PFF Mailbag with Senior Analyst Mike Renner

Senior Analyst Mike Renner answers your Twitter questions heading into NFL Week 2.

| 9 months ago
Fantasy Draft AP

(Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

PFF Mailbag with Senior Analyst Mike Renner

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books, which means we already know everything we need to about every single team in the league…right? Why they’re still playing the games, I have no idea. Just put the Pats and the 49ers in the Super Bowl and give me a few months off.

This is PFF’s first ever mailbag, though, and you’ve earned a special place in history just by reading it. We get criticism from time to time for being less than forthcoming with our grading system that, in some instances, doesn’t appear to match up with raw statistics. Hopefully I can change that perception somewhat through this weekly mailbag, as I’ll try to pull back the curtain as far as I can (without getting fired in the process). Now, to some weekly awards before we get to your questions.

Disclaimer: This is not a fantasy mailbag whatsoever. I do not want to insult the intelligence of Jeff Ratcliffe’s amazing team by trying to act like a fantasy expert when I am most certainly not one

Busted Coverage of the Week

After quarterback, cornerback is probably the single position where I’d least want to rely on a rookie to start right away. Mental errors are as costly here as any position on the defense, as they result in touchdowns instead first downs. That’s why I was genuinely surprised that the Cardinals were willing to roll with rookie third-rounder Brandon Williams as their starter opposite Patrick Peterson. Not only is he a rookie, but he also had only one year of experience in college playing cornerback, as he spent most of his time at running back for Texas A&M. Well, Arizona paid the price against the Patriots when Williams zoned off underneath Chris Hogan on a go route; everyone else’s actions on the defense suggested Williams should have had deep-thirds responsibility. Rookie mistake.

Chris Hogan reception

Block of the Week

There were flashier pancakes this week, but Trenton Brown’s utter domination of Dominque Easley gets the nod. On the goal line, the defensive line is firing upfield, and as you can see, almost every other offensive lineman is retreating backwards. Not Brown, though; he takes Easley 2 yards into the end zone man-on-man in an awesome display of strength.


Your questions

The first question is very interesting and timely, as we graded Clay Matthews as one of worst edge defenders in Week 1, even though he had a sack. The fact is that, since the start of 2015, Matthews has one lone sack that was the result of beating a block (against the Jaguars, when the QB fled backwards out of the pocket). Now, he played inside linebacker on the majority of his snaps last year, but Matthews still managed to line up 333 times on the edge, with almost all of those coming in obvious passing situations. That is a tad worrisome. I’ll hold off on judgement until he gets a few games under his belt at his old position, but I think it’s safe to say he’s nowhere near the gold standard for edge rushers—Von Miller and Khalil Mack—at the moment.

The Packers’ biggest need is the same as it’s been for the last few years: a playmaking linebacker. Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez already look more competent a duo than any we’ve seen in recent Packers history, however that’s not saying much. It can’t be overstated how impactful Desmond Bishop was during the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010. He was their last linebacker that could truly make an impact via the blitz, in coverage, or in run defense. Add him to this Packers’ defense, and it’s close to on par with the 2010 version.

I’m definitely a proponent of the philosophy that if you’re going to have a disappointing season, have an absolute disaster (the Colts in 2011, for example). Picking in the high teens is purgatory, and an 8-8 season is about the worst thing that could happen to Buffalo this year. Unfortunately, they’re on a crash course to end up right around there. The defense isn’t nearly as bad at it looked against the Jets; Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore both graded inside the top-20 CBs for us in 2015, and had career-low games at the exact same time. They’ll rebound, but there are far too many holes on both sides of the ball to realistically overcome the poor situation they’ve already put themselves in.

This question intersects two of my favorite Twitter-war topics: “Is he elite or not?” and “Which cornerbacks have the hardest assignments (man or zone/follows or doesn’t follow)?” So, here is the list of CBs I would consider elite at the moment:

  • Richard Sherman
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Josh Norman
  • Chris Harris Jr.
  • Vontae Davis

That’s it. After that there is a second tier of guys who are close:

  • Tyrann Mathieu
  • Desmond Trufant
  • Johnathan Joseph
  • Jason Verrett

Butler, to me, would then fall in the third tier of guys. He has amazing ball skills, and that’s what you want for a man corner, though he was still far too boom-or-bust a year ago for me to put him in the top two tiers. He was fourth in the NFL with 14 pass breakups, but he also gave up the fourth-most yards, with 908, and the fifth-most touchdowns, with seven. If he can cut down on those big plays in 2016, he’ll join the elite conversation.

I haven’t been shy about my love for everybody’s dark horse this season, the Oakland Raiders. The offensive line injuries obviously complicate things, but the only player expected to miss significant time as a result, Menelik Watson, was also the lowest-graded of their starting five heading into this season. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if they’re 5-0 heading into their Week 6 divisional matchup with the Chiefs.

The answer here is really the same as it was a year ago: wide receiver and cornerback. Unfortunately, those are arguably the two most important position groups after quarterback in the modern NFL. Jordan Matthews put up great numbers against Cleveland, but he still had two drops and well, it was against the Browns. Having a No. 1 receiver play primarily in the slot is rare in the NFL, as the Eagles are still without a true top wideout. At cornerback, Nolan Carroll is far more a starter by circumstance rather than anything he’s done in the past, and on Sunday he gave up 114 yards to Browns receivers. Much like Philadelphia’s receivers, there is some talent at corner, but in no way do they have a true No. 1 that you’d feel comfortable matching up with an elite wideout.

Adrian Peterson might not have the same juice as he once did, but defenses haven’t started treating him any differently. Here are the number of defenders in the box AP saw on his 19 carries in Week 1:

  • Six in box: 1 carries
  • Seven in box: 3 carries
  • Eight in box: 7 carries
  • Nine in box: 8 carries

An eight-man box is considered “overloaded,” while a nine-man front is ridiculous to run against. Yet they kept pounding him. The offensive line, while not great, is far from a liability in the run game, it’s the fact that no one respects the passing game that’s killing Peterson’s numbers. An offensive line simply can’t account for every defender in an overloaded box, and perfectly-blocked plays can go for minimal gains because of that. The main thing that can help out the Vikings running game? Sam Bradford exposing defenses down the field and forcing them to adjust their game plans. Until that happens, though, expect the Vikings’ ground game to be running at a consistent disadvantage.

Even if the results were better than expected against the Rams, Gabbert is who he’s always been, and that’s a quarterback who’s not accurate enough to legitimately lead a high-level NFL offense. He was errant on a screen early in the game, and then on a fourth-and-one in the second quarter, he forced his receiver to go to the ground to make the catch on yet another screen, turning the ball over on downs. He looked comfortable running the offense, but that kind of inaccuracy is unsustainable.

As far as the two former Oregon defensive linemen go, the early results are are encouraging. They each had four total pressures against the Rams in 55 combined pass-rushing snaps. That was good enough for the top two passing-rushing grades from Week 1 for 3-4 defensive ends, with Armstead edging out Buckner. If there is any minor reason to be concerned, it’s that Armstead still isn’t trusted to play running downs. I wouldn’t be too worried, though, as he has the entire skill-set to be an effective run defender in the future.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • Jacob M. Lundeen

    AA and DeFoe (The Twin Towers) are very exciting for 49ers fans. I agree that it is a little worrisome that AA is still struggling in run defense, would like to see more growth from him in that area. But those two are going to wreck havoc on the NFL in terms of rushing the passer for a long time.

  • GBPFan12

    Clay hasn’t looked like his old aggressive self ever since he broke his thumb twice in one season (2013). He was mediocre the first half of 2014 aside from the Carolina game, then they moved him to ILB and let him create chaos with blitzes up the middle.

    Hopefully he gets back on track.

  • crosseyedlemon

    If Neil or Chris end your employment, criticism of the grading system will be the least of their worries. Your articles are among the best on the site Mike. I don’t have any Twitter questions but I was curious why no power rankings article appeared after week one.

    • Mike Renner

      Thank you so much! Have always appreciated your comments as well.

      Truthfully, I have no idea why no power rankings. I’ll have to ask edit team. I’m sure its something we’ll do again in near future.

  • Malachi

    i’d argue wide receiver is the least important position group in the modern nfl, the 2015 broncos had the best receivers of any recent super bowl winner and even they weren’t dominant on the outside in their playoff run, granted the QB play was mediocre at best.

    the rules make it much easier to get open and stay open than ever before.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Looking beyond the Broncos at the larger picture I may have to disagree with you. The importance of any position is determined by the principles of supply and demand. The list of WRs available during the last free agency market offered almost nothing worth pursuing. That is because teams are locking up anything resembling a skilled receiver long term. Old dinosaurs like Antonio Gates and Steve Smith remain employed and that probably wouldn’t be the case if the WR position was deep with talented younger guys.

      • crosseyedlemon

        I know someone is sure to mention that Gates is not a WR but for all intensive purposes he is utilized as a receiving weapon….which only strengthens the argument that teams are desperately looking for pass receivers from any source available.

      • Malachi

        look at the recent super bowl team WRs (even excluding denver for this comment’s sake); each teams’ number one: 2014 – julian edelman, 2013 golden tate, 2012 anquan boldin, 2011 victor cruz (maybe the outlier here, but a slot nonetheless), 2010 greg jennings, 2009 marques colston, etc. etc. not exactly first ballad HOFs, and even the big names from “fantasy” had down years by their career standards. the list could go on and on too. running backs and defense win championships, even the godly QBs aren’t as almighty as those positions are, ask 2007 brady or 2013 manning

        • Malachi

          not to even mention WR is now the EASIEST position to evaluate and draft today thanks to spread offenses and passing camps kids attend from middle school on

        • crosseyedlemon

          It seems every position goes through a cyclical trend to counter changes occurring on the opposite side of the line. In the past couple of years “edge rushers” have gained enormous popularity and before that there was a run on defensive backs. I’m sure over the next couple of years we will see positional tweaks at the offensive positions in response and the cycle will resume yet again.

          • Malachi

            agreed. looks like big tight ends and maybe even fullbacks could come in vogue to counter the light, speedy LBs and box safeties defenses use in sub so often now

  • enai D

    The Vikings offensive line absolutely had a lot to do with AP’s week 1 line. Apparently Renner isn’t one of those PFF employees who actually watches game tape. Seriously, go watch the game and count how many complete whiffs by Boone or Berger alone that resulted in a tackle for a loss or no gain. The stacked defensive fronts certainly didn’t help, but they’ve been the norm throughout AP’s entire career.

    • Mike Renner

      OL was a big issue Week 1, I wasn’t dismissing that. The talent they have though suggests that won’t be case moving forward which was the question. The 9 man boxes though could still be issue in future so that’s what I found relevant.

      • enai D

        Fair enough, and as I said those stacked defensive fronts certainly don’t help matters… But given that overloaded fronts have been the overwhelming norm throughout AP’s entire career, I tend to suspect that the miserable showing by the OL and poor decision-making by AP (maybe he should have been getting some run in the preseason after all) are as much to blame for his week 1 line as anything the Titans were doing.

        (and sorry if my comment came off a little harsh, thanks for the reply in any case)