Daily Focus: Can Dalton build on successful 2015 season?
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
Can Andy Dalton build off his No. 7 graded 2015 season?
The 2015 NFL season saw the end of the infamous Dalton Coaster. No longer did Andy Dalton follow up a small stretch of good play to proceed it into really bad play only to rebound again a few games later. He was consistent and easily had the best season of his career. Had Dalton not broken his thumb in Week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengal’s playoff-win drought would have likely ended.
This offseason had a bit of turnover as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is now the head coach for division rival Cleveland Browns and his No. 2 and 3 WRs Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu left in free agency for big contracts. Dalton also lost his starting RT Andre Smith in free agency, but the Bengals prepared for that in the 2015 draft by selecting two OTs in the first two rounds – Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi is projected to fill that void and will be an upgrade as Smith graded as one of the worst tackles in 2015 with a 39.6 player grade. To replace the departed WRs, the Bengals signed Brandon LaFell in free agency and drafted Tyler Boyd out of Pittsburgh.
Boyd will provide the same versatility that Sanu brought to the offense as the former Pitt Panther was a do-everything player taking snaps from the wildcat, rushed 37 times in 2015 to go with 94 receptions, and even threw three passes. They manufactured plays to get him the ball and he was a playmaker for the team grading as the seventh best overall WR in the 2016 draft class.
So will Andy Dalton be able to continue his 2015 success with several new pieces and a new offensive coordinator? Absolutely. He has one of the best WRs in the NFL in A.J. Green and one of the best TEs in Tyler Eifert. Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill provide a top-five running back duo, and outside of C Russell Bodine, boast one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Boyd will provide an upgrade to Mohammad Sanu as he was grossly overpaid in Atlanta with a 53.5 player grade. Brandon LaFell is a definite downgrade from Marvin Jones – 79.0 to 47.0 player grade drop (38th best to 119th).
There were several reasons Dalton succeeded in 2015 like he hadn’t in the past but it can be boiled down to one main reason — poise under pressure.
His offensive line helps but when he was under pressure, Dalton excelled under pressure with a 92.9 passer rating and not a single interception — compare that to 2014 where he threw eight interceptions to go along with a 57.4 passer rating. Dalton needs to build upon that progress and with a top OL unit protecting him and assurances such as Green, Eifert, and Bernard, 2016 should be another top-10 season for the sixth-year signal-caller.
What can rookie Jakeem Grant provide as a returner for the Dolphins?
Reports out of Miami’s offseason practices are that Grant — the sixth-round rookie out of Texas Tech — is favorited to be both the primary punt and kick returner in 2016. Grant didn’t return punts in college but graded as the second-best kick returner in the 2016 draft class. This would be a good move to get Grant more touches as his role on offense will most likely be limited with Jarvis Landry locking down the slot position.
With sub-4.4 40 speed and stop-on-a-dime quickness and agility, Grant led all college WRs in forced missed tackles with 33 and was second in yards after catch per reception among WRs with at least 60 receptions. Grant is electric in the open field and the extra space that punts provide would be deadly for him. While he lacks the experience fielding punts, his transition should be smooth if he can catch the punts. His hands were suspect in college with 21 drops the past two seasons, but his upside with the ball in his hands is undeniable.
Can Taylor Decker protect Matthew Stafford’s blindside?
Rookie OT Taylor Decker has been taking all the Detriot Lions team’s snaps at LT in offseason practices that have been open to the media. This means Riley Reiff’s time as the starting LT is most likely over and will transition to RT and compete with Michael Ola to win that job. Reiff will be in his fifth and final season of his rookie contract and is one of the better run-blocking tackles in the NFL – 85.1 run blocking grade for 11th in the NFL. Reiff has struggled in pass protection throughout his career allowing 16 sacks the past three seasons and never grading positively. Ola has just two seasons under his belt but has shown to be a better pass protector than Reiff allowing just five sacks and six hits total the past two seasons. Save for a disastrous game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 10, Ola graded slightly positive in run blocking and showed really solid progress from Week 12 onwards, grading positively in every game.
The Lions drafted Decker in the first round of the 2016 draft to bring stability to arguably one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL — colleague Khaled Elsayed ranked them 24th in 2015. While the interior of the offensive line is in question, it’s clear the Lions prefer Decker to be their starter at LT. The former Ohio State Buckeye was a key component in their 2014 title run grading as the seventh best Power-5 OT. He regressed in 2015 to 19th-best — mainly due to a worse run-blocking grade — and graded slightly above average in pass protection in both years. Decker will need to immediately improve his pass protection technique to hold his own at the NFL level, but his run blocking ability will allow him to pave lanes for the Lions rushing attack.