2014 AFC Preview

Like last year, the AFC East is one Tom Brady injury from being complete garbage.

AFC East Projected Standings:

New England Patriots 12-4

Miami Dolphins 7-9

New York Jets 6-10

Buffalo Bills 6-10

Buffalo Bills

Expected Wins: 6.48

Scouting Wins: 7.47

DVOA Wins: 8.0

2013 Record: 6-10 (6.7 Pythagorean)

Who had the best defense in the AFC last year? The Buffalo Bills. Who led the AFC in sacks? The Buffalo Bills. Who had the best pass defense in the AFC? The Buffalo Bills. How does a team with such a good defense not even sniff the playoffs? Well, it starts with EJ Manuel.

There was no quarterback given a unanimous first round grade last season. Opinions varied wildly on who would be the first off the board. It turned out EJ Manuel was the first QB taken. Geno Smith was next. Weak draft. Manuel struggled all season, ending up with a -19.9% DVOA and -190 DYAR. He missed six games but his backups weren’t any better (-25.1% DVOA), so he’s safely entrenched on top of the depth chart. The coaching staff says Manuel looks much better prepared heading into this season. Then again, so far in three preseason games he hasn’t been able to lead the Bills into the end zone. Preseason football isn’t that meaningful, but the Bills have been repeatedly going for it on fourth down to get him off the schneid. They also traded up in the draft to grab Sammy Watkins. Let’s talk about that a bit.

Owner Ralph Wilson died in March. The controlling trustee of the Ralph Wilson trust (Mary Wilson) is looking to sell the team. That puts team president Russ Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley in somewhat awkward positions. A new owner will likely want to hire a new regime. Brandon and Whaley don’t want to lose their jobs, so they figure the best way to stay employed is to build a winning team immediately. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to such an incredibly stupid trade. Brandon and Whaley have sacrificed the best interests of the Bills franchise. Something even odder: The Bills offered the same trade to the Jacksonville Jaguars and were turned down. That means the Jaguars valued Blake Bortles > two first round picks and a fourth round pick. Perhaps Bortles would have still been available at nine, but I digress. The Bills should be in full rebuilding mode trying to stockpile talent. Instead, they’re trying to save Brandon and Whaley’s jobs.

I’m not sure how long one should give a quarterback to develop, but there will be a new owner in Buffalo fairly soon. After the new owner fires Brandon and Whaley, the new regime will most likely hire a new coach. Even if they don’t, they won’t be particularly attached to Manuel, so he’d better get his game in gear sooner rather than later.

You might be surprised to learn the Bills ran for over 2,000 yards last season. 2,307 to be precise. Yep, that led the AFC. I’d be surprised if a team has ever led their conference in rushing, had the best defense, and missed the playoffs. The Bills even had a positive turnover differential (+3). The thing is, the Bills didn’t have the best running game in the AFC, just the most active. The Bills, like the Eagles, increased their offensive tempo. They ran the ball 546 times, which was 37 more than second place Seattle. Seattle was salting away games. Buffalo was just… running the ball. According to my calculations their rushing DVOA was -4.2%. Don’t blame the ageless Fred Jackson (33). He was an effective runner (9.1% DVOA), and productive player overall (215 DYARLOS). No, the problems lied with C.J. Spiller. Perhaps Spiller was hurt by defenses stacking the line, but he ended up with -78 DYARLOS. That was a drop of 470 from 2012. The talent to succeed is there, but if Manuel cannot threaten defenses, Spiller is likely to struggle.

Sammy Watkins is a great player. If I had first pick among all the wide receivers in the draft, he’d be it. He’s just not worth what the Bills gave up to get him. Now that he’s in Buffalo, he’ll be playing across from Robert Woods. With terrible quarterback play, one shouldn’t judge Woods too harshly (-11.7% DVOA). If Manuel develops, both Woods and Watkins will benefit. If Manuel is a bust (my suspicion), it’ll be a while before we see what they’re capable of. Marquise Goodwin would also benefit, but he managed to carve an effective niche for himself (5.4% DVOA) as a pure deep threat. The former track Olympian will need to round out his game if he wants to grab a firm hold on the #3 job. Currently, he’s competing for it with Mike Williams, formerly of Tampa Bay. Williams was an easy player to trade for, as he’s had numerous off-field issues. He’s making $1.8M this year, but that number jumps to $6.8M next season, so unless he has a monster year he’ll be a free agent after this season. There is a ton of talent ahead of him on the depth chart, and a decent amount behind as well. I have low expectations for Williams. Tight end Scott Chandler took his 53 receptions for 655 yards out on the free agent market. He probably expected better than “Go home and get your shine box.” He ended up taking a pay cut to return to Buffalo. Ouch.

The Bills got a great value when Cyrus Kouandjio fell to them in the second round. On a team with weaker tackles, he’d probably be slated to start immediately. As is, the Bills will be able to develop him. Starters Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears ranked third and twelfth at left and right tackle, respectively. Doug Legursky played very well in relief at left guard, and ended up fifth in my rankings. Despite that, the Bills brought in free agent Chris Williams to take the job. Williams may be a more powerful run blocker, but by my rankings he was strictly worse than Legursky (23rd). Eric Wood is another case where I may have a blind spot. He finished 21st in my rankings, but it’s clear that he’s a powerful asset in the running game. There was more good news for the Bills at right guard, where Kraig Urbik ranked seventh. Interestingly, the Bills ranked 16th in adjusted-line-yards, so their offensive line was roughly average. They were terrible on the edges, but strong in the middle. I am not quite sure how to add that data to my rankings, but it is something I’ll work on next offseason. I am a fan of this offensive line, and frankly the Bills are probably a quarterback away from being a very dangerous team.

You want to know what a scary defensive line looks like? Let’s go with Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams. They combined for forty sacks and 115 hits+hurries. That’s how you generate a pass rush with your defensive line. Kyle Williams is the oldest at 31. Hughes and Dareus weren’t quite as great vs. the run as you’d expect, but overall, this line is just fantastic. The depth isn’t quite what you might hope, but they should still be able to maintain a reasonable rotation.

I’m staring at the Bills linebacker depth chart and I’m not sure what to make of it. The loss of Kiko Alonso to an ACL injury in workouts is devastating. He’ll be replaced by Nigel Bradham. Bradham’s numbers were reasonable, but he’s a backup for a reason. This will be a severe test for the 2012 fourth-round pick. When he comes back from his one-game substance abuse suspension, he’ll be playing alongside a pair of free agent additions. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is as sure a tackler as you’ll find, but teams will attack his limited mobility. He’ll be an asset against the run, but the Bills planned on using Alonso’s range to protect Spikes in the passing game. You generally don’t look to the New York Giants for your linebacker dumpster diving needs, but that’s where the Bills found Keith Rivers. Rivers is another liability in pass coverage. As you can imagine, the depth here is questionable. Rookie third-round pick Preston Brown should eventually be able to take over for Rivers. He shares the same weakness: Mobility. Perhaps Rivers can mentor him and help him get the most out of his skills.

Any secondary looks better behind a great pass rush. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin put up great numbers. I was less impressed with Stephon Gilmore. He’s battled injuries and is entering his third season, so there is reason to expect he can do better. There is good depth here with Corey Graham and Nickell Robey battling over the nickel and dime jobs. Between Jarius Byrd’s departure to New Orleans, and the new defensive scheme favored by Jim Schwartz (formerly of the Lions), the Bills will have a new look at safety. Schwartz’s system treats safeties as interchangeable parts. That might prove unwise, as Da’Norris Searcy is best served as an “in the box” strong safety, while Aaron Williams is best playing away from the line of scrimmage. 2013 fourth-round pick Duke Williams is expected to see some playing time as well.

The Bills special teams would be about average if we simply ignored punting. Unfortunately, the Bills were terrible at all four facets of the punting game. They couldn’t block for, or effectively return punts. They couldn’t punt for distance or with hangtime, and their coverage units were terrible. The Bills seem to have acknowledged this, but most of the key players remain at their posts. I have very low expectations for punter Brian Moorman and punt returner Leodis McKelvin.

It’s amazing to me how much the Bills projection comes down to EJ Manuel. If the Bills had Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson (to name a couple of quarterbacks they passed on at least twice), they’d be favorites to unseat the Patriots. Heck, if you gave them Andy Dalton (who was available) they’d be the upstate New York version of the Bengals, which is a lot better than being the Bills right now. Instead, they’re going to have to go through the motions of trying to develop Manuel while they waste another season of their strong defense. Admittedly, without Kiko Alonso it won’t be as strong, so even if the offense is a bit better, the results should stay the same. 6-10.

Miami Dolphins

Expected Wins: 7.43

Scouting Wins: 8.25

DVOA Wins: 6.4

2013 Record: 8-8 (7.5 Pythagorean)

Even non-football fans heard about the 2013 Dolphins season, as Richie Incongnito and Jonathan Martin were discussed far outside traditional NFL circles. Incognito has been blackballed from the NFL (Or not, as Tampa Bay contacted him for an interview), but the root of the problem was general manager Jeff Ireland. Ireland had come over to the Dolphins with Bill Parcells. Parcells had always been willing to tolerate certain character risks so long as the players involved had the talent to justify the risk and weren’t a threat to others. It’s a somewhat cold view of things. If you destroy yourself, that’s unfortunate, but you aren’t bringing the team down with you. Ireland lacked Parcells’ intelligence, and got himself in trouble years earlier when he asked if Dez Bryant’s mother was a prostitute. The Dolphins fired Ireland this offseason, replacing him with Dennis Hickey. Frankly I was surprised when the Seahawks hired Ireland to be a consultant before the 2014 Draft. As for Hickey, his marching orders were clear: Character, at any cost. Well, sort of. We’ll talk about the offensive line shortly. Back to Ireland. Ireland left the Dolphins worse off than it first appears. He was unusually aggressive giving out guaranteed money in free agency. Just to look at one unit, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline were given a combined $42.5M in guaranteed money. There isn’t much Hickey can do about that. As for the offensive line, rebuilding it was Hickey’s first priority.

Entering this season the Dolphins were left with one returning starter along their offensive line: Center Mike Pouncey. Hickey’s character at any cost mandate didn’t include Pouncey:

http://nesn.com/2014/05/dolphins-mike-pouncey-has-framed-aaron-hernandez-jersey-in-his-house-photo/

Pouncey ranked fourth among centers in my rankings, so perhaps Hickey felt he was stuck with him for this season. His compensation jumps from $3M to $7.5M in 2015, with no cap penalty for cutting him, so this may be his last year in Miami. Now, as to the rest of the line, Miami had to find a new pair of tackles. Starting tackles aren’t cheap. Hickey turned to free agency to find left tackle Brandon Albert. I’m going to be making some slight modifications to my offensive line rankings next offseason, but for now Albert ranks below the man he’s replacing, Bryant McKennie (24th vs. 22nd). Mind you, they were both below average for the position. As for right tackle, Hickey turned to the draft. Hickey was in a bit of a tough spot, as the four best tackles were off the board by the time he got to make his first selection. Even so, it was a major surprise when Hickey took Ja’Wuan James with the 19th overall pick. James was considered a late-second-round prospect. For the record, he was 59th in my rankings. I’ll admit James has significant upside, so this pick may look good in the long run. Still, there is a very good chance he would have been available with the 50th pick. Miami ended up trading back multiple times in the second round, before trading up to grab offensive lineman Billy Turner with the 67th pick. Turner was another head scratcher. I had him ranked 115th, and a lot of team executives felt that Miami could have gotten him with one of the picks they used to trade up.

In general, fixating on certain players in the draft is a bad idea. First of all, it is very hard to predict who will or will not become a good pro. Second, you generally don’t have a good idea of whom the other teams are planning on taking. As such, you may be trading up for a player that would fall to you. Finally, trading up has been shown to consistently be the losing side of the trade in hindsight. In general, the only time I can justify trading up is when you are aiming for an elite franchise quarterback. Mind you, players like Andrew Luck come along very rarely. Miami reached for multiple offensive linemen, and their overall talent level will suffer as a result. Anyway, back to the offensive line and the guards.

Daryn Colledge is battling Shelley Smith for the left guard job. Colledge was signed after Pouncey hurt his hip. Pouncey is going to miss the first three weeks of the season and might open the season on the PUP list and therefore be ineligible until week seven. Colledge was a much better player than Smith was last season. As for right guard, 2013 third-round pick Dallas Thomas is battling Turner for the job. Hmm. I just noticed that Pouncey’s backup Sam Brenner is out with a leg injury. Shelley Smith has been receiving poor reviews at center. This could be ugly, although not as ugly as last season. Poor offensive line play led to the Dolphins surrendering a league-leading 58 sacks. The line also sabotaged the running game, ranking 28th in adjusted-line-yards. Any analysis of the 2013 Dolphins offense has to take this into account. Here goes:

Ryan Tannehill:

2012: -9.9% DVOA, 39 DYAR. He’s a rookie, we’ll let it slide.

2013: -9.8% DVOA, 54 DYAR. The offensive line imploded, we’ll let it slide.

2014: ???% DVOA, ??? DYAR. ???, we’ll let it slide?

My guess is that Tannehill is out of excuses, justifiably or not. The one issue he needs to solve is the deep-ball. He completed just 18% of his passes in the 21-30 yard range. That might not entirely be his fault. Mike Wallace was awful his last year in Pittsburgh (-17.4% DVOA, -19 DYAR), and similarly bad last season (-14.8% DVOA, -24 DYAR). Wallace is getting paid a lot of money for his lack of production in Miami. A long time ago he was a dominant deep threat in Pittsburgh. One more bad season and that will no longer be relevant. Brian Hartline has been reasonably productive in his two years with Tannehill (281 DYAR over the past two seasons). If we see some improvement out of Tannehill (and the offensive line), Hartline should have an excellent season. Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry provide good depth at wide receiver. Landry was a good value pick in the second round, although wide receiver may have been the position of least need on the roster. Brandon Gibson is the player Landry is battling for a spot on the depth chart. His numbers last season in Miami? 16.3% DVOA, 103 DYAR. The Dolphins also used a sixth-round pick on wide receiver Matt Hazel. I remain unconvinced that Hickey knows how to build a roster. Thankfully the development of tight end Charles Clay (6.0% DVOA, 88 DYAR) meant tight end wasn’t a trouble spot despite the loss of Dustin Keller to injury. Clay will keep the starting role he was gifted last season.

The Dolphins have put together an odd backfield. Lamar Miller and free agent acquisition Knowshon Moreno have the same skill set. They’re both undersized and elusive runners, capable receivers, and poor pass blockers. Moreno was quite productive in Denver (363 DYARLOS), while Miller struggled for the Fish (17 DYARLOS). Moreno wasn’t a pursued free agent and ending up signing a one-year, $3M deal. Clearly, teams felt his success was a product of the Broncos offense. Miller had to deal with the largely dysfunctional Dolphins offense and appears to be beating out Moreno for the starting job. Moreno’s recent knee injury is also a factor there. 2011 Second-round pick Daniel Thomas is holding onto his roster spot by a thread. He’ll need to carve out a niche as a short-yardage back who excels in pass protection.

There are two paths the Miami defensive line can take. One path involves Oliver Vernon, Cameron Wake, and Dion Jordan producing a dynamic rotation at defensive end. Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell, and Jared Odrick do the same at defensive tackle. This path requires waiting for Jordan to return from his four game PED suspension. It’s a good path and the one Miami would like to take. But, they won’t.

The path the Miami defensive line is going to take is the one where Oliver Vernon fails to repeat his 11.5 sacks from last season, Cameron Wake begins to slow down at age 32, and Dion Jordan struggles. I’m less concerned about the tackles, although Mitchell needs to adjust from previously being a 3-4 nose tackle. Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are premium players, particularly Starks. Even if the ends slip a bit, Miami should remain strong up the middle.

More worrisome for the Dolphins is their linebacker corps. I’ve seen linebacker Dannell Ellerbe listed as weakside, strongside, and middle. It appears he’ll be starting at strongside linebacker, with Koa Misi in the middle and Philip Wheeler on the weakside. None of them are impact players, and Wheeler is a potential weak link. As you can imagine, the depth here is putrid. Jeff Ireland was not a good general manager.

The Dolphins have chosen a bold strategy at cornerback: Go for guys on the wrong side of 30 who performed poorly last season. Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan fit the bill. Grimes gets a lot of respect from the scouts, so maybe they are seeing something the numbers are missing. Context can be tricky to judge, so I’d be willing to cut him a bit of slack. Jimmy Wilson was the unheralded star, performing very well in the nickel and on special teams. He can also serve at safety in a pinch, which is helpful because starting strong safety Rashad Jones got pinched for four games. Jones was solid in 2012 but was abused in 2013, which may have led to his PED suspension. When he returns, he’ll play alongside Louis Delmas. Delmas brings his own special blend of physicality and mediocrity. Well, mediocrity in coverage. No one can dispute his skills against the run. The key for Delmas will be to stay healthy. That’s the same key that 2013 second-round pick Jamar Taylor needs to follow. If he can stay healthy, he has the talent to push Finnegan onto the bench.

Off-years for return specialist Marcus Thigpen and kicker Caleb Sturgis offset the career year of punter Brandon Fields. Fields was one of the best specialists in the NFL last season and is looking to build a Pro Bowl legacy. Sturgis had a strong rookie season on kickoffs, but was inconsistent on field goals. I expect him to rebound with a much better season. Thigpen is the player who concerns me. He struggled last season and is dealing with a significant hamstring injury. Even if he is ready to start the season, it’s unlikely he’ll be 100%, and there isn’t anyone listed on the Dolphins depth chart to return kicks or punts. (Update: And now Caleb Sturgis has a groin issue. Don’t we all.)

Do I share the optimism of the scouts? No. Do I share the pessimism of the DVOA projections? Mostly. The Dolphins really could be a much different team if the offensive line performs. The cascade effects are huge, affecting the passing game, the running game, and even providing the defense with more rest. The line should struggle early without Pouncey. That’s too bad, because apart from the game against New England, the schedule looked soft early. In the end I expect a step backward for Miami. 7-9.

New England Patriots

Expected Wins: 10.82

Scouting Wins: 10.44

DVOA Wins: 9.7

2013 Record: 12-4 (10.5 Pythagorean)

The AFC is a two-team conference. The gap between the Broncos and Patriots on one hand, and everyone else on the other, is staggering. The Colts are ostensibly the #3 team in the AFC and they were last seen getting their faces bashed in 43-22 as seven-point underdogs in New England. After the game Charles Barkley summed up the moment:

In sports, if I’m a fan, I want my team to have a chance to win. That’s all I want. Like, in 99% of the cities in every other sport, not just football, your team sucks. You got no chance of winning. The Patriots have a legitimate shot at winning every year. That’s pretty cool, and it bothers me, it bothers me that y’all don’t appreciate them having a chance to win every year.

Like, in New England, y’all have a chance to win every year. [Offscreen: So who were you impressed with tonight?] No, I’m impressed with the Patriots organization. ‘Cause, like, they’ve lost so many people, and y’all take the winning for granted. Y’all do. And let me tell y’all something. When Bill Belichick leaves, and Tom Brady leaves, y’all team gonna fucking suck.”

Well said Charles. To test his theory I ran the Patriots scouting wins with Geno Smith replacing Tom Brady. The result? 7.31 wins. I’m not sure what hurts me more: The fact that Brady is that much better than anyone on the Jets roster, or that the Patriots were still .2 wins better than the Jets. Sigh. Speaking of quarterbacks, it’s impossible to take a team led by Andy Dalton seriously as conference champions. Expect another battle of the old guys. So, who has the edge? Well, yet again New England gets a huge break, getting Denver at home. That used to drive the Packers nuts when they were trying to get past Dallas and every year Dallas got them at home in the regular season due to one scheduling quirk or another. New England also gets to face the NFC North, which is somewhat easier than the NFC West. Denver can’t be looking forward to their trip to Seattle. Overall, New England has the much easier path to home field advantage in the AFC. However, the same was true last year and it didn’t work out for them. What went wrong? A lot.

Gronk’s injury weakened an already thin receiving corps. That led Brady to put up a remarkably poor performance by his standards: 10.9% DVOA, 979 DYAR. I’d kill for a Jets QB that good, but I digress. Brady’s DYAR dropped by 1,000+ while his DVOA fell from the 35%+ plateau it reached in 2011 and 2012. Brady took a lot of crap from the press and various analysts, but the film didn’t lie, he’s still got it. The question is, can Julian Edelman and Aaron Amendola catch it? Brady did not hide his displeasure with Amendola’s performance last season. Part of it was that Amendola was working around injuries and adjusting to a new offense. Another part of it was Brady grew to prefer throwing to Edelman. Amendola ended up with a better DVOA (12.3% to 4.3%), but Edelman was far more productive, pulling in 105 catches for 1,056 yards and 204 DYAR. If Amendola wants to improve upon his 54 receptions, he needs to stay healthy and stay ahead of Brandon LaFell on the depth chart. LaFell is actually fifth on the depth chart, but Brady has spoken very positively of him:

“Absolutely. I’ve got some of the little pygmies out there like Julian and Danny and it’s nice to have a little bigger guy out there from time to time who has a bigger catch radius,”

Methinks Brady has grown tired of the Patriots pinching pennies on wide receivers. LaFell is competing for snaps with 2013 second-round pick Aaron Dobson, who is currently sidelined by a foot injury. Dobson had his share of awkward moments with Brady, as he only caught 51% of the passes sent his way. He should be better this season, if he’s healthy. Undrafted rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins is also in the mix. If Dobson had a rough rookie season (+/- -2.8, -5.4% DVOA), then Thompkins had an absolutely brutal one: +/- -10.5, DVOA -11.9%. Remember, these guys had Tom Brady throwing to them. Rookies get better, but there are still major questions about the Patriots receiving corps. And then there’s Gronk. When he was healthy, the Patriots offense was terrific. Unfortunately he started the season gimpy and ended it with an ACL tear. Gronk has been cleared for team drills and hopes to be ready for week 1.

Because of the effectiveness of Brady and the passing game, the Patriots have historically been able to make chicken salad out of a fairly motley crew of running backs. That was true again last season, as Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blunt combined for 1,450 yards, 252 DYAR, and a solid 9.8% DVOA. Blount is gone, despite scoring four touchdowns in the rout of Indianapolis. Shane Vereen produced 151 receiving DYAR despite only playing in eight games. Ridley and Vereen should be effective again this season, although Vereen’s health is still a concern.

After coming close in 2011 (second), and again in 2012 (third), the Patriots finally climbed to the top of the adjusted-yard-rankings in 2013. I know that the key to a good running game is a good passing game, but the Patriots aren’t the only good passing team in the NFL and those results are tremendous. There are some warning signs the run is about to come to an end. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is coming back from an ankle injury that put him on injured reserve last season. He’s missed some practices this season with an undisclosed injury. When healthy, Vollmer ranked fourth among right tackles. Left tackle Nate Solder is also trying to work himself back into shape. He’s looked shaky so far this preseason suffering an undisclosed injury (The Patriot Way!) in the offseason. Left guard Logan Mankins saw his play noticeably slip and he ended up 21st in my rankings. That was much better than center Ryan Wendell, who ended up 33rd. That might explain why the Patriots grabbed center Bryan Stork in the fourth round of the draft. Stork excelled at Florida St. and he may be ready to play fairly soon. The only player I’m not concerned about is right guard Dan Connelly, who ended up eighth in my rankings and suffered no injuries of note. For the record, while Mankins and Wendell may have slipped in pass protection, their run numbers appear to be what led the Patriots to such success. The Patriots grabbed two other linemen in the draft (Cameron Fleming in the fourth round and Jon Halapio in the sixth.) All three linemen share one trait: They were all long term starters. Fleming and Halapio were four-year starters, while Stork started 40 games. The Patriots should be well-prepared for the future.

The Patriots run defense collapsed after losing Vince Wilfork to an Achilles injury and Tommy Kelly to an ACL tear. The fear of a repeat of that scenario may be what led the Patriots to grab defensive tackle Dominique Easley with their first round pick. Easley is coming back from an ACL tear himself, so he isn’t as much a reach (I had him 58th), as much as a gamble. If healthy, he can be a disruptive force as soon as he gets on the field. Thankfully for the Patriots, there are no such health concerns at defensive end. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich combined for 19.5 sacks and 86 hits+hurries last season. The depth behind Jones and Ninkovich is questionable. Will Smith missed the 2013 season with an ACL tear and was released by the Saints. The Patriots are hoping he can return to form and provide a pass rush off the bench. So far, 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette has been a bust. He’s still on zero career sacks and is battling with 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanon for a spot on the depth chart. Buchanon already has two career sacks, with one of them coming against the Jets. Sigh. The Patriots need good injury luck along their defensive line more than at any other unit on the team save quarterback. (Update: The Patriots released both Kelly and Smith and will be going with a youth movement along their defensive line).

It wasn’t just the loss of Kelly and Wilfork that hurt the Patriots. They also lost middle linebacker Jerod Mayo early last season. Pretty much the entire starting interior went down. Mayo should be fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him last season. He’ll be flanked by 2013 second-round pick Jamie Collins and 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower. There is a lot of talent here, and decent depth as well. Losing Mayo again would be unfortunate. Collins was playing at an exceptionally high level by the end of last season. If both can stay healthy this will be a very strong unit.

Excuse me Patriots patrons. This season the role of Aqib Talib will be played by Darrelle Revis. Revis should be a familiar face. While he is no longer the clear best cornerback in the NFL, he’s still top-five. He’s a great addition for the Patriots. He’ll be playing across from Brandon Browner. Browner’s numbers were excellent in Seattle. Free safety Devin McCourty is another premium talent. 2013 third-round pick Duran Harmon appears to have won the battle to win the strong safety job. Looking at his numbers from last season, it seems like the Patriots made a good decision. This is an excellent secondary, with quality depth behind them. Even with Browner sidelined four games due to a PED suspension, the Patriots should be fine with Logan Ryan or Alfonzo Dennard.

If there is such a thing as a dominant kicker, Stephen Gostkowski is it. He leads a special teams crew that has ranked no lower than fifth in the past three seasons. If you’re looking for a weakness on the Patriots, look elsewhere – the coverage units are excellent and the return units are solid.

Last season Gronk missed time, the Patriots defense was beset by injuries up the middle, and Brady regressed due to the lack of talent around him. That was close to a worst-case scenario and the Patriots still went 12-4. Like the Cowboys and 49ers of the early 90’s, the Patriots and Broncos are eying each other, looking to gain an edge for their expected meeting on January 18th, 2015. 12-4.

New York Jets

Expected Wins: 7.11

Scouting Wins: 7.11

DVOA Wins: 7.6

2013 Record: 8-8 (5.4 Pythagorean)

I love the fact that Michael Vick punked the Jets. He was ostensibly brought in to challenge Geno Smith. The Jets figured serious competition would help Smith improve and avoid a repeat of his (MASSIVELY) disappointing rookie season. Vick sniffed that plan out and called an audible. He went out of his way to praise Geno Smith and made it clear that he (Vick) would be comfortable in his role as backup. Mind you, the coaching staff made it clear to Vick that the QB competition was rigged, but they were decidedly displeased that Vick didn’t even pretend to compete for Smith’s job.

I’m going to cut Smith a bit of slack because he was a rookie and his receiving corps was poor. Still, he was flagrantly awful (-23.6% DVOA, -371 DYAR). At no point did he inspire confidence that he was on a path to something better. Unless he shows improvement early in the season, look for the Jet locker room to fracture. They see Smith in practice. They know what he is. The Jets start the season with a home game against the Raiders, but after that softball they travel to Green Bay, and then they get home games vs. Detroit and Chicago. If they are 1-3 at that point, things will turn ugly, as they face a brutal stretch at San Diego, home vs. Denver, and then they head to New England for their first divisional game. Let me put it this way: Losing to Oakland will put the Jets in pole position to grab Marcus Mariota. I’d love to see Smith prove the doubters (me chief among them) wrong. I’d love him to forge a tight bond with Eric Decker. Heck, in a perfect world Decker, Jeremy Curley, David Nelson, Jace Amaro, and Jeff Cumberland would form a great receiving corps.

Decker was outstanding in Denver (21.3% DVOA, 381 DYAR) last season. Kerley and Nelson weren’t bad in New York (6.0% and 2.4% DVOA’s respectively). Those Jets combined for 164 DYAR, which is impressive given Geno’s numbers. Cumberland finished with an astonishing 112 DYAR and 38.0% DVOA in limited usage last season. He was slowed by concussions early, but even late he wasn’t a featured target. He had produced -18 DYAR in his previous two seasons, and the Jets aren’t going to let themselves be fooled by a small sample (26 receptions). To that end, they grabbed Amaro in the second round. Amaro set the NCAA record for receiving yards by a tight end (1.352). However, receptions come a lot easier in the Big 12. Right now he’s best suited to be a blocking tight end. That may be why he’s currently #2 on the depth chart. Now, there is a notable name that I’ve skipped. That’s Stephen Hill. The 2012 second round pick followed up his awful rookie season (-15.4% DVOA, -19 DYAR), with a truly awful second year (-28.8% DVOA, -74 DYAR). He’s fast, but lacks the skills necessary to be a quality wide receiver, including hands. In theory the Jets could’ve had a productive NFL player with that pick. Alshon Jeffery went two picks later. Sigh. (Update: Hill has been released. We can all move on now.)

Speaking of mistakes with personnel, the Jets signed Chris Johnson. I understand that Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell combined for -38 DYARLOS. Ivory was hampered by injuries. Powell has his limitations. Fine, you want to add some depth to your running game? How about on day two or three of the draft? The Jets had 12 draft picks. They could have used one on a running back. Instead they decided to trust that Johnson still has something left in the tank. Johnson was solid last season (176 DYAR), but he preceded it with a pair of stinkers (combined -73 DYAR in 2011 and 2012). He was considered a locker room malcontent in Tennessee. If things start poorly in New York, he’ll likely make himself heard. Tennessee wasn’t sorry to see him go, so why should I be happy to see him here?

The Jets offensive line features two of the best lineman in the NFL. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson ranked fourth among left tackles by my metrics. Nick Mangold ranked first among centers, far ahead of the field. Their strength makes me wonder how 2013 third-round pick Brian Winters managed to end up as the single worst starting lineman in the NFL. There were a few backups who were worse, but in the end, Winters’ rookie season has to be considered a complete disaster. A repeat performance would likely see Winters lose his job to rookie fourth-round pick Dakota Dozier. Dozier probably needs some time to adjust to the NFL, as the competition he faced at Furman was a bit softer. As bad as Winters was, the more pressing problem might be adjusting to the departure of right tackle Austin Howard. Howard ended up second in my rankings last year, and he has taken his talents to Oakland. He’s been replaced by Breno Giacomini, who finished 31st in said rankings. Howard signed a contract worth roughly double in guaranteed money, but it might have been worth it. As for right guard, Willie Colon was a bit below average, which makes him the least of the Jets problems.

Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are the most underpaid pair of defensive ends in the NFL. That’s what happens when you have two stars on rookie contracts. Wilkerson is going to get paid relatively soon, but Richardson better just enjoy his Rookie of the Year trophy. Wilkerson grabbed 10.5 sacks last year. Richardson was a revelation against the run. In between them, nose tackle Damon Harrison was no slouch. He destroyed opposing rushing attacks. Altogether, this is probably the best 3-4 defensive line against the run in the NFL. Kenrick Ellis can provide good depth for Harrison, but the depth at end isn’t great.

Outside linebacker Calvin Pace grabbed ten sacks, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale. He wasn’t strong against the run, and his peripheral pass rush stats were lousy. He only had 10 hits+hurries. That leads me to believe his ten sacks were a fluke and that he is declining. He’ll turn 34 in October, so the Jets should start forming an backup plan. Across from him, oversized linebacker Quinton Coples became frustrated that he only managed 4.5 sacks despite 29.5 hits+hurries. He trimmed down in the offseason to improve his pass rush. That might come at a cost, as he was exceptional against the run last season. Inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis put up solid numbers against the run. Neither is considered great in coverage, although Davis has the talent to improve there. The depth at linebacker could be better. Expect the Jets to look to replace Harris and/or Pace in the 2015 draft.

OK, work with me here. I’m going to ignore most of 2013 and pretend that Dee Milliner is a young elite cornerback. He really was quite good at the end of the season. I’m also going to pretend that journeyman Dimitri Patterson is going to effectively hold down the starting job. Unfortunately I cannot provide a rosy scenario for rookie third-round pick Dexter McDougle. McDougle wasn’t one of 300+ players I rated. The reason for that is that I didn’t consider McDougle healthy enough to play. He is now on injured reserve after having surgery to repair an ACL tear in his knee. Free safety Dawan Landry is a reasonable starter. The real potential star is strong safety Calvin Pryor. The Louisville Slugger may be entering the NFL in the wrong era for his skills. He has the athleticism to adapt to any era and should be a great player for many year. Rookies still take their lumps, though. The truth is this is a vulnerable secondary. The Jets are a tough team to run the ball against, so look for this secondary to be severely tested. (Update: Patterson isn’t going to be holding down any job, he got cut after going AWOL. Kyle Wilson, Ellis Lankster, and Darrin Walls will have to find a way to get the job done while Milliner recovers from a high ankle sprain. Oy!)

Kicker Nick Folk surprised me by having an excellent season. Kicker performance is generally volatile, so I’m sure he will live down to my expectations fairly soon. Beyond Folk’s good fortune, the Jets special teams were average last season. I’m expecting the same this year

There may have been a time when you could win in the NFL without a good quarterback. That time has passed. The Jets are hoping that Geno Smith will be much improved this season, but the odds are firmly against that. More likely, the Jets and Bills are in the same boat. It’s actually more tragic in Buffalo, because they have a better defense, especially against the pass. Perhaps the best thing for the Jets to do is to take a lesson from the Philadephia 76ers. Of course, the 76ers didn’t go out and sign multiple free agents with the hope of competing. If I’m wrong about Smith, great! If not, the faster you fold a bad hand, the more money you save. The worst case scenario is that the Jets are a mediocre team by midseason and win just enough games to lose out on the top draft picks. Alas. 6-10.

The AFC North has three legitimate contenders, and the hapless Cleveland Browns. Sorry Cleveland, you definitely do not rock.

AFC North Projected Standings:

Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6

Cincinnati Bengals 9-7

Baltimore Ravens 8-8

Cleveland Browns 6-10

Baltimore Ravens

Expected Wins: 8.30

Scouting Wins: 8.64

DVOA Wins: 7.4

2013 Record: 8-8 (7.1 Pythagorean)

Now THAT is how you don’t defend a Super Bowl victory:

Joe Flacco: -18.1% DVOA, -296 DYAR

Ray Rice: -25.7% DVOALOS, -190 DYARLOS

Bernard Pierce: -29.9% DVOALOS, -158 DYARLOS

Vonta Leach: –39.6% DVOALOS, -53 DYARLOS

The offensive line got in on the action, dropping from sixth to 32nd in adjusted-line-yards. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown did some good work keeping this offense dead last as well. It ended up finishing in 30th in DVOA. So, what happened? The loss of Anquan Boldin was clearly more damaging than the Ravens expected, but that has nothing to do with the collapse of the offensive line. As Flacco’s protection broke down, his sack and interception rates drifted upward. And yet, the connection isn’t as strong as you might think, as over 75% of Flacco’s interceptions came on plays without any listed pressure. Flacco had some excuses, but for the most part he was awful independent of the personnel changes and offensive line performance.

It’s somewhat tricky to know what to make of Flacco. He was an average QB in 2011 (0.0% DVOA), and slightly worse in 2012 (-1.3%) before going off on an incredible run where he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games. There was almost a chance for him to repeat his performance. The Ravens were 8-6 before the Patriots and Bengals alerted Baltimore that their presence in the playoffs would not be required. Another bad season from Flacco would put the Ravens in a very tough spot. They don’t have to pay him an exorbitant salary until 2016, but that cap hit for cutting him would be staggering. Given his track record, it might be best to view his 2013 performance as a fluky flip side to his 2012 playoff run. He wasn’t as good or as bad as he looked in either. That’s the hope, anyway. The truth is that having your two lead running backs run for a combined average of less than 3 yards-per-carry puts a lot of pressure on you. If the rest of the offense gets its shit together, so will Flacco.

Ray Rice will be allowed to play for the Ravens after a two game hiatus. For more about Rice, click here:

https://sethburn.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/thoughts-on-ray-rice/

Rice wasn’t just a disaster running and receiving. He was also a terrible blocker. His collective breakdown makes me wonder if there is a physical breakdown at the root of his problems. Counting the playoffs, he took well over 350 hits last season. The collective physical trauma may have permanently changed him as a player. In 1980, Earl Campbell ran for 1,934 yards and averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry. In 1981, he fell to 3.8 yards-per-carry. The end can come swiftly for running backs. If Rice is indeed toast, then the Ravens will turn to 2012 third-round pick Bernard Pierce. Pierce was no more effective than Rice last season and is currently sidelined with a “mild” concussion. He’s expected to be ready for the opener. He was productive his rookie season (64 DYARLOS), so the Ravens are going to hope that his struggles last season were more about the offensive line than him.

One player who didn’t struggle last season was undrafted rookie free agent Marlon Brown. Most of Brown’s value can in the red zone as he ended up with seven touchdown receptions. Given the addition of Steve Smith, it’s unlikely Brown will repeat his 117 DYAR performance, but he should show up in some of the Ravens red zone packages. As for the Smiths, I’m skeptical of both. Torrey Smith was able to maintain roughly the same DVOA (a drop from 0.7% to 0.0%) and DYAR (a drop of 143 to 139) as he did in 2012. What the 2011 first-round pick hasn’t been able to do is play at the level he reached his rookie season (11.6% DVOA, 199 DYAR). Part of the problem is that without Boldin, he was the obvious target, both for Flacco and for the defense. So, will the addition of Steve Smith solve that problem? I doubt it. Steve Smith is 35 years old and has seen his production steadily drop from 1,394 yards to 1,174 yards to 745 yards receiving. His DYAR and DVOA have dropped as well. Last year, he actually had a negative DVOA (-3.7%), so there have to be major concerns that Smith has lost too many steps to be a productive player. If that’s the case, the next man the Ravens will turn to is Jacoby Jones. You may remember Jones as the recipient of good fortune when the Denver secondary failed both physics and geometry. When teams paid better attention to Jones, he struggled last season with a -7.0% DVOA. Tight end Dennis Pitta looked like he was slowing down even before being sidelined with a hip injury. The Ravens clearly feel such concerns are unwarranted, as they signed him to a new deal with $16M guaranteed. I’m going to trust their doctors, but only until I can watch him play a few regular season games and see if the speed is still there. Backup Owen Daniels has also been on a bit of a downswing and might not be much more than a replacement level player at this point. I’m genuinely concerned that this receiving corps is going to make Flacco look awful yet again this season.

So, what exactly happened to the offensive line? Left tackle Eugene Monroe finished eighth in my rankings, but the Ravens couldn’t run the ball behind him at all. 2013 fifth-round pick Ricky Wagner only appeared in limited action last season. He wasn’t impressive, but is slated to start at right tackle. He’ll be replacing Michael Oher of The Blind Side (Oher is now in Tennessee). Oher didn’t have a great season, but he was the only lineman who could generate some movement for the running game. Right guard Marshall Yanda is still receiving invites to the Pro Bowl, but he ranked 20th in my metrics. That’s still much better than left guard Kelechi Osemele who ended up 31st among left guards. The Ravens traded for Jeremy Zuttah. He’s replacing Gino Gradkowski. Gradkowski actually ranked slightly higher in my rankings (22nd to 27th), but it’s possible Zuttah can provide more power for the running game.

I’ll admit it’s hard to feel much confidence in an offense that got destroyed the previous season, but the Ravens don’t appear to have fixed whatever ailed them. Hopefully it was just an off year.

Right now, nose tackle Haloti Ngata is the only star along the defensive line. He’ll be flanked by DeAngelo Tyson and Chris Canty. Second- and fourth-round picks Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban are waiting in the wings. Both were good values, especially Jernigan. Jernigan’s biggest weakness right now is his conditioning, so a backup role while he develops will suit him perfectly. He should be a very good player in a year or two. Urban has freakishly long arms that allow him to shield his frame from blockers. He’s very good at affecting a quarterback’s field of vision and blocking throwing lanes. Mount Cody has lived up to his name. He’s a tough guy to run through, but he never gets near the quarterback either. Brandon Williams seems to have disappeared from the Ravens depth chart. The 2013 third-round pick missed time with a toe injury, but has looked good so far this preseason. I expect we’ll see him in the tackle rotation. (Update: We will have to wait on Urban, as he’s out for the season with a knee injury)

Thanks to a bad fax machine, the Ravens had an excellent pass rush last season. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil combined for 19.5 sacks and 59.5 hits+hurries. On the inside, first-round pick C.J. Mosley will pair up with seasoned veteran Daryl Smith. Mosley was a great pickup. His field vision and game speed are elite. The only concern was some injury red flags, but Mosley received multilple clean bills of health before the draft. As for Smith, playing in Baltimore rejuvenated him. Apparently, playing in Jacksonville ages you prematurely, but cures do exist. Josh Bynes and Pernell McPhee provide good depth here. This is a solid linebacker corps. If Jernigan can develop quickly, this could be a front-seven reminiscent of the Ravens olden days.

Jimmy Smith has developed into the cornerback the Ravens hoped they were getting with their 2011 first round pick. His coverage skills are just a small bit short of Deion Sander’s lofty level. Unfortunately, such skills have come at a price, which includes Deion-level run support. By December, Laddarius Webb appeared to be fully recovered from the ACL tear that ended his 2012 season. When healthy, he’s an elite (and complete) player. 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam struggled a bit in his rookie season. He showed the skills that the Ravens desired and he should be much better with more experience this season. Free safety Darian Stewart appears to have easily held off rookie third-round pick Terrance Brooks. That may say more about Brooks than Stewart. Unless Elam makes the expected leap, this could be a major weakness for the Ravens defense.

The Ravens have developed excellent special teams. The two best strengths are the excellent coverage units and kicker Justin Tucker. Tucker’s work on field goals was outstanding. The only weakness for the Ravens was distance on kickoffs, but given Tucker’s other work, I’m going to let that slide. Punter Sam Koch was off early, but seemed to recover his distance as the season went on. The special teams should against be a strength for the Ravens this year.

They got good values in the draft, but it’s still kind of a ballsy move to take defensive players with your first three picks. I felt they reached late in the third round to grab tight end Crockett Gilmore. Either the Ravens figure they’ve solved what ailed them on offense last season, or they think there wasn’t a major issue to solve. I’ll grant that they’ve made (potential) improvements to the offensive line and the receiving corps, but frankly none of those are slam-dunk improvements. Even with a soft schedule, I’m not seeing a winning team. 8-8.

Cincinnati Bengals

Expected Wins: 8.71

Scouting Wins: 8.72

DVOA Wins: 8.8

2013 Record: 11-5 (11.1 Pythagorean)

Some guy: “So, whaddaya think about those Bengals? They went 11-5 last year ya know.”

Markets: “They’re pretty good. Not great, just pretty good.”

Scouts: “They’re not bad. Nothing special, but not bad.”

DVOA Projections: “They will go as far as Andy Dalton can throw them. That’s not very far.”

The Bengals were last seen getting blitzed into submission at home against San Diego. It was a fairly simple halftime defensive adjustment for San Diego. In the first half, they played fundamentally sound defense and went to halftime down 10-7. In the second half, they blitzed mercilessly and gambled Dalton couldn’t beat them. He couldn’t, and I suspect the Steelers and Ravens noticed this. Cincinnati decided that they were stuck between Dalton and a rebuilding job and they decided to stick with Dalton, giving him a new contract before the season. They only gave him $17M in guaranteed money, so it wasn’t a huge hit even if he remains Daltonesque.

Dalton was good in 2011 (5.6% DVOA), bad in 2012 (-5.9% DVOA), and average in 2013 (2.3% DVOA). It boggles my mind that Cincinnati won 10 games in 2012. You could have made a case that they were the fourth-best team in the AFC that year, but I digress. Dalton’s problems extend beyond mediocrity. Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl partly because his best was incredible and he went on a run. He just can’t maintain that for 16 games. Dalton doesn’t produce that level of variance, so while he’ll probably lead Cincinnati to a winning record, he’s the kind of quarterback an elite defense would prefer to face. Dalton’s numbers against pressure are abominable and he’s lucky he doesn’t play in the NFC West. Given the limitations of their quarterback, what hope is there for Cincinnati?

It may be time to put for the law firm to close its doors. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has produced DYARLOS totals of -33 and -47 for the past two seasons. (Update: BJGE was just C-U-T.) 2013 second-round pick Giovanni Bernard provided a more than adequate replacement, producing 29 DYAR on the ground and 167 as a receiver. Bernard is a little too small to be a great blocker or every-down back, so the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill in the second round to replace Green-Ellis. Hill has had some off field issues, but if he can stay on the field, he’ll be a great asset. He’s a very powerful runner who has shown natural receiving talent. He has the power and frame to be a great blocker as well.

It wouldn’t have been a good idea, but if anyone was going to go nuts and overpay to draft Sammy Watkins, it should have been Cincinnati. Over the past three seasons A.J. Green has seen receptions (and targets) go up, but his DVOA drop. Last season he had 98 receptions (on 178 targets) for 1,426 yards and a measly 1.9% DVOA. At this point, less would clearly be more. Given all the attention defenses (and Dalton) paid to Green, it’s not all that surprising that 2012 fifth-round pick Marvin Jones was able to lead the Bengals receiving corps in DVOA (32.4%). That was good enough for third-best among wide receivers. It is a little surprising he was able to beat out Green in DYAR, 279 to 207. Jones only had 51 receptions for 542 yards, so the question is do the Bengals believe in Jones. If they do, they should balance their passing attack. Jones had foot surgery in early August and will be miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season. Jones’s absence will give 2012 third-round pick Mohamed Sanu a chance to pass him on the depth chart. Sanu struggled last season (-10.0% DVOA), particularly in some big moments against Chicago (fumble) and Miami (drop). He’s shown the talent to perform at a much higher level. The Bengals will need him to do so with Jones’ absence.

The Bengals tight ends combined for -110 DYAR last season. That struck me as highly odd. If your tight ends are that bad, why would you keep throwing to them? The answer is that Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are both recent first-round picks. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has no greater responsibility than turning them into productive players, particularly Eifert. If you want to make your bosses happy, turning their high draft picks from busts into stars is a great play. In the case of Eifert it may simply come down to finding out where he best fits in the gameplan. His blocking has gotten much better. For Gresham the hope is that he’ll be inspired to play for a new contract as his rookie deal ends after this season. I could see success or failure for either, but if pushed, I feel more confident in Eifert.

The Bengals gave up a sixth-round pick to move up 12 spots in the fourth round and grab center Russell Bodine. My rankings had the departed Tim Cook 25th among centers, although the Bengals rushing attack was easily its most effective when running behind Cook. Bodine has the power to replace Cook. Where Cook will be missed are the plays where Bodine doesn’t have to make an initial block, but instead move to a point and lock on a defender. We’ll see if he can improve that part of his game. The rest of the line was quite good, with tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith ranking seventh and tenth at left and right tackle, respectively. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was a bit above average. Left guard Clint Boling ranked first for his position, and was second among guards, behind only Louis Vasquez. Injuries hurt the line last season, as no returning starter made 16 starts last season. I’m expecting a very good year for the Bengals offensive line. (Update: Bodine has looked awful in complex blocking schemes, and may open the season behind Trevor Robinson).

No player is more important to the Cincinnati defense than Geno Atkins. He’s returning from an ACL tear (on Halloween no less). Spooky. When healthy, he’s one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. He was on pace for 12-13 sacks when he went down. He’s also Cincinnati’s best run defender. They can still play solid defense without him, but they’ll need him healthy for greatness. Cincinnati would have much preferred fellow starting tackle Domata Peko go down. Peko, like backup Brandon Thompson, is decent but will never be confused with an impact player. No such concerns for end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap did it all, providing 8.5 sacks, 41.5 hits+hurries, and stout run support. He’ll no longer be playing across from the departed Michael Johnson (Tampa Bay). Wallace Gilberry (who sounds like he belongs at a Renaissance Fair) had excellent numbers in limited usage last season. He’s been promoted to start across from Dunlap. The depth here is… untested. Margus Hunt grabbed 0.5 sacks last season. Rookie third-round pick Will Clarke may have been a bit of a reach. I’d seen some projections put him in the fourth round, while others had him going undrafted. He ended up 246th in my rankings. He put up some good numbers in pass coverage at West Virginia and I’m sure the Bengals coaching staff has a plan for him.

Weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict is one of the success stories of the past two seasons. The 2012 undrafted free agent has become an elite player and is second only to Atkins in terms of impact for the Bengals. The rest of the linebacker corps is less exciting. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been given the opportunity to show greatness, but has steadfastly refused. When he missed some time last season, Vincent Rey was a more than adequate replacement. Benching Maualuga might take some balls, but it would be the right move. Strongside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur is a known unknown. Like Burfict he was an undrafted free agent in 2012, but he missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury. I must say I don’t like the Bengals linebacker corps nearly as much as the defensive line.

The Bengals have a fairly deep, albeit motley group of cornerbacks. A healthy Leon Hall is a tremendous asset, presuming he’s fully recovered from the Achilles injury that ended his 2012 campaign. Terrance Newman has aged (he’ll be 36 by week one), but you’ll rarely see him make a mistake. 2012 first-round pick Dre’ Kirkpatrick needs to prove he’s not a bust. Adam Jones has raised his level of play and is now someone the Bengals trust. Rookie first-round pick Darqueze Dennard is dealing with a hip injury, and like all rookie cornerbacks, needs to be given time to develop. This was a highly effective and cohesive unit last season. It helps that free safety Reggie Nelson had another excellent year. Strong safety George “Hands of Stone covered in lard” Iloka might want to take a shower and see a doctor about that. Or do a lot of work with a Juggs machine, one of the two. Overall, this is a pretty good defensive backfield.

The return of punter Kevin Huber should spark another strong year from the Bengals special teams. He’s the only premium performer, but there is something to be said for not having any major weaknesses. If there is a weak link, it’s kicker Mike Nugent, but while he was a bit below-average, it wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. Either he’ll bounce back this season or the Bengals will invest a late round draft pick in a kicker in 2015.

The Bengals are who you think they are. They have a solid team with one elite receiver, a strong defense, and Andy Dalton to lead them. Cincinnati’s biggest problem might be that they get to face Denver and New England instead of Miami and San Diego (Baltimore) or Kansas City and the New York Jets (Pittsburgh). That’s going to put Cincinnati a bit behind their rivals. I still see Cincinnati making the playoffs, but starting with a wildcard game. 9-7.

Cleveland Browns

Expected Wins: 6.35

Scouting Wins: 7.22

DVOA Wins: 6.8

2013 Record: 4-12 (5.5 Pythagorean)

What the heck are the scouts so happy about? Hmm. Upon further examination, they like the offensive line and the defensive backfield. I’m pretty sure the Browns got their butt kicked last year with the same strengths, but that’s fine. The big news in Cleveland is the “quarterback controversy” between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. I’d like to remind everyone that we’re discussing a positional battle with Brian Hoyer prominently involved. And he won! I’d also like to point out that over the past five years, the Browns have a full house: three five-win seasons and two four-win seasons. Heck, even if they had a straight, they wouldn’t have had a winning season in there. In fact, since the Browns have returned to Cleveland they’ve averaged five wins a season. That’s true even if you only count the last ten years. They’ve been an awful franchise for a long time, and recently became a joke (Rob Chudzinski, Mike Lombardi, Joe Banner). So, to be fully clear: we have paid attention to a moribund franchise due to the addition of JFF. I can see why Jerry Jones almost drafted him.

I feel bad for Brian Hoyer. He led the Browns to upset victories over Minnesota and Cincinnati last year before a knee injury ended his season. This isn’t a case of wondering what could have been. Hoyer’s -10.4% DVOA may have been the best amongst Browns quarterbacks (Weeden, Campbell), but the playoffs were never a realistic goal. In roughly four games worth of playing time over the past three years, Hoyer has produced -39 DYAR. I’m afraid Hoyer is just keeping the seat warm for JFF (Johnny Effing Football). Manziel is the only reason a national audience is paying attention to the Browns so let’s break him down:

Johnny Manziel: Size 6-0, 210. Unusually large hands and feet (size 15). Excellent speed (4.45 40-yard dash). Renowned for his work ethic, but not for his study habits. I probably should explain that. Texas A&M didn’t have a playbook. Every week they’d install new plays, which meant a lot of work on the practice field. Manziel excelled there. He also excelled when plays broke down and he would improvise. Unfortunately, that works a lot better in college when you’re a better athlete than most of the defenders chasing you. The NFL doesn’t work that way. Adjusting to learning a full playbook for the first time has to be difficult. The 1986 New York Giants basically ran 16 plays with four variations of each. Those days are long gone. Manziel is going to have to make a lot of adjustments to become an NFL quarterback. Perhaps the biggest one is his footwork. In college, he was able to get away with throwing flat-footed or off his back foot. In the pros, that’s a good way to get intercepted. He’ll need to tighten up his mechanics. These are all things he can do. His upside is Jeff Garcia, or even Drew Brees. However, the downside is Ryan Leaf. Physically, they’re nothing alike, but there are already concerns that JFF is Leaf 2.0. Adjusting to playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. It’s even harder when you didn’t acquire some of the key skills in college. Manziel got his ass suitably kicked this preseason. Hopefully he takes that as an opportunity to grow and develop. Alternatively, the Browns are cursed and the losing will continue long into the future.

I’m kind of scratching my head at the addition of running back Ben Tate. He’s been a bit below average as a pure runner over the past two seasons (-2.1% DVOA), but he’s an awful receiver out of the backfield (-62.5% DVOA, -125 DYAR last year). I could almost put up with that if he were a good blocker, but he’s lousy in pass protection. It’s no wonder he received such little attention in free agency. I’m not going to pretend that Chris Ogbonnaya or Edwin Baker are anything special, but rookie third-round pick Terrence West probably should be their feature back at a fraction of the cost. I do mean fraction, he’s getting paid slightly more than 20% of what Tate got.

Josh Gordon is in a weird situation. Apparently he failed a third drug test, which means he’s due to receive a 1-year suspension from the NFL. His appeal was heard over three weeks ago. That means we should have heard an announcement by now. Often the NFL and the player will reach an agreement more lenient than what the penalty prescribed would be. In this case, it would be a one year suspension. However, Gordon’s camp has apparently refused to negotiate and agent Drew Rosenhaus has threatened the league with legal action if they attempt to levy a suspension. Here is some background:

http://grantland.com/the-triangle/josh-gordon-and-the-nfls-drug-problem/

Long story short, it’s debatable if Gordon was over the line. There is also the serious problem for the league that any and all suspensions are now placed on the “Ray Rice Scale”. If the league suspends Gordon for 16 games, they are essentially saying that having traces of marijuana in your system is eight times worse than domestic violence. You can see why the league is in an awkward spot. Personally, I think the solution is exceedingly simple: Stop testing for marijuana. It does not provide a competitive advantage and is legal in multiple states. In any event, I am going to presume Gordon is going to be available for the entire season. (Update: Or not. He’s gone for the year.)

Here are the numbers for the top three wide receivers on the Browns last season:

Davone Bess: 86 targets, 42 receptions, 362 yards, -32.3% DVOA, -135 DYAR

Josh Gordon: 159 targets, 87 receptions, 1,646 yards, 14.4% DVOA, 336 DYAR

Greg Little: 99 targets, 41 receptions, 465 yards, -34.7% DVOA, -171 DYAR

One of those is not like the others. Gordon has had serious off-field issues for years, which led to the Browns trying to trade him last season. There were no takers. This preseason, he’s looked like a shadow of himself. Even if the league backs down, it’s unlikely Gordon will come anywhere close to the numbers he put up last season. As for Little & Bess, Little has found his way to Oakland, while Bess is currently seeking employment. They’ve been replaced by Nate Burleson, Austin Miles, and Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins is the most interesting of the three. The Browns swiped him from Cincinnati after Cinci exposed him to restricted free agency. Players very rarely change teams via that method, as the current franchise has the option to match. In this case the Browns front-loaded the contract and the Bengals passed. The result of this is the Browns get a player with 86 receptions over the past three seasons. No one knows how he’ll adjust to being a featured player. My guess is Cincinnati is fine with seeing him go and that Hawkins game will wilt under the spotlight. As for Miles Austin, he looks terrible. Injuries have robbed him of his speed and it is painful to watch him play. What makes it worse is that the coaching staff is going out of their way to praise him as a #1 receiver. I’ve watched him this preseason, and while his quarterback play is a legitimate excuse, he’s caught three of the nine balls sent his way for a total of 36 yards. Ugh. As for Burleson, the aging vet is an acceptable slot receiver. He’s produced 32 DYAR over the past two seasons, so you can expect slightly above replacement level performance. Tight end Jordan Cameron finally found his groove, putting together quite a solid season (+/- +11.6, 5.6% DVOA, 99 DYAR). That was all during the brief tenure of “Chud”, so we’ll see if Cameron can maintain that level of play under new boss Mike Pettine. (Again, Gordon is gone for the year. Tough break Cleveland)

Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack receive universal acclaim for their play. I’m not sure my numbers disagree (11th and 7th respectively), but I’ll admit I’m not seeing dominance. The Browns haven’t ranked in the upper 50% in adjusted-line-yards in any of the past three years. Left guard Joe Greco was just about average. He’s been moved over to right guard to make room for rookie second-round pick Joel Bitonio. Bitonio was an all-conference tackle in 2013, but doesn’t quite have the right size and arm length to play tackle in the NFL. He should be able to make the adjustment in a fairly short period of time. Returning right tackle Mitchell Schwartz got his butt kicked and ranked 28th in my rankings. The 2012 second-round pick will likely be on a short leash with the new coaching staff. I’ll admit the Browns have certainly tried to build a strong offensive line. It’s just not clear to me they’ve succeeded.

Gazing upon the Cleveland defense causes me to feel sadness. I see what they tried to do, but it didn’t work out. For example, they tried to build their defensive line around Phil Taylor. Not a bad plan, but Taylor has proven to be a fair-to-good player. Not a great one. Surrounding him with budget defensive ends hasn’t worked out. Desmond Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin simply aren’t impact players, and Taylor isn’t dominant enough to overcome double-teams. I will say backup John Hughes has shown some nice flashes when given playing time.

Barkevious Mingo is an even more depressing tale. After a strong strart, he ended up with two sacks in his final 12 games last season. He suffered a fairly serious lung injury early last season and wasn’t the same afterword. There’s serious concern we’ve already seen the best he has to offer. And then there’s Paul Kruger. The major free agent acquisition only managed 4.5 sacks last season. Jabaal Sheard is the only complete outside linebacker on the roster. Not only did he grab more sacks than Kruger and Mingo (5.5) despite fewer snaps, he was a significantly better performer against the run. Rookie third-round pick Christian Kirksey could be a nice addition. He’s somewhere between a linebacker and a safety. He may end up playing inside next to free agent pickup Karlos Dansby. Dansby is coming off of a solid year in Arizona. He’s on the downside of his career but should be a quality player for at least this season. If Kirksey doesn’t win the job, look for Craig Robertson to start. He’s a solid performer against the run but struggles in pass coverage.

As I look upon this front seven, I am not seeing any major difference makers. Who is going to force the offense to gameplan around them? The Browns simply don’t have enough talent here. That is going to make life harder on a very talented secondary.

Joe Haden might not be on the top level of cornerbacks (Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson), but he’s darn close. Unlike the two above, he has some weaknesses in terms of agility. Still, he’s a great player for rookie first-round pick Justin Gilbert to learn from. Gilbert has a strong case that he’s the best overall athlete in his rookie class. He’s going to need some time to cure some of the bad habits he picked up in college, but between practices, penalty flags, and getting burned, he’ll learn. Gilbert’s ascension will likely put Buster Skrine into the slot, a role that seems best suited to him. Strong safety Donte Whitner will likely draw some flags for excessive violence. My guess is the intimidation is worth it, as he’s an effective performer. The weakest link appears to be free safety Tashaun Gibson. Even that might not be so bad. He’s known for his versatility, but the jack of all trades may be learning sufficient mastery of coverage. Rookie fourth-round pick Pierre Desir is going to need some time to adjust to the NFL. Coming out of Lindenwood College, he dominated his competition. The adjustment is steep, particularly at cornerback, but he should prove to be a very good find in the long term. Like Gilbert, he’s an excellent athlete and will be tough to beat once he has some experience.

Either the Browns are smarter than they look, or they’re saving Justin Gilbert for the regular season. Currently he sits at third on the depth chart for kick returns. The risk-return of throwing him out there seems egregious. The tragedy for the Browns special teams last year is that they excelled at kickoffs and were terrible at kick returns. Oy! Overall their special teams have been above average for the past three seasons. I’m expecting them to be roughly average this season.

Over the past 15 seasons the Browns have gone over six wins three times. That can’t be a coincidence. This is still a talent-deprived roster with numerous flaws. Frankly, six wins feels like an optimistic projection, but they have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. 6-10.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Expected Wins: 8.71

Scouting Wins: 8.76

DVOA Wins: 9.0

2013 Record: 8-8 (8.2 Pythagorean)

Remember what happened the last time the Steelers made the playoffs? Tim Tebow eliminated them. Yep, I’m as shocked as you are. The truth is, their defense hasn’t been elite in years. The offense has been good. Not great, just good. It’s possible it could be great if their offensive line could stay healthy, although a lack of quality tackles is a problem. The Steelers are an aging and flawed team. This may be the last year of Ben Roethlisberger’s window as a championship-level quarterback.

In my Steelers notes there is a brief message: Todd Haley sucks. Haley was a terrible head coach in Kansas City and is a terrible offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. In light of that, Ben Roethlisberger deserves credit for wanting to take a larger role in running the offense. Roethlisberger saw his play dip last season (6.6% DVOA, 724 DYAR), but both were still the best in his division. My guess is that his level of play will increase in a fairly direct scale to his offensive line play. He’s only 32, but he’s played through multiple injuries and at some point his body will begin to wear down. For now, he’s the best quarterback in the AFC North, but the end can come swiftly.

2013 Second-round pick Le’Veon Bell struggled through a tough rookie season (-6.8% DVOALOS). There were some signs of improvement, but like Roethlisberger, much of his value will be dependent on the offensive line. LeGarrette Blount will serve as a change of pace back. His value will come in short yardage and as a solid blocker. I’m not sure what the Steelers were thinking when they took Dri Archer in the third round. His best value will come returning kicks, and while he has elite speed, it’s hard to see him being an effective running back. He doesn’t have the size or power to be a great blocker, but perhaps he can provide value as a third-down scatback.

Upon further consideration, perhaps Archer will help take some of the load off of Antonio Brown. Brown’s numbers for last season were excellent (15.0% DVOA, 346 DYAR) but unsustainable (167 targets). Defenses will adjust to such extreme usage. Brown saw a lot of action in screens and short passes. That’s an area that Archer could excel in with his speed and agility in space. Currently, Brown is slated to start across from 2013 third-round pick Marcus Wheaton. Wheaton missed most of his rookie year with a broken finger. This preseason, he has looked to be out of sync with Roethlisberger. It’s on Wheaton and the coaching staff to correct that. Things look better in the slot, where free agent pickup Lance Moore is taking over. Moore is going to have to make quite an adjustment coming over from New Orleans. His numbers for the past three seasons are excellent (he averaged a 27.5% DVOA and 255 DYAR). If he comes close to repeating those numbers, he’ll be a fantastic pickup. Tight end Heath Miller is coming off of an off year (-2.8% DVOA). His numbers from 2011 and 2012 suggest he’s still a premium player (277 DYAR over both seasons). Backup Matt Spaeth is a pure blocker, and is somewhat dinged up to boot, so Miller’s performance is crucial for the Steelers.

You know what ended the Steelers run of winning seasons? The offensive line. It ranked third in adjusted-line-yards in 2011 when the Steelers went 12-4 (before getting Tebowed). They’ve gone 8-8 the last two years, and seen their offensive line rank 27th and 22nd. I’ll admit I like both guards. Ramon Foster and David DiCastro ranked third and sixth at left and right guard, respectively. Good health is key to both. Center Maurkice Pouncey has a great reputation. I have no numbers to judge it as he missed almost all of last season with an ACL tear. Regardless, the interior of the line isn’t my concern. Coincidentally, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right tackle Marcus Gilbert both ranked 25th by my grades. Beachum was a seventh-round pick who managed to exceed expectations. Gilbert is battling for his job against fellow second-round pick Mike Adams. It appears the Steelers pretty much whiffed in 2011 and 2012 on Gilbert and Adams, but they’re still young so there is hope.

The Steelers are somewhat diametrically opposite the Giants in terms of defensive philosophy. Where the Giants believe in a strong 4-3 defensive line, the Steelers believe in a strong 3-4 linebacker corps. However, the Steelers generally treat their defensive line with more respect than the Giants show their linebackers. Last year, an aging defense finally began to crack, so the Steelers have begun a youth moment. That leaves them in a bit of a transitional period.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward is the only impact player on the defensive line. While he had an off year against the run, he managed five sacks and 22 hits+hurries. For now he’ll be starting alongside nose tackle Steve McLendon and fellow end Cam Thomas. Thomas is a budget free agent pickup who is keeping the seat warm until rookie second-round pick Stephen Tuitt is ready to start. Tuitt was one of the steals of the draft. Tuitt has Richard Seymour-level upside, but needs to develop his conditioning and technique. In a few years, he should be one of the best defensive players to come out of this draft. For now, though, the Steelers defensive line appears to be a bit worse than the line that struggled last year.

If the Steelers believed Jason Worilds was the player they saw last year, they’d have signed him to a long term contract. He managed eight sacks and 42.5 hits+hurries and was dominant the second half of the season. However, in his previous three seasons he managed a total of ten sacks. Was it a fluke? Or perhaps the desperation of a man playing for a new contract? Either way, the Steelers transition-tagged him, which leaves him prepared to enter free agency after this season. Speaking of free agency, Lamarr Woodley has gone to Oakland, leaving 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones in line to take the starting job across from Worilds. Jones failed to impress as a rookie. His presence against the run is strong enough that he’s not in “bust” territory, but he’ll need to improve his pass rush skills if the Steelers are to retain their defensive reputation. Things look better inside, where Lawrence Timmons will start next to rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier. Shazier had the largest coverage range of any linebacker in the draft. Like all rookies, he’ll need some time to improve his technique, but look for him to be involved in a significant number of plays this season. As for Timmons, he and Troy Polamalu were the most dependable players on the Steelers defense last season. Timmons showed no real weaknesses and will be a good player for Shazier to learn from.

Polamalu isn’t the dominant player he used to be. Age and injuries have worn him down a bit. It hasn’t changed his roaming play style that allows him to make a lot of great plays, but sometimes leaves him well out of position. This year he’ll be paired with free safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell is a good fit with Polamalu, as his speed will allow him to cover for Polamalu. Will Allen provides good depth here. The wild card is 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas. The Steelers have made no secret of the fact that they want to see Thomas on the field this year, so expect him to get some usage in nickel and dime formations. And now we come to the Steelers biggest weakness: Cornerbacks. Opposing teams spent a lot of time beating the shit out of Ike Taylor last season. When they wanted a little variety they found similar success attacking Cortez Allen. Slot cornerback William Gay was the only cornerback to put up reasonable numbers for the Steelers last season, but he’s in the slot for a reason. Unless the Steelers can generate a major pass rush, Taylor and Allen will be in for another long year. The one saving grace: they get to avoid Tom Brady, who has made a habit of demolishing the Steelers secondary.

The Steelers special teams were mostly solid last season. The one weakness was punting, where three different options proved unsatisfactory. Enter Brad Wing. The former LSU standout got his start in Australian rules football. He was last seen losing a training camp battle in Philadelphia last season. If he can merely approach mediocrity, the Steelers would be fine. I should note Dri Archer might provide a spark returning kicks. Speaking of kicks, Shaun Suisham hasn’t put up great numbers, but part of that is due to the quirks of Heinz Field. Excellent coverage units have made up for any weaknesses in Suisham’s leg.

I must say I love the Steelers schedule. Their two toughest opponents are New Orleans and Indianapolis. Both of them will have to travel to Pittsburgh. An offensive line renaissance is the biggest key for the Steelers. Still, a secondary this vulnerable incites violence against it. While I can’t trust the offensive line to achieve enlightenment, the schedule leads me to think the Steelers grab ten wins. 10-6

In any other division the Colts would be an “also ran”. Here, they’re clear favorites.

AFC South Projected Standings:

Indianapolis Colts 9-7

Tennessee Titans 8-8

Houston Texans 7-9

Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11

Houston Texans

Expected Wins: 7.82

Scouting Wins: 8.51

DVOA Wins: 7.3

2013 Record: 2-14 (4.2 Pythagorean)

I can’t blame the Texans. They gambled that one of the three potential elite quarterbacks in the draft would fall to them in the second round. It almost worked, as Teddy Bridgewater fell to 32nd, where the Seahawks were unlikely to take him. Unfortunately for the Texans, Seattle traded the pick to the Vikings, who swiped Bridgewater one pick before the Texans would have had him. I applaud the Texans for not reaching, and going with Xavier Su’a-Filo. Still, that leaves them with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their day one starter. Fitz wasn’t able to produce a positive DVOA in 2011 or 2012 in Buffalo. He failed to do so last season in Tennessee. He’ll turn 32 in November, so let’s not pretend he’s a long term answer for Houston. Houston did draft a quarterback, so let’s look a little deeper at Tom Savage.

Savage is 6-4, 230 pounds, and has the strongest arm of any quarterback in the class. He was the rare journeyman college quarterback, playing at Rutgers, Arizona, and Pittsburgh. Due to NCAA rules he had to sit out a few years and he’s 24 years old. This isn’t a Brandon Weeden situation, but Savage should be aware the clock is ticking. His biggest weaknesses seem to all relate to vision. He has major difficulty adjusting to his second or third read, so he focuses on his first read and allows cornerbacks to follow his eyes. In college, he trusted his arm strength to overcome any problems, but that won’t be a realistic plan in the pros. He’s going to require a lot of coaching before he’s ready to challenge NFL defenses. The upside is that if he can make the mental adjustments, there won’t be any throw out of his range. He’s a gamble, but in the fourth round the risk is small. Savage has a much higher ceiling than Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose ceiling seems to be… Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Arian Foster is coming off of a better year than I realized. He put up 108 DYAR in eight games, which is nothing to sneeze at. He’s no longer able to win physical battles with defenders and has learned how to avoid them. I suspect he won’t be able to reproduce his results from last season. It appears Jonathan Grimes has won the job to be Foster’s backup on the depth chart. He’s had an excellent preseason, and managed 37 DYAR on 27 touches last season. That’s not easy. It’s hard to work your way up from being an undrafted free agent from William & Mary, but over the past few years it appears Grimes has done so. Kudos to him.

Andre Johnson failed to repeat his absurd performance from 2012 (464 DYAR!), but don’t be fooled, he’s still one of the best receivers in the NFL. Both he and 2013 first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins will benefit from better game planning and better quarterback play. Given the context, Hopkins’ 139 DYAR and 6.9% DVOA should be viewed as a very positive start. Unfortunately, after Johnson and Hopkins, the wide receiver depth chart dries up fast. Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey should be battling for the #5 slot in the hopes of staying on the roster. Instead, one of them will likely be the #3. After succeeding in limited usage in 2012, tight end Garrett Graham got his chance in the spotlight in 2013. The result? A -21.3% DVOA and -84 DYAR. The Texans grabbed C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third round. Fido was the best blocking tight end available in the draft. He has enough receiving talent to be a credible third or fourth option. The odd man out is Ryan Griffin. He was excellent (13.9% DVOA) in limited usage (28 DYAR) last season. If Graham struggles again, I’d like to see Griffin given a chance to succeed or fail in a much larger sample size.

Speaking of failing, the much vaunted Texans offensive line fell apart last season. Left tackle Duane Brown ended up 13th in my rankings. It’s universally agreed Brown had an off year, possibly due to nagging injuries. Expectations are for him to be much improved this season. Ben Jones is battling Xavier Su’a-Filo for the left guard job. Jones graded out very poorly last season and it will be very disappointing if Su’a-Filo fails to win that battle. He made 40 starts at UCLA, split evenly between left tackle and left guard. Center Chris Myers grades out well in my metrics, ending up 11th at the position. Right guard Brandon Brooks graded out roughly average in my metrics, but has been given praise elsewhere. He’s considered the best run blocker on the line, which finished sixth in adjusted-line-yards last season. Right tackle Derek Newton has been wearing a “Replace Me” sign on his back for years, but the Texans haven’t been able to oblige him. He finished 33rd in my rankings, which is as bad as it sounds. If Brown bounces back, this line should be good in spite of Newton.

Pity the offensive lines that have to deal with defensive end J.J. Watt on one side and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney on the other. Clowney is currently sidelined with a neck injury, but he should be fine for the regular season. He’s already made some incredible plays this preseason. Clowney is the type of defensive player that only comes along once every few years. Watt is the premier defensive player in the NFL. He managed 10.5 sacks and an absolutely ridiculous 74.5 hits+hurries. He’s elite against the run. On most defenses, Clowney would immediately become the man to stop, but because of Watt he’ll get to see what single blocking is like. Unfortunately, the Texans aren’t quite able to take full advantage of Clowney and Watt due to the lack of talent between them. Nose tackle Jerrell Powe appeared in 11 games over the past three seasons. He’s pretty much the definition of a replacement level player. The Texans’ plan is to have Powe backup Louis Nix III. The Texans traded up for a second pick in the third round to draft Nix. Nix would have been a first round pick had he been fully healthy. He’s still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has only recently been medically cleared to get back on the field. It will take him time to work himself back into football shape. He’s also going to need to learn the how to adjust to the NFL, but at this point the Texans are probably willing to give him on-the-job training. When healthy, Nix has the highest ceiling of any defensive tackle in the draft. At 6-2, 345 pounds (when in shape), he’s simply too big and athletic to easily handle. However, for now the Texans go with Powe. 2012 fourth-round pick Jared Crick has failed to make any meaningful positive impact, but the Texans simply don’t have anyone better to start across from Watt.

Clowney may already be the Texans’ best linebacker, but Brian Cushing is close. Cushing has struggled with injuries and PED suspensions. When healthy, he’s an impact player with elite range. His health cannot be assured, as he’s currently battling a knee injury. Now, if you are you offended by awful drafting, please skip ahead. 2012 first-round pick Whitney Mercilus somehow found a way to have a terrible season despite managing 7 sacks and 31 hits+hurries. The truth is most of those came from teams focusing on Watt. Mercilus was terrible against the run, and lo and behold, he lost his training camp battle against Brooks Reed. 2011 second-round pick Reed wasn’t much of a threat against opposing quarterbacks, managing only three sacks despite being a full time starter. He was competent against the run, which is why he’ll be starting and Mercilus will be backing up Clowney. Jeff Tarpinian will start alongside Cushing. No matter how you feel about TARP, please don’t take it out on Tarpinian, who is an under-talented athlete trying to make it in the NFL. He’s working hard out there, making the most out of his limited abilities. He knows if he ever gets sent to the bench again it’ll be hard to make his way back onto the field, so he’s currently playing through a groin injury. Good luck Mr. Tarpinian. As you can see, the depth here is weak, so Cushing’s health is of key importance.

Tight ends and running backs out of the backfield absolutely destroyed the Texans last year. That’s another reason why Mercilus has earned his way to the bench. Rookie strong safety D.J. Swearington was excellent in run support, but part of those coverage difficulties can be directly traced to him making rookie mistakes and finding himself out of position far too often. He should be much better prepared this season. Kendrick Lewis is currently pulling a surprising upset over Chris Clemons in the battle for the free safety job. Clemons had fantastic coverage results last season and Lewis was a bargain basement free agent pickup brought in to provide depth. I’m wondering if the Texans are simply bluffing with their depth chart. 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson followed the plan of struggling as a rookie, but following that up with a breakout season. Unfortunately, he followed that up with a miserable performance. He has the talent to play much better than he did last season. It’ll be up to the coaching staff to make sure he does so this year. Johnathan Joseph was pretty good last season despite playing through a toe injury. That injury has continued to nag him and may sideline him at the start of this season. His loss would be major, as Brandon Harris is barely qualified to play slot cornerback. Putting him out on an island would be a disaster. The depth here is thin.

Apart from (star?) punter Shane Lechler, the Texans’ special teams were a disaster. They were bad in all phases, save returning punts. Lechler’s good work was wasted by some of the worst coverage in the NFL. The special teams have been revamped, but the underlying lack of talent remains. This area will likely remain a weakness this season. One note: free agent pickup Mike Thomas is taking over as the return specialist. That might jump-start the Texans’ kickoff return game.

An in-depth look at the Texans reveals a roster with a few major stars (Johnson, Watt, Clowney), and large number of weak links and question marks. The biggest problem is that the Vikings sniped them and stole Teddy Bridgewater out from under them. That’s going to set the Texans’ rebuilding process back a least a year. Of course, Tom Savage can change that, but he fell to the fourth round for a reason. The Texans have one of the softest schedules in the NFL, so despite their many flaws, they should approach mediocrity in the standings. 7-9.

Indianapolis Colts

Expected Wins: 9.13

Scouting Wins: 8.32

DVOA Wins: 8.7

2013 Record: 11-5 (9.4 Pythagorean)

Over the last two seasons, the Colts have gone 22-10, outscoring their opposition 748-723. A team with that scoring differential would expect to go 17-15 or 16-16 over that time. We can talk about Andrew Luck and terms like clutch, but the truth is, the Colts have been quite fortunate over the past two seasons. Good fortune comes and goes, so if the Colts want to maintain their streak, they need to see significant improvement on both sides of the ball.

The plan on the offensive side of the ball is simple: Improve the offensive line and the receiving corps. The Colts spent their second round pick on new left guard Jack Mewhort. They spent their third round pick on wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Moncrief will compete with free agent pickup Hakeem Nicks for playing time. Their additions (and the subtraction of Darrius Heyward-Bey) will be helpful, but the biggest potential improvement can come from Reggie Wayne staying healthy. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Colts wide receiver corps.

Reggie Wayne is going to turn 36 in November. He was good (8.6% DVOA) in limited usage last season. He only appeared in seven games and is coming off of an ACL tear. He also wasn’t nearly as effective in 2012 (-6.8% DVOA), so it’s going to be tough to trust him as the Colts #2 wide receiver. The #1 is 2012 third-round pick T.Y. Hilton. Hilton saw his usage increase from 90 targets to 140 targets, but at a cost to his efficiency, which dropped from 10.7% to 1.1% DVOA. Defenses tired of Hilton getting behind them and gave him a fairly large cushion. That dropped his yards-per-catch from 17.2 to 13.2, and his increase in catch percentage only increased from 56% to 60%. That’s a few percentage points too low given his new usage patterns. If Wayne slips, Hilton will play across from Moncrief or Nicks. Nicks struggled in New York the past two seasons (-5.9% DVOA in 2012, -2.4% DVOA last season). Part of that is due to Eli Manning. It’s possible he’s a much better player than those numbers show, but the Colts only signed him to a one-year deal. Moncrief was a great pickup. His size (6-2, 226) and speed (4.49 40-yard dash) make him a potential matchup nightmare. He has some of the strengths of Hilton, particularly in terms of agility. That allows for double moves that are very difficult to defend. Moncrief may peak at #3 on the depth chart this season, but given Wayne’s age and Nicks’ contract, he’s in line to be a starter next season. Tight end Dwayne Allen is coming back from a hip injury that limited him to one catch in 2013. He was excellent as a rookie in 2012 (14.9% DVOA) and his return may be the single best thing to happen to the Colts offense.

The Colts’ offensive line took a lot of flack last season, but it might not have been deserved. While they gave up a lot of hits on Andrew Luck, the sack rate was actually fairly low. Moreover, while Trent Richardson’s rushing numbers put the run blocking into question, they ended up ranking 15th in adjusted-line-yards. More on Richardson shortly. Tackles Anthony Costanzo and Gosder Cherilus both graded out above average, particularly left tackle Gostanzo. That’s pretty much where the good news ends. Right guard Mike McGlynn ranked 32nd, and has lost his job. He’ll be replaced by left guard 2013 third-round pick Hugh Thornton. Thornton wasn’t much better, ranking 29th at his position. I’ll excuse that as rookie struggles. Mewhort looks more like a right tackle and is a bit tall (6-6) to play guard. His wingspan is exceptional (80.25 inches). This is an odd adjustment, but I’ll trust the Colts coaching staff here. The most disconcerting move is installing 2013 fourth-round pick Khaled Holmes at center. Holmes missed almost all of 2013 with an ankle injury. He’s currently out 2-3 weeks with another ankle injury and the Colts have to be concerned. He’s replacing the much maligned Samson Satele, but Satele ended up ninth in my rankings last season. If Holmes struggles or can’t play, the Colts are in for a rude shock. If Holmes can’t go, the depth here is poor. Note: Starting Mewhort at left guard might not have been the original plan, but it became the best option after Donald Thomas was lost for the season with a quad injury in practice. The interior of the line looks quite vulnerable. I’m curious to see if it will be able to hold up over the course of the season.

That’s going to be a key concern of Trent Richardson. The Colts brass traded a first round pick for Richardson, so they’re married to him whether they like it or not. His backups are injury prone (Ahmad Bradshaw) or lost for the season outright (Vick Ballard). Richardson has produced an astounding -159 DYAR on the ground over the past two seasons. I can understand a running back being a bust. I can’t understand trading for him at retail price after he’s failed. Richardson is a reasonable target out of the backfield and his blocking is acceptable. He just takes far to long to get moving forward and makes the worst of any bad situation. Bradshaw is a much better option for however long he can stay on the field (Update: Richardson has averaged 2.6 yards-per-carry this preseason. Bradshaw has three rushing attempts for two yards total. Dan Herron has looked far better than either, albeit against backups.)

The best running back on the Colts is the one they can least afford to use. Andrew Luck has an absurd 274 DYAR on the ground over the past two seasons. That’s not remotely sustainable, or even desirable. Luck shouldn’t feel compelled to run nearly as often this season. His growth as a quarterback was remarkable. As a rookie he had 45 “mistakes” where he he either fumbled or threw a ball that could be intercepted. That numbed dropped to 20 last season. His threw for 3,822 yards last season, which was a bit of a drop from the 4,374 he threw for his rookie year. The increase in ball security was more than worth it, and I’m expecting him back above 4,000 yards this season. In a league with Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, and the hollow shell of RG3, Andrew Luck is the clear choice for best young quarterback in the NFL. It’s kind of a shame Indianapolis has done such a poor job building a complete team around Luck, particularly since they hold his option for 2016 and can franchise him for 2017 and 2018. If the current NFL scheduling system holds, he’ll turn 30 on the day he becomes a free agent. Sorry Andrew. For now he’ll continue to try and make chicken salad out of Trent Richardson.

I’m actually more impressed by the Colts defensive line than I expected to be. Defensive ends Corey Redding and Arthur Jones are both capable veterans. Jones is coming over from Baltimore. They had a combined nine sacks and 28 hits+hurries last season. Neither are great against the run, but the Colts haven’t considered that important since Peyton Manning was a promising rookie. Nose tackle Josh Chapman had very good numbers against the run last season, but only saw limited usage off the bench. The 2012 fifth-round pick missed his rookie season with a knee injury and could prove to be a pleasant surprise for the Colts. Backups Ricky Jean-Francois and Fili Moala provide great names and solid depth.

Robert Mathis is coming off of the best season of his career. His 19.5 sacks and 40 hits+hurries helped protect a vulnerable secondary. However, he’s 33 and had 17.5 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012. There’s also a slight issue with PED’s, which is going to cause him to miss the first four games of the season. Those include two divisional games, plus a game vs. Philadelphia and the opener at Denver. He’ll be missed. When he returns he’ll play across from Erik Walden. Walden struggled last season. He ended up with poor numbers against the run and managed a measly three sacks. That was the fourth season in a row he grabbed exactly three sacks, so the fact he managed 30 hits+hurries is less exciting than it would be otherwise. 2011 first-round pick Bjoern Werner is going to fill in for Mathis while he’s out. Werner had difficulty making the adjustment from end to linebacker. I would have expected him to have issues with the speed required of his new position, but his biggest failings were power related. That’s the kind of thing a good offseason conditioning program can fix and he should be much better prepared this season. I can’t say I love any of the Colts’ options at inside linebacker. Jerrell Freeman managed 5.5 sacks, but his peripheral stats are less impressive. He also might have been a liability in coverage, but it’s hard to tell with the Colts’ scheme. D’Qwell Jackson and Kelvin Shepphard will join Freeman in the rotation.

Between Robert Mathis irritating quarterbacks and Vontae Davis having a great season, the Indianapolis secondary finally achieved mediocrity. After ranking 28th and 27th in pass defense DVOA, ranking 13th was a major improvement. The pass rush is going to regress, so it behoves the rest of the secondary to step up. Greg Toler has had issues staying healthy. He played well last season, but only managed to appear in nine games. He was supposedly having a great training camp, but is currently sidelined with a knee injury. If Toler can’t go, the depth here is abominable. Darius Butler is a reasonable option in the slot, but doesn’t seem well equipped to move up to #2. If Josh Gordy finds his way to the field, opposing quarterbacks will target him mercilessly. LaRon Landry and Delano Howell form as uninspiring a safety tandem as you’ll ever see. Peyton Manning has to be itching for week one to arrive.

I’m concerned that Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton are currently slated to return kicks and punts, respectively. Even if the people behind them on the special teams depth charts (Dan Herron and Griff Whalen) aren’t great, the risk of injury is probably too high. Losing Hilton on special teams would be insane. As for the rest of the units, punter and kickoff specialist Pat McAfee reached an agreement with the team and no longer required a franchise tag. Seriously, the Colts had previously tagged him. Adam Vinatieri has seen his range fade a bit, but he still knows how to kick a ball through a set of uprights. Altogether, the Colts special teams project to be about average.

The Colts do not have a particularly talented roster, but man… is their schedule garbage. Six games against the rest of the AFC South more than makes up for having to face New England and Denver. I see Indianapolis regressing and still winning the division with ease. It astonishes me that this is the team projected to have the third most wins in the AFC. What’s more remarkable is that they might. 9-7.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Expected Wins: 5.2

Scouting Wins: 4.62

DVOA Wins: 6.3

2013 Record: 4-12 (3.1 Pythagorean)

Sorry Oakland. While you are terrible, you fall short of the Jaguars. While both franchises have struggled identifying talent in the draft, Oakland has made the mistake of occasionally spending money, whereas the Jaguars have consistently been one of the cheapest franchises in the NFL. As of June, the Jaguars led the NFL in open cap space, something that does not appear to have changed much since then. Drafting poorly and failing to spend money is pretty much the perfect combination for building a losing NFL franchise, so it’s no surprise the Jaguars have only won 11 games over the past three seasons.

No player did more harm to the Jaguars than Blaine Gabbert. After being awful in both 2011 (-1010 DYAR), and 2011 (-268 DYAR), Gabbert truly found himself and managed an almost incomprehensible -429 DYAR in only 159 snaps. He’s gone to San Francisco, replaced by Chad Henne. Henne’s lousy (-13.9% DVOA, -94 DYAR), but given the lack talent around him I’d say Henne performed above expectations. However, Henne is not the long term answer for the Jaguars. The Jaguars showed remarkable focus, turning down an absurdly generous draft trade offer from the Buffalo Bills. They didn’t want to risk losing their man, quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles looks the part (6-4, 232), and has no obvious weaknesses. The Jaguars were very impressed with his work ethic and feel he’ll be able to make a solid adjustment to the NFL… next year. They plan on sitting him this season while they work on his footwork and teach him to read NFL defenses. This has raised some eyebrows, including inside the Jacksonville locker room, where some players feel Bortles gives the Jaguars their best chance to win. The brain trust seems committed to Henne, but we’ll see what happens if the Jaguars start on a losing streak.

While the Jaguars used all four of their day 1 and 2 picks on offense, none was used on a running back. Free agent pickup Toby Gerhart is firmly entrenched on the top of the depth chart. He’s a well rounded-player, capable of blocking effectively or running a pattern, but he’s had difficulty staying healthy. The Jaguars are planning on using him as their feature back, but I fear it’s only a matter of time before he’s sidelined once again. The depth here is pretty much as thin as it gets.

It’s impossible to evaluate wide receivers in the absence of competent quarterback play. Cecil Shorts struggled as the #1 receiver last season (-16.3% DVOA), but was fine as a #2 in 2012 (5.2% DVOA). He’s playing for a new contract and will likely welcome the reinforcements the Jaguars picked up in the draft. Rookie second round picks Marquise Lee and Allen Robinson should take some of the pressure off Shorts. Lee is coming off of a down year at USC, but was dominant in 2012. His acceleration after the catch is exceptional. His route-running skills need some work, and there are concerns about his ability to withstand NFL physicality. His blocking has been comical this preseason. Still, I had him as the third best receiver in the draft and he’s a potential star. Robinson has the size and power that Lee lacks. He should develop into a proficient possession receiver and is a prototypical “zone-buster.” Allen has been slowed by a hamstring issue this preseason. Last season tight end Mercedes Lewis alternated between mediocrity (-8.1% DVOA, -3 DYAR) and unavailability, missing five games with various ailments. Backup Clay Harbor is nothing special, and is currently slowed by a calf injury.

The best argument for keeping Bortles on the bench is that the Jaguars brass wants to make sure left tackle Luke Joeckel won’t get him killed. Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, was awful in limited duty at right tackle. The Jaguars have to be concerned at how poor he has looked this preseason. Free agent acquisition left guard Zane Beadles is coming off of an off year by his standards. It was still good enough to rank 12th in my metrics. Center Mike Brewster is in the same boat as Joeckel, albeit without the draft pedigree. He struggled last season in the limited time he spent on the field. Right guard Jaques McClendon continues the same theme. Rookie third-round pick Brandon Linder was supposed to take the job, but hasn’t earned it in the preseason. He was a bit of a reach and may need some time to develop. Right tackle Austin Pasztor played most of last season at a roughly average level, which makes him the Rock of Gibraltar relative to his returning teammates. Even with the addition of Beadles, this looks like a disaster in the making.

Jason Babin led the Jaguars defense with 7.5 sacks and 38 hits+hurries. The Jaguars felt that wasn’t what their defense was looking for, and let him leave for New York on a deal worth at most $3.2M over two years. Yes, he’s 34 years old, but he could have added respectability to a defense that lacks talent. They weren’t looking for defenders at the top of the draft, so the Jaguars will be running out a front-seven of:

DE Red Bryant- Seahawks castoff. Solid against the run.

DT Abry Jones- Played mostly on special teams. Wasn’t part of the rotation last season.

DT Sen’Derrick Marks- Solid performer. Best returning defensive starter. Only four sacks, but good pass rush overall (26 hits+hurries), strong run stuffer.

DE Chris Clemons- Seahawks castoff. A liability against the run. Struggled finishing in the backfield. Only 4.5 sacks despite 29 hits+hurries.

Jones is starting because Roy Miller is out with an injured shoulder. Ziggy Hood will be part of the defensive tackle rotation. Hood was a productive player in Pittsburgh and I’m a little surprised he isn’t starting over Jones. As for the linebackers:

OLB Dekoda Watson- Failed to impress in Tampa Bay. Currently slowed by a hernia.

MLB Paul Posluszny- Pro Bowl alternate because people didn’t notice his good looking tackles happened too far down the field. His lack of speed makes him a defensive liability even with his solid field vision and technique.

OLB Geno Hayes- Decent numbers in coverage, but terrible in run support.

This is a front-seven that could have used a serious infusion of talent. While I approved of both fifth round Smiths (Telvin and Chris), neither is ready to take over a starting role. Telvin in particular was a steal, and should be a quality player in a year or two.

There is both hope and fear in the Jaguars secondary. Second and third round rookies Johnathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz took their rookie lumps, but were clearly much improved by the end of the season. If they continue to improve, they’ll form the cornerstones of a solid secondary. Veteran free agent pickup Alan Ball had a shockingly good year across from Gratz. Not that anyone cares, but his was probably one of the best free agent signings last season. Unfortunately, three good players does not complete a secondary. It’s truly difficult to tell whether Winston Guy or Josh Evans took the bigger beating last season. The numbers each produced were unique in that neither one would have been on the field in any other secondary, including Oakland’s. Quite simply, this is a roster without a capable strong safety. The current plan is to throw Guy out there again despite a gimpy ankle. Aaron Blackmon played fairly well last season and is currently slated to hold down the nickel job. Frankly, given the personnel I wonder if the Jaguars would be better off with three cornerbacks and one safety. That would render them somewhat vulnerable to the run, but in the modern NFL that’s not the greatest of sins. Another alternative would be to use some of that massive supply of cap space and try to sign a quality safety (there’s always a late cap casualty as rosters get cut down). I’m guessing that simply isn’t how the Jaguars do things.

Specialists Josh Scobee and Bryan Anger helped lead the Jaguars to a very solid special teams performance last season. If they could find a way to generate a more dynamic punt return game (they’ve struggled at that for years), then this would be one of the strongest units in the NFL.

It’s always nice to find a silver lining when examining a roster. Frankly, the removal of Gabbert fills me with optimism. Let’s predict a banner year for Jacksonville: 5-11.

Tennessee Titans

Expected Wins: 7.02

Scouting Wins: 7.34

DVOA Wins: 7.7

2013 Record: 7-9 (7.5 Pythagorean)

What a strange case Jake Locker is. On one hand he’s been poor, producing -196 DYAR over his last 18 starts. On the other hand, he’s been injured, making just 18 starts over the past two seasons. The Titans have declined to pick up his fifth-year option as part of his rookie contract, so they’re starting a lame duck quarterback whom they have no faith in. I understand not paying him for a fifth season, but why are you still putting him out there at all? Of course, no decision like this is made in a vacuum, so let’s look at Tennessee’s other options.

When Charlie Whitehurst was last seen in Seattle he was putting up -160 DYAR in only 100 snaps. That’s Gabbert territory. That was two years ago. He hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since. I understand that we don’t want to read too much into small samples, but this seems like a good case of safety first. That leaves rookie sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger has put together an impressive preseason, averaging 9.9 yards-per-attempt and leading all quarterbacks with 504 yards passing. Preseason stats don’t have much predictive value, but it shows Mettenberger has at least a basic familiarity with the Titans offense. It will be interesting to see if the Titans make a serious effort to groom him to be the starter, or see him simply as a very cheap backup. The Titans have no need to try and protect Locker’s trade value, as he has none (not because he’s bad, but because you don’t trade players, you trade contracts and his is up). Locker put together a -5.7% DVOA last season. He won’t lead the Titans anywhere, but while he’s out there he’ll avoid embarrassing himself. Given how soft the schedule is, that might be good enough to finish second in the division.

With that inspiring look at the quarterback situation, let’s look at the rest of the backfield. Chris Johnson’s departure has allowed for Shonn Greene’s promotion. He isn’t much of a receiver (-42 DYAR over the past three seasons). His rushing DVOA over that time is 0.0%. If you added two significant digits it would be 0.000%. That’s exceptionally average. Rookie second-round pick Bishop Sankey is a much more versatile player and will likely see significant action as a third down back. Sankey may have ended up as the week one starter if not for some fumbling issues during the preseason. Seeing as every fumble takes one month off a coach’s lifespan, the Titans will be cautious here.

It was an odd coincidence that the Titans’ first two picks (Taylor Lewan and Sankey) both corresponded exactly with my draft rankings. Their third pick DaQuan Jones (112th overall) was my 114th ranked player. In fact, Mettenberger was their only draft pick taken more than 10 spots from where I had him. I had him 105th, but he fell to the 178th pick due to off field concerns.

Don’t focus on the fact that 2012 first-round pick Kendall Wright has never had a positive DVOA. Instead, focus on the fact that he managed to catch 94 of the 140 passes sent his way, and averaged 11.5 yards-per-catch. Why am I focusing on the traditional stats instead of advanced metrics? Because his +/- of +2.3 isn’t as impressive as the fact it came with Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing to him. One day we’ll have quarterback-adjusted stats for receivers, but that day is not today. A fully healthy Nate Washington put together a fine season (7.4% DVOA, +/- +3.7, 162 DYAR). The former Tiffin Dragon excelled in college with Ryan Harpold throwing to him. He can handle Jake Locker or whomever the Titans put out there. 2013 second-round pick Justin Hunter managed to alienate the coaching staff with his awful technique. He only caught 18 passes last season. He’s clearly worked hard to refine his game this offseason and has been borderline-dominant in preseason action. Integrating him into the passing game is of paramount importance. Tight end Delanie Walker is a versatile player. The Titans are better off when he’s a third or fourth option. In other words, if he finishes second in receptions again this season, don’t expect the Titans to have a winning record.

The scouts gave Tennesee’s offensive line the second best grade in the AFC, behind only Denver’s. Their performance last season isn’t commensurate with such a grade. Left tackle Michael Roos was fifth in my rankings. Left guard Andy Levitre finished 15th. He received multiple commendations as being one of the best guards in the NFL. Perhaps last season was on off year for the major free agent acquisition. He played through a nagging hip injury. Rookies Brian Schwenke and Chance Warmack suffered through tough seasons at center and left guard, respectively. Fourth-round pick Schwenke finished 30th among centers. That was better than first-round pick Warmack, who was 35th. He got his ass kicked all season long. Schwenke battled injuries and should be better this season. Warmack was just fat and lost 15 pounds this offseason. Right tackle is an open competition between rookie first-round pick Taylor Lewan and free agent pickup Michael Oher. Oher was actually worse than the man he’s replacing (David Stewart). Right now Oher is ahead of Lewan on the depth charts, but this offensive line looks highly questionable either way. Given it’s mixture of youth and pedigree, I’ll admit it could turn out to be one of the best lines in the NFL, but right now it is just unrealized potential.

Defensive end Jurrell Casey exploded for 10.5 sacks last season. He only had three in 2012, but the Titans are convinced it wasn’t a fluke and recently signed him to an extension that makes him the highest paid player on the team. He’s going to have to adjust to a new defense (the Titans are moving to a 3-4). He’ll play across from Ropati Pitoitua. Pitoitua is a solid run defender with just enough penetration to be an annoyance to opposing quarterbacks. Nose tackle Sammie Lee Hill is going to have to get used to increased responsibility. He’s a tough mammal against the run, but expect the Titans to give him plenty of rest, as their depth along the line is superb. Al Woods, Karl Klug, and Mike Martin would all be acceptable starters. Rookie fourth-round pick DaQuan Jones is going to have to work his way up a stacked depth chart. Jones has the size and strength to play nose tackle, but may be better off as a run specialist defensive end.

In making the switch to the 3-4, the Titans acknowledged they needed to upgrade their interior linebackers. They signed Wesley Woodward from Denver and are moving Zach Brown inside. Brown was a major disappointment at outside linebacker, but his speed and range give him the potential to excel inside. Woodward knows what he’s doing and can be comfortable from day one. Derrick Morgan managed six sacks and 36 hits+hurries at defensive end last season. He’ll have to adjust to playing a bit further from the line. Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers will both see time across from Morgan. Ayers has been a disappointment, but his numbers aren’t as bad as you’d expect given his reputation. Wimbley is the starter, but Ayers has more talent. Frankly, if the players can collectively adjust to the new defensive system, this isn’t a bad front seven.

I’m very happy with Jason McCourty as Tennessee’s #1 cornerback. He expertly handled the job last season and deserved more praise than the departed Alterraun Verner. However, Verner’s departure does leave Tennessee in a pickle. Coty Sensabaugh is a fine slot cornerback who is best utalized in nickel and dime formations. 2013 third-round pick Blidi Wreh-Wilson is an unknown. If he gets the #2 job, I expect him to suffer the traditional rookie struggles. If he gets the nickel job, then Sensabaugh may find himself outside his comfort zone. I expect the coaching staff will correctly diagnose which is the better move, but that doesn’t mean either is a good option. Strong safety Bernard Pollard still plays an intimidating brand of ball. The tradeoff is more than a few penalties and the risk of suspension. Free safety Michael Griffin has a good coverage range, but he gets into trouble due to poor vision and technique. This will be his eighth season, so it’s foolish to expect him to change. I suppose that’s even more true for Pollard, but the NFL is certainly trying. Rookie fourth-round pick Marqueston Huff is a cornerback-safety hybrid. Right now he is being looked at as a potential dime cornerback, and may work his way up into Griffin’s job.

The collapse of former kicking star Rob Bironas ended Tennessee’s run as an elite special teams unit. He’s gone, replaced most likely by Maikon Bonani, although undrafted rookie Travis Coons has a shot at the job. A bigger concern is punter Brett Kern. Kern survives because he’s quite good at downing short punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Those are generally the punts that gutless coaches call for instead of taking calculated risks that might backfire. When Kern’s overall portfolio is examined, he turns out to be poor overall. Providing positive reinforcement for coaches who fail to show balls leads to tremendous job security. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. The Titans have good coverage units. One weakness is punt returns, where Dexter McCluster hopes to shine this season.

Given their soft schedule, the Titans could be one of the major risers this season. They have a surprisingly talented roster outside of quarterback. Admittedly, this isn’t a situation like up in Buffalo, where EJ Manuel sabotaged a great defense. Still, given the talent at receiver, I see Locker having his best season and leading the Titans to mediocrity. 8-8.

The AFC West grabbed both wildcard spots last year. They won’t repeat that trick again.

AFC West Projected Standings:

Denver Broncos 11-5

San Diego Chargers 9-7

Kansas City Chiefs 7-9

Oakland Raiders 5-11

Denver Broncos

Expected Wins: 11.15

Scouting Wins: 10.76

DVOA Wins: 10.7

2013 Record: 13-3 (11.7 Pythagorean)

Here lies the AFC’s most talented roster. They were 15-3 heading into the Super Bowl, ready to face Seattle. And then…

Seattle’s defense called “bullshit.” They dared Manning to throw deep. They sat on the shorter routes and declared they were ready to shut down the short passing game. And they did. A younger Peyton Manning would have challenged Seattle, but this one knows what his arm is capable of. It was a brutal game. On September 21st, Denver heads to Seattle for the rematch. Now, Seattle had the best defense in the NFL. If we account for “bigger, stronger, faster” it’s fair to say that Seattle had the best defense of all time. Few other teams have the talent to match up to Denver the way Seattle did. Still, Manning is 38 and his arm isn’t getting any stronger. He led the NFL with 55 touchdowns, a 43.2% DVOA, and 2,475 DYAR. No one was even close. At some point the end will come, but last year he was the best player in the NFL. If you have a weakness, he will find and exploit it. Seattle just didn’t have any that day.

The loss of Knowshon Moreno shouldn’t hurt the running game too much, as Montee Ball is well equipped to take over his carries. The bigger concern is that Moreno was a key part of the passing game (192 receiving DYAR, 31.0% receiving DVOA). Ball struggled as a receiver, ended up with -7 DYAR. It’s the one area the 2013 second-round pick needs to work on. Backup Ronnie Hillman is an unknown, having put up 23 DYARLOS over his first two seasons.

Over the past two seasons, Demaryius Thomas has been one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and is currently in negotiations with the Broncos. NFL teams are generally paranoid about “distractions,” but so far Denver GM John Elway and Thomas’ agent have failed to reach an agreement. Ditto Julius Thomas, although he only has one season of major production. Elway’s biggest concern is that while both Thomases have thrived with Manning, it isn’t clear what kind of players they’ll be when he’s gone. Last season, Demaryius lead all receivers with 430 DYAR, while Julius was second among tight ends with 230 DYAR. Elway doesn’t want to pay them for the production he rightly attributes to Peyton. Elway let Eric Decker leave for New York, as his pre-Manning production (-15.5% DVOA in 2011) may be more predictive than the 773 DYAR he put up over the past two seasons. I look forward to seeing Decker get open and then watch Geno Smith’s passes sail by. Sigh. Even if Demaryius and Julius fail to sign new deals, they should be properly motivated this season. Wes Welker may end up being too motivated, as there are increasing signs that retirement would be better for his long-term health. He’s still a great player (9.3% DVOA, 194 DYAR), but even in the modern NFL, football is a dangerous game, and defenses know his weakness. Emmanuel Sanders should make a smooth transition, taking over Decker’s role in the offense. Andre Caldwell will battle rookie second-round pick Cody Latimer for the #4 job. Latimer is a huge target (6-6) and a fierce blocker. It might take him some time to learn the playbook and his hands could get him tossed into Peyton’s doghouse. Caldwell is a solid option, but isn’t as talented as the players previously listed.

Despite the loss of Zane Beadles, the Broncos offensive line looks exceedingly strong. Left tackle Ryan Clady missed all but two games last season with a Lisfranc injury. When healthy, he’s been one of the best tackles in the NFL. Orlando Franklin is moving over from right tackle to take over Beadles’ role at left guard. He was a bit below average at right tackle, but left guard is an easier position. Manny Ramirez graded out as a below average center. Some of the scouting reviews graded him near the top of the position, so it is possible I’m underrating him. Right guard Louis Vasquez was in a league of his own. I could cut his performance in half and he’d have been the third best player at his position. Chris Clark took over at left tackle in Clady’s absence, and ended up a reasonable 18th in my rankings. He’s moving over to right tackle and should be more than qualified to handle the job. We have two elite performers (presuming Clady returns to form), two players moving into easier roles, and a decent center. Will Mongomery and Winston Justice provide solid depth here. I should note, Peyton Manning makes his offensive line look better with his ability to read blitzes and get rid of the ball. Even so, their stats aren’t that inflated, and they’ve performed at a high level under Manning.

There are playmakers throughout Denver’s front seven. Terrance Knighton had a breakout season. His play in the AFC Championship game is one of the reasons Denver advanced to the Super Bowl. 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams started slowly but showed signs of becoming a disruptive force. He’s been promoted to the starting lineup. Kevin Vickerson provides excellent depth at tackle. Replacing the departed Shaun Phillips with DeMarcus Ware is a major upgrade. Ware had six sacks last season, along with 30 hits+hurries. He’s a dominant defender against the run as well. It’s unclear if Ware will spend more time across from 2012 second-round pick Derek Wolfe or 2012 fifth-round pick Malik Jackson. Wolfe suffered a spinal injury last preseason and had a seizure in November. If healthy, he could be a major disruptive force. Even weakened, he managed 3.5 sacks and 19.5 hits+hurries last season. Jackson was surprisingly effective in Wolfe’s absence, managing six sacks and 21 hits+hurries, while sliding back and forth from tackle to end. If everyone stays healthy, this is an excellent defensive line.

After 18.5 sacks in 2012, injuries returned Von Miller back from the stratosphere. Miller is healthy again, and should return to being one of the most dominant linebackers in the NFL. Danny Trevanthan will play the weak side across from Miller. His 128 tackles led the defense and he was a key performer. He’s currently out with a broken knee. He might return as early as October 5th against Arizona. Rookie fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow is competing against special teams ace Brandon Marshall for the replacement role. 2011 third-round pick Nate Irving will be given the starting middle linebacker job. He’s had chances to hold it before, but lost various training camp battles. Truthfully, he’s not a bad option, especially against the run. Teams are going to test his coverage skills and we’ll see how solid they are.

The most improved area of the Broncos defense might be their secondary. Losing Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie hurts, but the additions of Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and rookie first-round pick Bradley Roby more than make up for it. Talib is one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. Whether he’ll play across from Roby or Chris Harris is still unclear. Harris is still recovering from an ACL tear he suffered against San Diego in the playoffs. If healthy, he can work outside and come inside to the slot in the nickel. Roby has elite speed and was a dominant player at Ohio St. in 2012. Immaturity hurt him in 2013 and some teams dropped him on their draft boards due to character concerns. He’s an excellent athlete and even with the traditional rookie lumps, he could be a productive player by the playoffs. Free safety Rahim Moore suffered a brutal leg injury that ended his 2013 season but appears fully healthy. He played very well last season and his absence hurt the Broncos. Ward is the prototypical modern strong safety. His numbers in coverage and against the run were both excellent. There are numerous health concerns, but otherwise this is a very good secondary. The depth here is okay at cornerback, not great at safety.

The stupidity of placing Wes Welker at risk returning punts should be obvious. He’s currently listed as the starter but I hope someone comes to their senses and promotes backup Isaiah Burse. The other issue for Denver is their kickoff coverage is awful. That’s a problem you can solve with dedicated specialists, but Denver seems content to throw backups at the problem.

Denver and New England have been the kings of the AFC for the past two seasons. Two years ago Baltimore went on a run in the playoffs and eliminated both of them. Last year they faced each other and Denver won at home. In fact, Denver has been the #1 seed, with New England as the #2, each year Manning has been in Denver. This year, Denver’s schedule is much harder than New England’s. Denver must face the AFC West, which, despite the presence of Oakland, is much tougher than the AFC East. Denver also has to face the NFC West, including a game at Seattle. Finally, the Broncos have the misfortune of facing the Patriots on the road. The team that wins that game effectively gains 1.5 games on the other due to the tiebreaks. I think that will be the difference, and as such New England flips seeds with Denver. 11-5.

Kansas City Chiefs

Expected Wins: 7.39

Scouting Wins: 7.82

DVOA Wins: 6.8

2013 Record: 11-5 (11.1 Pythagorean)

Those are low projections for a team that went 11-5 last season. It wasn’t a fluke, as they slightly under-performed their Pythagorean expectations. It wasn’t all schedule-based, as they were the sixth-best team according to DVOA last season. Admittedly, their schedule is much harder this season due to facing the NFC West, but not THAT much harder. So, what gives? Well, two things. The first is quarterback Alex Smith. The second is the offensive line. We’ll start with Smith.

If the only game you’ve seen Smith play is the AFC Wild Card loss to the Colts, you probably think Smith’s a great quarterback. He threw for 378 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Wowsers! It’s not his fault that Andrew Luck destroyed the Chiefs defense, leading the Colts back from a 38-10 deficit. After that loss, Smith started making noises about wanting a new contract, in the $18M-per-year range. Jay Cutler is often referred to as setting that market. Smith is currently in the final year of a contract that will pay him $8M this season. The Chiefs were very clear, saying they were willing to negotiate, but that they weren’t coming anywhere close to what Smith was asking for. The reason for that is that Smith simply isn’t a great quarterback. Last year his -3.7% DVOA and 262 DYAR suggest he was a caretaker for the offense. Expect him to reprise that role this season. (Update: The Chiefs agreed to a new deal, but the terms have been kept quiet so far. Apparently it only guarantees him $9M, which isn’t much more than he was getting for playing out the season. I’m curious how team friendly the deal is.)

Jamaal Charles is the man who powered the Chiefs offense last season. In 15 games, he gained 1,980 yards, for a DYARLOS of 382. Between his 259 carries and 70 receptions, he was the focus of the offense all season. Over the past two seasons, he’s had 644 touches, and history suggests that’s an unsustainable pace. He’s a fantastic football player, but running backs age faster than the rest of us. Case in point, he suffered a bruised foot and has missed almost all of the preseason. It could be that the Chiefs are simply resting him, but it could also be the wear and tear catching up to him. Backup Knile Davis managed to accumulate -40 DYAR in a very short amount of playing time last season. He fractured his fibula against the Colts, but should be healthy for the regular season.

Donnie Avery lead the Chiefs wide receivers with a -0.8% DVOA (over 72 targets and 40 receptions). That’s another reason Alex Smith’s contract negotiations have stalled. Avery is #2 on the depth chart because the Chiefs simply haven’t invested in the position. #1 Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe managed to put a +/- of -7.7. Some of that is Smith’s fault, but Bowe’s own limitations are at fault as well. By the way, you might be wondering how the Chiefs managed to go 11-5 with such a bad passing game. In addition to Charles, the Chiefs had a very good defense and the best special teams in the NFL. Back to the receiving corps. Bowe and Avery combined for 97 receptions for 1,273 yards, and seven touchdowns. Those are the numbers you might expect for a #1 receiver, not the top two combined. As you can imagine, the depth here is poor. A.J Jenkins and Junior Hemingway combined for 21 receptions last season. And again, no Chiefs wide receiver had a positive DVOA last year. Tight end Anthony Fasano missed the last seven games due to injuries. He wasn’t anything special before he got hurt, putting up a -12.7% DVOA and -12 DYAR. 2013 third-round pick Travis Kelce missed the 2013 season after requiring microfracture surgery on his knee. He’s looked good in the preseason.

The Chiefs are employing a bold strategy with their offensive line. Eric Fisher had a terrible rookie season at right tackle. He ranked 33rd in my rankings, and even that may have been too kind. You’d expect more from the first overall pick, even as a rookie. He’ll be moving over to start at right tackle. Donald Stephenson will be replacing him at left tackle. Stephenson wasn’t much better than Fisher was. Even if the Chiefs had a rock solid interior, the tackles would be a major cause of concern. Alas, it appears the Chiefs are planning on starting rookie sixth-round pick Zach Fulton at right guard. As a general rule, day-one starters don’t fall that far in the draft. Left guard Jeff Allen finished 25th in my rankings last season. The only bright spot was center Rodney Hudson, who ended up a respectable 13th in my rankings, at just a hair above average. The Chiefs finished second in adjusted-line-yards last season, but they’ve lost three key contributors to free agency (Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz). This offense is going to take a major step backward. This is one case where injuries (outside of center) probably won’t be too harmful, as the starters are of backup quality. (Update: Jeff Linkenbach may beat out Fulton. Linkenbach has been staggeringly awful this preseason, but Fulton doesn’t look ready to play. I wouldn’t want to be insuring Alex Smith right now.)

Nose tackle Dontari Poe is a rare athlete. He can provide a pass rush through a double team, while being a stout force against the run. He’s a young star who makes the players around him better. He’ll be flanked by Mike Devito and Allen Bailey. Devito is a solid presence against the run, but the Chiefs expect him to work on his pass rush. He had no sacks or QB hits last season. Free agent pickup Vance Walker will also be part of the rotation.

The loss of OLB Justin Houston to a dislocated elbow nerfed the Kansas City pass rush. Houston and Tamba Hali both ended up with 11 sacks last season. Wary about pass rush depth, the Chiefs may have reached when they took Dee Ford in the first round. He’s a speed rusher, in the same mold as Hali. Hali and Houston are both very tough against the run, which is a bit of a weakness for Ford. He has above-average coverage skills, and may be better playing in space. Derrick Johnson successfully handled a lot of responsibility at inside linebacker. Being able to do a lot of jobs well isn’t as flashy as having one elite skill, but it does help teams win. He’ll play alongside Joe Mays, if Mays can play through a wrist injury that is currently sidelining him. If not, there is no clear option to replace him. I can only hope someone has stood out in practice. When healthy, Mays is a solid player.

It appears the Chiefs plan on going with Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper as the starting cornerbacks, with Chris Owens in the slot. All three are reasonable options, although none of them is a true #1, which may lead to some matchup problems. Rookie third-round pick Phillip Gaines has world-class speed. While it will take him time to adjust to the NFL, he may find some immediate use against pure deep threats. Strong safety Eric Berry is one of the best at his position in the NFL. He’s a slightly slower, slightly more physical version of Earl Thomas. Free safety Husain Abdullah doesn’t get much respect, but appears to have won his training camp battle with ease.

Look for some major regression to the mean for the Chiefs special teams. They led the NFL in combined return value (punts and kicks), which is a highly variant statistic. Some of the personnel involved has changed. What hasn’t changed is kicker Ryon Succop. He’s a clear weak link. Good coverage units have made punter Dustin Colquitt look better than he is. Altogether, the Chiefs special teams project to be either average, or perhaps a bit worse than that.

It’s not fair to say the Chiefs were lucky last season, but a lot of their success will be difficult to repeat. The new offensive line looks staggeringly bad. The defense looks good, but it has some weaknesses such that a team that can handle the pass rush should be able to eat it alive. Time for a return back to mediocrity. 7-9.

Oakland Raiders

Expected Wins: 4.83

Scouting Wins: 4.78

DVOA Wins: 5.2

2013 Record: 4-12 (4.9 Pythagorean)

Over the past 11 years the Raiders have gone 53-123. They have 70 more losses than wins. It’s not a coincidence or bad luck. They have been a terribly run franchise since Al Davis began to fade and they are a terribly run franchise under Mark Davis. Case in point: the botched signing of Rodger Saffold. The Raiders overpaid to sign Saffold, and then shortly thereafter gave him a failing grade on their physical. The Rams had already given him a passing grade on their exit physical and re-signed him almost immediately after the Raiders dismissed him. Free agents list the Raiders as the least desirable team to play for in the NFL, ahead of Buffalo. Both teams have lost for years, but Oakland is warm. For them to be dead last is a sign of a problem. The Raiders had to trade for Matt Schaub due to concerns they wouldn’t be able to sign him as a free agent. Matt. Schaub. Last season he had a -16.2% DVOA and accumulated -123 DYAR.

Schaub’s skills have deteriorated. He isn’t the Raiders quarterback of the future, so let’s instead focus on rookie second-round pick Derek Carr. Carr has a similar skillset to Matthew Stafford. He’s large, mobile, with a strong arm. He played out of the shotgun at Fresno St., which is less of a hindrance than it used to be. It will take him some time to adjust to the speed and complexity of the NFL. In the interim… in the interim Carr has been much better than Schaub. Schaub has been hampered by an elbow injury, but he’s also looked just plain terrible this preseason. Carr has looked much better, albeit generally against backups. Head coach Dennis Allen has been waffling over who will start. I’d recommend they do whatever they feel is best for Carr’s long term future, because that is what’s best for the Raiders’ future. (Update: Carr has won the job. Signing Schaub was just a mistake, and I commend the Raiders for admitting it so quickly. The Seahawks did the same with Russell over Flynn, and it worked out well for them.)

Over the last two seasons Darren McFadden has accumulated -266 DYARLOS. Despite his excellent straight-line speed, he’s one of the least elusive backs in the NFL. He’s battling for the starting job against the remains of Maurice Jones-Drew. Drew ran for a -13.6% DVOA last season and is a shadow of the player he used to be. The Raiders aren’t breaking the bank for these players, but they could get the same level of performance for a fraction of the cost via the draft or even undrafted free agents. It’s called replacement level for a reason. For some reason, the Raiders management has an attraction to players with more name than game.

James Jones was a successful third option in Green Bay. He’ll have to make a large adjustment to being the #1 in Oakland. Rod Streater put together a season (13.6% DVOA, 204 DYAR) that would be impressive even without the disadvantage of playing in Oakland. Streater was an undrafted free agent and is entering his third season. Not bad. Denarius Moore is battling Andre Holmes for the #3 job. Holmes is a 6-5 speedster but, like Streater, was an undrafted free agent. He excels in fighting off shorter cornerbacks. Moore is even faster but has struggled with inconsistency. He’s only caught 47% of the passes the Raiders have sent his way. 2013 sixth-round pick tight end Mychal Rivera benefited from David Ausberry’s absence, ending up with a solid 8.1% DVOA and 60 DYAR. Ausberry is fighting to reclaim his job after missing last season with a shoulder injury. He’s recovering from knee surgery at the moment, so Rivera may keep the job by default.

The Raiders have taken pains to build a decent offensive line. Free agent pickup left tackle Donald Penn was slightly below average by my metrics last season. Khalif Barnes is moving over to left guard. He played poorly at multiple spots on the line last season. Stefen Wisniewski is a bright spot, having ranked fifth among centers last season. Austin Howard ranked second among right tackles last season, but is moving over to right guard. I can only assume I am missing some impact to the running game. New right tackle Menelik Watson struggled in limited usage last season. Clearly, the Raiders have a vision of what they want to accomplish. I’m just not sure what that is.

While their average age is north of 30, the Raiders starting defensive line is actually pretty good. Justin Tuck left the Giants with a bang, grabbing 11 sacks and 44 hits+hurries. He’ll play across from LaMarr Woodley, who is making an adjustment from being a 3-4 outside linebacker. Antonio Smith is also moving, from being a 3-4 end to being a 4-3 tackle. I’m confident both can handle the move, but they may need a bit of extra rest from the added load. Pat Sims is the only returning starter, although the Raiders have made clear that they want to give him some extra rest in return for stronger play. The depth here isn’t great, but wearing out the starters probably isn’t a great plan.

The Raiders lack a true middle linebacker, but Nick Roach performed reasonably well, especially when he was allowed to play close to the line of scrimmage. He struggled when offenses forced him into coverage. 2013 third-round pick Sio Moore is the rare Raider who exceeds expectations. He easily beat out Kaelin Burnett for the starting job across from Khalil Mack. Mack appears to be a Von Miller-Robert Quinn hybrid. He has a superb pass rush, excellent tackling skills, and excellent physical conditioning. His biggest weakness is his pass coverage range, which is something a good defensive coordinator can hide. The Raiders got a bit lucky when Mack fell to them, and his addition should solidify the linebacker corps for years to come. The Raiders have good depth on the outside, but don’t really have anybody who can adequately replace Roach. (Update: Moore is dealing with a neck strain. The Raiders expect he’ll be able to play through it. Roach is currently sidelined with a head injury, but the Raiders haven’t revealed if it is a concussion or not.)

The Raiders secondary is… interesting. They signed former 49ers Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, which gives them a pair of competent starting cornerbacks. 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden was injury prone before the Raiders drafted him. He’s been unable to stay on the field and may never become the player the Raiders hoped they were getting. That may be why they drafted Keith McGill in the fourth round, although McGill was a great value there regardless of need. McGill is going to need to modify his physical style of play, which would have made him a flag magnet even before the NFLs new points of emphasis. With Hayden currently on the PUP list due to a foot injury, it’s unclear if McGill will get some experience in the slot, or if one of the many mediocre vets on the roster will get the job. Strong safety Tyvon Branch missed almost all of last season with a broken fibula. His presence is necessary if the Raiders are to remain competitive. Free safety Charles Woodson is a shadow of the shadow he used to be, and even so remains the best option for the Raiders. The future Hall of Famer knows how to play his position, but his range shrinks every year. Usama Young has looked good in limited duty at free safety. McGill is another possible option here after he gains some experience.

Sebastian Janikowski has seen his leg strength slowly fade. Good coverage units have limited the damage somewhat, but unless Seabass rebounds, the end could be in sight. Punter Marquette King was too focused on punting for power, and saw a few of his punts blocked last season. That’s on the coaches as much as it’s on him. Get the ball in the air. The Raiders return units were also lousy, so the hope is that regression to the mean shows up as a positive force in Oakland.

When I’m debating between 4-12 and 5-11, something has gone horribly wrong. The Raiders are a clear disaster and they have given us little hope that better things are on the horizon. There’s also the issue that they’ve given up one of their home games, facing Miami in London. A decent defense gives me some cause for hope. I’ll go with 5-11 simply because there are 256 wins to be handed out and so many teams look like they are on a downswing.

San Diego Chargers

Expected Wins: 8.13

Scouting Wins: 8.2

DVOA Wins: 9.4

2013 Record: 9-7 (9.2 Pythagorean)

I was surprised to discover that the Chargers defense only gave up 382 points in 18 games despite being the worst defense in the NFL according to DVOA. Frankly, it looks pretty bad on paper. Apart from free agent pickup Brandon Flowers and free safety Eric Weddle, there aren’t any impact players. Having a good secondary is nice, but you still need a pass rush. On the plus side, a good offense is much more important than a good defense, and the Chargers have that.

Philip Rivers is coming off one of the best “rebound” seasons in NFL history. After a rough 2012 (-7.3% DVOA, 138 DYAR), he was the second-best quarterback in the NFL (34.8% DVOA, 1799 DYAR). Viva good coaching and schematics. Or maybe just viva no more Norv Turner. Rivers’ limited mobility has faded over the years, and at some point his arm strength will follow. For now, he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

A healthy Ryan Matthews had a solid bounce-back season that recaptured much of the glory from his rookie year. He ended up with 202 DYAR and played in all 16 games, which was a first for him. Matthews is a versatile player who can run, catch, and block, so his presence is key for the Chargers. Backup Donald Brown has a similar skillset (sans the blocking), so I’m guessing the Chargers signed him as insurance. Danny Woodhead isn’t a backup as much as he is an entirely new position. He’s a running back/wide receiver hybrid, and a damn good one at that. He ended up with 386 DYARLOS and a 26.1% DVOALOS. I’m not sure New England missed him, but San Diego was definitely happy to have him.

Third-round pick Keenan Allen produced one of the best rookie seasons that you’ll ever see: 71 receptions, 1,046 yards, eight touchdowns, +/- +8.6, 28.2% DVOA, 343 DYAR. He ran a 4.71 40-yard dash, so let’s remember speed isn’t everything. Good route recognition and hands more than made up for a lack of deep speed. Defenses will be more aggressive about shutting Allen down this season, which will open up space for Malcolm Floyd. Floyd missed almost all of last season with a neck injury. When healthy, he’s been one of the most productive players in the NFL. His average DYAR-per-game projects out to 381 for a season, which is in line with his DVOA of 43.1% over that time. In his absence, Eddie Royal stepped up with a monster season (238 DYAR, 31.6% DVOA). Royal had been awful the previous two seasons (a combined -208 DYAR). Tight end Antonio Gates is still a productive player (77 receptions for 872 yards), but is fading (2.3% DVOA over the past two seasons). 2012 fourth-round pick Ladarius Green has been excellent in limited usage over that time (46.1% DVOA, 123 DYAR). Look for Green to see an increased role in the offense.

The Chargers offensive line philosophy is quite clear: maul you with their oversized tackles and get the ball out before a speed rush can get to the quarterback. Left tackle King Dunlap and right tackle D.J. Fluker are both power specialists. Dunlap graded out as a solidly above-average left tackle, but was probably the best run blocking tackle in the NFL. Remember, I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate that into my grading system, so consider Dunlap a premium player. Fluker was 25th in my right tackle rankings, but drew unanimous praise for his power. The weak link was right guard Jeromey Clary, who has since been replaced by Johnnie Troutman. Troutman will hold down the job until rookie third-round pick Chris Watt is ready to take over. Center Nick Hardwick is getting up there in years, but he ranked third last season and is still a great asset for the Chargers. Chad Rinehart was almost as good, ranking eighth among left guards. Troutman (or Watt) is the only weak link in an otherwise solid offensive line. The depth here is pretty untested, so injuries would be problematic.

The Chargers designed their defense around a great pass rush. They sacrificed power against the run for speed to get to the quarterback. That’s why the Chargers have to be disappointed that Corey Liuget led the team with 5.5 sacks. His 21 hits+hurries also led the team. Kendall Reyes had five sacks across from Liuget. Both struggled against the run. Nose tackle Sean Lissemore took over the job in the second half of last season. He was probably the best player on the line. That’s some damn faint praise.

2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram is recovering from a ACL tear that caused him to miss most of the 2013 season. He’ll be starting across from Jarret Johnson. Johnson missed five games last season, but that doesn’t excuse his measly three sacks and 8.5 hits+hurries. Backup Dwight Freeney is 34 and is no longer close to the player he used to be. Rookie second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu was a bit of a reach, but may be a perfect fit as a 3-4 pass rush specialist. I’ll be interested to see how the Chargers use him. Manti Te’o was who we thought he was. He was solid in coverage, but lacked the speed and power to be a great run defender. Donald Butler has had trouble staying on the field, but when healthy no Charger makes more plays than Butler. He’s not a star, although compared to his teammates he looks like one.

Even with star free safety Eric Weddle and free agent pickup Brandon Flowers, this is a vulnerable secondary. Flowers will play across from Shareece Wright. Wright may have been the worst starting cornerback in the NFL last season. The Chargers drafted Jason Verrett in the first round, but he isn’t a real threat to Wright. Verrett projects out as a slot cornerback best suited for a nickel or dime role. Mind you, he projects as a very good slot cornerback but would be expected to struggle on the outside. There’s also the issue that rookie cornerbacks are usually overmatched. Richard Marshall will also see some playing time, although his results weren’t much better than Wright’s. Marcus Gilchrist made a surprisingly smooth transition from cornerback to strong safety. He played very well and allowed free safety Eric Weddle to freelance as he saw fit. As Weddle is easily the best player on the Chargers defense, that helped the Chargers… I was going to say “maintain some semblance of respectability”, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Weddle helped the Chargers avoid being historically bad, which was good enough for them to make the playoffs. Sometimes that is all it takes.

The Chargers special teams have remained remarkably consistent. Kicker Nick Novak is solid, while punter Mike Scifres is quite good. Despite somewhat under-par return units, the Chargers special teams should be a bit above average overall again this season.

Given the presence of the Raiders and a down year for the Chiefs, the Chargers should have a clear path to return to the playoffs. Unfortunately, due to the Broncos, it’ll likely be as a wildcard team. Having to face the tough NFC West is somewhat mitigated by games against Jacksonville and Baltimore. I’m going to give the Chargers a bullish projection: 9-7. Please note: Bullish is damn close to “Bullshit” for a reason. 🙂

Playoff Seedings:

1. New England

2. Denver

3. Pittsburgh

4. Indianapolis

5. Cincinnati

6. San Diego

AFC Wildcard Round:

San Diego Chargers @ Pittsburgh Steelers

For the second straight year the Chargers open up the playoffs on the road at the AFC North champion. This time things don’t go nearly as well. Pittsburgh 27, San Diego 20.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

Cincinnati has been on a terrible playoff losing streak, but the right opponent helps them finally break it. Cincinnati 38, Indianapolis 31.

AFC Divisional Round

Cincinnati Bengals @ New England Patriots

Cincinnati’s playoff success is short lived, although not without giving the Patriots quite a scare. New England 17, Cincinnati 16.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

No Tebow heroics this time. Denver pounds an overmatched Steelers secondary. Denver 45, Pittsburgh 20.

AFC Championship Game

Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots

This is the game that people expected two years ago, and got last year. This time the championship game is in New England and it makes all the difference. New England in late January is a cold place. Brady outplays Manning to move on to the Super Bowl. New England 31, Denver 16.

Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale Arizona.

New England Patriots @ New Orleans Saints

The NFC is the home team this season. Drew Brees faces off against Tom Brady in a game for the ages. Seriously, Brees and Brady will be a combined 73 years old by kickoff. For once this season the NFL doesn’t want a flag festival, and both defenses take advantage. Bill Belichick gets the best of Sean Payton and Brady joins the Joe Montana and Terry Bradshow as the only quarterbacks with four rings. New England 26, New Orleans 20.

Thus ends another great season of football. Have fun and enjoy the season.

Seth Burn

@sethburn on twitter

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