Like the rest of y’all, I’m still waiting to see the results of Deflategate, but the time has come to publish, so here is the opening installment of my 2015 NFL Preview. We’ll begin with the AFC East, but first I’d like to define a few terms that you’ll be seeing fairly often:
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. (Update: This has been true two years in a row. The futures market prices in a 260 game season.)
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 worth roughly as much as the other three offensive values put together. Offensive line is more important than the wide receiving corps, which is more important than the running backs. The defense has three values: defensive line, linebacker corps, and the secondary. I used to value them in that order, but I’ve modified that as the NFL has evolved. Now, all three groups are roughly equal in value. 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 2015 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.
I will occasionally refer to my offensive lineman rankings. Those are graded against other players who played the same position (left guard, right tackle, etc.). For players who played multiple positions I simply judged how well the performed overall.
Alright, enough preamble, let’s look at the division that has the reigning Super Bowl Champion, and three teams anxiously awaiting the end of the Tom Brady era:
AFC East Projected Standings:
New England Patriots 11-5
Miami Dolphins 8-8
Buffalo Bills 8-8
New York Jets 7-9
Expected Wins: 7.94
Scouting Wins: 7.33
DVOA Wins: 8.0
2014 Record: (9-7, 9.6 Pythagorean)
According to DVOA, the Bills were the ninth-best team in the NFL last season. They had the fourth-best special teams grade, and the second-best defense, trailing only the Seahawks. Had the Bills offense been merely average, the team would have been a Super Bowl contender. Unfortunately, the Bills’ offense wasn’t average. It won’t be average this season either. The reason for that is that the Bills don’t have an NFL quality quarterback. Last season they had Kyle Orton, who was good for 131 DYAR (-6.8% DVOA). Orton has retired to be closer to his family. Normally that is a euphemism, but in this case it’s apparently true. Over the past three years, the quarterbacks left on the Buffalo roster have combined for -787 DYAR. It’s hard to find a good quarterback. The Bills whiffed with EJ Manuel. Matt Cassel was acquired very cheaply (Bills gave up a fifth and seventh for a sixth-round pick and Cassel). The Bills mortgaged their future to win now for reasons that are borderline indefensible, and now they are stuck in a terrible situation. They have a fairly well-stocked roster, and no one to lead it. The fact is, good quarterbacks do not hit free agency, and even if they did, the Bills couldn’t afford to pay for one given their salary cap situation. Over the next few years the roster will begin to deteriorate, with nothing to show for all the investments the Bills have made. It really is quite depressing.
Matt Cassel is a known mediocrity. The fact that he was available for such a cheap price makes that clear. EJ Manuel has lost faith in his ability to throw anything longer than a checkdown. He isn’t accurate enough to beat NFL defenses on intermediate or longer passes. There really isn’t anything to hope for with him at this point. That’s one of the reasons Rex Ryan is taking such a long look at Tyrod Taylor, but Taylor doesn’t have the skills to be a starting NFL quarterback either. Matt Simms is lingering on the bottom of the depth chart. Presumably either Manuel will “win” the job, or Ryan will stick with the mediocrity he can trust. In neither case is there much room for optimism. (Update: Tyrod Taylor has won the starting job. Cian Fahey predicted this, and has a good review of Taylor:
This move makes me a bit more bullish on the Bills than I would otherwise have been)
LeSean McCoy is going to be in for a nasty shock when he discovers how hard it is to run when defenses don’t respect the passing game. He’s coming off of a surprisingly terrible season (78 DYARLOS, -3.4% DVOALOS). Yes, he was great in 2013, but that was in a vastly different situation. He’s also dealing with an injured hamstring, so I am highly skeptical he’ll be worth anything close to the… I just looked at his contract and I can’t believe it. He signed for $26M in guaranteed money across a five year deal. McCoy’s agent Drew Rosenhaus is a stone cold master, and the Bills front office is incompetent. The Bills also had to give up linebacker Kiko Alonso to acquire McCoy. McCoy might surprise me and have a great season, and it still wouldn’t justify the Bills actions. Behind McCoy we have the well-regarded but fading Fred Jackson. Jackson’s DYARLOS last season was -15, and he is 34 years old. Anthony Dixon is third on the depth chart. He’s dealing with a calf injury and might not be available to start the season. He’s provided much of his value on special teams, but would like to move up to #2 on the depth chart behind McCoy.
Over the past three seasons, Percy Harvin has played in 23 games. His receiving DVOA over that time? -7.1%. He provides some value as a runner, but his days of being a star and a difference-maker are over. Sammy Watkins is better than his stats suggest: -8.5 +/-, -5.7%. Playing with EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton makes it difficult to put up great numbers. With Cassel and Manuel as the main options this season, it’s unlikely Watkins will show how great he can potentially be. I will say that he has shown some flashes of elite talent and I do have high hopes for him in the future. He may struggle early in the season, as he is currently dealing with a hip injury. 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods has shown remarkable consistency:
2013: -11.7% DVOA, 6 DYAR
2014: -11.4% DVOA, 11 DYAR
That is what you might call a VERY slight improvement. Despite the similarity in his numbers, his role changed a great deal, as he went from being a mid-to-deep threat into a short-range option. That led to a corresponding increase in catch rate (47% to 63%), and drop in yards-per-catch (14.7 to 10.8). Frankly, Woods and Watkins form a pretty good pair of young wide receivers, but the lack of a quarterback is going to doom them to lousy numbers for the foreseeable future. Chris Hogan is fourth on the depth chart, but he isn’t a real threat to move up barring injury to one of the top three. Over the past three seasons, tight end Charles Clay produced 71 DYAR, with a -2.3% DVOA. I could see a team that needed a tight end signing him to a reasonable contract. He might even be the guaranteed starter on such a team. That doesn’t mean I would offer him this:
$24.5M guaranteed. Have I mentioned that the Bills’ front office is awful? Also, how much can you expect out of your tight end when you don’t have a quarterback? Just a bad scene all around.
The Bills’ offensive line has been rebuilt over the offseason, with changes at both left and right guard. Left tackle Cordy Glenn is coming off of a below-average season where he struggled in pass protection and lacked power in the running game. New left guard Richie Incognito wasn’t that great in Miami. He’s best known for his role in the bullying scandal, but his game is average at best. Center Eric Wood graded out 13th overall in my rankings. He’s above-average, but not a star. I felt the Bills reached when they grabbed new right guard John Miller in the third round. 2014 seventh-round pick right tackle Seantrel Henderson was the mirror image of Glenn: mediocre blocking, lacking in power. Given that Henderson was a rookie, there is hope for growth, and he may end up switching sides with Glenn this season. There is also the possibility Incognito and Miller will flip if Miller impresses. Overall, this is a weak offensive line.
It wouldn’t come close to working out with the salary cap, but I’m just imagining what Pittsburgh or Dallas would be like with this defense. Alas, it’s just a dream. This was the best defensive line in the NFL last season. Altogether they combined for 47.5 sacks and 134 hits+hurries. Those are insane numbers. It was brutal to try and run inside against them. Defensive ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes did offer some outside running lanes, but that’s a reasonable tradeoff when you are selling out to get to the quarterback. Inside, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were dominant. Dareus in particular was borderline unblockable at times. Dareus is suspended for the season opener against Indianapolis for substance abuse. The depth here isn’t bad, but the dropoff from the starters is noticeable. Andrew Luck is definitely catching a break here. It hasn’t been decided if the Bills are going to run the 4-3 they ran last year, or switch to a 3-4. Mario Williams would be fine making the adjustment from playing in a 3-point stance to standing at the snap.
2014 third-round pick Preston Brown led the Bills in tackles last season. His range was excellent and he was the main reason the Bills felt comfortable trading Kiko Alonso. Nigel Bradham had a bounce-back season after a poor 2013 campaign. Right now, Manny Lawson is slated to start on the strong side, presuming the Bills stick with a 4-3. Lawson is a capable veteran and he rounds out a solid linebacker corps. The depth here isn’t quite as good as it is on the defensive line.
There is a clear dropoff from the Bills #1CB (Stephon Gilmore) to their #2CB (Leodis McKelvin). Teams were picking on McKelvin before an ankle injury cut his season short. He responded to the increased attention by gambling more often, which gave led to four interceptions in 64 targets, but mediocre results otherwise. He might not be 100% to start the season. Gilmore was solid throughout, as was Corey Graham. Graham is being converted into the starting free safety. Rookie second-round pick Ronald Darby is expected to win the nickel job. He’s earned a reputation for playing solid press coverage and should be ready to step in for the Bills. Strong safety Aaron Williams is solid against both the run and pass. A great pass-rush makes this secondary look better than it is, but even so, this is a solid unit that caps off an excellent defense. (Update: If McKelvin can’t start the season, we may see Graham at #2CB, with 2013 fourth-round pick Duke Williams starting at free safety. Presumably that would be a downgrade, but that depends on Williams’ development.)
The Bills special teams units were an asset last season, but there are signs that won’t continue into 2015. Kicker Dan Carpenter is battling a hamstring injury. He just handles field goals, while Jordan Gay handles kickoffs. Carpenter is coming off of a great season, but there is no guarantee he’ll be able to repeat that, especially if his leg isn’t 100%. Punter Colton Schmidt faded towards the end of last season. The blocking and coverage units were good last season, and should remain so. Overall, a slight decline would be reasonable, but the key will be Carpenter’s health (or Gay’s ability to handle field goals).
Some regression for the special teams and the pass rush is to be expected. Interestingly, Buffalo’s expected wins dropped from 8.35 to 7.94 this preseason, but I’ve upgraded my view of them. Originally I had them winning seven games, but the move to Taylor gives the offense some hope. Given how good the defense is, that should be enough to bump them to eight wins. 8-8
Expected Wins: 8.70
Scouting Wins: 8.59
DVOA Wins: 7.5
2014 Record: (8-8, 8.4 Pythagorean)
It took a while, but the light came on last season for Ryan Tannehill. While Buffalo had a better record last season, Miami recognized that they were the true threat to the New England Patriots stranglehold on the AFC East. They’ve decided to seize their opportunity and upgraded their defense with Ndamukong Suh. It cost the Dolphins almost $60M in guaranteed money, and will come with a massive cap hit in 2016, but the benefits are huge. Suh is a dominant lineman who will make everyone around him better. Still, Tannehill is the most important variable, so let’s take an in-depth look at him.
Tannehill struggled his rookie and sophomore seasons (-9.9% and -9.8% DVOA respectively). Last season he improved significantly, putting up a 4.1% DVOA and finishing 12th in DYAR with 630. That’s not what it takes to dethrone the king, but the hope is that he’ll continue to improve this season. To help in that regard, the Dolphins upgraded their wide receiver corps.
Mike Wallace led the Dolphins’ wide receivers in both DVOA (11.8%) and DYAR (221), but he never really clicked with Tannehill. Wallace has taken his talents to Minnesota. He’s been replaced by Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings, and rookie first-round pick DeVante Parker. The trade for Kenny Stills is still baffling. Over the past two seasons, he was first and third in receiving DVOA. Last season his +/- was an obscene +15.5. Yes, those numbers are inflated by playing with Drew Brees, but why would the Saints trade a player entering his third season for a third-round pick and an overpriced linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe)? The trade was baffling at the time and the only thing that anyone could figure out to rationalize it is that the Saints must think Stills is damaged goods. Stills is currently dealing with a calf injury, but it isn’t viewed as serious. If 100%, he’s going to give the Dolphins a sure-handed weapon. Jennings is on the downside of his career, but he’s still a productive veteran who knows how to do his job and can lead by example. On talent alone, I had DeVante Parker as the 14th best player in a deep draft. However, he’s still dealing with a nagging foot fracture. That is the type of injury that often leads to further foot or Achilles injuries down the line. I’d be very worried that the Dolphins are buying a lemon. Having said that, if Parker can stay healthy, then the Dolphins have added a dangerous weapon to their arsenal. 2014 second-round pick Jarvis Landry looks to have retained the slot job. He had a solid rookie season (+8.7 +/-, 102 DYAR). His -0.8% DVOA reflects unusually poor “first-down luck,” as defenders had a knack of stopping him just before he reached the yellow line on your television. Tight end is a bit of a question for the Dolphins. When they signed Jordan Cameron I winced. It’s not that Cameron isn’t talented. He has the skills to be a quality addition to the Dolphins. The problem is that he missed six games last season with concussions and has had issues with them for a while. If Cameron misses time, Dion Sims will be asked to step up. He’s been an effective blocker and reliable receiver, albeit in limited usage.
Lamar Miller had his coming out party last season, rushing for 1,099 yards in only 216 carries. He’s very comfortable in space and is a good fit for the Dolphins’ shotgun offense. While his rushing success might have been a bit of a fluke, he could easily make up for some regression by improving as a receiver. Damien Williams is battling rookie fifth-round pick Jay Ajahi for the #2 spot on the depth chart. Miller and Williams were both solid last season (DVOALOS’s of 12.3% and 11.6%, respectively), but Miller did it in a much larger sample size. He’s also better in pass protection. Ajayi fell deep into the draft due to concerns about his knee. Either the Dolphins lucked out with a gift or they threw away a fifth-round pick. There really isn’t much of a middle ground here. I had Ajayi as the #3 overall running back on my draft board. The last time I saw him on the field he was rushing for 134 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. If that guy can stay on the field for the Dolphins, Williams will have to get used to the bench. In terms of style, Ajayi is a good compliment to Miller. Miller is better in space, whereas Ajayi is almost universally described as a “North-South” runner. I’ll be rooting for Ayaji.
There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the Dolphins’ offensive line. Left tackle Brandon Albert was having a good (not great) season when he went down with ACL and MCL tears. He is questionable to start week one vs. Washington. Dallas Thomas looks to be winning the competition for the left guard job. He was not effective in spot replacement duty at guard or tackle last season. Mike Pouncey is moving back to center after struggling at right guard last season. 2014 third-round pick Billy Turner struggled as a rookie, but appears likely to replace Pouncey at right guard this season. 2014 first-round pick Ja’Wuan James was among the worst tackles in the NFL last season. He got his ass kicked all season long. The hope is he learned from his failures and can hold down the right tackle job this season. While the depth here is spotty, the silver lining is that in most cases the dropoff in case of injury would be minor. Except for Albert. If he goes down again or can’t play, things could get pretty bad here.
Adding Suh clearly changes the offensive gameplan vs. Miami. Previously, offenses had to focus on blocking defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. Suh is going to require double-blocking to keep him in check. He’ll play alongside run-stuffer Earl Mitchell. Wake and Vernon combined for 18 sacks and 53 hits+hurries last season. Wake may be slowing down a bit, but he’s still a premier pass-rusher. Rookie second-round pick Jordan Phillips is an intriguing addition to the defensive line rotation. He’s exceptionally talented, but there have been questions about his effort. He has first-round talent, so if the Dolphins coaching staff can get him to play to his potential, we may see a defensive line that can compare to the one in Buffalo. The loss of Dion Jordan to a year-long suspension is embarrassing, but given his level of play it likely doesn’t matter a great deal.
Middle linebacker Koa Misi probably deserves a grade of “acceptable.” The Dolphins had higher hopes than that when they grabbed him in the second round in 2010, but there are a lot of worse results as well (see Jordan, Dion). Jelani Jenkins was a very nice surprise last season, stepping into the starting lineup when Dannell Ellerbe was injured. Chris McCain has a tenuous grip on the final starting spot. Then again, everyone behind him on the depth chart is fighting to make the team via special teams contributions. The Dolphins could probably use an additional linebacker.
I have some concerns about the Dolphins’ secondary. Brent Grimes is beginning to wear down. He’s still serviceable, but he’d be better off as a #2CB than as the #1CB he is now. There is a competition to see who will start across from him. Jamar Taylor was expected to win it, but he’s fallen back on the depth chart. Currently, Will Davis has the job. Davis is coming back from an ACL tear and it is possible the Dolphins are testing him to see if he is healthy enough to do the job. Brice McCain might also win the job, although he’s best suited to play nickel. Strong safety Reshad Jones has quietly become a very consistent performer. He may play his way into his first Pro Bowl this season. Free safety Louis Delmas is coming back from a torn ACL and the Dolphins are preparing 2014 fourth-round pick Walt Aikens to step in if needed. It’s possible that Grimes has a bounce-back year, Delmas stays healthy, and a someone steps up across from Grimes. It’s also possible he fades, Delmas misses time, and the secondary falls apart. The more I look at the Dolphins’ back-seven, the less I see.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis was awful last season. He was bad at all aspects of his job (his kickoff distance was fine, but the accompanying hang-time put his coverage unit at a disadvantage). I was not the only person surprised that the Dolphins didn’t aggressively look at candidates to replace him. Punter Brandon Fields has traditionally been reliable, but he is coming off of a bad year. The Dolphins will need to keep an eye on him to see if it was just an off year or a sign of a decline. The coverage units are also sub-par, and Miami hasn’t done much to address that this offseason. Jarvis Landry holds both return jobs, but like the other specialists he had a bad 2014. Normally, special teams units have a fair amount of regression to the mean, but I’d be a little concerned if I were a Dolphins fan. (Update: Fields has been released and Matt Darr has won the job.)
With the addition of Suh, I was expecting to like this roster more than I do. Offensively, the Dolphins are asking Tannehill to adjust to a completely new receiving corps. There are serious injury concerns scattered throughout the roster. Traditionally, building a team through free agency looks a lot better on paper than it does on the field. The Dolphins are hoping to take a step forward this season, but I am not seeing it. 8-8.
New England Patriots
Expected Wins: 9.97
Scouting Wins: 9.76
DVOA Wins: 10.5
2014 Record: (12-4, 11.8 Pythagorean)
Blame the NY Post. If they hadn’t run so many embarrassing covers, such as:
then perhaps Roger Goodell wouldn’t have felt such pressure to punish Brady and the Patriots. Due to the agreements owners have with the NFL, it is very difficult for Robert Kraft to sue the NFL or fight any penalties Goodell imposes on the team. Players have the ability to appeal penalties, with very little downside, but the appeals are heard by Goodell himself. After Goodell rules, the players can then take their case to court, which is what Brady and the NFLPA have done. It’s impossible to know how Judge Berman will rule, but early signs are that he is unimpressed with the Wells Report. For now, Brady is slated to miss the first four games, but that is subject to change.
For the record, Brady likes his balls on the low end of the PSI scale, Aaron Rodgers prefers his to be on the high end of the PSI scale, and every team is looking for every edge they can find. Except the NY Jets. They haven’t found an edge in so long I cannot be sure they’re still looking.
Back to Brady. He’s 38 years old and his physical skills are slowly fading. He’s still an elite quarterback (18.1% DVOA, 1,176 DYAR last season), but not the dominant force he was a few years ago. One could argue that Rob Gronkowski makes him look a little better than he is, but the flip side of that is the wide receiver corps Brady has been made to make do with. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo is an unknown. He’s looked good in some preseason games, but that tells us less than you’d think. The one thing in Garoppolo’s favor is that apart from the Bills, the defenses he’d be facing aren’t all that frightening.
LeGarrette Blount pretty much dogged it with the Steelers, but showed up for work when the Patriots came calling. He’s suspended for week one (marijuana), and might not be available early in the season due to a sprained MCL in his right knee. If he’s unavailable, it’s anyone’s guess who gets the ball. Jonas Gray was great vs. the Colts in the regular season, but that says more about the Colts than Cadet. 2014 fourth-round pick James White is battling Travaris Cadet for a spot on the depth chart. One edge for Cadet is his value on special teams. The Patriots are smart in that they know running backs aren’t where you want to spend scarce resources. They’ll run the ball if your defense can’t stop it, and abandon the run if it can.
If your defense can stop the run, the next question is: Can you stop Rob Gronkowski? Usually the answer to that is “No.” However, Gronk has only played in 33 games over the past three seasons (not counting playoffs), so it’s not certain that the Patriots should count on him to be available for 16 games. When healthy, he is the best tight end in the NFL and a matchup nightmare for most defenses. He provides a unique mix of speed and power and is a mismatch against almost any single defender. After Gronkowski, we have a fairly pedestrian set of targets. Tom Brady made Brandon LaFell look a lot better (5.7% DVOA, 174 DYAR) than he was last season. LaFell can overpower smaller defenders, but struggles to create separation. LaFell is currently recovering from a foot injury, but should be healthy to start the season. Julian Edelman is what his numbers say he is. Over the past two seasons he’s been a reliable target (+12.8 +/-), providing a little bit of value (2.4% DVOA). He’ll catch around 70% of the balls sent his way, at least the ones sent by Brady. We’ll see how Garoppolo does if Judge Berman rules for the NFL. Danny Amendola sucked last season (-17.7% DVOA, -16 DYAR), but was great when the Patriots needed him vs. the Ravens and Seahawks (71 DYAR in those two games). I don’t think Bill Belichick knows what to expect from Amendola this season. Right now Brian Tyms is fourth on the depth chart. He had five receptions last season, so it’s safe to say that after Amendola the depth here is rather thin.
Left tackle Nate Solder got his ass kicked last season. Unless the Patriots want to switch him with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (who was excellent last year), they have no real options and will have to hope last season was just a bad year. Left guard Dan Connolly was solid last season, but he retired after the Super Bowl. Currently, Josh Kline is beating rookie fourth-round pick Tre’ Jackson for the job. Jackson was a great value pick and is the more talented of the two. Kline was effective in limited usage last season, and is probably the safer option at the moment. 2014 fourth-round pick Bryan Stork got thrown into the fire last season and held his own at center. He should be improved this season with a full year of experience. Right guard Ryan Wendell graded out slightly above-average by my metrics. Overall, this line can be very good if Solder returns to form, or mediocre if he doesn’t.
I was not pleased when Malcom Brown fell to the Patriots in the draft. He and 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley form one of the most talented defensive tackle tandems in the NFL, presuming Easley can stay healthy. Easley has been rehabbing from a knee injury, but claims to be healthy. Behind them Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, and Alan Branch provide good depth. Chandler Jones missed six games last season. On a pro-rated basis, Jones and Rob Ninkovich combined for 17.6 sacks, and 69 hits+hurries. In other words, this is a better pair than you might expect. Ninkovich is an end-linebacker hybrid, regularly dropping back into coverage. The depth behind them is pretty thin, though. Overall, this is a decent defensive line, with some question marks.
Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Donta Hightower form a solid linebacker corps, but they only appeared in a combined 33 games last season. Hightower is coming back from a shoulder injury and it’s unclear how healthy he’ll be to start the season. The depth here isn’t great, although the Patriots might solve that problem by playing more base nickel if necessary.
Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are a serviceable pair of starting cornerbacks, but they’re closer to a liability than a strength. Butler saved a Super Bowl, but that won’t help him as teams break down his game on film and take advantage of his limitations. Ryan is the more talented of the two, but he struggled last season. There have been some hints that free agent pickup Bradley Fletcher may break into the starting lineup. Fletcher is no star, and this could be an area of concern for the Patriots. Free safety Devin McCourty is the most trustworthy defender in the Patriots’ secondary. Strong safety Patrick Chung was a bit better than most expected last season, proving effective against the run without being a liability in coverage.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski put together another spectacular year. He’s excellent on kickoffs and accurate on field goals, even from long distance. Even if the rest of the New England special teams are around average, Gostkowski should put them near the top of the rankings. He’s that good. Julian Edelman has provided good value on punt returns, but given that the NFL has a concussion rule named in his honor, that’s not something the Patriots can count on.
Like the Colts, the Patriots have no real threats in their division. Only the Dolphins have a competent quarterback, and the rest of that roster appears to be lacking. Losing Brady for four games might put the Patriots into a hole, but they should be able to crawl out of it over the course of the final twelve games. Indianapolis is considered the AFC favorite, but the Patriots have dominated them in recent matchups. Denver is relying on an increasingly fragile Peyton Manning. Despite all of their issues, I still see the Patriots putting together a solid season. 11-5. (Update: Buffalo is now a more dangerous opponent than I had expected. However, the market has been increasingly bullish on Brady’s chances of playing more than 12 games, so I’m sticking with 11-5).
New York Jets
Expected Wins: 7.23
Scouting Wins: 7.84
DVOA Wins: 8.2
2014 Record: (4-12, 4.8 Pythagorean)
All those numbers were calculated before IK Enemkpali broke Geno Smith’s jaw. It’s not clear that any of them should change. The reaction from the Jets locker room has been telling. This has been the opposite of “rallying around their quarterback.” It isn’t just that many of the players felt Smith was at fault in the incident. The fact is, none of them felt Enemkpali hurt the team, and why would they? Let’s take a look at Smith’s statistics:
2013: 3,046 yards, 12 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, -23.6% DVOA, -371 DYAR (65 DYAR rushing)
That was a tough rookie season, but there was hope he would develop.
2014: 2,525 yards, 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, -12.5% DVOA, -33 DYAR (-65 DYAR rushing)
Yes, he was better than he was his rookie year, but not remotely good. Those numbers are heavily buttressed by his 358 yard, 3 touchdown, 0 interception masterpiece to close the season vs. Miami. The Jets see Smith in practice, so they have a good sense of what he’s capable of. If someone were to attack Aaron Rodgers, the rest of the team would beat the perpetrator down. Geno might be able to come back from this, but it’s a major setback, and an embarrassing one at that. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a placeholder. The Jets gave up a conditional pick to the Texans (it is going to be a sixth-round pick due to playing time). Fitzpatrick is on his fourth team in four years, which I believe qualifies him for “journeyman” status at his hotel chain of choice. He’s notoriously bad under pressure, but generally appears competent otherwise. Rookie fourth-round pick Bryce Petty isn’t close to ready to face NFL defenses. Apart from Mariota, I was skeptical of this quarterback class. Petty wasn’t as accurate as he should have been in Baylor’s offense. I don’t see the Jets quarterback of the future on their roster. Sorry Jake Heaps fans.
Chris Ivory is ostensibly the Jets’ lead running back, but that is subject to change. He’s produced a combined 50 DYAR over his two seasons with the Jets. Backup Stevan Ridley is still recovering from a torn ACL and MCL. He’s likely to start the season on the PUP list. When healthy, he’s a quality running back with a bad fumbling habit. If he can keep that proclivity in check, he’s likely an upgrade over Ivory. Bilal Power has proven himself to be a jack of all trades. He can run a bit, block a bit, catch a bit, but he isn’t good enough at any of them to crack the starting lineup. Zac Stacy had the balls to demand the Rams trade him when they took Todd Gurley. The Rams obliged, mostly because they didn’t see a need for him. Running backs are generally fungible, and Stacy is more so than most.
The Jets have made a habit of importing big name receivers. Brandon Marshall is the latest, following in the footsteps of Eric Decker. People seem to be assuming Marshall is not the player he was as recently as 2013 (9.5% DVOA, 284 DYAR). He struggled last year (-3.3% DVOA, 78 DYAR), and the Bears were willing to give him up fairly cheaply. Perhaps they saw his decline in practice, or perhaps they were just sick of him. I am hoping it is the latter. Eric Decker put up heroic numbers last season (9.4% DVOA, 199 DYAR). He’s likely looking forward to building a good rapport with Fitzpatrick. Look for Jeremy Kerley to bounce back from his -21.2% DVOA, -51 DYAR performance from last season. Moving from Smith to Fitzpatrick should benefit him. His bigger problem is the he may lose playing time to rookie second-round pick Devin Smith. Smith is an excellent deep threat. Frankly, Marshall, Decker, and Smith could form one of the best wide receiver corps in the NFL. Of course, it’s possible Marshall is declining, and rookie wide receivers are famously unpredictable. 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro struggled with drops his rookie season. He’s currently dealing with an injured shoulder. Jeff Cumberland is currently ahead of Amaro on the depth chart. Cumberland followed up an excellent 2013 (112 DYAR) with an awful 2014 (-66 DYAR). He’s also an ineffective blocker, so I’d like to see Amaro develop sooner rather than later.
Center Nick Mangold was the best in the NFL last season. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson snuck into my top five. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was above-average last season. Willie Colon got his butt kicked at right guard last season. It looks like he’ll be moving over to left guard this year. Right now it looks like free agent pick up James Carpenter will start at right guard. Carpenter played well for the Seahawks last season, and is likely an improvement over the Jets’ other options. Overall, this line looks pretty good, although there are whispers Ferguson is slipping.
I have no idea how long Sheldon Richardson’s suspension is going to be, but I’m not expecting to see him suit up for the Jets this season. He was already suspended the first four games of the season due to repeated failed drug tests (marijuana), when he was arrested for driving 143 MPH with a 12-year old kid in the car and a gun under his seat. Apparently the car also reeked of marijuana. He’s an elite player (eight sacks, 24.5 hits+hurries last season) and the Jets will miss him. With him gone, we may see rookie first-round pick Leonard Williams crack the starting lineup. Williams was my top rated player in this year’s draft. He was a monster at USC and I’m ecstatic he fell to the Jets. At the time there was some discussion that this was not an area of need, but that’s always subject to change. If Williams does start, it will be across from Muhammad Wilkerson. Wilkerson was fantastic last season, dominating against the run, while grabbing six sacks and 24.5 hits+hurries. Nose tackle Damon Harrison has performed quite well. He’s a traditional “space eater” who gets little glory, but frees up his more heralded teammates to make plays. With Richardson, this would be an excellent defensive line. Without him, the depth is a bit thin and the pressure will be on Williams to perform immediately.
Outside linebacker Quinton Coples put together a pretty good season, grabbing 6.5 sacks and 25 hits+hurries. Calvin Pace is fading, but the Jets don’t feel like they have anyone better than him to put across from Coples. Jason Babin is the next best player in the rotation, and he’s lost a few too many steps for my liking. Rookie third-round pick Lorenzo Mauldin is a high-effort guy who has a notable passion for the game. He doesn’t have the athleticism to project as a great pass-rusher, but he’s very strong against the run and has good coverage instincts. The Jets may have grabbed him a bit early, but I have no complaints about adding him to the roster. Inside, David Harris is clearly slipping, although he still grabbed 5.5 sacks last season. He’ll play alongside 2012 third-round pick Demario Davis. Davis is in that gray area where has hasn’t yet lived up to the Jets’ expectations, but he’s a capable starter, so he isn’t a bust either. I’d expect the Jets to look at upgrading their linebacker corps in the 2016 draft (no offense to Mauldin).
There is a lot of joy at the Revis-Cromartie reunion, but cool your jets, Jets fans. Revis is still an elite cornerback, but he isn’t the dominant force he was years ago. Cromartie is still good, but his numbers weren’t all that impressive last season. This should be a much-improved secondary, but not to the same level it was during the glory days. Dee Milliner is going to miss six-to-eight weeks with wrist surgery, and is also recovering from a torn Achilles. It’s becoming increasingly likely he’ll end up being a bust for the Jets. Buster Skrine was a less heralded addition, but he should prove to be a great asset as the nickel cornerback. Darrin Walls provides solid depth. 2014 first-round pick Calvin Prior struggled last season, and is being moved closer to line of scrimmage this season. That should better suit his skill-set, although I wonder if teams will still try to take advantage of him in coverage. Free safety Marcus Gilchrist should provide competence at a position the Jets have struggled with. Overall, this secondary should be much improved from where they were in 2014. The biggest concern is that the loss of Richardson will diminish the pass-rush and leave opposing quarterbacks the time needed to pick the Jets apart.
I don’t care what anyone says: Having Nick Folk as your kicker is torture. He’s miserable on kickoffs, and inspires no confidence on long kicks. His numbers were down last season due to nagging injuries, and I wish the Jets had brought in Josh Lambo (Lambo went undrafted and signed with the Chargers). Actually, while Lambo would have been my first choice, I’d have been happy with almost any serious training camp competition for Folk. Punter Ryan Quigley is solid, as are the Jets coverage units. The return units have been less effective. Jeremy Kerley is expected to return punts again this season, but the Jets’ kick return starter hasn’t yet been decided. Overall, the Jets’ special teams units are average, but they could be so much better if they had a kicker with a stronger leg.
The Jets’ roster is better than I thought it would be given their offseason. I liked their draft, and the loss of Geno Smith opens the door for Ryan Fitzpatrick to have a career year. He’s throwing to the best receiver corps he’s ever had. If the Jets can keep the defense off of him, their offense might be a huge surprise. Defensively, the loss of Richardson is going to hurt, but there is plenty of talent left over. However… the truth is the Jets have built this roster through trades and free agency. Fitzpatrick has major flaws, and Marshall may be in decline. The secondary has some big names, but they aren’t the same players they were when they built their reputation. The Jets look like they’ll win too many games to find their quarterback of the future. 7-9