2013 NFL Preview

Howdy Y’all! I hope this year’s installment of my football preview finds you in good health and spirits. Before I begin with the preview I’d just like to explain a few of the terms I’ll be using throughout the preview:

Expected Wins: These are the implied wins set by the trading markets. If a team were given an over-under of eight wins such that a wager of 100 would return 220 total on the over (+120), and a wager of 140 would return 240 on the under (-140) the team would have an expected value of approximately 7.7 wins. A basic rule of thumb is that each basis point is worth 1/120th of a win, so a team with a line of over 6.5 -170, under 6.5 +150 would be expected to win 7 games. Please note, I do not wish to condone gambling. I include these win totals because they are the de facto median expectation for the teams.

Scouting Wins: This is a formula based upon positional values. The offense gets four values: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers + tight ends, and offensive line. Quarterbacks are by far the most important offensive position, then offensive line is more important than running backs or the wide receiving corps. The defense has three values: defensive line, linebacker corps, and the secondary, with the defensive line being the most important and the secondary being the least important. For the record, the difference in importance of the defensive line vs. the secondary is pretty small. Last and least are the special teams rankings. The reason special teams are valued so low is because their performances are so fluid and unpredictable. A team can have a top-5 special teams value one year, and a bottom-5 special teams value the next without having made many changes. Once those 8 values are given their appropriate weight I produce a team value. I then create a value for the difficulty of that team’s schedule and solve for the expected wins against that strength of schedule. For the record, the 4-3 offense to defense ratio is backed up by Chase Stuart of Smart Football, and in fact it might be too low. This will be discussed more thoroughly in the Houston chapter.

DVOA Wins: These are taken directly from Football Outsiders 2013 Almanac (a book that I highly recommend if you have a strong interest in football). Their formula, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average – or DVOA – is fairly complicated and is based on the success rates of each play of the game. It creates values for offense, defense, and special teams. The formula looks for anomalies like over-performance on third down that is unlikely to be repeated. When a team has been “clutch” one season, Football Outsiders generally expects a regression. Football Outsiders has been very good at predicting teams that are due for a rise or a fall, although to be fair they also had the 49ers winning 7.2 games last season. I highly recommend that you check out their website (www.footballoutsiders.com) if you wish to learn more about their methodology.

DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This judges how well a player performed given the context of the play call, the situation, and the defense faced. However, if your teammates are of poor quality, your DVOA will be affected.

DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. It is an advanced counting stat. Please note that while DVOA is compared to the average performance of of similar plays, DYAR is compared to a much lower baseline, specifically replacement level. In theory, 0 is the expected value of freely available league minimum salary talent.

Adjusted +/-: This is for wide receivers, tight ends, and occasionally running backs. It tells you how many receptions that player had relative to what would have been expected given the type of routes that player was running and how many passes were sent his way. An inaccurate quarterback would often lead to negative numbers. Anything above +3.0 is good. Above +7.0 is very good. An excellent player playing with awful quarterbacks would look very bad by this metric through no fault of his own, especially if he played in Arizona (hint, wink).

SackSEER: A secret sauce made up of vertical leap, short shuttle time, games played (or more specifically, lack of games missed), and SRAM (which is roughly an estimated sack rate). Also, apparently passes defensed is an important input as well. SackSEER gives an estimate of production of a player’s first five years in the NFL. SackSEER is still being improved as more data comes in.

Speed Score- A measure of effective playing speed used to judge the potential of rookie running backs. The two inputs are 40-time (velocity) and weight (mass). F = MV.

Pythagorean wins- The amount of wins a team would normally win given the amount of points they scored and allowed. The formula is similar to points scored ^ 2.4 / (points allowed ^ 2.4 + points scored ^ 2.4)

PUP List- Players unable to perform. Players who start the season on the PUP list are ineligible for action for the first six weeks. At that point, teams have a three-week window in which to allow the player to begin practicing; from the day the player begins practicing, teams have an additional three-week window in which to decide whether to activate the player to the 53-man roster. If either of those deadlines pass, the player must remain on the PUP list for the remainder of the season.

OK, with that done, let’s take a look at the division that is one Tom Brady injury away from pure incompetence:

AFC East Projected Standings:

New England Patriots 12-4

Miami Dolphins 8-8

New York Jets 6-10

Buffalo Bills 5-11

Buffalo Bills

Expected wins: 6.03

Scouting wins: 6.09

DVOA wins: 6.7

2012 record 6-10 (5.7 Pythagorean)

I have difficulty knowing where to begin when discussing the Bills. They have 29 wins over the past 5 seasons, never with more than 7 or fewer than 4. They recently hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, but I don’t think that poor coaching was the main problem. They are a lousy football team because they have lousy talent. The main way to escape from that is to draft well, acquiring perhaps the occasional piece in free agency. There is some hope on that front for the Bills. They recently promoted Russ Brandon to team president and Doug Whaley to general manager. Both have given clear indications that they are comfortable with modern football analytics, although we won’t know for sure until we see the Bills repeatedly eschew punting on 4th and short. Yes, I know the head coach has to make those decisions, but the head coach reports to the GM who reports to the president. If they want to pick up wins where other teams don’t, improving in game strategy is a great place. Right now team president Brandon has a 77% approval rating, with only 6% disapproving. Consider that a honeymoon that will soon be tested.

The top two quarterbacks on the Bills roster are new pickups. One came from free agency (Kevin Kolb), while the other was the only quarterback taken in the 1st round (E.J. Manuel). Let’s look at Kolb first. Coming off of a -10.2% DVOA performance in limited usage as a backup in Philadelphia, Arizona signed him to a 6 year, $65 million dollar contract. Oh, wait, sorry, the Cardinals also traded away a 2nd round pick and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie. It really isn’t hard to see why the Cardinals are a terrible franchise. Suffice to say the Bills signed him to a much more reasonable contract. Of course, over his two seasons in Arizona Kolb only played 15 games and averaged -20.4% DVOA. What I’m trying to tell you is that Kolb is merely a placeholder to give Manuel time to develop. So, what of Manuel? There was no clear choice to lead this year’s QB crop. Some people had Geno Smith on top, others had Ryan Nassib. They went to the Jets and Giants in the 2nd and 4th rounds, respectively. The Lewin Career Forecast for Manuel is a mediocre 1270 DYAR, only good enough for fifth in the class behind Llandry Jones (2270), Geno Smith (2,064), Matt Barkley (1,812), Ryan Nassib (1,506). For the record, the Lewin Career Forecast only applies to quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds. Manuel was the MVP of the Senior Bowl and impressed scouts with his size and athleticism. He’s considered a locker room leader. He has missed time with injuries and needs to learn to cut down on the amount of hard hits he takes. I had him as the third best QB prospect in a weak QB draft, so I’m highly skeptical the Bills have found a long-term solution. However, for fun I decided to run a simulation as if the Bills had drafted an elite QB (already in the Brady-Manning-Rodgers class). If that were the case, and he were to start week 1, the Bills’ scouting wins would jump from 6.09 to 9.83. Yes, there really is that large a difference between Kevin Kolb and the greats of the game. (There is an infinitesimal chance that when I simulated the Bills season with an elite QB, I accidentally summoned Cthulhu. E.J Manuel is out with a knee injury, and Kevin Kolb is out with potentially career ending concussion symtoms: http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/08/25/report-bills-fear-kevin-kolbs-concussion-may-be-career-ending/. This means we are entering the Jeff Tuel era. A brief special section on Tuel:

He went 4-22 at Washington St. He wasn’t invited to the Combine and went undrafted. He’ll be the first undrafted quarterback to play week one immediately following his college career. He’s incredibly tough, having played through injuries such as a broken left collarbone, severely sprained right knee, Acute Compartion Syndome http://www.cougcenter.com/2011/10/25/2514702/jeff-tuel-injury-acute-compartment-syndrome-calf , the last of which he played through in a huge win over the rival Huskies in the battle of the Apple Cup. The dude is tough. However, you should expect the Patriots to eat his lunch week one).

Things get a little better for the Bills when you look at the rest of the backfield. C.J. Spiller led the NFL in rushing DVOA last season at 27.6%, ahead of Adrian Peterson’s 24.9%. He was only third in DYAR with 301, behind Peterson’s 458 and Marshon Lynch’s 361. Spiller was also great as a receiver, finishing 7th in receiving DYAR (91), and 9th in DVOA (16.3%). No matter how you look at it, Spiller had a great year. Unfortunately, Fred Jackson didn’t have as great a year. In fact his DVOA dropped from 13.7% in 2011 to -14.3% in 2012. His YPR dropped from 5.5 to 3.8. Jackson’s 5.5 may have been unsustainable (or not, as Spiller jumped from 5.2 to 6.), but there are other signs that his explosiveness is simply gone, and he can no longer be expected to get more yards than the offensive line gives him. Jackson is 32 years old and if he continues to regress he might lose his job. Probably not to 3rd string RB Tashard Choice, who is has 548 career rushing yards on 178 carries, sucks as a receiver, and doesn’t play on special teams. One more note on Spiller: While he is fantastic, his pass blocking is a clear weakness, and it will be difficult for him to improve much upon it due to his size, or lack thereof.

While the number of receptions and yards receiving has remained fairly constant, Steve Johnson’s +/-, DVOA, and DYAR have been dropping (-2.5, 7.8%, and 201 in 2010; -5.8, -0.5%, and 134 in 2011; -11.4, -4.7%, and 73 in 2012). While some of this can be explained by poor QB play, we can’t expect much improvement there in the short term. The fact that Johnson is the Bills’ #1 receiver explains why they have taken 3 WR’s in the first 3 rounds over the past two drafts. 2012 3rd round pick T.J. Graham had a pretty awful season (+/- -5.4, -20.6% DVOA, -57 DYAR). He has excellent speed and might be better as a third receiver. I felt the Bills reached a bit with Robert Woods, but WR is an area of need and Woods should be able to get on the field and produce immediately. BTW, I’ve read some guides that had Woods listed as 6-2. He isn’t, he’s roughly 6 feet, 3/8th’s of an inch. He can work well as a possession receiver. Graham may have excellent speed (4.41 40 time), but he’s slow compared to 3rd round pick Marquise Goodwin (4.27!). Goodwin still needs to refine his technique off the line. Like Woods, I felt he was a bit of a reach, but one of the things I’ve learned is that one of the easiest ways to improve a team is by getting terrible players off the field and replacing them with average ones. Of course, drafting for need instead of the best player on the board is one thing that prevents teams from stockpiling talent. C’est la vie. Tight end Scott Chandler is returning from ACL surgery, but is expected to be available to start the season. He had a monster 2011 season, particularly in the red zone, but regressed to the mean in 2012. At 6-7 270 pounds, he’s a solid red zone option if he can stay on the field. Backup Lee Smith only had four pass attempts go his way last season. He caught all four, including two touchdowns. I’d suggest that means he’s good in limited usage. 😉

The Bills rolled the dice last season at left tackle, installing a rookie 2nd-round pick and trusting him to hold down the fort. Cordy Glenn did just that. He did get beat for a few more sacks than Buffalo might have liked, but that is to be expected from a rookie. The Bills lost guard Andy Levitre to the Titans in free agency. Chris Hairston and Eric Pears are competing for the right tackle spot. The Bills resigned Kraig Urbik to hold down the right guard spot. Center Eric Wood is quite good, albeit a tad injury prone. Left guard is another spot open to competition. I’ve seen Colin Brown listed as the favorite, although Sam Young also has a fair decent shot. The biggest issue might be a philosophical change, as new head coach Doug Marrone is switching to a zone blocking scheme. Marrone has a background in offensive line play, so he should be able to come up with a solid plan. Of course, in the NFL it is difficult to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers, and the Bills might rue the loss of Levitre. Overall I’d grade this offensive line as a bit below-average.

Mario Williams was supposed to revitalize the Bills’ defense. Despite injuries, he still managed 10.5 sacks while soaking up consistent double-blocking. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense only managed 25.5 sacks as a group, with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams combining for 10.5. Oddly enough, Dareus had a half-sack edge on Kyle, but Kyle had 31 hits+hurries to Marcell’s 12. The Bills play both 3-4 and 4-3, although Mario Williams has made it clear he prefers playing in a 4-3, which also allows Kyle and Marcell to stay on the field. Alex Carrington and Alex Branch will split time across from Mario. Frankly, the Bills must have expected more production from their defensive line given the draft picks and money they spent there.

As much as I felt like the Bills reached with their draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, that doesn’t compare with grabbing linebacker Kiko Alonso in the 2nd-round. I would have expected him to be available in the 4th round, and frankly would still have considered him a reach there. Alonso is aggressive in space and has fairly good range. However, he lacks the kind of power I’d look for. He’s also had multiple alcohol-related off-field incidents. He’ll play alongside 2012 4th-round pick Nigel Bradham and free agent pickup Manny Lawson. The Bills are expected to use Jerry Hughes in some pass rush situations. He didn’t fulfill that role particularly well in Indianapolis. Overall I am not impressed with this linebacker corps.

Right now the Bills plan to start Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin at cornerback, and Jairus Byrd and Da’Norris Searcy at safety. There are some problems with this plan. First: Jairus Byrd hasn’t signed his franchise tag tender and is currently sitting out of camp. Second: McKelvin was never quite as good as people hoped he would be. Third: Gilmore was pretty good for a rookie, but needs to keep improving to be a legitimate #1 cornerback. Fourth: The depth behind McKelvin is atrocious. Fifth: Searcy is an unproven commodity, and the depth behind him is questionable. Right now it looks like Justin Rogers has the nickelback job ahead of Ron Brooks. Even with Byrd this is a weak secondary. Without him, the Bills might be a disaster. They used 4th and 5th-round picks to add depth to the secondary, but I don’t expect Duke Williams or Jonathan Meeks to contribute much this season. As with the Bills’ other draft picks, Williams and Meeks were taken a little higher than they were expected to go. In the case of Williams, the talent justifies the selection, but he has been suspended 3 times and is a character risk.

There was a time long ago when the Bills had consistently exceptional special teams. Those times are long gone, partly thanks to the Music City Miracle. Last season the Bills broke a streak of below-average special teams due to Leodis McKelvin having an excellent season returning punts, and the combo of McKelvin and Brad Smith being solid returning kicks. This year, the kicking game should be improved due to the addition of rookie 6th-round pick Dustin Hopkins. Hopkins has a very powerful leg and should improve the Bills’ kickoffs immensely. At this point the Bills’ only real special teams weakness is their coverage units, which is something that comes down to how much a team is willing to focus resources on players who excel in those roles rather than simply throwing backup linebackers at the job.

At this point it is pretty clear that the Bills are rebuilding. Kolb is nothing but a stopgap while Manuel develops. While the Bills might regret spending so much money on Mario Williams, he will help keep the defense somewhat respectable. Overall there simply isn’t that much talent on this roster. After C.J. Spiller, Mario Williams, and Jarius Byrd, I struggle to think of another player other teams would covet. Perhaps Stephon Gilmore, but even so that is a pretty short list. I don’t have much hope to offer Bills fans, who haven’t seen their team in the playoffs in over a decade. In fact, the last playoff game for the Bills was the aforementioned Music City Miracle. (Update: So much the Kolb stopgap plan. Undrafted free-agent Jeff Tuel will start the season while E.J. Manuel’s knee heals. This has severe disaster potential. I’m going to be somewhat optomistic and say the Bills rally and finish 5-11.)

Miami Dolphins

Expected wins: 7.6

Scouting wins: 8.92

DVOA wins: 6.1

2012 record 7-9 (7.1 Pythagorean)

Interesting. Football Outsiders expect the Dolphins to be worse than last year. The general consensus is that the Dolphins have improved. I took a look at the positional breakdowns and the Dolphins’ only serious expected weaknesses are their running game and their secondary. That might come as a surprise to the Tannehill skeptics (of which I am one), but the general expectation is that he’s an average quarterback in an average offense on a team with an above-average defense, keyed by a strong defensive line. Let’s dig deeper.

Ryan Tannehill actually had a respectable rookie season, putting up a -9.9% DVOA. Clear improvement in his second season would indeed bump him up to average or better. To help him achieve that, the Dolphins brought in WR Mike Wallace. To afford to do so, the Dolphins let left tackle Jake Long leave in free agency. My guess is that the Dolphins lost more than they gained, although that partly depends on Long’s health. To me the biggest issue is that Tannehill just isn’t as talented as the rest of his rookie class (Luck, RG3, Wilson). I don’t see the rest of the AFC East being overly concerned about his development.

2012 Speed Score favorite Lamar Miller takes over the starting running back job. He performed quite well in limited usage last season (7.5% DVOA, 35 DYAR in only 51 carries). Daniel Thomas and 5th-Round rookie Mike Gillislee will compete for the backup job. Gillislee is a prototypical replacement-level running back. He doesn’t do anything particularly well, but is young and cheap. Thomas is still on his rookie contract, and will struggle to get a second deal. I can see why people would be skeptical on Miami’s running game. As weaknesses go, however, having three young running backs, one with potential breakout potential, isn’t a bad place to be. Furthermore, running back is a good place not to spend too many resources.

There is going to be major pressure on free agent pickup Mike Wallace. He’s been an elite deep threat. However, he’s coming off of an awful season (+/- of -5.4, -17.4% DVOA). In 2010 and 2011 he had a cumulative +/- of +13.3 and 40.0% DVOA. The Dolphins have to hope his 2012 was a fluke. If it wasn’t, they’re in major trouble. Second option Brian Hartline has proven to be consistently solid, putting up three straight seasons of positive +/- and DVOA. If Mike Wallace can take some of the heat off Hartline, we should see a continuation of that trend, especially if Tannehill improves in his sophomore season. Brandon Gibson put together the best season of his career in 2012. His +/- of +6.4 and 23.3% DVOA are particularly impressive when you remember he was playing with the St. Louis Rams. Given he is being asked to be a third option, I am optimistic about his future. The Dolphins picked up former Jet Dustin Keller to start at tight end. He’s a former first round pick and is still a good player so long as he can stay on the field. At 29 he shouldn’t be too far past his prime. His backup is rookie 4th-round pick Dion Sims. Sims is a project who should eventually be a quality starter.

I see two offensive lines for Miami. One offensive line is quite good. It starts with center Mike Pouncey, continues with right guard John Jerry, and ends at right tackle Ryan Clabo. Clabo was a very good addition to the line. If the left side of the line were as good as the right this would be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Sadly, it isn’t. Jonathan Martin struggled tremendously at right tackle last season, and is moving over to left tackle. I don’t see this ending well. I think the 2012 2nd-round pick would have been much better off trying to improve at right tackle, instead of being thrown into the fire. I don’t care that left guard Richie Incognito was a Pro Bowl alternate, he was awful in 2012 and that wasn’t a fluke. He might lose his job to rookie 2nd-round pick Dallas Thomas. Thomas is a good pass blocker who might eventually move to tackle if he continues to develop. Overall I can’t say I like this line given how weak I see the left side being.

The Dolphins made an interesting gambit. Trading up for Dion Jordan was quite a surprise. The expectations were that the Dolphins would trade for Brandon Albert. When the Dolphins didn’t do that, and instead traded up for the third pick, the expectation was that they would take OT Lane Johnson. Obviously, that didn’t happen. At the time, I thought the Dolphins screwed up. In general, giving up the 42nd pick to move from 12th to 3rd is a very bad move. Instead of Dion Jordan the Dolphins could have had Jarvis Jones or Bjorn Werner at 12th and OT Menelik Watson at 42nd. I fully approve of building a better pass rush, but in general trading up is a savage misplay. No matter, what is done is done. Now the Dolphins have Dion Jordan to pair with Cameron Wake. For the record, Wake pulled in 15 sacks and 44.5 hits+hurries last season. He may have surpassed DeMarcus Ware as the preeminent pass rusher in the NFL. Jordan is not a SackSEER favorite, but his combine was exceptional. The question is, Can he dominate in the NFL at a level he failed to do in college? While we wait and see, we should also enjoy the play of Olivier Vernon. Beyond the sacks, he also blocked two field goals. He has tremendous explosiveness and should continue to be used in pass rush situations. Inside, the Dolphins have a very strong trio with Jared Odrick, Randy Starks, and Paul Soliai. Soliai is considered a run-stuffer, while Odrick is moving from end to tackle and will see more play on passing downs. All three are above-average players. If Jordan lives up to the Dolphins’ projections, this will be a very good defensive line. I should note that the Dolphins hit Starks with the franchise-tag, but he signed his tender and will play.

The Dolphins should be improved at linebacker. Newcomers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are better players than their predecessors Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett (although not necessarily better in coverage). Both Wheeler and Ellerbe are proficient at getting to the quarterback, especially Wheeler. I am less enamored of the third starter, Koa Misi. Perhaps if they had not traded up for Jordan they could have grabbed Kevin Minter, but I digress. This is a reasonable linebacker corps, especially given the quality of the defensive line.

The secondary has been rebuilt to better execute the zone defense the Dolphins wish to run. The Dolphins signed 2011 Pro Bowler Brent Grimes to be their #1 cornerback. He’s coming off of missing 2012 with a torn Achilles, so his health should be considered a question mark. When healthy, he is an exceptional zone cornerback. Richard Marshall and rookie 2nd-round pick Jamar Taylor will battle for the #2 job across from Grimes. Like Grimes, Marshall is returning from an injury (back). Taylor was a very good value pick and fits well in the scheme. The Dolphins also got solid value with Will Davis in the 3rd-round, although they did have to trade up to get him. Rookie cornerbacks generally struggle, so the Dolphins will need Marshall and Grimes to stay healthy if they want to make a playoff run. Free safety Rashad Jones is coming off of a very strong season. He’ll play alongside strong safety Chris Clemens. The Dolphins re-signed Clemens for only a single season, and are probably planning on replacing him after this season. Clemens actually led the Dolphins in snaps last season, partly because the Dolphins don’t mind risking him on special teams.

Only an awful kicking game prevented the Dolphins from having elite special teams last season (although coverage wasn’t a strength either). That problem looks to be solved with the addition of rookie 5th-round pick Caleb Sturgis. Sturgis was accurate from long distance (17-for-22 from beyond 40 yards, 6-for-8 from beyond 50 yards). His windup was a bit slow and he did have three blocked kicks, but that is the kind of thing good coaches can fix. Slightly more concerning is the fact that he didn’t have as many touchbacks as he should have given his leg strength. Even so, he’ll be an improvement over Dan Carpenter.

Unlike the Bills, the Dolphins have a fair amount of talent on their roster. They’ve upgraded their wide receiver corps, their pass rush, and their secondary, as well as their kicking game. They may have made some classic blunders, such as trading up in the draft and giving away big money in free agency, but those problems are long term and the Dolphins are trying to win now. My question is: Why? Why are you trying to win now? You have a second year quarterback who did decently, but not spectacularly, in his rookie season. Sure, Dan Marino led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his sophomore season, (their most recent, for the record). The Dolphins were a strong team when he arrived, two years past their most recent Super Bowl. The current Dolphins have done nothing more than make themselves the clear favorite to grab second in the AFC East. They aren’t anywhere close to the Patriots, and aren’t legitimate threats to win the conference. 8-8.

New England Patriots

Expected wins: 10.39

Scouting wins: 11.68

DVOA wins: 10.6

2012 record 12-4 (12.7 Pythagorean)

One note: The scouting wins prediction was generated before the Aaron Hernandez story broke. If I drop the Patriots’ receiving value by 0.5, they would drop to 11.53 scouting wins. I don’t feel it is appropriate to do that, partly because Hernandez simply wasn’t that important to the Patriots last season. His +/- was -2.9 and his DVOA was only 1.6%. I don’t really have anything else to add regarding Hernandez, so I’ll move on.

Over the past ten seasons the Patriots have averaged 12.6 wins per season. If you ignore the 2008 season due to Brady’s injury, the Patriots have averaged 12.8 wins. The Patriots have dominated the AFC, and the AFC East in particular, over that time. I’d compare that run of dominance to the 49ers in the 80’s and early 90’s, although they had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Montana, Young). Of course, it has been eight years since the Patriots have won a Super Bowl, and at some point Brady will start to fade. One thing helping sustain the Patriots is the incompetence of the rest of the AFC East. The New York Jets built an elite defense for a while, but that is much harder to sustain year-after-year than a great offense, and it was handicapped by Mark Sanchez. The Bills and Dolphins have been incompetent for years, and despite the short term moves the Dolphins have made, it is unlikely they’ll be a legitimate threat to the Patriots any time soon. Realistically, no one is going to catch the Patriots, they’ll simply return to the pack when they can no longer trot out one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Care to know how good Tom Brady is? Last season he led the NFL in both DYAR (2,035), and DVOA (35.1%). It wasn’t a fluke either, as 2010 (1,909 and 46.7%) and 2011 (1,994 and 35.3%) were just as good, if not better. He just turned 36 years old, but is still dominant. His greatness helps make the Patriots’ wide receivers look better than they are, and even helps the running game because defenses are forced to focus on stopping him. He’ll have a bit of a challenge adjusting to a new crop of wide receivers and tight ends, but I’m confident he’ll handle the challenge.

Speaking of the Patriots’ running game, it has finished in the top five in DVOA in each of the past three seasons. In fact, it was top ten in each of the past six seasons. You really do throw the ball to set up the run in the modern NFL. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vareen will be the top of the depth chart entering the season. Ridley quietly rushed for 1,263 yards last season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Vareen will be used as a running back, as a split end, and perhaps as a tight end and/or flanker as well.

Speaking of tight ends, the Patriots need Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is the greatest receiving tight end ever (seriously), and is one of the best blockers among current tight ends. His DVOA’s the past three seasons: 51.8%, 46.2%, 41.2%. I wouldn’t focus too much on the trend. Instead, be more concerned with his health. He’s had back and arm injuries, and if he isn’t 100%, the Patriots offense will be left with only one elite skill player. Danny Amendola managed a -7.6% DVOA last season, but much of that can be blamed on his teammates. Wes Welker had 118 catches for 1,354 yards last season, but managed only a 6.1% DVOA. In fact, that was second among Patriots wide receivers, just behind Julien Edelman’s 10.3%, and Edelman only caught 21 passes. You can see why the Patriots were willing to rebuild their receiving corps. Edelman returns, but he only played in nine games last season and has injury concerns heading into this season. In addition to Amendola, the Patriots also brought in fellow DVOA All Stars Michael Jenkins (-13.2% in Minnesota), Lavelle Hawkins (-35.1% in Tennessee), Donald Jones (-6.1% in Buffalo, which was quite an improvement over his -34.3% in 2010 and -36.1% in 2011). Jones has 4.46 speed, Hawkins only had 11 balls thrown his way last season, and Jenkins, well, he was pretty good in 2011 (10.7%), so I’ll cut him some slack. The fact is the Patriots will need Gronk and Amendola to perform, or Brady will be severely tested. Oh, I should mention tight end Jake Ballard. The Giants were pissed when the Patriots grabbed him, but it is still a question as to what he’ll be able give the Patriots. Absent Gronk, this really is a test of New England’s philosophy. Can Tom Brady turn previously mediocre players into productive parts of an elite offense? I’m actually going to need to watch a couple of Patriots preseason games and see how they look together before I can hazard a solid guess. (Update: It looks like Gronk will start the season on the PUP list, meaning he’ll miss the first six weeks.)

Nate Solder and Sebastion Vollmer give the Patriots one of the better tackle pairings in the NFL. Vollmer could have left in free agency, but chose to stay in New England. His back is a bit of a concern, as he had offseason surgery. Right guard Dan Connely, center Ryan Wendell, and left guard Logan Mankinsare are all solid, particularly Mankins. He’s had some injury concerns of his own. The Patriots have pretty good offensive line depth, although they wouldn’t want to have to test it at left tackle if something happened to Solder.

After years of being a weakness, the Patriots defense was a hair above average last season. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork continued to hold down the interior, and he was given some pass-rushing assistance by defensive ends Rob Nankovich and Chandler Jones. Nankovich and Jones combined for 14 sacks and 52 hits+hurries. CFL pickup Armond Armstead helped lead the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup. He managed six sacks last season and may prove to be a poor man’s Cameron Wake. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is expected to start alongside Wilfork. Kelly was a solid player in Oakland and should be able to handle the transition to New England. 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette should be ready to provide depth at defensive end.

Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower flank Brandon Spikes. All three are solid players (particularly Mayo) and this is one of the better starting units in the NFL. Before seeing the SackSEER numbers, I would have considered rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins an absurd reach, but he may turn out to be one of the steals in the draft. Collins struggled at Mississippi St., but put up absurd numbers in the combine. SackSEER likes Collins to end up with more sacks than Dion Jordan over the next five seasons. Collins will backup Mayo and Hightower. I don’t love the depth here, but depth is often a luxury.

The Patriots secondary fell apart in their playoff game against Baltimore after Aqib Talib got hurt. It wasn’t Talib was good (he wasn’t), but the Patriots’ backups were atrocious. They resigned Talib in free agency, but then got another shot of bad news. Fellow starter Afonzo Dennard is facing a suspension for off-field behavior. The Patriots grabbed Logan Ryan in the third-round. I felt he was a pretty good pick, but I am not sure the Patriots want to throw him into the fire so soon. I was less impressed when the Patriots took his teammate, safety Duron Hardmon, later in the round. Kyle Arrington followed up his stellar 2011 season (not really, but he had 7 interceptions), with a doughnut. Even after drafting Ryan, the Patriots might see if they can find another cornerback to fill in the depth charts. Then again, if 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling can manage to stay on the field, that might do the trick. The Patriots expect Devin McCourty and newcomer Adrian Wilson to hold down the safety positions. At age 34, Wilson will likely need some help, particularly from backup Steve Gregory. As with the wide receiver corps, there are some questions here in the secondary.

While special teams usually are unpredictable, if a team is willing to make an effort, they can be consistently good. That has been the case with the Patriots. I’d expect the Patriots to be in the top 25% in the NFL again this season.

There are some serious red flags for the Patriots this season. If Gronk misses more than six weeks, Brady will have a very tough job. Even with Gronk, there are questions. The Patriots secondary is also dubious. In fact, as strange as it is to say, with Brady and Wilfork aging, the Patriots look like a team on the decline. If the rest of the AFC East wasn’t such dreck, I’d be concerned. History says 12-4 or better. I’ll stick with 12-4. (Update: Gronk’s injury gives Denver the early edge in grabbing home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but shouldn’t affect AFC East supremacy. Update 2.0: Von Miller’s suspension + the painfully weak AFC East + getting Denver at home swings the balance. 12-4)

New York Jets

Expected wins: 5.64

Scouting wins: 5.71

DVOA wins: 7.5

2012 record 6-10 (5.3 Pythagorean)

DVOA is expecting some bounceback for the Jets this season. Is that a reasonably expectation? We have a dead coach walking (When Idzik replaced Tannenbaum one of the conditions was he keep Ryan for 2013). We have a bad quarterback regressing (who wouldn’t even be on the team had Tannenbaum not idiotically given him an extension after trying to recruit Peyton Manning). We have a bad… well, actually the defense was still pretty good. However, offense is more important than defense in today’s NFL, and more predictable too. Ergo, having a good defense and a bad offense is a bad place to be.

Last season Mark Sanchez had a -660 DYAR (-29.4% passing DVOA, -85.4% rushing DVOA!). He pulled that off in a measly 15 games. He was always bad, but he found a new level last season. Part of that was due to defensive coordinators realizing he was absolutely incompetent against the blitz. Opposing teams pressured Sanchez into obliteration. It is kind of shocking the Jets managed six wins with the Sanchez loadstone tied around their necks. I may not love Geno Smith, but at least he provides hope for a better future. Speaking of hope, Smith is a Lewin Career Forecast favorite. He’s been accurate over a period of years. However, he fell to the second round partly because good defenses shut him down. There were also some concerns about his attitude and maturity, although there weren’t any particular incidents to highlight. He was not considered a team leader at West Virginia, and was unjustifiably cocky at the combine. He might have the talent to succeed in the NFL, but still has to prove he has the work ethic to succeed. A great quote from Steven Brust: “Success leads to stagnation. Stagnation leads to failure. Failure leads to maturity. Maturity leads to success.” We’ll see where Geno Smith lands along this cycle. Oh, in case you were wondering about backup Greg McElroy, he was actually worse than Sanchez last season. Moving right along.

Running back Chris Ivory has rushed for 1,307 yards… over the past three seasons. He was fairly efficient, averaging a 12.2% DVOA, but that was almost certainly due to defenses going out of their way to stop Drew Brees. I expect he’ll find it much harder to gain yards playing along the Sanchize. Furthermore, it could prove to be moot, as he has only managed 119 rushing attempts in the last two seasons combined due to injuries. Ivory’s backup, Bilal Powell, has only managed 123 carries over the past two seasons himself. Powell’s been a hair better than replacement level over that time, so long as you ignore his lousy receiving stats (-24.7% DVOA ). Third stringer Joe McKnight is a solid receiver out of the backfield, but whether due to injuries or coach’s decisions, he only has 17 receptions over the past three seasons. If the Jets had any hopes of being contenders, this backfield might give me a slight pause, but when Mark Sanchez is your starting quarterback, you have much bigger concerns.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes is recovering from a Lisfranc injury. He’s also an arrogant prick who hasn’t managed a positive +/- in over three years, and last had a positive DVOA (5.5%) in 2010. It is kind of embarrassing that he is still considered the Jets’ #1 receiver. Flanker Stephen Hill is exceptionally fast, but has one small flaw: his hands are terrible. That’s why he only caught 49 passes his last three years at Georgia Tech, and it is why he only caught 21 passes last season (+/- -4.9, -15.4% DVOA). He is much better at getting open deep than he is at turning that skill into points. He’s only 22 years old, so there is hope for a brighter future. Given Sanchez’s inaccuracy, Jeremy Kerley was actually fairly efficient over the past two seasons. (+/- +2.0, -9.1% DVOA). He’s only 24 and will probably be a major beneficiary of the Geno Smith era. Tight end Jeff Cumberland would probably be considered an average player if he didn’t have to deal with Sanchez. As is his +/- of -5.0 and -8.5% DVOA will probably improve slightly this season. Backup Kellen Winslow has a much higher ceiling, but is still recovering from a seriously damaged knee. Also, he hasn’t been good since 2010. He’s a cheap lottery ticket whom the Jets can cut if he doesn’t pay off.

There are a few good pieces on the Jets offensive line. Center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson are both strong performers. Veterans Willie Colon and Stephen Peterman, along with rookie third-round pick Brian Winters, will battle for the two starting guard spots. Peterman was awful with the Lions last season. I was very happy with the Winters pick and I’m hopeful he can beat out Peterman for the job. Colon has been injury prone, but has been solid when on the field. Right tackle Austin Howard was terrible last season. Sadly, the Jets don’t have anyone better right now. It is possible rookie fifth-round pick Oday Aboushi will be able to take over the job in 2014. Aboushi was another good pick, although not quite the steal Winters was.

The more I look at the Jets’ draft, the more I like it (save the Geno Smith pick). I was very happy when the Jets grabbed Sheldon Richardson with the 13th pick in the first-round. He’ll play across from Muhammad Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a monster and is the Jets’ best player. In between them there is an exceptionally rare event: The four-way nose tackle battle! In one corner you have 2011 third-round pick Kendrick Ellis. Ellis hasn’t lived up to his draft status and will likely start the season on the bench. 2012 undrafted rookie Damon Harrison had a strong 2012 preseason, which led to him making the team. If he can improve upon that he might steal the starting job. The favorite to land the job is Antonio Garay. Garay has been banged up, and is mostly a stopgap hire. The final option is 2003 Alaska State lineman of the year Junior Aumavae. Like Harrison, he’d need a monster preseason to rise up the depth charts. The fact is, when you have four nose tackles, sometimes you don’t have any.

The Jets’ best defensive line option is to play a 4-3 and move linebacker Quinton Coples to defensive end and kick Richardson inside to tackle (alongside ???). Actually, now that I think about it, the Jets best 3-4 defensive line is Wilkerson, Richardson, Coples. There are five nose tackle options! As for a linebacker, Coples is better attacking the line of scrimmage than he is in space. He pulled in 5.5 sacks last season and should be able to match that this season. The Jets grabbed Antwan Barnes to play across from Coples. Barnes has 14 sacks over the past two seasons. He ended 2012 on injured reserve, and the Jets are hoping he can return to form. If not, Calvin Pace will grab a majority of the snaps. Even at age 33 Pace is still an effective player, but the Jets would prefer not to overtax him. DeMario Davis and David Harris man the inside. Harris has been an excellent player for years, but is clearly fading. 2012 third-round pick Davis has been compared to Ray Lewis. Those comparisons came from head coach Rex Ryan, so they should be taken with a gallon of salt. This is still a solid front seven with a few blue chippers along the defensive line.

Say what you will about Antonio Cromartie, he is an elite cornerback who did everything the Jets asked last season. He’ll play across from ninth overall pick Dee Milliner, unless Kyle Wilson manages to hold onto the job. Milliner played at Alabama, which means he wasn’t taught to backpedal in college. Sort of. Nick Saban prefers his cornerbacks to press and use a three-step shuffle technique where they either attack a short route, or turn and run with the receiver on a deep route. The advantage of this is that you don’t surrender the short-to-intermediate quick strike, but you also put a lot of pressure on your cornerback to not get beat off the line of scrimmage. That works against college competition, but is tougher to pull off in the pros. Free agent pickup Dawan Landry is a short term solution at strong safety. He’s actually taking over from his little brother LeRon. Josh Bush appears to have the edge over fellow 2012 draft pick Antonio Allen. They were sixth- and seventh-round picks, respectively, so don’t count on draft position to give Bush much of an edge. This is a battle that will be won in the preseason.

The Jets’ return games are pretty good. Unfortunately, that is only half of special teams. Kicker Nick Folk causes me pain. I can only hope Billy Cundiff or Brett Maher takes his job. Ryan Quigley is trying to take Robert Malone’s punting job. The difference between them is probably not enough to affect the Jets’ Super Bowl hopes.

The Tannenbaum era has ended with the Jets in ruins. It will take years for Itzik to rebuild the roster. For now, the Jets will try to achieve respectability. I am skeptical. (Update: The Jets have looked like an utter disaster in the preseason. I guess that’s just their nature at this point. The weakness of their schedule is the only thing that saves them: 6-10)

Time to take a look at the best division in the AFC (and the only one with three competent teams), the AFC North:

AFC North Projected Standings:

Baltimore Ravens 10-6

Cincinnati Bengals 9-7

Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8

Cleveland Browns 6-10

Baltimore Ravens

Expected wins: 8.3

Scouting wins: 10.3

DVOA wins: 9.6

2012 record 10-6 (9.4 Pythagorean)

Post Hoc Ergo Procter Hoc. After this, therefore because of this. After Cam Cameron was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell, the Ravens offense shifted into another gear. In the playoffs Flacco was elite, throwing 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Joe Montana would be proud. Since the Ravens took home the Lombardi Trophy there has been an unprecedented exodus of talent. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams, Paul Kruger, Matt Birk, and Anquan Boldin. On the plus side. Cameron is still gone.

How important was Cameron’s absence? Flacco’s regular season DVOA was -1.3%. Now, some of you might be a little skeptical that Cameron really deserves this much blame (credit?). Sure, Flacco was lousy in 2012 (before winning the Super Bowl), but what about previous years? Well, in 2011 he was average (0.0% DVOA!), and in 2010 he was pretty good (9.3% DVOA). DYAR tells the same story, dropping from 697 to 413 to 358. Then again, Flacco’s postseason DYAR? 618. If he were to average 154.5 DYAR a game throughout the entire season, he’d have the second best season of any quarterback ever in the DVOA era, trailing only Tom Brady’s 2007 masterpiece. That seems… unlikely, especially given Boldin’s absence. My guess is that he is better than he was in 2011 and 2012. Defensive coordinators have had an entire offseason to adjust to the new and improved Flacco, and I’d say a return to his 2010 form seems most likely. Four great games is not nearly enough to convince me that Flacco has joined the ranks of the elite. New contract notwithstanding, I don’t think GM Ozzie Newsome (one of the best in the NFL) is convinced either, but he didn’t have any other good options apart from resigning Flacco at a much more expensive deal than he could have gotten before last season.

Last season Ray Rice gained 1,621 yards-from-scrimmage on 318 touches, with a combined 215 DYAR (5.8% DVOA). Not bad, but that was a fairly significant drop from his excellent 2011 season (2,068 yards, 360 DYAR, 8.9% DVOA). He also had a rough postseason, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. He’s only 26 years old, and Caldwell looks to be more interested in balancing his workload than Cameron was. The beneficiary of that balance will be Bernard Pierce. Pierce averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry last season and is only 22 years old. Unlike Rice, Pierce excelled in the playoffs. Even if Rice’s workload diminishes a bit, this is still one of the best backfields in the NFL.

The biggest offensive question for the 2013 Ravens is “How much will the loss of Bolden affect them?” Boldin was the best Ravens wide receiver throughout the playoffs (although Torrey Smith had the better game vs. the Broncos). Smith’s 2011 and 2012 numbers look quite similar. In 2011 he caught 50 passes for 841 yards. In 2012 he caught 49 passes for 855 yards. However, there was one key difference. In 2011 he was targeted 96 times. That number jumped to 110 in 2012. Going from 46 to 61 incompletions dropped his +/- from +0.8 to -8.0. Ouch! His DVOA dropped from 11.6% to 0.7% as well. The Ravens are counting on Smith to significantly improve his performance from 2012 to help make up for the loss of Boldin. We’ll see. Jacoby Jones is stepping up into the #2 role. He’s 29 years old and has never been anything more than an average receiver. He is coming off the best game of his career (108 yard kickoff return touchdown, 56 yard touchdown reception), and finished third on Dancing With The Stars. I don’t know if he was dancing with a star, or if he was the star someone was dancing with, and frankly, I don’t want to know. Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson are battling over the #3 job. There isn’t that much data on either player, so we’ll have to see whom the Ravens like more over the course of the preseason.

The Ravens weren’t too concerned over who was going to be their #3 WR, as they were planning on running a fair amount of 2TE sets. However, that plan took a major blow when tight end Dennis Pitta was lost for the season with a hip injury. With Pitta gone, the Ravens are without two of their top three targeted receivers from last season. Ed Dickson is going to have to step up in Pitta’s absence. Dickson has yet to produce a positive DVOA season, but I’d expect the Ravens would settle for a repeat of his 2011 season (54 receptions, 528 yards, +/- -1.0, 16 DYAR, -1.3% DVOA). Then again, for a team without a great wide receiver corps, that isn’t what you’d want from your #1 tight end. Last year Dickson struggled with a knee injury, and is currently battling a small hamstring tear. Special teams specialist (I’m being kind) Billy Bajema is backing up Dickson, so I’d be a little concerned if I were the Ravens. I’d be on the lookout for possible WR or TE upgrades.

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie has finally become the player the Vikings always hoped he would be. That has allowed Michael Oher to become a solid right tackle (so much for the Blind Side), while Kelechi Osemele kicked over from right tackle to left guard. Osemele performed quite well there. Right guard Marshall Yanda is playing at a Hall of Fame level, if the Hall of Fame decides to pay attention to guards in the future. Gino Gradkowski is expected to step into Matt Birk’s place. The 2012 fourth-round pick is a mobile technician, but there are questions about his power. He’s backed up by journeyman A.J. Quigley. It’s impressive that Quigley has reached journeyman status so quickly (Steelers 2009, Eagles 2010-2011, Colts 2012, and now Ravens), but when you’re a seventh-round pick who doesn’t give up, you bounce around a bit. He’s been waived (cut) three times, but he’s still here. Good for him. The Ravens hope you never see him on the field. This is a very good offensive line.

While it finished on an exceptional run, the Ravens defense wasn’t actually strong last season. It ended up ranked 19th in DVOA. The fact is the Ravens aren’t trying to rebuild a great defense, they are trying to build a new one. Newcomer Chris Canty will play alongside Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones. The Ravens would like to see Terrance Cody finally live up to his potential. He can start by getting into better shape and improving his stamina. That’ll be important given that Ngata is recovering from a severely sprained knee and isn’t currently in peak condition. Marcus Spears will also be a key part of the defensive line rotation, particularly against the run.

I’m genuinely torn as to where the biggest questions for the Ravens linebackers corps. For most teams, losing a first-ballot Hall of Fame star middle linebacker would be the major defensive issue, but I think the Ravens are more concerned as to how Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will perform on the outside. Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, but was severely slowed by injuries ;ast season. Dumervil nabbed 11 sacks and had 35 hits+hurries last season. For him, the biggest issue should be adjusting to the new schemes and responsibilities. Both projected starting inside linebackers have injury concerns. Rookie second-round pick Arthur Brown is recovering from a sports hernia. It shouldn’t keep him off the field against Denver week 1, but it does slow him a bit as he tries to prepare for his new job. Jameel McClain ended last season on injured reserve for a spinal contusion. Daryl Smith, Josh Bynes, and Albert McClellan will battle for the open spots if injures keep Brown or McClain off the field. Smith was injured in 2012, but has looked very good so far in training camp. He was one of the Jaguars best defenders a few years ago. Bynes is a solid run-stuffer, while McClellan is more versatile, capable of blitzing or manning the middle, depending on what the Ravens want to do.

Cornerback Lardarius Webb is coming back from an ACL injury. He is very good when healthy, but we’ll have to see how much of his form he can recover. Corey Graham was promoted from a special teams ace to a starting cornerback, and proved the promotion was earned, having an outstanding season. He kept that level of play up in the playoffs, picking off Peyton Manning twice and keeping the Ravens in the game. 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith hadn’t lived up to his lofty draft status, but was excellent against the 49ers in the Super Bowl. If he’s finally reaching his potential he could push Webb or Graham down the depth chart. Safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are gone. Michael Huff and Matt Elam are slated to replace them, although Elam hasn’t quite put James Ihedigbo on the bench. Elam has had some alcohol-related issues. He’s classified as a strong safety, but has the speed and agility to play free safety if needed. He’s an absolutely ferocious hitter who would have thrived in a less refined era. Ihedigbo isn’t nearly as talented, so the Ravens would like to see Elam prove himself worthy of being the starter sooner rather than later. Huff has elite speed… for a safety. He struggled as a cornerback for the Raiders last season, but should be much better as a free safety for the Ravens. There are a lot of questions about this secondary, but the best case scenario is fantastic.

2010 Ravens special teams DVOA: 6.0%, 4th in the NFL.

2011 Ravens special teams DVOA: -5.6%, 30th in the NFL.

2012 Ravens special teams DVOA: 9.0%, 1st in the NFL.

The Ravens were anywhere from good to excellent at the things they could control, be it kicking, covering, or returning. Furthermore, they were “unlucky” as the things they couldn’t control, such as opponent’s kicking and punting, were quite good. I’d expect the Ravens special teams to remain above average, even if their own performance regresses to the mean even more than their opponent’s. Of course, their special teams could also drop to 27th or worse and I wouldn’t be able to give you good reasons why without more fine grain analysis than I regularly do. Special teams are funky like that.

Repeating is tough, especially when you have one of the tougher schedules in the NFL. The Ravens have 2 games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as well as games vs. Denver, Houston, New England, Green Bay, and Chicago. There are concerns about a rebuilt defense and a depleted receiver corps. On the plus side, Cam Cameron is in Baton Rouge. 10-6.

Cincinnati Bengals

Expected wins: 8.74

Scouting wins: 8.98

DVOA wins: 8.9

2012 record 10-6 (9.9 Pythagorean)

I kind of feel sorry for the Bengals. On paper they may be an 8-9 win team, but they aren’t much better than that. Last season they had four meaningful games against playoff teams: 1-3, outscored 87-125. They beat the Ravens 23-17 in a game that meant nothing to the Ravens. In their playoff game against the Texans, their offense was impotent. With A.J. Green as the only elite weapon, defenses were able to focus on him to shut down quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals have decided to solve that problem by giving Dalton more weapons, but I can’t see that plan working.

Football Outsiders has suggested that the question of whether Dalton is limiting the Bengals or whether the Bengals are limiting Dalton is semantic. Let me offer a different perspective. Andy Dalton is mediocre, and lacks the upside to justify putting up with such mediocrity. Over the past two seasons his DVOA is -0.2%. Moreover, unlike other quarterbacks that struggled with mediocrity before leading their teams to playoff success (Manning, Eli and Flacco, Joe being recent examples), he hasn’t shown flashes of elite talent. In other words, Dalton is much closer to his ceiling than either Flacco or Manning were before leading their teams to the title. He is a league average quarterback, which is a benefit if you want to avoid four-win seasons (2008, 2010), but a disadvantage against playoff opposition (2011, 2012). I can’t fault the Bengals for trying to improve the talent around Dalton, but I wouldn’t expect an improvement in results.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored six touchdowns and gained 1,198 yards-from-scrimmage on 300 touches. Good season, right? Not even close. His combined DVOA was -10.8%, with a -33 DYAR. That is one of the reasons the Bengals grabbed Giovani Bernard in the second round of the draft. Bernard is a versatile back with better speed and hands than Green-Ellis. Bernard isn’t built to withstand a full NFL workload (5-8, 202 pounds), so look for them to split touches. Fake punt specialist Cedric Peerman is third on the depth chart.

A.J. Green regressed a bit last season. His DYAR dropped from 272 to 205, and his DVOA dropped from 17.1% to 4.9%. Much of his decline can be traced to a decrease in effectiveness on deep balls, especially late in the season. He had 8 drops last season, an unacceptable number for a star #1 receiver. He’s still an elite talent, and should return to form if Tyler Eifert can distract defenses and cut down on the number of double-teams Green has to face. 2012 third and fifth-round picks Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are battling for the #2 receiver job. Jones had the job early last season before missing time with an MCL tear. Sanu played well in the time he had the job, but was lost to a stress fracture. Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins, and rookie sixth-round pick Cobi Hamilton do not inspire much confidence, so the Bengals hope Sanu and Jones can manage to stay on the field this season. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has improved noticeably each season. His yards-per-catch, +/-, DVOA, and DYAR have all told the tale. Furthermore, last season he was often forced to be the second receiving option. The addition of fellow 21st-overall pick Eifert should make Gresham’s job a bit easier. Eifert could easily have gone much higher and was an excellent value pick for the Bengals. He has exceptional hands and body control, as well as good size and speed for the position. The Bengals were starved for receiving talent, and were lucky to have Eifert fall to them. Given Dalton’s limitations, this was pretty much the best case scenario (Bernard falling to them was good too, but much more likely).

There are questions across the entire offensive line. At left tackle Andrew Whitworth must return to his solid late-season form after having his knee scoped in the offseason. Clint Boling was expected to return to being a backup after starting last season because Travelle Wharton missed the season with a torn ACL. Wharton was expected to reclaim the starting job before the Bengals cut him in late July. Boling, a 2011 fourth-round pick, has steadily improved his technique and may become more than a stopgap measure. Kyle Cook appears to have the upper hand in the battle to be the starting center. Cook had the job last season before ankle injuries put him on the bench and allowed the undrafted rookie Robinson to start five games. Robinson played well enough to make this a legitimate competition. After struggling a bit at the start of last season, 2012 first-round pick Kevin Zeitler lived up to his lofty draft status. The question here is whether he can keep improving and become a star. Andre Smith was absolutely outstanding at right tackle. However, this is no longer a contract year and it is an open question as to what kind of performance he’ll turn in this season. We know he’s capable of dominant play, but we also know he can slack off and mail in a mediocre season. We shall see what the Bengals get. This line has a lot more variance than most, and has some clear weaknesses along the left interior. The biggest issue is improving the pass protection, especially in the interior and at left tackle.

The Bengals have one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the NFL, led by tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins. Peko is quite good, but Atkins is the star here. Last season he had 13 sacks, 8 hits, and an obscene 30 hurries. He’s an absolute monster whose numbers would be great if he were a pass rush specialist defensive end instead of a solid interior defender. 2012 second and third-round picks Devon Still and Brandon Thompson are talented (albeit inexperienced) backups. On the outside, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both quality players. Johnson nabbed 12.5 sacks last season. Dunlap was no slouch, grabbing 5.5 sacks and producing 20 hits+hurries. Dunlap was also quite solid against the run. Robert Gaethers provides quality veteran depth, while rookie second-round pick Marcus Hunt is a bit green (which is problematic as he is 26 years old). I must confess that the Hunt pick looks very bad to me.

It isn’t often that an undrafted free agent rookie will lead a team in tackles, but weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict managed it. He may move back to middle linebacker if he can beat out Rey Maualuga for the job. Maualuga has struggled, but the risk of the move is that fellow 2012 undrafted free agent Emmanuel Lemur would have to step into the weak side job. I can’t remember the last defense that started multiple undrafted linebackers. I thought James Harrison had a fork sticking out of his back last season, but the Bengals have brought him in to start on the strong side. If the Bengals eventually decide that they agree with me, it is possible they’ll try Lemur on the strong side. Apart from Maualuga (a second-round pick in 2009), the Bengals have not invested many resources in their linebacker corps, and it shows. They got lucky with Burfict, but are weak at the other two spots.

The Bengals also have major concerns at cornerback. 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick hasn’t fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his 2012 season. Terrence Newman played reasonably well across from Leon Hall, but is 35 and can’t be counted on to maintain his level of play. As for Hall, the 2007 first-round pick recovered exceedingly well from his 2011 Achilles injury. Adam “Pacman” Jones has developed into a solid nickel cornerback. This group held up last season mostly due to an exceptional pass-rush. If that falters, expect problems here. Taylor Mays was expected to battle rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams for the strong safety job. He still might, but right now 2012 fifth-round pick George Iloka looks to have graduated from special teams to the starting lineup. For the record, I thought the Williams pick was terrible. I have no problem with the Bengals grabbing a safety, but I felt Williams wasn’t close to the best safety available. Reggie Nelson has the free safety job locked up. He leads the Bengals with seven interceptions over the past two seasons, and is a solid all-around defender.

The Bengals’ special teams have been solid for the past two seasons, led by punter Kevin Huber. The coverage and return units have been good as well, with the kicking game being the only real weakness. Mike Nugent is still handling the kicking duties, so look for that weakness to continue.

The Bengals are a solid team. Their defensive line should rip apart the weaker offensive lines they face. The additions of Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert help provide the offense with more weapons, particularly weapons that Andy Dalton should be able to connect with. Games against Indianapolis and San Diego are a lot easier than games against Denver and Houston. I don’t think the Bengals are as good as the Ravens. I see both teams being 9-6 heading into the final game of the season in Cincinnati. 9-7.

Cleveland Browns

Expected wins: 6.48

Scouting wins: 4.99

DVOA wins: 6.7

2012 record 5-11 (6.1 Pythagorean)

Running an NFL team is hard. There are multiple ways to screw up. Bad scouting, bad cap management, or simple bad luck can devastate a team for years. It helps if you have a solid front office that has a clear vision for the team and its future. It helps if the coaching staff sees eye-to-eye with management as to how the team should be run. It’s nice when the coaches, the scouts, and management can all communicate well with each other. Admittedly, it isn’t always necessary that these people like each other, only that they can work with each other. When there is dysfunction at the top it will eventually lead to dysfunction on the field. I’m not going to go through all the details, but the Browns have had dysfunction at the top for a while now, even before the FBI targeted Jimmy Haslem’s other major business, Pilot Flying J. Ostensibly Mike Lombardi is the general manager, but I find it hard to believe that it was his idea to swap fourth-round draft picks (moving back seven spots), and give up a fifth-round pick for a seventh-round pick and Davone Bess. Bess is no higher than third on the depth chart, but I’ll get to that. The real problem is that Lombardi was saddled with Brandon Weeden. Let’s look at Weeden:

Brandon Weeden, age 30. 2012 first-round draft pick. 2012 Passing DVOA: -19.1%. 2012 Passing DYAR: -291. The salient facts here are that Weeden is 30 years old and that he sucks. It was a huge mistake to spend a first-round pick on him and now the Browns have to figure out what their plan for the future is. It isn’t Jason Campbell. His DVOA over the past three seasons is -4.8%. Don’t get me wrong, he’s better than Weeden, but he is 32 years old and has shown his limitations. Brian Hoyer has 474 passing yards over the past three seasons. He’s third on the depth chart, which is right where he belongs. Finding quarterbacks of the future is hard, but the Browns haven’t looked in the right places. Unless Weeden improves drastically, expect Lombardi to draft a quarterback next year.

One of the things that has gradually become common knowledge is that running backs are almost never worthy of a first-round pick. The best way to improve a running game is to improve the passing game and run when defenses are focused on stopping your quarterback. Furthermore, improving offensive line play often benefits both the running and passing game, although I will admit that the two don’t have to go together. Some offensive linemen are excellent at one facet and weak in the other. What teams should rarely do is take a running back (Trent Richardson) with the third overall pick. Otherwise, you might end up with something like this: 1,317 yards-from-scrimmage, -9.6% DVOA, 22 DYAR. Those numbers would have looked a lot worse had Richardson not been a fairly effective receiver. Injuries and poor quarterback play contributed to these results. Dion Lewis may earn the backup job, but the odds are that role will again be filled by the consistently awful Montario Hardesty. Over the past two seasons Hardesty’s DYAR is -94. That’s pathetic. Have I mentioned that he was a second-round pick in 2010? I’m going to give Richardson a mulligan. He has a new coach (Rob Chudzinsky, hereinafter referred to as Chud), and should have better luck with injuries and quarterback play. One thing he needs to work on: His pass protection was terrible. That’s entirely on him, and is something I hope he’s worked on during the offseason.

When your quarterback is awful, it is difficult for a receiver to have a positive DVOA. That is why I would like to take a moment to praise Trent Richardson. Of the 12 Browns players to catch five or more passes, he is the only one to produce a positive DVOA. 4.4% Might not be much to brag about, but when adjusted for degree of difficulty, it’s marvelous. Maybe he was worth the third overall pick. Moving right along, Josh Gordon will look to improve upon a fairly impressive rookie season. The 2012 second-round supplemental draft pick overcame both weed and Weeden to produce 8.47 yards-per-attempt for passes sent his way. The statistics don’t do Gordon justice, so just trust me when I say he has star potential. He is going to show up fashionably late this season, as he has been suspended two games for substance abuse. I wasn’t kidding about his problems with weed. One other problem that may prove more damaging long term: patellar tendinitis. 2011 second-round pick Greg Little improved tremendously in his sophomore season. His +/- jumped from -11.2 to -1.3, his DVOA rose from -21.7% to -7.7%, and his DYAR climbed from -70 to 45. Perhaps most importantly, he only dropped 7.5% of the passes sent his way, down from 10.7%. I’d suggest he continue working with the Jugs Machine. As with Gordon, the stats don’t really do Little justice. He’s talented, and if Weeden’s play improves, Little will find himself on the positive side of DVOA. Speaking of DVOA, over the past three seasons Davone Bess has had an average DVOA of -8.3%, and produced a sum of 60 DYAR. I am still unsure as to why the Browns traded for him. 2012 fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin played well in the brief time he spent on the field (-1.3% DVOA, 33 DYAR). Currently he is fifth on the depth chart, but should rise if given the chance. Ahead of him is David Nelson. Nelson missed most of the 2012 season with a torn ACL. When healthy, the 6’5 possession receiver produced a solid 5.6% DVOA. Remember, Buffalo’s quarterback play hasn’t been that great either. Tight end Jordan Cameron has an excellent opportunity. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner historically makes good use of his tight ends, and Cameron is #1 on the depth chart. It’s a bit silly to take too much away from a single preseason game, but Cameron had a nice 30-yard reception, and a pretty embarrassing drop that slipped through his hands and nailed him in the face. Perhaps that is simply the Yin and Yang of his existence. It appears Gary Barnridge has moved ahead of Kellen Davis on the depth charts. Davis is pretty much purely a blocker. Chud coached Barnridge on the Panthers and appears to value his skills.

Blame for the Browns’ poor offensive results should not lie with their offensive line. Left tackle Joe Thomas is still playing at a Hall of Fame level. 2012 Second-round pick right tackle Mitchell Schwartz had a very good rookie season. Things were less sanguine inside. Right guard Shawn Lauvao missed far too many blocks, and may lose his starting job to John Greco. Greco played well at left guard when Jason Pinkston was sidelined with a blood clot. Pinkston was playing very well before being sidelined, and the Browns hope he returns to form. Center Alex Mack has made every offensive snap since the Browns took him in the first-round in 2009. He’s been to the Pro Bowl and his play hasn’t slipped in the years he wasn’t invited. Frankly, if not for Weeden, I’d be excited about the Browns offense. Alas, Weeden.

The Browns’ defensive line is better than it appears at first glance. 2011 first-round pick nose tackle Phil Taylor should be fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for most of 2012. Taylor is a rugged run-stopper whose presence should give the Browns’ defense a lift. He’ll be flanked by Desmond Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin. Bryant is an excellent addition. Last season he managed 23.5 hits+hurries, which leads me to believe his four sacks can be improved upon. You’d think he was a pure pass rusher, but his numbers against the run were actually quite good. Rubin’s numbers weren’t nearly as good, and he should be considered the weak link on the defensive line. He can play both end and tackle, but performs poorly at either position. He may lose playing time to John Hughes and/or Billy Winn. The impressively named Ishmaa’ily Kitchen will also spell Taylor when he needs rest. Kitchen is purely a space-eater who provides very little pass rush. Taylor and Bryant will be expected to come up with most of the disruption off of the line. They’ll have help from a rebuilt linebacker corps.

Jabaal Sheard is moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. He’s expected to start across from free agent pickup Paul Kruger. Kruger and Sheard had a combined 16 sacks and 47 hits+hurries last season. Joining them will be sixth-overall pick Barkevious Mingo. SackSEER absolutely adores Mingo, considering him the best prospect in the class. I had some doubts about the Mingo pick before I knew of SackSEER’s rating. This is a good group of linebackers. Inside linebacker D’Quell Jackson is a veteran team leader. He’s still in his prime and is one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL. Unfortunately that cannot be said of his fellow starter Craig Robertson. On a better defense Robertson would be providing quality depth. On the Browns, the 2011 undrafted free agent is expected to be on the field 40 snaps a game. As you might guess, the depth here is awful and an injury to Jackson would be devastating.

There was some speculation that the Browns would take Dee Milliner with the sixth-overall pick. Instead, the Browns opted to improve their pass rush and wait until the third-round (with their second pick, as they had forfeited their second-round pick when they took Josh Gordan in the supplemental draft) and grab Leon McFadden. McFadden was a reasonable selection, but he will face a trial by fire. Teams will likely challenge him while they avoid Joe Haden. Cornerback is a tough position for rookies, and I’d expect McFadden to struggle a bit. Haden didn’t have one of his better seasons in 2012, but he is still a very good player. Buster Skine is a reasonable option at nickel. T.J. Ward is a traditional run-support specialist free safety. In other words, he’s comfortable with the physicality that his position requires. Tashaun Gibson currently has a grip on the starting free safety job, but will have to hold off Johnson Bademosi for the job. Frankly, the Browns might want to instruct their scouts to pay attention to potential free safeties in the 2014 draft class.

The Browns are rebuilding their special teams units due to the departures of return specialist Josh Cribbs, punter Reggie Hodges, and kicker Phil Dawson. Dawson won’t be missed, but Cribbs provided excellent value. Travis Benjamin is penciled in to replace him. Shayne Graham is battling Brandon Bogatay to replace Dawson. Bogatay winning the job would be a good sign, as Graham is a proven mediocrity. Spencer Lanning is the favorite to replace Hodges. Like Dawson, Hodges won’t be missed. The Browns have had solid special teams for years, partly due to good coverage units, something that is likely to continue.

The Browns are an intriguing football team. They have a good offensive line, and a lot of high draft picks at their offensive skill positions. Sadly, merely being a high draft pick doesn’t mean you are actually good at football. If the Browns had someone better than Weeden, I’d be hopeful. On defense, the rebuilt defensive line and linebacker corps provide hope for a brighter future. There are still some weak links along the defense (at least one on the defensive line, inside linebacker, and free safety), but for a bad team, this should be a good defense. If the special teams can adapt to the changes, the Browns could have two-thirds of a decent team. There is one problem I haven’t mentioned, partly because it is entirely out if the Browns’ control: The AFC North. The Steelers and Ravens have been well-run franchises for years. The Bengals shared the laughingstock label with the Browns, giving each other two fair fights a season. Now that the Bengals are a good team struggling to become a great one, the Browns are all alone. Only the Eagles will have as tough a slate of six divisional games. Between the tough division and Weeden, I foresee a long season for the improving Browns: 6-10.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Expected wins: 8.92

Scouting wins: 8.59

DVOA wins: 8.7

2012 record 8-8 (8.7 Pythagorean)

The Steelers are going through a bit of a transitional period. It would be a bit of an overstatement to say they are rebuilding, but they are modifying their running game, receiving corps, and pass rush, while also drafting their quarterback of the future. For now, the biggest issue is keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy and on the field.

Last season in only 13 games Roethlisberger managed to throw for 3,265 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was reasonably efficient about it, with a 13.2% DVOA and 761 DYAR. Still, that’s quite a drop-off from the 31.2% DVOA he managed in 2010 (in 12 games due to a four game suspension). He’s definitely good enough to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl, but he’ll need more help than he needed in 2010 (or 2008 for that matter). As for Landry Jones, he is getting the Russell Wilson treatment. That is to say, people are highly skeptical of him despite his excellent college stats. Unlike Wilson, he isn’t an aberration because of his height (6’4). Jones fell in the draft because he was considered a system-quarterback whose results were the product of playing in a spread offense in the Big 12. He isn’t mobile and was poor under pressure. The pressure issues can be mitigated as coaches teach him to get the most out of his limited mobility. The Lewin Career Forecast doesn’t apply to quarterbacks taken after the first three rounds. Were Jones to have been taken in the first three rounds, he’d have the fourth highest projection ever (behind Russell Wilson, RG3, and Philip Rivers). I have faith that the Steelers will mold Jones into their next great quarterback.

Of the eight players who had five or more rushing attempts for the Steelers last season, none had a positive DVOA. Even with an injury-ravaged offensive line, that’s pathetic (combined -141 DYAR!). If you combine his rushing and receiver, Isaac Redman netted out at an acceptable 44 DYAR (-6.2% DVOA if you’re wondering). With Rashard Mendenhall’s departure, Redman is at the top of the running back depth chart. Rookie second-round pick Le’Veon Bell will get an opportunity to showcase his diverse skill set as well. I was surprised to see Bell go in the second round, but I have faith in the Steelers’ scouts and coaching staff (I’ve since learned that a significant percentage of scouts had Bell as the #1 overall running back). I know injuries were a major part of the Steelers’ lack of rushing success, but partial credit has to go to the incompetence of offensive coordinator Todd Haley. I am genuinely surprised he still has a job.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is actually pretty good when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing to him. He’s going to have additional pressure to perform now that Mike Wallace is in Miami. Antonio Brown will also shoulder some of the load now that he’s been promoted to the #2 job. Jerricho Cotchery and rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton are battling for the #3 job. Plaxico Burress was going to be part of that competition before a torn rotator cuff removed him from the field. The Steelers generally don’t rush rookie wide receivers into battle, but they are dangerously low on options. Wheaton was very productive at Oregon St., and should be able to handle some simply flanker routes. Wheaton missed OTA’s due to Oregon St.’s graduation schedule. Cotchery has a combined 33 receptions over the past two seasons. If you think the Steelers have thin wide receiver depth, don’t look at their tight ends. Matt Spaeth just had foot surgery due to a Lisfranc injury. Spaeth is expected to miss 8-10 weeks. Heath Miller has not returned from his ACL and MCL tears, and might start the season on the PUP list. That leaves David Paulson as their #1 tight end. Let’s ignore the fact that Paulson had some lousy numbers in very limited usage (-39 DYAR, -65.2% DVOA), and focus on the fact that he was a seventh-round pick who managed to play well enough to make the team and rise to #2 on the depth chart. The Steelers have to have seen something from him that convinced them he was worth keeping around. Roethlisberger and Haley may have their work cut out for them.

Oh dear. I just examined the Steelers offensive line. There are… problems. Marcus Gilbert is moving over from right tackle to left tackle. Gilbert struggled at right tackle before an ankle injury ended his season. Left guard Ramon Foster is a terrible fit for the zone blocking system new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is installing. He is moving over from right guard. Center Maurkice Pouncey is the one sure thing on the line. The 2010 first-round pick has made the Pro Bowl every season. 2012 First-round pick David DeCastro injured his knee in the preseason and struggled when he returned for the final three games. Hopefully he will be much better now that he is fully healthy and has had a full offseason to prepare. 2012 Second-round pick Mike Adams will start at right tackle. An ankle injury limited his rookie season to just six starts in ten games. He did not perform well in those games, and might be an odd fit in the new blocking system. Guy Whimper is the first tackle off the bench. I had him graded as a washup a few years ago, so there are depth problems here. Frankly, an offensive line that invested two first-round and two second-round picks in the past four years should be better than this, but only Pouncey has lived up to his draft status. Injuries could devastate this line again, but even if it remains healthy, there are serious concerns.

2009 undrafted free agent nose tackle Steve McLendon has 22 tackles in his entire career. The Packers went after him in restricted free agency, but the Steelers resigned him to a three-year contract. He’s the starting nose tackle and I have faith the Steelers know what they are doing. Al Woods and Hebron Fangupu are competing for the backup job. Fangupu is a fellow undrafted free agent (2012), but doesn’t have years of Steelers coaching, so Woods will likely win the competition. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel will have the starting jobs flanking McLendon. Keisel is wearing down with age (he’s 35), while Hood simply has never lived up to his draft status (2009 first-round). The Steelers generally do most of their damage defensively via their linebackers, but this is a particularly unimpressive defensive line.

Inside linebacker Larry Timmons is the Steelers’ best defensive player. In addition to being their best linebacker against the run and the pass, he was also their most consistent pass-rusher, nabbing six sacks and 31.5 hits+hurries. At age 27, he’s going to lead this defense for the foreseeable future. He’ll play alongside Larry Foote. Foote is still playing very well, but he’s 33 years old and some slippage would be understandable. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was slowed by injuries and only managed four sacks last season. He’s in much better physical condition and could return to the form that had him average 11 sacks from 2008-2011. It might also help that he sees his replacement on the roster in the form of rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Jones was considered a draft day heist for the Steelers by myself and the draftniks. SackSEER strongly disagrees, preferring Barkevious Mingo and Dion Jordan. I had Jones #1, Jordan #2, and Mingo #3. Jones is currently behind Jason Worilds on the depth chart. Worilds, a 2010 second-round pick, had 3.5 sacks last season as a backup to James Harrison. He should be well prepared for his starting role. There may be some new faces, but this is still an excellent linebacker corps.

This could be the year the Steelers’ secondary falls apart. After being second against the pass in 2010, and third in 2011, the Steelers defense fell to 15th in 2012. Injuries to Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were a big part of it, but so was their performance when healthy. Taylor had more bad days than good days last season. He’s coming back from a broken arm and is 33 years old. His best days are behind him. He’ll play across from Cortez Allen. Allen actually played fewer snaps than Taylor last season, but was a bit better when he was on the field. He’ll move inside when the Steelers play nickel, as covering tight ends was a major weakness for the Steelers last season. Taking his place will be the once and future cornerback, William Gay. Gay spent an unimpressive season in Arizona, but should be somewhat better now that he is back with the Steelers. Strong safety Troy Polamalu had massive difficulty staying on the field last season and is now 32 years old. Yes, the Steelers’ defense is better with him on the field, but he is fading and no longer is the star he was. Free safety Ryan Clark has struggled with concussions, and is limited by his sickle-cell anemia. He may lose playing time to Robert Golden or rookie fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas. For the record, it feels like the Steelers have multiple strong safeties on the roster, but no true free safety. This secondary is fragile and past its prime. I’d be very concerned if the pass rush falters.

The Steelers regularly have decent but unspectacular special teams. That looks to be their plan this season, with the only real question as to whether or not Antonio Brown will return punts, or whether David Gilreath or a dark horse steals the job. Actually, upon further consideration, Emmanuel Sanders is currently listed as the #1 kick returner. It would be very surprising if the Steelers risked their top two wide receivers on special teams duty. LaRod Stephens-Howling is the man most likely to grab the job returning kicks, followed by Reggie Dunn.

The Steelers have a lot more question marks than I was expecting. I cannot stress enough how little faith I have in offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Steelers have an easier schedule than the Bengals, and a much easier schedule than the Ravens. Then again, the Steelers had a easier schedule last season than the one they are projected to face in 2013. The offense has some major issues to overcome, while the defense appears vulnerable. The Steelers may have been unlucky to go 8-8 last season, but I’m seeing a repeat: 8-8.

One day the Colts will surpass the Texans and take over control of the AFC South. That won’t be this year though, for reasons I will explain shortly.

AFC South Projected Standings:

Houston Texans 10-6

Indianapolis Colts 8-8

Tennessee Titans 6-10

Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11

Houston Texans

Expected wins: 9.97

Scouting wins: 10.20

DVOA wins: 9.3

2012 record 12-4 (10.2 Pythagorean)

Results vs. the elite (Denver, Green Bay, New England): 1-3, outscored 150-97. Against everyone else? 12-2, outscoring their opposition 366-235, including a blowout of Baltimore, 43-13. The biggest difference in these results was that Houston’s defense simply couldn’t stop the higher powered offenses. This isn’t a coincidence. Chase Stuart has postulated that offense is 60% of the game (not counting special teams: http://www.footballperspective.com/scoring-is-60-of-the-game/

You’ll note that Aaron Schatz and Brian Burke have noted that offense is more variable than defense. Specifically, great offenses are further from the mean than great defenses are, by roughly a 4/3 ratio. I don’t want to conflate these things, because they are separate.

1. Offensive ratings are more predictive than defensive ratings in any individual game.

2. Offense is more variable than defense.

That means that not only is a truly elite offense further from the mean than a great defense, but that the offense has more control of the game when they meet. Mathematically the relationship might be something like this:

Great Offense: 40% above the mean.

Great Defense: 30% below the mean (using DVOA directions)

Result when they face each other: Offensive production 12% above the mean (.4 * .6 + -.3 * .4). The .6 and .4 being the 3-2 ratio as noted by Chase Stuart. This might explain why last postseason there were 571 points in 11 games.

If that were the end of it, it would be the case that building a great offense is more important than building a great defense. However, there is one other important issue: Offense is more consistent from year to year. Bill Polian has made this point on numerous occasions, referencing how he built the Bills and Colts to be offensive dynasties. This brings us back to the Texans. Their offense has been fading over the past few seasons, and was pretty much average last season (DVOA 0.1%, despite scoring the seventh-most points in the NFL). Their defense was excellent, finishing fourth in DVOA (-14.2%), despite finishing in a tie with New England for ninth-most points allowed. New England scored 141 more points than the Texans, despite the fact both teams finished 12-4. Not only was New England much better than Houston last season, but their success is easier to reproduce.

Speaking of reproducing success, Matt Schaub is followed up one of his best seasons (24.4% DVOA, 701 DYAR in only 10 games), with a moderately good season: 7.5% DVOA, 697 DYAR. He’s 32 years old and his best days are likely behind him. That is unfortunate, seeing as the Texans like to think of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. The truth is, they, like Schaub, are merely pretty good. You’ll note that Football Outsiders sees the Texans as a 9.3-win team. That becomes less impressive when you notice that they are facing the third easiest schedule in the NFL. Games vs. Baltimore and New England do not make up for six games against the weakest division in the NFL.

Arian Foster produced 1,641 yards-from-scrimmage and scored 17 touchdowns. Good season right? Sadly, not. His combined DVOA was -5.2%, with 62 DYAR. Over the past three seasons he’s touched the ball 1,115 times, including 391 last season. He’s clearly wearing down. He’s capable of producing a better season than 2012, but only if his workload drops a bit. Backup Ben Tate is certainly good enough to split time. Tate struggled a bit last season, but he showed what he was capable in 2011 (12.5% DVOA, 151 DYAR, 5.4 yards-per-carry). He lacks Foster’s versatility in the passing game. Even so, I think it would be best if they split carries 50-50.

Wide receiver Andre Johnson is the one big name offensive star who still clearly lives up to his reputation. His 2012 stat line is impressive: +/- +13.3, 19.1% DVOA, 461 DYAR. He’s a future Hall of Fame inductee in the tail end of his prime. Right now Keshawn Martin is #2 on Houston’s depth chart. Martin struggled as a rookie: +/- -7.9, -47.2% DVOA, -92 DYAR. The 2012 fourth-round pick may lose his job to rookie first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins doesn’t have eye-popping athleticism, but was productive at Clemson. He has good hands and was notable for his ability to adjust to balls in flight. I expect him to settle in as a short-to-intermediate target, taking advantage of some of the space opened up by Johnson. 2012 third-round pick DeVier Posey should also see some playing time one he recovers from his Achilles tendon injury. The potential sleeper is Lestar Jean. Unlike the rookies who struggled last season (Posey struggled), Jean was actually effective in his (very) limited playing time. Unlike Posey and Martin, Jean wasn’t drafted, so there is no urgency to get him on the field to prove his selection was justified. A pity. Johnson really could use some help. Tight end Owen Daniels isn’t the receiving threat he used to be, as his 0.6% DVOA last season can attest. He’s still good enough to start, but is now a complementary piece to a healthy offense. Garrett Graham is a fine option as the second tight end in a 2TE set.

Don’t be fooled by the three Pro Bowl selections, this is not a great offensive line. I’ll grant that left tackle Duane Brown deserved his trip. Center Chris Myers probably deserved his trip as well, but unlike Brown, he isn’t a dominant performer. Left guard Wade Smith played through injuries to earn his first Pro Bowl selection. He’s a good player, but don’t be fooled. At best his selection was earned by virtue of the overall dominance of the left side of the line, for which most of the credit belongs to Brown. Ben Jones and Derek Newton have struggled at right guard and tackle, respectively. 2012 third-round pick Brandon Brooks may end up taking Jones’s job. Newton is recovering from knee surgery and may lose his job to rookie third-round pick Brennan Williams. Williams was an elite performer at North Carolina and may be ready to start as a rookie.

J.J. Watt may have had the best defensive season of my lifetime. If he were simply a run-stuffer, he’d be worthy of a Pro Bowl selection: 98% stop rate, avg. rush -0.2 yards. Yes, those were both tops in the NFL. Also, he managed 20.5 sacks. It wasn’t a fluke either, as he also had 54.5 hits+hurries. Finally, he had 18 tips. I couldn’t find a leader board, so I checked each team and discovered that Corey Liuget was second with eight. Across from Watt, Antonio Smith managed seven sacks, which isn’t bad for a defensive end. Jared Crick rotates with Smith and is strictly a run-stopping specialist. Earl Mitchell has been promoted to the starting nose tackle job. He was a dependable backup and should be a fine in an increased role. Chris Jones and Terrell McClain are battling for the backup job.

Between steroids and injuries, inside linebacker Brian Cushing isn’t the budding star he was once hoped to be. Darryl Sharpton hasn’t impressed, so the Texans might move outside linebacker Brooks Reed into Sharpton’s slot. In that case, special teams star Bryan Braman might move into the vacated OLB job. Braman would have to beat out rookie fourth-round pick Travardo Williams. Williams has good speed for the position, but is more of a DE/OLB hybrid who might need some time to adjust to the Texans’ schemes. The Texans’ linebacker corps was once one of the best in the NFL, but those days are gone.

Jonathon Joseph earned a return trip to the Pro Bowl despite struggling with injuries. He may have been invited partly off his reputation, but his play is still above-average. 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson is finally living up to his draft status. If he continues to improve, he may steal Joseph’s Pro Bowl invitation. Nickelback Brice McCain struggled in 2012 and may lose his job to Brandon Harris. Daniel Manning has moved over to strong safety to make room for new arrival Ed Reed. Reed’s best days are behind him and I can’t say I love the addition. One addition I did love was second-round pick D.J. Swearinger. If the Texans grabbed Reed to tutor Swearinger, I’m okay with the move. Swearinger has cornerback agility combined with a linebacker’s physicality. Yes, I wish the Jets had grabbed him instead of going after Geno Smith. Eddie Pleasant has risen up the depth charts, but it is hard to tell if that’s for real, or if it is simply being used as a motivational tool for Swearinger. I suspect Manning is better at free safety, so perhaps the current formation is only short term while Swearinger develops. Then again, if Reed is rejuvenated by the new scenery, perhaps Swearinger will ride the bench for a while.

The Texans’ special teams were the worst in the NFL last season. 2012 fifth-round pick Randy Bullock is taking over the kicking duties, while long time Raider Shane Lechler is taking over the punting duties. The kick coverage teams were also awful, which is something for the coaches to work on. I cannot imagine the Texans’ special teams will be as bad as they were in 2012, but below average isn’t out of the question.

Due to a Charmin-soft schedule I see the Texans returning to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. They may even win a playoff game at home, but like the previous two seasons, that will be the end of the line. The Texans simply aren’t as good as the top teams in NFL, as games against Baltimore, New England, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco will show. 10-6.

Indianapolis Colts

Expected wins: 8.25

Scouting wins: 9.16

DVOA wins: 7.6

2012 record 11-5 (7.2 Pythagorean)

The Indianapolis Colts had the easiest schedule in the NFL last season. Despite that, they were outscored by their opponents 387-357. Despite that, they finished with an 11-5 record. Football is funny sometimes. The good news for the Colts is that they are projected to face the easiest schedule in the NFL for the second straight season. Playing 10 games against the AFC South and West seems to be a clear advantage, despite having to also face San Francisco and Seattle. The Colts could be a significantly better team than they were last season and end up with a losing record. According to DVOA, they were the 25th-best team in the NFL last season.

The main reason the Colts were in the bottom quartile of NFL teams in 2012 was the fact that their defense was terrible (only New Orleans was worse defensively). However, it didn’t help that their quarterback was also below average. Here are the numbers for the incoming class of elite quarterbacks:

RG3: 16.6% DVOA, 836 total DYAR

Russell Wilson: 19.7% DVOA, 1019 total DYAR

Andrew Luck: -5.1% DVOA, 380 total DYAR

One of those was not like the others. Of course, it isn’t really fair to compare Andrew Luck to two of the best rookie quarterbacks of all time. Luck exceeded his high expectations and should be even better this season. I’m cognizant of the fact that I am busting the balls of a guy who set rookie records for most passing yards in a game (433) and a season (4,374). Moreover, Luck had the Elway-esque property of being a scary mofo with his team tied or trailing in the fourth quarter (Even though Marino had more comebacks than Elway, Marino was a statue compared to the Stanford boys). Last season Luck led the Colts on seven game winning drives (Minnesota, Green Bay, Tennessee, Miami, Detroit, Tennessee again, and Kansas City. Four of those included fourth-quarter comebacks (Green Bay, Detroit, Tennessee twice). I have to think the Titans can’t wait until November 14th when they get their chance to drive a stake into Andrew Luck’s heart (metaphorically speaking). I expect that in a few years Andrew Luck will be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His problems with DVOA mostly come from the fact he threw 18 interceptions, a number that will drop as he gets more used to NFL defenses.

Indianapolis struggled running the ball last season. Donald Brown began the season as the starter but struggled, ending up with a -8.7% DVOA. He isn’t particularly adept as a receiver and has had more than his fair share of missed blocks in pass protection, so he’d slid down the depth chart even before an ankle injury ended his season. Rookie fifth-round pick Vick Ballard took Brown’s job, but barely improved upon Brown’s production, ending up with an identical 3.9 yards-per-carry and a -5.3% DVOA. Still, Ballard was a rookie, and more useful in the passing game, so I’ll cut him some slack. Indianapolis recognized that perhaps they needed better personnel here, and signed Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw ended up with 1,260 yards-from-scrimmage in 2012, as well as a very solid 14.9% DVOA (265 DYAR). He’ll have difficulty repeating those numbers behind the Indianapolis offensive line, but even so, he’s a major improvement over Ballard and Brown. Unfortunately, Bradshaw shares Brown’s (and Ballard’s) weaknesses in pass protection. One other issue with Bradshaw: He had surgery in January and was still in a walking boot in June. It might take him some time to get on the field, in which case I’d advise Ballard to make the most of his opportunities with the first team in practice.

So, there seems to be confirmation that the Colts wide receiver depth chart is as follows: #1 Reggie Wayne. #2 Darrius Heyward-Bey. #3 T.Y. Hilton. #4 LaVon Brazill (who is currently suspended four games for substance abuse). Okay, I can actually live with Wayne at the top. He had 106 receptions for 1,350 receiving yards last season, so despite unimpressive advanced stats (+/- -4.5, -6.8% DVOA, 73 DYAR), I can understand the Colts leaving the 35-year old where he ended last season. What I can’t understand is DHB > TYH. Yes, Hilton struggled with drops (7 drops, +/- of -5.0), but when he caught the ball he was devastating: 9.57 yards-per-target, 10.7% DVOA, 151 DYAR. With just a small improvement in his technique, Hilton can be one of the best deep threats in the NFL. Remember, he was a third-round pick in the 2012 draft. He will improve with coaching and practice. Now, compare him to Heyward-Bey: 6 drops, +/- -3.5, 7.58 yards-per-target, -5.3% DVOA, 31 DYAR. Heyward-Bey is nearly three years older than Hilton, and I have to think Hilton has a much brighter future. We’ll see who actually gets more playing time. Tight end Dwayne Allen is currently struggling with a foot injury. The 2012 third-round pick was supposed to be the backup to fellow rookie (and second-round pick) Coby Fleener, but Fleener suffered a shoulder injury and Allen made the most of his opportunities. Allen ended up with 45 receptions for 521 yards. He was efficient, as well (DVOA 14.9%, 67 DYAR). In addition, he was also an effective blocker, so the Colts are looking forward to his healthy return. As for Fleener, look for him to have a bounce-back season as he is now playing with his college quarterback and his college offensive coordinator. As 2TE packages go, this one should be impressive.

The Colts’ offensive line got destroyed last season. Recognizing that they had a problem, the Colts picked up linemen in free agency (right tackle Gosder Cherilus, left guard Donald Thomas), as well as in the draft (guard Hugh Thorton in the third-round, center Khaled Holmes in the fourth-round). Cherilus and Thomas will be expected to start immediately while Thorton and Holmes develop. However, even with these moves, I see major problems. 2011 first-round pick left tackle Anthony Costanzo has put together a pair of awful seasons. In 2011 he had some excuses (injuries, rookie), but 2012 was expected to be better. The Colts have to hope he figures out how to handle the job this season, or else they’ll need to find his replacement. Thomas will take over at left guard. He hasn’t started in a few years, but looked good in part time duty for New England. Center Samson Satele played well, but missed five games due to injury. Right guard Mike McGlynn was terrible last season. When the Colts coaches deem Thorton ready, McGlynn will be sent to the bench, hopefully never to return. Cherilus had his own problems in pass protection and has a nasty habit of committing penalties. I don’t foresee good things for this offensive line. Odd note: Both tackles went to Boston College, and 80% of the starters played in the Big East, with Samson Satele being the exception (Hawaii). Second odd note: The first tackle off the bench? Emmett Cleary, formerly of Boston College.

If you had trouble spotting the Colts’ pass rush last season, don’t feel bad. In 13 of their 17 games the Colts managed 2 or fewer sacks, ending up with 33 counting the playoff loss to the Ravens. To fix this problem the Colts drafted defensive end Bjorn Werner and brought in outside linebacker Erik Walden. Werner struggled at the combine but had an excellent career at Florida St. and should be able to play immediately, either at end or at linebacker. SackSEER is optimistic about him, considering him the third-best prospect behind Barkevious Mingo and Ezekiel Ansah. I had expected Werner to go in the top 10 before the Combine. The Colts were very fortunate he fell to them at 24th. As for Walden, he only managed three sacks last season, but his 22.5 hits+hurries tell a more accurate tale. Walden will replace the departed Dwight Freeney. Robert Mathis will start across from Walden. Mathis has 88 sacks over the last nine seasons, and at age 32 he is still a premier pass-rusher. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer played through foot problems and should be both healthier and more effective this season. If not, he may lose his job to Kelvin Sheppard. Former CFL star Jerrell Freeman did an excellent job. If he repeats his performance from last season, he’ll deserve a trip to the Pro Bowl.

You’ll note I haven’t talked much about the defensive line. The Colts recognized it was an area of weakness last season, and have brought in Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean-Francois to start at tackle and end, respectively. The best player on the line is the only returning starter, Cory Redding. I wouldn’t describe any of these new pickups as difference-makers. The Colts ended last season with four defensive linemen on injured reserve (including solid defenders Fili Moala and Drake Nevis). It is unlikely they’ll be as injury-bit this season.

Over the past three seasons the Colts have been 26th, 28th, and 27th against the pass (according to DVOA). Consistency isn’t always a virtue. I understand that it is tough playing cornerback behind a weak pass rush. That doesn’t absolve Vontae Davis of his struggles last season. He battled injuries for much of the season and may prove to be worth the second-round pick the Colts traded to Miami for him. He’ll play across from free agent pickup Greg Toler. Toler played well for the Cardinals in limited duty (due to injuries). Health, and a pass rush, would lead to much better results against the pass. Darius Butler has the leg up on the nickel job as Cassius Vaughn is dealing with an injured wrist. Butler had four interceptions for the Colts last season and may end up as a starter by the end of the season. Antoine Bethea returns at free safety. He’ll be joined by free agent pickup LaRon Landry. Landry is an effective open-field tackler and should be an improvement in that regard over the departed Tom Zbikowski.

The Colts decided to franchise tag punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee. Were negotiations that tough that they couldn’t come to an agreement? Did the Colts find a loophole where McAfee wanted to be paid a punter’s salary + some portion of a kicker’s salary, but was only credited with punting as far as the tag was concerned? I’d do some research into this, but, well, I don’t really care. McAfee helped lead the Colts into positive territory in the special teams rankings (12th). The Colts were a bit lucky with multiple returns for touchdowns. I’d expect the Colts to slip down the rankings a bit due to weak coverage units. Even so, they shouldn’t be as awful as they were in 2010 and 2011 (31st both seasons).

The Colts will almost certainly regress in the win column this season. Even so, they are a young team that is getting better. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Colts still have numerous holes on their roster. By the time Luck has reached his potential, the Colts should have filled most of those holes. By 2015 they’ll probably return to the playoffs, this time with a positive scoring differential. Until then, easy schedules should keep them from embarrassing themselves. 8-8.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Expected wins: 4.86

Scouting wins: 3.98

DVOA wins: 6.1

2012 record 2-14 (3.3 Pythagorean)

In the history of my Football Previews, never before had a team had a cumulative talent deficit so heinous that they were expected to win fewer than four games on merit. Sure, teams go 3-13 or worse, but never before have I seen a team enter a season in such bad shape. Spoiler alert: The Jaguars are the second-least talented team in the NFL, but you’ll have to wait a bit before I get to the least. When you have a disaster of this magnitude, you need a scapegoat. Let me present to you the former General Manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gene Smith:

http://www.jaguars.com/team/scouts/gene-smith.html

Smith’s drafts were often roundly jeered at the time. He took numerous bad gambles, and in time he got the results he’d earned. I can forgive that. What is less forgivable is falling victim to the principal-agent problem. In an effort to save his job he went on a terribly misguided free agent binge. In the end, not only did he leave his franchise bereft of talent, he also left it with salary cap problems it in no way deserved. Often, scapegoats are mere victims of circumstance when blame needs to find a home. Not this time. Gene Smith will never run a team again. Even Matt Millen deserves less scorn (although not much less). So, now that we’ve discussed the excremental past, how about the present?

Blaine Gabbert had the second-worst rookie season in the DVOA era, trailing only David Carr of the expansion Houston Texans (A case can be made for Alex Smith, but in this case I am going with DYAR as opposed to DVOA in terms of how to best measure the absolute level of suckage). After “producing” -1,045 DYAR in his rookie season, Gabbert improved to -263, albeit in only 10 games due to a forearm injury. His DVOA jumped from -46.5% to -26.3%. In Gabbert’s absence, Chad Henne took the reins in Jacksonville. His performance? -188 DYAR, -24.6% DVOA. Cue Spaceballs:

http://movie-sounds.org/sci-fi-movie-samples/spaceballs-1987/if-theres-one-thing-i-despise-it-is-a-fair-fight

Football is a team game, and one of the main reasons both Gabbert and Henne have struggled is that the offensive line has been unable to protect them. I don’t know if the offensive line is to blame for failing to protect Maurice Jones-Drew. MJD only managed 100 touches before he was lost for the final ten games of the season with a Lisfranc injury. In MJD’s absence, the Jaguars’ rushing game managed a combined -70 DYAR. Then again, MJD was not having a great season himself (-0.9% DVOA, 27 DYAR). Justin Forsett has joined the Jaguars and is slated to back up MJD. Then again, if MJD isn’t fully recovered from his surgery, Forsett will discover that life is much harder when your offensive line is consistently overmatched.

A poorly-run franchise wouldn’t stop at quarterback or offensive line blunders. 2012 fifth-overall pick Justin Blackmon pulled off an impressive +/- of -15.2. His DVOA of -15.0% and -4 DYAR are actually reasonable given the quarterback play he had to deal with. He’ll miss the first four games of the season due to violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Moreover, due to how his contract was structured, Blackmon’s future guarantees are voided. I should note that this suspension was because of a second failed test. Blackmon has also had multiple DUI’s. While he is out, Cecil Shorts and Mohamed Massaquoi will get the opportunity to start. Massaquoi was a second-round pick for the Browns in 2009, but failed to produce in his time there. Shorts had an astonishingly good season given the abominable quarterback play he had to deal with (138 DYAR, 5.2% DVOA). Jordan Shipley has been injured and ineffective over the past two seasons. Rookie fourth-round pick Ace Sanders might also work his way into the lineup. I would’ve been happier had the Jaguars grabbed him in the fifth-round, but that’s a small issue in the scheme of things. His immediate value will likely come from returning punts. Tight end Marcedes Lewis followed up a miserable 2011 season with a reasonable one (0.0% DVOA, 21 DYAR). Again, given the awful QB play, that’s impressive. He’s a solid blocker but I don’t foresee him being a difference maker by the time the Jaguars return to respectability.

I’ll be blunt: The entire Jaguars offensive line embarrassed themselves in 2012. The best player was left tackle Eugene Monroe, and his season can only be described as “poor”. He is entering a contract year and needs to be much better if he wants to grab a major free agent deal. Left guard William Rackley is coming back from a year on injured reserve, so he can be skipped in this post-mortem. Center Brad Meester would be a backup on an average team. He struggled last season and I don’t expect he’ll be any better at age 36. Right guard Uche Nwaneri played through injuries last season. The Jaguars can only hope he’ll be able to raise his level of play given better health. Second-overall pick Luke Joeckel is taking over at right tackle. I had him as the best player in the 2013 draft. He should be a massive improvement over Cameron Bradfield. I don’t expect Joeckel to be stuck at right tackle beyond this season. Given the addition of Joeckel, the return to health for both Nwaneri and Rackley, and a contract year boost for Monroe, there is hope for the Jaguars. 2012 undrafted free agent Michael Brewster taking over for Meester would be icing on the cake.

Sadly for the Jaguars, they had an awful defense to pair with their awful offense. They managed a miserable 20 sacks last season. Given that they had imported Jason Babin to improve their pass rush, that was unfortunate. 2010 first-round pick Tyson Alualu led the Jaguars with 3.5 sacks. Even the lowly Chiefs could point to Justin Houston. The Jaguars don’t have a single player who offenses need to gameplan to stop. Babin and Alualu will start across from each other at defensive end. Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller are slated to start at tackle.

Paul Posluszny is the big name at inside linebacker. He led the team in tackles, but was more garbageman than destroyer. He’ll be flanked by Geno Hayes and Russell Allen. Like so many other areas, this is a place where the Jaguars will need to invest draft picks to restock.

Free agent pickup Alan Ball is penciled to start at cornerback across from rookie third-round pick Dwayne Gratz. Gratz has a good mix of size and athleticism. He might struggle a bit, as 2013 will be a trial by fire for him. Even so, he’ll likely develop into a solid press cornerback and was a good pickup for the Jags. It’s early, but right now it looks like Mike Harris will win the nickel job. Rookie second-round pick Jonathan Cyprien will start at strong safety. Like Gratz, Cyprien has excellent size and athleticism for the position. It’s a big step up from Florida International to the NFL, so expect a few rookie mistakes. Free safety Dwight Lowery has been effective when healthy. He’ll be the only returning starter in the secondary.

Given the offensive and defensive problems the Jaguars have, I won’t dwell too much on their lousy special teams. I will say that their punt return game should be improved by the addition of Ace Sanders. The Jaguars’ coverage teams problems stemmed mostly from poor coverage and blocking. Kicker Josh Scobee and punter Bryan Anger were both solid at their jobs.

Owner Shahid Khan has installed David Caldwell as general manager, to be assisted by Tony Khan, Shahid’s son. Tony’s specialty is analytics. You can hear his thoughts on the subject here: http://sportsanalyticsblog.com/articles/tony-khan-jaguars-talks-about-analytics–2

Good drafting can eventually lift a team out of the abyss, but it takes time. In the short term the Jaguars will need better offensive line play before they can determine what they have in Gabbert. They’ll need better quarterback play to determine how good their wide receiver corps is. They’ll need a better pass-rush to protect their secondary. For now, I’ll say they more than double their win total and finish 5-11.

Tennessee Titans

Expected wins: 6.40

Scouting wins: 7.87

DVOA wins: 6.4

2012 record 6-10 (4.6 Pythagorean)

Interesting. The Titans were lucky to finish with six wins last season. DVOA and the market expect a similar win total this season. Why are the scouts so high on Tennessee? The answer is the scouts like the Titans’ offensive line and backfield, and they consider the defense only slightly below-average. This defense finished 25th in the 2012 DVOA rankings. The offensive line was wracked with injuries last season, which led to an offensive collapse (29th in the DVOA rankings). Such injury woes are rarely repeated, so perhaps the scouts have a point in not overreacting to last season’s results.

I was highly skeptical of Jake Locker when the Titans grabbed him with the eighth-overall pick of the 2011 draft. He exceeded expectations in limited use his rookie season (542 yards passing, 22.0% DVOA, 143 DYAR). Unfortunately, when he was given the starting job he was unable to replicate his success (-23.6% DVOA, -265 DYAR). The offensive line woes are only partly to blame, as Locker was clearly struggling from the beginning of the season. My sense is that his rookie season was a small sample fluke, and that he just isn’t accurate enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. If he can improve his accuracy, his value running the ball would become more relevant. Over the past two seasons his rushing DVOA has been 27.1%, with 81 DYAR. He’s young and mobile, so perhaps the Titans could build their offensive gameplans around his strengths. If the Titans decide to bench Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the first man off the bench. Fitzpatrick is comfortably in the “better than replacement level, worse than average” category.

Over the past three seasons Chris Johnson has averaged 1,516 yards-from-scrimmage. Pretty good, right? Well, before answering, let me inform you his average rushing DVOA has been -11.1%. His receiving DVOA has been even worse (-18.5%). His cumulative DYAR over the last three years is -125. Yes, he was awesome in 2009, but he has royally sucked since then. The Titans will use Shonn Greene in short yardage situations. Spoiler alert: Greene will be perform at a roughly league-average rate. I am starting to suspect some of the scouts have been mailing it in for a while.

Kenny Britt has shown he can be awesome when healthy. He hasn’t shown he can stay healthy. I’m going to presume that his injury woes are mostly due to bad luck, particularly given that this is a contract year for him. Nate Washington is fighting to keep his job. His production and efficiency dropped significantly last season, and the Titans have a surfeit of young talent at wide receiver. 2012 first-round pick Kendall Wright struggled in his rookie season (-14.4% DVOA), but I am going to give him a mulligan due to the lousy quarterback play he had to put up with. I don’t think the Titans were expecting Justin Hunter to fall to them in the second-round of the draft, but that’s what happened and they happily picked him up. He’s often described as a “poor man’s A.J. Green”. He should be able to step in as an intermediate-to-deep threat. 2010 third-round pick Damian Williams would be one of the best #4 receivers in the NFL, if the Titans choose to use him as such. Between Delanie Walker, Taylor Thomson, and Craig Stevens, the Titans have plenty of fungible tight ends that they can use to fill the hole left by Jared Cook’s departure. Somehow, Walker finagled his way to the top of the depth chart (perhaps due to the fact he was given a surprisingly-fat free agent contract), while Stevens will apparently get playing time at fullback. I’m not watching the team practices, I’m not seeing what the coaching staff is seeing. That’s my way of saying I am not sure what the Titans are doing. 🙂

Left tackle Michael Roos has continued his run of playing well (but not great) at left tackle. The Titans signed Andy Levitre to take over at left guard. He should be a significant improvement over the fading Steve Hutchinson. Center Fernando Velasco is currently engaged in a positional battle with rookie fourth-round pick Brian Schwenke. I felt Schwenke was a great value pickup and should be a starter in the near future. Another great value pickup was right guard Chance Warmack with the tenth pick. Guards aren’t valued as highly as tackles, but Warmack was absolutely dominant in college. He has the power to open running lanes and the technique to shut down a pass rush. I would have been happy to see the Jets draft him, which is the highest praise I can give. Right tackle David Stewart is coming back from a compound leg fracture that ended his season. He should be ready to start the season. When healthy, he is an above-average player. Overall, this line should be significantly improved from last season, and as such, the problems in the running and passing game will be caused by the skill players, not the players blocking for them.

I’ve seen 2010 first-round pick defensive end Derrick Morgan described as a disappointment. That strikes me as unfair, particularly given that he was easily the Titans’ best defensive lineman last season. The criticism might stem from the fact that he only had 6.5 sacks to go with his 45.5 hits+hurries. Across from Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley had six sacks but only 18.5 hits+hurries in 2012. Morgan also had roughly double the amount of tackles (59-30) despite only playing four more snaps (914-910). Some of this might stem from Wimbley’s adjustment to end after playing outside linebacker for his entire career. Tackle Jurrell Casey had a solid sophomore season. He’ll be joined by free agent pickup Sammie Lee Hill. Hill, a massive run-stuffer, will have to adjust to playing close to 800 snaps in a season, up from the 402 he played last season in Detroit. Second-round picks Zack Brown (2012) and Akeem Ayers (2011) are a solid tandem at outside linebacker. Brown covers the weak side and is superb in space. Ayers has less range but much more power. He covers the strong side and is developing into a decent pass rusher. They combined for 11.5 sacks last season. The Titans’ real problem was that their interior was weak. Will Witherspoon got old and Colin McCarthy got hurt. The Titans signed Moise Fokou to backup McCarthy. Fokou may get to play sooner than anyone expected, as McCarthy is already struggling with a hamstring injury. Rookie third-round pick Zaviar Gooden will help provide depth at outside linebacker.

Starting cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner struggled last season, as did the multiple options the Titans tried at nickel. Rookie third-round pick Blidi Wreh-Wilson has excellent size and speed, but lacks the kind of agility and strength you’d like. Even so, he was a great value pick and should be able to start outside later this season. That would allow Verner to move inside, thus solving two problems with one player. Speaking of solving problems, free agent pickup Bernard Pollard is a massive improvement at strong safety. Free safety Michael Griffin hasn’t lived up to his 2012 contract and will need to improve or he’ll find himself on the street. His base salary will jump from $3.5M to $6.2M next season, and the cap hit for cutting him would only be 5.4M. In an odd but real way, this is a contract year for him. Missing fewer tackles would help.

Kickers are notorious for being able to stay in the NFL long into their late thirties, but that doesn’t exclude them from aging curves. Rob Bironas fell to earth last season, and he brought the Titans’ special teams with him. The training camp battle between return specialists Darius Reynaud and Marc Mariani may be decided by Mariani’s injured shoulder. Now that Bironas is among the mortals, the Titans’ special teams should be average or a little-below.

Improved offensive line play and an easy schedule should keep the Titans respectable. The difference between 6-10 and 7-9 may come down to whether or not the December 29th game at home vs. Houston matters at all to the Texans. I’ll guess it does, so 6-10 is the prediction.

Like New England and Houston, Denver enjoys facing a division without serious opposition. That will allow them to enjoy a first-round bye, but will that be enough? Read on!

AFC West Projected Standings:

Denver Broncos 12-4

Kansas City Chiefs 8-8

San Diego Chargers 6-10

Oakland Raiders 4-12

Denver Broncos

Expected wins: 11.16

Scouting wins: 12.8

DVOA wins: 10.3

2012 record 13-3 (12.5 Pythagorean)

The AFC was thought to be fairly understood entering the playoffs. There were two titans that would eventually meet to determine the AFC champion. Yes, Houston actually had the best record for a while, but they were considered paper tigers even at the time. New England was considered the best team, while Denver was almost as good and would have home field advantage when they met in the AFC Championship on January 20th. As you know, that didn’t happen. The Ravens went 77 yards in 38 seconds, 70 of those yards coming on a deep touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones. The Denver secondary definitely screwed up there, but the game wasn’t over. Denver had the ball at their 20 yard line with 31 seconds left, 2 time outs, and some of the thinnest air a kicker (Matt Prater) could want. The chances of Denver turning the ball over and losing because of it were much lower than the chances of Denver driving for the winning field goal. However, if Fox had gone for it, he could be blamed for his decision if it went poorly. By taking the “safe” path into overtime, Fox put the burden on his players. That’s a gutless move we see far too often in the NFL. We have excellent strategic analytics. We know that teams should punt less, kick fewer short field goals, and go for it on 4th down more often. We also know that self-interested coaches don’t want to be blamed for “risky” (but mathematically sound) gambles that backfire. Fox put his interests ahead of the interests of his team. I can only hope team owner Pat Bowlen privately let him know that such behavior will not be tolerated in the future.

One other reason not to take a knee? You have Peyton Manning! I was skeptical of Manning’s health heading into 2012, but I was wrong. He was healthy enough to torch defenses for 1,806 DYAR and a superb 32.8% DVOA. Those are better numbers than he put up in his final season in Indianapolis and a major reason why the Broncos had the best record in the AFC. He’s 37 years old, so a bit of slippage would be understandable. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and has an excellent shot of getting back to the Super Bowl.

Manning’s brilliance did little to assist the Denver running game, which ended up with a -3.3% DVOA and a measly 103 DYAR. That is one of the areas where the Patriots (420 DYAR) have a clear advantage over the Broncos. 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman struggled so badly that the Broncos grabbed Montee Ball late in the second-round. It could be that they felt Ball was too good a value to pass up (I had him as the best running back in the draft), but given the need to win now, I think they were looking to fill a need. Overuse in college may shorten Ball’s NFL career, but again, win now. Given that the Broncos have a great passing game, and have invested a pair of high picks, another poor rushing performance would be highly embarrassing.

Anyone remember the three amigos? No, not the underrated movie with a plethora of great scenes. I’m talking about the wide receivers Ricky Nattiel, Mark Jackson, and Vance Johnson. Along with some guy named Elway, they led the Broncos to three AFC championships in four seasons. Last season Brandon Stokley (37.4% DVOA, 204 DYAR), Eric Decker (27.2% DVOA, 392 DYAR), and Demaryius Thomas (21.4% DVOA, 354 DYAR) came close to bringing those Broncos back. Stokley fell victim to age discrimination in the offseason (he’s 37) and was replaced with the 32-year-old Wes Welker. Welker found his way into Bill Belichick’s doghouse and decided he was okay with catching passes from Peyton Manning instead of Tom Brady. This is as good a trio of receivers as you’ll find in the NFL. Thomas and Decker on the outside, with Welker patrolling the middle. I wasn’t impressed with tight end Joel Dreessen. He remains a serviceable starter, mostly due to his underrated blocking skills.

The Denver Broncos’ offensive line is made up of three parts: one great, one good, one flawed. The left tackle Ryan Clady and left guard Zane Beadles are the best left side of any line in the NFL. Both are significantly above-average, and they work very well together. Right tackle Orlando Franklin had his problems, but he also had some very good days and is a fine player overall. He’ll be joined by a free agent pickup, right guard Louis Vasquez. Vasquez is a good pass blocker who doesn’t have ideal run blocking power. Franklin excels at run blocking, but has his issues in pass protection. They’re a fine pairing, just not as good as the one on the other side of the line. Then we come to the center of the line: As expected J.D. Walton is on the PUP list due to an injured left ankle. Knowing this was coming, the Broncos signed Dan Koppen, who tore his ACL in practice and will miss the season. That means Manny Ramirez may once more called upon to start. Ramirez is a well balanced player, equally adept at failing in run blocking or pass protection, as well as picking up penalties. Ramirez is battling Ryan Lilja for the job. Lilja had been unofficially retired when the Broncos called. There is also the possibility that injured right guard Chris Kuper could return to the field at center. He hasn’t played center since his junior year of college, but has been snapping the ball in practice. The Broncos understand this is a problem area and are trying to find an elegant solution. Barring that, they want to throw someone out there who doesn’t suck. Assuming they can do that, this is one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.

There has been a lot of sturm und drang over the loss of defensive end Elvis Dumervil. To recap, Demervil’s agent, Marty Magid, was renegotiating Dumbervil’s contract with the Broncos. They reached a deal right before the deadline, but due to some fax machine snafu, the deal wasn’t finalized in time and the Broncos released Dumervil, who eventually signed with the Ravens. The Broncos will miss Dumervil’s pass-rush (11 sacks, 35 hits+hurries), but not his deficiencies against the run. Neither Derek Wolf nor Robert Ayers can match Dumervil’s disruption, but both are balanced players who will help control the line of scrimmage. The Broncos are loaded inside. Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton will start, while rookie first-round pick Sylvester Williams will be part of the rotation. Williams was the single best “value-pick” in the draft. He could easily have gone in the top-10, but fell to the Broncos at 28th. He’s already quit football once, and there were concerns about his dedication. He’s a more talented version of Terrance Knighton and I expect him to make a difference this season.

The Broncos are rolling the dice with their linebacker corps. Von Miller is one of the best linebackers in the NFL (18.5 sacks, 53 hits+hurries, solid vs. the run). However, he was already facing a four game suspension before being arrested for failing to appear in court (on charges of driving without a license and proof of insurance). The Broncos open up with games vs. Baltimore and at the Giants, so his absence should be felt almost immediately. Inside, the Broncos are hoping 2011 third-round pick Nate Irving is ready to handle the position he was drafted to play. He has 17 career tackles, so we’re going to have to trust he’s ready to handle the job. On the weak side, Wesley Woodward has been a Renaissance man, nabbing 117 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and three interceptions. Budget free-agent signing Shaun Phillips will likely start in Miller’s absence. Phillips isn’t nearly the player Miller is, but he’s a better backup than most. The uncertainty surrounding Miller (suspension?) and Irving (can he play?) concern me. Even so, I expect when the playoffs come around this will be one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL. (Update: Von Miller has been suspended for six games. That is an unusual length and it spooks me. I have to account for the possibility that Miller is such a dedicated used that he’ll no longer be effective without them. We call this the Sean Merriman effect.)

Champ Bailey is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Yes, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil deserved part of the credit, but Bailey had excellent results last season. He’ll play across from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, while Chris Harris moves inside to the slot/nickel. DRC is one of the most talented cornerbacks in the NFL, but has rarely played as well as his talent. Perhaps being surrounded by veterans on a loaded roster is what he needs to finally make the jump. Free safety Rahim Moore played well for most of the season, but that’s not what we (or he) will remember:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br2QVozDaA0

He’s only 23 years old and should eventually build a legacy that almost entirely erases that error. Strong safety Mike Adams is versatile enough to do anything you can ask a safety to do. Insofar as he has a major weakness, he struggles covering larger or more athletic tight ends. There has been some talk of moving Moore to strong safety and giving Quentin Jammer some snaps at free safety. The Broncos have excellent cornerback depth, but if Jammer is your first safety off the bench (he’s an aging cornerback), you have an issue. The Broncos have to hope Adams and Moore stay healthy.

Adjusting for the advantages of playing at Mile High, the Broncos’ special teams were a hair above-average. As always, they could have great or terrible special teams this season and I’d struggle to find a reason for it beyond luck plus variance.

Apart from an overly conservative head coach, the Broncos have few weaknesses. Yes, their pass rush looks weaker than last season. That is mitigated by improvements vs. the run and the addition of DRC. The defense will likely be a little worse than it was last season. The additions of Welker and Ball may make the offense even better than it was. Along with the Patriots, the Broncos are clearly the class in the AFC. They are better than Houston or Baltimore, and have an easier schedule than New England. As such, I see them repeating as AFC West champs and claiming home field for a second straight season. (Update: Scratch that. The Von Miller six-game suspension hurts. I still have the Broncos finishing 12-4, but in this case it includes a loss at New England instead of a meaningless end of season loss at Oakland.)

Kansas City Chiefs

Expected wins: 7.73

Scouting wins: 6.73

DVOA wins: 6.6

2012 record 2-14 (2.5 Pythagorean)

The Chiefs will win more games than they did last season. Competent quarterback play plus improved turnover luck should get the Chiefs to six wins. Furthermore, a defense with four Pro Bowl players (one as an alternate) should be a lot better than 30th in the league (according to DVOA). The question is how much better? Let’s look at the roster:

Quarterback Alex Smith is an improvement over the departed Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. He’s been good under Jim Harbaugh, but his statistics before Harbaugh’s arrival tell a more relevant tale. He’s a limited player who can take what the defense gives him. Andy Reid needed someone who could play above (or at) replacement level, so he gave the 49ers a 2013 second-round pick and a 2014 third-round pick (upgraded to a second-round pick if the Chiefs go 8-8 or better). Apparently Reid has wanted to coach Smith for a while, and the Chiefs’ lack of quarterback talent plus Reid’s leverage as new coach gave him the pull to make it happen. I’m confident the Chiefs overpaid, but Smith will help them in the short run.

Jamaal Charles tweaked his foot in the preseason, but should be good to go once the regular season starts. He has a strong claim as the best running back in the NFL not named Adrian Peterson. His lifetime 5.8 yards-per-carry is the best ever. The only real question is whether Andy Reid cares. He is notorious for his indifference to running the ball. I understand where he is coming from, as analytics tell us that most teams run the ball far too often, but you do have to adjust to your talent. Rookie third-round pick (and 2013 speed score champion) Knile Davis will backup Charles. He’s an injury prone one-cut rusher with breakaway speed, and as such is perfect in a backup role.

If Reid wants to make a real difference for the Chiefs, he can do it by getting 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin to play to his potential. Baldwin’s career -31.2% DVOA and -126 DYAR are not commensurate with his tremendous talent. Baldwin is more talented than the Chiefs #1 receiver, Dwayne Bowe. Bowe should benefit from the upgrade at quarterback, and may return to the form he showed in 2010 and 2011 when he averaged 1,160 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns, 228 DYAR, and a 6.2% DVOA. I am baffled as to what the Chiefs see in Donnie Avery, who they signed to a free-agent deal. He tore his ACL in 2010 and has been terrible since (+/- -12.3, -18.5% DVOA, -70 DYAR). I suppose he is technically a “deep threat”, but those are freely available. The 2010 second-round pick has one season left to prove he isn’t a bust. I wish him best of luck. There is a rarely seen three-way battle for the top two tight end slots. Anthony Fasano struggled last season in Miami, but thrived in 2010 and 2011 when they let him get downfield. Rookie third-round pick Travis Kelce (Kel-see) was given a first-round grade on talent, but dropped due to concerns about his work ethic. He’s a natural receiver and looks like a natural fit for the 2TE formations Reid favors. Tony Moeaki isn’t the player he was before his 2011 ACL injury. He was expected to be the starter, but Reid hasn’t been impressed and right now Moeaki is third on the depth chart. I’d expect all three players to get playing time.

Flash back to the 2013 NFL draft. Conventional wisdom was that the Chiefs would take Luke Joeckel and trade left tackle Brandon Albert. The Chiefs tried to trade Albert, but didn’t like what they were offered in return and kept him. They decided they preferred Eric Fisher over Joeckel so conventional wisdom went 0-for-2. The next bit of conventional wisdom was that Albert would move over to the right side so Fisher could start at left tackle. It still may happen, but right now conventional wisdom is on pace to go 0-for-3. Albert is a fine left tackle and I have no problem with him keeping the job. Fisher looks to be a great player. He should be very comfortable spending a season at right tackle. 2012 third-round pick Donald Stephenson provides good tackle depth. He’ll likely start at right tackle next season after Albert departs. 2012 second-round pick Jeff Allen starts at left guard. He’s talented, but still needs more power. He was a clear weak link last season. 2010 third-round pick Jon Asamoah has improved each season. 2011 second-round pick Rodney Hudson is coming back from a broken leg that ended his 2012 season. Overall, this is one of the most talented (and highly drafted) lines in the NFL.

I can’t recall the last team to send three linebackers to the Pro Bowl. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali is an elite pass-rusher. Justin Houston outperformed Hali (10 sacks, 32.5 hits+hurries vs. 9 sacks, 22.5 hits+hurries) and earned his invite as well. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He forced 11 turnovers and led the Chiefs in tackles for the third straight season. Right now Akeem Jordan has the edge over rookie fourth-round pick Nico Johnson in the battle to be the other starting inside linebacker. The issue for the Chiefs defense isn’t the linebacker corps, which is fantastic. It is the weak defensive line.

It’s not as if the Chiefs haven’t tried to build a great defensive line. 2012 first-round pick Dontario Poe is an effective nose tackle. He didn’t provide the disruption the Chiefs might have hoped for, but he held his ground as well as could have been expected. 2009 first-round pick Tyson Jackson has never lived up to expectations. He’s solid against the run, which isn’t what you want to be the headline for a highly-picked defensive end. He’ll play across from free-agent pickup Mike Devito. As you might imagine, there isn’t great depth behind the starters. I know they’ve been burned before, but the Chiefs should think about investing some of their high 2014 picks in the defensive line. That might be tricky, given they just gave one of those picks to the 49ers.

It’s tough to say if strong safety Eric Berry deserved his invitation to the Pro Bowl. He was a monster when attacking the play in front of him. He struggled when he had to cover a receiver in open space. This is the kind of problem you can solve with scheme, but doing so limits your options. Free safety Kendrick Lewis is holding on to his job by the skin of his teeth. Injuries and poor performance have kept him off the field, but a lack of better options has put him back on it. Cornerback Brandon Flowers had a very good season and might have deserved a Pro Bowl invite himself. Sean Smith wasn’t nearly as effective as he’d been in Miami. Teams fall in love with Smith’s height (6-3), but his level of play just isn’t that high. Eleven-year veteran Dunta Robinson is currently slated to grab the nickel job. If teams just avoid Flowers, this secondary might get torched.

Pro Bowl punter Dustin Colquitt is the sole bright spot in an otherwise lousy special teams unit. The biggest areas of weakness are the return games. Improved blocking would benefit whoever wins the positional battles currently being waged by incumbent Dexter McCluster and challenger Devon Wylie.

A new coach should revitalize the Chiefs, at least in the short term. An easy schedule will also help. I’m seeing a six win improvement that doesn’t necessarily lead to a brighter future. 8-8.

Oakland Raiders

Expected wins: 4.91

Scouting wins: 2.87

DVOA wins: 6.4

2012 record 4-12 (4.1 Pythagorean)

The scouts are distinctly unimpressed with the Raiders roster, perhaps unfairly. The Raiders’ management decided that if they weren’t going to win, there was no reason to spend money or waste future cap space on players that would only bring them to mediocrity. This is very smart thinking, somewhat reminiscent of the “tanking” we typically see in the NBA (and now in MLB with the Astros and Marlins). This is what happens when you reward failure (with high draft picks), as opposed to punishing it with relegation, as you see in European soccer leagues. Given the situation, I feel the Raiders have been very intelligent. They traded down in the draft, turning the third-overall pick into the 12th and 42nd picks. They also picked up a potential franchise quarterback on the cheap, and wisely signed him to a two-year deal. Anything longer would risk binding them to a quarterback they later decide they don’t want (Sanchez, Mark), and a one-year deal leaves them in a very tough position if he proves to be the man they want. The quarterback in question? The master of small sample excellence, Matt Flynn!

Over the last two seasons Matt Flynn has averaged 10+ yards-per-attempt. He has a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an average DVOA of 49.9%. Those are awesome numbers, but put up in a sample of 58 pass attempts. If you include his 2010 results, his DVOA drops to 14.9%, still in a small sample of 124 pass attempts. That’s the number of passes you’d see a quarterback throw in three or four games. We shouldn’t read too much into it. We also shouldn’t read too much into the fact he couldn’t beat out Russell Wilson for a job. The Seahawks were merely exceptionally quick at recognizing what they had. Backup Terrelle Pryor isn’t a realistic option at this point. More intriguing is rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson. The general scouting consensus was that Wilson was a second-round talent who fell to the Raiders due to concerns his skills wouldn’t translate well to the NFL. In other words, he didn’t have the height to play the same style he played in college. Wilson hasn’t impressed the Raiders coaching staff so far. Undrafted rookie free-agent Matt McGloin is currently ahead of Wilson on the depth chart. There’s a good chance the Raiders are just giving Wilson negative feedback to motivate him. I understand the concept of sunk cost, but the McGloin-Wilson decision shouldn’t be based on who is better at the moment. If Wilson does get cut, look for another team to swiftly pick him up. (Update: Terrelle Pryor has apparently beat out Flynn for the job. Pryor hasn’t seen much NFL action, and I was not impressed with his NFL potential when he was at Ohio St. If you don’t remember him being drafted, it was because he was a third-round supplemental pick. He might be a better long term answer than Quinn, but I can’t see him being successful in the short run.)

The two top running backs on the Raiders’ roster combined for a crapulent -333 DYAR last season. Thankfully, one of them was playing in Jacksonville at the time, or else we would have set some records for fecal running back performance. Darren McFadden’s battles with injuries are well known. Usually they merely keep him off the field, but last season McFadden’s DVOA dropped to -26.7%. That was better than Rashad Jennings’ -31.8%. Jennings may not be fully recovered from the knee injury that kept him off the field in 2011. McFadden may simply be wearing down from numerous ailments. It’s well within the realm of possibility that one or both of them bounce back, but the Raiders should plan on investing in another running back sometime in the near future.

As bad as the running back depth chart is, the wide receiver corps looks worse. The #1 wide receiver had an epic -15.6 +/- last season. The #2 receiver is a 2012 undrafted free agent whose -1.9% DVOA was the best receiving DVOA in the unit. The #3 receiver is a rookie seventh-round pick who wasn’t invited to the Combine. The #4 receiver was a fifth-round pick in 2012. He put up a -36.1% DVOA in his rookie season. I cannot blame the scouts for being unimpressed with (2011 fifth-round pick) Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, Brice Butler, and Juron Criner, respectively. The #1 tight end (2011 sixth-round pick) Richard Gordon has three receptions. He’s an offensive lineman who just happens to wear 82. 2011 Seventh-round pick David Ausberry is the receiving tight end. Over the course of his illustrious career he has nine receptions for an epic 1 DYAR. Matt Flynn, these are your weapons. Use them wisely.

I… I don’t know what to say. After examining the Raiders’ offensive line I understand why the Raiders feel the need to use six offensive lineman on a regular basis. Left tackle Jared Veldheer wasn’t good enough last year to man his position without help from a tight end or running back. He spent significant time in the weight room during the offseason and showed up in camp in the best shape of his career. He then proceeded to tear a triceps muscle and will likely start the season on the PUP list. Alex Barron will likely take his place, which is somewhat awkward because Barron hasn’t played in a game in two years. He last started a game in 2009. Khalif Barnes will likely continue his weak play at right tackle. He only played in nine games last season but accumulated a season’s worth of missed blocks and penalties. Rookie tackle Menelik Watson is still learning the game, as he is a basketball player who tried football in his junior season. He played one season at right tackle at Florida St., but projects to eventually be a left tackle in the NFL. He has the physical tools, but will need time and coaching. 2012 undrafted free agent Lance Nix is currently ahead of 2012 third-round pick Tony Bergstrom. Bergstrom was actually the first pick the Raiders had in 2012. Bergstrom had difficulty getting on the field last season and was ineffective once on it. Right guard Mike Brisiel wasn’t quite as bad as Khalif Barnes on a play-by-play basis, but he was close. Center Stefen Wisniewski was the best player on the line by default. The Raiders are switching to a man-blocking scheme after failing with a zone-blocking scheme last season. The Raiders will eventually have to rebuild this line, but for now they’ll use extra blockers and hope for the best.

The Raiders’ defensive line has been rebuilt. For a measly $4.215 million, the Raiders signed starting tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker, as well as starting defensive end Jason Hunter. All three are on one-year deals. Basically, they were brought in to keep the defense from being a complete embarrassment. The only returning players who are expected to see significant playing time are defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Andre Carter. Carter is an aging veteran who can still provide a modicum of a pass-rush. Houston was the Raiders’ second best lineman last season (behind Desmond “Derp” Bryant http://deadspin.com/5986786/photoshop-contest-desmond-bryants-derpy-mug-shot ). Houston was a better pass-rusher than his four sacks would suggest (he had 30 hits+hurries). In addition, he was a consistently solid run defender. As you might expect, this “rent-a-defensive-line” plan doesn’t inspire much confidence.

The Raiders’ linebacker corps has been rebuilt as well. Rookie third-round pick Sio Moore is slated to start at strong side linebacker. He was projected to play on the weak side but has impressed the Raiders’ coaching staff. Well, that and they’re short on options. Free agent pickup Kevin Burnett will start on the weak side, while fellow free agent pickup Nick Roach will man the middle. I’m not sure Roach is a great fit. I suppose this is just the kind of thing you have to deal with when you have holes throughout the roster and limited resources to fill them. As you might expect, the linebacker depth isn’t great. 2012 fourth-round pick Miles Burris is probably the best player off the bench. He played well last season and should see plenty of playing time this year.

Continuing with rebuilding them, the Raiders will have three new starters in the secondary. Free agent pickups Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins will start at cornerback. Rookie first-round pick D.J. Hayden fell in the draft due to a torn blood vessel in his heart. The doctors have cleared him, so he will see playing time in the Raiders’ third preseason game. He’s been slowed by a hamstring injury. I expect him to work his way into the nickel job by midseason. At age 37, Charles Woodson brings experience to the free safety position. He’ll start alongside the only returning starter, Tyvon Branch. If Woodson cannot handle playing 60 snaps a game, Usama Young will rotate in for him.

The legendary Chris Kluwe has taken over the punting in Oakland. Sebastian Janikowski is still one of the best kickers in the NFL. The coverage and blocking units are not all that great, but that is to be expected when the entire roster is filled with replacement level “talent”. It should still be fun to watch Josh Cribbs return punts and kicks.

The Raiders are a great experiment. What happens when a football team is forced to play not with the guys they want, but with the guys that were freely available. Even with a soft schedule, the Raiders look like a disaster waiting to happen. There are a lot of games on the schedule where “somebody has to win”, so I’ll be optimistic and say 4-12.

San Diego Chargers

Expected wins: 7.14

Scouting wins: 7.29

DVOA wins: 7.5

2012 record 7-9 (8.0 Pythagorean)

Trivia question: What team had the first- and third-most effective receivers in the NFL (according to DVOA)? Here’s a hint: They had the worst offensive line in the AFC. Here’s a second hint: Their quarterback finished with a negative DVOA. Final answer? The San Diego Chargers! What gives? I’m glad you asked.

Philip Rivers’ decline has been both steep and rapid:

2010: 8.71 Yards-per-attempt, 1,419 DYAR, 27.9% DVOA

2011: 7.95 Yards-per-attempt, 1,117 DYAR, 17.0% DVOA

2012: 6.84 Yards-per-attempt, 138 DYAR, -7.3% DVOA

Terrible offensive line play has to be given partial blame, but Rivers just isn’t the same quarterback he was a few years ago. It isn’t that he’s old (he’ll turn 32 in December), but that his diminished arm strength and lack of mobility force him to take inadvisable risks. The Chargers are going to try and combat this with a shorter passing game that puts less pressure on the offensive line. That works until defenses sit on the short passing game and force you to challenge them deep. Given that the offensive line still looks awful, that’s a challenge the Chargers will have trouble accepting.

After struggling as a rookie, 2010 first-round pick Ryan Mathews put together a very solid sophomore season (13.9% DVOA, 297 DYAR). Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain that level of play, falling back to replacement level last season (-9.5% DVOA, 1 DYAR). He’s struggled with injuries, missing 10 games over his first three seasons. He’s also gained a reputation for being inconsistent in pass protection. Backup Ronnie Brown bounced back from a lousy year in Philadelphia (-18.7% DVOA, -22 DYAR), with a quietly solid season (591 yards-from-scrimmage, 11.3% DVOA, 110 DYAR). My sense is that the Chargers don’t have a true feature back, and would be wise to split the touches between Mathews and Brown.

I’d go into details about how efficient the Chargers’ top two wide receivers were last season, but last season’s DVOA leader Denario Alexander is out for the season with a torn ACL. The #3 DVOA performer, Malcolm Floyd, is dealing with a strained knee. He’s been awesome for the past two seasons (+/- +16.9, 43.2% DVOA, 620 DYAR). His health is essential to the Chargers’ passing game. Eddie Royal’s status is an unknown. As of this moment he is in the hospital, having been taken away from a Chargers practice in an ambulance after a hard fall. Vincent Brown is dealing with an injured hamstring. Rookie third-round pick Keenan Allen was projected to be a first-round pick before a knee injury forced him to miss the Combine. He’s a prototypical possession receiver with good route running skills, excellent (large) hands, and exceptional body control. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in strength and size. I saw him as an excellent gamble. Robert Meachem couldn’t adjust from the move from New Orleans to San Diego. He pretty much finished the season on the bench and will only see playing time if the Chargers have no other options. Much like Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates is fading fast:

2010: 77.1% DVOA, 358 DYAR (in 10 games)

2011: 29.8% DVOA, 239 DYAR (in 13 games)

2012: 4.6% DVOA, 79 DYAR (in 15 games)

He’s 33 years old and is unlikely to recapture his former glory. Backup John Phillips has 30 career receptions. His job is to block, not catch.

San Diego’s offensive line was a disaster last season. Despite numerous personnel changes, this year might not be much better. The battle between King Dunlap and Max Starks should be for who gets to stay on the roster as a backup and who gets cut. Instead, it’s for the starting left tackle job. Both struggled last season. Actually, Dunlap more than struggled, he flat-out sucked. Despite that, he currently is slated to start ahead of Starks. Left guard Chad Rinehart played sparingly last before an ankle injury ended his season. He has good strength and initial technique, but terrible range. He’s consistently ineffective in open space. He also has difficulty holding his blocks in pass protection. Center Nick Hardwick wasn’t the problem last season. He’s aging but is still well above replacement level. Right tackle Jeromey Clary was part of the problem. He’s moving inside to right guard where he’ll do less damage. Normally, if you’re taking the fifth offensive lineman off the board with the 12th overall pick, I’d accuse you of reaching to fill a need. In this case, I’ll cut the Chargers some slack as D.J. Fluker was still a reasonable value. Also, this wasn’t an area of need, it was an area of desperate need. His technique still needs to be improved, but his massive size, strength, and wingspan all portend a bright future. He’ll start at right tackle.

The Chargers have two-thirds of a great defensive line. Ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes combined for 12.5 sacks and 29.5 hits+hurries. Both are young (Liuget was a 2011 first-round pick, Reyes a second-round pick in 2012). Nose tackle Cam Thomas is “just a guy”. There isn’t much defensive line depth here. (Update: Liuget is dealing with an injured shoulder.)

The linebacker corps has been rebuilt, only partially by choice. 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL in May and his return is uncertain. His absence will be missed, as he looked like a future Pro Bowl player. He’ll be replaced by Dwight Freeney. The aging Freeney is still a good player, just not the star he used to be. He’ll play across from Jarret Johnson, who at age 32 is no spring chicken himself. Johnson is a very good run defender, but he provides very little in terms of a pass rush. Inside, the Chargers have put together a good pair. Donald Butler has developed into a very good player. He’ll play alongside Manti Te’o. Te’o was slated to be a first round pick before Alabama rendered him as invisible as his imaginary girlfriend. Despite that, the Chargers made a good move trading up in the second round to grab him. He should be a quality player for years to come. As with the defensive line, the depth is lacking.

The only member of the Chargers secondary I trust is free safety Eric Weddle, and he is coming off of a down year, by his standards. I’d still take him over all but a few free safeties in the NFL today. 2011 second-round pick Marcus Gilchrist is making the move from cornerback to strong safety. I honestly don’t know if this is a proactive or reactive move. Are the Chargers trying to get their best players on the field, or are they worried about Gilchrist in coverage? He’s been playing as a nickel cornerback, so maybe this is more a change of title than of responsibility. Free agent pickup Derek Cox will start at cornerback. 2011 third-round pick Shareece Wright is getting promoted and will start across from Cox. His 21 career tackles give you an idea of how little play he’s seen. As for Cox, he had a pretty bad season in Jacksonville. I am skeptical a change of coasts will improve his game. Rookie fifth-round pick Steve Williams currently has the edge in his battle against Johnny Patrick for the nickel job. (Update: So much for that edge. Williams has torn a pectoral muscle and will be out for the season). As you might guess, I am not impressed with this secondary.

There are some key special teams questions the Charges need to answer before the season. Richard Goodman is fighting to make the roster. Along with Eddie Royal, he’s slated to return kicks. Royal is also the top punt returner, so his injury issues will force the Chargers to dig deep. Keenan Allen is one possibility. Kicker Nick Novak had a solid season. Punter Mike Scifres struggled and may be in the twilight of his career. With so many injuries throughout the roster, I have to expect the special teams to dip a bit after a solid 2012.

There are a lot of weak teams on the Chargers’ schedule. Unfortunately, the Chargers are one of the weaker teams themselves. This is a team that will have to go through a rebuilding process in the very near future. Between the injuries and awful offensive line, I see a team on the way down. 6-10.

The NFC East is as close from top to bottom as any division in the NFL. I’m a little more optimistic about the Eagles than most, but even a dispassionate view would suggest at least three teams have viable shots, and the fourth is a live dog.

NFC East Projected Standings:

Dallas Cowboys 9-7

New York Giants 8-8

Washington Redskins 8-8

Philadelphia Eagles 8-8

Dallas Cowboys

Expected wins: 8.24

Scouting wins: 8.75

DVOA wins: 6.9

2012 record 8-8 (7.4 Pythagorean)

Football Outsiders has a long and storied history of fading the Cowboys. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the Cowboys, and of Jerry Jones’s decision-making, but I think an objective evaluation will show that the Cowboys are still one of the better teams in the NFC. Before I examine the roster, I want to discuss the Cowboys’ draft moves. The Cowboys traded the 18th pick to the 49ers for the 31st and 74th picks. They turned those picks into center Travis Frederick and wide receiver Terrance Williams. There was some talk that the Cowboys didn’t get enough value for the 18th pick. I view that talk as utter crap. The traditional trade value chart massively overvalues first-round picks. This updated chart is closer to the truth: http://www.bigcatcountry.com/2010/2/18/1315177/big-cat-country-2010-trade-value

By that chart, the Cowboys gave up a pick worth 790 (points?), and got back picks worth 565 and 215. That’s a fine deal, especially if you want extra picks, which is what most smart teams want these days. Alternately, you could use this chart from Chase Stuart:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=527

By that chart the Cowboys won the trade 49-37. Lopsided trade indeed! Of course, picks are only as valuable as the players taken with them, which is where the Cowboys have been damaging themselves as of late. Center Travis Frederick was widely considered to be a second or third round pick before the draft. I considered him a reach at 31, but only a mild one. Moreover, I felt the Cowboys got good value with wide receiver Terrance Williams with the 74th pick. Of course, being the Cowboys, they then went and took safety J.J. Wilcox with the 80th pick. Wilcox was considered a fifth round value before the draft. Clearly the Cowboys have no problem ignoring the conventional wisdom and taking the man they want. Oh, as for their second round selection of Gavin Escobar, that was right about where he was expected to go. Go figure!

There is a very short list of NFL quarterbacks who are clearly better than Tony Romo. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees are in a tier above Romo. Matt Ryan was better than Romo last season, but over the past two years, Romo has a better passing DVOA (20.2% to 17.6%), and higher passing DYAR (2,500 to 2,316). Romo slipped a bit last season:

2011: 8.02 Yards-per-attempt, 26.8% DVOA, 1,344 DYAR

2012: 7.57 Yards-per-attempt, 14.8% DVOA, 1,156 DYAR

Of course, if you want to get to the heart of the criticisms of Romo, you can look at his lack of playoff success. Football is a team game, though, and Romo isn’t the reason the Cowboys haven’t had a winning record since 2009 (or a Divisional Round playoff win since 1995).

DeMarco Murray: 385 touches, 2,090 yards-from-scrimmage, 274 DYAR, 5.4% DVOA. That’s one heck of a season. Unfortunately, that’s Murray’s 2011 and 2012 combined. Despite his youth (he’s 25), Murray has difficulty staying on the field. Murray’s backups are 2012 undrafted free agent Lance Dunbar and 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle. Dunbar was unimpressive last season (-23.9% DVOA, -25 DYAR). Randle is an intriguing option. Some mocks had him going as high as the third-round. He’s a north-south one-cut runner who has honed his pass protection skills at Oklahoma St. The Cowboys have to hope for better injury luck with Murray. It might be a bit much to ask Randle and Dunbar to carry the load for any significant length of time.

Any way you examine it, Dez Bryant was fantastic in 2012. You can use traditional metrics (92 receptions, 1,282 yards, 12 touchdowns), or advanced metrics (+/- +7.9, 18.3% DVOA, 392 DYAR). He’s entering his prime and is one of the toughest receivers to defend in the NFL. Across from him, Miles Austin is beginning to fade. His drop in DVOA (11.6% to 3.3%) doesn’t tell the whole story, as he’s also attracting less stringent defensive attention. Part of it was that he’s been playing hurt. If his hamstrings are healthy, a return to form wouldn’t be out of the question. If not, Terrance Williams may be coming for his job. Williams plays much faster than his Combine numbers would predict. He was the most productive wide receiver in the NCAA FBS last season. He’s a polished player who should quickly adapt to the NFL. I’d expect to see all three receivers on the field together regularly. Alternately, the Cowboys could opt to favor a 2TE set. Jason Witten is coming off of an absolutely monster season (110 receptions, 1,039 yards, +12.3 +/-, 10.0% DVOA, 192 DYAR). In addition, he’s an excellent blocker. That’s a good thing because Gavin Escobar is not much of a blocker. He makes up for that with his receiving skills. He has the size to work inside, and the speed to work outside. Linebackers will have trouble staying with him, while defensive backs won’t be able to outmuscle him. Romo has the weapons he needs, so the only question is whether or not he has the pass protection to get the ball to them.

Here is the good news: 2011 first-round pick left tackle Tyron Smith has lived up to his draft status. Along with rookie center Travis Frederick, they form a solid core. Unfortunately, the rest of the line is terrible. Both guards were miserable, with left guard Nate Livings being exceptionally poor in pass protection, while right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau preferring to be completely useless as a run blocker. Don’t misunderstand me, Livings is a bad run blocker, and Bernadeau is poor in pass protection, it’s just that they have different “strengths”. The cherry on top? They weren’t the most over-matched players on the line. That title goes to right tackle Doug Free. Free managed to combine Livings’ pass protection skills with Bernadeau’s run blocking, and threw in a predilection for holding penalties just to set himself apart. Jeremy Parnell has a chance to take Free’s job, but he was equally bad in his limited playing time. Even with the addition of Frederick, this is one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

The Cowboys are changing their defense from a traditional 3-4 to a Tampa Two 4-3. That will give them one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher combined for 26.5 sacks and 81.5 hits+hurries, while Jason Ratliff had 15 hits+hurries despite only playing 260 snaps due to injury. Ware and Spencer are also elite run defenders. The loss of Tyrone Crawford to a torn Achilles weakens the depth here, so health will be a major concern.

Switching to a 4-3 gives middle linebacker Sean Lee a chance to show off his elite field coverage. He’ll need to play a lot more than 314 snaps though, which is all he played last season before a toe injury put him on injured reserve. 2011 Second-round pick Bruce Carter is an excellent athlete that hasn’t lived up to his potential, mostly due to injuries. He has a great chance to be a breakout star on the weak side. Free-agent pickup Justin Durant will start on the strong side. I wasn’t impressed with his play in Jacksonville, but for a budget signing he’s an acceptable starter. Ernie Sims is the best linebacker off the bench.

#1 cornerback Brandon Carr was good last season. He wasn’t the problem. The problem was that everyone else (Orlando Scandrick excepted), was bad. Scandrick was very good, but only in limited usage as a nickel cornerback. Rookie first-round pick Morris Clairborne struggled, which is what rookie cornerbacks generally do. The question is whether he can build off his experiences. He’s athletic and talented, so let’s see what another year of coaching accomplishes. (Update: Clairborne is currently dealing with an injured knee). The Cowboys have decent cornerback depth, but none of it is starting quality. Free agent pickup Will Allen is atop the depth chart at strong safety. That’s not a good sign, as he is a career backup. 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson missed last season dues to injuries and is currently dealing with an injured ankle. J.J. Wilcox isn’t ready to start. He only played one year of safety in college and will need plenty of practice and coaching. Free safety Barry Church missed most of last season with a torn Achilles. He’s a converted linebacker and the jury is still out on him. The Cowboys are in danger of continuing a bad trend of lousy pass coverage.

The Cowboys had average special teams, with a couple clear strengths and one clear weakness. Kicker Dan Bailey had a strong season (not including kickoffs), while Dwayne Harris’ strong punt returning skills were more than offset by his weak kickoff returns. Punter Chris Jones had a mediocre season as well, although the coverage units were solid. I’d expect another average season for the Cowboys’ special teams, give or take random variance.

The Cowboys are a good football team with some major holes. Their offensive line is a clear problem, as is their secondary. Still, good quarterback play and a solid defensive line lead me to expect a winning season in Dallas. 9-7.

New York Giants

Expected wins: 8.48

Scouting wins: 9.48

DVOA wins: 8.3

2012 record 9-7 (10.2 Pythagorean)

2012: 9-7, 429 points scored, 344 points allowed, miss playoffs.

2011: 9-7, 394 points scored, 400 points allowed, win Super Bowl

2010: 10-6, 394 points scored, 347 points allowed, miss playoffs

Football is a funny game. Sometimes a 7-9 team makes the playoffs. Sometimes a 10-6 team does not. Sometimes a 9-7 team gets outscored and wins the Super Bowl. Sometimes that same outscores its opposition by 85 points and misses the playoffs. What does all of this mean for the 2013 season? Absolutely nothing.

Eli Manning’s play slipped a bit last season, although it may not be his fault, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. His DVOA dropped from 16.2% to 9.0%, while his DYAR dropped from 1110 to 753. A healthy wide receiver corps would help get his numbers back up. Last season Hakeem Nicks’s nagging injuries sapped his play and allowed defenses to focus on Victor Cruz. If Cruz, Nicks, and Rueben Randle can all stay on the field, the Giants’ passing game should rebound to its 2011 level. One other note: Manning has a Marino-esque ability to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks. The Giants only allowed 20 sacks last season. Ryan Nassib fell to the Giants in the fourth-round. He was too good a value to pass up and might end up being the heir apparent behind Eli in 2-3 years.

I’m not sure why Andre Brown doesn’t get more carries. Last year he averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry which led to a 33.7% DVOA and 182 DYAR. He isn’t a great receiver, but that isn’t a necessary skill. If you can run the ball and not get your quarterback killed with lousy pass protection, you should be able to hold a job. He’s competing with 2012 first-round pick David Wilson for the right to fill the role vacated by Ahmad Bradshaw. Wilson got roughly the same amount of playing time as Brown, but managed only a -0.6% DVOA and 28 DYAR, despite averaging 5.0 yards-per-carry. Neither player has good receiving skills, although there is less data on Wilson. Brown is returning from a broken leg that ended his season.

Interestingly, at least to me, the Giants’ two most efficient receivers last year were Ramses Barden and Domenik Hixon. Hixon is now with the Panthers. Barden has had problems with concussions and is currently #5 on the depth chart. Speedster Louis Murphy is #4 on the depth chart. He has washed out of Oakland and Carolina. I’m skeptical he’ll prove to be of much use to the Giants. That leaves the big Three: Nicks, Cruz, and Randle. Last season Nicks played through injuries, and his performance suffered. He put up career lows in receptions (53), yards (692), +/- (-3.4), DVOA (-5.9%), and DYAR (67). A return to health would lead to numbers like those he put up in 2011 (76, 1,192, 3.8, 12.5%, and 276 respectively). With Nicks hobbled, Rueben Randle probably should have been targeted more often. As is, he was effective (16.3% DVOA, 96 DYAR), in limited usage (32 attempts, 298 yards, which nets out to be a solid 9.31 yards-per-attempt). He’ll get significantly more playing time this season. That leaves Victor Cruz. In 2011 Cruz was exceptional, blowing up for 1,536 yards, 433 DYAR, and a sweet 31.4% DVOA. The Giants averaged 11.91 yards-per-attempt when they threw to Cruz. In 2011 he morphed from a deep threat to a possession receiver. Because Manning threw to him when he needed a result (as opposed to when he was open), his +/- dropped from 9.1 to -0.8, while his yards-per-attempt dropped to 7.64. I understand that it is tempting to use him short, but I feel like the Giants’ offense would be much more explosive if they had a tight end who could handle the short-to-intermediate routes and allowed Randle and Cruz to attack defenses deep. Despite having a strong year (79 receptions, 806 yards, 10.7% DVOA, 112 DYAR), Brandon Myers has a negative DVOA over the past three seasons (-0.6%). I don’t expect him to reproduce his 2012 results (from Oakland) in New York. Backup Bear Pascoe is a pure blocker, despite his 33 receiving yards in Super Bowl XLVI. There is going to be a lot of pressure on Manning, Nicks, Cruz, and Randle.

Barring injuries, four of the five jobs on the Giants offensive line are set. William Beatty is a quality left tackle. He isn’t quite as good in pass protection as the elite, but is better than most as a run blocker. Left guard Kevin Boothe was exceptionally solid in 2012. How solid? Zero penalties solid. That’s solid. Center David Baas is already struggling with injuries. He’s had multiple offseason surgeries. He’ll probably remain the starter, but his effectiveness is going to be an issue. 2011 undrafted free-agent Jim Cordle is the first man off the bench unless the Giants decide to shift their line around. Right guard Chris Snee is still one of the better players at his position. The biggest question is right tackle. The Giants would like to see rookie first-round pick Justin Pugh beat out David Diehl for the job. Pugh was a surprising pick (he was supposed to go in the second or third round), but Diehl has looked terrible in the preseason, so it would be a very bad sign if Pugh doesn’t win the job. A third option is 2011 fourth-round pick James Brewer. The offensive line depth is highly questionable, so health here is pretty important. If the Giants have health luck, this is one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.

While I have concerns about the Giants’ offense, I have major concerns about their defense. Their starting defensive line managed 18.5 sacks and 79 hits+hurries last season. For some teams, that would be fantastic, but the Giants build their defensive philosophy around a pass rush from the defensive line. It is what they spend their draft picks and cash on. Their linebacker corps is generally an afterthought. Of course, it is possible that last season was just an off year. From 2007 through 2010 defensive end Justin Tuck averaged 10 sacks. Since then, he’s managed nine (he missed five games). In 2011, Jason Pierre-Paul had 16.5 sacks. Tuck might not be capable of returning to his former glory, but JPP can. Well, presuming he’s 100% after having offseason back surgery. Currently, Tuck is also hobbled by a bad back. On the inside, Linval Joseph will play alongside free-agent pickup Cullen Jenkins. Both of them can get up field (Jenkins in particular). Joseph also had fairly strong results against the run. Second-round pick defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins will be part of the rotation. He was a clear first round selection who fell due to a bad Combine. Actually, he was supposed to only fall to the second half of the first-round, so the Giants were probably surprised he was available when they picked. Rookie third-round pick Damontre Moore and Mathias Kiwanuka will help provide depth at defensive end. Kiwanuka is moving over from the linebacker corps, but with the issues with Tuck and JPP, the Giants feel they need him along the line.

Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, Spencer Paysinger, Dan Conner, and Jacquian Williams are competing for the three starting linebacker jobs. Feel free to make a burger chain joke, because they really are just five guys. Right now Herzlich has the edge in the middle, with Rivers on the strong side, and Paysinger on the weak side. Would it have killed the Giants to draft a few linebackers?

With strong safety Antrel Rolle freshly out of a walking boot, the Giants hope he’ll be able to start the season. The Giants actually have a large number of safeties on their roster, but none can step in and perform as well as Rolle. Free safety Stevie Brown had an exceptional season in 2012, grabbing eight interceptions. It’s highly unlikely he comes close to that number this season. Both Rolle and Brown had solid numbers overall. Cornerback Corey Webster struggled last season and the Giants have to be concerned that his level of play is starting to slip. He’ll start across from Prince Amukamara. Amukamama has raised his level of play and may end the season as the Giants’ #1 cornerback. Veteran Aaron Ross is battling 2012 third-round pick Jayron Hosley for the nickel job. Regardless of which wins the job, I’d expect better play from both this season. There are a lot of potential outcomes for the Giants’ secondary. If Webster and Amukamara stay healthy, they could be one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL. If Webster continues declining and Amukamara has trouble staying on the field, there could be real trouble. My guess is that the Giants are unlucky and the secondary is a problem area.

The Giants had above-average special teams in 2012 because of the kick returning prowess of David Wilson. Even if he keeps the job (which is no sure thing if he wins the starting running back competition), some regression to the mean is to be expected. In other words, the Giants should have roughly average special teams, being marginally better on punts than kicks.

While I still like the Giants’ offense, I see this as the year the defense begins to break down. A weaker pass rush + a replacement level linebacker corps = a long season. Not necessarily a collapse, but the first season without a winning record since 2009: 8-8.

Philadelphia Eagles

Expected wins: 7.18

Scouting wins: 6.73

DVOA wins: 7.8

2012 record 4-12 (3.9 Pythagorean)

There are a lot of good reasons to give the Eagles a mulligan for 2013. They have a new coach, a new offense, and their offensive line is healthy and much improved from last season. However, they also had massive defensive problems, and we can’t be certain they have a trustworthy quarterback on the roster. Let’s dig in:

Michael Vick is 33 and has missed 13 games over the past three seasons. Given the accumulation of hits he’s experienced, it is reasonable to expect him to wear down. His combined DYAR for the past three seasons: 833, 759, -75. Ouch. Some kind of rebound is to be expected, but I have no reason to project him as an above-average quarterback at this point. Also, Chip Kelly will eventually want to find a quarterback of the future, which is almost certainly not Vick. As bad as Vick was last season, 2012 third-round pick Nick Foles was worse. In six starts he put up a -20.4% DVOA and -155 DYAR. I know he was a rookie behind a bad offensive line, but those were not confidence-inspiring results. Foles was drafted by the previous administration, so it will be very easy for Chip Kelly to accept the sunk costs associated with jettisoning him. That leaves rookie fourth-round pick Matt Barkley. For a while Matt Barkley was considered the top quarterback in the class. However, his limitations have become clear. He has small hands and limited arm strength. That he fell to the fourth-round is a testament to how many teams crossed him off their draft boards due to their doubts about his ability to succeed at the pro level. Chip Kelly has scouted Barkley for years, so he’ll get a chance to turn him into the leader of his offense. If he can’t, it was a cheap investment that didn’t pan out. I’m guessing that will be the case.

Like Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy saw his DYAR totals tumble last season (last three years: 385, 342, 56). Unlike with Vick, I’m optimistic McCoy will bounce back. He missed four games last season due to injuries, including concussion issues. He’s healthy now and should be a good fit for Kelly’s offense. One disconcerting issue: He has struggled in pass protection, and if that continues Kelly might look to his other options in the backfield. Those include Felix Jones and Bryce Brown. Jones led the NFL in yards-per-rush in 2009 (5.9), followed that up with a solid year in 2010 (13.5% DVOA, 250 DYAR), suffered through a tough 2011 (-7.5% DVOA, 25 DYAR, missed four games), and failed to rebound in 2012 (6.4% DVOA, 120 DYAR, but almost all of that came from the passing game. His rushing DVOA was -6.1). He has a somewhat clean slate in Philadelphia, so he’ll be judged by how he adjusts to Kelly’s offense. 2012 speed score favorite Brown has a problem. He fumbles. He’s explosive, he averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry last season, but his DVOA was -7.4%. Either he cleans up his bad habit, or he’ll rot on the bench. Right now Jones has a quad injury, while Brown has a rib injury. That opens the door for 2012 undrafted free-agent Chris Polk. Polk played sparingly last season, entirely on special teams. Like Jones and Brown, he should be grateful to be playing under a new regime.

DeSean Jackson doesn’t deserve the blame for his drop in performance last season. That should be assigned to the offensive line and quarterbacks involved. I am concerned he only managed to play in 11 games, though. When healthy, he’s one of the better deep threats in the league, and he should be a good fit for the new Kelly system. I’m more concerned about the rest of the receiving corps. Jeremy Maclin is lost for the season with a torn ACL, as is Arrelious Benn. Riley Cooper had a tumultuous offseason. Personally, I’m more concerned about the fact he has 46 career receptions in three seasons. His DVOA over that time is -13.8%. Jeremy Avant has been consistently productive for the Eagles (over the last three seasons his combined DYAR is 383, with a cumulative +19.0 +/-). 2012 Undrafted free-agent Damaris Johnson played sparingly but effectively as a rookie (5.8% DVOA). He might not be talented enough to thrive as a starter. I expect tight ends Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and James Casey to all see plenty of playing time. Casey will also see time as a hallfback, fullback, and split end. Casey has been an effective short yardage receiver for the Texans. Celek is a better blocker than receiver and will likely see his targets drop. Rookie second-round round pick Zach Ertz is a much better receiver than blocker. He led the nation in receptions and receiving yards (for tight ends). He should make a smooth adjustment to Kelly’s system (shoulder issues have kept him out of practice, but he should be fine by week one). Clay Harbor looks like the odd man out, which makes sense as he’s been below replacement level (-44 DYAR) over the last three seasons.

Last year, the Eagles’ offensive line was a disaster. This year it should be one of the best. Left tackle Jason Peters is back in the lineup after missing the 2012 season. He made the Pro Bowl the previous five seasons before last, and is one of the best at his position in the NFL. Right tackle Todd Herremans is moving to right guard, where his skills will leave him well prepared as opposed to over-matched. He’ll be replaced by fourth-overall pick Lane Johnson. The Eagles dodged a bullet when the Dolphins, who had traded up to third, grabbed Dion Jordan. Johnson has played quarterback, free safety, tight end, and now is one of the most athletic tackles in the NFL. What he lacks in power he should be able to make up for with agility and technique. I expect him to move over to left tackle when Peters can no longer hold down the job. Left guard Evan Mathis was the Eagles’ best offensive lineman last season. Center Jason Kelce only played in two games before tearing his ACL last season. He started 16 games as a rookie and should be back to form this season. This is a very good offensive line and if the Eagles go from worst to first, this is where the credit should go.

Philadelphia is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. They imported a pair of nose tackles, one from San Francisco (Isaac Sopoaga), and one from LSU (third-round pick Bennie Logan). Sopoaga and Logan will split time. They’ll be flanked by 2012 second-round pick Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Clifton Gaethers, and Vinny Curry. Cox had a very good rookie season as a 4-3 tackle. He might be able to improve on his 5.5 sacks if he is allowed to get upfield instead of merely eat up blockers. Thornton is also moving over from tackle to end. The Eagles would be happy if he ate up blockers, as he wasn’t impressive against the run or an effective pass-rusher. Gaethers is pretty much a space eater who’ll play mostly on rushing downs. 2012 second-round pick Curry will see playing time at end and at outside linebacker. For obvious reasons, the jury is out on this defensive line. Apart from Cox, there aren’t any players the offense has to focus on.

Things look a little better at linebacker. Trent Cole and Connor Barwin will start on the outside. Barwin is coming off of a down year in Houston, managing only three sacks after nabbing 11.5 in 2011. He still had 30.5 hits+hurries, so the talent is clearly still there. The same can be said for Cole, who had 3 sacks last season about pulling in 55 in the previous five seasons, including 11 in 2011. Cole had 25 hits+hurries in roughly 74% of the snaps Barwin played. They’ll be pushed by Brandon Graham, who had 5.5 sacks and 32 hits+hurries in 42% of the snaps Barwin played. Yes, most of those were passing situations, but wowsers! Phillip Hunt was supposed to be part of the rotation, but he’s gone for the season with a torn ACL. The NovaCare Complex practice field has already taken down four Eagles! Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans will man the inside. 2012 second-round pick Kendricks had a rough rookie season, but should be much better in the 3-4, the same defense he played in college. Ryan is an excellent run defender who doesn’t have Kendricks’ elite speed, but brings much better tackling technique. Overall, this should be a pretty good linebacker corps, so long as the defensive line can hold up and keep blockers from reaching the second level.

The Eagles had the worst pass defense in the NFL last season. Thus, it makes sense that they decided to replace all four starters. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are replacing Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Williams played every snap for the Ravens last season, but it is pretty clear he wasn’t a core contributor. Fletcher has battled injuries and wasn’t a starter last season in St. Louis. 2012 fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin was on the field for about half of the Eagles’ snaps last season as the nickel cornerback. His play wasn’t all that bad, and he may eventually take Fletcher’s job. Strong safety Kurt Coleman and free safety Nate Allen were demoted in favor of Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, respectively. Allen has since won his job back; however, whether it was because of his performance or Phillips’ lack of it, perhaps due to the same injuries that limited him to seven games last season, is something I cannot answer. Allen was benched late last season due to poor play, so this may be a trouble area. Coleman does his best work on special teams, but he should keep the playbook fresh in his mind as Chung only made 29 starts in four seasons with the Patriots. Chung plays the game with an admirable ferocity that his body cannot maintain. I understand not sticking with what isn’t working, but this secondary looks like it will need some rebuilding of its own in the near future.

The Eagles’ special teams were fine last season, apart from one major weakness: an abominable punting game. Chas Henry and Mat McBriar have both been sacked, replaced by Donnie Jones, formerly of the Texans. He’s a former Pro Bowl player and should be a significant improvement over the previous punters. Overall, the Eagles’ special teams don’t look like a problem area.

There is nothing like rebuilding an offensive line to give me the warm fuzzies when analyzing a team. Still, the Eagles have some real problems. Their best quarterback is well past his prime, their wide receiver corps has been thinned by injuries, and their secondary looks no better than the disaster it was last season. A cold dispassionate analysis suggests the Eagles are a 7-9 team, but warm fuzzies have to be worth one win: 8-8.

Washington Redskins

Expected wins: 7.90

Scouting wins: 8.28

DVOA wins: 10.3

2012 record 10-6 (9.2 Pythagorean)

Football Outsiders is very confident that the Redskins will sustain the excellent level of play they achieved last year. Unfortunately, I do not share their level of confidence. There are two pretty big disagreements here. The first is the health of Robert Griffin III. Football Outsiders freely admits that they are using their best guess that RGIII will return at much the same level of health he played at for most of last season. I am skeptical of that, although my medical knowledge is likely less sophisticated than theirs. The second is a basic disagreement over the level of talent on the Redskins’ roster. Before winning 10 games last season, the Redskins won 15 games in the three previous seasons combined. Apart from a massive upgrade at quarterback, this is still one of the less talented teams in the NFL. On offense, Alfred Morris’ success can be directly linked to RGIII, as can the performance of the offensive line. As for the defense, I’ll get to that in a bit. First, RGIII:

The numbers look good, but they don’t do RGIII justice: 3200 yards passing, 20 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 14.5% DVOA, 836 DYAR. He did that with a suspect offensive line and no other elite skill talent around him. If you are going to go “all in” and gamble on a rookie quarterback (second overall pick, the Redskins gave up three first round picks and a second round pick to get him), this is as well as you could do. Unfortunately, as of right now he isn’t cleared to play, a decision that will be made by the renowned Dr. James Andrews. Dr. Andrews repaired RGIII’s knee in January, and so far RGIII hasn’t been able to do more than throw. I am skeptical that a player unable to participate in full practices, let alone a preseason game, will be able to return to the field for week one. Moreover, I have no way of knowing what level of play he’ll be able to achieve when he returns. Quite simply, we will all have to wait and see. This is the cost of the risks Mike Shanahan took when he let a clearly hobbled Griffin continue to play vs. the Seahawks. Backup Kirk Cousins is dealing with a bruised foot. He played well in spot duty last season (10.4% DVOA, 69 DYAR). He isn’t a long term option, as the limitations in his game would become more apparent as teams adjusted to him. Third quarterback Rex Grossman has proven his lack of ability many times over. If he plays, the Redskins are in trouble.

RGIII wasn’t the only rookie to have an exceptional season. Sixth-round pick Alfred Morris gained 1,690 yards-from-scrimmage, putting up a 9.2% DVOA with 253 DYAR. Almost all of that was on the ground, as he wasn’t an effective receiver. Much of his success came from breaking long runs out of the shotgun when defenses were selling out to stop Griffin. However, a certain amount of credit should also go to the tandem of head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. For the first time in a while, they were able to recreate the “one-cut” magic from Denver. Morris is not one of the most talented backs, but he was able to get the yards the system created without dancing around trying to make big plays that weren’t available. Backup Roy Helu only managed two rushing yards (via two rushing attempts) before turf toe ended his season. Supposedly he is almost fully healthy heading into this season. He was a Speed Score favorite, but injuries may have eroded his burst.

Odd coincidence that might only be of interest to me: RGIII completed 66.6% of his passes last season. The four receivers he targeted the most caught the ball 64.8% (Josh Morgan), 66.2% (Pierre Garcon), 66.7% (Santana Moss), and 66.7% (Leonard Hankerson) of the time. Morgan is atop the depth chart heading into this season, but perhaps he shouldn’t be. Injuries caused him to fade late last season and he ended up with a -6.9% DVOA. He had multiple surgeries this offseason and he may be a shadow of the player he once was. Garcon only played in 10 games due to injuries, and was unable to finish the Seahawks game. Like Morgan, his health is an open question. Moss rebounded last season and posted his first positive DVOA in four years (11.6%). He’s clearly fading and has fallen to fifth on the depth chart. Hankerson was effective (11.8% DVOA) but frustrating, as he showed minimal ability to create yards after the catch. Hankerson, a 2011 second-round pick, had a 4.43 40-yard dash and by all estimations should have averaged closer to 16 yards-per-catch, as opposed to the 14.3 he ended up with. If he continues to adapt to the NFL his functional (play) speed should increase. Aldrick Robinson has been sneaking his way up the depth chart. Like Hankerson, he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash, but unlike Hankerson he played that fast, averaging 21.5 yards-per-catch. However, the biggest difference between the two isn’t play speed, it’s size. Hankerson is 6-2, while Robinson is 5-10, which is partly why Hankerson caught 38 passes and Robinson caught 11. Both players should improve on those numbers this season. (Update: Hankerson currently has an injured knee, while Robinson has a bruised thigh. Robinson’s injury isn’t considered serious, while Hankerson’s is still being evaluated). Tight ends Fred Davis and Logan Paulson combined for 49 receptions, 633 yards, a 22.7% DVOA, and 132 DYAR. Not bad, although surprisingly only one touchdown between them. Injuries and suspensions limited Davis to only seven games last season. He is coming back from a torn Achilles and, like many other Redskins, his health is a potential issue. Paulson is generally asked to focus on blocking, a task he is surprisingly poor at. Last season Davis’s absence led to Paulson setting career records for receptions and yards. He’ll likely go back to focusing on blocking this season. Rookie third-round pick Jordan Reed is an oversized wide receiver who’ll provide little blocking value. The Redskins might have taken him one round earlier than they needed to.

The Redskins’ offensive line can be broken down into three categories: The good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is left tackle Trent Williams. He’s an elite talent playing the best football of his career. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season. The bad is the interior of the line, including left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, center Will Montgomery, right guard Chris Chester, and backup Josh LeRibeus. Good coaching allowed this line to get the most out of its highly limited potential. The ugly is right tackle Tyler Polumbus. Polumbus regularly grades out below replacement level, and yet teams don’t bother replacing him. I really don’t understand why. As you can guess, the Redskins’ tackle depth is awful. An injury to Williams might lead me to bench RGIII as a precaution, and not just in fantasy football.

The Redskins’ 3-4 defenses attacks quarterbacks from three directions. Nose tackle Barry Cofield, left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, and right outside linebacker Brian Orakpo are all elite pass-rushers. Cofield only managed 2.5 sacks last season, but his 32 hits+hurries tell a tale of how disruptive he was. He’s an elite defender and the Redskins’ best defensive lineman. There would be some competition for that title, but defensive Adam Carriker is still out with an injured right quad that has already required three surgeries. Orakpo was unavailable most of last season, but is one of the best pure pass-rushers around. He doesn’t quite have the same elite skills as a run defender, but the Redskins know that and build that knowledge into their gameplans. Ryan Kerrigan is exceptional all around, nabbing 8.5 sacks and 34 hits+hurries while being an effective run defender and even grading out pretty well in pass coverage. Cofield has a small fracture in his hand, but is expected to be able to play through it. We’ll see if it affects his quality of play. Orakpo has a thigh bruise that should be fully healed by week one. Outside of those three, the front seven is rather ordinary. Starting defensive ends Jarvis Jenkins and Stephen Bowen were primarily space-eaters, although Bowen put up respectable numbers against the run. Bowen managed six sacks in 2012, but his 10.5 hits+hurries was a clear indication that wasn’t sustainable. Inside linebackers Perry Riley and London Fletcher were similarly competent but unexceptional. Fletcher gets a lot of credit for maintaining his level of play at such an advanced age (38), but while that is remarkable, it doesn’t actually matter on the field. Fletcher actually went to the Pro Bowl on the back of leading the Redskins in tackles (78, his lowest total since 1999) and interceptions (five). Overall, this front seven could be a bit above-average if everything breaks the Redskins’ way. More likely is that it is a bit below average when at least one of the key players misses time.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has become a clear weak link and may soon decline into “walking disaster” territory. Free agent pickup E.J. Biggers and rookie second-round pick David Amerson will compete will Hall for the starting job. The best case scenario is that Amerson wins the job, while Biggers takes the nickel job. That would allow the Redskins’ best cornerback, Josh Wilson, to handle the #1 wide receivers. Amerson is a gambler who will likely get beat more often than not as a rookie. He has textbook size and speed, but his agility is a little suspect, which may be why he is prone to occasionally guess. Then again, he had 13 interceptions his sophomore season, so if coaches can get him to make fewer obvious mistakes, he has elite potential. For now, Hall is scheduled to start and Amerson’s development will determine how long he keeps the job. Brandon Merriweather and Reed Doughty are currently competing for the strong safety job. Merriweather missed almost all of last season with knee issues, but is the favorite to win the job. Rookie sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo (what a name! Formerly known as “Goo Fudge: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog/wp/2013/04/30/redskins-bacarri-rambos-name-was-once-goo-fudge/ ) inherited the starting free safety job when rookie fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas was lost for the season with a Lisfranc tear. Despite his name, Rambo is a ballhawk who is not particularly good at tackling or attacking the line of scrimmage. The loser of the strong safety battle may end up starting at free safety (if healthy).

The Redskins’ special teams were pretty bad last season and might not be much better this year, as special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander is now in Arizona. Kicker Kai Forbath is pretty good (except on kickoffs), but punter Sav Rocca turns 40 in November and really should have been replaced before last season. I don’t think it will kill them, but the Redskins’ special teams will likely be a drag on their success.

Even if RGIII were 100% healthy, this roster would give me plenty of reasons to pause. A clear lack of skill talent around Griffin highlights just how well he played last season. A weak offensive line is one injury away from disaster, as is a sketchy secondary. Injuries have already limited the Redskins’ pass rush. Despite winning the division last season, I see the Redskins falling back to Earth. (Update: For what it is worth, the “Buzz” is that RG3 is going to be fine. On that basis I moved the Redskins from 7-9 to 8-8. RG3 is worth more than a win, but there was already a decent shot that he would be healthy, so the change in likelihood of good health is a small change. 8-8)

The Green Bay Packers have been the team to beat for a while now. The Bears are threatening, but after that, the division goes downhill faster than you might expect.

NFC North Projected Standings:

Green Bay Packers 11-5

Chicago Bears 9-7

Detroit Lions 7-9

Minnesota Vikings 6-10

Chicago Bears

Expected wins: 8.61

Scouting wins: 8.36

DVOA wins: 8.1

2012 record 10-6 (10.8 Pythagorean)

The 2012 Chicago Bears had the best defense in football, and by a fairly significant margin over #2 San Francisco (-26.8% to -14.3%). They also had the sixth-best special teams. They finished with a 10-6 record and could easily have finished 11-5 or better. So why are they considered to be a roughly average team? Because their offense was terrible (26th) and offensive production is much more consistent than defense or special teams. The Bears rolled the dice and fired Lovie Smith, replacing him with Marc Trestman. Trestman had been coaching the Montreal Alouettes, leading them to the CFL Grey Cup in 2009 and 2010. BTW, anyone complaining about a cold weather Super Bowl should go to an outdoor Grey Cup, preferably in Winnipeg. When Winnipeg hosted the 79th Grey Cup, it was -16 Celsius (3 Fahrenheit) at kickoff. Trestman has a fairly well-respected offensive mind, but I feel most of the Bears’ problems are due to poor personnel, not poor game planning. First, let’s look at how Jay Cutler has performed in Chicago:

2009: -21.4% DVOA, -390 DYAR

2010: -8.5% DVOA, 80 DYAR

2011: -3.5% DVOA, 157 DYAR

2012: -13.8% DVOA, -81 DYAR

The only reason Cutler still has a job is a tacit acknowledgment that he is surrounded by awful “talent”. People remember that Cutler was effective in Denver, but that was years ago. Yes, perhaps with a real offensive line and better receivers, he would have been above replacement level, but over the last four years he has been awful. Perhaps I am wrong and Marc Trestman can fix the schematic issues that have been holding the Bears’ offense back. I am skeptical. Backup Josh McCown is a large step down from Cutler.

Because of Trestman’s willingness to use running backs as receivers, we’ll likely see a fairly even split of usage between Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Over the last three seasons Bush’s receiving DVOA is 43.1%, with 248 DYAR. He hasn’t been used all that much, as he only has 64 receptions for 695 yards during that time. Over that time period his rushing DVOA is 1.6%, with 240 DYAR. He’s a good player who could excel under new management. As for Forte, his headline stats have been better than his advanced stats for the past three seasons:

2010: 1,606 yards-from-scrimmage, 2.4% DVOA, 179 DYAR.

2011: 1,487 yards-from-scrimmage, -5.5 DVOA, 59 DYAR

2012: 1,424 yards-from-scrimmage, 2.1% DVOA, 134 DYAR

Cumulatively he’s gained 4,517 yards-from-scrimmage, but only 372 DYAR, with a -0.5% DVOA. Obviously, significant blame is due to the offensive line. Come to think if it, given that both Forte and Cutler are considered stars (go with me on this), it stands to reason that the offensive line was defective, and should have been fixed long ago. I’ll get back to this in a bit.

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall vs. the rest of the Bears’ wide receivers: 195 targets to 145, 119 receptions to 80, 1,506 receiving yards to 1,024, 267 DYAR to 108, 0.0% DVOA vs. -7.3% DVOA. That’s a team that needs another receiving option. Marshall had hip surgery in January, but should be fully recovered. 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery was easily Chicago’s second best receiver (6.7% DVOA, 97 DYAR), and should see an expanded role this season. After Jeffery, the talent is very thin. After a few awful season in Dallas, tight end Martellus Bennett had a reasonably productive 2012 with the Giants (55 receptions, 626 yards, 4.6% DVOA, 85 DYAR). If that doesn’t sound impressive, let me share the Bears’ tight end results from last season: 25 receptions, 257 yards, -27.4% DVOA, -86 DYAR. Backup tight end Steve Maneri is 6-7, 280 pounds, and can’t catch. In other words, he’s an offensive lineman who wears 87.

When you have the #1 defense in the NFL and you allow more sacks (44) than your defense nabs (41), that’s an indictment of your offensive line. The Bears swung and missed with 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi. He is now in Tampa Bay. Rookie first-round pick Kyle Long comes to Chicago with concerns about his character and lack of experience (and the fact that he may have been a bit of a reach) but so far has lived up to expectations. Of course, it’s early, and he is playing right guard. The new left tackle is Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod struggled pretty badly in New Orleans and I was surprised the Bears were so aggressive pursuing him ($11M signing bonus). I suppose the fact that he started 44 straight games at left tackle for the Saints is a point in his favor, but his invitation to the Pro Bowl last season was questionable at best. The new left guard is Matt Slauson. Slauson was never one of the key players on the Jets’ offensive line, but he will be a clear improvement over the dreck the Bears had starting. Center Robert Garza is 34 and fading. He’s probably not past his expiration date, but the Bears would be wise to find a replacement sooner rather than later. That just leaves right tackle J’Marcus Webb. Webb struggled mightily at left tackle last season. He’ll have an easier time of it on the right side, and should be an improvement over Jonathon Scott and Gabe Carimi. While I will submit the Bears’ offensive line looks better than it did last season, it doesn’t actively look good. I can’t point to any active strengths, merely less weakness than was there previously. I understand teams only have limited resources, but Gabe Carimi notwithstanding, this is an area that never should have fallen into such disrepair.

The good news for the Bears is that when they don’t have the ball, they can play some pretty good football. The defensive line is loaded. Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton are the bookends. Peppers grabbed another 11.5 sacks and 20.5 hits+hurries. He’s still got “it” at age 33. Wootton pulled in seven sacks and 18 hits+hurries in roughly 73% of the snaps Peppers played. Henry Melton and Stephen Paea start inside. Paea is merely an excellent run stuffer who provides a decent pass rush. Melton is one of the best tackles in the NFL. In addition to his six sacks and 12.5 hits+hurries, he had twice the run stops of Paea despite only playing 4% more snaps. Melton got hit with the franchise tag last offseason and will likely strike it rich after this season. The only weakness of this line is that Wootton is only average against the run. 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin backs up Wootton. He missed part of last season with concussion issues and a sprained MCL. He’s fully healthy and should be the next in the line of great Bears defensive ends. Also look out for Kyle Moore as a blitzer in nickel or dime situations. (Update: Peppers has been missing some preseason games with a hamstring injury that sounds phantom to me. I don’t think the Bears feel like he needs to be risked in meaningless competition.)

Unlike the New York Giants, the Bears also invest in linebackers. Lance Briggs and James Anderson will man the outside. Anderson is a physical player who’ll cover the strong side. Briggs has been one of the best weak side linebackers in the NFL for years, but his play is starting to slip and he missed the Pro Bowl last season for the first time since 2004. The new man in the middle is D.J. Williams. Williams has the speed to play the position, but he was an outside linebacker in Denver and this is an adjustment. The Bears also grabbed linebackers in the second and fourth-rounds of the draft. First they grabbed Jon Bostic. Bostic can play all three linebacker positions. He is the backup for Williams. They then picked up Khaseem Greene. Greene is a converted safety who will back up Briggs on the weak side. This is a very fast linebacker corps, but it lacks some of the institutional knowledge Brian Ulracher possessed. D.J.Williams is dealing with an injured calf so we may see Bostic earlier than expected.

It helps when you have a vicious pass rush, but Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings each had exceptional seasons. Jennings grabbed nine interceptions without too many of the big plays that gambles create. Tillman was just hard to complete a pass against. You weren’t safe even if you did, as he forced 10 fumbles last season. The further you are away from the line of scrimmage, the less likely the offense is to recover a fumble, so that’s a nice skill for a cornerback to have. Isaiah Frey may turn out to be one of the better stories this season. He was the Bears’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft. He was cut after the preseason and placed onto the practice squad. He has played his way back onto the roster and may end up in the nickel or dime role. Between strong safety Major Wright and free safety Chris Conte, the Bears have one of the better safety tandems in the NFL. Wright is the more aggressive and dangerous of the two. Conte has the size and speed to be a true great, but has made a few mental and physical errors that have held him back.

The Bears have had the best special teams in the NFL over the past three seasons. The decline of Devon Hester has brought them back to Earth, as has kicker Robbie Gould having a bit of an off season. However, Hester’s decline may have been injury-related. Where the Bears truly excel is in their coverage units. They take their special teams seriously and have numerous dedicated specialists. Punter Adam Podlesh isn’t bad either. These should be among the best special teams in the NFL again this season.

On one hand the Bears have a tough schedule. On the other hand, they’ve shown a few hints that they’re going to be a bit smarter than the average… coach. There are too many problems with the offense for me to think they’ll repeat ten wins again, but I have no problem seeing them grab a winning record: 9-7.

Detroit Lions

Expected wins: 8.06

Scouting wins: 6.18

DVOA wins: 7.4

2012 record 4-12 (6.4 Pythagorean)

So, that tells me that the Lions weren’t just bad, they were unlucky. Given their point differential they were more likely to finish 8-8 than 4-12. It just didn’t work out that way. Interestingly, the scouts are significantly less impressed with the Lions than are Football Outsiders or the general populace. I looked over the numbers and it pretty much comes down to the fact that the scouts hate the Lions’ offensive line and as the defense (apart from the defensive line). Let’s go over the roster and decide for ourselves.

Matthew Stafford shattered the NFL record for most pass attempts in a season (727), a record held by Drew Bledsoe (691) for 18 years. He was moderately efficient, as his DVOA only dropped slightly from 2011 (15.0% to 12.2%). His DYAR dropped a bit (1,171 to 1,160), but the real change was that he threw a touchdown once for every 16.2 passes in 2011 and that dropped to 1 out of every 36.3 passes in 2012. I have to think that’s a fluke. Stafford is just the second quarterback to throw for over 10,000 yards over two consecutive seasons, the other being Drew Brees. He’s a young gunslinger who’s just a little bit behind the elite new wave (Colin Kaepernick, RG3, Russell Wilson). He’s not the problem.

Let’s do a blind taste test:

Running Back A: 899 yards-from-scrimmage, 21.8% DVOA, 264 DYAR

Running Back B: 1,278 yards-from-scrimmage, -5.3% DVOA, 57 DYAR

Player A was already on the roster, signed for one more season at $630,000. Player B was a free agent who the Lions signed to a four year contract with a $4M signing bonus. In case you are wondering, Player B wasn’t a great player who was coming off of a down year. His combined DYAR for 2010 and 2011 is 78. Player A is Joique Bell, player B is Reggie Bush. Bush will start, while Bell is third on the depth chart. Second is 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure:

Running Back C: 1,002 yards-from-scrimmage, -3.2% DVOA, 72 DYAR

I’m not saying the Leshoure is the answer, as he struggles as a receiver and wasn’t that special as a runner. You already had a cheaper version of Reggie Bush on the roster, who had managed to significantly outplay him last season. Why not give Bell more touches and use Leshoure as the change of pace? I’m sure the Lions coaches think they know what they’re doing, but the resources spent on Bush might have been better spent on the defense or offensive line. Moving right along.

We don’t know Jerry Rice’s career advanced stats (yet), but Calvin Johnson’s two-year run of 1,023 receiving DYAR is a modern record. He slipped a bit from 2011 (16.0% DVOA, 488 DYAR vs. 31.6% DVOA, 535 DYAR), but part of that is defenses selling out to stop him. I don’t mean just double-teaming him, I mean double-teaming him with additional safety help. Johnson’s 1,964 receiving yards last season broke Rice’s record of 1,848 set in 1995. The fact that I’m comparing Johnson to Rice should make it clear that Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL. However, he could use a hand. Nate Burleson is coming off of a broken leg that limited him to six games in 2012. His DVOA over the past three seasons is -6.5%. His DYAR has progressively dropped from 65, to 31, to -24. He is the Lions #2 wide receiver. Oy vey! 2012 second-round pick Ryan Broyles hasn’t fully recovered from a pair of ACL tears that ended his 2012 season after ten games. I can find very little on Pat Edwards, beyond the fact he played for the Houston Cougars and is apparently an undrafted rookie free agent. Apparently he’s averaged 3.3 yards-per-reception this preseason and is #4 on the Lions depth chart. OK, I have to stop with the Lions wide receivers, this is getting depressing. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew pretty much shat the bed last season (-8.1 +/-, -25.3% DVOA, -123 DYAR). After a -12.4% DVOA, -53 DYAR 2011, I am comfortable calling the 2009 first-round pick a bust, but he is still on his rookie contract so he’s the starter for one more season. Backup Tony Scheffler’s DVOA over the past three seasons? -10.4%. I can see why defenses are focusing on stopping Johnson. If Johnson were to get hurt, this would be as pathetic a collection of receiving “talent” ever assembled.

Questions abound for the Lions offensive line. Is 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff ready to take over at left tackle? He played sparingly and unimpressively last season. Can rookie third-round pick Larry Warford keep his weight down and beat out Dylan Gandy for the right guard job? Does center Dominic Raiola have anything left? He’s entering his 13th season and looked close to done last season. Will Jason Fox beat out Corey Hilliard for the right tackle job? Fox has been slowed by injuries, but is clearly the more talented of the two. The only sure thing on the line is left guard Rob Sims. Sims is a fierce run blocker who can hold his own in pass protection. This offensive line was terrible last year. The players replaced were pretty awful, so Reiff, Fox, and Warford have a chance to improve upon a fairly low base. One note: As of right now Gandy is currently holding on to the right guard job, which is not a good sign for Warford or the Lions.

The Lions’ defensive line will start three first-round picks. Two will start in the interior, with Ndamukong Suh playing alongside Nick Fairley. Somehow Suh has become underrated. Last season he mauled opposing running games and ended up with eight sacks and 49.5 hits+hurries. He’s a beast who demands double teaming. Injuries led to Fairley ending up with 493 snaps to Suh’s 878. He pulled in 5.5 sacks and 14.5 hits+hurries. He actually had a higher sack rate than Suh and was equally dominant against the run. On the outside, Cliff Avril and his 9.5 sacks (20.5 hits+hurries) are gone, replaced by Israel Idonijie and his 7.5 sacks (21 hits+hurries). Given Idonijie’s stoutness against the run, that is at worst a wash, although Avril is six years younger. Actually, schematically Avril will be replaced by Jason Jones, formerly of Seattle. Jones has never put up numbers commensurate with his talent. This is the best defensive line he’s ever been a part of, and he’ll regularly face single-blocking. The third first-round pick to start on the line is Rookie Ezekiel Ansah. SackSEER loves Ansah but I am skeptical. He’s an amazing athlete who’s only been playing football for a few years. That’s an issue, because he’s 24 years-old and only had 4.5 sacks in college. This will be an interesting test as to how much pure athleticism matters relative to football knowledge. Keep an eye out for rookie fourth-round pick Devin Taylor. As late round picks go, he’s a SackSEER favorite. How much of that came from the fact offenses were more concerned about his counterpart Jadeveon Clowney is an open question. This is an excellent defensive line that seems to follow “Planet theory”. (George Young once told Bill Parcells that there are only so many large people with athletic skills on the planet, and when you get the chance to get one, you do it.)

Unfortunately, the Lions’ talent well runs dry at linebacker. DeAndre Levy is merely acceptable at weak side linebacker. Stephen Tulloch is a little better than that at middle linebacker. He’s coming off a bit of a down year, partially due to an injured knee. Special teams specialist Ashlee Palmer looks to be winning the strong side linebacker job, partly because the Lions simply don’t have three NFL-caliber linebackers on their roster. 2012 fifth-round pick Tahir Whitehead is competing with Palmer for the job. Like Palmer before him, Whitehead will have to make his bones on special teams.

Cornerback Chris Houston was the only remotely trustworthy member of the Lions’ secondary last season. Thirteen players played over 150 snaps in the Detroit secondary last season. Houston is a pretty good player, as is new strong safety Glover Quin. Knee injuries have limited free safety Louis Delmas. It sounds like Delmas is going to have chronic problems with this and won’t return to being the difference maker he used to be. Backup Don Carey was a pleasant surprise last season. I’d expect him to get exposed as a long term starter. Knee problems are also limiting rookie second-round pick Darius Slay. He is scheduled to start across from Houston. When healthy, he is a clear first round (and #1 cornerback) talent, so the Lions will be monitoring his progress carefully. 2012 second-round pick Bill Bentley has been limited by shoulder injuries and may lose his nickel job to Rashean Mathis. Mathis is an 11-year veteran who was recently signed as a free agent. Given the additions of Mathis, Quin, and Slay, this secondary should be in much better shape than it was last year.

The Lions’ special teams have been awful for the last two years. They’ve replaced the key people involved. David Akers is competing against Harvard Rugland for the kicking job. Akers has been awful for a while now, so I’m pulling for the Cambridge Carpet Gallery (who’s actually Norwegian). Rookie fifth-round pick Sam Martin takes over the punting duties. The Lions’ special teams should be better than last year, which isn’t quite the same as good.

I feel like I am looking at an incomplete team. The Lions have a great defensive line, a good young quarterback, the best wide receiver in the NFL, and then it falls off dramatically. This is likely head coach Jim Schwartz’s final season in Detroit: 7-9.

Green Bay Packers

Expected wins: 10.22

Scouting wins: 10.62

DVOA wins: 10.4

2012 record 11-5(10.5 Pythagorean)

And we’ve arrived at one of the three elite NFC teams, along with the 49ers and Seahawks. The Packers are looking to return to the Super Bowl. They open up with their most important regular season game, in San Francisco. That game is more likely than any other to determine home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Let’s see how the Packers stack up:

It didn’t get much press, but last season was a down year for Aaron Rodgers. His DVOA fell from 46.6% to 23.4%, while his DYAR fell from 2,130 (in 15 games) to 1,489. Most telling is that his yards-per-attempt fell from 9.25 to 7.78. That’s a pretty steep drop, so it is fair to ask, “What happened?” The answer may simply be that 2011 was a a great season which he couldn’t sustain. Over the past four seasons, Rodgers’ DVOA is 28.3%. He’s averaged 8.35 yards-per-attempt. So yes, 2012 was a bit of a down year, but from a very high base. He’s still young (30) and should be in the top tier for another few years. One concern is that his receiving corps isn’t as good as it has been, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The Packers were clearly unhappy with their options at running back. It’s one thing to take Eddie Lacy late in the second-round; you can make a strong case that the value there was too good to pass up even with his injury issues. However, when you trade up to grab a second running back in the fourth-round (Jonathan Franklin), it’s pretty clear that you are plotting regime change at the position. Lacy is a traditional “North-South” runner with a Maddon-esque spin move. He might not officially be the starter, but when healthy he will get the majority of the carries. Franklin is a more versatile player who’ll run, catch, block, and even tackle on special teams. He’ll see most of his playing time at running back when Lacy is inevitably injured. Even in this modern era with devalued running backs, both were good picks. DuJuan Harris is also in the mix. The former car salesman played very well (31.8% DVOA) in limited usage (57 DYAR) last season. Last season the two highest Packer rushing DYAR totals belonged to a wide receiver (Randall Cobb) and their quarterback. The Packers hope that isn’t the case this season.

Randall Cobb had a pretty great year: +11.1 +/-, 34.5% DVOA, 445 DYAR, 1,086 yards-from-scrimmage. He’s only 23 years old and will shortly be on the short list of best wide receivers in the NFL. At the moment he is being slowed by a biceps injury, but should be fine to start the season. Despite being slowed by a hamstring injury, Jordy Nelson managed to pile up 292 DYAR in 12 games. When healthy, he’s a scary deep threat with great hands. However, he recently had knee surgery to deal with a nerve issue and isn’t guaranteed to be back by week one. His ability to stretch the defense is something the Packers will miss if he is unable to return, or isn’t himself when he does. James Jones proved his surprising 2011 breakout (41.7% DVOA, 220 DYAR) wasn’t a fluke, as he produced another stellar season (22.6% DVOA, 318 DYAR). It may have been a fluke, but he was Rodgers’ favorite target in the red zone, grabbing 14 touchdowns. 2012 undrafted free-agent Jarrett Boykin has played his way up to #4 on the depth chart. Nelson’s injury will allow us to see just how good Boykin is. He broke Virginia Tech’s receiving records, but ran a subpar 4.7 40-yard dash at the Combine. The Jaguars took a look at him but cut him. Green Bay picked him up and was expected to cut him before he had a great preseason, culminating in a 5-82-1 (receptions-yards-TD’s) game against the Chiefs. He’s still an unknown, and the Packers would rather he remained no higher than #4 on the depth chart. Special teams specialist Jeremy Ross doesn’t look like a viable option, yet is fifth on the depth chart. Further injuries might force the Packers into some odd moves. Rookie seventh-round picks Keven Dorsey and Charles Johnson have “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” in front of their lockers. Johnson dominated his competition at Grand Valley State, scoring 31 touchdowns in two seasons. His measurables were excellent as well, with a 4.35 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. That wasn’t on the standardized track at the Combine, but even so, the man is fast. He’s big, too (6-2, 215 pounds). Less is known about Dorsey, as Maryland didn’t actually have any quarterbacks. You think I’m joking but I’m not: http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/10/29/maryland-linebacker-quarterback-petty/1666035/

Tight End Jermichael Finley had a bit of an off year, which may have been due to him feeling disgruntled. He looks to be in much better spirits and I’d expect him to improve on his 7.0% DVOA performance he turned in last year. His average DVOA over the past three seasons is 17.8%. Andrew Quarless and D.J. Williams are competing for the backup job.

Remember how I mentioned how Aaron Rodgers had a down year? Well, that’s partially because his offensive line failed to protect him. That’s bad news, because the line could be worse this season. Bryan Bulaga was set to make the move from right to left tackle, but is gone for the season with a torn ACL. Former left tackle Marshall Newhouse got absolutely destroyed last season. He’ll move over to right tackle, where he can do less damage. The Packers were lucky David Bakhtiari fell to them in the fourth round. He was expected to go a round or two earlier. He’ll start at left tackle. While he is a bit underpowered for the position, he has good athleticism. It will be up to the Green Bay coaching staff to prepare him for the massive upgrade in difficulty he is about to face. T.J. Lang was a disaster at left guard, and like Newhouse, will move over to the right side. Josh Sitton is switching with Lang. Sitton was pretty good last season, but will have a tougher job on the blind side. Evan Dietrich-Smith is taking over full time at center. He was competent in limited usage last season. Overall, this is a pretty questionable line. Other injuries have weakened its depth. The biggest question is whether or not Bakhtiari can do the job at left tackle, as Newhouse proved he cannot. If the Packers offense struggles, poor line play is the most likely culprit.

While I felt the Packers got a lot of value out of their 11(!) draft picks, I didn’t like their first-round pick: defensive end Datone Jones. He’s a boom-bust style prospect who hasn’t shown quality play commensurate with his tremendous physical ability. He didn’t even show up on SackSEER’s radar. He’s been troubled by ankle injuries so far this preseason. There are minor concerns about the rest of the defensive line. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett is entering a contract year. He’s still a solid space eater and has been working hard to impress his future employer. That won’t be the Packers, as they have a well-known case of rational agism. B.J. Raji didn’t live up to his reputation last season. Like Pickett, he’s entering a contract year. Unlike Pickett, he doesn’t seem to be working as hard as possible (aka, responding to incentives). Raji has worn down late in games, and while the team would like him to improve his conditioning, they may simply have to use him less in the first three quarters. Oddly, despite being considered a run-stuffer, C.J Wilson was the only lineman to nab a sack last year (2.5). Furthermore, he wasn’t particularly stout vs. the run.

Clay Matthews is the clear star on what might be an underpowered linebacker corps. Matthews ended up with 13 sacks and 34 hits+hurries. He was solid against the run, but make no mistake, he didn’t have many coverage responsibilities. His job is to attack the line of scrimmage and rush the passer. The Packers have struggled to find a good bookend for him. 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry will start across from Matthews. Perry was the 2012 SackSEER #1 prospect. He missed most of last season with a wrist injury. The biggest concern is that he simply might not be a linebacker at the NFL level and should move to defensive end. A.J. Hawk is pretty much “just a guy” at inside linebacker. It’s pretty telling that he hasn’t forced or recovered a fumble in the past two seasons. No interceptions either. Brad Jones is a little better than Hawk inside, but the Packers could really use a playmaker here. There isn’t much quality linebacker depth, either inside or out.

In the secondary, Tramon Williams played reasonably well last season. He’s played through shoulder injuries the past two years. A calf injury has pushed 2012 second-round pick Casey Heyward out of the starting lineup. He played exceptionally well last season. Sam Shields will take Heyward’s place. Shields is better equipped to cover the slot in the nickel. He played his way into the starting lineup last season, but didn’t perform well once he was there. Heyward is a difference-maker and the sooner he returns to form, the better off the Packers will be. Morgan Burnett was as solid a free safety as exists in the NFL. He hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons. Burnett didn’t miss a snap last season. M.D. Jennings has the edge on Jerron McMillian for the strong safety job. Both will get plenty of playing time, as the Packers are comfortable with three safety formations. McMillian is good enough in coverage that he can be used as a dime cornerback. This is an above-average secondary, but it will need Heyward to return to the field.

As of right now, Randall Cobb is scheduled to return kicks and punts, but don’t be surprised if Jeremy Ross gets both jobs due to Cobb’s importance in the offense. Kicker Mason Crosby was an embarrassment last season. Giorgio Tavecchio failed at winning the job with the 49ers last season. He’ll compete with Crosby this preseason. Punter Tim Masthey was solid, as were the coverage units. If the Packers can find a decent kicker, their special teams should be fine this season. We’ll see if they can.

Despite problems on the offensive line, I expect the Packers to win the NFC North with relative ease. Their real competition is out west. Unfortunately for the Packers, I don’t like their chances week 1 at San Francisco. They should be no worse than a two-seed: 11-5.

Minnesota Vikings

Expected wins: 6.65

Scouting wins: 5.93

DVOA wins: 5.5

2012 record 10-6 (8.8 Pythagorean)

Yes, the Vikings really are a bad football team. Even accounting for a great running back and solid offensive line, the offense is well below average. That’s a result of the Vikings having the worst quarterback situation in the NFC (yes, even worse than Arizona). Furthermore, while the Vikings do have a strong defensive line, the rest of the defense is well below average. Finally, the Vikings have a very tough schedule, as the NFC North has to face the AFC North and NFC East, which means they only get two “easy games” against the Eagles and Browns. The Vikings also get a trip to Seattle by virtue of finishing second in the division last season. It’s going to be tough for the Vikings to finish 8-8, let alone return to the playoffs. First, the major problem: Christian Ponder.

Last season Christian Ponder averaged 6.08 yards-per-attempt. That’s simply unacceptable. Even worse, he did that facing defenses selling out to stop Adrian Peterson. Ponder was a bad gamble when the Vikings drafted him in the first round in 2011, and he’s a bad quarterback now. Apparently he has never fully recovered from a separated shoulder he suffered in college. Too bad, but the NFL isn’t a league for the pitiable. Ponder doesn’t have the tools necessary to be a quarterback in the league, and, frankly, neither does his backup, Matt Cassel. Last season, Ponder put up 173 DYAR with a -6.1% DVOA. Crappy numbers, but leagues better than Cassel’s -353 DYAR and -30.4% DVOA. Cassel combines Ponder’s lack of arm strength with a big dose of inaccuracy all his own. The Vikings need to find a quarterback of the future in the near future. The Vikings ended up with three first-round picks, with the third coming in a trade with the Patriots. The Vikings gave up the 52nd, 83rd, 102nd, and 229th picks for the 29th pick. Apart from the utter disaster in value, they used that pick on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. If their biggest problem was not having quality targets for their quarterback, I could understand the move. The trade left them without a pick until late in the fourth-round. They had no way of knowing at the time that there would be a run on quarterbacks right before they picked (Matt Barkley 98th, Ryan Nassib 110th, Tyler Wilson 112th, Landry Jones 115th). The Vikings ended up grabbing linebacker Gerald Hodges with the 120th pick, but I have to think they’d have been better off

grabbing a quarterback with one of the four picks they gave up for Patterson.

I’ll excuse Adrian Peterson’s lousy receiving (-14.9% DVOA, -3 DYAR) due to the fact it required Christian Ponder to throw the ball to him. When he simply had Ponder hand the ball to him:

348 carries, 2,097 yards, 6.03 YPC, 24.9% DVOA, 458 DYAR.

Wowsers! He did all of that against defenses designed to stop him. Imagine if opponents actually had to respect the Vikings’ passing game! It was one of the greatest rushing performances of all time. Unfortunately, it is very hard for running backs to maintain such performance levels. Perhaps it has to do with all the punishment they take. By the way, Peterson was a pretty good receiver in 2010 (17.5% DVOA), and in 2011 with Ponder throwing to him (9.9% DVOA). I’d expect another strong season from Peterson, but that could mean 1,500 yards-from-scrimmage.

For people who want to defend Ponder based on the fact that after Percy Harvin, his receiving options were dreck: You have a case. Harvin is now in Seattle, effectively replaced by Cordarrelle Patterson. Actually, he’s technically replaced by Greg Jennings. Jennings was hurt last season, and it showed when he played (5.2% DVOA). He was very good the previous two seasons, but he may be injury prone at this point. There is almost no question the Vikings overpaid for him (5 years, $10M signing bonus, $17.8 guaranteed). Still, if your goal is to prove Ponder is the problem, surrounding him with talent and then watching him fail is a good methodology. Patterson is an elite prospect who may need a little while to adjust to a full NFL playbook. I’d expect a few highlights from him this season. Indeed, I would have liked the pick more had it not involved giving up so much in trade. After a lousy season in Cincinnati (-6.3% DVOA), Simpson put together a truly awful season in Minnesota (-24.5% DVOA, -8.8 +/- in only 12 games played). I think he’s a #4 receiver at best, but so far the Vikings haven’t dropped him that far on the depth chart. Jarius Wright might change that. Wright, a 2012 fourth-round pick, played reasonably well in limited duty (4.4% DVOA, 68 DYAR) last season. He’s been slowed by concussion symptoms so far this preseason. In another era, he’d probably have been back on the field already. Kyle Rudolf was an order of magnitude better than his advanced numbers suggest (-7.8 +/-, -3.4% DVOA, 64 DYAR). If he had a decent quarterback throwing to him, he’d be one of the best-performing tight ends in the NFL. Backup John Carlson was a non-factor last season.

The strength of the Minnesota line is at tackle. Left tackle Matt Kalil is an exceptional pass blocker who’s still developing his run blocking skills. Right tackle Phil Loadholt is a crushing run blocker (seriously, watch him on film), who still needs to fine tune his pass protection techniques. Even with their flaws, they’re both well above average at their position, especially Kalil. Guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco are both barely above replacement level. The Vikings have drafted future replacements who need some time to develop. It was a travesty that Jeff Saturday was invited to the Pro Bowl ahead of John Sullivan. Sullivan has been one of the best centers in the NFL over the past two seasons (note: Football Outsiders numbers dispute this, but my read is he is catching some of the flack from playing next to weak links on both sides). He’s coming back from microfracture knee surgery, but both he and the Vikings are confident he’ll return to form. If the Vikings had competent guards, this would be one of the best lines in football. As is, it’s still above-average.

The nice thing about having a great defensive end, Jared Allen, is that not only does he attack the offense (12 sacks, 39 hits+hurries), he also creates opportunities for players on the other side: Brian Robertson, 8.5 sacks, 26.5 hits+hurries, Everson Griffin, 8 sacks, 28 hits+hurries). Admittedly, not all of those plays came opposite Allen, but his presence definitely helped. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams isn’t as dominant as he once was, but he’s still a disruptive force (two sacks, 21.5 hits+hurries). Letroy Guion and Fred Evans will split time next to Guion. The new face in the tackle rotation is rookie first-round pick Sharrif Floyd. He managed to enter draft day overrated and exit it underrated. He was discussed as a potential top-five pick but fell all the way to 23rd. He doesn’t quite look the part, but he’s athletic enough to play any position on the line and should make an immediate impact. (Update: He sustained a knee injury in the Vikings’ first preseason game and required surgery that has knocked him out for the rest of the preseason. At this point, the Vikings will likely bring him along slowly.)

Free-agent pickup Desmond Bishop has not shown the Vikings that he is healthy enough to start. Bishop is returning after missing last season with hamstring injuries. His absence will force Erin Henderson to start at middle linebacker. Henderson played weak side linebacker last season and isn’t a natural fit in the middle. Chad Greenway is starting as the strong side linebacker. He’s been satisfactory, but rarely impressive in that role. Marvin Mitchell is currently slated to start on the weak side. He’s a seven-year veteran with 126 career tackles. In other words, he isn’t really starting material. The Vikings need Bishop to return to health or else they’re going to be left with a patchwork linebacker corps. Rookie fourth-round pick Gerald Hodges is a converted safety who might steal Mitchell’s job. Hodges was a decent value pick, so I probably shouldn’t blame him for not being the Vikings’ quarterback of the future.

The Vikings had planned to start first-round pick cornerback Xavier Rhodes across from Chris Cook. That plan took a hit when Rhodes injured his hamstring. I expect him to eventually grab a starting job, but it might take a little longer than expected. Rhodes is very good at press coverage and has done very well against larger receivers. Cook has missed 26 games in three seasons. He’s pretty good when he’s on the field, but that needs to be more often than it has been. 2012 third-round pick Josh Robinson is one of the fastest players in the NFL (4.31 40-yard dash). Rhodes’s injury has given him a reprieve, as he has been vocal about his displeasure at the potential move to the nickel role. Jamarca Robinson is in his third year running of holding of Mistral Raymond for the strong safety job. This is a case of speed repeatedly winning out over size and strength. The Vikings gambled, using a first-round pick last year on free safety Harrison Smith. They won their bet, as he turned in a surprisingly good rookie season, especially with his ball skills. If he keeps improving, offenses will take care to only throw deep to the other side of the field. I like this secondary a bit more than I thought I would, but they really do need to find a true nickel cornerback to handle the slot inside.

The Vikings’ special teams improved last season with the addition of rookie kicker Blair Walsh. Punters aren’t as important as kickers, but the addition of rookie fifth-round pick Jeff Locke should be a net gain. Cordarrelle Patterson looks to be the new kick returner, while Marcus Sharels handles the punt returns. The Vikings had pretty good coverage units last season and should have one of the better special teams ratings this season.

The Vikings were one of the weaker 10-win teams in recent memory. Their tough schedule and crappy quarterback lead me to expect disaster. I feel like I am being generous with this projection: 6-10.

Odd fact that amuses me: Each team in the NFC South has played in exactly one Super Bowl. Collectively the division is 2-2.

NFC South Projected Standings:

New Orleans Saints 10-6

Atlants Falcons 9-7

Carolina Panthers 7-9

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Atlanta Falcons

Expected wins: 9.28

Scouting wins: 7.94

DVOA wins: 7.6

2012 record 13-3 (11.2 Pythagorean)

What we have here is a 13-3 team that should have gone 11-5. They’re expected to go 9-7 this season, when in reality they might be lucky to go 8-8. What gives? Well, first of all, according to DVOA they were only the 10th best team in the NFL last season. They were home underdogs in the NFC Championship against San Francisco. They… just aren’t that good. Or are they? Let’s look at the basic layout:

QB: Matt Ryan- In each of the last three years he’s finished in the top eight in DVOA and top six in DYAR. He’s an underrated elite quarterback who has three fewer playoff wins than Matt Sanchez. The only quarterbacks in the NFL that can claim to be clearly better all have rings (Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, and Brees). He’s 28 years old and in excellent physical condition. On the other hand, despite his presence, the Falcons were only 12th in offensive DVOA last season. Part of that is due to:

RB: Michael Turner: 222 carries, -16.6% DVOA, -79 DYAR (which paired nicely with his -33.6% DVOA, -33 DYAR receiving). Jason Snelling: 18 Carries, -19.6% DVOA, -9 DYAR. Snelling was at least above replacement level as a receiver (10 DYAR), but was still below average (-8.8% DVOA). Jacquizz Rodgers: 94 carries, -10.9% DVOA, -9 DYAR. He redeemed himself with his receiving skills (26.1% DVOA, 131 DYAR). Still, let’s be clear: Falcons running backs combined for -97 rushing DYAR. When as a team you cannot fucking run the ball, you are going to be at a severe disadvantage. Michael Turner is gone, replaced by Steven Jackson. Jackson has 10,135 career rushing yards. That means two things: 1. He’s been a great running back. 2. He’s a has-been. He’s 30 years old. His rushing DVOA over the past two seasons? 1.5%. In other words, the Falcons’ offense is still overly dependent on the passing game.

WR: Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 700 DYAR, with a 16.2% DVOA. The ageless Tony Gonzalez managed to accumulate 286 DYAR, which paired nicely with his 20.6% DVOA. Those three, along with Jacquizz Rodgers, formed the core of the Falcons’ passing game. In fact, no other Falcons receiver had a positive DVOA. This is an extremely top-heavy roster. Remember me calling Steven Jackson a “Has been”? Well, he’s entering his tenth season. Gonzalez is still a great player, but he’s entering his 17th season and the end (or a severe decline) can come suddenly. 2008 third-round pick Harry Douglas has never lived up to his potential. His DVOA over the past three seasons is -15.0% (-26 DYAR), which is especially abominable given the quality of his quarterback and the fact that defenses are focusing on stopping his teammates. He’s below replacement level and, frankly, should have been replaced by now. Rookie fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo was a great value pick and should be a capable #2 tight end from day one. He’s a 6-8 target who’ll be tough to cover in the red zone.

The Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line had a basic truce with opposing defenses: We won’t try to move you, you won’t get past us. For the most part the truce held. The Falcons were very good in pass protecting and utterly miserable at opening rushing lanes, particularly in short yardage situations. The most important member of the line is left tackle Sam Baker, who had his finest season in 2012. Left guard Justin Blalock was almost as good as Baker, albeit doing a much easier job. 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz is moving over to play center after a very good year at right tackle. Oft-injured Garrett Reynolds is taking over for Konz at guard. Reynolds has been effective when he’s been able to stay on the field. The wild card is right tackle Lamar Holmes. The 2012 third-round pick was sidelined by a broken foot last season. He’s taking over for Tyson Clabo, who handled the job admirably. On paper, this is a pretty good line with similar strengths and weaknesses to the line that preceded it.

The Falcons effectively exchanged John Abraham for Osi Umenyiora. They decided that keeping Abraham would no longer be cost effective at age 35. Last season Abraham grabbed ten sacks and 28.5 hits+hurries. He’s now in Arizona, where he signed a “budget” two-year deal with only $1M of guaranteed money. As for Umenyiora, he signed a two-year deal with $5M in guaranteed money. Umenyiora pulled in six sacks last season, as well as 25.5 hits+hurries. Umenyiora is no spring chicken himself, as he’s 33 years-old and is entering his 11th season. Did I mention that Abraham was also very good against the run? I don’t see this as an upgrade for the Falcons. Opposite from Abraham is Kroy Biermann. Biermann has 16.5 career sacks in five seasons. He can get into the backfield, as he the same 28.5 hits+hurries as Abraham (literally, the same 9+19.5), but has nothing resembling a closing move. He’s also pretty good vs. the run, so I’ll cut him some slack. Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi round out the defensive end rotation. The Falcons are grooming Massaquoi to be a pass rush specialist. On the inside, the Falcons will use a rotation of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Travian Jefferson and Peria Jerry. Jerry has been too injured to live up to his first-round (2009) draft status. Peters has also struggled with injuries but has played well when on the field. Babineaux has been excellent and dependable. He’s also able to move outside and play end when the Falcons ask him to. Jefferson is the Falcons version of a 304 pound pet rock that can hold its position and eat up blockers. While offenses might struggle to run the ball effectively against this defensive line, I don’t foresee too much success sacking the quarterback.

Between outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, and middle linebacker Akeem Dent, the Falcons have a grand total of zero impact players. Given that we are talking about first-, fourth-, and third-round picks, respectively, that’s pretty embarrassing. Weatherspoon is coming back from offseason knee surgery and has suffered a dislocated finger on his left hand that will keep him out for much of the preseason. This is a thin linebacker corps that can’t afford too many setbacks. One note: The Falcons played more nickel than they did 4-3, and Dent was the odd man out in that formation.

Speaking of the nickel, the Falcons have rebuilt their secondary. Former #1 cornerback Dunta Robinson is out. Asanta Samuel has been given a promotion to #1. He earned it, dominating #2 receivers last season. He’ll play across from rookie first-round pick Desmond Trufant. Trufant was probably taken a bit earlier than he should have been, but he is a very good fit for the Falcons system, as is fellow rookie Robert Alford. Alford (second-round) is expected to win the nickel job. He’ll have to beat out Robert McClain, who played very well last season. Rookie cornerbacks generally struggle, and even if the Falcons go with Trufant and Alford early, expect McClain to work his way back into the slot. Free safety Thomas DeCoud and strong safety William Moore both made the Pro Bowl as alternates. Both deserved it after strong seasons. DeCoud is very good but lacks the physicality that makes Moore great. Assuming the rookies can adapt to the Falcons’ system, this remains an elite secondary, which seems important given the apparently suspect pass rush.

The Falcons had average special teams last season and I see no reason that should change much. Disclaimer: They could finish first or last just due to random variance that comes with the job.

There is one thing I haven’t discussed. DVOA projections have the Falcons facing the toughest schedule in the NFL. I’m not seeing that. Yes they have to face New England, San Francisco, Seattle, and Green Bay, but the rest of the AFC East and NFC West is suspect. How tough is the NFC South? Well, read on and see for yourself. The Falcons have put together five straight winning seasons. I say they run that streak to six: 9-7.

Carolina Panthers

Expected wins: 7.7

Scouting wins: 6.39

DVOA wins: 9.5

2012 record 7-9 (7.8 Pythagorean)

It isn’t too often that Football Outsiders and the scouts disagree so vehemently. What does FO see in the Panthers that we might be missing? Well, according to DVOA, last year’s Falcons had the 12th best offense and 12th best defense. Carolina had the 10th and 11th best, respectively. I left out special teams for a reason, but even so, Carolina was better than people might suspect. They also might be more poorly coached than people suspect. Punting the ball on fourth-and-1 from your opponent’s 45-yard line, when a first down is game-over, is unforgivable. You judge the decision, not the result, and the decision was confirmation of all the worst instincts of a former defensive coordinator. It isn’t about “Trusting Your Defense”, it is about making the decision that gives your team the best chance to win the game. That’s it. When John Fox took a knee, he failed that test. When Rivera punted, he did the same. That they both ended up losing is beside the point. Belichick lost when he went for it on fourth-and-2, but he made the right decision. That’s what matters. Rivera will eventually be fired for losing, but he should have been disciplined long ago.

Cam Newton improved as a passer in his second season. Slightly. His yards-per-attempt rose from 7.84 to 7.98, while his interception rate dropped from one every thirty passes to one every forty. However, his rushing effectiveness dropped. If you look at the whole picture, Newton’s DVOA rose from 3.5% to 3.9%, but his DYAR dropped from 595 to 571. Newton has already been eclipsed by RG3 and Russell Wilson. Mike Shula has been promoted from QB coach to offensive coordinator. I have very little respect for the coaching ability of Mike Shula. To put Shula in perspective, he’s the guy who sucked at Alabama before Nick Saban came in and took over college football. I do not see any of this as positive for Cam Newton or the Panthers. Newton is talented and fun to watch. Hopefully he’ll receive competent coaching sometime in the future.

Remember the star pairing of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? They combined for 72 DYAR last season, with a -5.7% DVOA. I’ve never done a detailed analysis of big contracts given to running backs, but I have to think the overall rate of return has been abominable. You know who the star of the Panthers backfield was last season? Fullback Mike Tolbert. Tolbert’s 17.8% DVOA and 161 DYAR are what kept the Panthers respectable. He’s a short yardage specialist who actually was better than the men he usually blocks for. Stewart is out with an injured ankle. That might open the door for rookie sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner. Barner was no worse than a fourth-round talent. He’s lacks great size and speed, but kicked ass at Oregon (2,023 yards-from-scrimmage, 23 touchdowns in his senior year). I’m curious to see how he’ll do in the NFL.

Steve Smith isn’t the receiver he used to be. At age 34 it’s understandable that he’d slow down. What is less understandable is why the Panthers don’t throw more to his counterpart, Brandon LaFell. Over the last two seasons here at the stat lines:

Smith: 152 receptions, 2,568 yards, +0.1 +/-, 8.2% DVOA, 456 DYAR

LaFell: 80 receptions. 1,290 yards, +2.5 +/-, 11.3% DVOA, 262 DYAR

The Panthers have averaged 9.62 yards-per-attempt when targeting Smith. Not bad. They averaged 9.77 yards-per-attempt when targeting LaFell. LaFell is only 27 and should receive a larger percentage of the targets. Armanti Edwards has five career receptions in his three seasons in Carolina. They’ve decided that he isn’t what they are looking for in a #3 receiver. That means free-agent pickup Domenik Hixon is in line for the job. Hixon hasn’t played much the past two seasons, but was very effective when he played (43 receptions, 24.0% DYAR, 197 DYAR). Hixon tore his ACL before the 2010 season, and again 2 games into the 2011 season. He ended up signing a one-year contract with the Panthers for a little under $1.2M. After years of being flagrantly awful, Greg Olson got bored and decided to have a good season for a change. He isn’t a great blocker or particularly athletic, but he has enviable top-end speed and he’s finally figured out how to get open. He should be able to repeat his 2012 results (13.6% DVOA, 157 DYAR).

The Panthers offensive line had an off-year in 2012. Left tackle Jonathan Gross isn’t the dominant Pro Bowl player he once was. He’s still able to maintain a solid level of play, though. Unfortunately, that level of play didn’t spill over to rookie left guard Amini Silatolu. Silatolu was repeatedly abused. Write that off as growing pains. I expect him to be much better this season. Center Ryan Kalil is coming back from a foot injury that knocked him out after five games last season. Geoff Hangartner played reasonably well in Kalil’s absence, but he Panthers are glad to have Kalil back. Right guard Garry Williams will have to beat out Hangartner to keep his job. Both are natural backups. So is right tackle Byron Bell. Bell is probably the weakest link on the line, but only because he has to play tackle instead of guard. With both Bell and Silatolu it’s surprising the Panthers’ offense was as good as it was last season. Unlike with Silatolu, there is no reason to expect Bell to be any better this season. The Panthers have awful offensive line depth. Rookie fourth-round pick Edmond Kugbila has the talent to change that, but he is coming up from division II powerhouse Valdosta State. He will need some time to adjust to the NFL. That won’t solve the Byron Bell problem, but one position at a time. This is a pretty bad offensive line and will be a drag on the Panthers’ chances.

Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy formed the best defensive end tandem that got almost no national attention. They combined for 23.5 sacks and 60.5 hits+hurries. Hardy was also a beast against the run. He’d love to repeat that performance, as he is entering a contract year. 2012 fourth-round pick Frank Alexander was solid off the bench and will continue to be part of the rotation this year. Inside, Dwan Edwards had a career year. He was a budget free-agent acquisition right before the season. He’ll be joined by rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotulelei was a first-round pick and was one of my favorite players in the draft. He would have been a top 5 pick if not for a heart condition. Further testing has cleared Lotulelei. He’s brutally strong and dominated in college. I expect him to give the Panthers their second straight Defensive Rookie of the Year. Short has first-round talent, but fell due to concerns about his attitude. Scouts regularly described him as “soft” and “lazy”. If the Panthers can get him to play to his potential, this will be one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.

2012 first-round pick Luke Kuechly deserved his Defensive Rookie of the Year trophy. His field coverage compared to the best middle linebackers in the NFL. He was a great pick for the Panthers and should lead the defense for years to come. Strong side linebacker Thomas Davis is basically a puffed up safety. He’s torn his ACL three times and is a serious injury risk. Weak side linebacker Jon Beason has only managed to play in five games over the past two seasons. The Panthers understand their risks and signed Chase Blackburn to provide depth. Unfortunately, the Giants aren’t where you should look for your linebacker needs. Blackburn is versatile and provide mediocrity at all three linebacker positions.

Football Outsiders and the scouts agree: The Panthers have the worst secondary in the NFL. Starting cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn are both nickel cornerbacks masquerading as starters on the outside. 2012 fifth-round pick Josh Norman has the most potential, but he got absolutely pantsed as a rookie. I’d probably let him suffer through his trial by fire as they’ve done with Silatolu. Back to Munnerlyn, he’s miscast on the outside, but as nickel cornerbacks go he’d be a pretty good one. Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only Panthers defensive back I trust. He’s talented and dependable. Unfortunately, because no one else in the secondary is, the Panthers play him deep, where has a limited ability to affect the play. Mike Mitchell looks to be winning the strong safety job away from incumbents Haruki Nakamura and D.J. Campbell. Mitchell flamed out in Oakland, but the players he is competing with did no better in Carolina. The Panthers are going with the disaster they don’t know.

The Panthers have had consistently awful special teams, something that doesn’t appear to be much changed heading into this season. Random variance is their best hope for improvement.

It’s hard to like a team with a flammable secondary and weak offensive line. I love the defensive line, though, and I have faith that Cam Newton will continue to get better in spite of Mike Shula. Football Outsiders has convinced me the Panthers are better than the scouts think. A repeat 7-9 performance should be enough for a coaching regime change, which will lead to a brighter future. 7-9.

New Orleans Saints

Expected wins: 9.15

Scouting wins: 8.66

DVOA wins: 8.5

2012 record 7-9 (8.2 Pythagorean)

Two years ago, the Saints finished 13-3. They had the best point differential in the NFL, edging out the 15-1 Green Bay Packers 208 to 201. Then the Bountygate scandal broke. The Saints were fined $500,000 and, worse, docked two second-round draft picks. Their general manager and the coaches involved were also suspended. Here is how the chaos affected the stats (advanced stats edition):

2011: offensive DVOA 33.0%, defensive DVOA 10.2%, ST DVOA 1.0%

2012: offensive DVOA 11.9%, defensive DVOA 14.8%, ST DVOA -2.3%

A reminder, defensive DVOA is viewed from the offensive perspective, so the higher number, the worse the defense. In the Saints’ case, they dropped from 28th to 32nd, aka, DFL. Offensively, they dropped from second to ninth. In 2011 a dominant offense led the Saints to the second best DVOA in the NFL. In 2012 their offense was no longer good enough to carry their porous defense. Sean Payton is now back, but will that be enough to restore the Saints to glory? Short answer: no.

Drew Brees was actually better last season than he was in 2010 (19.8% DVOA and 1,441 DYAR vs. 13.4% DVOA and 1,071 DYAR). However, he was nowhere near as good as he was in 2009 or 2011 (36.7% DVOA and 1,691 DYAR in 15 games in 2009, 38.3% DVOA and an insane 2,259 DYAR in 2011). He’s 34 and it is unlikely that he ever reaches the lofty heights of 2009 or 2011 again. He’ll still be one of the best in the game, just not overpoweringly great. It doesn’t help that he has an aging receiving corps, but I’ll get to that.

The Saints didn’t run the ball all that often last season but were effective when they did. Pierre Thomas (15.1% DVOA, 97 DYAR) returns atop the depth chart. He was also an effective receiver (18.7% DVOA, 99 DYAR), but that was only good enough for the second-best receiving performance for a Saints running back. He’ll compete with 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram for carries. Ingram struggled last year with knee and foot injuries, but came on strong late to finish with a 0.8% DVOA and 62 DYAR. We probably shouldn’t talk about Ingram’s -45.4% receiving DVOA, or the -21 DYAR that came with it. Darren Sproles led all NFL running backs with 214 receiving DYAR. His 21.7% receiving DVOA paired nicely with his 10.9 rushing DVOA (34 DYAR). The fact is Thomas and Sproles could take care of the backfield responsibilities, so it behooves Ingram to live up to his potential and display the talent that won him the Heisman Trophy.

As with Drew Brees, Marques Colston couldn’t maintain his insane numbers:

2011: 80 receptions, 1,143 yards, 8 touchdowns

2012: 83 receptions, 1,154 yards, 10 touchdowns

Can you see the massive falloff? Here, this should help:

2011: +15.7 +/-, 34.3% DVOA, 430 DYAR, all in 14 games

2012: +5.9 +/-, 19.7% DVOA, 327 DYAR

He was still one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, just not otherworldly. The 2006 seventh-round pick from Hofstra turns 30 this season and probably won’t ever produce a stat line like 2011’s ever again. Lance Moore has evolved from being a quality possession receiver in 2010 (14.4% DVOA, 86% of his receptions were short-to-intermediate), to being an elite deep threat (31.2% DVOA, 33% of receptions were deep-to-bomb). Yes, bomb is a technical term. Like Colston, Moore turns 30 this season and may see his physical abilities fade a bit. Joe Morgan averaged 37.9 yards-per-reception last season (on six receptions), but appears to have fallen off the depth chart. 2012 fourth-round pick Nick Toon missed last season with a foot injury. He looks to have the #3 job sewn up. Tight end Jimmy Graham played through a wrist injury that clearly hindered him. In his first two seasons he averaged a 17.5% DVOA. He’s in a contract year and will likely return to his earlier form. The Saints don’t have much receiving depth, so they’ll need their top guys to stay healthy and perform.

Charles Brown has had injuries pull the football away from him three seasons in a row. The 2010 second-round pick is taking over for the departed Jerrod Bushrod at left tackle. Bushrod got his ass kicked repeatedly last season. Brown is talented, albeit inexperienced, so we’ll have to wait and see. His backup is rookie third-round pick Terrance Armstead. Armstead was a good value pick (and is a physical marvel), but he’s stepping up from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, so he’ll need to be given some time to adjust to the NFL. Left guard Ben Grubbs was a huge step down from his predecessor Carl Nicks. That’s not to say he was bad, just nowhere near the dominant pro Nicks was. Center Brian de la Puente Has done a good job ever since switching over from guard in 2011. Four time Pro Bowl right guard Jahri Evans is the best player on the line. Zach Strief has done an “acceptable” job at right tackle. Armstead will take his job as soon as the coaches feel he is prepared for the speed of the NFL. The line is solid in the interior but a little soft at the ends.

New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is changing the Saints’ defense to a base 3-4. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley may be a better fit there than he was as a tackle in the 4-3. Rookie third-round pick Jonathan Jenkins will back him up. He was a top-50 talent who fell due to concerns about his ability to control his weight. He’s a natural bowling ball who has to make sure he doesn’t blow up and wear down late in games. The Saints’ strength coaches will earn their salaries keeping Jenkins in shape. Cameron Jordan is definitely a good fit as a 3-4 end. He might have a better season even if he see a decline in his pass rush statistics. He led the Saints with eight sacks. Will Smith, Akiem Hicks, and Kenyon Coleman have all taken snaps as Jordan’s bookend. Hicks and Coleman will likely split time across from Jordan, while Smith has been moved to outside linebacker. Smith should enjoy the move. He grabbed six sacks and 30 hits+hurries last season. Coleman is a run stuffer that Ryan brought over with him from Dallas. Hicks, a 2012 third-round pick, is much more explosive. He has the size to play nose tackle if the Saints need to move him.

Like Will Smith, Junior Galette is moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. Like Smith, he should be well equipped to handle the change. He grabbed five sacks and 17 hits+hurries last season. That might not sound impressive, but he did it in one-third the snaps as Will Smith and Cameron Jordan. Those are impressive stats, even for a pass rush specialist. He has the size and speed to cover tight ends and running backs, but might not have the technique just yet. Jonathan Vilma will likely have those responsibilities, as he is moving inside after being an outside linebacker in the 4-3. Victor Butler will backup both Vilma and Smith. Butler played for Ryan in Dallas and knows his system well. David Hawthorne will also be in the mix to play inside. The one linebacker slot that isn’t open for competition is Curtis Lofton’s spot inside. Whether he plays with Vilma, Hawthorne, or Butler, he’ll be the Saints linebacker who teams will have to gameplan around. Lofton led the Saints with 123 tackles last season and has more range than all but a few linebackers in the NFL. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the Saints’ front seven performs. Teams feasted on the 4-3, so this should be better just due to simple regression.

After watching their secondary get torched for the second straight season, the Saints decided something had to be done. They signed Keenan Lewis to a five-year, $25.5M contract with $10.5M guaranteed. He’ll start as the #1 cornerback. That forced incumbents Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson to battle for the other starting job. Greer appears to be winning that battle. Corey White is in the running to be the nickel cornerback, although he’ll have to beat out the loser of the #2 cornerback battle. Rookie first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro can play either strong or free safety. That puts both Malcolm Jenkins (FS) and Roman Harper (SS) on notice. Jenkins struggled last year and ended the season on injured reserve, but he is younger than Harper and his best peak is higher. Vaccaro is more natural at free safety, so I can’t really criticize either decision. One concern about Vaccaro: Some teams removed him from their first-round draft board because of concerns about his attitude. The Saints might be slow to give him a starting job as a means of motivating him.

Punter Thomas Morstead was easily the Saints’ best special teams performer. Kick returner Travaris Cadet was awful, partly due to multiple kicks returned from deep in his endzone. In one case his teammates had temporarily stopped blocking because they assumed he would take a knee. There is a fine line between aggressiveness and stupidity, and Cadet is comfortable returning kicks from eight yards behind that line. The Saints’ special teams should return to something right about average.

The Saints still have a lot of offensive skill talent. The defense looks vulnerable, though. They really could have used the second-round picks the NFL docked them on another cornerback and safety. Even so, while I foresee real problems for the Saints once Brees fades, the Saints should return to their winning ways this season: 10-6.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Expected wins: 7.63

Scouting wins: 7.84

DVOA wins: 8.3

2012 record 7-9 (7.9 Pythagorean)

Greg Schiano is both a bad coach and an asshole. Being an asshole isn’t an impediment to being a good coach, it’s just something that is part of Schiano, much in the same way that Don Shula’s jawline was part of him. As for Schiano’s coaching skills, he’s overmatched on almost every Sunday. It’s not unusual for a rookie head coach to be at a tactical disadvantage (except if your last name is Harbaugh), but rookie head coaches are generally strategically even, or perhaps slightly advantaged. Schiano wasn’t. Here is what was written shortly after he joined the Bucs: http://www.bucsnation.com/2012/4/23/2967681/greg-schianos-defensive-philosophy-explained

Can anyone spot the problem? The lack of focus on rushing the passer. He is more concerned with blocking passing lanes and stopping the run, not in that order. You know what the worst part is? He succeeded! Depending on what metric you use, the Bucs had either the fourth-best (Adjusted Line Yards) run defense of the DVOA era (1995-2012), or the best (Stuff Rate). Despite that, the Bucs finished with the 20th-ranked defense last season. To solve that problem, the Bucs decided to upgrade their secondary. You know what Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh said was the key to winning games in the NFL? Having a pass rush in the fourth quarter. Having one in the first three quarters helps as well. So, while I applaud the Buccaneers for realizing stopping the run isn’t enough, I don’t expect them to be satisfied with the results of their moves. I’ll discuss this more when I get to their defense. For now, let’s look at their bigger problems.

In 2010, Josh Freeman felt like he was about to grab the NFL by the balls. He had learned from his rookie mistakes (-31.1% DVOA, -386 DYAR), and put together a very good sophomore season (13.9% DVOA, 829 DYAR). Both his DVOA and DYAR results were good enough for ninth in the NFL. His yards-per-attempt had risen from 6.40 to 7.28. Everything was looking good, but there was one problem. Much of his improvement was based on an unsustainably-low interception rate. He had only thrown one interception for every 79 passes. That was good luck more than anything else. In 2011, reality ensued: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgBA1jA2-mo

Confused? Maybe this will help: http://www.sportsmedia101.com/tampabaybuccaneers/2011/11/28/qb-josh-freeman-injured-right-thumb-at-gun-range-not-against-chicago-bears/

Josh Freeman’s 2011 results: -13.7% DVOA, -96 DYAR, 6.52 yards-per-attempt, one interception every 25 passes. That was enough to get the Buccaneers’ previous incompetent coach (Raheem Morris) fired. For the record, before Schiano and Morris the Buccaneers had Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. Let’s give Freeman a mulligan on 2011. Did he recapture the glory of 2010? Sort of: -8.0% DVOA, 118 DYAR, 7.28 yards-per-attempt, one interception every 32 passes. Notice his YPA was the same, but now he has a realistic interception rate. That’s who Freeman is. He’s in a contract year and the Buccaneers drafted rookie quarterback Mike Glennon in the third-round. The writing is on the wall. Glennon was an odd choice. Clearly the Buccaneers preferred him to Ryan Nassib and Matt Barkley, but that was not the conventional wisdom. Glennon is 6-7 (one inch taller than Freeman), has minimal movement skills, and an unimpressive arm. Let’s just say the Buccaneers might be drafting another quarterback in the near future.

Todd Martin had a pretty amazing rookie season: 1,926 yards-from-scrimmage, 12 touchdowns, 3.8% DVOA, 221 DYAR. In a normal year that may have been Offensive Rookie of the Year material. As is, it was a very impressive campaign and I would like to see if the 2012 first-round pick can keep it up. The Bucs grabbed Mike James in the sixth-round to be a versatile backup for Martin. James was projected to be a “priority undrafted free-agent”, but I don’t begrudge the pick. He has a passion for the game and will do whatever the Bucs ask. One thing the Bucs would love him to do is improve upon Martin’s pass protection. I don’t know if James has those skills, as the scouting reports never discussed them.

An increase in targets led Vincent Jackson to have his best DYAR of the past three seasons (224), but his worst DVOA (10.5%). Full disclosure: 2012 was his first season with the Buccaneers, and he played in only five games in 2010. He’s still one of the best deep threats in the NFL, but he’ll turn 31 in January and is on the downslope of his career. The Buccaneers signed Mike Williams to a six-year $40.25M contract. Sort of. It really is a two-year deal worth $8.4M. After that, he will likely have to renegotiate or be cut. Well, he does have a third option: Get better! Last year his -1.4% DVOA was a significant improvement over his awful 2011 (-18.4%), but only slightly better than what he accomplished in 2010 (-5.8%). In fact, he actually had more DYAR in 2010 (65 vs 62 last season). Williams is a bit better than the freely available talent, but not much better. Incumbent Tiquan Underwood is in a brutal battle with Kevin Ogletree for the #3 WR job. Underwood played for Schiano at Rutgers. Ogletree signed a two-year $2.4M free-agent deal. Neither of these players is a difference maker. Let the battle begin! There’s a similarly unimpressive battle waging between Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree for the starting tight end job. I’m starting to feel a bad for Josh Freeman. Let’s just move on.

Last year the Buccaneers built a tremendous offensive line. They signed Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks (away from the Saints no less) and paired him with Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph. Joseph proceeded to miss the season due to a knee injury. Nicks played well until a toe injury forced him to miss the second half of the season. Joseph is now healthy, but Nicks is dealing with a MRSA staph infection. He has an infected blister on his toe (different toe than the one that sidelined him last season), and his timetable for returning is unknown. You rarely hear about left tackle Donald Penn, which is a good thing. While not among the elite, he makes few mistakes and will likely look even better if Nicks can stay healthy. Center Jeremy Zuttah is a quality player who can shift over to play guard if needed. I looked at right tackle Demar Dotson’s stats and was shocked the Bucs signed him to a contract extension. I then looked up the details (four-years, $6.5M, no guaranteed money) and decided it was fair. Dotson got his ass kicked, but at least he got his ass kicked cheaply. He’ll most likely be better this season anyway, as last season was the first he had seen the field despite it being his fourth year in the league. The Bucs’ depth is actually a little better than most, and if they can keep their starters on the field this should be one of the best lines in the NFL.

I don’t know what to say. Not only is the Bucs’ pass rush awful, but the one guy who actually could rush the passer (Michael Bennett, nine sacks, 33.5 hits+hurries) is now in Seattle. At this point I’d describe the Bucs’ pass rush as unfähig. Injuries have limited Da’Quan Bowers, but he was healthy for the last ten games of 2012, and couldn’t crack the starting lineup. In 26, games Bowers has accumulated 4.5 career sacks, which is not what the Bucs were hoping for when they took him in the second round in 2011. 2011 first-round pick Adrian Claybown grabbed 7.5 sacks as a rookie, but missed all but three games last season due to a knee injury. Backup Daniel Te’o-Nesheim was effective vs. the run, but only managed four sacks and 14.5 hits+hurries. If he were a defensive tackle, his numbers would actually be pretty impressive, but you really do need more from a 4-3 defensive end. The Bucs might use rookie fourth-round pick William Gholston as a situational pass rusher. Defensive tackle Gary Gibson straight-up murdered opposing running backs but provided almost no pass rush whatsoever. He’ll start next to Gerald McCoy. McCoy’s numbers are better than they look (five sacks, 28 hits+hurries), as he was facing regular double teaming. Rookie fourth-round pick Akeem Spence has the same skill set as Gibson.

The Bucs’ starting linebackers could probably write one heck of novel, but David Foster Watson don’t provide much in the way of a pass rush. 2012 second-round pick Lavonte David was actually pretty effective taking over for Derrick Brooks on the weak side. Mason Foster has developed into a decent middle linebacker, but nothing more. Dekoda Watson was a special teams star who has finally cracked the starting lineup, beating out fellow long-time backup Jonathan Casillas for the job.

The Bucs traded their first-round pick to the Jets in exchange for Darrelle Revis. The Jets ended up taking cornerback Dee Milliner with that pick. My guess is the Jets got the better of that deal. Revis is an unknown, as he is coming back from ACL surgery. He was the best in the game before he got hurt, but now? We’ll have to wait and see. He’ll play across from 2012 undrafted free-agent Leonard Johnson. Johnson struggled as a nickel cornerback last season. This could be an… interesting pairing. Johnthan Banks and Danny Gorrer are competing for the nickel job. 2012 first-round pick strong safety Mark Barron excelled against the run. He was a bruising and effective tackler. He struggled a bit in coverage though. He’ll be joined by free-agent pickup free safety Dashon Goldson, who didn’t come for free (five years, $41.25M, $18M guaranteed). Goldson made his first Pro Bowl last season. That came as a cog in the great 49ers defense. I don’t think his numbers will be nearly as good in Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers’ special teams looked terrible before losing kicker Lawrence Tynes with the same staph infection that is sidelining Carl Nicks. Rian Lindell will take over if Tynes can’t play. Punter Michael Koenen was a disaster last season. Backup Chas Henry was even worse in Philadelphia. The Buccaneers still haven’t decided who will return kicks or punts. Random variance may bring the Bucs’ special teams up to average, but I doubt it.

I’ll be blunt: The Buccaneers look awful to me. The one thing they have going for them is schedule luck in terms of when (and where) they face their opposition. For example, they’re going to face the discombobulated Jets week 1. They also get to face the Dolphins and Bills at home, and the Patriots on the road. That makes it much easier to go 3-1 vs. the AFC East (albeit harder to go 4-0). As such, I see them finishing with a respectable record: 7-9.

It’s a shame that the two best teams in the NFL don’t play in different divisions. On the plus side,that gives us four games this season where two elite teams face each other (Seattle at San Francisco, San Francisco at Seattle, Green Bay at San Francisco, Denver at New England). Kind of sad that the best AFC and NFC teams don’t face each other during the regular season.

NFC South Projected Standings:

San Francisco 49ers 11-5

Seattle Seahawks 11-5

St. Louis Rams 7-9

Arizona Cardinals 5-11

Arizona Cardinals

Expected wins: 5.68

Scouting wins: 6.36

DVOA wins: 6.5

2012 record 5-11 (4.8 Pythagorean)

What do you get when you combine the worst offense in the NFL with an excellent defense? The 2012 Arizona Cardinals! They’ve made some moves to avoid sliding into irrelevance, but I don’t think they have a long term plan. Last season they didn’t have any NFL quality quarterbacks on their roster. To fix this they traded for Carson Palmer. I’m not going to insult Palmer and deny he’s NFL quality, but he isn’t good and isn’t young. He’s 33 years old and has never fully recovered from the ACL and MCL injuries that knocked him out against the Steelers in 2006. His arm strength has also never recovered from the partial tendon tear that made him consider Tommy John surgery.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Palmer. Let’s look at his advanced stats from the past three seasons:

2010: 7.1% DVOA, 731 DYAR in 16 games in Cincinnati

2011: 2.5% DVOA, 295 DYAR in 10 games in Oakland

2012: -2.2% DVOA, 340 DYAR in 15 games in Oakland

There’s a decent case that Palmer has declined, although the extenuating circumstances of the change from Cincinnati to Oakland is hard to judge. Of course, while Oakland is awful, the Arizona offense is pretty much Larry Fitzgerald and ten guys named Moe. Backup Drew Stanton was last seen in 2010. He was a competent backup for the Lions. I assume little has changed. 2012 sixth-round pick Ryan Lindley… well, I’ll give you his rookie stat line: -55.8% DVOA, -482 DYAR, 4.4 yards-per-attempt,

0 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. He might not have been ready to start in the NFL.

The Cardinals’ rushing game last season was awful, so they brought in Rashard Mendenhall. The same Rashard Mendhall that fouled the bed last season in Pittsburgh: -27.6% DVOA, -38 DYAR. Of course, that’s better than backup Ryan Williams: -40.9% DVOA, -85 DYAR. The 2011 second-round pick has the excuse that he played through injuries in 2012. He’s dealt with a patella tendon injury that caused him to miss his entire rookie season and a shoulder injury that limited him to five games last year. I’m skeptical he’ll ever be anywhere close to the running back that he was expected to become. As for Mendenhall, he, too, was slowed by injuries last season and only played in six games. The Arizona offensive line is terrible, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see both backs struggle again this season.

I need to put the stats I am about to present to you in perspective. Football is a team game. A wide receiver needs a quarterback to throw him the ball. A quarterback needs an offensive line to protect him. In Arizona, both the offensive line and the quarterback it was protecting were incompetent. Please take all of that into account when I reveal Larry Fitzgerald’s 2012 advanced statistics line: -21.8 +/-, -23.8% DVOA, -218 DYAR. That’s the stat line for the player Pro Football Weekly has ranked 11th among all NFL players. That’s players, not just wide receivers. Now, I might argue that at age 30, Fitzgerald isn’t at that level anymore, but he’s clearly not one of the worst wide receivers in the NFL. I’m going to ignore 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd’s rookie statistics and simply say that I expect both him and Larry Fitzgerald to be much improved this season. 2010 third-round pick Andre Roberts is battling Kerry Taylor for the #3 WR job. I expect Roberts to win that battle. Roberts led all Cardinals receivers in DVOA (-6.5%) and DYAR (12) last season. This is a professional football team that won five games last season. Wow! 2011 Third-round pick Rob Housler has won the starting tight end job. Like the rest of the receiving corps, he hopes Carson Palmer gives him a chance to succeed this season. (Update: Housler has an ankle injury. I don’t know how serious it is. Backup Jeff King has a knee injury. Oy vey!)

The Cardinals’ offensive line was awful at every position last year. A biceps injury kept left tackle Levi Brown off the field, but rest assured he was awful in 2011 and 2010. The Cardinals took rookie left guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick. I liked the pick (although would have liked taking Chance Warmack slightly more), but he just broke his leg and his timetable for returning is uncertain. Center Lyle Sendlein was no better than the rest of the line, but it was still a blow when he was lost for the much of the 2012 season with a torn MCL. He’s back, and we’ll see if he is still moderately effective. Right guard Daryn Colledge got his butt kicked at left guard last season. He may reprise that if Cooper cannot return. Right tackle Eric Winston didn’t improve his situation much. He left Kansas City after a tough year and joined what is arguably a worse offense. Admittedly, Kansas City scored fewer points last season (211 vs. 250 for Arizona). He’ll also be an improvement over 2012 fourth-round pick Bobby Massie. Massie struggled in his rookie season, but was clearly better at the end of it. The Cardinals’ offensive line can’t possibly be as bad as it was last season (seriously, by some metrics it was the worst offensive line of the DVOA era, which goes back to 1995).

At age 32, Darnell Dockett isn’t the dominant player he used to be. He’s still one of the better defense ends in the NFL. Though he only pulled in 1.5 sacks, he nabbed 17 hits+hurries and was very effective against the run. Calais Campbell had a monster season across from Dockett: 6.5 sacks, 25.5 hits+hurries. Remember, these are 3-4 defensive ends who have much greater run responsibilities than their 4-3 counterparts. Many 3-4 ends are happy enough just to soak up blockers so the linebackers can make plays. Speaking of soaking up blockers, Dan Williams did a good job of it. The 2010 first-round pick hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, but he’s far from a bust. Overall, this line did a very good job but we should expect a different statistical profile from it this season, as the scheme is changing. Dockett will likely improve on his pass rush numbers, but may have fewer responsibilities against the run.

Inside linebacker Daryl Washington had a great season with nine sacks and 108 tackles. He had a terrible offseason, running afoul of the league’s drug testing and receiving a four game suspension. He’s also facing a second suspension relating to domestic abuse charges that are still being adjudicated. It is unclear when he’ll return to play for the Cardinals. Free agent pickups Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley will start inside. Neither of them are difference-makers at this point in their careers. Brinkley never was. Rookie second-round pick Kevin Minter may have been a bit of a reach, but if he can adjust to the NFL quickly, he should be able to beat out Brinkley for a job. Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander will start on the outside. Alexander has traditionally been a pass rush specialist who provided a lot of his value on special teams. That’s another way of saying he’s a marginal player. However, last season he pulled in 2.5 sacks and 20 hits+hurries despite only playing 294 snaps (a starter will generally play up to 1,100 snaps). Acho hasn’t received enough credit for his accomplishments last season. He was dominant against the run, effective in coverage, and grabbed 4 sacks and 21 hits+hurries. I don’t know why the 2011 fourth-round pick hasn’t received more press. With Washington out, he’s the class of the linebacker corps.

Patrick Peterson is the only trustworthy member of a rebuilt secondary. The 2011 first-round pick excelled last season, usually taking on the opposing team’s #1 receiver. He’ll start across from free agent pickup Jerraud Powers, who beat out fellow free agent Antoine Cason for the job. That makes sense given that Power signed for three years, $10.5M with $3M guaranteed, whereas Cason signed a one-year deal worth $1.5M. I’m not sure if Powers was worth it, as he wasn’t great when he played last year, and he missed half of the season with turf toe. Rashad Johnson is taking over at free safety. He’s spent most of his career as a backup and there is limited data on him. He’s currently playing through knee and ankle injuries. Yeremiah Bell is coming over to Arizona after spending one season with the Jets (and eight with the Dolphins). He was a budget acquisition (signed a one-year for less than $1M), who will play while rookie third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu (AKA, the Honey Badger) develops. At that point Johnson would likely move over to strong safety while the Honey Badger starts at free safety. A primer on the Honey Badger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

I look forward to seeing him play for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals finished 9th, 11th, and 11th in special teams DVOA over the past three years, but where they’ve gotten their value has varied. Three years ago, the Cardinals finished last in punt return value. Two years ago Patrick Peterson dominated returning punts and the Cardinals finished first. Last season he sucked, and the Cardinals were 31st. They made up for that by being first in punting value, with punter Dave Zastudil having a great season, along with his coverage units. Oddly, the thing they’ve been consistent in is “Hidden” special teams value, which is basically how well opposing teams have performed against you in the things you can’t control, like kicks and punts. The Cardinals have finished third, second, and second the past three year, through no action of theirs. The Honey Badger might get to return punts, which would be fun to watch. The Cardinals have solid special teams, although kicker Jay Feely is beginning to fade and it shows in his kickoff distance.

At times I have offered severe criticisms of the Cardinals’ personnel. The same is true of many other teams. The important thing to remember is that no matter how bad two teams are, they can’t both lose when they face each other. Amazingly, last season the Cardinals opened up 4-0, including wins against Seattle and at New England. They should be slightly better than last season due to the addition of Carson Palmer, but truth be told I am not his biggest fan. The Cardinals are the worst team in what is becoming a very tough division. I count eight tough games on their schedule, and eight not so tough games as well. I figure the Cardinals will go 3-5 in the not so tough games, and win two of the tough ones. 5-11.

St. Louis Rams

Expected wins: 7.42

Scouting wins: 6.33

DVOA wins: 5.8

2012 record 7-8-1 (6.6 Pythagorean)

Football Outsiders’ projections have the Cardinals as better than the Rams. The scouts saw them as basically equal. In fact, the scouts agreed that both teams have lousy offenses and decent defenses. The generally accepted view is that the Rams are a little better than the Cardinals, and I’m pretty sure I agree. They play week one, so we’ll get an early look at how they stack up against each other. The most pressing issue for the Rams is recovering from the exodus of skill talent that occurred via free agency in the offseason. The three Rams with the highest non-passing DYAR (Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola) are all playing elsewhere. I’ll discuss how the Rams are replacing the three in a bit, but first, let’s look at the man who’ll be getting them the ball.

Sam Bradford had a better season than Joe Flacco. Seriously, He edged him out on DVOA (-0.8% to -1.3%), and DYAR (388 to 358). Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to count post-season stats, as Sam Bradford was already beginning to prepare for next season while Joe Flacco was goofing around, impersonating Joe Montana. Will Bradford keep improving? Probably not. His major weakness is that he lacks arm strength. That has led to him being unable to average more than 6.72 yards-per-attempt in a season. When you have difficulty throwing deep, you have to complete a very high percentage of your short throws. Bradford has not. His peak is likely that of a poor man’s Chad Pennington. He might look worse than that this season if the skill talent around him is lacking.

2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead barely played his rookie season, only taking the field for 39 snaps. He wasn’t hurt, the Rams just preferred seventh-round rookie Daryl Richardson. Richardson started strong, but fell out of favor late in the season. His struggles as a receiver (-46.9% DVOA, -65 DYAR) may have had something to do with it. For the record, Pead was even worse, but in very limited usage. Rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy will also be in the mix. Stacy set the Vanderbilt rushing records for both yards and touchdowns. While he’s somewhat limited athletically, he’s very strong and plays with a notable passion. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do with the Rams.

Last season, two wide receivers at the University of West Virginia caught 114 passes. Both declared for the draft after the season. One of these receivers averaged 14.22 yards-per-reception and scored 25 touchdowns. The other averaged 11.31 yards-per-reception and scored 15 touchdowns. One of these receivers flew up the draft boards. The Rams traded the 16th, 46th, 78th, and 222nd pick for the 8th and 71st pick just to move up and draft him. They grabbed his teammate with the 92nd pick in the third-round. The third-round pick is trying to work his way up the depth chart. The first-round pick is starting week one. So why did Tavon Austin go so much higher than his teammate (and roommate) Stedman Bailey? Because three of his 15 touchdowns came on the ground. Austin averaged 9.5 yards-per-carry over the course of his college career. In particular, he gained 426 yards-from-scrimmage against Oklahoma:

http://www.footballstudyhall.com/2012/11/23/3679410/tavon-austin-oklahoma-west-virginia-reggie-bush

I don’t think I would have made the trade the Rams made, but I understand it. Starting across from Austin will be Flanker Chris Givins. Givins had mediocre numbers last season (0.0% DVOA), but most of the blame for that should be directed at Bradford. 2012 second-round pick Brian Quick failed to impress in his rookie season: -4.9 +/-, -25.0% DVOA, -33 DYAR, all in only 27 pass attempts. He had three drops in those 27 attempts, which might explain why there weren’t more. It’s tough making the adjustment from Appalachian St. to the NFL, so the Rams will give him a second chance. 2011 third-round pick Austin Pettis showed significant improvement last season (0.6% DVOA and 44 DYAR), after struggling as a rookie (-22.5% DVOA, -42 DYAR). He’s looked good so far in the preseason and should see significant playing time, especially given the paucity of established options. Tight end Jared Cook is coming off a bit of a down year (-3.7% DVOA, 9 DYAR), but was solid previously (he averaged a 13.6% DVOA in 2010 and 2011, while accumulating 163 DYAR). The Rams gave him an exceedingly stupid contract (five years, $35.1M, $16M guaranteed). 2011 second-round pick Lance Kendricks will see plenty of playing time in 2TE sets with Cook. Kenricks is coming off a pretty good season (13.0% DVOA, 67 DYAR). Neither are skilled blockers. Overall this is a very green receiving corps, but there is talent. It might take a while (and a new QB) before it reaches its potential.

Did you know that left tackles are territorial creatures? http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/eye-on-football/21868473/rams-lt-saffold-doesnt-want-to-move-to-right-side-for-jake-long

Rodger Saffold, and his agent, are pissed about him being moved to right tackle. I have Saffold and Long graded roughly equal for their 2012 performances, although Long has historically been much better, and played in 12 games vs. Saffold’s 10 (both players were hurt, Long with a triceps tear, Saffold with a sprained MCL). The fact is, Long is a four-time Pro Bowl left tackle, and he would never come over to the Rams as a free agent (four years, $34M, $20M guaranteed) if the left tackle position were not his for the taking. In any event, if Saffold can deal with the change, the Rams should have one of the stronger tackle combinations in the NFL. The interior of the Rams’ line also has dealt with injury issues. Center Scott Wells is returning after multiple knee surgeries. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming back from a torn biceps. Rookie fourth-round pick Barrett Jones was recently medically cleared after he had foot surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury he suffered in college. For now, Shelley Smith will start at left guard. Smith got his butt kicked last season, so the Rams have to hope Jones recovers quickly. As good as the tackles may be (if healthy), the interior of the line is a clear weakness that opponents will attack and exploit.

Things look much better on the other side of the ball. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn combined for 22 sacks and 62.5 hits+hurries, with Long picking up the lion’s share. Backups Eugene Sims and William Hayes had three and seven sacks, respectively. It was a breakout season for Hayes, who was rewarded with a three year deal ($4.5M guaranteed). This is a very deep group. Kendall Langford and 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers did an exceptional job shutting down the run. That was one of the reasons the defensive ends were able to focus on rushing the passer. Sometimes if you plow a lot of resources into a unit, it pays off. This is one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.

James Laurinaitis was one of the top five middle linebackers in the NFL last season. It is unclear how much of the credit should go to the defensive line that kept blockers off him. Strong side linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar had the best season of his career, grabbing 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles. There was talk of switching him to the weak side to make room for rookie first-round pick Alec Ogletree. Ogletree is a converted safety whose best asset is his speed. The Rams were torn between using him on the strong side for his coverage skills and on the weak side where he’ll have more space to maneuver. The decider may be the fact that Dunbar has the strength to take on blockers, while Ogletree likely does not. Ogletree was removed from a few draft boards due to off-field issues relating to drugs and alcohol, as well as a general bad attitude. He disappointed at the Combine, not producing measurables commensurate with what teams saw on tape. If everyone plays to their potential, this will be one of the better linebacker corps in the NFL. Good health is important as well, as the backups are a mix of seventh-round draft picks and undrafted free-agents.

The Rams rebuilt their secondary last season, bringing in Cortland Finnegan and drafting Janoris Jenkins in the second round. Both moves paid off. Jenkins was playing excellent football late in the season. Finnegan played as well as expected. The problems in the Rams secondary were caused by weak safety play, so another rebuild was in order. At 6-2, 2012 third-round pick Trumaine Johnson is a little larger than the traditional nickel cornerback. His size and skill will get him on the field. Both Finnegan and Jenkins are better suited to play inside, though. Rookie third-round pick T.J. McDonald will start at strong safety. While he played in the box as a senior, he was much better further away from the line as a junior. His coverage skills are just OK, as is his ability to fight through traffic. He isn’t a true free safety, but he isn’t a true strong safety either. I suppose he’s a “tweener” with enough of the skills of each to get by. That’s more than can be said of the rest of the safeties on the roster. Rodney McLeod and Darian Stewart are competing for the other starting job.

The Rams have been pretty poor on special teams for the last two seasons. One of their major weaknesses was returning punts, something Tavon Austin is eager to change. If he can, the Rams should be back in the treasured realm of average.

The Rams’ schedule is little tougher than I expected. The Cowboys and Bears finishing third in their respective divisions is a bit of a bummer. The Rams have a genuinely scary defense, and have talent, if not experience on offense. They were lucky to only finish with eight losses last season. This year they won’t be quite as lucky: 7-9.

San Francisco 49ers

Expected wins: 10.76

Scouting wins: 11.39

DVOA wins: 9.7

2012 record 11-4-1 (11.4 Pythagorean)

For nostalgia’s sake, here is the table from last year:

San Francisco 49ers

Expected wins: 9.47

Scouting wins: 11.03

DVOA wins: 7.2

2011 record 13-3 (12.3 Pythagorean)

In case you’re wondering, I predicted they’d go 11-5. As for the tie with the Rams? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7tAI9Hp3GY

So what’s with Football Outsiders’ pessimism? Well, they admitted that their 2012 projections for the 49ers were too low. The main issue was that the 49ers had been a bad team that suddenly became a very good one. Those teams usually regress the following season. Even Vegas wasn’t fully convinced, effectively setting the O/U for wins at 9.5. The 49ers were six-point underdogs when they went into Green Bay week one. They then crushed the Packers in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated (30-22). When Alex Smith got hurt, the 49ers discovered they had a much better quarterback. Colin Kaepernick was a phenomenon last season, on the same level as RG3 and Russell Wilson. At this point Vegas “Won’t get fooled again”. So, why the low DVOA projection for the 49ers this time? Well, insofar as 9.7 wins is a low projection, I don’t know. Yes, they’ll probably split games with the Seahawks, but they get Houston and Green Bay at home. I think they’ll only be an underdog once this season, but we’ll get to my projection a little bit later.

Alex Smith may have felt a little miffed about being benched when he was playing well, but make no mistake, Colin Kaepernick is a monster. He ended up with the third highest passing DVOA (25.8%) in the NFL last season, trailing only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He was even better in the playoffs, where he produced 417 DYAR in 3 games. A good chunk of that was with his legs, but even if you just count the 321 passing DYAR, that projects out as a 1,712 DYAR season, which would have been third behind, well, you can guess. Kaepernick is now in the class of RG3, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck in terms of “Who would you want for the future?” For the record, I think I would go Kaepernick, Wilson, Luck, RG3 (because of health. Bump him up to second if I have a diagnosis I can trust). Yes, I think Kaepernick is the best young quarterback in the NFL, and I think he’s part of the reason why the 49ers are the best team in the NFL.

Frank Gore must have spent last offseason getting into the proverbial “best shape of his life”. He was fully rejuvenated, reversing a negative trend that had seen him put up a combined DYAR of -1 in 2010 and 2011. Last season he was good for 318 DYAR with a combined DVOA of 16.9%. He turned 30 in May and the 49ers are expected to use him as part of a “running back by committee” plan. Kendall Hunter is returning from a torn ACL and may be a key part of the rotation. 2012 Second-round pick LaMichael James is expected to get his fair share of touches as well, but he is currently sidelined by an elbow injury. That might open the door for special teams ace Anthony Dixon. Dixon was effective in limited usage last season (15.9% DVOA, 23 DYAR).

The 49ers’ receiving corps took a blow when Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles tear. He’s been placed on the PUP list and it is an open question if he’ll be able to come back this season, and if he’ll be able to perform at a high level if he does. That was particularly problematic due to Mario Manningham’s knee injury and subsequent surgery. Manningham will start the season on the PUP list. It appears Kyle Williams will be the main beneficiary of Crabtree’s absence. Right now, Williams is listed as a starter on the 49ers’ depth chart. Williams has 461 receiving yards in three seasons, so I’m skeptical he’s the right guy for the job. The 49ers picked up Anquan Boldin in a trade with the Ravens. He was supposed to be an opportunistic #2 receiver. He’ll turn 33 in October and has been fading a bit. He put up a respectable 3.4% DVOA with 122 DYAR last season in heavy usage, so he should be able to carry the load for one more year. The 49ers traded A.J. Jenkins to the Chiefs, getting back Jonathan Baldwin in exchange. This was a swap of disappointing first-round picks. Baldwin has been awful in Kansas City (-126 DYAR over his two seasons). We’ll need to wait and see what Harbaugh does with him. Austin Collie was cut by the Colts due to severe concussion problems. He’s currently #4 on the depth chart. I don’t know if he’ll ever play again. The #3 receiver is Chad Hall, who doesn’t even appear in the Football Outsiders Almanac. The second lieutenant played two seasons with the Eagles. He played sparingly, returning ten punts and six kicks while catching 14 passes. He also ran the ball three times, and made three tackles. Last season he played on the 49ers’ practice squad and now, oh my god, he’s the 49ers’ #3 receiver. I don’t know what kind of salary cap room the 49ers have, but I know they have the Titans’ 2014 third-round pick, as well as the Chiefs’ 2014 second or third-round pick, depending on how many games the Chiefs win. They might be best served by trading some of those picks to a team that has extra wide receiver talent and isn’t a viable contender right now. Star tight end Vernon Davis will have to take up some of the slack, as will rookie second-round draft pick Vance McDonald. McDonald blew away the combine and is a tremendous athlete, but his performance at Rice didn’t justify the pick. The 49ers will have to find ways to work him into the offense that don’t expose his weaknesses (such as poor hands in traffic, inexperience blocking, and lack of familiarity with complex route trees).

The 49ers were one of only three teams to start the same five offensive linemen every game last season. That’s a nice competitive advantage, and it led to them being the best run blocking line in the NFL. Left tackle Joe Staley is probably the most mobile offensive lineman in the NFL (he’s a former tight end). He had another strong season for the 49ers in 2012. Left guard Mike Iupati is huge (6-5, 331 pounds) and mobile. Like Staley, he’s coming off a strong season. Center Jonathan Goodwin is still playing at a high level, but he’ll turn 35 in December. Backup Daniel Kilgore is untested. Right guard Alex Boone made a highly successful transition from playing tackle. Right tackle Alex Boone had a fairly dominant season. The 49ers signed Alex Snyder to provide depth. He’s played all five line positions. It’s hard to presume good health luck, but I expect the 49ers to have one of the better offensive lines again this season.

The 49ers are claiming that Ian Williams will start at nose tackle and that Glenn Dorsey is the backup. The 49ers are full of s**t. Both signed new contracts over the offseason. Williams signed for three years, $3.75M, with $2M guaranteed. Dorsey signed a two-year deal for $6M, with $2.3M guaranteed. Dorsey’s the starter in fact, if not in name. Either way, the two of them will have to combine to fill in the lost production of the departed Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois. Despite the fact that Dorsey has never played nose tackle, I think the 49ers will be fine. Ray McDonald and Justin Smith will again start at end. Smith had a bit of an off year and while he made his fourth straight Pro Bowl, he was only second team on the All-Pro list. The 49ers drafted Tank Carradine in the second round, but don’t expect to see him any time soon, as he is still sidelined by a knee injury. This is a good defensive line, but the real strength of the 49ers’ defense is behind them.

Three members of the 49ers’ linebacker corps made first-team All-Pro. The fourth had 6.5 sacks, 29 hits+hurries, and dominated against the run. This is the best linebacker corps in the NFL, and possibly the best ever. On the inside, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are masters of their craft. On the outside, Aldon Smith set a 49ers record with 19.5 sacks. He paired that with 38 hits+hurries. There were concerns he would struggle against the run, but those concerns proved unfounded. The other outside linebacker is the poor unfortunate Ahmad Brooks. Maybe if Brooks kicks ass again the writers will finally notice him. Oh wait, he made second-team All-Pro, never mind.

The 49ers have a well stocked secondary, although there will be some questions at free safety. Starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarrelle Brown are solid. Rogers may be moved to nickel cornerback to make room for 2011 third-round pick Chris Culliver. Culliver was excellent last season and it may prove tough to keep him on the bench. Nnamdi Asomugha is a far cry from the (overpaid) star he used to be. Even so, he’s still one of the best #4 cornerbacks in the NFL, and is a very good fit for this defense. Donte Whitner has the strong safety job locked up (for this year anyway; he’s in a contract year). He’s always been a hard hitter and it is nice to see him work now that he has some veteran smarts. The 49ers traded up in the first-round to grab free safety Eric Reid. C.J. Spillman has been putting up a surprisingly good fight to win the job (it had belonged to the fourth first-team All-Pro on the defense, Dashon Goldson, who signed with Tampa Bay). Harbaugh isn’t big on playing rookies, but Reid is probably too good not to play. He might not be the starter week one, but I expect him to win the job no later than the bye week.

The tremendous job done by punter Andy Lee was undone by the awful kicking of David Akers. Akers is gone, replaced by 15-year veteran Phil Dawson, while Lee remains. As such, I’d expect the 49ers to have slightly above-average special teams.

I will admit the 49ers’ paucity of offensive skill talent is giving me second thoughts. They were clearly the best team in the NFL last season, but the offseason has not been kind to them. The schedule isn’t quite as tough as you might expect. I mentioned earlier that they get three of their toughest opponents at home (Green Bay, Houston, Seattle, with a trip to Seattle in week two). Football isn’t an individual sport like baseball where you can trade for a player and plug him right in, so if they want to integrate a new wide receiver, they’re better off acquiring him now. We’ll see what they choose to do. I still see this as one of the most talented rosters in the NFL and I’m sticking with the same prediction as last year: 11-5.

Seattle Seahawks

Expected wins: 10.51

Scouting wins: 10.59

DVOA wins: 10.3

2012 record 11-5 (12.5 Pythagorean)

Let me tell you the story of a young quarterback named Matt Flynn. He was drafted in the seventh round in 2008 by the Green Bay Packers. He played well enough in practice to make the team, and was Aaron Rodgers’ faithful backup in 2010 and 2011. He got limited opportunities to play until the Packers faced the Detroit Lions in a meaningless game. The Packers decided to rest Rodgers, and gave Flynn the start:

http://scores.espn.go.com/nfl/recap?gameId=320101009

Wowsers! What a great game, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, as Flynn was about to hit free agency. The Seahawks and Dolphins competed for his affection, with the Seahawks eventually winning:

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/7706316/2012-nfl-free-agency-seattle-seahawks-matt-flynn-agree-deal

Unfortunately for Flynn, the Seahawks were coached by Pete Carroll. Carroll has no regard for things like salary or historical norms, and will play whomever he thinks will best help him win. Last season the Seahawks drafted Russell (The Asterisk) Wilson in the third-round. Scroll down to the bottom and check out what they wrote about him:

http://www.footballoutsiders.com/nfl-draft/2012/lewin-career-forecast-2012

In short, they called Wilson short, and said his projection would be likely be moot since he wasn’t expected to go in the first three rounds. Oops. Matt Waldman wasn’t so skeptical:

http://www.footballoutsiders.com/futures/2012/futures-studying-asterisk

Also, kudos to Waldman for discussing Kaepernick’s massive upside potential. Flynn may have come to camp expecting to face token competition for the job. He likely wasn’t expecting to get his ass kicked by a rookie quarterback three inches shorter than him, but sometimes that’s how life goes:

http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000156329/article/seahawks-trade-matt-flynn-to-oakland-raiders

I wish Matt Flynn the best of luck. Before I get to the 2013 Seahawks, let me mention a few things about the 2012 Seahawks: They finished fourth in offensive DVOA, second in defensive DVOA, and third in special teams DVOA. I wouldn’t have called them the best team in the NFL (I’d give that title to San Francisco), but they finished first in DVOA and were certainly one of the best teams in the NFL. Even when you break the Seahawks down into component parts, they were good at almost everything. Without any major weaknesses to fill, they decided to accentuate their strengths, trading for wide receiver Percy Harvin and drafting running back Christine Michael. That should help Russell Wilson improve upon his exceptional rookie season. (Update: Or not, Harvin recently had hip surgery and will start the season on the PUP list.)

Just how good was his rookie season? How about an average DVOA of 20.2% and 1,019 combined DYAR. The dude was good for another 290 DYAR in the playoffs, picking up a rookie record 265 in the loss to Atlanta. He’s a natural leader who will continue to develop. We are living in a golden era of young quarterbacks and Wilson is one of the brightest stars. Things weren’t too bad when he handed the ball off.

I cannot write about Marshawn Lynch without linking to the greatest running play I’ve ever seen. Here is the version with the best video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RivnFLmlmCI

I happen to prefer this version due to the higher quality audio:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueR1TFFEt3g

Either way, beast mode was activated and the Saints were toast. Last season Lynch was in an elite class: 1,786 yards-from-scrimmage, 18.7% average DVOA, 411 combined DYAR. Only Adrian Peterson clearly surpassed Lynch. He’ll probably see his workload diminish a bit this season due to the addition of rookie second-round pick Christine Michael. Michael was considered a first-round physical specimen but was given a fourth-round grade due to his character and attitude issues. He was suspended multiple times at Texas A&M and then proceeded to miss his scheduled interviews at the Combine due to what he claimed was a faulty alarm clock. However, the NFL is all about winning and Michael was the most physically gifted back in the draft. Michael will have to compete with 2012 fourth-round pick Robert Turbine for playing time. Turbine was decent in limited usage (0.7% DVOA, 59 DYAR). I expect the Seahawks to go with whomever looks better in practice, as they’ve shown a willingness to go with talent over pedigree. Rookie sixth-round pick Spencer Ware is likely going to get his playing time in short yardage situations, or at fullback. Or at fullback in short yardage situations.

If there is one area where the Seahawks have a clear advantage over their division rivals (the 49ers), it is wide receiver. Even before adding Percy Harvin, the Seahawks were well stocked with Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. Both Rice and Tate finished in the top 20 in DYAR and top 10 in DVOA. Rice finished with a little more DYAR (283 to 245), while Tate finished a little higher in DVOA (31.6% to 29.7%). Tate generally attacked teams short or deep, while Rice was a midrange weapon. The addition of Harvin will likely change Tate’s usage, turning him into a more focused deep threat. Harvin actually averaged more DYAR per-game than either Tate or Rice, accumulating 194 despite only playing in nine games. This is as scary a trio as you’ll find in the NFL. Tight end Zach Miller closed strong, ending up with more DYAR in the divisional round loss to Atlanta (64), than he had in the regular season (47). He was still pretty good last season, finishing with a respectable 8.1% DVOA. The Seahawks will miss his backup, Anthony McCoy. McCoy will be gone for the season with a torn Achilles. McCoy had been very efficient in limited usage (35.5% DVOA, 90 DYAR), and will be missed. Rookie fifth-round pick Luke Willson (Canadian spelling) will get a chance to pick up the slack. He was hobbled by back and ankle injuries his senior year. He was pretty much off the radar until he blew away the Combine with some amazing workouts. Zach Miller missed most of training camp with a foot injury, and Willson impressed the coaching staff in his absence. He could prove to be a late round steal for the Seahawks. (Update: You can ignore all that stuff about Harvin. He’s recovering from hip surgery and hopes to be back in December. There are also some concerns about Rice and his knee. He is currently in Switzerland receiving treatment. The Seahawks expect him to return without any problems.)

I’m still developing a new metric for grading offensive linemen. Without giving away too many details, it is a tool that grades how trustworthy a lineman is. The higher the number, the better. The number still has to be tuned for the position on the line, which is something I am working on. A left tackle with a grade of 25 is fantastic. A right guard with that grade isn’t nearly as good. I bring this up to compare tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. Left tackle Russell had his best season and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. I gave him a grade of 23.1. Right tackle Giacomini was absolutely awful and earned a grade of 15.0. If they had switched positions I could tolerate Giacomini’s results, but at right tackle he has to play better than that. It would help if he cut down on his penalties. There is some dispute as to whether he had 12 or 13 last season, but a more acceptable number would have been five or six. Center Max Unger also earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as well as first team All-Pro honors. Unger had an obscene grade of 67.4, but remember, I’m still working the bugs out. Guards Paul McQuistan and J.R. Sweezy will start on the left and right sides, respectively. Sweezy is a converted defensive end who the Seahawks grabbed in the seventh round last year. He learned fast and should be a solid starter this season. McQuistan is versatile but isn’t particularly good at any position along the line. Overall, this is an above-average line with a few question marks.

Seattle has a deep defensive line rotation, but it may be tested by injuries. Chris Clemons is listed atop the depth chart, but he is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered against Washington. If he can’t go or is ineffective, the Seahawks will miss his 11.5 sacks and 44.5 hits+hurries. I cannot figure out why Red Bryant gets as much playing time as he does. Despite the fact that he isn’t a run stuffer and provides almost no pass rush, he’s slated to start across from Clemons. Maybe he’s the best defensive end in the NFL at keeping blockers off of linebackers. Come to think of it, that’s conceivable, as he’s pretty massive (6-4, 325 pounds). He was slowed last season by plantar fasciitis. Free agent pickups Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril join Bruce Irvin as the key backups. Avril is coming off a fairly strong season in Detroit (9.5 sacks, 20.5 hits+hurries. Bennett had a similarly strong season in Tampa Bay, grabbing nine sacks and 33.5 hits+hurries (in roughly 40% more snaps than Avril). Bennett is coming off of a torn rotator cuff. He also suffered a knee injury in the preseason, although it appears to be minor. Irvin is a pure pass rusher who managed eight sacks and 30.5 hits+hurries in limited usage. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. He’ll be playing alongside a new partner, as Alan Branch signed a one-year deal with Buffalo. There is a four-way battle for the job. Tony McDaniel appears to have the edge over rookies Jordan Hill (third-round) and Jesse Williams (fifth-round), as well as Clinton McDonald. Oddly, Williams was projected as a second or third-round pick, while Hill was projected to go in the fourth or fifth-round. Williams is recovering from offseason knee surgery. McDaniel is pretty much a run-stuffer, so someone else will get playing time in passing downs. McDonald and Hill are the candidates there, while Williams is a fellow run-stuffer. Overall this is a pretty good defensive line, especially if it can focus on one dimension of your offense.

2012 second-round pick Bobby Wagner had an exceptional rookie season, ending up with 140 tackles and finishing second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. He was a great find for Seattle. K.J. Wright had a very good year on the strong side. The only real issue is the weak side starter. Malcolm Smith is going to get first crack at the job, but if he fails, Seattle appears interested in trying out Bruce Irvin at linebacker. He has the speed but would need some coaching to acclimate to the new responsibilities.

You won’t be able to find a better pair of cornerbacks than Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Browner wouldn’t work in most systems, but he’s a perfect press cornerback. Sherman is a more natural pure cover corner. The Seahawks signed Antoine Winfield to take over at nickel. He is an excellent slot defender and is fearless attacking the run. 2010 first-round pick free safety Earl Thomas earned his second Pro Bowl invite and his first All-Pro nomination. He’s one of the best deep safeties in the NFL, but he’s also comfortable in the box. Strong safety Kam Chancellor combines linebacker size with safety speed. He just signed a five-year $29.5M contract with $8M guaranteed. This is as good a defensive secondary as you’ll find, by a significant margin. They have great cornerback depth, but they’d have to scramble a bit if Thomas or Chancellor went down.

The Seahawks had the third-best special teams DVOA in 2010 and 2012. They added Percy Harvin, one of the best kick returners in the NFL. Special teams are hard to predict. Even so, the Seahawks are my pick to have the best special teams in the NFL this season.

The Seahawks are the most complete team in the NFL. They have a young star quarterback coming off of a stunningly good debut season. The biggest problem they face is that they are in the same division with the 49ers. Both teams have great defenses and young star quarterbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers are my picks for the top two teams in the NFL. I’m sure one of the two of them will exceed my expectations for them, but knowing which one? Ah, that’s the rub: 11-5.

So, where does all of that leave us? Here are my projected playoff seeds:

AFC:

1. New England Patriots

2. Denver Broncos

3. Baltimore Ravens

4. Houston Texans

5. Cincinnati Bengals

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

Yes, I am saying that the Bengals face the Texans in the Wild Card Round for the third straight season. Sorry about that. As for the NFC seeds:

1. San Francisco 49ers

2. Green Bay Packers

3. New Orleans Saints

4. Dallas Cowboys

5. Seattle Seahawks

6. Chicago Bears

Wild Card Weekend:

Cincinnati at Houston

Cincinnati falls short yet again as their offense stalls. Houston 20, Cincinnati 13.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore

The Ravens beat their division rivals in a brutally physical game. Baltimore 24, Pittsburgh 16.

Chicago at New Orleans

The Bears defense plays well, but the Saints offense is just too tough. New Orleans 27, Chicago 17.

Seattle at Dallas

Tony Romo fails to exercise the demons of his past. Seattle 31, Dallas 24.

Divisional Weekend:

Baltimore at Denver

Baltimore is a bit worn down after the game against Pittsburgh. This time Denver holds on to a late lead. Denver 34, Baltimore 24.

Houston at New England

Houston plays much better this time around, but it isn’t quite enough. New England 30, Houston 27.

Seattle at San Francisco

Each team has successfully defended their home turf once this season. San Francisco manages to do so again. San Francisco 24, Seattle 20.

New Orleans at Green Bay

The first complete blowout of the playoffs as New Orleans gets destroyed. Green Bay 48, New Orleans 21.

AFC Championship Game:

Denver at New England

We finally get the game everyone has been waiting for. Brady and Manning for the AFC title. It proves anticlimactic as New England dominates. New England 38, Denver 17.

Green Bay at San Francisco

After having won eight straight (and 13 out of 14) games vs. San Francisco, Green Bay loses their third in a row. San Francisco 27, Green Bay 21.

Super Bowl XLVIII

San Francisco 49ers Vs. New England Patriots

We were thirty minutes away from this last season, before Baltimore dominated the second half. This time we get to see Belichick vs. Harbaugh. Last year I would have liked Harbaugh’s chances. This time I think the Patriots have enough film on Kaepernick to frustrate him and slow the 49ers down. However, the 49ers have more talent and eventually wear down the Patriots. The 49ers end up coming from 10 points down and win going away. San Francisco 30, New England 20.

Don’t just take my word for it, watch the games and enjoy them with me. Have a great season y’all!

Seth Burn

sethburn@gmail.com

@sethburn on twitter

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