What went right this year

I know all the debate right now is focused on what the team will do at qb, but I thought it might also be a good time to look at some individual players to see who exceeded expectations, as it will help determine how the team should approach the off season.

We will start with the defense, as there is more speculation on that side of the ball than the offense (with the obvious exception of qb.)

And the player we will start with is Marcus Epps, someone who, in my opinion, should have been starting from day 1.

Epps saw his snap counts increase from 38 percent in 2020 to 48 percent in 2021, and with it came an uptick in production. His number of combined tackles increased from 47 to 62, and his coverage numbers got better as his average yards per attempt dropped from 11 to 10. More importantly, his biggest weakness last year was missed tackles, and this year he showed significant improvement, going from 9.6 percent of 6.1 percent.

PFF loves Epps, giving him a grade above 70 the last two seasons, and he is a player I would look to extend this offseason. At worst he's one of the best third safeties in football, and I think he should have started this year. As a comparison, Anthony Harris logged almost twice as many snaps and only generated 10 more tackles.

Milton Williams was another bright spot. In the Bucs game, he showed up with four combined tackles and a tackle for a loss, and also added three combined tackles, two tackles for a loss and a qb hit in the Dallas game.

His growth as a player was easy to see. In the first seven weeks of the season, he was a non-factor. He had just 10 tackles and no TFLs or QB hits. But starting in week 8, he emerged from his shell. Over the last 11 games, he registered 25 tackles, 7 TFLs and 7 QB hits, as well as his two sacks on the season.

He is my choice as a breakout player next season.

Avonte Maddox was finally put in a place on the defense where he belonged, and the results were noticeable. According to PFF, he went from a sub 40 grade in 2020 to one over 70 this season. He gave up 5.6 yards per target, which meant throwing at him was barely better than running the ball for opposing offenses. He was also one of the leading corners in the league with 73 combined tackles, including 5 tackles for a loss. As a comparison, Patrick Robinson registered 47 total tackles and three tackles for a loss in 2017, which was considered to be the best we had seen a slot corner play for us in years.

Finally on defense, TJ Edwards needs to be mentioned. He put together a season that was quietly solid. His missed tackle percentage went from 9.1 percent in 2020 to 6.5 percent this season. But it was in coverage where he saw his greatest improvement. His yards per target dropped from 7.6 to 6.8, which still isn't great, but which is pretty good for a guy on his salary.

So that's four players on defense I thought exceeded expectations this year.

On offense, Jalen Hurts did better than I expected, but that is obviously a whole different discussion.

Outside of qb, I thought the oline as a whole was better than expected. Consider this, at the start of the season, our backup oline was Dillard, Dickerson, Herbig, Opeta and Driscoll. I can think of 10 teams that didn't have a better starting oline this year than our backups.

Quez Watkins obviously had a nice sophomore season, seeing his yards per target increase from 8.2 to 10.4 and his catch percentage go from 53.8 to 69.4. Dallas Goedert put together a nice season despite his drops, and DeVonta Smith provided highlight catches that we haven't seen from one of our receivers in a long time.

So even though a lot went wrong at the end of the year, and we were exposed somewhat by a good team, there was a lot that went right for us. I definitely see us as a franchise on the rise, but we obviously need a great draft and free agent class to close the gap between us and the top teams in the league.