver Rodgers can trust. He turned 32 in August and the athleticism from his prime is long gone. At this point he’s a solid possession receiver who can find holes in the zone.

2021 third-round pick Amari Rodgers was terrible last season. He could barely get on the field as a receiver (-30.4% DVOA, -12 DYAR on eight targets). He was one of the worst punt returners in the NFL. At this point the Packers would probably be fine with him retiring from football to pursue a career in haberdashery.

Rookie fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs might take over the punt return role that Rodgers has floundered in. Doubs was a productive target for Nevada with 140 receptions for 2,134 yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He may end up competing for the #2WR job after he learns the offense.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t make great use of his tight ends last season:

2021: 66 receptions, 663 yards, -4.9% DVOA, 10 DYAR

#1TE Robert Tonyan was much more effective in 2020:

2020: 52 receptions, 586 yards, +12.6 +/-, 51.7% DVOA, 242 DYA

Tonyan tore his ACL in week eight and missed the rest of the season. He’s currently on the PUP list recovering and should be healthy early this season.

(Editor’s note: He’ll be back for week one.)

Veteran Marcedes Lewis and 2020 third-round pick Josiah Deguara are available while Tonyan recovers.

Running backs Aaron Jones and 2020 second-round pick A.J. Dillon were both productive last season. Jones:

2021: 236 squid, 1,190 yards, 10.5% DVOA, 228 DYAR (in 15 games)

Dillon:

2021: 224 squid, 1,116 yards, 14.1% DVOA, 269 DYAR

Jones is the lightning to Dillon’s thunder. While both backs are comfortable receivers, Jones can split out and run patterns. Truthfully, much of their success comes from Aaron Rodgers and the offensive line. Defenses are focused on stopping Rodgers. That leaves opportunities for the Packers’ running game to attack softer fronts. Additionally, Rodgers rarely puts his running backs in a poor position when used as receivers. Finally, the Packers’ offensive line has been a consistent strength. Jones and Dillon are good players. I just want to point out that their success is coming in the context of an efficient offense.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari tore his ACL on December 31st, 2020. He returned briefly in week 18 but he clearly wasn’t fit and he missed the playoff game. He’s on the PUP list and the Packers don’t know when he’ll return to the field. Given his knee issues, I have to wonder whether he’ll ever be able to return to the dominant form he showed pre-injury.

Neither Yosuah Nijman nor Elgton Jenkins were close to Bakhtiari’s level. Jenkins is slated to start at right tackle, but he too is on the PUP list, recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in week 11 last season.

Nijman can do a passable job at left tackle. Hopefully Jenkins can return for week one. If not, rookie fourth-round pick Zach Tom might be pressed into immediate service. Tom played left tackle at Wake Forest. I was expecting him to play center in the NFL. Needs must when the Devil drives. Tom would likely be in over his head as a starting right tackle. Few teams can handle losing a pair of starting tackles, although perhaps the Packers should no longer have such expectations for Bakhtiari.

(Editor’s note: The Packers have promoted Bakhtiari to the main roster and will likely give him a week one start. We’ll see how healthy he is soon.)

With Ali Marpet’s retirement, 2020 sixth-round pick John Runyan takes over the mantle as the best left guard in the league. Dude does his job quietly and efficiently.

2021 second-round pick Josh Myers did fine work in limited usage last season. If he continues to play at this level he’ll be one of the top centers in the league.

2021 fourth-round pick Royce Newman was a bit above-average. That’s what can normally be expected of a rookie that cracks the starting lineup.

The Packers have a solid core of young starters on the interior of their offensive line. If not for their injury issues at tackle, they’d be golden. Rookie third-round pick Sean Rhyan

Sean Rhyan: Let’s play another round of guard or tackle! Solid athletic profile at tackle, elite at guard. Arm length questions at either position, but especially at tackle. Played left tackle at UCLA. My sense is that he doesn’t have the pass protection skills to play tackle in the NFL. His limited quickness in dealing with outside moves meant he had to commit outside, leaving him vulnerable to inside moves. That’s not an acceptable solution at the next level.

He has the athletic skills to block downfield, but not the positional awareness. Frankly, his film in this regard should have been better.

Impressive run block skills. Won an unusual amount of 50-50 battles in this regard. That bodes well for any potential move inside.

It looks like the general consensus is that he’s going to get a shot at right tackle and will move inside if that fails. I can’t blame teams for hoping he’s a right tackle. My sense is his natural position is left guard. That would mitigate his weaknesses in pass protection. Mid third-round value.

I can only imagine where the Packers will play him if the shit hits the fan. Quite possibly everywhere but center is on the table.

(Editor’s note: Like Bakhtiari, Jenkins was promoted off the PUP list. He’ll get the week one start at right tackle.)

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers needs protection more than most quarterbacks in the NFL. He reads defenses well and has a quick release, which helps his offensive line quite a bit. When the pocked breaks down, he doesn’t handle it particularly well. Bakhtiari and Jenkins may end up holding the keys to the Packers season.

I’m going to pause here before talking about the defense. The Packers’ DVOA rankings by unit since 2019:

2019: Offense: 8th. Defense: 15th. Special Teams: 18th.

2020: Offense: 1st. Defense: 17th. Special Teams: 25th.

2021: Offense: 2nd. Defense: 22nd. Special Teams: 32nd.

It’s been the offense carrying the Packers, particularly since the Love pick. Losing Davante Adams is going to hurt. Losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling (-2.3% DVOA, 104 DYAR over 2020 & 2021) won’t hurt nearly as much. He was an excellent blocker, but that might be the one area rookie second-round pick Christian Watson can match him. The offensive line injuries are disconcerting. The Packers might have serious issues protecting Rodgers from edge rushers. Finally, spite can only protect Rodgers from age related decline for so long. If the offense declines, the other units will have to pick up the slack.

The Packers played a lot of base nickel or dime last season. It helped that they usually had the lead. The odd thing is that they had the worst DVOA in the league when in a nickel defense. There’s a fair amount of noise and variance when you look at DVOA by formation. In this case there was clearly some signal as well. Not only did the Packers struggle against the run, but they also had too many pigeons in their linebacker corps. They set out to fix those weaknesses this offseason.

First, they signed defensive tackle Jarran Reed. Then they used a pair of first-round picks on front-seven defenders, the latter on defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt:

Devonte Wyatt: Elite athlete when considered a defensive tackle. Less so if viewed as a defensive end. Perhaps his greatest strength is his versatility, as he can play over the center or outside the tackle. Strong senior campaign with 3 sacks and 33 hits+hurries. Solid against the run, albeit not the monster (Jordan) Davis is.

Wyatt has a diverse set of pass rush moves to keep the offensive linemen guessing. None of them are elite though. That’s the thing about Wyatt. He was consistently solid for Georgia. His field awareness helped him make more plays than the average lineman. I’m just not sure if he’ll be dominant at the next level.

Wyatt looks like a solid 4-3 DT or 3-4 DE. I could live with using a late first-round pick on him, but given the positional value I’d prefer to find my interior linemen later in the draft.

Wyatt and Reed will work with star nose tackle Kenny Clark (four sacks, 46 hits+hurries) to form a stronger interior defensive line core. Clark is a monster and I shudder to think of what the defense would be like without his presence. Reed is more of a pass-rusher (2.5 sacks, 19 hits+hurries) than a true run-stuffer.

The Packers used the pick they got from the Raiders in the Adams trade on linebacker Quay Walker:

Quay Walker: Prototype size and speed. Polished after four years at Georgia. Comfortable in zone coverage. Solid vision and power against the running game. Competent blitzer. Walker is a player I trust to do his job.

The question for Walker is whether he still has another gear left. Can he excel in man-to-man coverage? He has the physical gifts. On film he looks a step slow in man coverage. Alternatively, can he improve his pass rush and make that a standout portion of his game?

Walker has the upside to be a star. It’s not about fixing the holes in his game as much as it is being more of an impact performer. Six sacks and no interceptions in his college career is the kind of thing that gives me pause. Walker is the perfect example of the limited positional value of off-ball linebackers. With his limited impact on opposing passing games, I can’t bump Walker above a second-round value.

Walker will pair with De’Vondre Campbell. Campbell is coming off of the best season of his career. It earned him a huge extension. Campbell showed range I didn’t know he had. His coverage skills were elite, snagging two interceptions and solid results overall. He was a force in the running game. Campbell deserved his All-Pro selection. If only the rest of the off-ball linebacker corps hadn’t been dreck, the Packers would have been in good shape. Adding Walker should fix that problem.

The Packers were pretty good at generating pressure last season. Edge rush linebackers Preston Smith (nine sacks, 37 hits+hurries) and 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary (9.5 sacks, 62 hits+hurries) were disruptive. It was a notably effective season from Gary. He may be on the cusp of stardom. Smith is likely to regress this season (he had four sacks, 17 hits+hurries in 2020).

Defensive end Dean Lowry (five sacks, 16 hits+hurries) completes the starting lineup of edge rushers. I’m a bit concerned I have no idea where the rest of the rotation is going to come from. 2020 seventh-round pick Jonathan Garvin (1.5 sacks, 16 hits+hurries) tops the depth chart. The Packers like to keep their edge-rushers fresh. I have no idea how they plan to do that this season.

#1CB Jaire Alexander only appeared in four games last season before a shoulder injury ended his campaign. His return could give the defense a huge boost. When healthy, he’s among the elites.

Alexander will pair with 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes. Stokes did a fine job last year. He could have had an all-time rookie season had he not dropped six interceptions. At least he caught one.

Nickel cornerback Rasul Douglas caught five. He’ll be returning to the slot. Alexander will also spend some time there, as Green Bay has enviable cornerback versatility.

I’m not sure who will win the dime cornerback job. As with their edge rushers, the depth here is questionable and untested.

Adrian Amos and 2019 first-round pick Darnell Savage form a solid safety pairing. Amos is in the final year of his contract. I’d say he’s lived up to it. Savage has been a quality player, albeit not the star the Packers were hoping to find. As with the rest of the secondary, there’s not much depth here.

The Packers’ awful special teams found the next level in the playoffs, blowing the game with a blocked field goal attempt and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Signing punter Matt O’Donnell will help a bit.

Kicker Max Crosby was spectacularly awful last season. I’m shocked the Packers didn’t bring in more competition than undrafted free-agent Gabe Brkic. They could have used a late seventh-round pick on kicker Cameron Dicker. Perhaps they hoped to sign him in free-agency. Instead, he signed with the Rams. They might end up waiving him, as he’s in a camp battle with Riley Dixon. In any event, let’s hope the Packers find someone better than the soon to be 38-year-old Crosby.

The Packers were also awful in the return-game. I don’t think it was the fault of the return men. This is a thin roster and the Packers didn’t have a lot of athleticism to spare on special teams. They may have helped that a bit with the seventh-round selection of LB/S hybrid Tariq Carpenter. Even so, I have low expectations for these units. Romeo Doubs might find some playing time returning kicks or punts if the Packers decide not to go with the incumbents.

This is a remarkably thin roster. The Packers will have to give significant playing time to a number of unproven players. The major concern is how well Rodgers can perform without his star wide receiver. He’s going to have to make a lot of players look better than they are. Losing Adams may end up causing a cascade effect where even the Packers’ running game takes splash damage. Defensively, I trust the starters. I don’t even know who most of the backups will be. The special teams should be better than last year if only due to sheer variance. They’ll probably still be below-average.

The Packers have won 13 games each of the past three seasons for a reason. Head coach Matt LaFleur has done a good job putting his players in a position to succeed. This year, that may prove exceptionally challenging. I’m not expecting miracles this season. 11-6.

Minnesota Vikings:

2021 Record: 8-9

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 8.87

DVOA Wins: 9.5

FPI Wins: 9.3

Market Wins: 9.42

Implied Pythag: 52.89%

In 2020 the Vikings’ awful special teams helped them land a 7-9 record. Last season was different though. The defense finished 16th overall in DVOA. The special teams finished 13th overall. The Vikings were +11 in turnovers. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had another solid season:

2019: 3,603 yards, 26 TD, 6 INT, 7.2 NY/P, 14.3% DVOA, 786 DYAR (in 15 games)

2020: 4,265 yards, 30 TD, 13 INT, 7.3 NY/P, 12.0% DVOA, 894 DYAR

2021: 4,221 yards, 33 TD, 7 INT, 6.9 NY/P, 15.0% DVOA, 968 DYAR (in 16 games)

And yet they still finished with a losing record. The front office had had enough. The Vikings have new head coach (Kevin O’Connell) and a new GM (Kwesi Adofo-Mensah). It’s a new era in Minnesota. O’Connell was the offensive coordinator for the Rams the past two seasons. McVay gets most of the attention and it’s hard to know how much O’Connell should be credited for their success. I suppose we’re about to find out. If he can work magic with Cousins, the Vikings could be a surprise contender.

The one trick O’Connell might be able to pull is to design plays that are more resilient to zone coverage. It’s a known weakness for Cousins, as his skills don’t include a natural feel for where zone defenders will drift after the snap. Otherwise, Cousins is a solid quarterback.

#1WR 2020 first-round pick Justin Jefferson had an excellent sophomore season:

2020: 88 receptions, 1,400 yards, +9.1 +/-, 25.5% DVOA, 373 DYAR

2021: 108 receptions, 1,616 yards, +9.7 +/-, 18.9% DVOA, 416 DYAR

Don’t sweat the 10 drops. Jefferson bailed out the Vikings with numerous tough catches, particularly on third down. His drop number was a reflection of the number of difficult plays he was in position to make. Jefferson is already one of the best receivers in the NFL. I expect he’ll retain a huge role in the new offense.

#2WR Adam Thielen saw remains good for about five receptions a game:

2020: 74 receptions, 925 yards, +5.1 +/-, 19.2% DVOA, 287 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 67 receptions, 726 yards, +6.3 +/-, 6.5% DVOA, 142 DYAR (in 13 games)

He’s also scored 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He missed four games with an ankle injury. The Vikings would love a healthy season from Thielen.

2020 fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn has won the slot job:

2021: 50 receptions, 655 yards, +0.7 +/-, 2.5% DVOA, 92 DYAR

Frankly, it felt like Osborn was better than that. He’s developing into a reliable target.

The Vikings don’t have a clear #4WR. 2021 fifth-round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette shined in limited usage last season (five receptions for 116 yards, 121.95% DVOA, 63 DYAR.)

Budget free-agent pickup Albert Wilson is coming off of an awful stretch in Miami (-26.9% DVOA, -114 DYAR in 2019-2021).

Rookie sixth-round pick Jalen Nailor is an injury-prone speedster with little refinement to his game. I’d be inclined to give Smith-Marsette a larger role this season.

#1TE 2019 second-round pick Irv Smith is returning from a torn meniscus that caused him to miss the 2021 season:

2020: 30 receptions, 365 yards, +1.6 +/-, 23.5% DVOA, 92 DYAR (in 13 games)

He was expected to have a larger role in 2021. We’ll see what the new regime has in store for him. The depth chart behind Smith is fairly barren with free-agent pickup Johnny Mundt listed as the #2TE.

#1RB Dalvin Cook saw his production fall through the floor last season:

2019: 313 squid, 1,654 yards, 13.3% DVOA, 327 DYAR (in 14 games)

2020: 366 squid, 1,918 yards, 14.2% DVOA, 393 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 298 squid, 1,383 yards, -8.9% DVOA, 7 DYAR (in 13 games)

Some of the blame should go to the offensive line. They provided Cook with less help than they did in 2019 and 2020. Cook remained explosive and actually did particularly well on plays without missed blocks last season. I expect he’ll bounce back this year.

#2RB 2019 third-round pick Alexander Mattison didn’t enjoy the offensive line issues any more than Cook did:

2020: 111 squid, 559 yards, 4.7% DVOA, 77 DYAR (in 13 games)

2021: 173 squid, 719 yards, -18.3% DVOA, -62 DYAR (in 16 games)

Both RBs saw their DVOA fall by about 23%. C.J. Ham, 2021 fourth-round pick Kene Nwangwu, and rookie fifth-round pick Ty Chandler give the Vikings unusual depth at the position. Chandler is a natural speedster who may do his best work on special teams.

The Vikings’ run-blocking collapsed last season. They held their own in pass protection. Unfortunately, I meant that literally, as Olisaemeka Udoh picked up 16 penalties last season. He’ll be back on the bench this year.

2021 first-round pick left tackle Christian Darrisaw missed five games with a groin injury last season. He played poorly when healthy, finishing 28th in my positional rankings. Hopefully, he’ll play up to his potential this season.

2020 second-round pick left guard Ezra Cleveland was solid, finishing in the top ten of my rankings.

The Vikings declined their fifth-year option on 2019 first-round pick center Garret Bradbury. I agree with them. He finished 38th in my rankings. He finished outside the top 32 in 2020 as well. I’m not sure he should still be starting.

Free-agent pickup Jesse Davis has the edge on the field for the right guard job. He’s competing with 2021 third-round pick Wyatt Davis and rookie second-round pick Ed Ingram:

Ed Ingram: Amusing athletic profile. Highly inconsistent film. Sometimes he looked great. He’d be stout against power, quick enough to get downfield, and mentally aware enough to help out his teammates on the offensive line. Other times, he looked slow off the snap, and lazy if he didn’t have a man to block right in front of him. I suspect he drove the coaching staff nuts.

I don’t expect he’ll be able to play on the outside in the NFL. At guard he’ll need to react quickly off of the snap. His arm length won’t be much of an issue, but his focus might. The truth is Ingram regressed pretty badly in 2021. He also had a serious off-field incident earlier in his career that led to a full season suspension. Ingram has third-round talent, but I wouldn’t touch him until day three, if at all.

Welp!

(Editor’s note: Ingram won the job. Jesse Davis has been traded to Pittsburgh.)

Right tackle Brian O’Neill did a nice job last season, finishing in the top five of my rankings.

I have faith in Darrisaw’s potential improvement. Less so for Bradbury. Overall, we should see some improvement in their run-blocking after last year’s disaster.

The Vikings are switching to a base 3-4 defense. To that end they’ve brought in nose tackle Harrison Phillips. Phillips will be flanked by defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and free-agent pickup Ross Blacklock (two sacks, 20 hits+hurries).

I’m curious what the change will mean for 2020 fourth-round pick James Lynch. He hasn’t done much for the Vikings so far in his career. Perhaps the new scheme will give him an opportunity to break into the defensive line rotation.

Rookie fifth-round pick Esezi Otomewo and budget free-agent pickup Jonathan Bullard will provide depth.

Premium free-agent pickup Za’Darius Smith (13.5 sacks, 89 hits+hurries in 2020) will start across from fellow edge-rusher Danielle Hunter (six sacks, 18 hits+hurries in seven games). Hunter missed all of the 2020 season with a neck injury. He missed most of last season with a pectoral injury. Smith missed almost all of last season with a back injury. If both of them stay healthy, this is a fearsome pairing.

2020 fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum (eight sacks, 31 hits+hurries) and 2021 third-round pick Patrick Jones will provide depth. Jones barely saw the field last season. Perhaps the regime change will give him a second chance to prove himself.

Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks did his best last season (143 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions). Too often he was the guy seen chasing behind a big play. It wasn’t his fault, that’s just how things went for the Vikings last season. This season he’ll be paired with free-agent pickup Jordan Hicks. Hicks is a nice addition and this should be a solid pairing.

2020 fourth-round pick Troy Dye barely saw the field. He’ll provide depth, as will rookie third-round pick Brian Asamoah:

Brian Asamoah: A bit of a tweener. Elite range. Picked up 145 tackles over the past two seasons. Very hard to turn the corner against him.

Did solid work in man coverage. Quarterbacks clearly preferred to throw elsewhere. Will be tougher to repeat that trick vs. NFL tight ends. Excellent zone range. Right now, he’s a little too interested in watching the quarterback. That’s something his coaches will fix at the next level.

If a lack of second-level team speed is what ails you, Asamoah is the cure. Solid third-round value.

The Vikings have spent a lot of resources on off-ball linebackers. I know most of it came from the previous regime, but still. Strange to see.

#1CB Patrick Peterson was reborn as a zone cornerback last season. It did wonders for his career as he put up solid coverage numbers.

2020 third-round pick Cameron Dantzler is competing with rookie second-round pick Andrew Booth for the #2CB job:

Andrew Booth: Didn’t run at the combine due to a quad injury. Recently had surgery for a core injury. All we have are height, weight, and film.

Booth intercepted five of the 67 targets sent his way over the past two seasons. Produced a -0.11 points-per-target over that time. Looks smooth on film. Highly anticipatory. Can occasionally guess wrong, but usually saves a step.

Played a bit soft in zone. Desire to get a jump can backfire against pump fakes. Has a tendency to overreact against double-moves. Will need to better calibrate his aggression at the next level as this is a weakness quarterbacks will exploit.

NFL coaches will teach him how to be more aggressive in run support. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s a shame that we don’t have combine or pro day results. Booth looked like an elite athlete on film. I expect he’ll be able to be a #1CB at the next level. I appreciate that my grade on Booth is a bit above market, but injury red flags aside, he’s my #3CB.

If Booth is healthy, he should win the job from Dantzler. Dantzler needed a fair amount of safety help to cover his limitations, and that opened up holes in the defense that opponents took advantage of.

Free-agent pickup Chandon Sullivan looks like he’s taking over the nickel job. I’d say he was coming off of a poor season, save for the fact he had three interceptions. I don’t generally think of nickel cornerbacks as gamblers. Sullivan may prove to be an exception.

Rookie fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans is an excellent athlete with good size. I had him as a sixth-round value as he hasn’t shown the technique on film to match his raw talent. He’ll provide depth while he develops.

Safety Harrison Smith made the Pro Bowl last season. I’m not sure he deserved the invite. He turned 33 in February and his level of play isn’t what it once was.

2021 fourth-round pick Cam Bynum successfully made the switch from cornerback to safety. He shined in limited usage last season and should see more playing time this year.

I wonder what the plan is for rookie first-round pick Lewis Cine:

Lewis Cine: Elite athlete. Three dropped interceptions vs. one actual interception over the past two seasons. Tremendous range. A bit undersized. Plays with as much power as he can.

Cine has clearly improved each season. It’s no fluke that he was Georgia’s defensive MVP in the national championship game. Produced -0.15 points-per-target. Would have been much better if not for hands of stone. I think he’s accepted this and looked to have a clear preference for batting balls down.

His film range doesn’t quite match his combine speed. Receivers were able to create separation deep. He was also sometimes a bit slow to react to the play. Didn’t have great natural instincts when attacking the line-of-scrimmage.

Cine is a solid second-round value. He’s my S5 and I wouldn’t take him if any of the other options were still on the board.

It’s possible Cine is going to beat out Bynum for the starting job while being the eventual replacement for Smith.

Kick returner Kene Nwangwu did this. And then he did this. His excellence helped make up for the Vikings’ weak punting units. Jalen Nailor might take over punt return duties. Punter Jordan Berry is fine. He’s in a training camp battle vs. Ryan Wright. The real issue is that the Vikings’ punt coverage was poor.

Kicker Greg Joseph does a decent job on kickoffs. The Vikings would like him to be a little more trustworthy on field goals. If the Vikings fix their punt coverage and punt return issues, their special teams should be no worse than average.

This is the Vikings’ best chance to win the division in years. The Packers’ offense should regress without Adams. The Lions and Bears are still closer to being bottom feeders than contenders. The new regime has a chance to hit the ground running.

Kirk Cousins has the talent around him to succeed. Between Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Irv Smith, and Dalvin Cook, this offense has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL. Of course, that was true last year too. Improved offensive line play may be the difference, especially if Christian Darrisaw can put together a solid season at left tackle.

Defensively, the prognosis is trickier. A new scheme means new responsibilities. I’m not sure how the incumbents will perform. The biggest issue will be the pass rush. If Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter can stay healthy, this is an area where the Vikings can dominate.

On paper, this Vikings team looks strong. That’s why I’m comfortable projecting them winning ten games. That’s not enough to overtake the Packers, though. I trust Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers more than Kevin O’Connell and Kirk Cousins. 10-7.

(Note: The term “Squid” refers to carries plus targets.)

NFC East:

Philadelphia Eagles: 10-7

Dallas Cowboys: 10-7

Washington Commanders: 7-10

New York Giants: 7-10

Dallas Cowboys:

2021 Record: 12-5

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 10.28

DVOA Wins: 9.8

FPI Wins: 10.6

Market Wins: 9.63

Implied Pythag: 53.85%

It’s easy to think of the 2022 Cowboys’ season as the one that got away. They outscored their opponents by 172 points. They finished first in DVOA (6th in offense, 2nd in defense, 6th in special teams). They were a team prepared to make a Super Bowl run. And then their offense fell apart against the 49ers.

Well… not exactly. That’s a narrative told by the numbers, but the reality was a bit different. Quarterback Dak Prescott was a shell of himself (more on this shortly). The 49ers took advantage of his limitations. The Cowboys offense wasn’t a well oiled machine. And now it’s down three men.

After the season the Cowboys traded #2WR Amari Cooper (68 receptions, 865 yards, 8.0% DVOA, 179 DYAR) away to the Browns. Slot wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (45 receptions, 602 yards, 18.6% DVOA, 154 DYAR) signed with Miami. Quarterback Dak Prescott will have his work cut out for him:

2019: 4,902 yards, 30 TD, 11 INT, 7.7 NY/P, 27.1% DVOA, 1,612 DYAR

2020: 1,856 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT, 7.7 NY/P, 14.0% DVOA, 399 DYAR (in five games)

2021: 4,449 yards, 37 TD, 10 INT, 6.9 NY/P, 21.2% DVOA, 1,282 DYAR (in 16 games)

I need to break this down a bit. In week six, Prescott suffered a calf injury. Through week six his DVOA was 42.8%. He was setting the world on fire. After the injury, he was mediocre. He finished the year with -63.6% rushing DVOA (-97 DYAR). He had a 20.2% rushing DVOA over 2019-2020 (117 DYAR). He was clearly playing hurt. When healthy, Prescott is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. We’ll see what he can do with a diminished wide receiver corps.

At least #1WR 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb is back:

2020: 74 receptions, 935 yards, 0.3 +/-, -3.8% DVOA, 78 DYAR

2021: 79 receptions, 1,102 yards, +4.6 +/-, 7.9% DVOA, 205 DYAR (in 16 games)

Remember: The Cowboys were without Dak Prescott for most of 2020. Lamb worked almost entirely out of the slot that year. Last season he was close to 50-50 between the slot and outside. With Wilson gone, Lamb may end up back in the slot full-time.

#2WR Michael Gallup did not impress last season:

2021: 35 receptions, 445 yards, -2.6 +/-, -3.2% DVOA, 50 DYAR (in nine games)

He’s currently on the PUP list and is going to miss week one as he recovers from an ACL tear. I have low expectations for Gallup.

Rookie third-round pick Jalen Tolbert is going to get a chance to produce immediately:

Jalen Tolbert: Workhorse receiver at South Alabama:

2021: 135 targets, 82 receptions, 1,474 yards, 8 TD, 0.35 points-per-target, 10.9 yards-per-target

You can talk about the level of competition or his eight drops. When given the chance, he torched Tennessee for 143 yards and a touchdown. Decent athlete for his size. He beat defenses both with his speed and the threat of his speed. That is a tough task in the NFL.

Tolbert is perhaps the least physical receiver I scouted in the class. Yes, there are other receivers that are smaller, but none of them gave less blocking effort than Tolbert. Additionally, he’s soft in press coverage and gets bullied by corners who can stay with him. Tolbert prefers to play a much less physical brand of ball.

Drops aside, Tolbert has made a number of impressive catches that highlight his hands and ability to track the ball in flight. There are a number of areas he will need to improve in. I know that when I watched him I felt like I was watching a future NFL player. He’ll learn how to create separation at the next level. It might take him some time to adjust to the tougher competition. Third-round value.

Budget free-agent pickup James Washington was wasted in Pittsburgh:

2021: 24 receptions, 285 yards, -2.8 +/-, -13.1% DVOA, -2 DYAR (in 15 games)

He was a deep threat paired with a quarterback with no range. Back in 2019 when Ben Roethlisberger’s arm still worked, Washington did some damage (44 receptions, 735 yards, 11.2% DVOA, 156 DYAR). He’s currently on IR with a foot injury and should be back later this season.

#1TE Dalton Schultz is coming off a career year:

2020: 63 receptions, 615 yards, 0.0 +/-, -8.5% DVOA, -8 DYAR

2021: 78 receptions, 808 yards, +5.8 +/-, 20.3% DVOA, 190 DYAR

The Cowboys hit him with the franchise tag. I don’t blame them. It’s tough to give someone a long-term deal with only one season of solid production. This is his chance to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

Rookie fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson is an accomplished blocker with some receiving skills. He’ll provide value in 2TE sets while he learns the finer points of the offense.

#1RB Ezekiel Elliot played through a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament last season. That sounds painful:

2019: 372 squid, 1,777 yards, 15.8% DVOA, 395 DYAR

2020: 315 squid, 1,317 yards, -1.9% DVOA, 122 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 303 squid, 1,289 yards, 1.1% DVOA, 146 DYAR

It’s now been a few years since Ezekiel performed like a star running back. He’s only 27 and I don’t consider him washed up. I can say that paying running backs has a very poor track record.

2019 fourth-round pick Tony Pollard did a decent job last year:

2020: 141 squid, 628 yards, 7.0% DVOA, 103 DYAR

2021: 176 squid, 1,056 yards, 15.9% DVOA, 208 DYAR (in 15 games)

This should not be considered an endorsement of signing Pollard to an extension. His rookie contract ends after this season. If I were the Cowboys, I’d wish him well and let him enjoy his newfound freedom.

I mentioned the Cowboys offense was down three men. The first two were receivers Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson. Losing both thinned out the receiver corps. The third man is left tackle Tyron Smith. He had a bit of an issue with penalties last season. If we removed penalties from my grading system, he was the third best left tackle in the league. Penalties matter, but so does keep your quarterback upright. Losing Smith is going to hurt the Cowboys offense. There are rumors of potential signings, but nothing major has happened as of now.

(Update: The Cowboys signed Jason Peters. Peters finished 31st in my rankings last season. He turned 40 in January. Peters will start the season on the practice squad.)

That leaves 2021 fourth-round pick Josh Ball as the starter. Ball missed all of last season with an ankle injury. He had a checkered past in college. He ended up going from Florida State to Butler Community College to Marshall. To be blunt, I never saw anything on film that justified a fourth-round selection, and that’s before the off-field issues. My expectations for Ball are low, which in turn lowers my expectations for the Cowboys offense.

Ball is expected to start alongside 2019 third-round pick Connor McGovern. McGovern was mediocre last season. Presumably he’s keeping the seat warm until rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith is ready to start:

Tyler Smith: Good athlete with the desired arm length. Played with tremendous power. Dominant run blocker, both at creating holes and at sealing the edge. He was a pure left tackle at Tulsa, so I’m leery of asking him to switch sides. Heavily resistant to bull rushes. Doesn’t have much range. Highly aggressive (read: heavily penalized).

His hand technique is highly inconsistent. He’s clearly trading power for accuracy. I understand there are tradeoffs here. He’ll need to improve if he wants to stay at left tackle in the NFL. Otherwise, he might have to move inside.

The question for Tyler Smith is whether he’ll consistently be able to handle speed rushers who can threaten him both inside and outside. If he can manage to keep them from turning pressures into sacks, he’ll stay on the field.

Penalties aside (12 in 2021), I like much of what I’ve seen from Smith. You just don’t find many players with his mix of size, length, athleticism, and pure power. He’s succeeded with poor technique. If he can learn how to properly play the position, he’s potentially elite. Early second-round value. I’ll understand it if some team snags him at the tail end of the first round.

2020 fourth-round pick center Tyler Biadasz finished 21st in my rankings. Centers average one penalty every 230 snaps or so. He committed one every 120 snaps.

Right guard Zack Martin finished first in my rankings. He’s one of the best guards in the NFL.

2021 fourth-round pick Josh Ball was competing with Terence Steel for the right tackle position. Steel got obliterated in 2020 and wasn’t much better last season. Tyron Smith’s injury moves Ball over to left tackle. Again, not a great result for the Cowboys.

I want to take a moment to talk about rookie fifth-round pick Matt Waletzko:

Matt Waletzko: Prototype size, length, and athleticism. One of my favorite scouting lines I’ve ever heard applies to Waltzko:

“Needs another 30 pounds of legs and ass.”

Playing at North Dakota does not prepare you for NFL defensive linemen. Even there, Waletzko didn’t dominate with power. Due to his height it will be very difficult for him to develop a low center of gravity.

What Waletzko brings is enormous potential. It’s going to be very difficult for finesse moves to beat him given his length. The question is will he be able to handle NFL power. If he can bulk up and stand up to defensive linemen, he could be a starting left tackle. Those are valuable and rare. Waletzko is a lottery ticket. He probably won’t pay off, but what were you expecting from your fifth-round pick?

It’s possible that Waletzko will end up being the Cowboys’ left tackle of the future. Thankfully, he’ll be given time to develop before having to prove himself.

As good as the Cowboys’ defense was last season, it could have been better had defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (three sacks, 21 hits+hurries) played in more than seven games. He’ll start across from Dorance Armstrong (five sacks, 31 hits+hurries). Tarell Basham (3.5 sacks, 29 hits+hurries), free-agent pickup Dante Fowler (4.5 sacks, 23 hits+hurries), and rookie second-round pick Sam Williams will round out the pass-rush rotation. Williams is an elite athlete. He had 12.5 sacks last season at Mississippi. Williams struggled against power, which led him to bulk up over his college career. Athletes with his size and speed are hard to find. Note: Williams also has multiple serious off-field incidents in his past, including an arrest for sexual battery.

2021 third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa, 2020 third-round pick Neville Gallimore, and Carlos Watkins are competing for the starting defensive tackle jobs. Odighizuwa had a nice rookie season. Gallimore missed most of last season with an elbow injury. I think both bring more to the table than Watkins. Watkins is fine. He projects as a decent space-eater.

2021 first-round pick middle linebacker Micah Parsons (13 sacks, 51 hits+hurries) is already one of the best defenders in the NFL. If we only looked at his coverage skills, he’d rank as an elite off-ball linebacker. One more season like this and I’ll be forced to admit the Cowboys struck gold similarly to the Rams with Aaron Donald. Sigh.

Parsons will be paired with Leighton Vander Esch. Sadly, injuries have reduced Vander Esch to “just a guy.”

2021 fourth-round pick Jabril Cox is trying to come back from a torn ACL in his knee. We barely saw Cox last season. At this point expectations have to be low.

Free-agent pickup Anthony Barr is currently on the PUP list. Never a good sign for your future prospects.

It’s a good thing Parsons is elite because otherwise this unit would look rough.

Safety Jayron Kearse did phenomenal work for the Cowboys last season. Malik Hooker and 2019 sixth-round Donovan Wilson looked good in limited usage. Hooker will likely start across from Kearse. Look for Wilson to see more playing time this year as well.

2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs may as well be considered the God of Gamblers. Did he give up a lot of yardage? Yes. He also had 11 interceptions! That’s more than seven teams had in 2021. You throw at Diggs, you best not miss. He’ll start across from Anthony Brown.

Brown had an excellent season. Fear of Diggs led to Brown facing 100+ targets. Despite that, his coverage numbers were quite good. He also had three interceptions of his own. This is a very strong pairing.

Nickelback Jourdan Lewis snagged three interceptions as well, though the Cowboys have indicated they’d like to push him down on the depth chart.

2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph was cleared in a murder investigation. Now all he needs to do is work his way into the starting lineup. He’ll compete with Lewis and rookie fifth-round pick DaRon Bland for the #3CB job.

2021 third-round pick Nahshon Wright failed to impress in his rookie season. At this point, he’s just trying to get on the field.

Punter Bryan Anger did excellent work for the Cowboys last season. Undrafted rookie kicker Jonathan Garibay was solid at Texas Tech.

Tony Pollard did a nice job returning kicks. He and rookie Jalen Tolbert may end up returning punts for the Cowboys this year. The Cowboys’ coverage units are solid. Overall, the Cowboys’ special teams should provide a small edge.

The Cowboys might have returned to the Super Bowl had quarterback Dak Prescott been healthy last season. This year, he’s going to have to work with a diminished receiver corps. Prescott will also have to deal with a diminished offensive line.

Defensively, the Cowboys’ best hope is for improvement by the edge-rushers. A healthy DeMarcus Lawrence could produce a significant boost. I’m also very curious what Micah Parsons will do in his sophomore campaign.

Third cornerback issues aside, the Cowboys’ secondary looks solid. Their interception totals were not just random variance. Diggs giveth, and Diggs most definitely taketh away.

The top of the NFC is soft this year. Dallas has one eye on Philadelphia and the other on the NFC contenders. The problem is injuries (and a poor offseason) have left Dallas soft too. Will it be another year of disappointment in Dallas? 10-7.

New York Giants:

2021 Record: 4-13

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 6.27

DVOA Wins: 6.6

FPI Wins: 7.9

Market Wins: 6.78

Implied Pythag: 34.61%

To understand where the Giants are right now we have to go back to the 2018 NFL Draft. The Cleveland Browns held the #1 overall pick. The New York Giants held the #2 pick. The Jets traded the Colts three second-round picks to move up from sixth to third. The Jets wanted quarterback Sam Darnold from USC. They figured the Browns were going with two-time Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. The Giants had their hearts set on running back Saquon Barkley. The Jets figured they were safe at #3. Before contacting the Colts, they had reached out to the Giants and found them unresponsive. There was a potential problem, though. The Broncos desperately wanted Darnold. There was the possibility they’d succeed where the Jets failed. Alas, the Broncos never got the chance. Giants GM Dave Gettleman wouldn’t even take their call.

You might think this is a story about Gettleman’s incompetence. I suppose it is, but there’s more to it. Gettleman didn’t hire himself. The Giants kept Gettleman as GM until 2021. Gettleman might be gone, but the owners remain the same. John Mara is still CEO. Chris Mara is still a senior player personnel executive. There’s little co-owner Steve Tisch can do about it. John Mara’s grandfather Tim Mara founded the team. His father Wellington Mara owned it for many years. You might think of the Giants as a successful franchise, but that only came about after the league had tired of their incompetence and forced them to hire general manager George Young. Young would have a Hall of Fame career. The Giants won two Super Bowls during his tenure. They would win another two during Jerry Reese’s tenure, although the first was with a roster built by previous GM Ernie Accorsi. Gettleman replaced Reese and now Joe Schoen has replaced Gettleman. Schoen was left with the worst possible situation: A talent-starved roster in salary cap Hell. For now, all Schoen can do is rebuild.

The one thing we can evaluate from Schoen is his first draft with the Giants:

1-5: Defense end Kayvon Thibodeaux. Third on the consensus big board and on mine as well. This was smart because there were a pair of elite left tackles on the board, so the Giants assured themselves of getting one as well as the top pass-rusher available.

1-7: Offensive tackle Evan Neal. Second on the consensus big board, fourth on mine. My favorite OT in the draft.

I couldn’t have been happier with how the first round went for the Giants. They grabbed two of my top four players, both at premium positions. With no quarterback in high demand, trading back wasn’t a realistic option. Great first day. And then things went pear-shaped:

2-43: Wide reciever Wan’Dale Robinson. I had Robinson graded as the 105th best player in the class. He was 91st overall on the consensus big board. Five receivers went in the next 11 picks:

2-44: Houston Texans: John Metchie. I had Metchie graded 57th. He was 62nd on the consensus big board. Had a mild injury red flag.

2-50: New England Patriots: Tyquan Thornton. I had Thornton graded 246th. I don’t think he has NFL-quality hands. He was 155th on the consensus big board.

2-52: Pittsburgh Steelers: George Pickens. I had Pickens graded 42nd with an injury red flag. He was 46th on the consensus big board.

2-53: Indianapolis Colts: Alec Pierce. I had Pierce graded 78th. He was 77th on the consensus big board.

2-54: Kansas City Chiefs: Skyy Moore. I had Moore graded 96th. He was 50th on the consensus big board.

With the exception of Thornton, I would have preferred the Giants gone in any of those directions had they wanted a receiver. Given where Pickens went, I am presuming the medical concerns aren’t too serious.

Still, this was just one pick and Schoen had made a good first impression. Let’s continue.

3-67: Guard Joshua Ezeudu. 169th on the consensus big board. 132nd on mine. Ugh.

3-81: Cornerback Cordale Flott. 208th on the consensus big board. 218th on mine.

4-112: Tight end Daniel Bellinger. 157th on the consensus big board. 164th on mine.

4-114: Safety Dane Belton. 198th on the consensus big board. 172nd on mine.

5-146: Linebacker Micah McFadden. 206th on the consensus big board. 199th on mine.

5-147: Defensive tackle D.J. Davidson. Outside of the top 300 on the consensus big board. 236th on mine.

5-173: Guard Marcus McKethan. 300th on the consensus big board. 287th on mine.

That was eight straight reaches. I actually liked the Darrian Beavers selection in the sixth-round, but by then it was too little too late. Schoen has shown his ass and I’m already fearful for his tenure.

One position the Giants didn’t reach for was quarterback. The Giants declined 2019 first-round pick Daniel Jones’s fifth-year extension. They are content to let him play out his contract and move on:

2019: 3,027 yards, 24 TD, 12 INT, 5.5 NY/P, -19.2% DVOA, -211 DYAR (in 13 games)

2020: 2,943 yards, 11 TD, 10 INT, 5.4 NY/P, -22.4% DVOA, -283 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 2,428 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT, 5.9 NY/P, -10.6% DVOA, 9 DYAR (in 11 games)

Jones finally broke the Mendoza line and was better than the theoretical replacement player. Speaking of, here’s how the Giants did when Jones was out:

2021: 1,000 yards, 5 TD, 13 INT, 3.8 NY/P, -66.9% DVOA, -867 DYAR (in six games)

Impressive stuff from Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm. Shockingly, both are currently free agents.

Free-agent pickup Tyrod Taylor (-30.9% DVOA, -190 DYAR) has landed the backup job. It’s notable he’s signed through 2023. Part of that was likely for cap purposes, but Taylor is also the Giants’ insurance option in case their quarterback of the future isn’t prepared to start week one next year.

Normally I’d talk about the wide receiver corps now, but I’d rather talk about Saquon Barkley. He’s currently playing out his fifth-year option. The Giants have not signed him to an extension:

2019: 290 squid, 1,441 yards, -5.4% DVOA, 47 DYAR (in 13 games)

2020: 28 squid, 94 yards, -29.6% DVOA, -15 DYAR (in two games)

2021: 219 squid, 856 yards, -17.5% DVOA, -68 DYAR (in 13 games)

Barkley has had thigh and ankle issues, but the major injury was the torn ACL that ended his 2020 campaign. His rookie season (382 squid, 2,028 yards, 2.0% DVOA, 213 DYAR) is long gone. We’ll have to wait and see how much of his explosiveness remains.

Budget free-agent pickup Matt Breida should be well rested after a quiet season:

2021: 35 squid, 197 yards, 17.3% DVOA, 50 DYAR (in nine games)

It’s not like he was bad. He just barely saw the field in Buffalo. I hope he’s ready for his close-up if Barkley goes down again.

2021 first-round pick wide receiver Kadarius Toney had a tough rookie season:

2021: 39 receptions, 420 yards, +0.4 +/-, -9.3% DVOA, 15 DYAR (in ten games)

Toney dealt with ankle, hamstring, abdomen, and shoulder injuries last year. He had knee surgery this offseason. He’s currently sidelined with a leg injury. It’s very difficult for me to be optimistic about his future.

I’ll note that Toney was the subject of trade rumors this offseason. They quieted rather quickly when it became apparent his trade value wasn’t much higher than mine.

Kenny Golladay is coming off of a miserable season in NY:

2021: 37 receptions, 521 yards, -7.2+/-, -18.7% DVOA, -37 DYAR (in 14 games)

With such a weak offense it’s tough to read too much into terrible statistics. I will say that Golladay looked washed up to me. It could have been confusion or perhaps a lack of effort. Confusion goes away with experience. A lack of effort can be rectified by a regime change. Washed is a terminal condition, so let’s hope it was just an off-year.

Sterling Shepard was recently removed from the PUP list. He’s recovering from the Achilles injury that ended his 2021 campaign:

2021: 36 receptions, 366 yards, 0.0 +/-, -11.9% DVOA, 3 DYAR (in seven games)

Over the past three seasons, Shepard has missed 20 games and accumulated 58 DYAR (-9.3% DVOA). This is the trio that rookie second-round pick Wan’Dale Robinson is joining. Woof.

Wan’Dale Robinson: He’s got the speed, if not the size. Note his sub-28 inch arms. The catch radius is what it is. Robinson produced for Kentucky last season:

2021: 143 targets, 104 receptions, 1,342 yards, 7 TD, 0.25 points-per-target, 9.4 yards-per-target

Note: The 0.25 points-per-target was a career high. It’s not a case where he saw his efficiency drop as his usage increased. Actually, it’s somewhat tricky to compare his previous seasons as he transferred from Nebraska.

The eight drops are a concern. It’s not a problem of effort or concentration, which will make it tougher to solve. Tough press coverage will also be an issue. To be fair, Robinson has good vision, so he’s better at making a play on the ball than you might expect.

The oddest thing was that he played both quicker and slower than his combine results suggest. He was very good at maintaining a low center of gravity and shifting direction and speed. What he didn’t show were the jets to leave defenders in the dust. I’m not sure what’s going on with that.

He has some experience running the ball (691 yards in college), and returning the ball. I can’t say his punt-return skills impressed me.

I wouldn’t touch Robinson until day three. Players of his size need a lot to go right to succeed in the NFL. Round five value.

I should give 2019 fifth-round pick Darius Slayton a moment of attention:

2020: 50 receptions, 751 yards, -6.6 +/-, -13.6% DVOA, -7 DYAR

2021: 26 receptions, 339 yards, -7.8 +/-, -36.2% DVOA, -108 DYAR (in 13 games)

That’s the kind of performance that drops you down the depth chart as a new regime comes to town.

Rookie fourth-round pick Daniel Bellinger is coming in as the #1TE. He’s a plus athlete. It didn’t look that way on film, though, as he played slower than he tested. In truth, I liked him more as a blocker than as a receiver. Hopefully, he lives up to his draft status and not his pre-draft projections.

The rest of the tight end corps is replacement-level talent. Best of luck Mr. Bellinger.

Let’s get to the good news. 2020 first-round pick left tackle Andrew Thomas is above-average. Woohoo!

Rookie first-round pick Evan Neal looks like he’ll be the long-term starter here. For now, Neal will start at right tackle, where he started 13 games for Alabama in 2020:

Even Neal: Ideal size and length. Neal has played left guard, right tackle, and left tackle at Alabama. While this has helped him develop versatility, it does mean he hasn’t had time to master the left tackle position. His quickness makes it tough for edge rushers to beat him one-on-one. Excellent upper body strength. Moves exceptionally well for a man his size (particularly this season as he dropped 15 pounds to move from RT to LT). Effective at not giving up sacks while avoiding flags. Has the rare ability to block multiple defenders in both passing and running plays. Solid run blocker with good power and technique.

The major concern about Neal is that he still needs to master the art of playing left tackle. His knowledge of protection schemes is still a work in progress. He can be confused as to his responsibilities against blitzers (although he had excellent instincts when dealing with stunts).

I mentioned his upper body strength. His lower body strength is still a work in progress, as is his footwork. NFL defenders will find ways to get him off balance until he learns how to properly set his base.

Neal projects as a potentially elite NFL left tackle. His run blocking skills will pay dividends in short yardage situations. He has the physical gifts to excel in pass protection. Neal is my #1OT and I hope he ends up in New York.

Premium free-agent pickup Mark Glowinski finished in the top ten of my right guard rankings.

Good news completed. Now we need to talk about the rest of the interior line. The options:

2020 fifth-round pick Shame Lemieux: He played poorly in 2020. He missed almost all of last season with torn patellar tendon.

Budget free-agent pickup Max Garcia: Garcia is a known mediocrity.

Rookie third-round pick Joshua Ezeudu: Decent athlete. He’s played both guard and tackle in college. Projects as a guard in the pros. Might be the most talented option. Needs to fix his technique to avoid becoming a flag-magnet.

Budget free-agent pickup Jon Feliciano: Finished 28th in my left guard rankings last season. Sigh.

Ben Bredeson: Finished 37th in my positional rankings last season. Was awful in limited usage.

Budget free-agent pickup Jamil Douglas: Versatile enough to play anywhere on the interior. Not well enough to start, though.

Given the Giants’ salary cap woes, the Glowinski signing was a nice surprise. I also had no objection to the Giants using multiple early round picks on the offensive line. I just think Ezeudu was a reach. Neal and Glowinski give the Giants a potentially elite pairing on the right side. If nothing else, their combined power should be a boon to the running game.

Injuries wrecked this line last year. Hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.

(Update: The plan appears to be to start rookie Ezeudu at left guard, Feliciano at center, and Glowinski at right guard. I trust Glowinski will do a good job.)

The Giants’ defense is going to look a little different this season. They hired Wink Martindale. That means blitzes. Lots of blitzes. Martindale is from the Buddy Ryan/Al Davis school of thinking. The quarterback must go down and he must go down hard. Did he have the ball in his hands? If yes, great! But that’s not what matters.

Just who will be going after the quarterback is the question. The plan is to pair defensive tackle Leonard Williams (6.5 sacks, 31 hits+hurries) with 2019 first-round pick nose tackle Dexter Lawrence (2.5 sacks, 36 hits+hurries). Budget free-agent pickup nose tackle Justin Ellis and rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Davidson will provide depth.

Edge rushers 2021 second-round pick Azeez Ojulari (eight sacks, 26 hits+hurries) and rookie first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux fill out the top four defensive linemen:

Kayvon Thibodeaux: A very good athlete who falls short of freak status. SackSEER likes him roughly as much as Hutchinson and Walker. He’s had 19 sacks over his 30 game college career. Got pressure on 19% of his pass-rush attempts last season, which is elite territory. Can win with speed or power. Prefers power if it’s a legitimate option against the offensive tackle in question.

His power shows up against the run. Most offensive linemen couldn’t move him. Tight ends were hopeless. It wasn’t just that he’s strong. He excelled at getting his hands on you first.

As with Aidan Hutchinson, Thibodeaux isn’t quite as flexible as would be optimal. He’s also had an issue with…. chippy play, drawing seven flags in 2021.

Hutchinson is coming off of a better season than Thibodeaux has ever had. Having said that, Thibodeaux’s best play is breathtaking. I’m more confident in Hutchinson’s floor. My eyes tell me Thibodeaux has the potential to be truly special. I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet. He’d be my second overall pick and I expect he’ll be a great value wherever he lands.

After that? The options are slim:

2019 third-round pick Oshane Ximines (zero sacks, nine hits+hurries).

2021 fourth-round pick Elerson Smith (zero sacks, almost zero playing time). (Update: Smith is on IR.)

Budget free-agent pickup Jihad Ward (two sacks, 14 hits+hurries).

Both Smith and Ximines have battled injuries this preseason. There’s playing time available if one the backups is ready to step up.

2020 seventh-round pick Tae Crowder and Blake Martinez form the weakest linebacker tandem in the league. This isn’t Crowder’s fault, as he was the final selection in the 2020 draft. Rookies Micah McFadden (fifth round) and Darrian Beavers (sixth round) will provide depth, and quite possibly steal playing time from one or both of the current starters. Neither McFadden nor Beavers is ready to provide NFL-level pass coverage. Both are solid attacking the line of scrimmage.

#1CB Adoree Jackson is coming off of a phenomenal season. He is one of the few bright spots on a shallow roster. He’ll start across from 2021 third-round pick Aaron Robinson. Robinson missed the first half of the season with a core injury. He performed well when available.

2020 fourth-round pick Darnay Holmes is competing with rookie third-round pick Cor’Dale Flott for the nickel job. Holmes was decent in limited usage last season. Flott played wherever LSU needed him. He’ll need to bulk up to hold his own in the NFL.

2019 fourth-round pick Julian Love and 2020 second-round pick Xavier McKinney are returning at safety. McKinney snagged five interceptions last season. It was an all-around excellent season for him. Love is versatile and can handle any role from strong safety to nickel cornerback. This isn’t a bad pairing.

Rookie fourth-round pick Dane Belton will provide depth. Belton can add value as a zone ballhawk. Quality athlete. Wasn’t great attacking the line of scrimmage. He’s going to need more seasoning learning how to read plays. He was often out of position without realizing it.

Kicker Graham Gano did a fine job last season. Jamie Gillan is taking over the punting responsibilities. Gillan did a lousy job in Cleveland last year. Hopefully, his presence inspires the Giants to go for it on fourth down more often.

C.J. Board and Darius Slayton will likely handle the kick and punt return responsibilities. They both are mediocre at it. I have learned to love touchbacks. Starting at the 25 is just fine, thank you very much.

The Giants are in an odder spot than I had realized. Ownership was deeply embarrassed by the Gettleman/Judge combo. They want to win back their fans trust with a show of competence. The problem is competence isn’t what the Giants need right now. They need a franchise quarterback. In other words, they need complete incompetence!

Jones and running back Saquon Barkley are both playing for new contracts. The schedule is much easier than it was last season. I actually like the Giants’ secondary. Adding blue chippers Kayvon Thibedeaux and Evan Neal should pay immediate dividends.

Realistically, signing Tyrod Taylor won’t do the Giants any good. He’s a huge upgrade over Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm. With Jones doing his absolute best, and Taylor providing a measure of competence, the Giants might be facing the absolute worst-case scenario: 7-10.

I honestly wish the Giants had kept Jake Fromm. Even with some improvement, he’d have a realistic shot at steering the Giants towards 2-15. It might be a deep quarterback draft, but it won’t be 7-10 deep. Alas, that’s what I expect from the Giants. Ownership wants to win. Management wants to win. The coaching staff wants to win. The players want to win. Everyone’s pulling in the wrong direction. Sigh. 7-10. 😦

Philadelphia Eagles:

2021 Record: 9-8

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 9.84

DVOA Wins: 10.0

FPI Wins: 9.3

Market Wins: 9.80

Implied Pythag: 52.40%

I want to give you some perspective on the Eagles’ 2021 season. They faced one of the easiest schedules in the league. They finished 9-8, outscoring their opposition by 59 points. They were the only playoff team to run the ball on over 50% of their offensive snaps. They finished 11th in offensive DVOA, 25th in defensive DVOA, and 15th in special teams DVOA.

In short, they were a mediocre team with a lousy defense that feasted on a soft schedule. One bit of good news: the schedule might be even softer this season. It’s good to play in the NFC East.

2020 second-round pick quarterback Jalen Hurts was a key part of their rushing attack:

2021: 3,144 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT, 6.6 NY/P, -0.3% DVOA, 508 DYAR (in 15 games)

Breaking it down, Hurts produced 319 DYAR passing and another 189 rushing (13.7% DVOA). This does not include the -106 DYAR produced vs. the Buccaneers in the playoffs. Tampa crowded the line, taking away the Eagles’ running attack. Hurts failed to beat them with his arm.

In general, if an opponent’s plan against you is dare you to throw, it does not bode well for your future prospects. With Hurts still on his cheap rookie contract, the Eagles were able to put solid talent around him. It’s now on Hurts to take a third-year leap.

Adding new #1WR A.J. Brown will help:

2019: 52 receptions, 1,051 yards, +0.8 +/-, 26.2% DVOA, 251 DYAR

2020: 70 receptions, 1,075 yards, +3.6 +/-, 25.0% DVOA, 332 DYAR (in 14 games)

2021: 63 receptions, 869 yards, -1.5 +/-, 1.2% DVOA, 112 DYAR (in 13 games)

Oof. Brown was slowed by knee and hamstring injuries last season. When healthy, he’s one of the toughest receivers in the NFL to guard. Brown will start across from 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith:

2021: 64 receptions, 916 yards, +4.2 +/-, 7.7% DVOA, 166 DYAR

Those are great numbers considering the limitations of the Eagles’ passing game.

2020 sixth-round pick Quez Watkins has developed into a solid deep threat working out of the slot:

2021: 43 receptions, 647 yards, +4.8 +/-, 3.7% DVOA, 79 DYAR

Watkins, Smith, and Brown form a strong starting trio.

I find it amusing that 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor also has exactly 64 receptions over his career (695 yards, -8.3 +/-, -21.5% DVOA, -75 DYAR). He’s barely holding on to the #4WR job at this point.

Budget free-agent pickup Zach Pascal will try and take the #4WR job away from Reagor:

2020: 44 receptions, 629 yards, -1.3 +/-, 5.5% DVOA, 99 DYAR

2021: 38 receptions, 384 yards, -9.2 +/-, -26.3% DVOA, -74 DYAR (in 16 games)

Let’s just say that Pascal struggled to find his niche working with Carson Wentz. He’s a better target than his 2021 numbers would suggest.

#1TE Dallas Goedert supplanted Zach Ertz early last season:

2020: 46 receptions, 524 yards, +2.1 +/-, 16.8% DVOA, 105 DYAR (in 11 games)

2021: 56 receptions, 830 yards, +5.4 +/-, 34.7% DVOA, 220 DYAR (in 15 games)

Goedert has developed into an elite player. The Eagles averaged 10.9 yards when targeting Goesdert last season. Incredible stuff for a tight end. On a team with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, Goedert may end up as the most efficient weapon.

There’s nothing that even resembles depth here, so it would be a bad thing if Goedert were to go down.

Jalen Hurts ran for more yardage than any Eagles running back. 2019 second-round pick Miles Sanders came in second:

2021: 171 squid, 912 yards, 6.6% DVOA, 119 DYAR (in 12 games)

In the Jalen Hurts era, Sanders has averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry (10.3% DVOA, 248 DYAR). That’s phenomenal. Unfortunately, he’s produced -78 DYAR receiving (-29.8% DVOA). That’s not a “Sanders issue,” as he did a fine job in his rookie season (50 receptions, 509 yards, 20.0% DVOA, 121 DYAR). Sanders has the ability to be an elite back if Hurts can offer some assistance.

2021 fifth-round pick Kenneth Gainwell had a decent rookie season:

2021: 118 squid, 544 yards, -1.5% DVOA, 50 DYAR (in 16 games)

4.6% DVOA rushing, -9.1% DVOA receiving tells the same tale as Sanders.

I want to pause here. The Eagles aren’t locked into starting Hurts, The sense is that he has more upside than backup quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew shined in limited usage last season (439 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 6.3 NY/P, 8.1% DVOA, 76 DYAR). Minshew doesn’t threaten defenses with his legs the same way Hurts does. Minshew’s advantage is he’s more accurate than Hurts. There’s a lot of talent on this offense. Minshew might be better able to harness it. If Hurts struggles early in the season, Minshew might find an opening.

It can be tricky judging offensive line play in non-standard offenses. The Eagles gave up a lot of pressure, but that was due to Hurts. Let me suggest that in the case of left tackle Jordan Mailata, money talks. His combination of size and athleticism is rare, even by NFL standards. The film suggests he’s one of the best offensive linemen in the league, even if his stats don’t.

2021 second-round pick left guard Landon Dickerson managed to start fourteen games last season. That was a huge accomplishment for a player with a horrible injury history. If he can stay on the field, he’ll prove to be a nice pickup for the Eagles.

Center Jason Kelce is going to turn 35 in November. He remains one of the top centers in the league. Rookie second-round pick Cam Jurgens may end up being Kelce’s eventual replacement:

Cam Jurgens: Welp! Another elite athlete who’s a bit undersized. We can see the evolution of Jurgens, from the weak beard to the solid mustache he brought to the combine. Jurgens came to Nebraska to play tight end, but he switched to center after a foot injury. He’s still learning the position and makes some errors reacting to the defensive scheme. In college he had “enough” power to hold his position. I’m not sold that he’ll be able to do so in the NFL.

He moves well in the run game, hitting his blocks and then looking to help once he beats his man. His athleticism is evident on film and will give his coaching staff something to work with. If you can look past his size, he’s a solid round three value (if his medicals are clear).

Thankfully, the Eagles will give Jurgens time to develop.

Right guard Isaac Seumalo is the weak link on the line. He’s missed 21 games over the past two seasons and hasn’t been great when available. 2020 fourth-round pick Jack Driscoll was pressed into service last year. He did a decent job.

Right tackle Lane Johnson finished fifth in my rankings. That is not an easy accomplishment in this offense.

2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard looked terrible in limited usage at left tackle last season. At this point, he’s no more than a backup.

Last season, defensive end Brandon Graham went out with a torn Achilles in week two. Without him, the Eagles’ pass rush collapsed. In 2020, he had eight sacks (38 hits+hurries). Derek Barnett’s production dropped from 5.5 sacks, 29 hits+hurries in 2020 to two sacks, 29 hits+hurries last season. Barnett hit free agency and ended up re-signing with the Eagles. As you can see, that’s backup money. Barnett has lost his starting job.

There were a pair of bright spots. Josh Sweat boosted his production from six sacks, 11 hits+hurries in 2020 to 7.5 sacks, 30 hits+hurries. He’s slated to start across from Graham this season, with Barnett joining the rotation.

The Eagles signed premium free-agent Haason Reddick (11 sacks, 30 hits+hurries). Getting Graham back and adding Reddick should give the pass rush a significant boost.

Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (3.5 sacks, 32 hits+hurres) has declined from elite to merely pretty good. Thankfully, Javon Hargrave’s ascendance (7.5 sacks, 33 hits+hurries) has helped make up for it. Rookie first-round pick Jordan Davis is Cox’s eventual replacement:

Jordan Davis: Massive elite athlete. Planet theory prospect (there are only so many men on the planet with the size and athleticism to dominate in the trenches). Truly dominant nose tackle. You will not move him with single blocking. If I were to look for a weakness in his game it is that he plays with too high a center of gravity, thus rendering him vulnerable to double-blocking. In the NFL he’ll learn to play a bit lower to the ground and improve at splitting such blocks.

A football game is a bit like a marathon, and men Davis’s size aren’t natural long-distance runners. He’ll need to improve his stamina at the next level.

If you’re using a high pick on a defensive lineman, you’d like him to get after the quarterback. Davis can collapse the pocket if you block him one-on-one. It’s a bit tougher for him to track the quarterback down. He had two sacks and 15 hits+hurries last season. Those are numbers I can live with from my nose tackle.

Davis is not a man who misses many tackles. You can’t move him with one man, and he might require regular double-teams on passing plays. I wasn’t expecting to like Davis as much as I do. Yes, he’s an elite space-eater. The film suggests he can be more than that, especially if you give him plenty of snaps off. Top-20 value.

Philadelphia is a perfect landing spot for Davis. He’s in a position where he doesn’t have to start immediately. He can be part of the rotation and learn from the best. He’ll provide depth along with 2021 third-round pick Milton Williams.

T.J. Edwards is competing with rookie third-round pick Nakobe Dean for the starting middle linebacker job:

Nakobe Dean: UGA head coach Kirby Smart said a pec strain kept Dean from running at the combine or at his pro day. That raised some eyebrows from NFL scouts. Presumably he’ll run at private workouts before the draft. I don’t have access to those results.

The film tells us he can play. Six sacks, two interceptions, 74 tackles for Georgia last season. Has the coverage skills to handle most tight ends and running backs. Dean plays fast and knew how to knife through traffic when attacking the line-of-scrimmage.

A bit undersized. Without elite athletic numbers, it’s tough to peg Dean’s upside. He won the Butkus award for the nation’s top linebacker. It’s clear he can play. Can he dominate at the next level? That’s a tougher ask for undersized off-ball linebackers. Given the positional value, the size issues, and the lack of athletic results, I’d consider Dean a second-round value. More on this in a bit.

Dean’s draft day fall suggests his medical issues were worse than I had realized. He’s still behind Edwards on the depth chart. Edwards did a decent job last season. I’d expect Dean offers more upside and it’ll be a bit disconcerting if he can’t win the starting job by October.

Free-agent pickup Kyzir White is looking to join Haason Reddick and either Dean or Edwards in the starting lineup. White did a pretty nice job for the Chargers last season. 2020 third-round pick Davion Taylor will back him up. Taylor failed to impress in limited usage last season. Overall, this looks like a solid linebacker corps and a much improved front-seven.

It would be reasonable to argue that a weak pass-rush let the secondary down last season. That would be true, but the secondary was pretty bad in 2020 as well. The trade for Darius Slay paid off as he proved to be the star of the unit. He’ll be paired with premium free-agent pickup James Bradberry. This is the best pair of starting cornerbacks the Eagles have had in a long time.

Nickelback Avonte Maddox has proven both his strengths and his limitations. He’s a fine option in the slot.

2021 fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson and Josiah Scott will provide depth.

The departure of safety Rodney McLeod means we should expect to see an Anthony Harris-Marcus Epps pairing. Harris is a good player. He’s only had one interception over the past two seasons, though. He had six in 2019 in Minnesota.

Epps was a backup who has been promoted, partly due to a lack of competition. The Eagles have not invested a lot of resources in their safeties. Budget free-agent pickup Jaquiski Tartt will provide depth.

Kicker Jake Elliott is coming off of an excellent season. Punter Arryn Siposs faded badly down the stretch last year. He was expected to at least face a training camp battle, but management is sticking with him.

Jalen Reagor is listed as the Eagles’ kick and punt returner. He did a miserable job last season, especially in the playoffs. To be fair, the Eagles’ blocking on kickoffs is well below league average. They are another team that should learn to love taking touchbacks.

Back to Reagor. I suspect he’s keeping his job because of his draft status. That and the fact that none of the other options have distinguished themselves. The Eagles’ special teams were decent last season, but only because Elliot was so effective. That’s a tough trick to repeat.

The Eagles look to be much improved over last year. The pass-rush has been upgraded. Adding cornerback James Bradbury should help the back end. Trading for A.J. Brown gives quarterback Jalen Hurts an elite target. The Eagles are built to win now. That’s a lot of pressure on Hurts. If he’s ready to take the next step, the Eagles can supplant the Cowboys as NFC East champions.

I wish I could be optimistic about that. I wasn’t sold on his accuracy coming into the NFL and I’m not sold on it now. It’s easy to find ten wins on this schedule. Playoff success will be much tougher to come by. 10-7.

Washington Commanders:

2021 Record: 7-10

Projections:

Scouting Wins: 7.53

DVOA Wins: 7.7

FPI Wins: 8.1

Market Wins: 7.66

Implied Pythag: 39.68%

Let’s go back to December 12th, 2021. Washington was 6-6 and riding a four-game winning streak. Their next four games were Dallas, @ Philadelphia, @ Dallas, Philadelphia. There was hope that Washington was going to sneak into the playoffs:

Washington 20, Dallas 27

Washington 17, Philadelphia 27

Washington 14, Dallas 56 (Oof!)

Washington 16, Philadelphia 20

Hopes deleted.

Washington gave Taylor Heinicke a chance. He just wasn’t good enough:

2021: 3,419 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT, 5.9 NY/P, -5.7% DVOA, -1 DYAR (in 16 games)

If thou plays below replacement level, thou shalt be replaced. Washington traded for Carson Wentz:

2021: 3,563 yards, 27 TD, 7 INT, 6.1 NY/P, 1.8% DVOA, 499 DYAR

The low net yards-per-pass aside, those look like reasonable numbers. They’re not. Wentz was awful last season. Indianapolis couldn’t wait to move on from him. I was shocked Washington paid so much to acquire him. His salary is not commensurate with his level of play.

Washington may have found their quarterback of the future for a very low cost, drafting Sam Howell in the fifth round:

Sam Howell:

2019: 422 attempts, 259 completions, 3,641 yards, 38 TD, 7 INT, 8.4 ANY/A, 73.6 EPA

2020: 349 attempts, 237 completions, 3,586 yards, 30 TD, 7 INT, 9.6 ANY/A, 77.8 EPA

2021: 347 attempts, 217 completions, 3,056 yards, 24 TD, 9 INT, 7.2 ANY/A, -3.1 EPA

What the fuck? He took 48 sacks last season after taking 36 in 2019 and 33 in 2020. Like Matt Corral, he played in a heavily RPO offense. There was a bit of a talent exodus after 2020, so it’s possible Howell had difficulty meshing with his new teammates.

Before 2021, Howell was considered a potential top-five pick. There were some issues to correct, such as his footwork. He doesn’t generate enough of his power from his legs, leading to some accuracy issues. That’s fixable with practice and coaching. No one expected his production to collapse.

Thing is, when I watch his film, he still looks like a potential NFL QB. He has the arm strength to punish defenses. The accuracy needs work. I expect when his motion and footwork are optimized, his accuracy will increase. He also has this weird tic where he… double-taps the ball? I’m not sure how to describe it. He pats the ball before throwing it. Dude, just throw it. You don’t take 117 sacks in three seasons without holding the ball too long. It’s another issue that will need to be corrected.

Howell’s footwork isn’t all bad. He had 132 carries for 1,099 yards last season. When his internal clock tells him that it’s time to move, he can.

My instinct is to give Howell a mulligan for 2021. Pretend he was playing through a dislocated testicle. I can’t ignore his 2019/2020 production. He’s shown he can produce. I can envision Howell succeeding in the NFL. Like almost every QB prospect, he’ll need to develop. In his case, I believe the upside is there. I could live with taking a late first-round flyer on Howell. He’s my #3 overall quarterback of the class.

So much for “first-round flyer.” The truth is, I’m torn. I like Howell and want him to succeed in the NFL. I also dislike the Commanders and their owner Dan Snyder. I do not want good things to happen to them. I giggled when I saw the Wentz trade. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see on Howell. If he’s got the gift, he could rise up and claim the starting job in 2023.

#1WR 2019 third-round pick Terry McLaurin’s statistics have risen and fallen with Washington’s quarterback play:

2019: 58 receptions, 919 yards, +3.3 +/-, 18.9% DVOA, 237 DYAR (in 14 games)

2020: 87 receptions, 1,118 yards, +0.5 +/-, -11.0% DVOA, 18 DYAR (in 15 games)

2021: 77 receptions, 1,053 yards, -0.1 +/-, 0.8% DVOA, 139 DYAR

Washington knows what they have in McLaurin and gave him a proper extension this offseason.

McLaurin will start across from rookie first-round pick Jahan Dotson:

Jahan Dotson: As with Olave, Dotson’s elite speed has to be measured against his small stature. He saw significant action last season:

2021: 142 targets, 91 receptions, 1,182 yards, 12 TD, 0.26 points-per-target, 8.3 yards-per-target

Dotson was good, not great. Also, we need to talk about his 3-cone time. His film suggests he can’t cut on a dime. That’s not to say his film was bad. He has numerous strengths:

Quick feet at the line of scrimmage. Can get cornerbacks moving in the wrong direction.

Changes speeds well to create separation. When he gets a chance to turn on the jets, the track speed shows.

Nice route awareness. He knows how to find the spots in the zone. He also had a good sense of timing with his quarterback.

Good hand-eye coordination. Made some nice adjustments with the ball in the air. Having said that, the catch radius is smaller than optimal.

Can provide additional value as a return-man on special teams.

He’s not a great run blocker, as you might expect.

I’m somewhat down on smaller receivers. As with Olave, I don’t see a #1WR here. That drops him to the second round in my book.

Washington disagreed. I need to do more research on smaller receivers. I’m skeptical of Dotson.

Curtis Samuel pretty much missed last season with groin and hamstring injuries:

2020: 77 receptions, 851 yards, +11.4 +/-, 0.1% DVOA, 95 DYAR (in 15 games)

The plan is for him to work out of the slot as the #3WR.

2021 third-round pick Dyami Brown had a rough rookie season:

2021: 12 receptions, 165 yards, -2.4 +/-, -13.4% DVOA, -1 DYAR (in 15 games)

It’s never good when you’re below replacement-level, but I might actually be more worried about averaging fewer than one catch per game. He played through some injuries last season. Hopefully, he’ll be healthy and more effective this year.

Cam Sims shined in limited usage (15 receptions, 211 yards, 30.9% DVOA, 79 DYAR). He’s a big dude who might prove himself as a red-zone target. All it would take is one injury above him on the depth chart for him to get another chance this season.

I’m expecting Logan Thomas and 2021 fourth-round pick John Bates to share the tight end duties. Thomas is recovering from an ACL tear and is currently on the PUP list:

2021: 18 receptions, 196 yards, +1.7 +/-, 18.9% DVOA, 46 DYAR (in six games)

Bates has impressed with his blocking skills. He was a trustworthy release valve (20 receptions, 249 yards, 8.0% DVOA, 26 DYAR). He’ll be the starter until Thomas is fully recovered.

2020 third-round pick Antonio Gibson would like to be the #1RB:

2021: 289 squid, 1,331 yards, -6.4% DVOA, 52 DYAR (in 16 games)

He battled numerous ailments last season. The hope is he’ll be more effective this year. If not, the Commanders have other options, including rookie third-round pick Brian Robinson:

Brian Robinson: If you are looking for a running back with some size to him, Robinson has got you covered fam. While he’s willing to wait for his blocks to develop, it’s clear that Robinson isn’t much for dawdling in the backfield. He wants to get upfield with some momentum so that he can beat defenses with power.

Speaking of power, he’s excellent in pass protection. He’s quick picking up on his responsibility for the play. His technique was stellar, and he had the power to make it stick. As a receiver he was… fine? No one is going to confuse him for a scatback. He can catch a dump off and get a few yards.

Robinson doesn’t have much in the way of creativity. That’s a plus and a minus. It means he won’t create negative plays trying to make something out of nothing. It also means that if the hole doesn’t develop he’ll try to force his way through. In college, that’s sometimes viable. I don’t expect it will be as effective in the pros.

Robinson doesn’t bring the “home run” speed some teams are looking for. Other backs will create more explosive plays than Robinson. That’s fine. A running back I can trust to keep my quarterback safe is a running back I can leave on the field. Solid day-two pick.

(Update: Robinson will start the season on IR. He was shot multiple times in an attempted carjacking.)

The Commanders will also give J.D. McKissic some snaps. He is as much of a receiver as he is a running back:

2021: 48 carries, 212 yards, 19.8% DVOA, 56 DYAR (in 11 games)

2021: 43 receptions, 397 yards, 20.6% DVOA, 98 DYAR (in 11 games)

This is a fairly deep running back unit.

Left tackle Charles Leno put together an excellent season, finishing in the top three of my positional rankings. He was a nice pickup for Washington.

Free-agent pickup Andrew Norwell is taking over at left guard. I thought he was roughly average last season.

It’s a shame Chase Roullier only appeared in eight games last season (fractured left fibia). He was playing at a very high level. Washington will be happy to have him back.

Washington turned to free agency to find a new starting right guard as well, signing Trai Turner. He was also roughly average last season.

A hip injury limited 2021 second-round pick right tackle Samuel Cosmi to nine games last season. He was doing a decent job when he went down and should be a solid player this season.

Cornelius Lucas gives Washington quality depth at tackle. I’m less confident about their interior options. Wes Schweitzer and 2020 fourth-round pick Saahdiq Charles have failed to impress. Tyler Larsen is still recovering from a December Achilles tear.

I’m reasonably impressed with the starters and this should be a quality line if injuries don’t hit it too hard.

Washington’s defensive DVOA ranking:

2019: 27th

2020: 3rd

2021: 27th

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

2019 first-round pick Montez Sweat (five sacks, 24 hits+hurries) only appeared in ten games. 2020 first-round pick Chase Young (1.5 sacks, 24 hits+hurries) only appeared in nine. Don’t read too much into Young’s low sack total; he’s an elite player who receives significant offensive attention.

Budget free-agent pickup Efe Obada (3.5 sacks, 13 hits+hurries) will join the edge rush rotation, along with 2020 seventh-round pick James Smith-Williams (2.5 sacks, nine hits+hurries) and Casey Toohill (one sack, nine hits+hurries). The Commanders would really appreciate getting full seasons from both Sweat and Young.

The good news is defensive tackles Jonathan Allen (nine sacks, 52 hits+hurries), and Daron Payne (4.5 sacks, 37 hits+hurries) both had excellent seasons. This is as fearsome a front-four as you’ll find in the league. Payne was the subject of some trade rumors, as Washington has not extended his rookie contract. He’s now playing out his fifth-year option. I’m not sure if they plan on trading him midseason to a contender, or if they want to see if he’s worth hitting with the franchise tag (presumably while discussing a team-friendly extension). I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rookie second-round pick Phidarian Mathis will provide depth:

Phidarian Mathis: Mathis was happier with his combine than RAS was. He had nine sacks last season, mostly of the coverage variety (32 hits+hurries). He works mainly with a bull rush. His excellent length allowed him to make first contact and bully offensive linemen. This is a skill he’ll be able to carry to the NFL, especially after further developing his lower body.

Natural run stuffer. He can work as a nose-tackle, but would be fine in a 4-3 system as well. Was asked to react to the offense and hold his position before charging upfield in the pass-rush. If an NFL coaching staff had different priorities, he could be much more explosive off the snap.

Mathis has upside to develop into a solid defensive tackle. Rare combination of size and length. Mid-day-two value.

2021 first-round pick linebacker Jamin Davis sucked. We’re talking Mega Maid level suckage. He was terrible at everything a linebacker can be asked to do. His tackling was awful. His coverage skills were laughable. If this were a game of “Who’s the mole?”, he’d have been called out week after week. Washington is sticking with him, but at some point you have to let go of the sunk cost. I’m guessing we’re already at the “make it or break it” point for Davis.

I want to revisit what I wrote about Davis before the draft:

Jamin Davis: I feel like I have missed the boat on Davis. I dinged him for his performance against the run. Davis struggled navigating traffic and taking on blockers. He’s inexperienced, only appearing in 25 games (11 starts). But… his pass coverage is terrifying. He has the range and hands make routine throws a gamble. He’s a premium athlete who made an impact on special teams. The fact is, Davis has made me realize my linebacker grading systems are antiquated. Davis is a first-round athlete who is still learning the game. His pass-rush/coverage skills are what’s going to matter in terms of him making an impact in the NFL. He’s a top 50 value and will likely come off the board late in the first round.

I had given him a mid-day-two grade. There may be a general trend throughout the NFL to give more weight to athleticism and less weight to college production. Davis might never become a great tackler. He should be able to do a much better job in coverage.

My grades aren’t designed to predict draft position. I’m trying to rate players relative to the ideal of their position. While it makes sense that the NFL would become more athletic over time, that doesn’t mean athleticism would become more important relative to college production. Watching Travon Walker go first overall brought home just how much my views differed from those of NFL GMs. Elite athleticism is in, baby. 9.5 career sacks? Not a problem.

In any event, look for Davis to start alongside 2019 fifth-round pick middle linebacker Dane Holcomb. For the most part, Holcomb is “just a guy” out there. Washington will play a fair amount of base nickel. David Mayo and 2020 fifth-round pick Khaleke Hudson will provide depth.

Free-agent pickup William Jackson was supposed to come in as a dominant #1CB. Instead, he got his butt kicked. Washington has to be hoping he’ll revert back to form this year.

Kendall Fuller had a decent season. It would have been a better season had he managed to snag more than one interception. He did a nice job of getting his hands on the ball. This could end up being a decent pairing.

2021 third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste struggled last season. Right now he’s listed as the nickel cornerback. He’s going to need to improve to keep ahead of Danny Johnson on the depth chart.

Budget free-agent pickup Corn Elder will provide depth.

Free safety Bobby McCain was a budget free agent pickup in 2021. He was expected to sit on the bench and provide depth. Instead, he appeared in all seventeen games, snagged four interceptions, and earned a new contract. Well done, Mr. McCain.

He’ll be paired with 2020 seventh-round pick strong safety Kamren Curl. Curl has proven to be a competent performer.

Rookie fourth-round pick Percy Butler will provide depth. He’s a special teams ace with elite speed. He might have some value as a zone free safety in big nickel formations.

Kicker Joey Slye has a strong leg. Accuracy? We’ll see.

Punter Tress Way is a solid veteran. Better coverage units would help here.

Budget free-agent pickup Alex Erickson looks to be the favorite to win both return jobs. Apparently, Washington still hasn’t forgotten this.

Adding Percy Butler should help the coverage units. Overall, Washington’s special teams look fine.

I’ll keep this simple. I’m on team “Fade Wentz” as long as that’s an option. Washington has a soft schedule. The defense looks like it should be much improved over last season, at least until injuries take their toll. Despite Wentz, I expect they will win enough games to stay out of the franchise quarterback sweepstakes. 7-10.