PFR Originals

Biggest Roster Weakness: AFC North

The 2019 regular season is right around the corner, but every NFL team still has at least one position on its roster that could use improvement. And there’s still plenty of time to address those areas of need! Free agents are readily available on the open market, while preseason trades provide another avenue of player procurement. 19 NFL trades were executed between August 1st and September 1st of 2018, and that number could increase this year.

Let’s take a look at the weakest positional group — and a potential solution — for each NFL club. Today we’ll examine the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens

  • Weakness: Offensive guard. Baltimore doesn’t have a problem at right guard, where future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda is still playing like one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen. But the Ravens do have a vacancy on the left side after somewhat surprisingly trading Alex Lewis to the Jets earlier this month. At present, 2017 fifth-round pick Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie fourth-rounder Ben Powers are competing to start between left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Matt Skura.
  • Solution: See if Graham Glasgow is available. Glasgow was moved off center this offseason to make room for 2018 first-round pick Frank Ragnow, and he’s since been taking some practice reps with Detroit’s second-team offense, as Kyle Meinke of MLive.com recently detailed. While Glasgow may still be in the Lions’ plans, he is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and Detroit could opt to go with Kenny Wiggins and the recently-extended Joe Dahl at guard. Glasgow, 26, is due a $2.025MM base salary next season.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • Weakness: Offensive tackle depth. After losing first-round pick and projected starting left tackle Jonah Williams to a shoulder injury, the Bengals got desperate, adding longtime Cincinnati security blanket Andre Smith on a one-year deal. He’s essentially the Bengals’ only option behind starters Cordy Glenn and Bobby Hart. When Glenn went down in practice earlier this week, John Jerry — yes, the John Jerry who plays guard and didn’t appear in the NFL in 2018 — slid to left tackle. Send help, please.
  • Solution: Send a third-round pick to the Eagles for Halapoulivaati Vaitai. “Big V” doesn’t have a starting role in Philadelphia, and after the Eagles used this year’s first-round pick on fellow offensive tackle Andre Dillard, it’s unclear if Vaitai — whose contract expires after 2019 — has a long-term future with the Birds. Vaitai, a 10-game starter during the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run, could line up at any number of positions for the Bengals, and if re-signed, would become the club’s right tackle for the long haul. Cincinnati missed out on veteran tackle assistance when Chris Clark (Saints) and Ben Ijalana (Jaguars) landed deals earlier this week.

Cleveland Browns

  • Weakness: Left tackle. The Browns are all-in on the 2019 season, and while they’ve accumulated talent at an impressive pace, left tackle is still the one area that could present a concern. Former failed No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson wasn’t a disaster in his eight starts for Cleveland, but among the 106 offensive tackles who saw at least 33% playtime in 2018, Robinson ranked only 60th in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency metric, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis.
  • Solution: Trade for Trent Williams. As of earlier this week, the Redskins were still reportedly telling teams they have no intention of moving Williams, who had demanded a trade after expressing displeasure with Washington’s handling of both his contract and a health scare. Color me skeptical. The Redskins don’t have much hope of contending this season and have already signed a replacement left tackle in Donald Penn, so I’m guessing Williams could be had for the right price. Cleveland should offer a second-round pick to begin negotiations.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Weakness: Safety depth. In Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers are returning two safeties who each played on more than 90% of the club’s defensive snaps. But Pittsburgh also released veteran defensive back Morgan Burnett, who saw action on 389 snaps a year ago. The Steelers could use a third safety capable of contributing, and they also need depth, as backups Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen have only played a combined 219 snaps during their respective careers.
  • Solution: Acquire Josh Jones from the Packers. The 61st overall selection in the 2017 draft, Jones’ career in Green Bay has never really gotten off the ground. He hasn’t played on more than 70% of the Packers’ snaps in either of his pro campaigns, and Green Bay decisively replaced him this offseason by signing free agent Adrian Amos and drafting Darnell Savage in the first round. Jones read the writing on the wall and requested a trade in May. He’d be able to fit in Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler‘s scheme as a “big nickel.”

Biggest Roster Weakness: NFC East

The 2019 regular season is right around the corner, but every NFL team still has at least one position on its roster that could use improvement. And there’s still plenty of time to address those areas of need! Free agents are readily available on the open market, while preseason trades provide another avenue of player procurement. 19 NFL trades were executed between August 1st and September 1st of 2018, and that number could increase this year.

Let’s take a look at the weakest positional group — and a potential solution — for each NFL club. Today we’ll examine the NFC East:

Dallas Cowboys

  • Weakness: Defensive tackle. Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins each played more than 45% of the Cowboys’ defensive snaps in 2018, but neither proved particularly effective, as both ranked in the bottom-half of Pro Football Focus‘ interior defender grades. Christian Covington has played well during training camp, and Dallas used a second-round pick on defensive tackle Trysten Hill, but the Cowboys could look to the free agent market for another veteran to play inside. Safety was another consideration here, but the Cowboys seem to be all-in on starting Jeff Heath despite his lack of 2018 production.
  • Solution: Sign Muhammad Wilkerson to a cheap one-year deal. Given the need to extend Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones, the Cowboys probably aren’t willing to spend much on a late free agent addition. And that’s just fine, because Wilkerson shouldn’t cost much after a fractured ankle limited him to three games last season. Wilkerson’s deal with the Packers was worth $5MM and carried $3MM in available incentives, but he could be hard-pressed to earn anything more than a minimum salary this time around.

New York Giants

  • Weakness: Wide receiver depth. Nearly any position on the Giants’ defensive depth chart could use help, but have you taken a look at New York’s possible Week 1 receivers? Golden Tate is suspended through Week 4, so if Sterling Shepard can’t return from a fractured thumb in time for the season opener, Big Blue would likely roll out Cody Latimer, Russell Shepard, and Bennie Fowler as its top three wideouts. Even if Shepard is able to make it back for Week 1, the Giants could still use more help at receiver.
  • Solution: Trade for Keelan Cole. The now 26-year-old Cole played well to start the 2018 campaign, but ultimately couldn’t live up to the expectations set by his 2017 season. The former undrafted free agent’s yards per reception fell from 17.8 in 2017 to just 12.9 in 2018, and he’s now listed as a third-team receiver on Jacksonville’s latest depth chart. Capable of lining up in the slot or outside, Cole could help tide the Giants over until Tate and Shepard are back.

Philadelphia Eagles

  • Weakness: Cornerback. Thanks to a smart front office headed by general manager Howie Roseman, the Eagles don’t have many weaknesses on their roster. One area of potential concern is at cornerback, where Ronald Darby may not be ready for Week 1 and Cre’Von LeBlanc could be a candidate for injured reserve after suffering a foot injury.
  • Solution: Trade for a Patriots or Saints corner. Rumblings in the past week have indicated the Patriots and/or Saints could have a spare corner to deal, and the Eagles could make for a potential trade partner. New England defensive back Jonathan Jones could make sense for Philadelphia — he’s on a one-year, restricted free agent deal, so the Eagles could evaluate him in 2019 before deciding whether to extend him through 2020 and beyond. The Patriots and Eagles already lined up for one veteran trade this offseason when New England acquired defensive lineman Michael Bennett in March.

Washington Redskins

  • Weakness: Linebacker. Zach Brown and Mason Foster were the Redskins’ primary inside linebackers last season, but both have since been released. Foster isn’t a tremendous loss, but PFF graded Brown as the third-best ‘backer in all of football in 2018. Reuben Foster, claimed off waivers last November, isn’t going to play this year after tearing his ACL, so Washington is relying on journeyman Jon Bostic and 2018 sixth-rounder Shaun Dion Hamilton to hold down the middle of its defense.
  • Solution: Wait for Wesley Woodyard to get cut by the Titans. Even at age-33, Woodyard is still a solid linebacker, but with the Titans turning to Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown, he’s not expected to be a starter in 2019. Most Tennessee roster projections still have Woodyard making the team, but the Titans might be loathe to keep a backup who accounts for more than $4MM on their salary cap. If and when he’s released, Woodyard should become a target for Washington.

Biggest Roster Weakness: AFC East

The 2019 regular season is right around the corner, but every NFL team still has at least one position on its roster that could use improvement. And there’s still plenty of time to address those areas of need! Free agents are readily available on the open market, while preseason trades provide another avenue of player procurement. 19 NFL trades were executed between August 1st and September 1st of 2018, and that number could increase this year.

Let’s take a look at the weakest positional group — and a potential solution — for each NFL club, starting with the AFC East:

Buffalo Bills

  • Weakness: No. 2 cornerback. 2018 undrafted free agent Levi Wallace was a success story during his rookie campaign, grading out as Pro Football Focus‘ fourth overall cornerback. That ranking comes with a small sample size caveat, however, as Wallace played only 218 coverage snaps, 112th among all NFL corners. Buffalo’s No. 2 cornerback job behind Tre’Davious White is reportedly Wallace’s to lose, according to Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic, but the Bills could be well-served to add depth.
  • Solution: Hope Wallace continues to produce, or sign Coty Sensabaugh. If the Bills want to bring in a veteran corner, Sensabaugh is probably the best available option on the market. In 10 starts for the Steelers in 2018, the 30-year-old defensive back ranked ninth among qualified corners in yards allowed per pass and 26th with a 56% success rate (meaning he was effective at stopping opposing wide receivers short of the sticks), per Football Outsiders’ charting data. Sensabaugh met with the Saints earlier this year but should come cheap.

Miami Dolphins

  • Weakness: Right side of the offensive line. Essentially any position along the Dolphins’ offensive line could stand to be improved, save for left tackle where former first-rounder Laremy Tunsil is entrenched. But right guard and right tackle are the true problem areas, with some combination of Jesse Davis, Jordan Mills, and Will Holden projected to take starting roles. Miami will have a tough time evaluating the long-term future of quarterback Josh Rosen if he’s getting destroyed on every play (see Cardinals, Arizona – 2018).
  • Solution: Sign Brandon Fusco or Jermey ParnellNow 30 years old, Fusco missed the final nine games of the 2018 campaign with an ankle injury, but he’d been relatively healthy in the three seasons prior and appeared in 46 of a possible 48 contests. Parnell, meanwhile, is a prototypical road-grading right tackle who would give the Dolphins a veteran presence. While the Jaguars and Parnell ran behind right tackle at a league-low 4.6% clip last season, they generated 5.22 adjusted line yards when doing so, the third-highest figure in the NFL, per Football Outsiders.

New England Patriots

  • Weakness: Tight end. Losing arguably the greatest tight end of all time will hurt, won’t it? After Rob Gronkowski decided to hang up his cleats, the Patriots have used half-measures to attempt to mitigate his loss. New England signed veterans Ben Watson and Lance Kendricks to one-year deals, but Watson is suspended for the first four games of the 2019 campaign and Kendricks has only topped 40 receptions twice in his eight-year career. Fellow free agent addition Matt LaCosse doesn’t have much of a track record and is currently hindered by a high-ankle sprain, and trade acquisition Eric Saubert is primarily a blocker and special-teamer.
  • Solution: Trade a conditional fourth-round pick for Cameron BrateNew Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians will likely use a good deal of “11” personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers — during his first season in Tampa Bay, lessening the need for Brate behind starting tight end O.J. Howard. Brate, who would instantly become the top tight end on the Patriots’ roster, is due a fully guaranteed salary of $7MM in 2019. After this season, however, New England would hold options on Brate in each of the next four years. From 2016-17, Brate averaged 53 receptions, 625 yards, and seven touchdowns per season with the Bucs.

New York Jets

  • Weakness: Edge rusher. After ranking in the bottom-half of the league in both sacks and pressure rate in 2019, the Jets attempted to bolster their pass-rushing unit by signing Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. New York originally agreed to a deal that would have paid Barr more than $14MM annually, but the former first-round pick backed out of the deal in order to remain in Minnesota. Aside from spending a third-round pick on lottery ticket Jachai Polite, the Jets haven’t done anything to address their pass rush, leaving Brandon Copeland and Jordan Jenkins as the club’s top options on the edge.
  • Solution: Trade a late-round pick for Shane Ray (Ravens) or Haason Reddick (Cardinals). Ray is in danger of not making Baltimore’s 53-man roster, so the Jets could potentially get him for next to nothing. The 23rd overall selection in the 2015 draft, Ray posted his best campaign during his sophomore season, registering eight sacks and finishing as a top-40 edge defender with 45 pressures, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy recently. Reddick is playing under his third coordinator in three years and doesn’t have any ties to Arizona’s current coaching staff.

4 Potential Landing Spots For Trent Williams

Trent Williams wants out of Washington. Fed up with both his contract and the Redskins’ handling of a tumor on his head, Williams demanded a trade or release in early June. He didn’t report to training camp last week, and there’s reportedly “no end in sight” to his holdout. On Wednesday, a report indicated the Redskins have begun having trade discussions regarding Williams.

The 31-year-old Williams is due $23.5MM in base salary over the next two seasons, but given that he wants a new deal from Washington, any club that acquires Williams will likely need to increase that figure. Williams’ $13.2MM average annual value currently ranks seventh among left tackles behind Taylor Lewan, Nate Solder, Jake Matthews, Joe Staley, Donovan Smith, and Russell Okung.

Which NFL teams are in a position to land Williams and fortify the left side of their offensive line? Here are four ideas:

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland’s offensive line had some bright spots in 2018, especially at right guard and center, where Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter each ranked among the top-four at their position in ESPN’s pass block win rate. But the Browns are now counting on former failed No. 2 overall selection Greg Robinson for a full season’s worth of play, and they’re replacing Kevin Zeitler (who was traded to the Giants) with last year’s second-round pick in Austin Corbett, who played only 14 offensive snaps in his rookie campaign.

Robinson wasn’t a total disaster in his eight starts for the Browns, but among the 106 offensive tackles who saw at least 33% playtime in 2018, Robinson ranked only 60th in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency metric, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis. Cleveland has already gone all-in on the upcoming season by acquiring Odell Beckham Jr., Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon, so why not send a draft choice to Washington in exchange for Williams and upgrade one of the few remaining weak areas on the Browns roster?

Houston Texans

Despite using two of their first three 2019 draft picks on offensive tackles, the Texans still have arguably the second-worst offensive line in the NFL (hello, Dolphins). Rookies Tytus Howard and Max Scharping can both play tackle, while free agent addition Matt Kalil and holdover Julien Davenport can also hold down the blindside with varying results.

As Aaron Reiss of The Athletic indicates, it’s unclear how Houston plans to deploy its offensive linemen. Howard and Scharping could both see time at guard, leaving left tackle to Kalil if he’s healthy. No matter the combination used by the Texans, Williams would be an upgrade at left tackle. Houston picked up second- and third-round picks from Seattle in 2017 in exchange for tackle Duane Brown, and the team could send a similar package to Washington for Williams.

New England Patriots

In his Wednesday report indicating the Redskins are discussing possible Williams trades, Jeff Howe of The Athletic relayed there’s “a feeling around the league the Patriots would be involved due to depth issues at the position.” Having allowed 2018 starter Trent Brown to walk in free agency, New England is now counting on Isaiah Wynn, one of the club’s two first-round picks from a season ago, to fill on at left tackle.

Wynn comes with an excellent pedigree, and Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia always brings out the best in his available talent. But Wynn can also play guard, so if New England acquires Williams, it would be able to slide Wynn inside and allow Williams to play left tackle. Perhaps an offer of pending free agent left guard Joe Thuney and a second-round pick would entice the Redskins.

New York Jets

If not the Patriots, how about another AFC East club? Like the Browns and Texans, the Jets are building around a quarterback still on his rookie contract. Sam Darnold won’t count for more than $10MM on New York’s salary cap in any of the next three seasons, so the team should add talent while it can. Having already surrounded Darnold with playmakers like Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder, the Jets could now work to fortify their offensive line, something they started to do earlier today by bringing former Panthers center Ryan Kalil out of retirement.

In New York, Williams would supplant Kelvin Beachum, who has consistently been solid but not spectacular throughout his career. Beachum, in turn, could either compete with Brandon Shell for playing time at right tackle or be released. It’s also possible that another team on this list would have interest in Beachum, who is owed $8MM in 2019, the final year of his contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

This Date In Transactions History: Russell Wilson’s First Extension

A Seahawks quarterback. A self-imposed deadline. A new average annual value that ranks among the NFL’s highest. No, we’re not talking about Russell Wilson‘s recent extension with Seattle. We’re looking back at the 2015 deal Wilson inked with the Seahawks, a four-year, $87.6MM pact that contained $31.7MM in full guarantees.

Just as he did before his 2019 extension, Wilson put a deadline on his 2015 negotiations with Seattle. The former third-round pick told the Seahawks that he’d close down talks if a new deal wasn’t agreed to by the start of 2015 training camp. Similar to 2019, it’s unclear how serious Wilson was about his proposed deadline, but the gambit seems to have worked on both occasions. Although a report just a day before the 2015 extension was reached indicated that no deal was close, Wilson and Seattle agreed to fresh pact on July 31, 2015.

While he didn’t quite reach his goal of becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player at the time, Wilson did come close. His annual average value of $21.9MM came up just short of Aaron Rodgers‘ $22MM/year salary. In terms of fully guaranteed money, however, Wilson didn’t approach Rodgers, trailing the Packers signal-caller’s $54M in true guarantees by nearly $22MM.

At the time of his extension, Wilson had led the Seahawks to a 36-12 regular season record and posted a Super Bowl victory. During his first three years in the NFL, Wilson put up a 98.6 quarterback rating, 6.93 adjusted net yards per attempt, and averaged 3,316 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions per 16 games. Seattle’s winning percentage has dropped in the four seasons since, but Wilson’s production has remained consistent. From 2015-18, he posted a 101.5 quarterback rating, 6.97 ANY/A, and a 3,918/31/9 line per 16 contests.

As in 2019, Wilson’s 2015 extension was followed by a new deal for linebacker Bobby Wagner. But while Wagner was retained, the Seahawks — who no longer had the benefit of Wilson on a cheap rookie contract — had to get rid of other veterans. Significant members of Seattle’s Super Bowl roster, such as Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Russell Okung, Bruce Irvin, and James Carpenter were either allowed to walk via free agency or traded.

Wilson’s current annual salary takes up 18.6% of the Seahawks’ salary cap, which could potentially affect Seattle’s ability to retain talent down the line. Clearly, when you’re lucky enough to have a quarterback like Wilson, you pay him whatever he’s worth. But as Wilson’s 2015 extension showed, there likely will be ripple effects that permeate the rest of the Seahawks’ roster.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

5 Key Stories: 7/14/19 – 7/21/19

Tyreek Hill evades suspension: The complex saga involving the embattled Chiefs wide receiver broke in his favor this week, with the NFL opting not to suspend the fourth-year standout. This news came as a surprise around the league, due to Hill’s past and his threatening of his ex-fiancee, but the Chiefs have brought him back into the fold and will expect him for training camp. While this controversial decision figures to follow the All-Pro talent, he may be in the extension conversation again. However, the Chiefs — who had begun negotiations before the latest round of off-field Hill drama began — are now planning to wait on a Hill re-up due to the fallout from this months-long drama.

Falcons fortify defense long-term: The Falcons’ final pre-camp week included significant box-checking on their offseason to-do list. Both Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones agreed to extensions, the former at the franchise tag deadline. Jarrett is now the NFL’s third-highest-paid interior defender, while Jones’ deal partially bridged the sizable gap between C.J. Mosley‘s contract and the off-ball linebacker field. As for Julio Jones, the All-Pro wideout has reported to Falcons camp. But no deal appears imminent.

Robbie Gould cashes in; Jadeveon Clowney still waiting: The 49ers will have their kicker back, with the sides ending their impasse hours before the 2019 franchise tag deadline. Gould, who requested a trade earlier this offseason, wanted two years fully guaranteed to stay with the 49ers. He got it and will enter a third season as San Francisco’s kicker. Clowney is now going into his sixth Texans season, and the three-time Pro Bowl defender will do so without a long-term contract. With a reported disagreement between the team’s previous power structure on Clowney, the Texans did not offer the former No. 1 overall pick a deal in line with the ones franchise-tagged defensive ends Frank Clark and DeMarcus Lawrence signed this year. The NFLPA is also planning a grievance to have Clowney tagged as a defensive end, where he can collect $1.7MM more than the linebacker tag.

Eagles bring back a fan favorite: Darren Sproles looks set to play a 15th season. Twice flirting with retirement before injury-marred campaigns, the 36-year-old running back signed a one-year deal to return to the Eagles. Sproles joins a new-look Philadelphia backfield, with Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard set to occupy key roles this season and replace some of Sproles’ recent teammates. But this agreement should allow Sproles to climb higher on the NFL’s all-purpose yards list, where he currently sits sixth.

Zeke rethinking his training camp plans? Ezekiel Elliott reported to Cowboys OTAs and minicamp, but he is now a holdout risk. The two-time rushing champion is now considering staying away from Cowboys camp and may well be out of the country when his teammates report to Oxnard, Calif., next week. The Cowboys have been murky about the subject of an Elliott extension. Although the team has significant leverage due to the August 6 reporting date tied to Elliott’s service-time clock as it relates to free agency, Dallas’ offensive centerpiece may be ready to test the franchise’s resolve.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

PFR Originals: 7/14/19 – 7/21/19

The original content and analysis produced by the PFR staff during the past week:

  • PFR’s “This Date in Transactions History” series produced three new entries, from three decades:
    • This week three years ago, Arian Foster caught on with the Dolphins. Zach Links detailed how that union came to be and what transpired for the former Pro Bowl running back in Miami. Foster ended up playing four games as a Dolphin in 2016.
    • All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli announced an early retirement this week 16 years ago. The first pick in Jaguars franchise history, Boselli anchored the offensive lines of four playoff teams and was instrumental in the Jags of the late 1990s advancing to two AFC title games. Zach discussed Boselli’s decision to retire at 31, doing so a year after the Jags made him available to the Texans in their 2002 expansion draft.
    • Going back to the 20th century, I discussed Herman Moore‘s Lions run — which included a July 1999 extension — and the fallout from the receiver’s contract extension not working out. In the six drafts following Moore’s retirement, the Lions selected four receivers in the top 10. Only one of them, Calvin Johnson, worked out.
  • The Ravens have received attention for losing longtime defensive stalwarts and adding Earl Thomas, but they also have built a deep cornerback stable. Dallas Robinson discussed the Ravens’ $36MM-plus investment at this position, a league-high, and what it means for the franchise.
  • Jay Ajayi‘s ACL tear impacted his market considerably, with the four-year veteran and Super Bowl starter still unsigned in late July. Dallas examined the market, in an attempt to find a team for the former Dolphins and Eagles starter. Three returning AFC playoff teams — the Chargers, Colts and Texans — could be possible fits.
  • The defending NFC champion Rams will have some new starters this season. Two of those will be on the offensive line, which lost Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan. Dallas looked at this unit, one heavily responsible for Todd Gurley‘s recent dominance, and wondered if it is now a concern for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
  • Despite Brandon Williams re-signing to stay in Baltimore just two offseasons ago, is the mammoth defensive lineman in danger of seeing his roster spot go to someone else? In PFR’s latest “Release Candidate” installment, each delved into whether or not the former Division II All-American could be moved after six seasons in Baltimore.

This Date In Transactions History: Herman Moore

Two of the best players in Lions history made major decisions in July 1999. The centerpieces on some explosive Lions offenses in the ’90s, Barry Sanders and Herman Moore headed in opposite directions 20 years ago this month.

A first-team All-Pro from 1994-96, Moore reached an extension agreement with the Lions on July 20, 1999, re-signing to stay in Detroit on a seven-year deal worth $33MM. That contract, which occurred when the league’s salary cap stood at $57.3MM, came with an $8.5MM signing bonus. Moore and Sanders were teammates for nine seasons in the Motor City, but that partnership came to an end eight days later when the Hall of Fame running back retired.

Moore was 29 at the time of this extension and had been one of the NFL’s best wide receivers for several years. The No. 10 overall pick in 1990, Moore used his 6-foot-4 frame well and authored a dominant stretch of football in the mid-’90s. In addition to setting the NFL reception record (123) in 1995 and reeling off four straight Pro Bowl seasons from 1994-97, Moore reached the 600-reception plateau faster than any receiver in NFL history. Moore accomplished that feat in his 118th game, in 1998, a season in which he finished with 983 receiving yards.

The extension, however, did not work out for the Lions. After Moore had played in at least 15 games each regular season from 1993-98, he battled injuries after signing this deal. A knee injury limited Moore to eight games in 1999, and he encountered shoulder trouble in 2000. After playing in 15 games for the 2000 Lions, who saw only Johnnie Morton eclipse 500 receiving yards, Moore suffered a torn abdominal muscle three games into the ’01 season — his last with the Lions. After a one-game Giants cameo, Moore retired in 2002.

The Lions spent the next several years struggling to find a Moore successor. Detroit used top-10 picks in 2003, ’04 and ’05 on wideouts — Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. None made it into the 2010s with the franchise, with Rogers and Mike Williams flaming out quickly as Lions. Detroit finally hit on a Round 1 wideout in 2007, Calvin Johnson, who ended up breaking Moore’s franchise receiving records.

While he only totaled 707 receiving yards in the three seasons after signing this extension, Moore remains in second in Lions history in receptions (670), yards (9,174) and receiving touchdowns (62).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Deep Purple: The Ravens’ Cornerback Depth

What do we know about the NFL in 2019? We know that running backs don’t matter. We know that passing offense does matter. And if passing offense matters, then stopping the pass must matter, too.

Pro Football Focus recently ran a study focusing on the importance of pass coverage versus pass rush. While PFF stopped short of definitively saying that coverage is more critical than applying pressure, the data seems to lean in that direction. Here’s what PFF data scientists Eric Eager and George Chahrouri found:

During the PFF era, teams with elite coverage (67th percentile or better) and a poor pass rush (33rd percentile or worse) win, on average, about a game and a half more than teams with the reverse construction.

The team that’s invested the most cap dollars in its cornerbacks for the 2019 campaign? The Baltimore Ravens, who are spending a league-high $36.509MM on CBs for the upcoming season. Let’s take a look at their projected depth chart:

  • Marlon Humphrey ($3.341MM cap figure): Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2018, Humphrey’s snap percentage increased from 55% during his rookie year to 80% last season. He ranked second in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ success rate, a measure of how often ac corner stops opponent’s “successful” plays based on down, distance, and situation.
  • Brandon Carr ($7MM): Now 33 years old, Carr has remarkably never missed a game in his 11-year NFL career. Doug Farrar of USA Today’s Touchdown Wire recently ranked Carr as the NFL’s fourth-best outside corner, noting his ability to “diagnose routes as well as anyone in the business.”
  • Jimmy Smith ($15.85MM): Smith has posted an up-and-down career with the Ravens, and 2018 was not his finest season in Baltimore. He was suspended for the first four games of the year after violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, and wasn’t all that effective when he returned. Still, the Ravens kept him around despite his team-leading cap charge.
  • Tavon Young ($3.651MM): Among corners who spent at least 20% of their time in the slot last year, Young ranked seventh in PFF’s coverage snaps per reception. He set the market for slot corners with an $8.6MM annual value on his February extension, a figure that new Lions CB Justin Coleman topped the following month.
  • Anthony Averett ($735K): A fourth-round pick out of Alabama in 2018, Averett missed several games with injury and only played 71 defensive snaps. For now, he’ll make his mark on special teams, where he saw action on 147 snaps last year.
  • Iman Marshall ($664K): Like Averett, Marshall is a fourth-rounder, albeit in the 2019 draft. He’ll work on special teams unless an injury strikes.

The Ravens have other corners such as Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Justin Bethel, and Maurice Canady who might be able to find spots on other clubs, but if Baltimore only keeps six cornerbacks, none of that group will likely be on the roster. Cyrus Jones, meanwhile, is essentially a cornerback-in-name-only, and could still make the Ravens’ roster as a return man.

Having four corners — Humphrey, Carr, Smith, and Young — who are all more than serviceable starters is something of a luxury. But the Ravens are more equipped than most teams to handle the logjam. Baltimore deployed at least four cornerbacks (dime defense) on 26% of its plays in 2018, according to Bryan Knowles of Football Outsiders. That figure ranked sixth in the NFL and was roughly double the league average dime rate.

Could the Ravens end up trading one of their corners? It seems unlikely, despite Baltimore’s long-standing inclination to acquire future assets. Humphrey isn’t going anywhere, and the same can probably be said for Carr. Smith is likely untradeable due to his contract, and Young won’t be on the move after inking an extension earlier this year.

Instead, it’ll be up to defensive coordinator Don Martindale to determine how to most effectively use his bevy of corners. The Ravens ranked third in pass defense DVOA in 2018, and while regression could certainly hit, it will be a surprise if Baltimore isn’t among the top pass defenses once again in 2019.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Let’s Find A New Team For Jay Ajayi

Jay Ajayi is one of the more high-profile names still left on the free agent market, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s yet to find a new contract after hitting free agency in March. The former Eagle and Dolphin has never ranked favorably in running back efficiency metrics, and his injury history is concerning. After tearing his right ACL while at Boise State, Ajayi dealt with hamstring, rib, shoulder, head, and shoulder issues in the NFL before suffering another torn ACL — this time, on his left knee — in 2018.

However, there are still some reasons to be optimistic about Ajayi’s future. As recently as 2016, Ajayi finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, which measures value over a replacement level player. The following year, he ranked 10th in broken tackle/per touch percentage, a statistic that, as Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight.com tweets, is mostly under the back’s control and thus a reliable metric for evaluating the position.

As training camp approaches, let’s take a look at a few teams that could still use a back like Ajayi:

Houston Texans

Houston finally made investments in its offensive line over the offseason, adding free agent Matt Kalil on a one-year pact and using two of its first three draft picks on offensive tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. How much Kalil (who hasn’t played well or been able to stay healthy in recent years) or small-school projects Howard and Scharping will actually help in 2019 is unclear, but the Texans needed to do something to improve its rushing attack, which ranked just 26th in DVOA a season ago.

The next step might be adding a complement to running back Lamar Miller, whose share of Houston’s carry total has decreased in each of his three seasons with the club. The Texans don’t have many serviceable options behind Miller, as the leading candidate for No. 2 duties is D’Onta Foreman, who handled only seven carries in 2019 after recovering from a torn Achilles. Ajayi could give Houston another dimension on offense while protecting the team against a Miller injury.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are the only team to have actually hosted Ajayi thus far, doing so when free agency originally opened back in March. However, reports quickly followed indicating no deal was imminent between Indianapolis and Ajayi, and the Colts clearly haven’t had the urge to sign him since. Indy already has a solid rushing infrastructure, boasting one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and three competent backs in Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, and Nyheim Hines. Indianapolis doesn’t need Ajayi, but he’d be interesting on a cheap deal.

Los Angeles Chargers

We don’t know how Melvin Gordon‘s holdout is going to end. Will he and the Chargers agree to a deal? If not, will he sit out the entire season like Le’Veon Bell did in 2018? These are currently unanswerable questions, but if Gordon does miss game action as threatened, Los Angeles could potentially need another running back.

Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson both proved to be efficient when filling in for Gordon when the latter suffered a sprained MCL last season, and Ekeler, especially, has been extremely proficient in the passing game when called upon. In the event of a Gordon absence, the Chargers could probably get by with a duo of Ekeler and Jackson, but Ajayi would give Los Angeles another option capable of handling carries.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers finished 24th in rushing DVOA and 28th in expected points gained by their rushing attack in 2018, but did next to nothing to address their backfield during the offseason. Sure, Tampa Bay added Bruce Arians favorite Andre Ellington and undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson to its roster, but the lack of meaningful reinforcements means the club will once again be relying on veteran Peyton Barber and 2018 second-round pick Ronald Jones as its primary ball-carriers.

Jones handled only 23 attempts during his rookie campaign, but the USC product is expected to be a larger part of the Bucs’ offense this season. He’s generated some buzz by gaining 13 pounds over the offseason, but adding weight has historically not been a recipe for success for running backs.

Jones’ lack of production in his first NFL season was relatively unprecedented, especially for a second-round pick. Here are the all first- or second-round round running backs since 2010 that handled fewer than 100 carries during their respective rookie years, via Pro-Football-Reference.com:

It’s not a great group! Some backs like Shane Vereen and Carlos Hyde, eventually found success, but the track of record of RBs who did next to nothing in their rookie seasons is certainly unspectacular. Barber, meanwhile, has never produced an above-average campaign, so Ajayi could be a welcome addition to Tampa Bay’s running back depth chart.