Daily Focus: Dont'a Hightower or Darius Slay next in line for payday?
Editor’s note: Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
So who’s next in line for a big payday? Harrison Smith and Ryan Kalil aren’t the only two elite players likely to receive new deals between now and training camp. Colts QB Andrew Luck, Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower, and Lions CB Darius Slay are all entering the final year of their rookie deals, and like Smith, are likely to set the market at their respective positions.
While Luck is certainly one of the most talented players in the league at any position and has had stretches of brilliance at different points of his young career, he is hoping to rebound off a 2015 season that saw him post the second-lowest PFF QB rating in the league (only ahead of Peyton Manning) and miss nine games due to a multitude of injuries.
Slay finished second in our CB grading last season, as only Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, who played the majority of his snaps in the slot, graded better. In 2015, the Lion yielded just 47 catches on 73 targets against, with two interceptions and 10 passes defended.
Hightower has steadily improved his all-around game over the course of his four-year career, in particular on his pass rushes. On 325 pass-rush snaps over the past two seasons, he has amassed 68 total pressures, and finished third in pass-rushing productivity among all 4-3 OLBs in 2015. He’s also been very productive in coverage, as over New England’s last seven games of 2015 (including two playoff games), Hightower gave up just four catches for 36 yards (no touchdowns).
Big new deals for two big-time players: The biggest stories on Monday were the extensions signed by two of the NFL’s best at their respective positions. The Vikings gave Harrison Smith, PFF’s top-graded safety from 2015, a five-year extension worth a reported $15.2 million guaranteed, while the Panthers locked up center Ryan Kalil through 2018 with a two-year extension worth $13 million guaranteed.
Smith has been one of the most complete safeties in the league over the past two seasons, and was our highest-graded safety last season, despite missing parts of four games with a knee injury and playing significantly less snaps than the other top safeties.
While Kalil struggled in the Panthers’ three playoff games (-8.3 cumulative overall grade in the postseason), during the regular season he was back to the steady, dependable play he showed throughout his career before a down 2014 campaign. He received our third-highest run-blocking grade at his position in 2015, and has finished lower than 12th in our overall center rankings just once since 2009 (due to injury, he only played 292 snaps in 2012).
Outlook of Seahawks’ backfield: Ex-Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch publicly confirmed his decision to retire from football in an interview with “60 Minutes,” leaving Seattle with a massive hole in its backfield. The starting job will presumably default to Thomas Rawls, who filled in admirably in 2015 when Lynch was out with injury (830 yards rushing on 147 attempts), but looking at the current offensive roster, he is unlikely to carry the load as much as many are presuming he will.
With Rawls still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered in Week 14 of last season, the Seahawks are expected to ease him back into the lineup. This means the bulk of the offseason RB work will go to Christine Michael and the four rookies on the roster: C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins, Zac Brooks, and Tre Madden.
The fact that Seattle spent three draft picks on the position should be a red flag in terms of how it views the team’s current group of backs. Considering Michael has struggled to make the Seahawks’ roster in the past, this may be more of a reflection on the team’s lack of conviction in him, but a back like Prosise, who is clearly more athletically gifted than Rawls, is sure to challenge for significant playing time.
Even if Rawls does take the majority of the carries in 2016, there’s no guarantee he’ll be as productive as last season. Rawls forced 26 missed tackles last year in just 147 carries, and finished 10th in our elusive rating. This was critical to his success, considering the Seahawks’ offensive line graded fourth-worst in the league on run blocks, but looking at the current state of the unit, it’s difficult to envision him maintaining his pace from last season. Four of the five projected starters graded below replacement level, and the fifth, rookie first-round pick Germain Ifedi, is not a player we were high on leading up to the draft.