2014 NFC Preview

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

Expected Wins: These are the implied wins set by the trading markets. I include these win totals because they are the de facto median expectation for the teams. I always normalize the numbers such that the number of expected wins equals 256, but it was a bit extreme this year. As such, a team with a line of over 7.5 -120, under 7.5 +100 ended up having an expected win total of 7.39. For the record, a basis point generally equates to 1/120th of a win.

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

DVOA Wins: These are taken directly from Football Outsiders 2014 Almanac (a book that I highly recommend if you have a strong interest in football). Their formula, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average – or DVOA – is fairly complicated and is based on the success rates of each play of the game. It creates values for offense, defense, and special teams. The formula looks for anomalies like over-performance on third down that is unlikely to be repeated. When a team has been “clutch” one season, Football Outsiders generally expects a regression.

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

DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. It is an advanced counting stat. Please note that while DVOA is compared to the average performance of of similar plays, DYAR is compared to a much lower baseline, specifically replacement level. In theory, 0 is the expected value of freely available league minimum salary talent. I am beginning to suspect that the replacement level is set too high, although that isn’t a major issue.

DYARLOS: This is DYAR accumulated from the line of scrimmage. It counts both rushing and receiving DYAR.

DVOALOS: This is the average DVOA per play for all plays a player has been involved in, either as a running back or as a receiver.

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

Pythagorean wins- The amount of wins a team would normally win given the amount of points they scored and allowed. The formula is similar to points scored ^ 2.67 / (points allowed ^ 2.67 + points scored ^ 2.67)

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

Over the offseason I worked on a new metric for grading and ranking offensive line play. I am not yet incorporating dominant run blocking, but I have a pretty good measure of how often offensive linemen fail, as well as how often they fail spectacularly. I compared all offensive lineman to other lineman playing the same position. When you see a ranking listed here it is where that player ranked among the other players of that position.

Alright, here goes. Let’s start with the surprisingly weak NFC East:

NFC East Projected Standings

Philadelphia Eagles 10-6

New York Giants 7-9

Dallas Cowboys 7-9

Washington Redskins 7-9

Dallas Cowboys

Expected Wins: 7.2

Scouting Wins: 7.24

DVOA Wins: 6.9

2013 Record: 8-8 (8.2 Pythagorean)

Why didn’t the 2013 Cowboys run the ball? That is my single biggest question after examining their results. Let’s look at the Cowboys best features:

1. An offensive line that finished fourth in Adjusted-Line-Yards at 4.23.

2. A running back that led the NFL in DVOA and finished second in DYAR.

3. A top-10 quarterback with a penchant for drama.

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99. An awful defense that wasted another solid season from Tony Romo.

And there’s the rub. One of the many reasons Jason Garrett hasn’t been as successful as he could have been is that he’s been unwilling to trust the running game to run the clock and ice a lead. Trusting Romo to keep the lead means opposing teams will have more time to come back against a tired Cowboys defense. Also, while Romo really is quite good, he has a nasty habit of making his interceptions count. Let’s look at Romo in a little more depth.

Over the past three seasons, Romo’s average DVOA is 17.4%. He’s averaged 1,113 DYAR over that time. A quarterback that good probably should have a better record than 24-24 over that stretch. A more immediate concern is that Romo is on a downward slope. He’s clearly peaked, and at age 34, he’ll need to make the most of his remaining talent. The Cowboys still view him as their most valuable asset, which may be why they’ve focused on their offensive line in the draft over the past two seasons. As you’ll soon see, that has come with a cost. This may be Romo’s last season as a top-10 quarterback, and it’s unfortunate that he’ll likely need it to be one of his best if he’s going to overcome one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Also, I’ve decided to ignore the fact he’s coming off of back surgery, as I’m starting to feel sorry for the guy.

Demarco Murray put together his best season, putting together 335 DYARLOS despite only playing in 14 games. Health is always a concern with Murray, but the Cowboys need to look at using him more often. Backup Lance Dunbar has accumulated a grand total of 5 DYARLOS over the past two seasons. Awkward. 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle struggled as a rookie, averaging -8.5% DVOALOS. Fat, slow, and tackled is no way to go through life, son. He may have more success this season due to better health, but if he struggles again, fifth-round picks are expendable.

Dez Bryant had his worst season in years. Don’t believe me? Check out his numbers:

2012: 92 receptions, 1,282 yards, 12 touchdowns

2013: 93 receptions, 1,233 yards, 13 touchdowns

Awful, right? Oh, sorry, wrong numbers:

2012: +/- +9.0, 392 DYAR, 18.3% DVOA

2013: +/- -1.7, 215 DYAR, 3.7% DVOA

OK, awful is a bit harsh, but he clearly regressed. It might just have been random variance, but my guess is Bryant struggled with increased defensive attention due to the loss of Miles Austin. Injuries reduced Austin to a shadow of himself (-25.9% DVOA). He ended up getting replaced by rookie third-round pick Terrance Williams. Williams was decent, coming up with 44 receptions and a 3.0% DVOA. Williams will have to increase his production to take the heat off of Bryant. Cole Beasley has retained the slot job. He’s shorter than I am so try to lower your expectations for Beasley. He was about average last season (1.5% DVOA), and will have to adjust to a larger role in the offense. He’ll have to hold off rookie fifth-round pick Devin Street. Street used his height (6-3) and remarkable body control to make up for his lack of speed and became Pitt’s all time receptions leader. It’ll be a boon for Dallas if he can adjust to the pro game and beat NFL cornerbacks.

Tight end Jason Witten put together another solid season (11.2% DVOA). He saw his targets drop from 149 to 111. The Cowboys would like to see 2013 second-round pick Gavin Escobar take a larger role in the offense. Coaches were unhappy with his blocking skills and ordered him to bulk up in the offseason. He seems to have complied. Look for him to more than triple the nine receptions he ended up with as a rookie.

Left tackle Tyron Smith earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. I had him ranked 15th among left tackles. Mackenzie Bernadeau is currently winning a battle against incumbent Ronald Leary to win the left guard job. I had Bernadeau ranked 13th among right guards, which compares quite favorable to Leary’s 34th among left guards. Guards aren’t like tackles, where the difference between left and right is staggering. I have left tackle as 23% more difficult than right tackle without taking into account that left tackles are generally more talented than right tackles. Left guard and right guard are practically identical in terms of difficulty. Rookie first-round pick Zack Martin will take over at right guard. Martin played tackle at Notre Dame and should be comfortable moving inside. 2013 first-round pick Travis Frederick struggled a bit, finishing 24th in my rankings. I’m expecting him to improve. Right tackle Doug Free ended up being exactly average, finishing within one-tenth of one percent of the average grade at right tackle. Overall, this should be an above-average offensive line. Smith may be much better than my grade for him would suggest. Between Frederick and Martin there has been a significant infusion of talent. More often than not, such investments pay off. (Update: Leary may have beaten out Bernadeau for the left guard job.)

Gaze ye upon Dallas’s defense and tremble, for ye gaze upon an unholy disaster. The Cowboys knew they would be without DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher due to salary cap issues, but the loss of Sean Lee to a torn ACL was devastating. The Cowboys defense was terrible even with the 17 sacks Ware and Hatcher provided. So, how will the Cowboys replace them? Hatcher has been replaced by defensive tackle Henry Melton. Melton only appeared in three games last season. Check out the contract he signed:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/dallas-cowboys/henry-melton/

That is a cheap one year deal dressed up in some absurd clothing. Melton is coming off of a torn ACL and will not be on the Cowboys roster the first day of the 2015 NFL season. He’ll play alongside of Nick Hayden. On a normal defense Hayden would be one of the nameless pluggers. Here, he’ll be one of the “stars.” Defensive end George Selvie was a pleasant surprise last season, picking up seven sacks.

Selvie had three sacks combined in his previous three seasons, so if he turns back into a frog, the Cowboys are screwed. Jeremy Mincey is a decent backup who is now the starter across from Selvie. His 2013 numbers were pretty good, but it’s a huge leap to go up from 300 snaps to 750 snaps. Rookie second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence is out 8-12 weeks with a fractured foot. The lack of defensive end depth is leading the Cowboys to consider placing Anthony Spencer on the 53-man roster instead of the PUP list. That’s a mistake they wouldn’t be making if they weren’t desperate. Spencer is recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee. Tyrone Crawford is coming back after missing 2013 with an Achilles tear. Hopefully he still has some the pass rush skills that made him a 2012 third-round pick.

Middle linebacker Justin Durant was brought in to push challenge Bruce Carter for a job. Carter has been a disappointment on the weakside. Now they’ll get to play together. Strongside linebacker Kyle Wilber is a converted defensive end. He’ll have to lead the linebacker corps. As you must already realize, the depth is lacking.

Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne got their butts kicked last season. In the case of Carr, he was an under-performing free agent pickup. As for Claiborne, he’s been a brutal bust. The 2012 first-round pick (sixth overall) failed to make the leap that cornerbacks usually do. The Cowboys have no choice but to give him another opportunity due to Orlando Scandrick’s four game suspension. Scandrick was solid last season, so the defense might be comical in his absence. Strong safety Barry Church makes plays. Not many great plays, but at least he’s around the ball when the play ends. He was decent in coverage, but oddly poor in run support. The Cowboys are counting on 2013 third-round pick free saftey J.J. Wilcox making the leap Clairborne failed to make. He struggled as a rookie but I’ll cut him some slack.

This is a brutal defense. The scouts ranked them 32nd overall and I’m inclined to agree. On the plus side, Dwayne Harris is one of the best all-around special teams player in the NFL, excelling as a return man and as a gunner. Overall, the Cowboys special teams appear to be solidly above-average.

Last year the Cowboys combined a good offense and very good special teams with a terrible defense and finished 8-8. This year the offense looks slightly worse due to Romo aging, the defense looks Biblically bad, and special teams success is difficult to replicate. Frankly, an 8-8 season would be a tremendous success for the Cowboys. Even 7-9 feels optimistic, but six games against a soft NFC East and four games vs. the weak AFC South gives them a chance. I’ll respect the offense enough to stick with 7-9, but know if I had to change my prediction it would be for the worse.

New York Giants

Expected Wins: 7.42

Scouting Wins: 7.58

DVOA Wins: 7.8

2013 Record: 7-9 (5.6 Pythagorean)

I just looked at the Cowboys and winced. The Cowboys were better than the Giants last season. True, the Cowboys defense was bad and got worse, but at least they still have a quarterback. What do the Giants have?

Eli Manning 2013: -20.2% DVOA, -335 DYAR.

How the heck did the Giants win seven games last season? It helps that the defense was ranked sixth in DVOA, but even so, they were exceedingly lucky, as their Pythagorean record suggests. So, what happened to Eli? My best answer is that his accuracy faded. He was always considered “streaky,” but at this point he is just wild. He had been pretty good in 2011 and 2012 (16.2% and 9.0% DVOA’s, respectively). He also had to deal with a decline in the talent around him, partly due to injuries and partly to free agency. Even so, the trend is bad and Eli may be finished as an effective NFL quarterback. If that is the case, let’s look at Ryan Nassib. Due to Eli’s tremendous string of good health (he hasn’t missed a game in the past nine seasons), we haven’t seen what Nassib can do. There were rumors he was going to be an early round pick, but Nassib fell to the Giants in the fourth round last year. I’d have to expect Nassib to struggle if he got playing time. There is at least the possibility that Nassib can be a quality NFL quarterback. If Eli continues to struggle, I’d like to see the Giants start the rebuilding process by throwing Nassib out there and letting him develop. One wrinkle: The offensive line has looked shockingly awful so far this preseason. If Nassib goes out there, he’ll take some hits. Then again, Eli will be taking the same hits.

The Giants offensive line was terrible last season, and it has been rebuilt via free agency. Left tackle William Beatty is coming off of a terrible year that saw him break his leg in the final game of the season. I had him ranked 32nd among left tackles. 2013 first-round pick right tackle Justin Pugh ended up ranking seventh in my rankings, but apparently he had awful power numbers in the running game. The entire interior of the line has been replaced with free agents, draft picks, or backups. Geoff Scwartz will take over at left guard. He was a slightly below-average right guard last season in Kansas City. There is a positional battle at center between J.D. Walton and 2014 second-round pick Weston Richburg. Walton missed last season with ankle issues. So far this preseason, Walton is winning the job. Brandon Mosley seems to be winning the right guard job over John Jerry. Jerry was an average right guard in Miami last season. This line does not inspire excessive confidence. In addition to concerns about the physicality needed to help the running game, I’m worried that Beatty’s best days are behind him.

The Giants accumulated a net total of -138 DYAR on the ground last season. Counting backup quarterback Curtis Painter, that means the Giants offense was 576 yards below replacement level last season. (I repeat, the Giants offense was 576 yards below REPLACEMENT LEVEL last season. 7-9. WTF?) Anyways, the running backs involved have either been released or demoted. Sitting atop the depth chart are free agent pickup Rashad Jennings and rookie fourth-round pick Andre Williams. Jennings had a breakout season for the Raiders last year, putting up 208 DYARLOS. He’s a capable receiver and will get the majority of the snaps. Williams is a pure runner who didn’t catch a single pass at Boston College last season. In fact, he only caught ten passes in his entire college career. Williams has excellent balance and has trained himself to keep moving forward after contact. This should be a reasonable backfield, but given the offensive line turmoil and the possible regression of the quarterback, their numbers might end up just as poor as their predecessors. (Not really an update, but I want to take a moment to wish David Wilson all the best. I’m glad he is doing what he can to protect his health and his future. A neck injury is something that you shouldn’t treat lightly and I’m glad that he and the medical staff did all they could.)

The Giants are instituting a new offensive system. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been replaced by Ben McAdoo. McAdoo will be introducing the version of the West Coast offense that he learned in Green Bay. If you think that throwing a series of short accurate passes might not be Eli Manning’s bag, you’re right. However, let’s focus on how this will affect the wide receiver corps. After catching lightning in a bottle in 2011 (31.4% DVOA, 433 DYAR), Victor Cruz has been roughly average (1.2% and 1.0% DVOA’s in 2012 and 2013, respectively). He’s accumulated 298 DYAR in that time, so he’s definitely been useful, just not awesome. His strength was turning short passes into big gains, but he’s coming off of knee surgery that ended his 2013 season. I am not sure he still has the speed that turned him into a salsa dancing star. Rueben Randle has only caught 54% of the passes sent his way in his NFL career. He has the talent to be much better than his production suggests. In fact, most expected him to be a first round draft pick in 2012, but he failed to impress in meetings with teams. He fell to the Giants with the 62nd pick overall, and since then he’s struggled to learn the playbook. His struggles with Manning’s audibles were notable. The hope is that McAdoo is giving Randle a highly streamlined role that will allow him to take advantage of his physical gifts without giving him more information than he can handle. Rookie first-round pick Odell Beckham and Jerrel Jernigan are competing for the #3 role. I should note that it won’t necessarily be a slot role, as Cruz often moves inside when the Giants go to 3WR. Jernigan exploded after Cruz’s injury, gaining 294 yards and scoring three touchdowns. That ended up leaving him with a DVOA of 0.0%. If that’s not a sign he’s at a crossroads, I don’t know what is. Well, actually, how about this: He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and the owner’s displeasure at the coaching staff’s usage of Jernigan was one of the factors leading to their departure. Expect to see Jernigan given plenty of opportunities to succeed in the new offense. Beckham’s an explosive playmaker, but I felt he was a bit of a reach with the 12th overall pick. I had him as the 26th best prospect in the draft. He’s undersized and has good speed, not great speed. He’s dealing with a hamstring injury, while Jernigan is day-to-day with a knee injury, so look for whomever is healthier to start the season at the #3. The tight ends currently on the Giants roster combined for six receptions for 63 yards last season. I REALLY wish that Eric Ebron had fallen to them with the 12th pick. Sigh. Overall, the receiving corps is quite talented though. There is at least the possibility that the offensive line jells, the receivers adapt to the new system, and that Eli puts together his best season in years. Sadly, so far this preseason we’ve seen the opposite scenario. (Update: We won’t be seeing Beckham for a few weeks due to a hamstring injury. Sigh.)

I was expecting to come to the Giants defense and praise it. As I mentioned earlier, it ranked sixth in DVOA last season. They’re not going to repeat that performance this season. I am staring at the depth chart in disbelief. The Giants have treated the linebacker corps as if it were fungible, but the tradeoff was an exceptional defensive line that swallowed blockers and killed quarterbacks. That line has faded. Its two best players last season were end Justin Tuck and tackle Linval Joseph. Joseph signed a five year deal with $12.5M guaranteed in Minnesota. Tuck received an offer from New York he described as disrespectful. He ended up signing in Oakland with a deal he says was twice what the Giants were offering. Tuck is on the wrong side of 30, but had 11 sacks last season with 44 hits+hurries. Clearly, he could still play. Let’s look at the players who remain.

Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is the same age as Tuck. He wasn’t nearly the player Tuck was, ending up with six sacks and 31.5 hits+hurries. Not bad, but not what you’d expect from your best remaining pass-rusher. What about Jason Pierre-Paul? Injuries have reduced him to a shadow of his former self and only managed two sacks last season. The Giants are hoping (praying?) for a bounce-back season. Free agent pickup Robert Ayers put together his best season, grabbing 5.5 sacks. Perhaps teams were aware how much of a fluke it was (he had 6.5 sacks combined in his previous four seasons), and he was a budget signing. 2013 third-round pick Damontre Moore is trying to come back from offseason shoulder surgery. He was a non-factor as a rookie, as coaches were displeased with his propensity for mistakes. Cullen Jenkins is the best lineman left at this point. He grabbed five sacks last season while being dominant against the run. He’s entering his 11th season and no one knows how long he can keep up this level of play. He’ll play alongside 2013 third-round pick Johnathan Hankins. Hankins was solid in limited usage last season, especially against the run. Mike Patterson provides quality depth as a run-stuffer. Rookie third-round pick Jayson Bromley might also work his way into the rotation. I saw him as a fifth-round value and was surprised the Giants took him so early.

If the defensive line has questions, the linebacker corps provides a solid answer:

http://img.waggish.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/jay_sherman_it_stinks_xlarge1.jpeg

The Giants linebacker corps is always bad. That’s just how they roll. Jon Beason proved to be a pleasant surprise last season, but he’s sidelined with a foot injury. That leaves Jameel McClain and Jacquian Williams to start alongside rookie fifth-round pick Devon Kennard. Kennard is versatile enough to play all three linebacker positions, but excels at none of them. He’s currently on the strongside while Williams patrols the weakside. Look, if you’re throwing late round rookies out onto the field, you’re admitting you don’t think linebackers are very important and are daring opposing offenses to prove them wrong. How does the saying go… Challenge Accepted? (Update: Beason has been removed from the PUP list. We’ll see how healthy he is versus Detroit.)

There is some good news for the Giants: Their secondary is top notch. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was an excellent free agent signing and will be set against the opposition’s top receiver. Prince Amukamara is a tough young cornerback who is still getting better. Walter Thurmond was another quality free agent signing. He’ll take over in the nickel. That just leaves Trumaine McBride. McBride’s numbers were flukishly great last season. He must not be as impressive in practice, as he’s currently #4 on the depth chart. Free agent pickup free safety Quintin Demps had similarly impressive numbers last season. He’ll be teaming up with strong safety Antrelle Rolle. Rolle is an atypical strong safety. He grabbed six interceptions, but gives up an unusual number of big plays, partly due to being a below-average tackler. It seems his skill set is that of the traditional free safety. In any event, this is an excellent secondary that will have to figure out how to compensate for the lack of a pass rush in front of them.

The Giants special teams were basically average last season, with the exception of their punt coverage units. Those were so bad it dragged the entire special teams rating down to 28th. I’m almost certain that was a fluke and I’m expecting mediocrity from this unit this year. Well, hoping anywany.

It feels really odd but the units I like most on the Giants are the young wide receiver corps and the rebuilt secondary. That’s not how I’d want to build a team. This is the worst front-seven I’ve ever seen the Giants put out. The offensive line is struggling and Eli looks… old. When did the NFC East become such a garbage dump? As with Dallas I’d love to give them a 6-10 record, but the NFL distributes 256 wins almost every season. As such, I’ll go with 7-9.

Philadelphia Eagles

Expected Wins: 8.93

Scouting Wins: 9.15

DVOA Wins: 9.3

2013 Record: 10-6 (9.4 Pythagorean)

I’ll say this: After many years of Andy Reid, Chip Kelly was something different. In the second half, if the Eagles had a lead, they ran the ball. What a change! He brought a new offense and invigorated Nick Foles. However, new ideas generally don’t survive an offseason unscathed. I can assure you that defensive coordinators watched a lot of film of the Eagles offense. Offensive coordinators too.

One of the things coordinators will have focused on is Nick Foles and his tendencies. Foles had a lousy rookie season under Reid (-20.4% DVOA, -166 DYAR), but blossomed in Kelly’s new offense (35.6% DVOA, 1011 DYAR). Only Peyton Manning had an unambiguously better season. Foles has to adjust to the loss of DeSean Jackson. Jackson was Foles’ most prolific and effective target. The good news for Foles is that the Eagles are getting Jeremy Maclin back after missing 2013 with an ACL tear. Defensive coordinators would be quick to tell you Maclin is not a replacement for Jackson. For all his off the field annoyances, Jackson was a terrifying weapon and defenses focused on stopping him. Expect Foles to take a major step backward, both due to the loss of Jackson and to simple regression. Foles threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions last season. He’ll repeat those touchdowns if he stays healthy, but expect a lot more interceptions. If Foles goes down, the Eagles will be in the capable hands of Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has shown that if you give him a strong offensive line and running game, and pair it with the best defense in the NFL, he can lead you to multiple Championship game defeats. Advice to the Eagles coaching staff: Try to keep Foles healthy. Lay off the quarterback draw.

Running back LeSean McCoy may have been the best non-quarterback offensive player in the NFL last season. He led the NFL in DYARLOS, finishing with 478. Only two other players finished above 400, both wide receivers (Demaryius Thomas 430 for Denver, Jordy Nelson 402 for Green Bay). He gained 2,146 yards-from-scrimmage last season, which isn’t going to be easy to repeat. His DVOALOS of 19.1% was exceedingly impressive, but there is something that’s bugging me. Apparently the Eagles led the NFL with 3.6 yards before contact per rushing attempt. However, the Eagles offensive line was only 25th in adjusted-line-yards. Did the zone read rushing attack simply freeze defenses? Was this a triumph of the coaching staff? If that’s the case, those yards are going to dry up this season. McCoy has missed some practice time with a toe injury, but should be fine by week one. He’ll share time in the backfield with Darren Sproles. Sproles has been an elite RB/WR hybrid but is beginning to fade. His DYARLOS has dropped from 454 in 2011 to 248 in 2012 to 195 in 2013. Still, he caught 71 passes last season and is only 31. He should have plenty left in the tank to help the Eagles. I am a bit curious to see how his role changes from what it was with the Saints.

I’m beginning to see how the Eagles plan to replace DeSean Jackson. Darren Sproles will bear some of the load, as will Jeremy Maclin. Maclin has 258 receptions to his name, but is still an unknown quantity. He’s on a one-year deal and wants to prove he can thrive in the new (to him) offensive system. He’s already hit a bit of a snag, as he’s missed some practice time with hamstring issues. If he can stay on the field, Maclin will play across from Riley Cooper. Cooper was an effective receiver (20.6% DVOA, 212 DYAR). He’s also considered the Eagles best blocking wide receiver. The coaching staff doesn’t seem convinced that Cooper is likely to repeat his performance, and has been looking into elevating rookie second-round pick Jordan Matthews into the #2 role. Matthews has impressed the Eagles with his elusiveness. Cooper has also been battling a nagging ankle injury.

There are few things as rejuvenating as seeing a team draft your replacement. After the Eagles took Zach Ertz in the second round in 2013 Brent Celek showed up for the season better prepared than he had in years. He ended up with a sterling performance (18.3% DVOA). As for Ertz, he wasn’t too bad either (9.8% DVOA). They had a roughly even split of attention as Ertz was targeted 56 times to Celek’s 51. Expect Ertz to see significantly more targets this season as his role expands in the offense.

The Eagles offensive line received significant praise from the scouts, who ranked it second behind San Francisco. I’m not seeing that. It ranked 25th in adjusted-line-yards. Left tackle Jason Peter was sixth in my rankings, but from there we go to mediocrity (18th-19th) to craptastic (28th-30th). The trio of highly drafted tackles (Erik Fisher, Luke Joeckel, Lane Johnson) all failed to impress. Fisher was 32nd. Joeckel was 34th. Multiple analysts noted the Eagles offensive line improved as the season progressed, which is true. That was especially true for Johnson. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I see a decent offensive line, not a special one.

The offense was the fun side of the ball in Philadephia last season. It ranked third in the DVOA ratings. Not so for the defense, which ranked 23rd. Having Foles start all 16 games might boost the offense, but the defensive will need to improve for the Eagles to be legitimate contenders to win the NFC.

The Eagles run a 3-4 defense, but it isn’t a traditional 3-4. They effectively use three defensive tackles along their defensive line. That leads to some odd numbers. More is expected out of 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox. He adjusted from moving from defensive tackle in a 4-3 to end in a 3-4. His numbers against the run weren’t stellar. The Eagles have to be happy with his 33 hits+hurries, but would’ve liked more than three sacks to show for them. Expectations are far lower for Cedric Thornton. Like Cox, he’s a converted tackle. He was marginally better against the run, but his pass rush numbers indicate that’s the extent of his skills. Vinny Curry rotates in for Thornton on passing downs. Even more than Cox, the pressure is on 2013 third-round pick nose tackle Bennie Logan. Logan improved as the season progressed. His pass rush numbers weren’t bad, but the real key is improving his power and maintaining his position against the run.

Outside linebacker Connor Barwin ended up with better numbers in coverage than rushing the passer. Five sacks is not going to get it done in this system. Trent Cole was somewhat better, grabbing 8.5 sacks. Cole is 32 and has seen his best days. I can see why the Eagles used their first-round pick on an outside linebacker. I’m not sure why that linebacker was Marcus Smith. He was generally considered to have a second round grade, but I felt he would be a fair value in the third. He isn’t a true linebacker, nor a true defensive end. Chip Kelly must have a plan for him. I’m not sure if the plan is going to work. Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks was effective when allowed to attack the line-of-scrimmage, but a liability in coverage. He’s entering his third season and hopefully he improves with experience. DeMeco Ryans played more snaps than any other linebacker in the NFL last season (1,156). He’s a solid defender, but don’t be fooled by the four sacks. He had 3.5 hits+hurries.

It wasn’t quite the disaster it was in 2012, but it was still another bad year for the Eagles secondary. Cary Williams will either press you at the line of scrimmage, or sit back and give up the short completion. There was far too much of the latter last season. Bradley Fletcher was no more effective than Williams. The Eagles could promote slot cornerback Brandon Boykin. He plays a high risk game, but it paid off with six interceptions last year. So far, the coaching staff hasn’t budged. Malcolm Jenkins is bringing his talents from New Orleans to play free safety. His numbers weren’t great and I don’t think the Saints will miss him. He’s a converted cornerback so you’d expect to trade some weakness against the run for better coverage numbers. That’s not the case here. Nate Allen is transitioning from free to strong safety. He’s trying to hold off Earl Wolff for the job. Frankly, neither of them will scare the opposition. Between a poor pass rush and an unimpressive secondary, I’m not seeing a championship contender level defense.

Kicker Alex Henery had an off year. Such stuff is often the result of pure randomness and I expect him to be better in 2014. The Eagles had had below-average special teams for the past two seasons. I expect nothing better than mediocrity this year, mostly because I’m unimpressed with return specialist Demaris Johnson.

Chip Kelly may be a bright guy, but year two is generally when fads get shut down. I’m not saying his offense is a fad, but its tempo caught teams by surprise. That won’t be the case this year. The NFC East is exceedingly soft, so the Eagles should win by default. I’m going with 10 wins for the Eagles. 10-6. (Update: Chip Kelly found a way to make Mark Sanchez look good in the preseason. For now Kelly remains ahead of the curve.)

Washington Redskins

Expected Wins: 7.38

Scouting Wins: 7.84

DVOA Wins: 7.2

2013 Record: 3-13 (4.8 Pythagorean)

The controversy surrounding their name will eventually lead to a change regardless of what owner Dan Snyder might wish. I will refer to them as the Redskins until that time comes.

The scouts, the markets, and the DVOA projections all agree the Redskins will be better than they were in 2013. The main arguments in favor of such improvement are:

1. RG3 is fully healed. That has two benefits, as it should improve his level of play and keep Kirk Cousins off the field. We’ll get to Cousins shortly, but let me state he is not ready to lead an NFL team to the playoffs.

2. The special teams were historically awful last season. Special teams results are subject to a lot of variance and should be much closer to the mean this season.

3. Their schedule is projected to be softer than it was last year.

Even so, I was wondering why the scouts were projecting 7.84 wins. It wasn’t because of their schedule, as the scouts rated it slightly harder than average. It turns out the scouts think the Redskins have a good offense. In general, they rate it about 5% above-average. I… disagree. Let’s start with RG3.

Robert Griffin III put together a tremendous rookie season in 2012 (16.6% DVOA, 727 passing DYAR, 109 rushing DYAR). However, he suffered a grade 1 LCL sprain week 14 against the Ravens. He wasn’t removed from the game after becoming injured, which became a bit of a controversy. It turned out that Dr. James Andrews had not cleared RG3 to return to the field after his injury in the Ravens game. Fast forward to the divisional round playoff game against the Seahawks. Griffin plays very well early, but clearly re-injures his knee. Head coach Mike Shanahan decides to leave Griffin in, Griffin further damages his knee, ends up needing LCL and ACL surgery. That all led to RG3’s 2013 collapse (-13.1% DVOA, -60 passing DYAR, 42 rushing DYAR).

Odd side note. Redskins owner Dan Snyder still has to pay Mike Shanahan his $7M salary for the 2014 season. I have no opinion on this.

RG3 has already been seen limping in the preseason. He will never be as physically healthy as he was in 2012. Maybe he’ll be better than he was last season, but the vision of greatness he showed as a rookie was extinguished by the short term thinking of Mike Shanahan. Too bad. It’s not just his mobility that has been lost. His mechanics were damaged due to an inability to fully use his plant leg. That leads to passes sailing and less accuracy in general. It is particularly damaging when you need to throw a tight spiral on a sideline out or a deep ball. Good coaching can help Griffin make the best of what he has left, but he’ll need to be willing to make adjustments to his game. Also, it would help a lot if he could learn to slide. Now, let’s talk about the disaster that was Kirk Cousins. In 2012 he was decent (6.4% DVOA) in limited usage (95 snaps). Due to Griffin’s injuries and poor play, Cousins had a chance to play himself into a trade and a starting job. The result: -42.6% DVOA, -314 DYAR, and a trip back to the bench in Washington. Ouch. The Redskins traded up to grab RG3 in 2012, drafted Cousins in the fourth round of the same draft, and currently have to chose between a pair of flawed options. Awkward. (Update: ESPN’s Ron Jaworski says Robert Griffin III’s mechanics have “regressed” in the “fundamental way of throwing the football.” Is there a more polite way of saying “Holy shit, RG3 looks terrible!” I think not.)

Alfred Morris followed up his amazing rookie season (10.3% DVOA, 254 DYAR) with a solid year (2.0% DVOA, 133 DYAR). His rookie workload of 335 carries was unsustainable, and dropped to 276 last season. He’s a solid workhorse back and I expect the Redskins will run him into the ground before letting him test the free agent market. He combined receiving DYAR over the past two seasons is 0, so the Redskins might be interested in finding a third-down back. Roy Helu tried to fill that role last season. Helu was an effective runner (8.5% DVOA), but an ineffective receiver (-15.2% DVOA). Rookie sixth-round pick Lache Seastrunk was a good pick (I had him as fourth-round value). However, he isn’t useful in pass protection or as a receiver, so he’s stuck behind two players with similar skill sets.

How the heck did DeSean Jackson find his way to Washington? His 2013 numbers in Philadelphia: +/- +12.7, 23.7% DVOA, 358 DYAR. The Eagles must have really tired of Jackson. He’ll be playing across from Pierre Garcon. Last season Garcon set the Redskins record for receptions with 113. So much usage led to an odd combo (-5.2% DVOA, 104 DYAR). His DVOA should increase, as Jackson takes the heat and the pressure off Garcon. The depth chart is a bit muddled behind the top two. Andre Roberts struggled in Arizona, (-67 DYAR over three seasons). Washington didn’t blame him and signed him to a deal with $8M guaranteed. His job is to take the slot role away from Santana Moss. Moss was awful last season (-28.3% DVOA, -97 DYAR). Moss turned 35 in June, so it would be awkward if Roberts fails to win the #3 job. Aldrick Robinson will see some play as a deep flanker. Tight end Jordan Reed was having a fantastic rookie season before being sidelined with a concussion. The 2013 third-round pick missed the final seven games of the season. When healthy, he played at a very high level (19.5% DVOA). His ability to stay on the field is the second-biggest factor in the expected success of the Washington offense, behind RG3’s health and effectiveness. If Reed goes down again, Logan Paulson will be forced into a role he is not skilled at or prepared for. He’s a good blocker, though, so he’s fine in 2TE sets.

Speaking of blocking, left tackle Trent Williams put together a solid season, ending up 10th among LT’s in my rankings. Shawn Lauvao struggled at right guard in Cleveland (34th), and is taking over at left guard for the Redskins. Korey Lichtensteiger was solid at left guard last season for the Redskins (14th), and is taking over at center this season. Right guard Chris Chester had a mediocre year (22nd). There are concerns he’s beginning to wear down physically despite only being 31. Tyler Polumbus put together another solid season at right tackle (15th). Polumbus used to be the poster child for bad line play, so it’s impressive he’s turned himself into a useful player. 2012 third-round pick Josh LeRibeus hasn’t been able to keep his weight down and wasn’t able to get on the field last year. The Redskins invested a pair of third round picks on offensive linemen this year. Morgan Moses was a very good value. I love the fact that multiple scouting profiles referred to him as a “dancing bear.” He should be the Redskins left tackle of the future, although he may take over for Polumbus first. Spencer Long was a massive surprise pick. He has a known knee issue and I figured some team would take a late round flyer on him. For the Redskins to take him in so early they better know that he’s a clean injury risk. If healthy, he could challenge Lauvao for the left guard job.

Honestly, we can go over the Redskins offense with a fine-tooth comb, but either RG3 is healthy enough to lead them, or he isn’t. I thought he was broken after the Seahawks game and last season was evidence I was right. This preseason hasn’t shown me any evidence otherwise. With RG3 damaged and Cousins simply flawed, I have low expectations for the Redskins offense.

The Redskins defense has a clear plan. It begins with their outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. They combined for 18.5 sacks last season. Orakpo is strong against the run and very good in coverage. Kerrigan is pretty good against the run and excellent in coverage. Offenses are left to guess whether one or both will drop back, or if they’ll form a pincer attack.

The pass rush may be improved by the addition of Jason Hatcher. Hatcher had 11 sacks last season, which was more than he had in the previous four seasons combined. The former Cowboy turned 32 in July and isn’t likely to duplicate his recent success. He’s recovering from June arthroscopic knee surgery and was only recently deactivated from the PUP list. Jarvis Jenkins is battling Stephen Bowen for the starting job across from Hatcher. Jenkins and Bowen combined for 41 tackles and two sacks last season and expectations are low no matter who gets the job. Nose tackle Barry Cofield is the most important and most reliable player on the line. Providing quality play down-after-down is underrated.

Rookie second-round pick Trent Murphy was a highly polarizing draft pick. He led the nation in sacks last season, but massively failed “the eye test.” I gave him a fourth-round grade. He’s too small to play end and too slow to play linebacker, but maybe he’ll find a role as a situational pass rusher. Early reports from Washington have him moving inside. Given their other options at inside linebacker, it may be a worthy experiment. For the record, if they wanted an inside linebacker they probably should have taken Chris Borland, but I digress. The Redskins are currently planning on going with Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson. Riley is a substandard athlete for the position. He ended up with 115 tackles last season, but many of them were further down the field than the Redskins would’ve liked. Robinson has been kept off the field by repeated pectoral injuries. Most of his playing time has come in special teams. Opponents will attack his coverage skills until he proves he actually has some.

2013 fourth-round pick David Amerson is making the jump from nickel to #2 cornerback. That’s disconcerting, as his numbers in the nickel weren’t good. He has the speed to move outside, and he struggled in run support, so maybe this will be a better fit. As with most cornerbacks, he should be much better in his second season. He’ll play across from DeAngelo Hall. Hall’s a gambler who scored three touchdowns last year. His coverage numbers look poor overall, but it should be noted he moved around the field to cover the best opposing receiver. Tracy Porter is expected to win the nickel job, but is battling a hamstring injury and may lose it to E.J. Biggers. As for the safeties, ugh. Brandon Meriweather is past his prime. He got his ass kicked in all facets of the game last season, struggling in run support, and getting absolutely destroyed in coverage. He’s five years younger than free safety Ryan Clark. Clark was only slightly better than Meriweather and it’s a bad sign that 2013 fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas hasn’t found his way into the starting lineup. He missed last season with a Lisfranc injury and it’s led to a hamstring injury that’s keeping him on the sidelines. Bacarri Rambo seems to have played himself off the roster bubble, but still isn’t consistent enough to crack the starting lineup. From the linebackers through the safeties, the interior of the Redskins defense looks soft and vulnerable. (Update: Meriweather is suspended for the first two games due to another headhunting violation. In the preseason. He’s clearly never going to change.)

I’ll be brief regarding the Redskins special teams. The Redskins don’t take them very seriously, and the talent on the roster is lacking. Good depth generally makes for good special teams. So does making it a focus and expending resources on them. The Redskins ended up drafting a kicker in the seventh-round, but he’s losing the battle to incumbent Kai Forsbath. The Redskins had the worst special teams in the NFL last season, and while that’s a tough trick to repeat, they’ll still be well below-average because their special teams talent is poor.

The Washington brain trust has been dysfunctional for years. This has led to bad cap management, awkward drafts, and Mike Shanahan breaking RG3. Given the amount of resources the Redskins spent to acquire Griffin, they’re in real long term trouble. Worse, Snyder doesn’t seem to know how to sit back and let his general manager slowly build a roster. You can’t build a champion via free agency. The NFC East is weak and I expect Philadelphia to win by default. As with New York and Dallas, I’d love to go with 6.5 wins, but I’ll round up to 7-9.

The NFC North may soon take the title as the best division in the NFL away from the NFC West. The reason for that is it will have four competent starting quarterbacks, something no other division can say.

NFC North Projected Standings

Green Bay Packers 11-5

Chicago Bears 9-7

Detroit Lions 8-8

Minnesota Vikings 6-10

Chicago Bears

Expected Wins: 8.65

Scouting Wins: 8.58

DVOA Wins: 9.0

2013 Record: 8-8 (7.3 Pythagorean)

Two years ago, the 2012 Chicago Bears had the best defense in the NFL with a DVOA of -26.8%. The gap between them and the second place San Francisco 49ers at -14.3% was massive. The Bears went 10-6 but underperformed their Pythagorean expectations (10.8) by almost a full win. At that point, general manager Phil Emery felt head coach Lovie Smith had taken the Bears as far as he was going to take them. He sacked Smith and replaced him with Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman. Trestman’s first job was rebuilding the passing game. That meant rebuilding the offensive line, as the Bears already had plenty of talent at the skill positions (quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, running back Matt Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett). They did so by acquiring Jermon Bushrod to play left tackle, Matt Slauson to play left guard, and Kyle Long to play right guard. The plan worked, as the newly-built offensive line was competent. That allowed Jay Cutler to have his first above-average season in Chicago:

2009: -21.4% DVOA, -390 DYAR

2010: -8.5% DVOA, 80 DYAR

2011: -3.5% DVOA, 157 DYAR

2012: -13.8% DVOA, -81 DYAR

2013: 5.5% DVOA, 392 DYAR

Injuries forced Cutler to miss five games last season. In those five games the Bears’ offense went from being solid to… spectacular:

Josh McCown: 32.1% DVOA, 659 DYAR

To put that performance in perspective, McCown averaged more DYAR-per-start than anyone other than Peyton Manning. In fact, despite only five starts, McCown finished ahead of Andrew Luck (650 DYAR). He trailed only Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Nick Foles in terms of DVOA. So why didn’t the Bears end up giving the reins to McCown? Because he has a long track record of being mediocre and because he turned 35 this offseason. McCown is now in Tampa Bay, while Cutler has retained the starting job. That decision was foreshadowed by Cutler starting week 15 against Cleveland when many Bears fans (and more than a few Bears players) would have liked to see McCown retain the job. Neither Trestman nor Emery were swayed, and the Bears ended up finishing 1-2 to close the season. The final game was particularly dispiriting. The Bears lost at home to the Packers despite being up 28-20 in the fourth quarter. Had the Bears won that game they would have won the NFC North and gotten a home game against the San Francisco 49ers, where they likely would have gotten their asses kicked. C’est la vie.

Jordan Palmer is now Cutler’s backup, so the Bears are effectively “all in” on Cutler. I agree with the decision, but I’m skeptical of the potential results. Cutler should benefit from being much more familiar with Trestman’s offense, and he has more than sufficient talent around him, but why was McCown able to light Chicago’s offense on fire while Cutler merely ran it? Part of the answer is that McCown was less predictable than Cutler. Cutler still has a habit of overly relying on his best receiver, in this case Brandon Marshall. Also, McCown had an unsustainably low interception rate. Cutler is an above-average quarterback, but his track record is pretty clear. There is a slim chance that he finally enters the realm of the elite, but he turned 31 this offseason and at this point the Bears are married to an aging gunslinger that never quite lived up to his potential. That’s something they’re comfortable with – they signed Cutler to a new seven-year deal with over $50 million in guaranteed money. Trestman and Emery are bright guys, but this appears to be a “love the one you’re with” situation.

Running back Matt Forte better be ready for serious workload this season. His backups have a combined 235 rushing yards in the NFL. All of those are courtesy of Shaun Draughn, who is currently on his 5th NFL roster despite being an undrafted free agent in 2011 (with the Redskins, who cut him before the season). Michael Ford is primarily viewed as a special teams player (seriously, I Googled him and his defensive stats appeared on the right side of the screen), which leaves fourth-round draft pick Ka’Deem Carey. Before the combine Carey was viewed as a potential second-round pick, but his awful 4.70 forty-yard dash put an end to that. I had Carey graded as the fifth-best running back and a third-round value. He’s had numerous off-field issues and some teams removed him from their draft boards due to character concerns. Focusing purely on football, he was a productive workhorse back at Arizona State. His strengths are vision, balance, and power. However, his lack of speed and upright running stance lead him to take a lot of punishment and he’s entering the NFL with an unusual amount of mileage on him. His performance at the combine raised both physical and mental red flags, and he’s currently fourth on the Bears depth chart. The talent is there, but there are a lot of talented athletes who fail to succeed in the NFL.

Back to Forte. The offensive line improvements rejuvenated Forte, who in 2013 had the best season of his career. He ended up with 1,933 yards-from-scrimmage, 12 touchdowns, and a combined 306 DYAR. He was efficient, with a 7.4% DVOA on the ground, and an 8.5% DVOA as a receiver. He’ll turn 29 in December, so it’s likely last season will end up as his peak. He had 363 touches last season (receptions + rushing attempts), which is not sustainable without dramatically increased injury risk. Look for the Bears to try and lower his workload. Of course, that requires Draughn, Ford, or Carey to prove they can be effective.

Brandon Marshall leads a thin but talented receiving corps. It’s interesting to compare Marshall’s 2012 and 2013 statistics. In 2012 Marshall set the Bears record for receiving yards with 1,508. He ended up with 118 receptions and a 61% completion rate. He had the same completion rate in 2013, with 100 receptions and 1,295 yards. However, his +/- dropped from +8.8 to +4.7. On the other hand, his DVOA improved from 0.0% to 9.5%, and his DYAR increased from 267 to 284. Overall I’d say he’d be happy with another season more like 2013 than 2012. Part of that is due to the fact that he needs his teammates to be able to pick up some of the slack if the Bears are to be a legitimate contender. First among them is Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery had a decent rookie season, but was a breakout star last year. His 1,421 receiving yards would have set the Bears record if not for Marshall’s 2012 season. Jeffery ended up with a +/- of 7.1, 255 DYAR, and an 8.3% DVOA. Unfortunately for the Bears, they don’t have a true #3 wide receiver. 2013 seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson was looking to claim the job, but he suffered a clavicle injury in practice and had to have surgery. There is no timetable as to his return. Free agent pickup Josh Morgan is coming off a pair of terrible seasons in Washington and was arrested for assault in April. Eric Weems is a special teams player and shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the depth chart, but there he is. The Bears will be watching the waiver wire and will pick up a slot receiver when one becomes available. Tight end Martellus Bennett put up solid numbers in his first season with the Bears (+5.9 +/-, 3.4% DVOA, 65 DYAR). He’ll need to do so again, because as with the wide receivers, the depth at tight end is abominable.

The Bears worked hard to rebuild their offensive line, and their plan worked. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was below-average as left tackles go, but he was competent. I ranked his 2013 performance 23rd in the NFL last season. Matt Slauson was actually quite effective at left guard, ranking 2nd, although a decent distance behind Clint Boling. Robert Garza ranked 10th among centers. Despite a few rough games, Kyle Long graded out 4th among right guards. Right tackle Jordan Mills was slightly above average, ending up 14th among right tackles. I’ll also note that tackle Eben Britton was solid in relief duties. Backup center Brian De La Puente graded out 14th among centers last season, so overall the Bears have a quality offensive line. They could stand to upgrade at left tackle, but such assets are costly and difficult to acquire. The Bears are up against the salary cap, so I’ll cut them some slack and suggest they’ve done roughly as well as they could have given their situation.

The Bears defense fell apart last season. Not only did they tie for last place in points allowed (an odd 3-way tie at 478 points with Washington and Minnesota), they never had a single game where they allowed fewer than 20 points. I did a quick search and wasn’t able to find another team with that particular feat. Emery decided to rebuild his defense both through free agency and through the draft.

The Bears run a base 4-3 defense. Both starting defensive ends came to the Bears via free agency. Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen combined for 17.5 sacks last season, although they did so for the Raiders and Vikings respectively. Allen is still one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers, but at age 32 we might start to see him decline. Houston is solid against the run, which will help shore up one of the team’s major weaknesses from last season. They’ll be backed up by fellow free-agent pickups Trevor Scott and Willie Young. Young might prove to be a key pickup, as his pass rush metrics were significantly better than his sack numbers would suggest. The interior should be improved as well, due to improved health from starters Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff, and from an infusion of youth via the draft. Paea was hampered by a toe injury last season, but should be at full strength. Ratliff missed most of last season with a groin injury. Rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton should provide solid depth. I felt both players were reaches (I had them 90th and 99th, respectively), but they do fit the Bears system fairly well. Sutton has more football experience (he was a two-time Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year), while Ferguson is more of a project.

For many years the Bears linebacker corps was the envy of the NFL. Those days are gone. Lance Briggs was a star, but he’s 34 years old and isn’t the player he once was. He’ll play on the weak side across from Shea McClellin. McClellin failed as a defensive end, but the 2012 1st round pick is returning to the role he played in college. Middle linebacker D.J. Williams has only managed to play 13 games over the past two seasons. He’s 32 years old, and even when he was on the field he wasn’t the player he was in 2009 or 2010. However, he was an All Pro when compared to his rookie backup Jon Bostic. The 2013 2nd round pick was a disaster. His one saving grace was his speed, which means he might be a decent option to backup Lance Briggs, but the Bears still need to find a new middle linebacker to backup Williams. It’s possible I’m being too harsh on Bostic, as he was a rookie thrown into a bad situation. The coaching staff gets to see him in practice and I’m confident they’ll know if he can do the job or not by the time the 2015 draft rolls around.

The Bears knew they had to rebuild an aging secondary, and like they did with the defensive line, reached for players who they felt would be good fits. At age 31, Tim Jennings is the younger of the two starting cornerbacks. He played well despite nagging injuries last season. Charles Tillman is fighting to hold on to his starting job, but depending on first-round pick Kyle Fuller’s development, he may have to move over to nickel or safety. Fuller rose from being considered a second-to-third round pick all the way to 14th overall. He’s a good football player, but him winning the starting job this season might be more of an indictment of Tillman than of Fuller’s progress. The Bears also have issues at safety, where fourth-round pick Brock Vereen has already risen to the top of the depth chart. Vereen is replacing 2011 third-round pick free safety Chris Conte, who was an absolute disaster last season. Things aren’t any better at strong safety, where free agent pickup Ryan Mundy is taking over. Mundy has been distinctly unimpressive over the past five seasons and it’s realistic to imagine Tillman moving over from corner to safety sooner rather than later.

Overall, the Bears front seven should be solid, but the defensive backfield is still a concern. The Bears were wise to invest some resources there, but more will be needed in the next few years. The same might be said of special teams, at least the return game. Eric Weems will provide most of his value in not returning kicks from deep in his own endzone, and not fumbling or muffing punts that he fair catches. Things are a little better in the kicking game where Robbie Gould is quite solid. He’s third all time in terms of FG accuracy, and only part of that is due to Chicago’s conservative coaching staff during most of his tenure. They grabbed Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round. He’ll be taking over the punting duties and should be able to handle them. The Bears coverage units look reasonable, so I expect the Bears to have acceptable special teams, albeit not the exceptional special teams when Devin Hester was in his prime (and in Chicago).

The Bears look like a talented and flawed team. The fact that they don’t have a quality third wide receiver or second tight end means they are very vulnerable to injuries. In fact, the only place they can reasonably withstand an injury on offense is their offensive line. Their defense should be significantly improved from last season, but unless the pass rush is fantastic (it won’t be), the secondary is going to be at risk. With good health they are a 10 win team, but the Bears are too old and thin to expect good health. I’ll go with 9-7.

Detroit Lions

Expected Wins: 8.05

Scouting Wins: 8.01

DVOA Wins: 6.5

2013 Record: 7-9 (8.5 Pythagorean)

We have a real disagreement here. The talent and the expectations suggest an 8-8 season (which might have been what they deserved last year). However, Football Outsiders expects them to fall well short of that. What gives? One possibility is that the DVOA projections underestimate the importance of Jim Caldwell as a quarterback guru. Jim’s an absolute master. You sit him and a quarterback in a room together. Jim says and does absolutely nothing and never changes expression. Explain to the quarterback that “If you can read Jim Caldwell, you can read a defense.” Matt Stafford should be in for a career year.

Before I get to Stafford or the running game or the wide receivers, I want to talk about the offensive line. From left to right tackle I graded them 9th-9th-2nd-2nd-1st. That’s just incredible. They were merely average in terms of run blocking, but they did a fantastic job of preventing the offense from moving backward, either from a sack, or a penalty, or a missed assignment on a running play. Left tackle Riley Reiff is under contract for 2015, with a team option for 2016. Left guard Rob Sims massively exceeded expectations and might not be back next year. Center Dominic Raiola is going to turn 36 this season, but only Nick Mangold was better than him last season. The Lions grabbed Travis Swanson in the third round to be his eventual replacement. Right guard Larry Warford would have been a legitimate rookie of the year candidate, which is insane for a 3rd round pick right guard. Waddle had a very strong season at right tackle, which is all the more impressive given he was an undrafted free agent. At right tackle I combined the performances of LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard. When Waddle was hurt, backup Hilliard was even better, but Hilliard will likely be the backup again this season. I’ve never seen an offensive line like this. Between age and simple regression to the mean I don’t expect it to be as good as it was last season, but wowsers was it good.

OK, back to your regularly scheduled skill positions. Matthew Stafford is still a gunslinger with questionable mechanics. If Caldwell can fix them, Stafford might return to the glory years of 2011 (15.0% DVOA, 1171 DYAR) and 2012 (12.2% DVOA, 1160 DYAR). Then again, halfway through last season Stafford was on pace for a 17.0% DVOA and 1306 DYAR. He finished with a 4.9% DVOA and 690 DYAR due to a terrible December where his DVOA was -29.8% and his DYAR -166. That’s shockingly awful and it makes me wonder if his teammates weren’t the only ones who were injured. The Lions need Stafford to return to form, and I’m going to assume between Caldwell and an offseason to rest up, he will.

The Lions acquired Reggie Bush and made him the starting running back, a role he still holds a year later. That’s become an obvious mistake. There are numerous statistics I could point to, but I’m going to use DYAR, where over the past two seasons Bush has produced a measly 158. His backup Joique Bell? 538. Bush hasn’t had a positive rushing DVOA in any of the past three seasons, while Bell hasn’t had a negative rushing DVOA. As for receiving, Bell is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the NFL, with an average receiving DVOA of 36.6%. The word from the Lions is that the two backs will split time, but the fact is one of these players has massive potential, while the other is Reggie Bush.

Like the Bears, the Lions have two quality wide receivers to throw to. Also like the Bears, there is a potentially good third option who has to overcome injury concerns. However, unlike the Bears and Marquess Wilson, Ryan Broyles appears to be healthy (after suffering multiple ACL tears to go with an Achilles tear) and is fighting for the third spot on the depth chart. It would be a bad sign if he loses that battle, as his main competition is Kris Durham. Durham had plenty of opportunities to distinguish himself last season, but wasn’t able to do so, as his -9.7 +/-, and -18.5% DVOA attest. Perhaps a bigger concern is Megatron’s health. He’s been in a slight decline for a few years now, but that decline accelerated last year due to injuries that limited him to 14 games. Even so, he accumulated 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns. The best case scenario would see a return to health and a 2011 level of usage (96 receptions, 31.6% DVOA). Free agent pickup Golden Tate is going to have to adjust to a different offensive scheme. He was solid in 2013 (12.9% DVOA), but couldn’t maintain his 2012 level of play (31.6% DVOA) when his targets went up from 70 to 100. The Lions would gladly split the difference. There will be a cascade effect with Tate’s production, as the more attention he grabs from defenses, the more space he’ll create for rookie tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron, who went tenth overall, has a near perfect mix of speed, agility, hands, and body control. He has two weaknesses that have so far disappointed the Lions in practice: 1. He’s been “playing slow” due to adjusting to the new playbook. 2. He doesn’t have the kind of power you’d expect from someone with his size and frame. That doesn’t just hurt his blocking skills (blocking tight ends are generally backups), but it also hurts him within the first five yards of scrimmage when linebackers have a chance to rough him up. He might be as good in space as any tight end in the league, but he needs to be able to get there much faster. The Lions aren’t fooling anyone when they list Ebron #2 on the depth chart. Also, a few nagging injuries have slowed Ebron, but he should be fine by the time the regular season starts. That’s important, because nominal starter Brandon Pettigrew has a -213 DYAR over the past three seasons. Ebron has to get on the field sooner rather than later.

Looking at the Lions front seven, one might wonder why it is so hard to turn talent into results. Along the defensive line the Lions have three very talented players (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah), along with a competent defender when he’s healthy (Jason Jones). Behind them, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch is one of the most solid players in the NFL. He entered the league in 2006 and hasn’t missed a game in his career. DeAndre Levy is on the short list of best coverage linebackers in the NFL. Rookie second-round pick outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy doesn’t have eye-popping athleticism, but makes up for it with great reaction speed. He’s a former teammate of Ansah from BYU. On paper this is an elite front-seven. So why am I skeptical that things will play out that way? Well, let’s start with Fairley. The Lions declined to pick up their $5.5M option on him, which makes him a free agent after this season. That’s a bargain for an elite defensive tackle; ergo, the Lions don’t consider him to be one. A couple reasons for that could be the amount of penalties he picks up. Another could be his lack of conditioning. Both of those have the same root: questions about his maturity and professionalism. The Lions feel he needs to be motivated by the desire for a new contract to produce his best work. Next to Fairley, Suh is already well paid, but he too has issues with penalties. I’ll say this: The talent is there, and for the first half of last season Suh and Fairley were as disruptive as any pair of tackles in the NFL. That helped Ansah pick up eight sacks in a productive rookie season. That number might have been a bit of a fluke, as Ansah’s peripheral pass-rush stats weren’t nearly as impressive, but if he continues to improve as he adjusts to the NFL, he should improve on both the peripherals and the raw sack totals. That just leaves Jones, who is coming off of knee surgery. He’ll receive the least attention on the line. He was signed in 2013 to be an interior pass-rusher in the nickel, but has the skills to play defensive end. There is decent depth here but Ansah, Fairley, and Suh will have to stay healthy and play well for the line to be effective. The drop-off in talent between them and the rest of the rotation is stark.

I’m a little less concerned when I look at the linebacker corps. Tulloch and Levy are as professional as Fairley and Suh are wild. Van Noy should be able to provide a pass rush that the Lions really weren’t able to generate with their linebackers. He’s also solid against the run. As with the defensive line, the depth here is fine. Ashley Palmer was good enough to start last season and will be the first guy off the bench.

Holy flammable Batman! The Lions secondary looks awful. I can’t find rookie fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson on the depth chart. I guess I can’t be too surprised given I had him as the 249th best prospect in the draft, but even so that’s a little awkward. He’ll probably work his way into the slot role (currently held by Bill Bentley), but he hasn’t done so yet. A much bigger concern is finding someone to replace Rashean Mathis. Mathis no longer has the skills to cover average NFL wide receivers, so look for teams to attack him mercilessly. Across from Mathis, teams might find success against Darius Slay. Slay had a rough rookie season, but the 2013 second-round pick should be much better this year. Rookie cornerbacks usually struggle, but Slay has the talent to turn things around. Things are even worse at safety. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo form one of the least-athletic safety tandems in the NFL. Quin might be acceptable at free safety, but Ihedigbo is going to be a problem. He got by in Baltimore partly because he had less responsibility than he’ll be asked to shoulder in Detroit. It should go without saying the depth here is abominable and the Lions will be in trouble if their secondary gets hit by the injury bug.

The Lions have used the draft to shore up their special teams. In 2013 they grabbed punter Sam Martin in the fifth round. This year they picked up kicker Nate Freese in the seventh round. The return units were above average last year. Jeremy Ross should be fine returning kicks and punts this year. I have some concerns about the coverage units, but compared to the concerns about the secondary and overall team depth, those are quite minor.

It’s odd, but the ghost of Matt Millen still haunts the Lions. His poor stewardship left the Lions nearly bereft of talent. The talent that they do have is generally quite expensive (Stafford, Johnson, Suh), and there really isn’t that much depth. Generally a team tries to stockpile talent and have good players ready to step in when the starters become old or expensive. The Lions have never been given that chance, as they’ve had to draft for need more often than not. The one exception to that is their defensive line, which they’ve showered with high draft picks. That has left them with a lot of defensive line talent and a vulnerable secondary. Offensively, it has left them with some quality starters, but if anyone goes down things could fall apart fast. I know the Lions have felt like they were close but I’d be tempted to jettison their key assets and begin a full rebuild. That would mean embracing salary cap Hell for a few years (they’ve been brushing up against the cap for a while now), but eventually emerging clean with younger and cheaper talent. Instead, look for the Lions to struggle to achieve mediocrity. I’d like to give the Lions seven wins, but the fact that they only get seven true road games (they face the Falcons in London) is going to lead me to grant them the mediocrity they so desire. Oh, and I still like their offensive line. 8-8.

Green Bay Packers

Expected Wins: 10.14

Scouting Wins: 9.29

DVOA Wins: 9.7

2013 Record: 8-7-1 (7.8 Pythagorean)

The Packers were somewhat lucky last season. Despite losing their best and most important player to injury, they managed to win their division and host a playoff game. They were at close to full strength for that game because quarterback Aaron Rodgers had returned. However, they were slightly overmatched by the 49ers and fell at home 23-20. Now the Packers have to figure out what they can do to make sure that they’re better prepared for a potential playoff rematch, either against the 49ers or against the team they open up their season against, the Seattle Seahawks. Given they were already well set at quarterback, the Packers had three options: 1. Improve their offensive line. That would give Rodgers more time to beat defenses and improve the running game. 2. Improve their offensive skill talent. That would make their offense more dangerous. 3. Improve their defense. That would make life tougher on Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. The Packers tried their hand at all three. First, though, let’s discuss Rodgers.

In 2011 Rodgers was the best quarterback in the NFL. He led the Packers to a 15-1 record, but was upset at home in the playoffs by Eli Manning and the Giants. He led the Packers to an 11-5 record in 2012, but lost to the 49ers, as they did last season. In 2011 his DVOA was 46.6%, and he averaged 137.3 DYAR-per-game. In 2012 and 2013 he averaged a 24.1% DVOA and 85.4 DYAR-per-game. Not bad. I’d kill for a Jets quarterback that good. However, for the Packers to be more than NFC North champs, they’ll need Rodgers to regain the form he displayed in 2011. He’ll turn 31 in December, so it’s still possible, but it will depend on the talent around him. One brief note: He has backup Matt Flynn back. Flynn was awesome in one game against the Lions in 2011. He parlayed that into a contract with the Seahawks, but was soon pushed aside by Russell Wilson (good call, Seahawks). He bounced around from Seattle to Oakland to Buffalo back to Green Bay last season. Despite his amazing small sample in 2011 (47.3% DVOA over 113 snaps), his 2013 season tells a more accurate story (-24.5% DVOA over 394 snaps). He’s fine as a backup quarterback in a system he knows, but that’s his ceiling.

Speaking of starters and backups, Eddie Lacy and James Starks formed a pretty good team. Eddie Lacy didn’t deserve his award for offensive rookie of the year, but it was still a good season. He was solid on the ground (1,178 yards on 284 carries, with a 5.3% DVOA), and decent as a receiver (35 receptions for 257 yards and a -3.5% DVOA). He ended up being worth 186 DYAR, which is pretty good for a running back. After a pair of middling seasons, James Starks had a very good year (21.6% DVOA) in limited usage (102 touches). Lacy has shown his limitations, so it is up to Lacy to continue to grow and improve. Then again, if the Packers were offered a repeat performance from both, I think they’d take it.

Remember how I talked about improving the offensive skill positions? Welcome second-round pick Davante Adams to the fold. I had Adams as a pretty good value relative to where the Packers got him. Adams led the nation in receiving with 131 receptions as a sophomore in 2013. He’s actually quite similar to former Packer James Jones in terms of skill set. Adams has good hands and field recognition. He knows how to get open despite not having elite athleticism. In time, Adams may develop into a solid #2 wide receiver. Of course, to get there he’ll need to eventually surpass either Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson. Despite some injury issues at quarterback, Jordy Nelson managed to have one of the receiving best seasons in the NFL last year. He finished second among wide receivers in DYAR with 402, and sixth in DVOA at 26.7%. His +/- of +14.5 was remarkable given that a bit under half the passes thrown to him were thrown by someone other than Aaron Rodgers. He’s an elite threat with a diverse skill set. I was surprised to discover Randall Cobb has only 12 starts over the past three seasons. He’s currently listed as the starter across from Nelson, but look for Cobb to play more in the slot. I don’t mean to disparage Cobb, whose average DVOA over those three seasons is 26.5%. I am concerned about his ability to stay on the field. Jarrett Boykin was solid in Cobb’s absence last season. Boykin doesn’t quite have the talent of Nelson, Cobb, or Adams, and will likely see his playing time diminish as Adams develops. Tight end Andrew Quarless was somewhat disappointing last season (-14.5% DVOA, -25 DYAR). He’s going to be more focused on blocking this season, which is more in line with his skill set, or lack thereof. Actually, I just noticed that three of the four players who the Packers used at tight end last year ended up with negative DYARs. Only Jermichael Finley managed to provide value, and he was lost to injury. The Packers grabbed Richard Rodgers in the third round. I expected him to go much later and he only started 11 games at Cal. He’s currently third on the depth chart.

The addition of Adams provides Rodgers with an additional weapon. Did the Packers improve the offensive line as well? Sort of. They got right tackle Brian Bulaga back from injury. I ranked his backup Brian Barclay 28th among right tackles. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith has also been replaced, although he was only slightly below average. He’ll be replaced by either J.C. Tretter or rookie fifth-round pick Corey Linsley. I suspect whomever wins will turn out to be a downgrade from Smith, but since Smith got $7.25M in guaranteed money from Tampa Bay, Green Bay needed to find a plan B. Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari did a servicable job at left tackle. The 2013 third round pick ranked 20th among left tackles, which isn’t bad given he was thrown into the fire after Bulaga got hurt. The Packers could have put Bulaga back and moved Bakhtiari to right tackle, but so far appear comfortable letting him stay where he was. The good news for the Packers is that their guards were excellent last season. Left guard Josh Sitton and right guard T.J. Lang ranked fourth and fifth, respectively. The return of Bulaga and the development of Bakhtiari should more than make up for the loss of Smith. Overall, the Packers offensive line looks solid, with Barclay providing acceptable depth off the bench.

Defensively, the Packers seek improvement in three areas: Import Julius Peppers to play defensive end. Have outside linebacker Clay Matthews return to health. Draft safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Peppers isn’t the monster he once was, but he’s still a quality defensive end. He’ll play across from Mike Daniels. They combined for 13.5 sacks last season. B.J. Raji will again man the middle of the line. He’s good, but nowhere near the difference maker he was when the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. The most interesting backup is Datone Jones. He isn’t even listed on the depth chart, but the 2013 first round pick has the talent to push Daniels and Peppers for playing time. If the line stays healthy, they should be a solid unit. (Update: So much for that. B.J. Raji is out for the season, so Letroy Guion and Mike Pennel will have to man the middle. Guion has a gimpy hamstring, so this could be a problem.)

Between 2009 and 2013 Clay Matthews averaged 10 sacks a season. That’s despite missing four games in 2012 and five last season. His loss was huge, as is his return. So far he looks like he’s healthy and back in form. He’ll play alongside A.J. Hawk. Hawk has become one of the premier inside linebackers in the NFL. The other side isn’t as impressive, as Brad Jones and Nick Perry aren’t nearly the same “inside-outside” combination Hawk and Matthews are. I’m going to cut Jones some slack as he played through injuries last season. 2012 first-round pick Perry needs to stay on the field. He’s missed 15 games with injuries over his first two seasons. Mike Neal is also missing from the depth chart, but like Datone Jones, he can be a difference maker. He grabbed five sacks last season, plus an additional 20 hits + hurries. If the Packers front-seven stays healthy, it should be formidable. If.

The addition of rookie first-round pick free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will help a secondary that got burned last season. That will allow strong safety Morgan Burnett to handle a role he is well suited to play. He struggled with a hamstring injury last season and is already sidelined with an oblique strain. His injuries are something to keep an eye on. However, I’m more concerned about cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. Williams has lost a step and has resorted to gambling and giving up large gains. Shields is okay, but he’s a #2 cornerback who may soon be given more responsibility than he can handle. The best case scenario would be for 2012 second-round pick Casey Hayward to develop and push Williams into a slot role. Hayward missed most of the 2013 season with a hamstring injury. Currently, Hayward is competing to take the slot job away from Micah Hyde and Devon House. This isn’t a great defensive backfield, and despite the addition of Clinton-Dix, it could still use another elite cornerback. This secondary will be tested week 1 against Seattle, but its worst day will likely come October 26th when Green Bay travels to New Orleans.

The Packers special teams are solid, except for their awful kickoff units. They’ve tried their punter Tim Masthay, and their kicker Mason Crosby, and neither did the job particularly well. Given what I’ve seen I’d give the job back to Masthay, but it doesn’t make a huge difference either way.

The Packers got a lot of good scheduling breaks. They really should be able to cruise to an 11-5 season. However, shit happens, and the Packers defense needs to have significantly better injury luck than it had last season. I’m tempted to downgrade the Pack to 10-6, but I’ll stick to my initial instincts and go with 11-5. (Update: No Raji has me reconsidering, but I have high expectations for the Packers offense. I’m sticking with 11-5.)

Minnesota Vikings

Expected Wins: 6.36

Scouting Wins: 5.34

DVOA Wins: 7.4

2013 Record: 5-10-1 (6.1 Pythagorean)

Minnesota has accepted their fate and are rebuilding. They replaced their coaching staff and drafted their quarterback of the future. Before I get to that, I should discuss why there is a large discrepancy between DVOA and scouting wins. It comes down to two things: The most important is regression to the mean. The Vikings were pretty bad in a lot of correctable areas last year. In general, DVOA projections assume you won’t be as bad as you were. The second issue is quarterback play. The scouting projections love Teddy Bridgewater, but not this season. They hate Matt Cassel, and that causes a big hit in the scouting wins. Let’s talk a bit more about Cassel and Bridgewater.

After a few awful years in Kansas City, Matt Cassel came over to back up Christian Ponder. After Ponder sucked (and got hurt), Cassel was brought in. Cassel wasn’t that bad in Minnesota (-5.9% DVOA), and will be tasked with steering the ship while Bridgewater learns the playbook. As for Bridgewater, he was the steal of the draft. He had an awful Pro Day that made most NFL teams decide that he didn’t have an NFL quality arm. However, the film didn’t lie and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be able to correct the flaws that made Bridgewater sink like a stone in the draft. I had Bridgewater ranked as the 14th best prospect, which would have made it somewhat logical for him – as a quarterback – to go in the top five. In case you’re wondering, I had Bortles at 18th, and Manziel at 24th. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Bridgewater will eventually make the Pro Bowl as a Viking. He’s going to be a very good NFL quarterback. He dominated college competition and will have the coaching (Norv!) and the skills to help turn the Vikings around. Eventually. Rookies take time to become quality players. As for right now, Cassel is a caretaker. He’ll take the Vikings as far as the talent around him takes them. As for Christian Ponder, he’s third on the depth chart, which is probably what he deserves.

You might have noticed that the NFL has caught on to the fact that NFL running backs are fungible. Their collective draft stock has sunk like a stone. That’s why I don’t want you to overreact when I tell you that Adrian Peterson has slipped. His 2012 DVOA of 24.9% fell to -3.1% in 2013. He was still above replacement-level (his DYAR fell from 458 to 60), but below average. This is probably his last season with the Vikings. He’s coming off of groin surgery and might not be 100% at the start of the season. Oh, his receiving DYAR was negative in each of the past two seasons. He might be better this season than he was last year, but don’t expect a return to the glory days. Backup Matt Asiata performed about as well as you’d expect a third-string running back (they had Toby Gerhart), accumulating a grand total of 15 DYAR.

Every other team in the NFC North has at least two high quality wide receivers. The Vikings have… well, it’s hard to say. The problem is that when you have awful quarterback play, it’s difficult to evaluate the receiving corps. Let’s take #2 wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Last year he had a -12.0% DVOA and accumulated 4 DYAR. That’s not a good look. However, he also a 144.3% DVOA in 13 rushing attempts, generating 118 DYAR for the Vikings. That may be a small sample, but it shows a player with real value when his quarterbacks aren’t intimately involved. I’ve been impressed by Patterson and I expect him to become a star at roughly the same time Bridgewater does. #1 Wide receiver Greg Jennings is well past his glory days with the Packers, but is still a solid player. Jennings would be a reasonable #2 option if Patterson develops into a true #1 ahead of schedule. #3 Wide receiver Jerome Simpson has put together an accumulated +/- of -16.5 over the past three seasons. Despite having one of the most amazing highlights in NFL history (Google Jerome Simpson Flip), he’s proven himself to be a solidly below average receiver. The Vikings will be better off if Jarius Wright can beat him out for the slot/deep-threat roles. Wright has actually been efficient in his two NFL seasons, producing positive DVOA’s in each despite lousy quarterback play. His 185 total DYAR over the past two seasons leads me to believe Norv Turner will give him some chances to prove himself and steal Simpson’s job. There are also some early reports that Adam Thielen is impressing in practice and might get some playing time. Tight end Kyle Rudolph should be another major beneficiary of Norv Turner’s arrival. The 2011 second-round pick has doesn’t have an impressive resume (trust me), but Norv knows how to use tight ends, and Rudolph has talent. This should be the year he finally produces a positive DVOA.

An odd note about Minnesota’s offensive line: It’s highest ranked player was right tackle Phil Loadholt at 11th (among right tackles), while its lowest ranked players (left tackle Matt Kalil and center John Sullivan) ranked 16th. Everyone was slightly above average, and no one was exceptional. Kalil may have been better as a rookie, so there is hope he’ll return to form and perhaps reach new heights. There are concerns about a lack of depth at tackle (Joe Berger is the first man off the bench for any of the interior positions). Honestly, the Vikings aren’t going anywhere regardless of the offensive line play this season, and by next year rookie fifth-round pick David Yankey should be ready to start.

The defensive line has been rebuilt after some moves in free agency. Jared Allen has gone to Chicago, while Joseph Linval decided to come to Minnesota after having some success in New York. In terms of talent, that’s a significant downgrade for Minnesota, but it does leave them with a structurally sound defensive line. Joseph will pair with 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd. Floyd didn’t have a great rookie season, but the talent is there and he should be able to handle a starting role. The loss of Allen hurts at defensive end, but Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are a reasonable starting pair. Robison had an amazing 56.5 hits+hurries to go with his nine sacks last season. However, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to keep that pace up without Allen getting the lion’s (and Lions) share of the offensive attention. Griffen was effective off the bench last season. Depth was a legitimate concern, so the Vikings picked up Corey Wooten in free agency. He’ll be the first guy off the bench in the defensive end rotation. Another interesting option is rookie third-round pick Scott Crichton. I had Crichton 45th in my rankings and felt he was a great value pick-up at end for the Vikings. Tom Johnson may get more playing time than anticipated at defensive tackle due to Linval Joseph’s injuries from getting shot at a night club. Johnson was a decent pickup in free agency, but he was brought over to provide depth, not to start.

There are more concerns about the Vikings linebacker corps. Specifically with middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who is a liability in pass coverage. On the outside, Chad Greenway has been a prolific tackler, but he started to show his age last season. The bright spot is rookie first-round pick Anthony Barr. I had Barr as the sixth best player in the draft (albeit with a significant drop off after the first five). Barr is going to need some time to develop, but he has enormous talent and should be a star in a year or two. If Brinkley struggles, Audie Cole could get a chance to break into the starting lineup. Where Brinkley brings power, Cole provides speed, which could prove to be the more valuable asset.

The Vikings secondary should be much improved over last year. Then again, over the past three seasons, the Vikings averaged 29th against the pass. That’s a sign of a severe structural problem, especially given the quality of the pass rush during some of those years. Now that Jared Allen is gone, things could turn ugly. 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes has shown skills worthy of his selection. He struggled last year, but that’s the fate of most rookie cornerbacks. Given his talent and the improved coaching staff, I expect great things from him in the future. He’ll play across from free agent pickup Captian Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn was a cap casualty in Carolina. He’s versatile and can play outside or in the slot. He isn’t nearly as talented as Rhodes, though, and if Rhodes shows that he’s an elite cornerback, teams will target Munnerlyn. Josh Robinson struggled as a starter last season, and he is currently battling a hamstring injury. The 2012 third-round pick may be much better off as a backup, especially with a new coaching staff. There is some good news and some bad news at safety. The good news is that free safety Harrison Smith is on pace to make All-Pro. The bad news is that strong safety Jamarca Sanford is currently out with back spasms. Lee Trevino famously said “You can talk to a knee injury but the back won’t listen” Sanford’s backup Mistral Raymond suffered a concussion in the preseason. If Raymond has issues, that leaves special teams specialist Andrew Sendejo to battle it out with rookie sixth-round pick Antone Exum. Exum was another good value pickup for the Vikings, but he’s coming off an injury-plagued season at Virginia Tech and probably isn’t ready to start in the NFL. Sendejo looked surprisingly good in limited usage last season, so there is some hope if Sanford and Raymond are both sidelined.

The Vikings special teams were exciting last season. That was a mixed blessing, as Cordarelle Patterson was fantastic returning kicks, but the awful coverage units gave up almost as much value as he produced. Kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke are both competent. The Vikings could stand to focus a bit more on their coverage units, but overall their special teams aren’t a weakness on a team with plenty of them.

The Vikings aren’t a good football team. In fact, they’re probably the worst team in the NFC (although still far better than the Raiders and Jaguars). After years of incompetent coaching, Mike Zimmer will be a large improvement, even if he’s just average and punts on 4th and 1 from midfield. The real reason to be hopeful for the future is Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings have found a quality quarterback at a reasonable price, which, as the Seahawks and 49ers can attest, is a large competitive advantage. It’ll take time for Bridgewater to develop, so let’s pencil the Vikings in for a rough 6-10 season.

Like the NFC East, the NFC South looks to be in a down cycle. Carolina is going to fall back to pack, replaced by New Orleans:

New Orleans Saints 11-5

Atlanta Falcons 7-9

Carolina Panthers 7-9

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Atlanta Falcons

Expected Wins: 7.89

Scouting Wins: 6.49

DVOA Wins: 7.3

2013 Record: 4-12 (5.9 Pythagorean)

I’ll just come out and say it: In a hypothetical world where gambling was legal, I’d have bet the under on wins for the Falcons. While the scouts may have been a tad harsh on them, I have no confidence that the Falcons are one of the better teams in the NFC. They have a good quarterback and solid wide receiver corps. Because of that, I can overlook some of the problems with the running game and their lack of a quality tight end. However, I can’t ignore potential problems at both tackle positions. As for the defense, let’s just say for now Atlanta will have to win in spite of it. Atlanta’s roster is simply less talented than an average NFL roster, and despite having a few key stars, they’ll be at a disadvantage more often than not. There is also the issue that they only have seven home games, as they are giving one up when the face the Lions in London. Let’s start by focusing on the positive:

Matt Ryan has become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Last year, he finished fourth in DYAR with 1,124, and ninth in DVOA at 13.3%. Remember, he did this despite a Julio Jones injury that caused Jones to miss the final 11 games of the season. Ryan takes a lot of heat for not having taken the Falcons to the Super Bowl when they were a playoff regular, but the fact is, he is the main reason the Falcons came as close as they did as often as they did. Ryan has been a top 10 QB in both DYAR and DVOA in each of the past three years. He took 44 sacks last season, which is something the Falcons and Ryan have to be concerned about. Since I’m still focusing on the positive, we should look at the wide receiver corps.

In five 2013 games, Julio Jones put up a +/- of 5.3. He was on pace for an 1,856 receiving yard season. Oddly, his DVOA (0.4%) and DYAR (60) don’t quite reflect how effective he was. In 2012, he put up a 16.0% DVOA and accumulated 340 DYAR, so we know how effective he can be. Jones was lost with a broken foot, which is the kind of injury that generally heals fully and doesn’t linger. Roddy White’s numbers also dropped from 2012 to 2013. His DVOA dropped from 16.3% to 2.7%, while his DYAR dropped from 360 to 118. Since Matt Ryan’s numbers didn’t drop that dramatically, I’m a little concerned Roddy White is beginning to slow down. He turns 33 in November. Then again, White played through multiple injuries last season, so maybe a return to health can lead to a return to glory. While Jones and White had off years, Harry Douglas emerged as the clear #3 receiver. He had a career year, finishing with 1,067 receiving yards and 171 DYAR. We may see the Falcons use more 3WR sets to adjust to the loss of tight end Tony Gonzalez to retirement. Drew Davis is out with a foot injury. That has opened the door for Devin Hester to sneak into the #4 spot.

Alright, we’ve finished the good news for the Falcons. The loss of Tony Gonzalez is going to hurt. The current #1 and #2 tight ends on the Falcons roster combined for -73 DYAR last season. For the record, that refers to 2013 first-round pick Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe. Bear is paid to block, which he does well. Toilolo had a scratchy rookie season, but the Falcons have liked what they’ve seen in practice and will increase his role this season.

I’ve delayed talking about the Falcons running game as long as possible, but now I must. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers ran 253 times for 875 yards. Counting receiving efforts, their combined DYARLOS was 36, with an average DVOA of -8.1%. Jackson is a shadow of the runner he used to be. Rodgers has proven he’ll never be a great runner, but he does provide some value in the passing game. He’s too small to be a great blocker, though, so even there he limits the Falcons’ options. Rookie fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman is a slightly larger back than Rodgers. He may prove to be a better runner and blocker. He also has experience as a receiver as part of the dynamic Florida St. offense. I liked the pick since I saw him as a solid third round value.

Speaking of good draft picks, the Falcons were ecstatic to get Jake Matthews. With the sixth pick in a draft with five clear elite players, they were the odd men out. Jacksonville trading up for Blake Bortles was the break they needed. Matthews was considered the most NFL-ready offensive lineman in the draft. He had an awful first preseason game. In time he should be an elite tackle, but for now he’s still a rookie. Left tackle Sam Baker had an off year cut short by injury. I had him ranked 35th, which means a few teams had multiple left tackles better than Baker. He’s coming back from knee surgery. I don’t have good stats on offensive line play for the past few years, but Baker was good enough to play left tackle for multiple 13-3 teams. The interior of the line is solid. Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, and Jon Asamoah ranked 10th, 8th, and 11th from left to right, respectively. Asamoah is coming over from Kansas City. If Baker can return to form and Matthews learns from the lumps he’s taken, this could be one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Alternately, it could give up another 44 sacks if the tackles both struggle. We’ll see.

The Falcons defense is in a state of flux. They are moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. The best guess is that Tyson Jackson, Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, Kroy Biermann, Malliciah Goodman, and Jonathan Massaquoi will form the rotation at defensive end. Rookie second-round pick Ra’shede Hageman can be used either at tackle or end. He was a great draft value, as I had him 22nd overall on my board. Right now it looks like free agent pickup Paul Soliai has the inside track to start at nose tackle, with Corey Peters rotating with him. We will also see many of those defensive ends play at outside linebacker. Then again, it’s possible that Joplo Bartu and rookie fourth-round pick Prince Shembo will hold the starting jobs at outside linebacker. Right now, the best guess is that Paul Worrilow and Yawin Smallwood will start at inside linebacker. That’s because Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season with an Achilles tear.

Alright, we have some guesses as to the players and positions, but the real question is “will the front seven be any good?” The answer appears to be a resounding “No!” This was a terrible defense last year. I approve of the additions of Soliai and Hageman, but the loss of Weatherspoon cancels out much of the gains. There may be some regression to the mean, but the basic issue is that this defense simply doesn’t have enough talent. The trade for Julio Jones brought them a star, but giving up five picks, including two first round and one second round pick, hurts. The Falcons really need to focus on rebuilding. That means trading down and accumulating picks. That hasn’t been the Falcons MO and it’s hurt them.

The Falcons are gambling they hit on both 2013 first-round pick Desmond Trufant and 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford. It’s tough to tell with rookies, but Trufant looked quite good last year. Alford wasn’t as effective, and is two years older than Trufant. Cornerbacks generally get much better in their second and third years, so there is hope for Alford. There’s also hope that Trufant develops into a star. Incumbent Robert McClain is battling free agent pickup Josh Wilson for the nickel job. Strong safety William Moore will pair with Dwight Lowery. Injuries have hobbled Lowery throughout his career. If he goes down, look for rookie third-round pick Dezmen Southward to take the free safety job. Southward is also a potential option at nickel or dime cornerback. I thought Southward was an odd pick, as I had him 162nd on my draft board. Overall, this secondary is likely to struggle, if only due to the lack of a quality pass rush in front of them.

Don’t let the presence of Devin Hester fool you, the Falcons have had mediocre special teams each of the past three years, and will likely continue that trend. Matt Bosher is the key contributor, handling punts and kickoffs. Matt Bryant hit three game-winning field goals last season, which is impressive when you only win four games.

The Falcons reached for the brass ring. They had a solid roster and traded for the key pieces they felt would put them over the top. They failed, and now they have to deal with the aftereffects. Even with Matt Ryan, this roster just isn’t up to snuff. 7-9.

Carolina Panthers

Expected Wins: 7.56

Scouting Wins: 7.81

DVOA Wins: 7.8

2013 Record: 12-4 (11.7 Pythagorean)

If you’re curious why the Panthers seem to be having trouble keeping the gang together from last season, this might help:

http://espn.go.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/129723/inside-slant-offseason-financial-health

Long story short, the Panthers are carrying over $18M in dead money. That is, money counted against the cap for players not on the roster. The Panthers weren’t as good as their record (either nominal or Pythagorean), but I wasn’t expecting things to be this bad (or unanimous).

Cam Newton has been remarkably consistent. In three years he’s never had a DVOA below 0.7% or above 2.0%. His passing DYAR has been between 407 and 422. The only area where there has been variance is a downward trend in his rushing (14.5% DVOA to 11.3% to 5.7%). His rushing DYAR tells the same tale, dropping from 188 to 149 to 102. I can’t say I mind a quarterback learning the wisdom of not giving the defense a chance to treat you like a running back, but his passing numbers really should start to show some improvement. His numbers might decline even if he improves, as his offensive line literally quit on him.

Carolina lost both their left tackle and left guard to voluntary retirement after 2013. Jordan Gross was the second best left tackle in the league, ranking just a hair behind Joe Staley of the 49ers. Travelle Wharton was solid at left guard. He replaced Amini Silatolu after Silatolu tore his ACL early in the season. Combining their numbers from last season would have had them rank fifth overall at left guard. The loss of Wharton is annoying. Silatolu is a very good player and wouldn’t have had any difficulty winning his starting job back, but the depth Wharton would have provided will likely be missed. As for Gross, his loss is potentially devastating. He’ll be replaced by right tackle Byron Bell. Some teams plan for the future by drafting an elite prospect and putting him at right tackle while he develops. When the starting left tackle moves on (or is moved on), the player flips from right to left. That’s not what happened here. Bell was a 2011 undrafted free agent. He struggled at right tackle and does not appear to have the talent to make a smooth transition. Nate Chandler struggled at right guard, particularly in pass protection. He’ll be asked to take over for Bell at right tackle. Chris Scott was actually excellent at right guard (he and Chandler each took roughly half the snaps there). Scott somehow has found himself again in the role of backup, this time backing up rookie third-round pick Trai Turner. I thought Turner was a fourth round value, but I’ll let that slide. He has tremendous power, but it might take him a while to hone his pass protection technique. Center Ryan Kalil was expected to be the star of the line, but ending up ranking 12th overall among centers. I suppose 12th is nothing to sneeze at, and he should provide a stabilizing force next to Turner. I suppose I’m reasonably happy with the interior of the line. I’m just deeply concerned about both starting tackles. The depth there is “replacement level,” so despite the low quality of the starters, injuries here would be disastrous.

I’ve decided to invent a new term: DYAR from scrimmage, or, DYARLOS. That includes rushing and receiving DYAR. Running back DeAngelo Williams put up a respectable 183 DYARLOS. His DVOALOS was a solid 8.4%. The Panthers have wisely not overused Williams, so he should be able to maintain his level of play despite the fact he turned 31 this offseason. Jonathon Stewart has struggled running the ball over the past two seasons, although injuries have clearly played a part. He missed 17 games over that time. When available, he put up a -8.8% DVOALOS. He is claiming to be fully healthy; however, he is listed as having both hamstring and knee issues right now. I can’t say the Panthers need him, as Mike Tolbert has been solid in Stewarts’ absence. Over the past two seasons Tolbert has put up 151 and 163 DYARLOS. Tolbert is versatile, providing value as a blocker, receiver, and short yardage specialist. Seriously, he averaged 3.5 yards-per-carry over the last two seasons. Overall, the Panthers have fine depth at running back. A more pressing concern is whether or not they have an NFL quality receiving corps.

It’s an odd starting pair of wide receivers in Carolina. Jerrico Cotchery had a surprising breakout season in Pittsburgh, putting up a 26.2% DVOA and 235 DYAR. He turned 32 this offseason, so between age and track record, his ability to cash in was limited. He signed a five-year deal with only $2.25M in guaranteed money. He’ll play across from 2014 rookie first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin has drawn numerous comparisons to Plaxico Burress due to his size (6-5, 235), and playing style. He was viewed as a boom-or-bust pick. It’ll take time for him to refine his route running and mastery of the playbook, but even in the short term, he should provide value in the red zone. I liked the pick and in a few years he could be one of the toughest covers in the league. Still, rookies generally struggle, so it would nice to have him work his way up from the #3 role. Currently, that role is being filled by Jason Avant. Avant didn’t fit Chip Kelly’s system in Philadelphia. Whatever metric you use, his stats dropped drastically last season. I’ll just use DYAR, where be dropped from 137 to -68. Hopefully, it was just system problems, as he turned 31 this offseason. #4 Wide receiver Brenton Bersin worked his way up from the practice squad. I just realized that the Panthers wide receiving corps is basically pulling a:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/major_league/

Old veterans, young guns, and some guys no one has heard of. That leads me to Tiquan Underwood. First, check out his afro:

https://www.google.com/search?q=tiquan+underwood&espv=2&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=DVDuU6OrEZC0yASgp4LgCA&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ&biw=1366&bih=667

Underwood was brought in to help revive the Panthers deep passing game. His hands are terrible and he’s looked awful in practice. He’s worked his way down the depth chart. What I find interesting is how much practice affects a team’s philosophies. Last year the Panthers defense was designed to take away the deep ball. The safeties would sit back and let teams try to matriculate the ball down the field. That may have been what led to the Panthers offense basically abandoning the deep ball. Mind you, they were terrible at going deep, but I wonder if that was due to personnel or practice habits. Even odder, this year the Panthers practices should look fairly normal, as they have a highly questionable receiving corps going against a highly speculative defensive backfield. Anyway, back to Underwood. His hands may boot him from the offense, so look for the Panthers to try and utilize his speed on special teams.

This is the part where I’d love to tell you the Panthers have a great pair of receiving tight ends who’ll take the pressure off of Cam Newton and the wide receivers. I’d say Greg Olson keeps up his end of the bargain. Over the past two seasons his +/- has been +14.4. He’s a highly reliable target and almost certainly is Newton’s most trusted receiver at this point. Alas, backup Ed Dickson has averaged three DYAR over the past three seasons. There is going to be a lot of pressure on Cotchery and Benjamin to live up to their collective potential.

You can make a case that the Panthers had the second-best defense in the NFL last season. The Panthers allowed 31 fewer points than the 49ers, and 83 fewer than Arizona. They ended up finishing third in DVOA, behind Seattle and Arizona. For the record, Seattle allowed 10 fewer points than the Panthers. The Panthers built their defense around a strong front-seven, and thankfully it remains intact. Let’s begin with the curious case of defensive end Greg Hardy:

Hardy led the Panthers with 15 sacks and 49 hits+hurries. He had 11 sacks in 2012, so last season wasn’t a fluke. Hardy wanted to get paid, but the Panthers had the leverage of a potential franchise tag. Generally, that means the player takes less than he could get on the open market, but secures his financial stability. The team gets to use its leverage to control a below-cost asset for years to come. That’s not what happened here. The Panthers declined to negotiate and simply tagged Hardy. Hardy was arrested on domestic violence charges this offseason. I’m wondering if the Panthers simply don’t see Hardy as part of their long term plans. Maybe they don’t think he’ll be the same player after he gets a huge payday. Whatever the case may be, Hardy is likely in his final season in Carolina. Technically, the Panthers could hit him with the franchise tag again, but the cost of tagging a player twice in a row is generally prohibitive because it means the team has to give the player a 20% raise. For now, Hardy is a Panther, and he’s playing for a long term contract. He’ll play across from Charles Johnson. Despite struggling with injuries, Johnson grabbed 11 sacks in 14 games last season. Johnson was exceptional against the run, to the point where teams actively avoided him. The depth behind those two is excellent. The Panthers were shocked Kony Ealy fell to them in the second round. I had him 21st in my rankings and expect Ealy to make an immediate impact for the Panthers. He’s fairly similar in build and style to Robert Quinn, although don’t expect him to grab 19 sacks in a season any time soon. 2012 fourth-round pick Frank Alexander has shown flashes, but so far hasn’t turned his talent into production. He’s been suspended the first four games of the season for a PED violation, and may lose playing time to Ealy and Mario Addison. Addison has worked his way up the depth chart after signing as an unheralded free agent in 2012. (Update: Alexander had a fantastic training camp and appears back in head coach Ron Rivera’s good graces.)

The Panthers are well stocked on the interior as well. 2013 first-round pick Star Lotulelei had a monster rookie season. He was one of the most dominant run defenders in the NFL, and managed to pick up three sacks. Colin Cole is battling Dwan Edwards for the other starting job. No matter who wins, both will see significant playing time. Mostly, it will be situational, as Cole is a massive run-stuffer while Edwards is an effective pass-rusher. 2013 second-round pick Kawann Short is likely the long term starter alongside Lotulelei. He managed 1.5 sacks and 21 hits+hurries last season, and will likely improve his numbers this season. Overall, there is great talent and depth along the defensive line. Things look bright in the linebacker corps as well.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is running out of space on his mantle. The 2012 Rookie of the Year added a Defensive Player of the Year award last season. He’s absolutely fantastic and his range makes the players around him better. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis had the best season of his long career. Between him and Kuechly, it was very difficult to throw it short against the Panthers. Strongside linebacker Chase Blackburn is the clear weak link along the line. The Panthers would probably be happy if he could just stay healthy, as he only played in seven games last season. The depth here is lacking, so good health for Kuechly and Davis are both necessary for Carolina.

Before I get to the particulars, let me just say that Carolina runs a fairly conservative defensive system that protects their cornerbacks and safeties from getting burned on big plays. The flip side of that is that they’ll allow a lot of easy completions for (hopefully) minimal yardage. That had better be enough to save them because this secondary looks flammable. Starting cornerbacks Melvin White and Antoine Cason both come with question marks. Cason has declined drastically over the past few seasons. White worked his way onto the field despite being an undrafted rookie free agent. That’s impressive, but his talent level suggests he’s better suited to play nickel, instead of against #1 or #2 wide receivers. Frankly, I think it’s a matter of time before he gets his ass kicked, and the one thing that might buy him time is that teams might be more focused on torching Cason. I can’t really call any fifth round pick a reach, but it was odd to see the Panthers trade up to grab Bene’ Benwikere. He has the inside track to grab the nickel job. He’s competing with Charles Godfrey, who is trying to return from a nasty Achilles tendon tear. You know the worst part for the Panthers? The cornerbacks might end up being the strength of their secondary.

Free safety Thomas DeCoud followed up a 2012 Pro Bowl season with an unabashedly lousy performance in 2013. He was a budget pickup, but he appears to be a bad fit for the Panthers system and is struggling with a leg injury. Strong safety Roman Harper was a slightly more expensive free agent signing. The former Saint is currently battling turf toe and hasn’t shown any of his old ferocity with the Panthers. His backup is 2013 undrafted free agent Robert Lester. Lester is battling a shoulder injury and is questionable for the season opener. The Panthers may end up starting Colin Jones and Anderson Russell at free and strong safety, respectively. Jones is a special teams player, while Russell is coming from the practice squad. Lenient system or no, this could be an absolute disaster.

Last year, the Panthers had slightly above average special teams. The coverage units were lousy, but the specialists performed well. Kenjon Barner looks to be a capable return specialist, filling the role formerly performed by Ted Ginn Jr. Overall, I’m expecting an average or slightly below-average performance from the Panthers special teams.

The Panthers were not blessed with an easy schedule. Check out this run starting week six: At Cincinnati, at Green Bay, home vs. Seattle, home vs. New Orleans, at Philadelphia. I understand what the Panthers brain trust is doing, and Kelvin Benjamin has looked awesome so far. However, the weaknesses at tackle, wide receiver, and especially in the defensive backfield will catch up to Carolina. 7-9.

New Orleans Saints

Expected Wins: 10.12

Scouting Wins: 11.27

DVOA Wins: 9.4

2013 Record: 11-5 (10.8 Pythagorean)

The Saints are the only team in the NFL where the scouts are over a win more optimistic than the market (although Buffalo is close). I was curious as to the cause of such optimism and found two sources. The first is the offense, which the scouts rated first in the NFL – ahead of Denver, Green Bay, and Philadelphia. In case you’re wondering, after Philadelphia there is a significant drop off to San Diego. Okay, the Saints have a good offense, but the markets are aware of that. The second reason the scouts are so bullish on New Orleans is their schedule. The scouts view Atlanta and San Francisco as overrated, so they view the Saints schedule much more favorably than the market does. I agree with the assessment of Atlanta, and think the NFC South is ripe for the Saints to dominate. Still, do the Saints really have the best offense in the NFL? Last year they finished fifth in offensive DVOA, and there haven’t been many major upgrades. It’s still a very good offense, but it’s aging and it seems more likely to regress than improve.

Case in point: Drew Brees. Brees will celebrate his 36th birthday the week of the NFC Championship game. Then again, Peyton Manning turned 38 in March and Tom Brady turned 37 a few weeks ago. We are living in a golden age of quarterbacks thriving late into their careers. Last season, Brees finished third in DYAR with 1701, and fifth in DVOA at 26.9%. Manning finished first in both. Brees has made throwing for 5,000+ yards seem routine. Until I see evidence of a Brees decline, I’ll presume he’s prepared to continue putting up 300+ yards a game. Brees is as likely as anyone else to lead the #1 offense in the NFL. How are his targets?

Marques Colston played through a nagging foot injury last season, but still managed to accumulate 276 DYAR. He appears to be back to full speed this season. He’ll be playing across from Kenny Stills. Stills had an impressive rookie season, finishing first in DVOA at 40.1%. However, the fifth-round pick didn’t catch more than four passes in any game last season, so we shouldn’t presume the Saints plan on making him the focus of their offense. Actually, Brees is very good about spreading the ball around, so rookie first-round pick Brandin Cooks should get a chance to make an immediate impact. Cooks won the 2013 Biletnikoff Award for most outstanding receiver in college football and led FBS with 1,670 receiving yards. Previous winners include Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson. Cooks is a former track star and earned the nickname “Sonic Boom.” He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s my sleeper pick to win offensive rookie of the year. I’m sure Drew Brees is looking forward to working with his new teammate. Robert Meachem will also see occasional use as a deep threat. That brings us to tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham and the Saints battled over the technicality of what exactly is a “tight end” for franchise tag purposes, but they eventually reached an agreement on a new contract. Graham led all tight ends with 223 DYAR, but his 15.7% DVOA was only good enough for 12th. Graham was playing through a partially torn plantar fascia. He’s healthy this season and should be back to full speed. (Update: Kenny Stills has been sidelined with a quad injury. Brandin Cooks and 2012 fourth-round pick Nick Toon have taken advantage of his absence. Head coach Sean Payton has gone on the record praising both as having “terrific” training camps. Toon has worked his way up to fourth on the depth chart).

The receiving options are clearly excellent, so that just leaves the running game and the offensive line. Pierre Thomas struggled last season (-7.6% DVOA), and has dropped to third on the depth chart, behind Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Robinson wasn’t any better as a runner (-11.9% DVOA), and didn’t catch a single pass. Thomas shined in the receiving game, catching 77 passes for 513 yards. In fact, his DVOALOS ended up at 0.0% due to his receiving prowess. He’s also a reliable blocker, so I expect we’ll see Thomas get a decent amount of playing time, especially since #1 running back Mark Ingram has caught 24 passes for -27 DYAR in his three years in New Orleans. The Saints declined to pick up his option for 2015, so if I were a collegiate running back with a diverse skill set, I’d try to make sure I stayed on the Saints scouting department’s radar. I’d like to say something good about Travaris Cadet, but whenever I watch the fourth string running back, he looks like he’s running through molasses.

There are multiple huge question marks along the Saints offensive line. The biggest is at left tackle, where 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead has taken over the starting job. Armstead took over last season after the Saints tired of Charles Brown, who finished 28th in my left tackle rankings. Brown is now in New York. Armstead got destroyed in his trial by fire, finishing dead last among the 95 tackles I graded. He clearly improved as the season progressed, and was a reasonable facsimile of an NFL left tackle by the time the playoffs rolled around. Even so, his numbers are highly disconcerting. There’s more to worry about at center, where Jonathan Goodwin appears to be beating out Tim Lelito. Goodwin was lousy last season, finishing 29th in my rankings. He’ll turn 36 in December and his best days are far behind him. The guards flanking him aren’t much better. Left guard Ben Grubbs ranked 19th, while Jahri Evans was 25th among right guards. The one elite performer was right tackle Zach Strief. He finished third in my rankings. The Saints must have had a similar view as they rewarded him with a new contract that included $8.4M guaranteed. I want to note that the scouts gave the Saints offensive line a top-three rating, behind Denver and tied with Chicago. I’m definitely not seeing that.

Heading into the 2013 season, the Saints defense was looking for an improved pass rush. Junior Galette and defensive Cameron Jordan answered the call, combining for 24.5 sacks and 83.5 hits+hurries. Jordan earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Galette played both end and outside linebacker in the Saints 3-4 defense. When Galette is at linebacker, look for Jordan to play across from Akiem Hicks. Hicks was a converted defensive tackle and had his best season. Broderick Bunkley and John Jenkins will again form the nose tackle rotation. Bunkley was slowed by a calf injury but should be healthy for this season. Jenkins was sidelined in OTA’s with a chest injury, but took that time to do serious leg work and has dropped his weight down to a slim 347 pounds.

Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne combined for 216 tackles last season. They’re a good pairing, although Lofton is clearly the better of the two. Parys Haralson looks to be winning the other outside linebacker job. He had good pass-rush numbers in limited playing time last season. The most interesting backup is rookie fourth-round pick Khairi Fortt. Opinions differed on Fortt as some analysts liked his straight-line speed and aggression, while others criticized his lack of field awareness. Overall, the Saints front seven looks to be about average.

Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is on his way to stardom. The 2013 first-round pick looked great last season before breaking his ankle. He’s looked fantastic so far this preseason. He’ll be paired with Jairus Byrd. Byrd was an excellent free agent pickup for the Saints, as he is one of the best free safeties in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Saints, safeties do not a secondary make. Here are the Saints options at cornerback:

A. Keenan Lewis: Solid starter last season. Currently injured with an undisclosed ailment. Last seen limping into the Saints locker room.

C. Champ Bailey: Would be a lock for the Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow. He’s 36 years old and only played in five games last season. Currently missing practice with an undisclosed ailment.

D. Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Rookie second-round pick. Former wide receiver. Good ball skills and straight line speed, but lacks physicality and has difficulty with quick cuts. Might be better suited to play free safety. The Saints sometimes play three safeties, so Baptiste may end up being a CB/S hybrid.

E. Corey White: 2012 fifth-round pick. Appears best suited to play nickelback. Unclear if he has the talent to play against elite wide receivers.

Option B. would have been Patrick Robinson, but he’s been lost for the season with a patellar tendon injury. Depending on the severity of Lewis’s and Bailey’s injuries, the Saints might be forced to throw White and Baptiste into the fire. I’d expect the Saints to watch the waiver wire and try to grab an experienced veteran cornerback if one becomes available.

The good news for the Saints is that punter Thomas Morstead is one of the best punters in the NFL. The bad news is the rest of their special teams are below average or completely untested. Tavaris Cadet will handle the return duties, something he does not appear to have done since college. Shayne Graham should be a competent, if somewhat underpowered, kicker. The Saints appear to have forgiven him for going 0-for-2 in the playoffs against Seattle.

The more I look at the NFC South, the less I like it. The Saints are clearly the class of the division. Perhaps I am underestimating their offensive line. The difference between an average and a strong offensive line will likely be the difference between a good offense and a dominant one. It will have to be the latter for the Saints to grab home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. I don’t think they’ll manage it, but it will be close. 11-5.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Expected Wins: 6.89

Scouting Wins: 6.86

DVOA Wins: 7.6

2013 Record: 4-12 (5.3 Pythagorean)

Pssst. Hey Tampa Bay. Want the fourth best quarterback in the league? You can have him for $30M in guaranteed money. How old is he? Well, he’s 35. Fine, you can have him for $25M. How many games did he start last year? Five, but… alright, you can have him for $20M. How did he play in 2012? He was awful, but he used that as a growing experience and is a much better quarterback now. Besides, that’s ancient history. Okay, if you want to hold that against him, $10M, but that’s my final offer. What’s his name? Josh McC… wait, where are you going! Damn it, you can have him on a two-year deal with $4.75M guaranteed, and stop busting my balls.

I’m pretty sure that’s how the negotiations between Josh McCown’s agent and Tampa Bay went. Still, that makes him the highest paid former Hartford Colonial in the NFL. So what can we make of Josh McCown? His track record is awful (except for when he led the UFL in passing), but he really was tremendous for a short stretch last season in Chicago. So much so, that he divided the Bears locker room and many were disappointed when they went back to Jay Cutler. Still, since he wasn’t the long term solution in Chicago, the Bears did what they had to do. He isn’t the long term solution in Tampa Bay either, but the question is what can he give the Bucs right now. My best guess is that he’s a trap. First, he caught teams by surprise last season. With an offseason of film work, defensive coordinators will take away the routes he excelled at. Second, he got much of his success from throwing passes away from the defenders and letting the Bears receivers make a play on the ball. In other words, he threw passes “that only the receiver could catch” and the Bears receivers did an excellent job of catching them. To that end, the Buccaneers went into the draft with the goal of rebuilding their receiving corps.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson was miscast as a possession receiver last season. His +/- of -13.2 tells the tale. Still, his drops went up from three in 2012 to eleven in 2013. That’s something he needs to work on. When Jackson came over from San Diego he was regarded as one of the premier deep threats in the NFL. It’s unclear if it was quarterback Mike Glennon’s fault, or that of the now departed coaching staff. My guess is new coach Lovie Smith is going to try and return Jackson to his former role. Jackson will be paired with a younger version of himself, rookie first-round pick Mike Evans. Like Jackson, Evans is 6-5, 230 pounds. He physically dominated most of the cornerbacks he faced in college. A hamstring injury slowed him this offseason, but he should be fully up to speed by week one. I’m afraid the depth chart gets ugly after the starters. Louis Murphy and Chris Owusu are battling for the #3 job. While they are both exceptionally fast, neither has shown they can play receiver at an NFL level. They combined for -54 DYAR last season. I wish Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans the best of health this season.

Would you be surprised to learn that Tim Wright was one of the ten best tight ends in the NFL last season? The rookie undrafted free agent finished sixth in DYAR (133) and eight in DVOA (21.8%). He started third on the depth chart, but rose as the starters got injured. He’ll have to repeat that feat because he has been dropped back to third on the depth chart. Sitting atop the depth chart is free agent pickup Brandon Myers. Myers was quite good for the Raiders in 2012 (112 DYAR), but struggled with the Giants last season (7 DYAR). Backing up Myers is rookie second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Keeping with the theme of large targets, the 6-5 Jenkins won the John Mackey award for most outstanding college tight end. Interestingly, Jenkins does not have elite power or speed, but is a master technician with an exceptional catch radius. Some nagging injuries hampered him this offseason and his weight ballooned to 276 pounds. He should be in good form by the time he replaces Myers atop the depth chart. Look him to get plenty of playing time, as the Buccaneers will likely use multiple 2TE sets.

Tampa Bay’s running back depth chart makes my head hurt.

1. Doug Martin- 2013 DYARLOS: -76

2. Bobby Rainey- 2013 DYARLOS: -54

3. Charles Sims- rookie third-round pick: Sidelined until week 10 with an ankle injury.

4. Mike James- 2013 DYARLOS: 49. Currently sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Doug Martin was a productive workhorse in his 2012 rookie season, so I’m going to cut him some slack. Rainey is just bad. Sims is a converted wide receiver and should prove to be a useful third down back once he’s healthy. James should be ready to step in if Martin and Rainey prove their 2013 statistics weren’t flukes.

Speaking of 2013, let me talk a bit about quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon was a third round pick in the 2013 draft. He was notable mostly for being freakishly tall for a QB (6-6). He was given the starting job after Josh Freeman disintegrated. Glennon was mediocre (-7.7% DVOA), but that’s not bad for a rookie thrown into the starting lineup with a dysfunctional coaching staff. He made the best of a bad situation but has been put back on the bench. McCown’s track record suggests Glennon will get another opportunity. Glennon’s major weakness is that he isn’t very mobile or elusive, which translates into some truly embarrassing sacks when he runs backward before getting tackled for a huge loss. Better coaching and more experience should lead to him learning how to correct those errors. If there is hope for long term success in Tampa Bay, it begins with Glennon’s continued development.

Both McCown and Glennon will appreciate the rebuilt offensive line. New left tackle Anthony Collins ranked first overall among tackles who played both tackle positions. He was excellent in Cincinnati as a backup, and should prove to be a quality starter. Fellow free agent pickup Oriel Cousins wasn’t nearly as effective last season, and will be holding down the left guard job until rookie fifth-round pick Kadeem Edwards is ready to start. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith was yet another free agent acquisition. He was a hair below average last season in Green Bay. Jamon Meridith struggled at left guard last season (35th in my rankings), and has been moved over to right guard. Right tackle Demar Dotson was solid last season, finishing eighth in my rankings. While I’m a bit skeptical about the guards, this looks like a solid offensive line. If McCown still has a few more tricks left, he’ll have time to make the magic happen.

Here we come to the strength of the Bucs. The defense finished eighth in the DVOA rankings last season. They are switching over to a cover-2 scheme favored by new head coach Lovie Smith. To facilitate that transition, the Bucs upgraded their defensive line, signing defensive tackle Clinton McDonald away from the Seahawks. McDonald was fantastic in limited usage for the Seahawks, and should shine in Tampa Bay. He’ll be playing alongside Gerald McCoy. McCoy was the most dominant pass-rusher among defensive tackles, picking up 9.5 sacks and 53 hits+hurries. This is going to be a very tough pair to block. 2013 fourth-round pick Akeem Spence will rotate in for short yardage situations. 2011 second-round pick Da’Quan Bowers will also be part of the rotation. Bowers has never lived up to his draft status and may be looking at his last chance. He’ll get a fresh start under the new regime.

Starting defensive ends Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn only picked up a combined nine sacks last season. Johnson is coming over from Cincinnati. He had excellent peripheral stats, racking up 46.5 hits+hurries and using his 6-7 frame to good advantage, tipping or knocking down seven passes. Clayborn has been a disappointment in Tampa Bay, and like Bowers, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The depth here is sketchy. 2013 fourth-round pick William Gholston is currently dealing with a shoulder injury. He only picked up two sacks in 12 games last season. Steven Means will also rotate in as a situational pass-rusher.

2012 second-round pick Lavonte David has become one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He excels in run support, coverage, and rushing the passer. Middle linebacker Mason Foster is probably in that awkward area above replacement level but below average. He is solid against the run but a liability in pass coverage. He’d better work on that issue, as he’ll be getting more playing time this season. Strongside linebacker Jonathan Casillas was a budget free agent pickup, and the Bucs got what they paid for. He’s mediocre, but better than the dreck the Buccaneers have behind him on the depth chart. The Bucs will need to invest in linebackers in the 2015 draft. David is so good this is still a solid unit, but woe be the Bucs if he gets hurt.

I’m a wee bit concerned about the Buccaneers secondary. Let’s assume Alterraun Verner makes a smooth transition from being the #2 cornerback in Tennessee to the #1 in Tampa Bay. I think that’s a reasonable projection, as his numbers in Tennessee were fantastic. The problem is that the Bucs #2 and #3 cornerbacks got their asses kicked last season. 2013 second-round pick Johnthan Banks has an excuse, as rookie cornerbacks are expected to struggle. He should be much improved this season, but so far he’s still listed as the nickel cornerback on the depth chart. That means Mike Jenkins is currently holding down the #2 job. Jenkins, like Casillas, was a low cost free agent pickup who is slightly better than replacement level. Actually, in the case of Jenkins that might be generous. As you might imagine, the depth at cornerback is abominable. The safeties are an odd fit for the cover-2. Strong safety Mark Barron is much better in run support than he is in coverage. He will have to adjust to playing away from the line of scrimmage. Frankly, Barron has been considered a bust before this season, so this is his chance to either redeem himself or cement his legacy. Free safety Dashon Goldston has his own adjustments to make, mostly with the NFL’s new rules regarding violence and player safety. A lot has to go right for this secondary to avoid some serious regression.

The Bucs special teams have been lousy the past two seasons, but may improve due to the new coaches. Lovie Smith focused on special teams in Chicago and the results showed. Still, both kicker Connor Barth and punter Michael Koenen are below average at their jobs. Koenen somewhat redeems himself by providing value in kickoffs. Eric Page was poor at returning both punts and kicks last season, but the Bucs don’t have anyone clearly better to replace him.

The Bucs have gone through many years of mismanagement. This has left them with a depleted roster. If Josh McCown has somehow truly become an elite quarterback (he hasn’t), then the Bucs are set up to chase a playoff spot. Otherwise, they should focus on rebuilding. That means developing Mike Glennon and seeing what that can do to build a roster that’s ready to compete in 2016 or 2017. Competent coaching will give Tampa Bay a better chance to compete than they’ve had in years. 7-9.

 

Now we come to what remains the best division in the NFL.

NFC West Projected Standings:

Seattle Seahawks 11-5

San Francisco 49ers 10-6

Arizona Cardinals 7-9

St. Louis Rams 6-10

Arizona Cardinals

Expected Wins: 7.72

Scouting Wins: 8.32

DVOA Wins: 7.3

2013 Record: 10-6 (9.5 Pythagorean)

I understand why DVOA is so down on the Cardinals. Their offense was poor last season, and their two most important players are both on the downsides of their careers. The defense was excellent, but such things are difficult to sustain. What I’m curious about is why the scouts are so optimistic? Well, they are impressed by the second-best defense in the NFL (behind Seattle). The scouts agree the offense is below average, but at 21st overall is still capable of doing just enough, presuming the defense maintains its level of play. The wild card is an offensive line that pretty much fell apart last year, due to injuries and an overall lack of talent. Let’s start there.

The Cardinals have been making a good faith effort to maintain their offensive line. In 2012 they drafted Bobby Massie in the fourth round and intended to develop him into their starting right tackle. They threw him into the fire, but so far that hasn’t worked out. In 2013 they crabbed Jonathan Cooper in the first round and Earl Watford in the fourth round. Cooper was supposed to take over at left guard and revitalize the line. However, he was lost in the preseason with a broken leg. Watford is currently competing for the right guard job, while Cooper is penciled in at left guard. Let’s take a quick look at how the offensive line performed last year. Left tackle Levi Brown was staggeringly awful, finishing dead last out of the 37 left tackles I graded. He was replaced by Bradley Sowell, who ended up finishing 29th. Sowell is back at right tackle this season, as he has been ousted by free agent pickup Jared Veldheer. Veldheer finished 30th in my rankings last year, so that seems like a wash. Daryn Colledge took over at left guard after Cooper was injured. Colledge was the star of the line, finishing 11th among left guards in my rankings. Sadly, the Cardinals cut him in the offseason, and he is now in Miami. Lyle Sendlein was a disaster at center, finishing 31st. Things were marginally better at right guard, where Paul Fanaika was a mediocre 21st. Same story at right tackle where Eric Winston finished 23rd. Winston is now in Seattle. Even with the addition of Cooper, this line looks pretty bad. The Cardinals went into free agency knowing they needed to sign a left tackle, but determined not to overspend. Veldheer is the result. I understand valuing efficiency, but you need to focus on both quality and cost, not just cost. This offensive line looks bad, and Carson Palmer isn’t getting any more mobile.

Palmer has ended the years of incompetence at quarterback for Arizona. That’s not to say he was good. His 547 DYAR and 2.7% DVOA suggest he was slightly above average. The odd thing was that his DVOA when throwing to running backs was 18.7%, while Larry Fitzgerald’s DVOA was -0.6%. That’s not to say he couldn’t throw to wide receivers, as Michael Floyd had a 12.9% DVOA. It could be that the offensive line couldn’t consistently give Palmer the time to connect with Fitzgerald down the field. Palmer is going to turn 35 in December and it’s unrealistic to expect him to be able to buy time scrambling in the pocket. The fact is Palmer isn’t a long term solution. Rookie fourth-round pick Logan Thomas is a project I have little faith in. I see serious problems for the Cardinals on the horizon.

Andre Ellington seriously outplayed Rashard Mendenhall last season, which is why he is now the starter, while Mendenhall has retired. I don’t mean to judge Mendenhall, who wants to do other things with his life and preserve his health. I’m merely pointing out that Ellington produced 234 DYAR last season, while Mendenhall produced 23. Mendenhall struggled with turf toe, which is one of the many injuries he should be able to avoid in his retirement. Ellington finished fourth in rushing DVOA at 17.5%, and 10th in receiving DVOA among running backs at 22.3%. Given the offensive line he was running behind, those numbers are incredible. The 2013 sixth-round pick definitely had a great rookie season, but now will have to adjust to getting the majority of the carries. He’s backed up by 2013 fifth-round pick Stepfan Taylor. Taylor provides a bit more power while Ellington provides more speed and elusiveness. I approve of Arizona trying to get by on a very affordable backfield. That allows them to spend their resources elsewhere, and in their case, there is a lot of elsewhere in need.

Remember Larry Fitzgerald’s -0.6% DVOA? I had forgotten what had happened in 2012 when Arizona was trying to win without an NFL quarterback: -19.6 +/-, -23.8% DVOA, -218 DYAR. Last year with Palmer he had a +0.3 +/- and 132 DYAR. He’ll be 31 when the season starts and his best days are behind him. He’s still a #1 wide receiver, but he can no longer just dominate a defense that is rolling their coverage to stop him. It might not be long before 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd surpasses him. Floyd’s 12.9% DVOA and 220 DYAR were both quite respectable and this season defenses might gameplan around stopping Floyd first. Free agent pickup Ted Ginn Jr. is currently slated to be the #3 wide receiver. His hands have never kept pace with his speed, so most of the highlights he makes are of the negative variety. He’ll be returning kicks and punts, but he’s never been special there either. Jaron Brown was a great story, working his way up from the practice squad to the Cardinals roster as a rookie undrafted free agent. He’s fought his way up to fourth on the depth chart and may improve on his reception (singular) from last season. I’ll be rooting for him. Rookie third-round pick John Brown was quite a reach. Brown was a small school find (Pittsburgh St., which is in Kansas, which reminded me of this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEjo0ajod1M

Brown brought attention to himself with his 4.34 40-yard dash speed. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians likes speed, but I suspect he outsmarted himself with Ginn and Brown. I went pretty deep in my draft scouting this year and I had Brown as a sixth round prospect. Then again, as deep as I went (330 players were rated, plus an additional 16 who were given a grade of 0), I didn’t have the wide receiver the Cardinals drafted in the sixth round on my list. I went deep. They went deeper. I’m skeptical their hard work is going to pay off. On the plus side, Arizona is now deep at tight end with starter John Carlson and rookie second-round pick Troy Niklas. Then Again, Carlson’s DYAR over the past 2 seasons is -62 (don’t ask about his DVOA). Niklas is kind of a hybrid, providing some blocking value and some receiving value, but not being particularly skilled at either. He simply doesn’t have the athleticism to be a dominant receiver, and lacks the power and technique to be a dominant blocker. He’ll need to be well coached to reach his potential in Arizona.

Arizona has some serious issues on offense. I’ll grant them a decent pair of receivers, and I have some faith in Ellington, and even Niklas. However, unless Cooper is superhuman, the offensive line is still a problem, as is receiving depth. The Oakland Raiders offered definitive proof that just taking fast human beings does not a wide receivers corps make.

There isn’t a better 3-4 defensive line in the league than Arizona’s. Defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, and nose tackle Dan Williams are all premium players. Dockett is on the wrong side of 30, but he’s coming down from a heck of a peak. Williams is entering his prime and will likely be rewarded with a major raise, as he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. Campbell is a dominant force who opens up opportunities for his teammates. The Cardinals actually got a good value on rookie third-round pick defensive end Kareem Martin. Martin is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, and he’ll be groomed to split time with Dockett. Alameda Ta’amu provides excellent depth at defensive tackle. Looking at this line it is easy to see how Arizona dominated various offenses last year.

Unfortunately, part of their linebacker corps will be missing in action this season, as Daryl Washington has been suspended for the season for substance abuse. He was an excellent inside linebacker and his absence will be missed. His loss compounded the damage done when Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland in free agency. 2013 First-round pick Kevin Minter has been given Washington’s the job in his absence. The Cardinals would have preferred Minter play alongside Washington, instead of alongside Larry Foote. Foote turned 34 this offseason and was a cheap solution to a pressing issue. Minter has elite talent, but we’ll see if he’s ready to be an every-down player. Things get no less disconcerting on the outside. John Abraham grabbed another 10.5 sacks last season, but he’s 36 and isn’t going to be able to keep up that pace. Matt Shaughnessy is a solid player across from him, but you don’t want Shaughnessy to be your premier outside linebacker. Sam Acho is coming off of a major ankle injury and is battling both Abraham and Shaughnessy for playing time, as is special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander. If the Cardinals aren’t happy with what they see, they might move Kareem Martin to outside linebacker and give him a chance.

There is a lot of good news/bad news with the Cardinals secondary. The good news with cornerback Patrick Peterson is that he’s one of the best in the NFL. The bad news is that the Cardinals will soon have to give him a massive raise. The good news with free agent Antonio Cromartie is that he’ll step into the #2 role, which allows Jerraud Powers to move into the slot. The bad news is that Cromartie was burned repeatedly last season and may be in permanent decline. The good news with free safety Tyrann Mathieu is that he surpassed expectations in his rookie season. The bad news is that he’s coming off of a serious injury (a joint ACL and MCL tear), and no one is quite certain when the Honey Badger will return to the field. The Cardinals reached for strong safety Deone Bucannon late in the first round, but he should be able to provide some physicality and athleticism while he learns the pro game. Rashad Johnson has the inside line on grabbing the free safety job in the Badger’s absence. There are a lot of variables in the defensive backfield. If Cromartie bounces back. If Mathieu returns in good health. Bucannon is very good attacking the line of scrimmage, and can make a quick play on a ball in the air, but has clear vulnerabilities in coverage and it will be up to the Cardinals coaching staff to protect him from his weaknesses.

Arizona’s special teams have received some upgrades: John Brown at kick returner, Ted Ginn Jr. at punt returner. The most important upgrade that they haven’t received so far is an upgrade at kicker, where Jay Feely is beginning to fade badly. The only special teams area where Arizona was strong last season was punt coverage, which was due to Justin Bethel. He might be the closest thing we have to a Steve Tasker in the NFC.

The Cardinals have a lot of question marks, and some clear outright problems. The offensive line is a major issue, as is the linebacker corps. Carson Palmer might still be a guy you can win with, but not necessarily a guy you win because of. There’s also the issue of their brutal schedule: 5 games against Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver. I love the defensive line, and might end up loving the defensive backfield, but the problems here clearly outweigh strengths. Also, they’ve been trying to be clever in their drafting and that’s left them with less talent than they should have. 7-9.

St. Louis Rams

Expected Wins: 6.44

Scouting Wins: 6.84

DVOA Wins: 7.8

2013 Record: 10-6 (9.5 Pythagorean)

The NFC West is a tough place to play offense. The Cardinals and Seahawks had the two best defenses in the NFL. The 49ers and Rams were 13th and 11th, respectively. The Rams have an elite defensive line and a strong linebacker corps. My point is that after all Sam Bradford has been through, maybe we should cut him some slack. The fact is, before he got hurt last season, he was on pace for 695 DYAR, which would have placed him 12th among quarterbacks. That’s roughly commensurate with his 5.2% DVOA, which ended up 14th among QB’s. The problem is that Bradford only managed to play seven games last season. Well, that’s not the only problem. (Update: Yes it is. Read on.)

Last year was the high-water mark for Bradford. He’s never lived up to his draft status and doesn’t appear to be 100% recovered after tearing his ACL last season. The Rams don’t have a second option on the roster, so if Bradford doesn’t at least reach the level he played at last season, look for the Rams to explore drafting a quarterback next year. Another reason to be skeptical of Bradford is that the Rams have done a decent job of providing him with skill talent. (Update: He wasn’t 100%, and now he’s gone! Backup Shaun Hill played well in VERY limited action in Detroit. He put up 145 DYAR in only 16 pass attempts. That’s over the past three seasons. He’s 35 years old and is a career backup. I don’t expect the spotlight to treat him kindly. If Hill goes down we may have an Austin Davis situation. Let’s just hope the Football Gods take pity on St. Louis.)

Holy crap. I just noticed that the Rams running game netted 62 DYAR last season. That’s awful, and is an indictment of Bradford and the offensive line. Opponents had no fear of Bradford or of Kellen Clemens, and defenses were free to leave men closer to the line-of-scrimmage. As for the offensive line, I’ll get to them. Controlling for difficulty, Zac Stacy did a good job achieving a -0.7% DVOA. Tavon Austin was also exceptional, but he only ran nine times all season, presumably all of them trick plays. The Rams have made two nice moves to improve the running game. The biggest is the addition of new left guard Greg Robinson. The second is the addition of Tre Mason in the third round. In the old days Mason would have gone in the second round or higher. I’ve adjusted for the modern NFL and had him 50th overall, so getting him 75th was a solid value. He and Stacy are both physical runners, although Mason has more big-play ability. Zac Stacy was an ineffectual receiver (-19.4% DVOA), but I don’t know how much of that is him, and how much was the general environment. With the addition of Mason I have few concerns about the talent level in the backfield. If the Rams offense gets anything out of 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead, great, but if not, he’s still providing some value on special teams.

The receiving numbers for the Rams look horrific. Chris Givens and Tavon Austin had DVOA’s of -22.8% and -19.4%, respectively. They combined for -104 DYAR. Austin ended up being worth 41 DYAR overall when you count his rushing effectiveness, but that’s not his day job. Austin is currently the #3 wide receiver. Austin Pettis is still holding down a starting job, but it’s a tenuous hold. He had his best season in 2013 (5.1% DVOA), but was only given six starts. Brian Quick was effective in five starts (12.5% DVOA) and may be ready to reach the potential that made him a 2012 second-round pick. He has size and speed, and at this point he should be ready to make the leap to being a #1 receiver. Also in the mix is 2013 third-round pick Stedman Bailey. Bailey didn’t get much playing time, but was effective when given the opportunity (7.5% DVOA). He’s currently fifth on the depth chart and rising. Back to Givens. He’s considered the deep threat, but he doesn’t have the natural instincts or the hands. His +/- over the past two seasons is -13.7. I’m willing to split the blame with Bradford and Clemens, but Givens has to start doing the job he’s paid to do. It’s not that hard to find guys who can run fast. It’s a lot harder to find guys who can do that, run routes, get open, and catch the damn ball. As for Tavon Austin, I’ve seen enough from him to know that he’s not the problem. If you want to blame the quarterbacks, and the offensive coordinator (I’ll get to Brian Schottenheimer), feel free. Oh, the Rams also signed Kenny Britt in the offseason. Britt somehow managed a -48.5% DVOA and -101 DYAR in 35 pass attempts last season. Wowsers. Tight end Jared Cook hasn’t lived up to his potential, but the talent is there. It’s hard to see him achieving what he’s capable in this offense, though. Backup Lance Kendricks is a better blocker and a decent-enough receiver to steal playing time if Cook slips. Cook’s still the better receiving option, and the Rams would be well served figuring out ways to take advantage of his talent. At some point I’d like to see Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick, and Jared Cook all out there at the same time. That looks like an effective receiving unit to me, if Bradford can get them the ball. (There is no Bradford, only Zuul. I mean Hill.)

Let’s take a moment to talk about offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He’s conservative like his father, but where his father was a master at teaching proper technique and ruthlessly pounding the weaknesses of his opponent, Brian is merely capable of lowering risk. He was ineffective in New York and has been terrible in St. Louis. Risk aversion is not a virtue when it comes at the cost of expected value. Then there’s the fact that Brian genuinely seems unsure of how to diagram fundamentally sound, complex passing plays. It was a massive issue in New York and it is repeating itself in St. Louis. I don’t know how much of the problem is Bradford, and how much of the problem is defensive coordinators regularly beating the shit out of Schottenheimer’s gameplans. The worst part is, I’m confident Brian has convinced himself that it’s the players’ fault instead of his:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LG4hOjJ9tEs

Last season the Rams offensive line wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Free agent pickup left tackle Jake Long was actually a hair below average. Left guard Chris Williams struggled and is now in Buffalo, replaced by Greg Robinson. Robinson was the second overall pick in the draft, and was my #1 prospect (although that’s only because of some red flags on Clowney). Robinson is an absolute monster and will stand out even at the NFL level. He’s too raw to play at tackle, but he’ll adjust, probably moving from left guard to right tackle to left tackle over the next few years. He’ll play alongside Long and center Scott Wells, who, like Long, was also a bit below average last year. Rodger Saffold was actually pretty effective last season and will start at right guard. That leaves right tackle Joe Barksdale. Barksdale ranked fifth overall among right tackles. I’m as shocked as you are. This has the potential to be one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. I’ll note that multiple members of the line have had injury issues (Saffold in particular), so I should note that while Tim Barnes provides good depth at center, I’m less sure of Mike Person and Brandon Washington at tackle and guard, respectively. The Rams signed Davin Joseph to provide quality depth. I don’t currently see him listed on the depth chart, but my guess is that if either Person or Washington struggled in relief, we’d see Joseph.

The Rams front seven is legitimately terrifying. Robert Quinn picked up 19.5 sacks, which was no fluke, as his 64.5 hits+hurries can attest. He also forced 7 fumbles, which is a nice cherry on top. Chris Long was no slouch himself, picking up 8.5 sacks while providing relentless pressure. Both of them put up good results against the run as well, which suggests that they’re maintaining lane discipline while attacking the quarterback. The inside is strong as well, as defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford combined for 10.5 sacks. Altogether this defensive line was excellent against the run while providing a fierce pass rush. There is quality depth at end, where William Hayes and Eugene Sims combined for 7 sacks in limited usage. They could be a reasonable starting pair on a solid defense. The depth at defensive tackle got a boost when the Rams grabbed Aaron Donald with the 13th pick in the draft. Donald will be used on passing downs to provide an interior pass rush. He’s a tad undersized (think Geno Atkins, but about 20 pounds lighter), but will likely take Langford’s job by the start of next season. For the record, I had Donald as the ninth-best prospect in the draft, and was surprised he fell to the Rams. It is possible that the fall in value of the running game has started a cascade effect where the value of defensive tackles falls relative to that of defensive ends and cornerbacks. Before this season I read something to the effect of “You don’t want to take a defensive tackle in the first round,” which is something I’d never considered in previous years.

I don’t begrudge the Rams for taking Aaron Donald or Greg Robinson, I think I may have done the same in their shoes, but it does leave them in a situation where they are a bit thin at linebacker and cornerback. Jo-Lonn Dunbard and Alec Ogletree form a good pair around James Laurinaitis. However, the depth here is lacking. Dunbar is second on the depth chart behind Laurinaitis, so an injury in the middle would have a cascade effect. Ogletree had an up-and-down rookie season, with more ups than downs. The 2013 first-round pick looks to grow into one of the Rams best defensive weapons. Laurinaitis has become what everyone expected him to be: A rock solid middle linebacker. He doesn’t have the athleticism to be a dominant player, but he’s in a perfect situation here. Dunbar is the weakest link on the line. He’s had some off-field issues with an arrest in Florida and a PED suspension in 2013. If I were the Rams, I’d look on the waiver wire for some depth and possibly for someone good enough to put Dunbar on the bench.

The Rams are trusting that they correctly identified their corners of the future in the 2012 NFL Draft. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson were second- and third-round picks, respectively. Jenkins has flashed some star talent, but overall his numbers aren’t good. Johnson has good size (6′-2″) but bad technique and is surprisingly soft, leading to broken tackles and poor results when attempting to jam receivers at the line. Frankly, given the high quality of the pass rush, I’m tempted to place the bust label on both cornerbacks, but developing covering skills takes time, and rookie contracts are cheap, so I don’t fault the Rams for sticking with their original plan. I suspect the Rams wanted to grab one of the top five cornerbacks in the draft, but all of them went before the Rams were able to use their second-round pick. They ended up taking LaMarcus Joyner. Joyner was a bit of a reach, but should be able to handle slot receivers. He is also a potential option at free safety. I’d suggest he was an option at strong safety as well, but T.J. McDonald has that position locked down. McDonald missed six games due to injury last season, but the 2013 third-round pick looks poised to produce an excellent season. Free safety Rodney McLeod is less inspiring, but produced a remarkably solid season last year. The Rams went deep with Maurice Alexander in the fourth round this year. I didn’t have him listed as a prospect, and he only played one year of safety at Utah State. He’s currently backing up McDonald and is considered a remarkedly hard-hitter for his size. Overall this backfield has a lot to like, but the concerns at cornerback are serious.

The Rams are set with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter John Hekker. The coverage units are both excellent. Punt returner Tavon Austin is a major threat in space. If the Rams can get their punt blocking units set, they’re the favorite to have the best special teams units in the NFL.

There is plenty to like with the Rams, especially on defense, but their schedule is brutal, and the more I look at Sam Bradford, the less I see. I suspect both he and Schottenheimer are playing for their jobs. I like a lot of what the Rams are doing, but their flaws are stark and will drive them down again. (Update: With Bradford gone I’m dropping the Rams from 7-9 to 6-10. It isn’t just that Bradford is better than Hill, but that Hill could go down and then… disaster.) 6-10.

San Francisco 49ers

Expected Wins: 9.79

Scouting Wins: 8.86

DVOA Wins: 9.0

2013 Record: 12-4 (11.5 Pythagorean)

It’s becoming a running joke that DVOA projections underestimate the 49ers, but the scouts agreeing is news. The scouts still like offense, but are seeing defensive flaws that lead to a defense that’s only marginally above average. I’m not sure I’m buying that at first glance, but let’s look with a little more detail.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed an extremely odd deal. Teams love when players put the onus on themselves to perform. It generally leads to a contract that most respectable agents would never encourage their clients to sign. Given how many teams are missing an NFL-quality quarterback, I’m sure Kaepernick would have done much better on the open market, but I’m not going to judge his choice. My immediate concern is determining whether or not we’ve seen the best of Kaepernick. He was a top-10 quarterback in 2013 (16.6% DVOA, 791 DYAR), but was a top-5 quarterback in 2012 (25.8% DVOA). I wasn’t alone in expecting Kaepernick to join the ranks of the elite. It’s possible 2012 was a fluke due to the small sample and the fact that defenses hadn’t seen him yet. Then again, the drop-off wasn’t that extreme, and Kaepernick is only 26 years old. There’s also the fact that his receiving corps was decimated last season. It’s in much better condition right now, although there are some concerns. One major concern is Kaepernick’s health. If he goes down, it will be Blaine Gabbert time in San Francisco. That’s a disaster too foul to even contemplate.

It’s kind of astonishing how firmly running back Frank Gore has held onto his job. The 49ers drafted Kendall Hunter in the fourth round in 2011, LaMichael James in the second round in 2012, Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round in 2013, and Carlos Hyde in the second round this year. Every year the 49ers draft a Gore replacement, and every year he’s ignored them and ran for 1,000+ yards. Hyde was the only running back I gave a first-round grade to this year. He is a poor man’s Marshawn Lynch. Lattimore is attempting to recover from a serious knee injury that is still limiting him in practice. James is used mainly as a return man on special teams. He was already disgruntled at his limited role on offense before Hyde complicated the picture. Hunter was given a few carries a game last year, but will have to compete with Hyde (and Gore) for them this year. Gore actually had the same rushing DYAR as Kaepernick last year (91 DYAR), but the 49ers don’t want Kaepernick to run as much this year (Gabbert). As for Gore, he’s been down (2011 rushing and receiving combined -24 DYAR), up (2012 combined 318 DYAR), and in between (2013 combined 130 DYAR). Running backs age fast and fade even faster, so the end could come at any time.

Anquan Boldin saved the 49ers passing game last season. It wasn’t that he put up great stats (+9.9 +/-, 25.8% DVOA, 386 DYAR), or that he was a budget pickup (traded for a sixth round pick). It was that he put up such amazing stats while Michael Crabtree was hurt. Boldin will turn 34 in October and it’s fair to ask whether or not he’ll be able to come close to repeating. Crabtree was on pace for a solid season before he hurt his Achilles. He was back for the playoffs and should be fully healthy this season. He and Boldin form a solid pair, but there are serious depth problems behind them. Stevie Johnson is third on the depth chart. He’s put up an incredible -20.6 +/- over the past three seasons. I know the Bills deserve part of the blame, but when Johnson can come to the 49ers and suddenly be the #3, something is wrong. #4 Wide receiver Quinton Patton could barely get on the field last year. Rookie fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington has speed, but will likely be used on special teams before he sees the field at receiver. I’m not sure how concerned the 49ers are at having such weak depth at receiver, as they prefer to get their tight ends more involved. Enter Vernon Davis. Davis is either the best or second-best tight end in the NFL (depending on whether or not Jimmy Graham really is a tight end). He won’t repeat his 13 touchdowns, but the 49ers would be happy with another 29.3% DVOA season. The 49ers would like Vance McDonald to share some of the limelight with Davis, but the 2013 second-round pick stunk (technical term) last season. He managed -20 DYAR despite only having 19 passes sent his way. The good news is that he improved as a blocker, but he wasn’t drafted to block.

Speaking of blocking, the 49ers mostly failed at it last season. Joe Staley was the best left tackle in the NFL last season, but the rest of the offensive line was poor. Left guard Mike Iupati ended up 26th in my rankings. That was better than center Jonathan Goodwin (29th), who is now in New Orleans. Daniel Kilgore will battle rookie third-round pick Marcus Martin. Martin is the more talented of the two, but only played one year of center in college, moving over after two years at guard. Right guard Alex Boone was roughly equal to his interior teammates (27th). Only right tackle Anthony Davis was decent (20th). This was the best line in the NFL in 2012, so maybe 2013 was a fluke. Injuries were an issue, so there is hope. Then again, the 49ers drafted Brandon Thomas, who is already lost for the season with an ACL tear. The third round pick should be healthy for 2015. (Update: Joe Looney may be beating out Alex Boone for the right guard job.)

The 49ers defense is going to be shorthanded for a portion of the season. Navarro Bowman isn’t fully recovered from tearing his ACL in the NFC Championship game. He’s likely to start the season on the PUP list. Aldon Smith will likely be suspended for 6-8 games for a DUI, weapons charges, and calling in a bomb threat. Seriously. The good news is they don’t play Seattle until Thanksgiving. Let’s talk about who will be available to start the season. (Update: Smith has been suspended for 9 games.)

Defensive ends Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey form a solid, but unspectacular defensive line. Smith is turning 35 this year and isn’t the star he once was. He still managed to grab 6.5 sacks, though. Dorsey played well last season, but plays fewer than 30 snaps a game. It’s unclear if backup Ian Williams will be able to start the season; he may be placed on the PUP list with an undisclosed injury. If he can’t go, Quinton Dial is likely to rotate in for Dorsey. McDonald doesn’t have the power or technique to turn his quickness into results, as he only managed 3.5 sacks last season and was the weakest link vs. the run. He played with a partially torn biceps last season that is still bothering him. I know the 49ers built their defense around their linebackers, but this defensive line is going to need an infusion of talent sometime soon. (Update: McDonald is going to be the first test of the post Ray Rice domestic violence standards. If Goodell is to be believed, he’ll be gone for at least six games).

Defensive end Aldon Smith picked up 8.5 sacks in 11 games last year. He’s a star, but availability is a concern (Yep, he’ll be back for the final seven games). Ahmad Brooks picked up 8 sacks last season, but he’ll have to get used to temporarily being the focus of the offensive protection schemes. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier are battling for Smith’s spot. Lemonier is the favorite to win that battle. Patrick Willis is still an elite inside linebacker. When Navarro Bowmen returns, the 49ers will have the best interior linebacker pairing in the NFL. Michael Wilhoite is battling rookie third-round pick Chris Borland for Bowman’s job while he recovers. Wilhoite is the favorite there. Borland is a bit like former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas: good field coverage, but short arms and an inability to get away from blocks.

Tremaine Brock has earned one of the two starting cornerback jobs. The other is open for competition. Incumbent Chris Culliver is battling Chris Cook and Perrish Cox. Culliver is recovering from ACL surgery. Cook struggled last season, but the 49ers coaching staff feel he might be a good fit in their system. Cox was the dime cornerback last season, and is trying to work his way up the depth chart. Things are a bit more settled at safety, where Eric Reid has lived up to expectations. There are concussion concerns, as he’s already suffered two of them. Free agent pickup Antoine Bethea is taking over at strong safety. Rookie first round pick Jimmie Ward is in the mix at safety and as the nickel cornerback in the slot. I was a bit surprised the 49ers took Ward over cornerback Bradley Roby. Not only did I have Roby rated higher, but cornerback seems to be a bigger need than safety. I’m wondering if the 49ers are more concerned about Reid’s concussions than they’ve let on. For now it looks like the 49ers are going to use Ward as a slot cornerback.

The 49ers coverage units are among the best in the NFL. That’s a particular advantage, as punter Andy Lee still has one of the strongest legs in the league. Kicker Phil Dawson has been solid. The biggest weakness is that the return game has been below average. The 49ers have multiple options to return both kicks and punts, and it isn’t clear who is going to get the job. At the moment Perrish Cox sits atop the depth chart for both roles.

The 49ers are still one of the premier teams in the NFL, but it feels as if they’ve fallen a hair behind Seattle. There’s also the issue that the 49ers have to go to Denver and New Orleans, while Seattle goes to Carolina and gets the Broncos in Seattle. The 49ers have been to three straight NFC Championship games, and are at risk of becoming the modern Buffalo Bills. They still have one of the best rosters in the NFL, but it feels like they’re sliding a bit. Finally, they have the slight hindrance in that they’re moving to a new stadium. That will slightly lower their home field advantage this season. Final answer: 10-6. (Update it’s been an awful preseason for the 49ers, and if not for Bradford’s injury I would have dropped them to 9-7.)

Seattle Seahawks

Expected Wins: 10.89

Scouting Wins: 10.13

DVOA Wins: 9.8

2013 Record: 13-3 (12.8 Pythagorean)

Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells taught me that every season is its own entity. Whatever happened last year happened last year and has no bearing on this season. The Seahawks start at 0-0 just like everyone else. Of course, just because all teams start with the same record doesn’t mean they start with the same expectations. The Seahawks are the favorites to win the NFC, but just winning the NFC West is going to be a challenge.

Last year I compared Russell Wilson to Colin Kaepernick. The comparison proved apt, as their stats were remarkably similar (Wilson: 15.6% DVOA and 770 DYAR, Kaepernick 16.6% DVOA and 791 DYAR). Actually, if you count rushing DYAR, Wilson jumps to 904, just ahead of Kaepernick’s 882. The amazing thing is that Wilson did all that with what may have been the worst offensive line in the NFL:

The line was clearly built to run the ball, where it was effective, ranking ninth overall in Football Outsider’s Adjusted Line Yards. However, my rankings include pretty much everything but that, and I had the Seahawks offensive line ranked 31-30-26-31-30 from left to right. Improved offensive line play would make Wilson’s job much easier. I know that the Seahawks just won a Super Bowl with a bad offensive line, but trust me when I say that improving it is the clearest path to retaining NFC supremacy. The one ray of hope for the Seahawks is that left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger battled injuries last season. Good health would likely mean a marked improvement in their quality of play. Normally, grabbing a new right tackle in the draft would inspire optimism, but rookie second-round pick Justin Britt was a staggering reach. I had him ranked 186th and would have been much happier to see the Seahawks pick up Morgan Moses. Moses ended up going two picks later to the Redskins. Britt played both left and right tackle while in college, so while I respect his versatility, I’d like to see more raw talent and power from a starter. That Britt appears to have already beaten out incumbent Michael Bowie for the right tackle job speaks to how weak the offensive line was last year.

Back to Wilson. He’s mobile enough that bad offensive line play affects him less than most, because it is occasionally a boon in that it gets defensive linemen up the field and away from his passing lanes. Still, bad line play increases the odds of seeing Tavaris Jackson start a game. While Jackson was great running a few trick plays last season, (81.9% DVOA), there is a reason we only saw him run 13 plays in total. Jackson is battling free agent pickup Terrelle Pryor for the backup job. Pryor was ineffective in Oakland and Jackson is well liked in the Seahawks locker room, but head coach Pete Carroll will play whomever gives the Seahawks the best chance of victory. That happens to be Russell Wilson, so try to keep him safe out there.

Marshawn Lynch ended up fifth in rushing DYAR with 185, but only 17th in DVOA at 5.9%. Those were his worst ranks in either category in the past three years, and there are concerns he’s due to wear down. He’s had over 1,000 touches (runs + receptions) over that time, so it’s natural to expect him to have an accelerated aging curve. It’s tough to predict when a running back is going to fade (see Gore, Frank), but you know it is inevitable. 2013 second-round pick Christine Michael is supposedly a favorite of the coaching staff, but was only given 18 carries last season. That’s a sign that his pass protection isn’t up to snuff, and the fact that he’s currently third on the depth chart suggests he still has a ways to go. Robert Turbin sits second on the depth chart despite -31 DYAR last season. The Seahawks trust Turbin in pass protection, so he can get on the field without tipping what the Seahawks are trying to do. Frankly, any regression in Lynch’s play is going to put a lot of pressure on Turbin and Michael, and so far there isn’t any evidence that either is ready to take on a larger role.

The Seahawks let their most prolific receiver (Golden Tate) leave in free agency. Seattle is more equipped than most teams to handle such a loss, as they have a receiver coming off a lost year due to injury to replace him. Having said that, Seattle wasn’t sure how much they could count on Percy Harvin, as he has only played in ten games over the past two seasons. To hedge against the risk that they’d lose Harvin again, the Seahawks drafted Paul Richardson in the second round. Richardson has some similarities to Harvin in that he’s a tremendous athlete with a slim frame and a history of injuries. Richardson missed the 2012 season with a torn ACL. Richardson has bulked up a bit to combat the risk of injury, although we aren’t sure if he can sustain his speed at his increased weight. At the time I felt Richardson was a bit of a reach, but after looking at the situation, it’s clear the Seahawks wanted a player that could most fill Harvin’s role. Harvin showed how dangerous he could be at the Super Bowl. Doug Baldin showed how effective he could be week-after-week. While Golden Tate led the Seahawks in receptions, it was Baldwin who finished second in NFL receiving DVOA at 33.3%, trailing only Kenny Stills of New Orleans. A Harvin-Baldwin pairing is a pretty good one for Seattle. Like Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse was an undrafted free agent. Kearse broke out in limited usage last season (26.2% DVOA on 22 receptions). He’s battling Ricardo Lockette for third on the depth chart. Lockette has seen most of his action on special teams. The Seahawks are claiming to be happy with his production so far this preseason. Zach Miller and Luke Willson form an effective tight end pairing. Miller is most effective as a blocker while Willson is more of a next generation receiver/blocker. Miller was asked to take a pay cut this offseason. He agreed, as he likely would have been cut otherwise. Willson was effective in limited usage last season (20 receptions, 18.2% DVOA) and will likely see his playing time increase.

I’m concerned about the offensive line and the running back depth behind Marshawn Lynch, but overall there is a lot to like about Seattle’s offense. Russell Wilson is good enough to lead the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl. The big question is how much he’ll have to do. Will he be allowed to not lose the game, as he did for much of 2013? Or will the onus be on him to win the game? That will come down to how effective Seattle’s defense is. It was easily the best defense in the NFL last season, and I’m sure we all remember what they did to Denver in the Super Bowl, but it is a lot harder to maintain an elite defense than it is to maintain an elite offense.

The good news for Seattle is that their defense is young and they’ve retained all of their key players. Seattle has built their defense around an elite secondary and a fierce pass rush. Seattle wisely realized that it’s okay if teams have some success running the ball against you, so long as you shut down opposing passing games. This has led to some odd personnel moves, such as drafting Bruce Irvin in the first round in 2012, but the strategy is fundamentally sound. Defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett combined for 16.5 sacks and 80 hits+hurries last season. Depth is an issue. Backup Greg Scruggs missed 2013 with a knee injury. He’ll be in the rotation at end and tackle. O’Brien Schofield had a total of eight tackles and one sack last season. Rookie fourth-round pick Cassius Marsh will also be in the mix. He, too, was a bit of a reach, but Seattle clearly has their own grading system for the draft. Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel will man the interior of the defensive line. Mebane was a destructive force against the run. He also picked up 21 hits+hurries. I’ll excuse the lack of sacks when you produce that much other havoc. McDaniel was solid in all facets of the game. The depth here is pretty good due to the addition of Kevin Williams. Jordan Hill missed most of his rookie season with a biceps injury. The 2013 third-round pick will split time with McDaniel this season. Overall this is a high quality defensive line, with depth at defensive end being the only concern.

I can’t really describe Seattle’s linebacker corps as a weak link. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was everything Seattle asked him to be, picking up 120 tackles and five sacks in 14 games. He also goes outside when Seattle swaps him with K.J Wright. Wright played all three linebacker positions and provides excellent depth. Malcolm Smith put up freakishly good numbers against the run and in coverage. Bruce Irvin is kind of the odd man out on the weakside. He’s a one-trick pony, and only produced two sacks last season. He’ll need to do better or he’ll lose playing time to Wright. One move I loved was grabbing Jackson Jeffcoat as an undrafted free agent. I had him ranked 86th on my board and I was shocked at his fall. He was the Big 12 player of the year at Texas. There are concerns he lacks the power of a defensive end or the speed of a linebacker, but “tweeners” who can get to the quarterback have real value, especially in a scheme that can hid their weaknesses. The depth chart after the first four is pretty thin, so if Jeffcoat can play, we’ll see him on the field.

When you have the best cornerback in the NFL (Richard Sherman), far and away the best free safety in the NFL (Earl Thomas), and a old-school monster at strong safety (Kam Chancellor), you have 3/4’s of the best possible starting backfield in the NFL. Chancellor wouldn’t be a perfect fit everywhere, but in Seattle he can play close to the line of scrimmage. He absolutely destroyed Denver’s short passing game in the Super Bowl. He had hip surgery in the offseason but should be fine to start week one. Thomas is an absurdly good athlete who has maximized his potential. Offenses have major difficulty beating him to a spot. Sherman is best known for his mouth, but he should be considered the dominant cornerback in the NFL. I know Patrick Peterson has had major beef with Sherman, but if the rap game has taught me anything, it is that you beef up, and Sherman’s the top of the list. He combines elite speed with film junky smarts. Odd as it sounds, he’s the defensive version of Peyton Manning. Byron Maxwell is the odd man out. He played well as a backup last season and earned the starting job on merit. He faced weaker competition than Sherman, but on a play-by-play basis he put up comparable numbers. If he can maintain his production on a full time basis, the Seahawks will be absurdly difficult to throw against. Jeremy Lane is currently leading the scrum to win the nickel job. He made his bones on special teams and needs his coverage skills to match his tackling skills. This secondary is where Seattle separates themselves from the rest of the NFL. If the starting four stay healthy, this group should be dominant.

The Seahawks have elite special teams. The only weak link is punter Jon Ryan, who’s average. The quandary Seattle faces is that their best return men (Earl Thomas, Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman), are all far too valuable to risk losing to injury. Well, I think so anyway. Seattle’s coaching staff so far disagrees. I’d recommend throwing rookie Paul Richardson out to return punts, and Bryan Walters or some other fast dude to return kicks. The coverage units are exceptional. Field goal kicking can be somewhat random, but kickoff distance is not and Steven Hauschka led the NFL. Look, if Seattle is willing to put their stars at risk, their special teams should be otherworldly. I hope they don’t. Just because Jason Sehorn married Angie Harmon doesn’t mean it always works out.

The Seahawks are the defending champions and are legitimate threats to repeat. To do so they’ll need to get past San Francisco, New Orleans, and Green Bay. That won’t be easy. Their one major weakness didn’t derail them last season, but given the defenses in the NFC West, improved offensive line play is likely a necessity. Then again, while I don’t yet have statistics on this, my guess is terrible line play usually reverts to the mean in the following season. If Seattle can get even average line play, the offense should be solid to compliment a spectacular defense. The Seahawks have some scheduling advantages compared to the 49ers, and should have the edge in retaining the NFC West. Their schedule is tougher than it was last year, but it probably won’t take 13 wins to win the West this year. 11-5.

Playoff Seedings:

1. New Orleans Saints

2. Seattle Seahawks

3. Green Bay Packers

4. Philadelphia Eagles

5. San Francisco 49ers

6. Chicago Bears

NFC Wildcard Round:

Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers

Such a brutal matchup for the Bears. Green Bay has owned them in the Rodgers era, and nothing changes this day. Green Bay 31, Chicago 13.

San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles

The 49ers have played a lot of extra football over the previous three seasons. It finally catches up to them as they wear down late. Philadelphia 19, San Francisco 17.

NFC Divisional Round

Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints

Philadelphia struggled at home against New Orleans last season. They don’t do any better in the dome. New Orleans 27, Philadelphia 17.

Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

This is a great game. Seattle’s defense keeps Aaron Rodgers in check just enough for Russell Wilson to lead Seattle to a comeback victory. Seattle 24, Green Bay 20.

NFC Championship Game

Seattle Seahawks @ New Orleans Saints

Seattle is a very tough place to play, but this time New Orleans doesn’t have to travel. Things are different in the dome as New Orleans gets their revenge and returns to the Super Bowl. New Orleans 30, Seattle 24.

Yep. While Seattle is the best team in the NFL, it is very tough to repeat. Getting home field advantage will be very important as Seattle and New Orleans are both very tough places to play. Green Bay would also hugely benefit from home field advantage, but their going to be in trouble if they lose the season opener at Seattle. Spoiler alert, I think they lose that game, which is why they end up as the #3 seed.

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