2019 NFL Preview: AFC South

(Note: Squid refers to targets plus carries.)

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AFC South:

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Houston Texans: 9-7

Tennessee Titans: 8-8

Jacksonville Jaguars: 8-8

Indianapolis Colts: 6-10

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Houston Texans

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Last Year: 11-5 (10.3 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 9.60

DVOA Wins: 8

FPI Wins: 8.5

Market Expected Wins: 8.36

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Implied Pythag: 53.98%

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You’ll have to cut the scouts a little bit of slack here. The Texans played one of the softest schedules in the NFL last season. It’s possible the scouts didn’t properly discount for that when grading the Texans’ roster. The scouts gave quarterback 2017 first-round pick Deshaun Watson an above-average grade. Whether or not they’re right about that will determine how successful the Texans’ season is.

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Before we dig into Watson, let’s look back at some numbers from last season. According to DVOA, the Texans had the seventh-best defense and fifth-best special teams. The film certainly bore that out. However, they had the 21st-ranked offense. They were slight favorites when they hosted the Colts to open up the playoffs. They got waxed, falling behind 21-0 before scoring a meaningless late touchdown. In that game Watson dropped back 52 times, with an average of 4.17 yards-per-dropback. Oof. Relying on the running game was never going to be an option, as the Texans’ running backs combined for a miserable -122 DYAR last season. So, if it is to be Watson or bust, let’s see what we’re getting:

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2017: 1,699 yards, 19 TD, 8 INT, 7.7 NY/P, 23.1% DVOA, 567 DYAR (in seven games)

2018: 4,165 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT, 6.8 NY/P, 9.5% DVOA, 832 DYAR

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He came into the league like a thunderbolt. Reality set in last season, to the tune of 62 sacks. That’s not reflected in the numbers above. No discernible rushing game leaves the entire burden on Watson. Normally I’d talk next about his receiver corps, but first we need to look at the offensive line.

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(UPDATE: Whoa boy. The Texans traded multiple first-round picks, and more, for Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil gives the Texans an NFL-quality left tackle, which is something they’ve lacked since they drove Duane Brown away. This will wreck them in the long run, but for now, it may save Watson’s life.)

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Left guard Senio Kelemete did a mediocre job last season. The hope is that 2018 third-round pick Martinas Rankin can unseat him this season.

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2016 second-round pick center Nick Martin did a decent job in straight up pass protection. He wasn’t good at assisting teammates, and was consistently embarrassed in run-blocking.

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Right guard Zach Fulton was lousy last season. On a better line, he would be targeted for replacement. Here, he’s a valued performer who’s earned another season on the job.

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Right tackle was another problem area for the Texans last season. The Texans hoped Seantrel Henderson was the solution. He played in one game last season. That’s a trend for him, as he’s missed 39 games over the past three seasons. He dodges an F grade by earning an “incomplete.”

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If Henderson can’t go, look for rookie second-round pick Max Scharping to step in:

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Max Scharping: His pass protection skills would get shredded at the next level if asked to play left tackle. Much better suited to move back to right tackle. Excellent size and power. Made 52 straight starts for Northern Illinois. I have complete confidence Scharping is going to succeed in the NFL. Maybe he’ll be able to fix the flaws in his technique and move to the left. Even if he can’t, he’s a fine day two right tackle.

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It’s a big step up from Northern Illinois to the NFL. Scharping might have to make the leap rather swiftly.

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The Texans’ offensive line was bad last season. It remains bad. But… not 62 sacks bad. Some of that is on Watson. The fact that they were collectively terrible at run blocking was another issue. Lamar Miller did his best:

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2018: 245 squid, 1,136 yards, -7.4% DVOA, 18 DYAR

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It was tough sledding for Miller. The Texans traded for Duke Johnson to take some of the heat off. Johnson was solid in Cleveland last season:

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2018: 102 squid, 630 yards, 10.7% DVOA, 127 DYAR

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Johnson did most of his damage as a receiver. The Browns threw to him more often than they handed it off to him each of the past three seasons. (Update: Miller is out for the season. Apart from Duke, the Texans will throw “some guy” out there.) (Update 2.0: “Some guy” has been downgraded to Carlos Hyde. Hyde had -69 DYAR last season, which is not nice.)

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Now, there is some good news for the Texans. Wide receiver Deandre Hopkins has a case that he’s the top receiver in the NFL:

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2018: 115 receptions, 1,572 yards, +14.2 +/-, 22.6% DVOA, 455 DYAR

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That level of productivity rarely gets paired with that level of efficiency. Hopkins is as sure-handed a receiver you’ll find in the NFL, with rare route-running skills. Look for Watson to target him early and often.

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Over the past two seasons, #2WR 2016 first-round pick Will Fuller has played in 17 games:

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2017-18: 60 receptions, 926 yards, +7.7 +/-, 25.7% DVOA, 306 DYAR

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Those are excellent numbers. If Fuller can stay healthy, he’ll be an effective deep threat for the Texans.

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Kenny Stills has made it clear he’s a fine complementary target:

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2016: 42 receptions, 726 yards, -2.7 +/-, 6.8% DVOA, 121 DYAR

2017: 58 receptions, 847 yards, +1.0 +/-, 0.4% DVOA, 107 DYAR

2018: 37 receptions, 553 yards, +0.9 +/-, 12.6% DVOA, 127 DYAR (in 15 games)

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That’s not the productivity you’d want from one of your main receiving options. We’ll see if he gels with Watson.

2018 fourth-round pick Keke Coutree took his lumps:

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2018: 28 receptions, 287 yards, -2.5 +/-, -10.5% DVOA, 7 DYAR (in six games)

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As with Fuller, good health would go a long way here. He was slowed by hamstring injuries all of last season.

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DeAndre Carter (-2.3% DVOA, 18 DYAR) and Vincent Smith (-3.3% DVOA, 8 DYAR) will provide depth.

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The Texans are strangely deep at tight end. 2018 third-round pick Jordan Akins was used sparingly. So much so that I wonder if there was a miscommunication between the coaching staff and the GM:

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2018: 17 receptions, 225 yards, -0.2 +/-, 8.3% DVOA, 24 DYAR

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He’s not much of a blocker. That shouldn’t stop the Texans from using him as a large slot receiver if they feel he has value there.

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2018 sixth-round pick Jordan Thomas (yes, the Texans drafted two tight ends named Jordan last year) wasn’t much more prolific:

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2018: 20 receptions, 215 yards, +1.2 +/-, 12.5% DVOA, 38 DYAR

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Thomas is a converted wideout, probably because of his size (6-5, 277). Despite his size, his blocking technique is poor. That’s something I’d expect the Texans to work on.

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Darren Fells was signed as a blocking tight end. He has 42 receptions in his last 46 games. He’s a danger to catch one pass per game, but you never know when it will come.

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2019 third-round pick Kahale Warring is a tremendous athlete who’s still learning how to play football. It will be a while before we see what he can do.

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We know Hopkins will produce for this offense. Everyone else is a question mark, be it due to health or playing time.

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The defense currently has a Jadeveon Clowney sized hole in it. He’ll probably sign his franchise tender, litigate it, and play for the Texans this season. Probably. He can’t sign a long term deal with anyone at this point, so both he, and the Texans, have limited options. (Update: He signed his tender as a condition of being traded to Seattle. The Texans received Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. They combined for four sacks last season. Whoa boy.)

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With Clowney gone, that’s nine sacks and 46 hits+hurries gone from the defense. He was also a monster against the run. J.J. Watt (16 sacks, 57 hits+hurries) is now going to face much more offensive scrutiny. Last season Watt moved a bit more to the outside to protect his back. He’ll still serve as an outside rusher, but with no Clowney, I don’t know who will support him from the other side.

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2016 fifth-round pick D.J Reader has done solid work at nose tackle. He’ll play alongside 3-4 DE Angelo Blackson. 2017 fourth-round pick Carlos Watkins will provide depth.

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Whitney Mercilus has seen his role change from being an edge-rusher to a more well-rounded linebacker. He still snagged four sacks and 37 hits+hurries last season.

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2015 second-round pick middle linebacker Benardrick Mckinney earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. He did some nice work, although he is nowhere near the level of the inside linebacker elites.

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2017 second-round pick Zach Cunningham will patrol the weak side. He had the bulk of the coverage responsibilities. He did… fine. His stats were… okay. This season will tell us a lot about his potential going forward.

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Collectively the front-seven was dominant against the run. That was a function of Clowney and Watt playing a combined 31 games. The pass rush was roughly average. Maybe slightly above. With no Clowney, both the pass rush and the run defense are shadows of what they were.

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Cornerback Johnathan Joseph turned 35 in April. He knows how to do his job, but he’s be losing a few steps every year. Last year he was good enough for it not to be a big deal. I don’t know how long that will remain true.

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Free-agent rental Bradley Roby was brought in to be one of the starting cornerbacks. His numbers in Denver last year suggest this was a bad decision. He’s trying to replace Kareem Jackson. That’s going to be a tough job.

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Aaron Colvin, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and rookie second-round pick Lonnie Johnson Jr. are all competing for playing time:

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Lonnie Johnson: I don’t want to be discriminatory, but when your religion forbids you from making a play on the ball, I don’t want to draft you to play cornerback for me. He looks the part (6-2, 213) with a decent 4.52-40. It just didn’t show up on film. I want no part of Johnson.

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He’s an elite athlete. We’ll see if he’s an elite football player.

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In addition to having to replace cornerback Kareem Jackson, the Texans have to replace the Honey Badger. They brought in Tashaun Gipson to do just that. Gipson put up some great coverage numbers last season. Gipson will pair with 2018 third-round pick Justin Reid. Reid took his rookie lumps. The question will be how much he learned from them. The athletic talent is there. He grabbed three interceptions, which helped mitigate some of his errors. If Reid matures, this could be an excellent pairing.

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The Texans went from going 4-12 in 2017 to going 11-5 in 2018. There were several things that drove that change.

1. A very soft schedule.

2. Going from -12 in turnover margin to +13.

3. Having a full season of Deshaun Watson.

4. 16 games of Watt, netting 16 sacks vs. 5 games of Watt, netting no sacks.

5. Not having awful special teams.

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It adds up. The Texans’ special teams went from being lousy (or worse) at everything, to being at lest decent at everything. The return games were slightly above-average. The coverage units were strong. Punter Trevor Daniel mostly did a solid job. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn made fans (and coaches) nervous. The Texans might have looked into getting a kicker with a bit more leg, but he was given a reprieve. Overall, the special teams aren’t a weakness. That’s a welcome change in Houston.

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The Texans perspective on the season changed quite a bit on Since August 24th. First they lost Lamar Miller for the season. That was a setback, albeit limited because he is a running back and he didn’t do much for the team in 2018. The earthquake was the retirement of Andrew Luck. Their strongest rival is not in rebuilding mode. Can Houston take advantage? So much of it depends on keeping a few key players healthy. They found a real left tackle, but lost one of their two elite linemen. I love what I’ve seen from Deshaun Watson. I just wish the offense wasn’t so thin on talent. It’s hard to predict double-digit wins when so many key players have to stay healthy. 9-7.

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Indianapolis Colts

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Last Year: 10-6 (10.3 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 5.70 (10.41 pre-Luck retirement)

DVOA Wins: 8.9

FPI Wins: 9.2

Market Expected Wins: 7.44 (9.69 pre-Luck retirement)

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Implied Pythag: 46.77% (59.94% pre-Luck retirement)

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Facts I was planning on talking about here:

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1. The Colts played the easiest schedule in the NFL last season (according to DVOA).

2. Their offense and defense both finished tenth in the DVOA rankings.

3. We haven’t seen Andrew Luck play this preseason.

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What I am actually going to talk about here:

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1. Jacoby Brissett. Over the past two seasons he’s taken 1,017 snaps in Indianapolis, which is roughly one season’s worth. Here’s how it went:

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2017-2018: 3,100 yards, 13 TD, 7 INT, 5.5 NY/P, -14.9% DVOA, -125 DYAR

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He also ran 70 times for 253 yards. There’s no way to sugarcoat this, his results were terrible, which is exactly how the Colts’ fanbase is feeling right now. Luck’s retirement cost the Colts 4.79 wins in the scouting projections. I am baffled what people have seen from Brissett to make them think he’s one of the most capable backups in the NFL. Here are various defenses of Brissett:

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1. He was traded right before the 2017 season.

2. The coaching staff was terrible.

3. The offensive line was terrible.

4. It was effectively his rookie season.

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OK. It’s possible that his handicaps in 2017 were unreasonable and he was in over his head. I’ll ignore his small sample from 2018 (-70.3% DVOA, -16 DYAR). That makes Brissett effectively a blank slate. Well, except for his Twitter account:

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https://twitter.com/TheJoeMarino/status/1165438912212406273

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We don’t know what we’ll get from him when he’s not in a terrible situation. This team was built to compete, so let’s see what Brissett will be working with.

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T.Y. Hilton has played with Brissett before. Can you spot the year Brissett had the reins?:

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2016: 91 receptions, 1,448 yards, +6.3 +/-, 17.3% DVOA, 360 DYAR

2017: 57 receptions, 966 yards, -0.9 +/-, -3.8% DVOA, 75 DYAR

2018: 76 receptions, 1,270 yards, -0.4 +/-, 23.4% DVOA, 359 DYAR (14 games)

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Luck’s retirement puts Hilton in an awkward spot. Brissett should be a better player than he was in 2017, but he won’t be Andrew Luck. Hilton will have to work very hard to make Brissett’s life easier.

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Free-agent rental Devin Funchess had an up-and-down run in Carolina:

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2016: 23 receptions, 371 yards, -8.9 +/-, -7.4% DVOA, 26 DYAR (15 games)

2017: 63 receptions, 840 yards, -2.0 +/-, 6.8% DVOA, 168 DYAR

2018: 44 receptions, 549 yards, -2.0 +/-, -10.5% DVOA, 13 DYAR (14 games)

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Cam Newton eventually lost faith in Funchess. I wonder how Brissett will feel about him.

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#3WR Chester Rogers lived in the slot last season, with marginal success:

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2018: 53 receptions, 485 yards, +1.3 +/-, -9.7% DVOA, 17 DYAR

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He’s seen his usage go up and his DYAR drop each season (34 targets, 51 DYAR in 2016, 37 targets, 28 DYAR in 2017, 72 targets in 2018). Rookie second-round pick Parris Campbell will be gunning for his job:

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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?

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The answer is that he was used as a short-range target and 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?

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

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Campbell and Funchess never played with Luck, so they’ll never know what they missed.

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Zach Pascal (-20.5% DVOA, -28 DYAR) is as uninspiring a fifth option as you’ll find.

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I’m at a loss to explain the Colts’ fascination with #1TE Jack Doyle:

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2017-2018: 106 receptions, 935 yards, +6.3 +/-, -7.5% DVOA, -2 DYAR (21 games)

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He’s had trouble staying on the field, and he’s been replacement-level when healthy. I’ll credit him for being fairly sure-handed, but the team is still only averaging 6.63 yards-per-target when targeting him.

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#2TE Eric Ebron had an odd season in Indianapolis:

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2018: 66 receptions, 750 yards, -4.9 +/-, 2.0% DVOA, 68 DYAR

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In games he was targeted five or fewer times, he caught 74% of his targets. In games where he was targeted six or more he caught 56%. The Colts went 6-1 in the lower target games, 5-6 in the others. They went 0-5 when he was targeted nine or more times. This can’t be entirely on Ebron. The most likely explanation is that when the other, more efficient options were taken away, Luck was forced to lean on Ebron. That went poorly. Will the same be true for Brissett? I suspect so. I’ll note that Ebron had eight drops last season, while Doyle has had three in the past two seasons. That might explain their respective positions on the depth chart.

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Could the Colts lean on their running game? #1RB Marlon Mack is coming off of a solid season:

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2018: 221 squid, 1,022 yards, 12.3% DVOA, 206 DYAR (12 games)

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He did almost all of his damage on the ground (16.8% DVOA, 216 DYAR).

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#2RB 2018 fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines split his usage roughly equally:

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2018: 164 squid, 738 yards, -4.4% DVOA, 67 DYAR

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He was much more effective as a receiver (3.5% DVOA, 79 DYAR) than as a rusher (-11.8% DVOA, -12 DYAR)

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Mack will do what he can. Hines will need some help from Brissett to reach his full potential.

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The offensive line has been improved since Brissett’s last starting stint. Left tackle Anthony Costanzo finished seventh in my positional rankings. His problem has been staying on the field, as he missed five games last season.

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2018 first-round pick left guard Quinton Nelson was solid (13th overall) last season. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt.

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2016 first-round pick center Ryan Kelly missed four games last season with a knee injury. When healthy, he was above-average (14th overall).

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Right guard Mark Glowinski was thrust into the starting lineup early last season. He ended up not surrendering a sack. He kept the job and will enter this season as the starter.

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2018 second-round pick right tackle Braden Smith had a fantastic rookie season, making 13 starts and finishing fifth in my positional rankings. As with Nelson, he should be even better this year.

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Now, there is one major complication. Quarterback play massively affects offensive line play. It goes beyond recognizing defenses, calling protections, and pocket presence. The Colts went from surrendering 56 sacks in 2017 to surrendering 18 sacks in 2018. Some of that was improved line play. The bulk of it was the switch back from Brissett to Luck. We’re going back to Brissett, so the offensive line’s job just got a lot harder.

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The Colts have put together a solid defensive line. Premium free-agent pickup Justin Houston (nine sacks, 31 hits+hurries) will start across from Jabaal Sheard (5.5 sacks, 35 hits+hurries). Margus Hunt (five sacks, 15 hits+hurries) and 2018 second-round pick Kemoko Turay (four sacks, 32 hits+hurries) will provide quality depth. The light finally came on for Hunt last season, as he broke into the starting lineup. He’ll see some playing time at tackle as well.

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Denico Autry and 2018 second-round pick Tyquan Lewis are projected to start at defensive tackle. Autry is coming off of a monster season (nine sacks, 22 hits+hurries). He was dominant against the run. Like Hunt, Lewis has the size to play end or tackle. He shined in limited usage last season (two sacks, 21 hits+hurries). Rookie second-round pick Ben Benagu will also be in the mix:

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Ben Banogu: Inside rush specialist? Is that a thing? His production was great at TCU, but he’s going to have to diversify his game to succeed in the NFL. He’s a day three pick for me.

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I’m not sure if he’ll play DE, OLB, or be used in a different fashion entirely. He doesn’t have the size you’re looking for on the defensive line. His skill-set isn’t that of an NFL linebacker. This is an unusual case. The Colts took him early though, so they must have a plan.

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2018 second-round pick Darius Leonard had a monster rookie season. He’s on pace to develop into one of the NFL’s elite weakside linebackers. He’ll start alongside middle linebacker 2017 fifth-round pick Anthony Walker and across from 2018 seventh-round pick Matthew Adams. Adams was a surprise, working his way into the starting lineup and keeping the job. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the Colts. Thankfully, he’s easily replaceable in the nickel and dime defenses. As for Walker, he’ll have to hold off rookie third-round pick Bobby Okereke to keep his job. Okereke is gunning for Adams’s job as well. He can play inside or outside, and he as more athleticism than either of the two current starters.

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Pierre Desir did solid work for the Colts last season. He’ll return as the #1CB. Rookie second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin will start as the #2CB:

Rock Ya-Sin: When everyone hopes you fall to them in round two, you ain’t falling to them in round two. His film was fantastic. Even when he made a mistake, it was because he was trying to be aggressive and make a play. Mentally, he was always in the game. He will improve a lot with NFL coaching correcting flaws in his technique. I have Ya-Sin below the top three, but ahead of Amani. I have no idea what to do with Mullen.

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There wasn’t much of a rush on CB’s in the first round. 2017 second-round pick Quincy Wilson will be competing with Ya-Sin for playing time.

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Kenny Moore will return as the slot cornerback. He had great coverage numbers last season. The man got paid, but he’ll have to maintain his performance to keep the checks coming.

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2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker is an elite defender who isn’t given the chance to show off his skills. The Colts play him absurdly far from the line of scrimmage. You can’t make a play on the ball when you’re nowhere near it. Having said that, he does a solid job of preventing big plays.

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Strong safety Clayton Geathers played quite well in the twelve games he was available. Availability isn’t assured with Gaethers, so look for rookie fourth-round pick Khari Willis to see some playing time this season. Willis is a thumper. I wouldn’t have taken him so early on day three though.

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Kicker Adam Vinatieri has begun to fade a bit. Any further decline and he’ll be a liability for the Colts. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez did a solid job. His coverage team did an excellent one. The Colts’ return units were conservative, which has its benefits. They didn’t gain much yardage, though. Overall, they were mediocre.

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The Colts’ 2019 season ended before it began. A team with Super Bowl aspirations is now in the running for the first overall pick. The last time the Colts were in this spot, they tanked hard. Will they repeat that performance? I doubt it. This roster was built to compete. Brissett should be better than he was in 2017. Losing Luck might cost the Colts four wins. That would still leave them in the 6-10 range. 6-10.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

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Last Year: 5-11 (5.7 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 6.61

DVOA Wins: 7.3

FPI Wins: 7.6

Market Expected Wins: 7.84

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Implied Pythag: 48.55%

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In 2017, the Jaguars were a missed call away from the Super Bowl. Last season, they collapsed. Life comes at you fast in the NFL. The days of “Bortles!” are over. It’s now Nick Foles’ team. Bortles has had an Eli Manning-esque run lately:

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2017-2018: 1,950 yards, 12 TD, 6 INT, 6.1 NY/P, -13.3% DVOA, -54 DYAR (in 12 games)

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During that time, he went on a playoff run, beating the Falcons, obliterating the Vikings, and out-dueling Tom Brady in a shootout. It’s all very confusing. What does this mean for the Jaguars? Foles should be better than what the Jaguars were rolling out there

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2018: 3,427 yards, 15 TD, 13 INT, 4.2 NY/P, -28.9% DVOA, -552 DYAR

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Amazingly, it’s even worse that it looks. They had 127 rushing DYAR. I’ve become increasingly convinced the rushing DYAR calculations for quarterbacks need to be reworked. -679 passing DYAR tells the tale. Even if Foles continues to be below replacement level, he could be a sizable improvement over 2018 JAGUARS QB.

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There isn’t any point in looking at the advanced receiving statistics for the Jaguars’ receiver corps. They combined for -294 DYAR last season and it wasn’t their fault. The question is “What can Marquise Lee, Dede Westrbook, D.J. Chark, Chris Conley, Terrelle Pryor, Keelan Cole, Geoff Swaim, James O’Shaughnessy, and rookie third-round pick Josh Oliver accomplish together?” Let’s see what each brings to the table:

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Marquise Lee: Missed 2018 with a torn ACL. Produced a 7.8% DVOA and 330 DYAR over 30 games in 2016 & 2017. Would have had great numbers if not for 14 drops over that time.

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Dede Westbrook: Became a full-time slot receiver last season. Has the same issues with drops as Lee (eight last season). He’s been a much better punt returner than receiver.

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D.J. Chark: I’m giving the 2018 second-round pick a mulligan on his rookie season. Here’s what I wrote about him before last year’s draft:

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D.J. Chark: During their nadir, the Raiders would have taken Chark in the first round. He’s as pure a deep threat as you’ll find in the draft, with a blazing 4.34 40-time. However, he had 66 receptions in his career at LSU. That’s a disturbingly low total no matter how you look at it. His hands are poor and his route-running is simplistic. I get that you can’t coach speed. I just don’t trust pure burners with poor hands and a lack of technique. He can provide some value as a returner. I wouldn’t touch him until the third round at the earliest.

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He’s a great athlete. This is his chance to show he’s a great football player. If he gets buried on the depth chart, it might be the last we hear from him.

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Chris Conley: Tore his Achilles in 2017. Didn’t look explosive with the Chiefs last season (-1.0% DVOA, 48 DYAR). Dropped roughly 10% of the passes sent his way. Will have to earn Foles’ trust.

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Terrelle Pryor: Breakout season in 2016 (77 receptions, 1,007 yards.) Disappeared after that: 36 receptions, 492 yards in 2017+2018.

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Keelan Cole: Dropped eight of the 70 passes sent his way last season. Dropped on the depth chart.

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Geoff Swaim: -6.0 % DVOA, (6 DYAR) over the past three seasons in Dallas. Uninspiring tight end.

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James O’Shaughnessy: A known mediocrity. I’ll let last year slide. He produced a combined -10 DYAR in 2016/2017.

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Josh Oliver: Did a good job as a mid-range threat at San Jose State. Tight ends have a tough learning curve to adjust to the NFL, so for now assume we’ll see what Oliver can do next season.

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Foles will have his work cut out for him. The best case scenario is that Lee is healthy, Chark learned a lot from 2019, and Westbook shows more consistent elusiveness. Also, that the trio drop fewer on-target passes.

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Running back 2017 fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette will never live up to his draft status. That’s not his fault. He’s missed 11 games over two seasons. That’s mostly not his fault. His career -0.2% DVOA (206 DYAR) suggests that he’s an average running back. He’s taken a lot of punishment over the past two seasons, so it’s not clear how long he’ll remain at that level.

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Backup Alfred Blue is awful (-110 DYAR over the past three seasons). Rookie fifth-round pick Ryquell Armstead was highly productive at Temple. Perhaps he’ll get the chance to produce for the Jaguars this season.

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2017 second-round pick left tackle Cam Robinson is like something out of a Yiddish curse. In 2017 he was terrible. Last year he was unavailable (torn ACL). The Jaguars are hoping he’ll be healthy and much improved over the disaster that he was in his rookie season.

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Left guard Andrew Norwell was a major 2018 signing for the Jaguars. For that price, they got a league-average performance (17th overall). Oh, and he missed five games. I’m already concerned that he’s missing practices with a hamstring issue.

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Center Brian Linder was quite good in the nine games he appeared in last season before being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.

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Right guard 2015 third-round pick A.J. Cann was regularly available, starting in 15 games. Yay! He finished 28th in my positional rankings. Boo!

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Despite all the horror listed above, right tackle is the looking like the biggest problem area for the Jaguars right now. Journeyman Cedric Ogbuehi is listed as the starter. Rookie second-round pick Jawaan Taylor was expected to win that job. He missed the first two preseason games with a knee injury. Here’s what I wrote about Taylor before the draft:

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Jawaan Taylor: Taylor has two major issues he needs to deal with to succeed at the NFL level. First, he needs to cut down on false starts. Second, he needs to stop biasing towards the outside and giving up occasional inside lanes to the pass rush. In both cases, the issue is his concern about his speed off the snap and ability to handle the outside rush. Professional coaching should help mitigate that issue.

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False starts aside, Taylor was one of the most dominant offensive linemen in college football last season. He had some great games against elite competition. His run-blocking technique needs some work, but that’s a minor quibble. Taylor has the most upside of any potential left tackle in this class. However, he might end up at right tackle (where his skills are a better fit). I love his power and potential, but I must admit there is some real risk here too.

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Hopefully, we’ll see him starting soon.

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Jacksonville was always going to have trouble replicating the elite defense from their 2017 season. They fell from first overall in 2017 to sixth last season. They sacked the quarterback 55 times in 2017. That fell to 37 last year. That’s not why they drafted Josh Allen. They just were lucky enough to see him fall to them:

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Josh Allen: It’s not just that his stats were so good. It’s that they were so good despite the fact opposing teams were scheming hard to shut him down. You can see how hard Penn State worked to take him out of the game. Three sacks later…

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Yes he still has a lot of work to do to improve his technique. His inside rush moves and his counter moves aren’t close to where they will be after a few years of NFL training. His upside is enormous. His outside rush is terrifying and it reminds me a bit of Lawrence Taylor, which is the highest praise I can give. Allen is a potential monster and I look forward to welcoming him to the New York Jets.

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Oh, well. Allen will back up defensive ends Calais Campbell (10.5 sacks, 47 hits+hurries) and 2016 third-round pick Yannick Ngakoue (9.5 sacks, 62 hits+hurries). Jacksonville was still pretty good at getting pressure last season. They just struggled to close the deal.

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Campbell is excellent against the run. Ngakoue is a pure pass-rusher who offers little there. I don’t expect much from Allen against the run either.

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Defensive tackle Marcell Darius will pair with Abry Jones inside. Jones put up some exceptional numbers against the run. Darius has fallen off quite a bit from his peak in Buffalo. 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan will provide depth here. Frankly, the Jaguars were hoping Bryan would do more than that, but he’s been slow making the adjustment from Florida to the NFL.

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2016 second-round pick Myles Jack has moved inside to play middle linebacker. He did a solid job there. He’ll play with a pair of relative newcomers. We saw a little bit from 2018 seventh-round pick Leon Jacobs before he went on IR with a quad injury. Jacobs will play across from rookie third-round pick Quincy Williams. I wasn’t expecting Williams to get drafted. He didn’t dominate at Murray State. Williams is the younger brother of the Jets’ Quinnen Williams. I must say that the Jags’ linebacker corps looks incredibly thin beyond Jack.

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2016 first-round pick Jalen Ramsey #1CB has cemented himself as one of the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. #2CB A.J. Bouye struggled last season. It might have been a fluke, as he was quite good in 2017. It’s also possible the drop-off from the pass rush left him exposed. D.J. Hayden has a line on the nickel job if he can stay healthy. He had solid numbers last season in ten games.

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2018 third-round pick Ronnie Harrison is returning at strong safety. A knee injury ended his season prematurely. He flashed some nice coverage skills. What he didn’t show was the physicality the Jaguars were expecting. It’s possible he was playing hurt last season. We’ll have to see if he’s a more complete player this time around.

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Jarrod Wilson is taking over from departed free safety Tashaun Gibson. Gibson was fantastic last season. We haven’t seen much from Wilson over the past three years, so it’s hard to see this as anything other than a sizable downgrade.

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Both kicker Josh Lambo and punter Logan Cooke were beneficiaries of elite coverage units. Cooke was roughly average at his job. Lambo has been accurate on field goals. Dede Westbook is a very good punt returner. The kick-return game looked potentially explosive, but we’re still waiting on D.J. Chark to show what he can do. Overall, the special teams look strong thanks to the coverage units.

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It’s hard not to be skeptical of the Jaguars. It’s good that the offense will no longer have a “Bortles!” problem. It’s not good that the skill talent might be among the worst in the NFL. The offensive line is questionable. Foles wasn’t consistent in Philadelphia, and will be asked to adjust to a new group of teammates. The defense lost a key safety. The linebacker corps is dangerously thin. I like the defensive line and the pass rush. After that? This is a team with a lot of work to do. Foles returns them to respectability. Nothing more. 8-8.

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Tennessee Titans

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Last Year: 9-7 (8.2 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 6.57

DVOA Wins: 8.3

FPI Wins: 8.0

Market Expected Wins: 8.00

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Implied Pythag: 50.58%

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Only the Ravens and Bears allowed fewer points than the Titans did last season. You might assume the Titans had an elite defense. They did not, finishing 19th in DVOA. The Titans scored the sixth-fewest points in the NFL. You might assume the Titans had a lousy offense. You’d be right (22nd in DVOA). Why did such a mediocre team finish with a winning record? It wasn’t because of a soft schedule. Theirs was roughly average. They had solid special teams (13th overall), but nothing dominant. Ultimately, the Titans were lucky. They went 4-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown. They were 9-6 when they hosted the Colts in Week 17 with a playoff berth on the line. The Colts romped 33-17. Quarterback Marcus Mariota missed that game due to injuries.

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That marked the third straight year the Titans went 9-7. Fun fact: During that run, the Titans have been outscored by 12 points.

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As a general rule, preseason results are meaningless. Having said that, the Titans are a little concerned about their offensive line and Marcus Mariota. He’s averaged 4.35 yards-per-attempt this preseason and poor protection is a big part of that. His regular season results haven’t been promising since 2016:

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2015: 2,818 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT, 6.3 NY/P, -13.2% DVOA, -33 DYAR (in 12 games)

2016: 3,426 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT, 7.0 NY/P, 11.1% DVOA, 733 DYAR (in 15 games)

2017: 3,232 yards, 13 TD, 15 INT, 6.4 NY/P, -3.3% DVOA, 350 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 2,528 yards, 11 TD, 8 INT, 6.1 NY/P, -8.5% DVOA, 151 DYAR (in 14 games)

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Mariota has had trouble staying healthy. His play when available hasn’t been great. This is the final season of his rookie deal. Backup Ryan Tannehill was awful last season in Miami (-212 DYAR). If Mariota gets benched in favor of Tannehill, it’s a very bad sign.

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I’m not entirely sure why the Titans have such trouble protecting Mariota. They are pretty good at preventing pressure, but when they allow it, Mariota gets sacked around 40% of the time. The NFL average is under 30%. I have to think this is on Mariota.

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Left tackle Taylor Lewan was a bit above-average last season. He’ll miss the first four games of the season with a PED suspension.

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New left guard Rodger Saffold finished 10th in my positional rankings last season. He’s replacing Quinton Spain, who finished ninth. I see this move as a wash, although I will acknowledge Saffold is the more mobile of the two.

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Center Ben Jones is roughly average. There are concerns that he’s begun to wear down. 2017 sixth-round pick Corey Levin may get a chance to step up and show if he’s ready to start.

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Right guard Kevin Pamphile missed almost all of last season with an undisclosed injury. He was supposed to provide depth this season behind rookie third-round pick Nate Davis:

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Nate Davis: Doesn’t have the size or power the NFL is looking for at guard. What he has is great quickness and technique. Unfortunately, his arms aren’t long enough to allow him to sustain blocks. He’s had a few off-field issues. I don’t think I’d take him until day three unless I felt he was a great fit for my blocking scheme.

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So far Davis hasn’t convinced the coaching staff he’s ready, so it looks like Pamphile will return to the starting lineup.

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2016 first-round pick right tackle Jack Conklin has been a disaster. Only Brandon Parker was clearly worse over a larger sample of plays last season. Backup Dennis Kelly was significantly better than Conklin when filling in last season, but that wasn’t enough to convince the coaching staff to let Kelly keep the job. I understand the Titans are stuck with Kelly at left tackle for the first four games. After that will be the test of what the Titans believe.

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The Titans build their offense around a (hopefully) strong running game. 2016 second-round pick Derrick Henry is a key part of that:

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2018: 233 squid, 1,158 yards, 19.9% DVOA, 277 DYAR

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Backup Dion Lewis made it clear that his production in 2017 in New England was due to the offense around him. He was useless in Tennessee:

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2017: 215 squid, 1,110 yards, 28.3% DVOA, 363 DYAR

2018: 222 squid, 917 yards, -17.0% DVOA, -54 DYAR

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I’ll note that Lewis can be a productive player so long as he’s schemed into open space downfield. He’s a very elusive runner, but that’s not enough when you’re getting the ball five yards deep in the backfield.

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2017 first-round pick Corey Davis took a huge step forward last season:

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2017: 34 receptions, 375 yards, -4.8 +/-, -30.8% DVOA, -88 DYAR (in 11 games)

2018: 65 receptions, 891 yards, -2.7 +/-, -1.2% DVOA, 104 DYAR

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It’s nice to know that he’s capable of more than what he showed in his injury-plagued rookie season. Now the Titans need him to make another leap to show he’s a complete #1WR.

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#2WR 2017 third-round pick Taywan Taylor hasn’t broken out:

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2018: 37 receptions, 466 yards, +2.3 +/-, -2.7% DVOA, 43 DYAR (in 13 games)

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Is this due to Mariota not getting the most out of Taylor’s speed? It’s hard to know for sure. He can get deep. The Titans just weren’t effective when he did. I suspect this, even more than the sacks, is what will lead to Mariota’s downfall in Tennessee.

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Rookie second-round pick A.J. Brown gives the Titans another premium target:

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A.J. Brown: D.K. Metcalf may have been Mississippi’s most talented receiver, but Brown was their most productive. He has elite route-running skills. Great agility allows him to beat cornerbacks to the spot. He has the power to work through contact. He might have the best hands in the class. Brown has a shot to go down as the most productive receiver in the draft.

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There are two concerns. The first is that he clearly tailed off vs. elite coverage. In blunt terms, his shit didn’t work vs. the best. The second is that his top-end speed (4.49) isn’t going to separate from NFL cornerbacks.

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I can’t discount how productive he was in college. His agility and hands will make him nothing less than an effective slot receiver, which gives him the highest floor in the class. I’d be fine with taking him late in the first round if lottery tickets Metcalf and Marquise Brown were off the board.

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Free-agent pick Adam Humprhies has the slot job nailed down, so I’m not sure where Brown will play. Humpries has been solid in Tampa Bay (5.1% DVOA, 112 DYAR in 2017, 6.7% DVOA, 152 DYAR in 2018).

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2017 third-round pick tight end Jonnu Smith hasn’t made his bones in Tennessee:

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2018: 20 receptions, 258 yards, -2.0 +/-, -1.8% DVOA, 11 DYAR

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He was awful in 2017 (-30.7% DVOA, -44 DYAR). He dropped 10% of the passes sent his way last season. He’s a lousy blocker. This may be his last chance to impress the team.

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#2TE Delanie Walker turned 35 in August. He’s produced -12 DYAR in the past two seasons. He’s coming back from a broken ankle. I’d keep my expectations low here.

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#3TE Anthony Firkser had a flukishly great season:

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2018: 19 receptions, 225 yards, +4.7 +/-, 59.3% DVOA, 85 DYAR (in 12 games)

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Defenses weren’t paying much attention to him and the Titans took advantage. There’s little concern that he’s a diamond in the rough who deserves to start. Sometimes players just get lucky over a small sample.

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The more I examine the Titans’ offense, the more I think Mariota is the problem. He had opportunities to hurt opponents deep but generally failed to do so. Additionally, he took far too many sacks given the quality of his protection.

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The Titans seemed to realize their “bend but don’t break” defensive success was not sustainable. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (seven sacks, 28 hits+hurries) was the only disruptive force on the line. They’ll eventually pair Casey with rookie first-round pick Jeffery Simmons:

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Jeffery Simmons: Simmons trades strengths and weaknesses with (Quinnen) Williams. Simmons has the prototypical size and strength. He splits double-teams at an excellent rate. He can collapse the pocket with raw power. However, he isn’t nearly as good at diagnosing the play or attacking the right point along the line. He can be tricked into moving out of position far too easily. His raw power and athleticism is elite, so he has a higher ceiling than Williams.

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He has one red flag from a 2016 incident where he hit a woman who was in a fight with his sister. The video went viral and it’s pretty bad. From what I’ve heard he hasn’t had any other issues. He’s an elite talent and will go off the board in the first round.

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Simmons is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered getting ready for the combine. For now, 2016 fourth-round pick DaQuan Jones will start inside. Jones has six career sacks, none of which came last season. Free-agent pickup Brett Urban will start as the rush defensive end. He did little last season in Baltimore (0.5 sacks, 13 hits+hurries).

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The Titans beefed up their pass rush with free-agent pickup Cameron Wake (six sacks, 43 hits+hurries). Wake turned 37 in January and I expect him to be a step slower this season.

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Wake will play across from 2018 second-round pick Harold Landry. Landry had a fine rookie season (4.5 sacks, 33 hits+hurries). He leaned quite heavily on his speed rush. That enabled him to get into the backfield, but not always in a position to make a play. He needs to learn how to close the deal more consistently, but that should come with practice and experience.

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Frank Herron and Sharif Finch will provide depth. The Titans look quite short on pass-rushers, which will be a problem if Landry fails to develop a more refined repertoire or Wake wears down.

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2018 first-round pick Rashaan Evans and 2017 fifth-round pick Jayon Brown will start inside. Wesley Woodyard will provide depth. The Brown and Woodyard were generally effective in pass coverage. Brown had six sacks last season (11.5 hits+hurries). He was a smartly opportunistic blitzer. The same can be said for Woodyard (4.5 sacks, eight hits+hurries). Evans was slowed by a hamstring injury early last season. By the end of the year, his athleticism was on display. Now he needs to learn how to handle his numerous responsibilities in this defensive scheme.

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In addition to the weak pass rush, the Titans’ run defense was poor last season. I’m not seeing much improvement given the offseason additions.

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Opponents went after 2017 first-round pick cornerback Adoree’ Jackson last season. He hasn’t learned how to make them pay for doing so.

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Malcolm Butler struggled badly early last season. He bounced back as the season went on, but not enough to make up for the early disaster.

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Logan Ryan put up poor numbers before a broken leg ended his season. The Titan are hoping the Jackson improves, Butler tightens up, and Ryan shows the form he previously displayed with the Patriots. Otherwise, this is a soft secondary.

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Free safety 2016 third-round pick Kevin Byard is fantastic. I wish the Titans gave him more opportunities to make plays. Unlike the cornerbacks, Byard scares quarterbacks away from targeting him.

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Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro was a pleasant surprise in replacement of Johnathan Cyprien. He played well enough that the Titans extended him and released Cyprien.

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The Titans’ special teams were carried by Darius Jennings and the kick-return game. Kicker Ryan Succop had an off year. Punter Brett Kern was fantastic, earning a second Pro Bowl berth. Alas, the coverage units were awful. The punt return unit was mediocre. Kern is a nice plus. Ditto for Jennings. Fixing the coverage units is essential, though, as that’s more predictive of long-term success.

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The Titans caught a nice break when Andrew Luck retired. They won’t be able to take advantage of it unless Mariota starts living up to his potential. Can he light it up with Davis and Taylor? I feel like we’d have seen it by now. Humprhies and Brown should help. I just don’t think Mariota will turn the corner. As for the defense, the front-seven looks thin. There isn’t a lot of pass-rush depth, nor is there much beef against the run. The Titans just ooze mediocrity. 8-8.

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