2016 NFL Preview: Introduction & AFC East

Welcome to my 2016 NFL preview. I apologize for making you wait so long, but there have been a few late quarterback moves to shake things up. Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Denver have all made late changes. That list includes the defending Super Bowl Champion and the defending NFC North winner. Even good teams sometimes need to make a late audible. In Minnesota’s case, it was due to a horrific non-football injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In Philadelphia’s case, they took advantage of Minnesota’s desperate need for a quarterback. Philadelphia didn’t particularly want to keep Bradford, so getting a first round pick for him (plus a conditional pick) was a huge win for them. As for Denver, they won the Super Bowl despite getting awful quarterback play throughout the playoffs. Peyton Manning’s retirement was expected. Brock Osweiler leaving in free agency was only a minor surprise given his dislike of Denver’s front office. Denver picked up Matt Sanchez, and drafted Paxton Lynch. Sanchez sanchized himself straight out of town. Lynch isn’t quite ready yet. That left 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian as the last man standing. As for Sanchez, he went to Dallas. Tomy Romo’s injury lead to Dak Prescott winning the starting job. Or, at least he had it won until Sanchez showed up. Now we’ll have to see. For now, let me define a few terms I’ll be using throughout this 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 7.46. 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 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 2016 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. (Update: I am now certain replacement level is set too high).

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.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at the division the Patriots have owned for well over a decade:

AFC East

New England Patriots 11-5

New York Jets 8-8

Buffalo Bills 8-8

Miami Dolphins 7-9

Buffalo Bills

Talent Wins: 7.79

Expected Wins: 7.51

DVOA Wins: 8.2

Last Year: 8-8 (8.5 Pythagorean Wins)

I’m curious what the Bills don’t see in Tyrod Taylor. He has a very reasonable salary this season, and the Bills could have used that as leverage against a player who likely wants to secure long-term financial security. As such, they could have offered him a deal that would give them a savings relative to the market while containing costs into the future. Instead, they chose to draft Cardale Jones. Thus, this is their quarterback depth chart:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/tyrod-taylor/

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/e.j.-manuel/

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/cardale-jones/

Is Tyrod Taylor the quarterback of the future for the Bills? Let’s take a look at his numbers from last season:

3035 yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions, 63.7% completion rate, 6.8 NY/P. That was good enough for 536 DYAR, 9.8% DVOA. He also ran 104 times for 568 yards and four touchdowns (133 DYAR, 19.8% DVOA).

For comparison, here are some of the advanced stats for Cam Newton last season:

630 DYAR, 7.6% DVOA, 6.8 NY/P, 142 rushing DYAR, 8.1% rushing DVOA.

Of course, Cam Newton put those numbers up despite an absurd number of drops from his receivers. He’s also 6-5 and a former #1 overall pick. Taylor is 6-1 and was a former unrestricted free agent who hadn’t previously been a starter. There are concerns about his accuracy and his ability to stay healthy (he missed two games last season with a knee injury). The Bills might be concerned we’ve seen the best of Taylor and that he doesn’t have the ability to be an elite quarterback. They clearly whiffed with E.J. Manuel, so that leaves Cardale Jones as the potential quarterback of the future.

(Update: The Bills signed Tyrod Taylor to a new contract, but it is a bit odd. It guarantees him $9.5M this season, but the Bills would have to pay him $27.5M if they pick up the deal in 2017. I don’t know how likely that is.)

Jones would have gone in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft had he entered it. He was coming off of an incredible championship run and teams had very little film of him. They knew he was huge, with a rocket arm. They also knew he could handle the pressure of the spotlight. What they didn’t know is how he would handle the workload of being a starting quarterback. He provided them that answer after losing the starting job to J.T. Barrett. Despite the best efforts of the Buckeyes coaching staff, Jones was unprepared. His mechanics degraded severely as the season progressed. After declaring for the draft, Jones began working with QB coach George Whitfield. What remains to be seen is if Jones is capable of controlling his mechanics, understanding a pro offense, and learning how to read NFL defenses. The four most dominant quarterbacks of the last decade (Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers) were all film junkies. Outsmarting NFL defenses is very hard, even with a full coaching staff behind you. Jones has the physical talent, but that’s true of countless failed quarterback prospects. I was strongly in favor of Jones coming out of college last year. His draft stock tanked, and he ended up on a team that doesn’t know its long term plan. That’s not a great situation for him and I’m concerned he’ll be sent out on the field before he’s ready. I can’t fault the Bills for drafting him when they did, but I hope they give him time to develop.

The Bills’ running game was shockingly effective last season. It averaged 152 yards per game, first in the NFL ahead of Carolina’s 143. Carolina was often ahead and trying to run clock, so Buffalo coming out #1 is striking. The advanced stats tell the tale:

LeSean McCoy: 139 DYAR, 8.8% DVOA

Karlos Williams: 159 DYAR, 30.4% DVOA

Mike Gillislee: 54 DYAR, 20.9% DVOA

Tyrod Taylor: 133 DYAR, 19.8% DVOA

EJ Manuel: 34 DYAR, 20.8% DVOA

Some of that was caused by a few big plays. Even so, this was a consistently effective rushing attack, for reasons I cannot fully grok. The offensive line wasn’t dominant. Defenses weren’t selling out to stop the passing game. It is possible that the deep passing attack kept the safeties a little further from the line of scrimmage. McCoy was hampered by knee and hamstring issues last season, but with the wear and tear on his body he might have permanently lost a step. I’ll be watching him this preseason to see how much acceleration he has left. Williams has been suspended for the first four games for substance abuse. Rookie fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams was arrested for drunk driving, and has fallen to the bottom of the depth chart. Gillislee was a pleasant surprise last season. However, in his one opportunity to be a feature back (week 17 vs. the Jets), he was awful, single-handedly keeping the Jets in a game Ryan Fitzpatrick was determined to give away (ARGH!). That may be why the Bills

decided to sign Reggie Bush. Bush ended last season with a knee injury and isn’t 100%. He’s 31, so while the Bills may view him as a Ferrari, I wouldn’t expect much from him.

The Buffalo Bills receiving corps:

Sammy Watkins: 312 DYAR, 28.9% DVOA

Everyone else: 60 DYAR, -8.3% DVOA

Sammy Watkins has already blossomed into an elite #1 wide receiver. After a disappointing rookie season (-8.5 +/-, 71 DYAR, -5.7% DVOA) he bounced back by every measure (including a 9.6 +/-). I still don’t approve of how much the Bills gave up to draft him, but at least he’s a star. He’s recovering from a broken foot but projects to be ready to start the season. The bigger problem is that the rest of the team’s depth chart is a disaster. #2WR Robert Woods is entering his fourth season and still hasn’t produced a positive DVOA. In fact, he’s been worse than -10.0% each of his three seasons. You could argue he’s better suited to be a slot receiver in a different offensive system, but that seems moot. Things go downhill from there. #3WR Marquise Goodwin tried out for the Olympic long jump team but fell short. Reports are that he’s been impressive in practice. The problem is he’s historically had trouble translating his skills on gameday. The 2013 third-round pick has only twenty catches for his career. The worst part is that 17 of those receptions were in his rookie season. Either he’s learned how to play football (while missing OTA’s to train for the Olympics), or it is going to be a long season for the Bills’ receivers. #4WR Greg Salas managed three receptions for the Bills last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Kolby Listenbee is on the NFI list and isn’t available. Tight end Charles Clay followed up a disappointing season in Miami (2 DYAR, -6.9% DVOA) with a disappointing season in Buffalo (6 DYAR, -6.0% DVOA). Fool me once…

According to my numbers, left tackle Cordy Glenn was a little above average last season. Center Eric Wood was similarly slightly above average. In between them, left guard Richie Incognito was a bit below average. Other observers thought better of Incognito and he was given an alternate slot in the Pro Bowl. Both right guard rookie third-round pick John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills were well below average. In fact, both were the fourth-worst at their position. I’ll cut Miller a little slack, as this was his first full offseason as a pro. He wore down last season and should be in better condition this year. Mills just isn’t very talented. The Bills expected 2014 second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio to have won the job by now. Seantrel Henderson was a bit better than Mills last season, but he was sidelined due to Crohn’s disease. He has not recaptured the top spot on the depth chart. I expect a training camp battle for the job. Overall, this is a below-average line.

Twenty-one sacks. That’s how many Buffalo had last season. The NFL average was 37. Denver led the NFL with 52, and that worked out well for them. Sacks aren’t everything, but apart from Jerry Hughes, the Bills weren’t all that effective at generating hurries either. Outside linebackers Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams both had five sacks, but Hughes had 32.5 hurries, while Williams had 14.5. Williams went public with his anger about the defensive scheme and there were whispers that he ended up quitting on the team. The Bills released him and he has since singed with the Dolphins. First-round pick Shaq Lawson was drafted to replace him. It was public knowledge that Lawson was dealing with a shoulder injury, but it was hoped he’d be able to play through his issues this season. News of his surgery did not go over well with the Bills’ fanbase:

With Lawson on the PUP list, IK Enemkpali has risen to the top of the depth chart. He wasn’t that effective for the Bills last season. Hughes may be facing a lot of double teams this season. (Update: IK Enemkpali is done for the season with an ACL tear. The front-seven has had the shit kicked out of it this offseason.)

Nose tackle Marcell Dareus regressed badly last season. He averaged seven sacks in his first four seasons and was coming off of ten in 2014. Last year, he managed only two. It wasn’t as if the Bills asked him to bulk up and focus on the run, as his numbers there weren’t impressive either. Defensive end Kyle Williams is coming back from knee surgery. At age 33, his best days are behind him. Rookie third-round pick Adolphus Washington was a solid value. He is going to rotate with Corbin Bryant at the other end. There isn’t much depth here.

The linebacker corps was bolstered by first-round pick Shaq Lawson and second-round pick Reggie Ragland. Lawson is expected back around week eight. Ragland is going to miss the season entirely with an ACL tear. I had Ragland as the 11th best overall player in the draft, although with a caveat:

Reggie Ragland: There is a concern that Alabama players look better on film than they really are. The issues are twofold: They are surrounded by elite talent and have an easier time making plays. Furthermore, they are generally already very well coached, so there isn’t much room for improvement in the NFL. Ragland is hit pretty hard in both respects. I see a guy who can attack the line of scrimmage, with solid horizontal range attacking the running game. The major concern is his coverage abilities, which are still a question mark. I’m confident he’s a good value in the latter half of the first round.

Even with the “Alabama penalty,” he was a great pickup for the Bills. His absence will hurt. 2012 second-round pick Zach Brown moved into the starting lineup to replace Ragland. Brown failed to impress in Tennessee and is on a one-year deal in Buffalo. 2014 third-round pick Preston Brown has been a serviceable role player. He’d provide good depth off the bench if he weren’t in the starting lineup. Hopefully he’ll improve in his third season. Despite the Bills’ best efforts, this is a very weak front-seven. Losing Ragland and Lawson is a problem. Any further injuries, especially to Hughes or Dareus, could prove disastrous.

The one bright spot for the Buffalo Bills defense was their cornerbacks. Rookie second-round pick Ronald Darby was excellent. As a general rule, rookie cornerbacks struggle. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a star. 2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore has lived up to his draft status. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and it is going to be tricky to reach a deal. In his favor, he has an excellent reputation. The problem is that he’s not quite elite. If he wants to get paid like an elite cornerback, he may face a tough negotiation. The apply named Nickell Robey is serviceable. His job security is questionable. Strong safety Aaron Williams should be fully recovered from neck surgery. He’s a solid contributor when healthy. Free safety Corey Graham was moved over from cornerback when Williams got hurt. He handled the move well enough to keep the job. Overall, this is the strongest unit on the defense. Without a solid pass rush, though, their results will likely be poor. In 2013 and 2014 Buffalo’s DVOA vs. the pass was second and first, respectively. In 2015, the pass rush disappeared and their ranking dropped to 18th.

Buffalo’s special teams were a mixed bag. The excellent coverage units led to the best opponent starting drive position (19.9 yard-line) in the NFL. Unfortunately, the return games were awful. Also, kicker Dan Carpenter missed six XP’s last season. The Bills also committed 25 special teams penalties. They’ll want to get that down below one-per-game. Overall, their special teams graded out slightly better than average. The big 2016 rule change is that touchbacks will now come out to the 25 yard-line. That punishes kickers who excelled at generating touchbacks, and puts a premium on elite coverage units if teams decide to go for higher kickoffs with less distance. It’s a small change, so I am not sure how much teams will respond to it.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the Bills. It’s unlikely the running game will be as effective this season as it was in 2015. They lack a clear receiving threat after Sammy Watkins. The front-seven has been decimated by injuries. The pass rush looks anemic. And then there are the Ryan brothers. Putting Rex and Rob Ryan on the same team is a bold move. Rob’s track record has not been good lately. Despite that, the Bills have a few things going for them. The biggest is that Tyrod Taylor is an NFL-quality quarterback. He was eighth in the NFL in DVOA last season. That’s very impressive for a guy who won the job in the preseason. They also catch a few scheduling breaks, including facing the Patriots in Foxboro without Tom Brady. Taking that into account, the most likely result for the Bills is a deeply unsatisfying 8-8.

Miami Dolphins

Talent Wins: 6.48

Expected Wins: 6.64

DVOA Wins: 6.1

Last Year: 6-10 (5.8 Pythagorean Wins)

Flash back to draft night. Consensus top left tackle Laremy Tunsil is free-falling. I am hoping against hope that he will fall to the Giants, but I expect the Titans to snag him. Instead, they take Jack Conklin. After the Bears take Leonard Floyd, the impossible dream has come true. There are rumors the Giants are receiving enticing offers to trade down, and I’d be fine with that. Instead, they take Eli Apple. Tunsil falls to Miami. My loss is Ryan Tannehill’s gain.

Ryan Tannehill’s numbers fell off a cliff last year. Not his basic stats:

2014: 4,045 yards, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

2015: 4,208 yards. 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

That looks fairly comparable, but check out the advanced metrics:

2014: 4.1% DVOA, 630 DYAR

2015: -10.6% DVOA, 20 DYAR

Oof. New head coach Adam Gase has made supporting Tannehill a priority. The Dolphins’ front office and coaching staff has been a bit of a clusterfuck for years, so having one clear voice in command will be helpful. Tannehill isn’t a natural star, so his success will be dependent on the talent around him.

Jarvis Landry managed a statistical feat that neither of the “Marks Brothers” managed in Dan Marino’s heyday: 100+ receptions (110), 1,000+ yards receiving (1,157). Then again, I don’t think they ever were the beneficiaries of 167 targets. Like Tannehill’s, Landry’s advanced metrics regressed from 2014:

2014: +/- +8.7, DVOA -0.8%, 102 DYAR

2015: +/- +2.3, DVOA -7.1%, 72 DYAR

The Dolphins had two head coaches in 2015: The incompetent Joe Philbin and the overmatched Dan Campbell. I expect Landry to see improvement this year simply due to more competence from the top down. I’m less confident in Kenny Stills:

2014: +/- +15.5, 30.3% DVOA, 285 DYAR (In New Orleans)

2015: +/- -5.9, -17.2% DVOA, -22 DYAR

The shift from New Orleans to Miami was enormous. Goodbye Brees, hello Tannehill. Stills did not handle it well. Stills was considered a premier deep threat before last season. Perhaps he rededicated himself this offseason. More likely, Miami is going to end up disappointed with their acquisition. My notes from last season included the terms “Lazy,” “Butterfingers,” and “No sideline sense.” I am not optimistic.

2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker is another story entirely. He came back from foot surgery to electrify late last season. He looks fantastic and should pair with Landry to push defenses. The Dolphins traded up into the third round to grab Leonte Carroo. This is what I wrote on him before the draft:

Leonte Carroo: Carroo blocked multiple punts at Rutgers. He can work outside, or move in to the slot. He’s missed time with various injuries, including multiple concussions. His coaches have told NFL scouts they had a love-hate relationship with Carroo. There are multiple red flags here. The reward can be high, though, as he has the talent to be a solid #2 receiver.”

I’ve gotten to the point where I view multiple concussions as a serious red flag. I don’t think I would have made the trade, but I understand it. Carroo is an excellent #4WR. He should work his way up the depth chart in time.

Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off of a pair of disappointing seasons (-84 combined DYAR). I’m confident he isn’t quite that bad. He’ll split time with Dion Sims. Sims missed time last season with a concussion. When healthy, he’s probably the best option for the Dolphins.

Running backs aren’t very important in the 2016 NFL, but the Dolphins are pushing it. 2015 fifth-round pick Jay Ajayi struggled last season (-7.5% combined DVOA, 11 combined DYAR). Despite that, he’s the incumbent starter. His challenger will be the used-up Arian Foster (-9.8% combined DVOA, 29 combined DYAR). Both of them provided all of their positive value as receivers. Foster is on the way down, so I’d pin my hopes on Ajayi improving in his second season.

The Dolphins are sandbagging Tunsil right now, and I am not sure why. Here is what I wrote about Tunsil before the draft:

Laremy Tunsil: The best offensive lineman in the draft. I cannot believe the rumors I am hearing of Ronnie Stanley going ahead of him. Yes, he needs to get a bit more powerful, but for now he makes up for it with elite speed. Whichever team ends up with Tunsil is going to have an excellent start to their draft.”

Let’s look at the current starters. Left tackle Brandon Albert was fantastic last season. I had him second overall, behind only Joe Thomas. Left guard Dallas Thomas was awful. I’d expect Tunsil to be better than him in week one despite a positional change. Center Mike Pouncey was excellent, ranking fifth overall in my center rankings. Right guard Billy Turner was solidly below-average. Not quite as bad as Thomas, though. 2014 first-round pick Ja’Wuan James hasn’t lived up to expectations. Injuries have been a part of that. Still, he struggled when healthy last season. This may be his last chance to prove himself at right tackle. If he continues to struggle, we may see him moved inside. Jermon Bushrod provides excellent depth at tackle. The problem is the Dolphins’ major need is at guard. Given how good Albert and Pouncey are, it’s surprising the rest of the line has struggled this much. I’d expect Tunsil to make an immediate impact. We’ll see if the Dolphins feel the same way.

If you ignore the red flags, this is a pretty fearsome defensive line. I am not going to ignore the red flags. Ndamukong Suh is still a monster. Six sacks and 34.5 hits+hurries are impressive. But even those numbers don’t tell the full story. He is still the focus of offensive blocking schemes, creating opportunities for the rest of the pass rush. He remains as dominant as he was in Detroit. At 29, we’ll see how long that stays true. He’ll play alongside Earl Mitchell. Mitchell was mediocre last season. Frankly, I would have preferred the Dolphins take A’Shawn Robinson or another defensive tackle over cornerback Xavien Howard in the second round. Mitchell will rotate with Jordan Phillips. Phillips is the much more dynamic pass-rusher and may end up stealing the starting job.

Mario Williams and Cameron Wake will start on the outside. In 2012, they combined for 25.5 sacks. In 2014, they topped that with 26. The problem is they’ve never actually played together. Last year Wake was playing well before an Achilles injury ended his season. He might not be 100% to start the season. Williams might have outright quit on the Bills. As great as the pair once were, both are on the wrong side of thirty. I’d expect Williams to still have something left in the tank. Wake is 34 and is likely going to see some physical decline. Andre Branch and Jason Jones provide good depth here.

The linebacker corps has some issues. Kiko Alonso no longer has the range he had knee pre-surgery. I’m not sure the Dolphins are going to be happy with the version of Alonso they traded for. Jelani Jenkins played through injuries last season. He put up decent numbers, but even when healthy he isn’t a difference maker. The best of the group is middle linebacker Koa Misi. He has the speed to play outside. He’s a quality veteran who knows how to do his job. Overall, this is a unit that offenses are going to attack. There isn’t much in the way of quality depth here.

The Dolphins have rebuilt their secondary. When they traded the eighth overall pick in the draft to the Eagles, they received linebacker Kiko Alonso, cornerback Byron Maxwell, and the 13th overall pick. Maxwell is pencilled in as the #1CB. He wasn’t particularly effective for the Eagles last season. Rookie second-round pick Xavien Howard was a reach, although he is a polarizing prospect. Some scouts had him rated roughly where the Eagles took him. Howard looks the part (6-1, 200). He’s physical, and he’s familiar with playing man-to-man. I’m less impressed with his athleticism and technique. Look for him to be a flag magnet once he gets onto the field. That might not be for a while, as he is currently on the PUP list. Backup Tony Lippert is currently in the #2CB role. It doesn’t sound like it is going well.

Chimdi Chekwa is a dark horse to steal the starting job. Things are a bit more settled at safety. Strong safety Reshad Jones is the best player in the defensive backfield. He’s solid against both the run and the pass. Free agent pickup Isa Abdul-Quddus got his ass kicked last season. I’m genuinely curious what the Dolphins saw on film. He’ll start at free safety. Michael Thomas will provide depth here. This is not a deep secondary.

The Dolphins’ special teams are legitimately strange. Punter Matt Darr was excellent last season, but the coverage units were abominable. They hurt more than he helped. Kicker Andrew Franks was roughly average. He only attempted 16 field goals, which is hard to do when starting 16 games. Jarvis Landry was excellent handling returns last season. The bulk of the special teams units have been replaced, so we’ll be seeing new faces in the coverage and blocking units. The pressure will be on Darren Rizzi to pull the units together. Overall, the Dolphins have been in the bottom third of special teams units each of the past three seasons. Given all the turnover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that trend continue.

It’s strange to look at a team that is neither a championship contender or in rebuilding mode. The Dolphins have made numerous moves to help them win now. The thing is, they aren’t a threat to win the division. I don’t see them snagging a wild card spot either. They have rescued themselves from the dregs, and they have a reasonable schedule. A consistent coaching philosophy should help as well. Overall, I see some slight improvement on last season: 7-9.

New England Patriots

Talent Wins: 10.32

Expected Wins: 10.55

DVOA Wins: 9.8

Last Year: 12-4 (11.7 Pythagorean Wins)

Over the past six years, the Patriots have won 75 regular season games. They haven’t won fewer than 10 games since 2002. If not for the Deflategate suspensions, it would be easy to just say “12-4” and move on. They open the season without Brady on the road at Arizona. After that, they get three fairly easy home games. 2-2 would be a lousy result, but even that would keep them on pace to win the AFC East for the eighth straight season. A 3-1 result would keep them on pace for a fifth straight 12-4 season. At that point, Tom Brady will return healthy and ready to lay waste to… the Cleveland Browns. Not exactly the toughest first game back, but that’s how the schedule goes.

At age 39, Tom Brady remains on the short list of best quarterbacks in the NFL. The only elite quarterback in the AFC that can challenge Brady is Ben Roethlisberger. The October 23rd matchup at Pittsburgh is going to be enormous. There was no slippage at all in Brady’s numbers last season:

2014: 18.1% DVOA, 1,176 DYAR

2015: 19.5% DVOA, 1,312 DYAR

The only major issue for Brady is that he will only have 12 games to put up numbers this season. That leaves the other four games to Jimmy Garoppolo. Over the course of two seasons Garoppolo has taken one game’s worth of snaps. In that time he was pretty bad: -24.7% DVOA, -30 DYAR. By the time he takes the field in Arizona, he’ll be as prepared as Bill Belichick can make him. Unlike in his other appearances, he is being groomed to start. That probably won’t be enough to defeat the Cardinals. Games at home against the Bills, Dolphins, and Texans (but not the Jets), should all be winnable.

Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season since 2011. When healthy, he is the Patriots’ most important weapon. Over the past two seasons, he’s been remarkably consistent, averaging 20.3% DVOA and 236 DYAR. Those aren’t quite the eye-popping numbers from his peak. He’s great, but will need some more help this year. He’ll get some of it from Martellus Bennett. He struggled in Chicago last season (-10.7% DVOA, -18 DYAR), but averaged 72 DYAR the previous two seasons. After being the #1 option in Chicago, he should feast against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola put up fairly similar numbers last season:

Edelman: 61 receptions, 692 yards, +/- +2.6, 144 DYAR, 8.1% DVOA

Amendola: 65 receptions, 648 yards, +/- +8.1, 139 DYAR, 8.6% DVOA

Amendola was slightly more efficient. Interestingly, they combined for 16 starts. Health is a concern for both of them. Amendola is currently on the PUP list, recovering from ankle and knee surgery. Edelman is recovering from foot surgery. Concussions are also a potential issue for Edelman. Keshawn Martin is also a serviceable option in the slot. Nate Washington is holding on to the #4WR job by his fingertips. It’s not that there are any great options pushing him. It’s just that he hasn’t looked good.

LeGarrette Blount has retained his role as the #1RB. His DVOA (0.2%) understates his value. The Patriots win games with Brady and the passing game. NFL rules incentivize running the ball in the second half if you have a sufficient lead such that keeping the clock moving is more important than maximizing expected value. That’s where Blount comes in. He isn’t much of a factor in the passing game, apart from blocking for Brady. Dion Lewis accumulated 155 combined DYAR in seven games last season. Prorate that to a full season and you’d have 354 combined DYAR, which would have led all NFL running backs. An ACL tear ended Lewis’s season and he is still on the PUP list. He’s expected to be ready to start the season. If he’s healthy, he could prove to be the Patriots’ best weapon after Gronk.

In the four games he managed to stay on the field, Nate Solder was the worst left tackle in the NFL last season. Marcus Cannon and Sebastion Vollmer were both a little below-average. Josh Kline was fairly effective when injuries forced him into the starting lineup. Right guard Jonathan Cooper was slightly below-average for the Cardinals last season. He should help stabilize the interior of the line. Center Bryan Stork was third-worst by my reckoning. Backup David Andrews was merely lousy in his time replacing the injured Stork. The Patriots’ current plan is to start Solder at left tackle, rookie third-round pick Joe Thuney at right guard, Stork at center, Cooper at right guard, and Vollmer at right tackle. Stork and Solder will have to play much better than they did last season for that to be a good plan. As for Thuney, he was a surprising pick. I double-checked my notes and no one had him going that high. He is coming off a strong season, giving up no sacks at tackle. He’ll have to adjust to moving to guard. He wouldn’t have been necessary, but 2015 fourth-round pick Shaq Mason has not impressed the coaching staff. I thought he was below-average, but not to the point I’d look to acquire his replacement in the following draft. Overall, this line has a lot of depth. What it might lack is a premium performer. Solder and Vollmer have worn down. This may prove to be the Achilles’ Heel for the Patriots’ offense.

The key questions for the Patriots’ defensive line:

1. Can Jabaal Sheard maintain his excellent performance while being the focal point of the offensive protection scheme? He had eight sacks in 13 games last season. He’ll be expected to play roughly 50% more snaps this season.

2. How much does the addition of Chris Long make up for the loss of Chandler Jones? Injuries have slowed him. He had 32.5 sacks in 2011-2013, but only four since. He will need to return to form.

3. How much will Rob Ninkovich’s triceps tear slow him? He’s a key part of the pass rush. If he is slowed, the Patriots’ pass rush could be anemic.

4. Can 2015 third- and fourth-round picks Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers make an impact? Injuries limited Flowers to one game last year. Grissom just wasn’t very good. He couldn’t earn time apart from on special teams.

5. Is 2015 first-round pick defensive tackle Malcom Brown a budding star? He was excellent last season and should be even better this year. Frankly, I was pissed when he fell to the Patriots.

Brown will play alongside journeyman Alan Branch. Terrance Knighton (Pot Roast) will also see playing time in short-yardage situations. Rookie third-round pick Vincent Valentine was another Belichick special. He’s enormous and showed potential at Nebraska. An injury limited him in his final college season. Frankly, I had him as a seventh-round pick or a premium free agent, so presumably the Patriots know a lot more about him than I did. Or they messed up. Their draft record hasn’t been sterling lately. This might be a good defensive line against the run. The problem is that the most important job is pressuring the quarterback. This pass rush looks a bit weak, especially if Ninkovich is slowed.

Linebacker Jamie Collins is one of the best at his position. He’s solid in coverage and against the run. He had two sacks against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. He may be asked to do a bit more blitzing this season if the defensive line struggles to get to the quarterback. He’ll play across from journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Dont’a Hightower will patrol the middle. Hightower is just a hair below the elite level. This is a strong unit, with Shea McClellin proving excellent depth.

The Patriots’ secondary is the most complete unit on the team. Malcolm Butler is a solid #1CB. 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan gambles a bit. His success rate was high enough that the Patriots haven’t asked him to change his style of play. Rookie second-round pick Cyrus Jones is going to compete for the nickel job. He was another reach, at least according to my draft rankings. Justin Coleman and EJ Biggers are also competing for the job. Free safety Devin McCourty is one of the best at his position. His range allows Patrick Chung to play as a safety/linebacker hybrid. I’m a bit surprised 2015 second-round pick Jordan Richards hasn’t made a push up the depth chart. He’s currently stuck on special teams. Overall, this is a very good unit. The key question is how much help they will get from their pass rush.

Stephen Gostkowski was worth a bit more than a point-a-game for the Patriots last season. Put another way, he was worth roughly half of a win over an average kicker. Their kick coverage unit was solid as well. Unfortunately for the Patriots, the new touchback rules will mitigate their advantage. It was an off-year for punter Ryan Allen and the punt coverage unit. Allen was slightly above average in terms of distance, but at the expense of hang time. He won the Ray Guy award twice in college, so he should be able to fix the issue this season. Danny Amendola is slated to return kicks. Julian Edelman has that job for punts. I’d be tempted to hand Edelman’s job over to Cyrus Jones.

While the Patriots are still the class of the AFC, there are some major concerns. The offensive line was an issue last season. Injuries hurt, but the starters were awful even when healthy. The pass rush looked questionable before Ninkovich got hurt. It’s tough to win when you are losing the battle along the line of scrimmage. It can be done, though. Brady, Gronk, and Belichick are all on their way to Canton. The linebacker corps and the secondary are solid, as are the special teams. So long as the Patriots don’t put themselves in too deep a hole in their first four games, they’ll control their destiny. Games at Denver and Pittsburgh will set the table for the AFC playoffs. If Brady were available to start the season, I’d go with 12-4. With him gone for four weeks, the expectation is 11-5. In 2002, that was good enough for home field advantage for the Oakland Raiders. Will 11-5 be good enough to nab the #1 seed this year? Maybe. The elite of the AFC are weaker than they’ve been in years. Most likely, variance leads to a team going 12-4 or better, but that’s not a certainty.

New York Jets

Talent Wins: 8.22

Expected Wins: 7.42

DVOA Wins: 7.2

Last Year: 10-6 (10.0 Pythagorean Wins)

There’s a lot to unpack here. The Jets controlled their playoff destiny last season. Had they defeated the Bills they would have clinched a wild card berth. Instead, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions. The Jets lost 22-17 and finished with the most disappointing 10-6 season I can recall. I should note that the Jets faced a comically easy schedule last season. That won’t be the case this year. I was surprised at how much talent the Jets have on their roster. The truth is that the defense really is quite good, as is the receiving corps. However, storm clouds remain on the horizon because Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a long term solution and the Jets have shown no aptitude in drafting quarterbacks.

Let’s start with the options the Jets passed up when the decided to re-sign Fitzpatrick:

Geno Smith: Over the past three seasons, he’s put up a -17.6% DVOA and accumulated -332 DYAR. He’s shown himself to be below replacement level. That might be more tolerable if he were viewed as a positive influence in the locker room. Instead, the team pretty much shrugged when linebacker IM Enemkpali broke his jaw. Geno is still under contract, but he has no future with the Jets.

Bryce Petty- The 2015 fourth-round pick shocked the Jets coaching staff with how unprepared he was. That’s on the scouting department. While they knew he would be a project, his bafflement at the playbook caused significant consternation. It appears the Jets are prepared to write Petty off.

Christian Heckenberg- Scouting reports from Jets camp have been abominable. He’s failing on every conceivable metric. This is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Christian Hackenberg: I know he’s had some bad coaching, but you can’t watch his film and feel like you’re seeing a future pro. I know he had a great freshman year, but watching him stand in the pocket and take unnecessary sacks has soured me on him. Oh, and he also has Goff-style small hands. I see very little upside here.”

It’s still early, but Hackenberg has all the hallmarks of a bust. That leaves the Jets with Fitzpatrick. That’s a mixed blessing, because this looks like a perfect time for the Jets to go 3-13 and draft Deshaun Watson or Brad Kaaya. Fitzpatrick has matured into a competent quarterback. Over the past two seasons (28 games) Fitzpatrick has averaged a 4.6% DVOA and accumulated 925 DYAR. Those are the kind of numbers that lead to a winning record (9-7 in 2014 with Houston, 10-6 last year with the Jets), but out of the playoffs. That’s a miserable place to be. I winced when the Jets re-signed Fitzpatrick because he’s good enough to beat bad teams, but not good enough to lead the Jets to the playoffs.

Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker form an elite pair. Their stat lines for last season shows just how important they were to the Jets’ offense:

Marshall: 173 targets, 109 receptions, 1,502 yards, +/- +7.0, 9.3% DVOA, 303 DYAR

Decker: 132 targets, 80 receptions, 1,027 yards, +/- +4.2, 13.6% DVOA, 278 DYAR

They staged a low-level strike until the Jets resigned Fitzpatrick. That’s what happens when you see Geno Smith in practice. Now, about the third option… the rest of the Jets’ receiving corps combined for a staggering -275 DYAR, with an average DVOA of -33.6%. That’s hard to do. Really hard. 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro was not part of that disaster, having missed the season with a torn labrum. He was lousy as a rookie (-7.0% DVOA, 1 DYAR). Currently he’s sitting behind Kellen Davis on the depth chart. As for Davis, he averaged -3 DYAR-per-target last season. That was “good” enough for a -56.7% DVOA. He’s the guy atop the tight end depth chart because he’s a solid blocker. His 11 targets last season were probably just to remind the defense he was an eligible receiver. This is the guy the Jets 2014 second-round pick can’t unseat on the depth chart. I… I need to move on.

Matt Forte was the Jets premium free agent pickup this year. If those numbers give you pause, remember that he’s a 31-year old running back in the modern NFL. Despite only playing in 13 games last season, his combined DYAR remained steady:

2013: 306 DYAR, 7.7% DVOA

2014: 240 DYAR, 2.3% DVOA

2015: 304 DYAR, 14.4% DVOA

Forte was very efficient last year. We’ll see if he can maintain that level of play in New York. In 2013, Bilal Powell proved he wasn’t worthy of a starting gig (-21 DYAR). Since then, he’s been a capable backup. Last year he saw his role split roughly evenly between running and receiving. The results were decent (-1.0% DVOA, 61 DYAR). You can live with that, but it’s clearly Forte’s show at this point. (Update: Maybe not. Forte is being slowed by a hamstring injury. Hopefully that heals before the season starts.)

The big news for the Jets offensive line is the loss of D’Brickashaw Ferguson. He was an above-average left tackle last season. The Jets played hardball in contract negotiations, so he decided to retire. Enter Ryan Clady. Clady was good in 2014, but missed 2015 with a torn ACL. I’m hopeful that he’ll be 100% in 2016. Left guard James Carpenter was excellent last season. I had him fifth overall for his position. Nick Mangold put together another strong season. I graded him ninth best among centers; at age 32 he may be slipping a little bit. Right guard Brian Winters was a bit below-average last season. He’s currently in a training camp battle with 2014 fourth-round pick Dakota Dozier. Right tackle is up in the air. Incumbent Bruno Giacomini is coming off of a strong season (tied for fifth-best right tackle by my numbers). He’s currently sidelined with a back injury. Ben Ijalana has risen to the top of the depth chart in Giacomini’s absence. Rookie fifth-round pick Brandon Shell is a potential option as well. Shell is going to need some time to develop his skills, but may find himself starting later this season. Overall, this a strong unit.

Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Muhammad Wilkerson power one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL. Wilkerson is still recovering from a broken leg that ended his 2015 season. He is expected to ready week one. The trio combined for 20 sacks and 118 hits+hurries last season. Free agent pickup nose tackle Steve McClendon will man the middle of the line. He’s a solid contributor. The Steelers used him as part of a rotation. It isn’t clear how many snaps the Jets expect him to play. 2015 seventh-round round pack Deon Simon provides questionable depth.

2015 third-round pick outside linebacker Lorenzo Maudlin put up decent numbers last season (four sacks, 22.5 hits+hurries). Those numbers only become eye-popping when you notice he only needed 253 snaps to put them up. Even as a pass-rush specialist, that’s an excellent performance. The departures of Sheldon Pace and Quinton Coples have opened up two starting spots. Maudlin has taken one. The other looks like it will go to rookie third-round pick Jordan Jenkins. I loved the Jenkins pick. He was a DE/OLB hybrid at Georgia. NFL teams had concerns he didn’t have the strength to play end or the range to go into coverage. He’s at his best attacking the line of scrimmage. I anticipate the Jets’ coaching staff will do a good job of taking advantage of his strengths and hiding his limitations.

There are interesting developments in the middle. David Harris is still above-average, but has seen his play slip. Erin Henderson isn’t talented enough to lock down a starting spot. This is an area where the Jets needed an infusion of talent. The front office agreed and drafted Darron Lee in the first round. Here is what I wrote about Lee before the draft:

Darron Lee: He’s a coverage linebacker. Solid range, decent pass rush ability. Should be an effective pro.

I may have undersold his range. He’s not quite a safety, but the Jets will be happy putting him against all but the best tight ends and running backs in coverage. His weakness is an inability to fight through or disengage from blocking. Lee is switching over from playing on the outside and will need a little while to learn his new role. I expect him to take Henderson’s job some point this season. Bruce Carter provides decent depth here.

The front-seven masks the issues, but this is a flawed secondary. Darrelle Revis is still one of the best. He faded a bit in 2015 and I’m wondering if we’ll see further decline this year. Buster Skrine got his ass kicked in the slot last season. He wasn’t much better on the wing either. He was excellent in Cleveland in 2014, so last year may have been a fluke. 2013 first-round pick Dee Milliner is still a disaster.

The first thing I noticed on that video is the great catch by Allen Robinson. The second thing I noticed is that it was a terrible throw. Robinson torched Milliner, but the throw made it a close play. The third thing I noticed is that Milliner went for the interception. I suppose his plan would have worked if it weren’t for those meddling kids. Milliner has awful natural instincts. Rookie fourth-round pick Juston Burris was a fairly big reach. He has the ability to play cornerback or safety. Right now we’ll see his skills put to work on special teams. Marcus Williams may be the beneficiary of a lack of talent above him. The 2014 undrafted free agent is better than Milliner and more prepared than Burris.

The light came on last season for 2014 first-round pick strong safety Calvin Pryor. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a star. Free safety Marcus Gilchrist was solid last season. Some teams treat their safeties interchangeably. The Jets have learned their lesson with Pryor. He’s purely a strong safety. The depth here isn’t great. Rontez Miles is the first man up. The Jets would prefer he stay down.

The Jets’ punting unit was awful last season. Ryan Quigley ranked 31st in net punting average. A decent share of the blame should go to his coverage units. They were average in 2015, and I’d imagine it was a focus of the coaching staff this offseason. Quigley was let go, and the Jets had an Australian punting battle in camp. Seriously. The competitors:

Seventh-round draft pick Lachlan (Lac) Edwards; Undrafted free agent and two-time Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Although Hackett was the funnier of the two, that wasn’t enough as the Jets decided to go with the 6-5 Edwards over the 5-11 Hackett. I have no idea if that was the decider. I checked my notes and had Hackett and the best college punter, with Edwards sixth. I suspect the Jets coaches know what they are doing. Kicker Nick Folk tortures me, but he’s been roughly average on balance. It looks like free agent pickup Jeremy Ross is being given both return jobs. He’s shown competence in both roles previously. Overall, the Jets special teams should bounce back to being roughly average.

The Jets are looking at a much tougher schedule than they faced last year. Even if they maintain an equal level of performance, they are likely to drop an additional 1-2 games. Then again, they are far more competent than I was expecting. Head coach Todd Bowles was very impressive last season. At this point I am more concerned about the incompetent front office (and ownership). For now, I’m expecting an 8-8 season. No playoffs. No high draft pick. The worst of all worlds.

Welcome to my 2016 NFL preview. I apologize for making you wait so long, but there have been a few late quarterback moves to shake things up. Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Denver have all made late changes. That list includes the defending Super Bowl Champion and the defending NFC North winner. Even good teams sometimes need to make a late audible. In Minnesota’s case, it was due to a horrific non-football injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In Philadelphia’s case, they took advantage of Minnesota’s desperate need for a quarterback. Philadelphia didn’t particularly want to keep Bradford, so getting a first round pick for him (plus a conditional pick) was a huge win for them. As for Denver, they won the Super Bowl despite getting awful quarterback play throughout the playoffs. Peyton Manning’s retirement was expected. Brock Osweiler leaving in free agency was only a minor surprise given his dislike of Denver’s front office. Denver picked up Matt Sanchez, and drafted Paxton Lynch. Sanchez sanchized himself straight out of town. Lynch isn’t quite ready yet. That left 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian as the last man standing. As for Sanchez, he went to Dallas. Tomy Romo’s injury lead to Dak Prescott winning the starting job. Or, at least he had it won until Sanchez showed up. Now we’ll have to see. For now, let me define a few terms I’ll be using throughout this 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 7.46. 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 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 2016 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. (Update: I am now certain replacement level is set too high).
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.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at the division the Patriots have owned for well over a decade:
AFC East:
New England Patriots 11-5
New York Jets 8-8
Buffalo Bills 8-8
Miami Dolphins 7-9
Buffalo Bills
Talent Wins: 7.79
Expected Wins: 7.51
DVOA Wins: 8.2
Last Year: 8-8 (8.5 Pythagorean Wins)
I’m curious what the Bills don’t see in Tyrod Taylor. He has a very reasonable salary this season, and the Bills could have used that as leverage against a player who likely wants to secure long-term financial security. As such, they could have offered him a deal that would give them a savings relative to the market while containing costs into the future. Instead, they chose to draft Cardale Jones. Thus, this is their quarterback depth chart:
http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/tyrod-taylor/

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/e.j.-manuel/

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/cardale-jones/
Is Tyrod Taylor the quarterback of the future for the Bills? Let’s take a look at his numbers from last season:
3035 yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions, 63.7% completion rate, 6.8 NY/P. That was good enough for 536 DYAR, 9.8% DVOA. He also ran 104 times for 568 yards and four touchdowns (133 DYAR, 19.8% DVOA).
For comparison, here are some of the advanced stats for Cam Newton last season:
630 DYAR, 7.6% DVOA, 6.8 NY/P, 142 rushing DYAR, 8.1% rushing DVOA.
Of course, Cam Newton put those numbers up despite an absurd number of drops from his receivers. He’s also 6-5 and a former #1 overall pick. Taylor is 6-1 and was a former unrestricted free agent who hadn’t previously been a starter. There are concerns about his accuracy and his ability to stay healthy (he missed two games last season with a knee injury). The Bills might be concerned we’ve seen the best of Taylor and that he doesn’t have the ability to be an elite quarterback. They clearly whiffed with E.J. Manuel, so that leaves Cardale Jones as the potential quarterback of the future.
(Update: The Bills signed Tyrod Taylor to a new contract, but it is a bit odd. It guarantees him $9.5M this season, but the Bills would have to pay him $27.5M if they pick up the deal in 2017. I don’t know how likely that is.)
Jones would have gone in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft had he entered it. He was coming off of an incredible championship run and teams had very little film of him. They knew he was huge, with a rocket arm. They also knew he could handle the pressure of the spotlight. What they didn’t know is how he would handle the workload of being a starting quarterback. He provided them that answer after losing the starting job to J.T. Barrett. Despite the best efforts of the Buckeyes coaching staff, Jones was unprepared. His mechanics degraded severely as the season progressed. After declaring for the draft, Jones began working with QB coach George Whitfield. What remains to be seen is if Jones is capable of controlling his mechanics, understanding a pro offense, and learning how to read NFL defenses. The four most dominant quarterbacks of the last decade (Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers) were all film junkies. Outsmarting NFL defenses is very hard, even with a full coaching staff behind you. Jones has the physical talent, but that’s true of countless failed quarterback prospects. I was strongly in favor of Jones coming out of college last year. His draft stock tanked, and he ended up on a team that doesn’t know its long term plan. That’s not a great situation for him and I’m concerned he’ll be sent out on the field before he’s ready. I can’t fault the Bills for drafting him when they did, but I hope they give him time to develop.
The Bills’ running game was shockingly effective last season. It averaged 152 yards per game, first in the NFL ahead of Carolina’s 143. Carolina was often ahead and trying to run clock, so Buffalo coming out #1 is striking. The advanced stats tell the tale:
LeSean McCoy: 139 DYAR, 8.8% DVOA

Karlos Williams: 159 DYAR, 30.4% DVOA

Mike Gillislee: 54 DYAR, 20.9% DVOA

Tyrod Taylor: 133 DYAR, 19.8% DVOA

EJ Manuel: 34 DYAR, 20.8% DVOA
Some of that was caused by a few big plays. Even so, this was a consistently effective rushing attack, for reasons I cannot fully grok. The offensive line wasn’t dominant. Defenses weren’t selling out to stop the passing game. It is possible that the deep passing attack kept the safeties a little further from the line of scrimmage. McCoy was hampered by knee and hamstring issues last season, but with the wear and tear on his body he might have permanently lost a step. I’ll be watching him this preseason to see how much acceleration he has left. Williams has been suspended for the first four games for substance abuse. Rookie fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams was arrested for drunk driving, and has fallen to the bottom of the depth chart. Gillislee was a pleasant surprise last season. However, in his one opportunity to be a feature back (week 17 vs. the Jets), he was awful, single-handedly keeping the Jets in a game Ryan Fitzpatrick was determined to give away (ARGH!). That may be why the Bills decided to sign Reggie Bush. Bush ended last season with a knee injury and isn’t 100%. He’s 31, so while the Bills may view him as a Ferrari, I wouldn’t expect much from him.
The Buffalo Bills receiving corps:
Sammy Watkins: 312 DYAR, 28.9% DVOA

Everyone else: 60 DYAR, -8.3% DVOA
Sammy Watkins has already blossomed into an elite #1 wide receiver. After a disappointing rookie season (-8.5 +/-, 71 DYAR, -5.7% DVOA) he bounced back by every measure (including a 9.6 +/-). I still don’t approve of how much the Bills gave up to draft him, but at least he’s a star. He’s recovering from a broken foot but projects to be ready to start the season. The bigger problem is that the rest of the team’s depth chart is a disaster. #2WR Robert Woods is entering his fourth season and still hasn’t produced a positive DVOA. In fact, he’s been worse than -10.0% each of his three seasons. You could argue he’s better suited to be a slot receiver in a different offensive system, but that seems moot. Things go downhill from there. #3WR Marquise Goodwin tried out for the Olympic long jump team but fell short. Reports are that he’s been impressive in practice. The problem is he’s historically had trouble translating his skills on gameday. The 2013 third-round pick has only twenty catches for his career. The worst part is that 17 of those receptions were in his rookie season. Either he’s learned how to play football (while missing OTA’s to train for the Olympics), or it is going to be a long season for the Bills’ receivers. #4WR Greg Salas managed three receptions for the Bills last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Kolby Listenbee is on the NFI list and isn’t available. Tight end Charles Clay followed up a disappointing season in Miami (2 DYAR, -6.9% DVOA) with a disappointing season in Buffalo (6 DYAR, -6.0% DVOA). Fool me once…
According to my numbers, left tackle Cordy Glenn was a little above average last season. Center Eric Wood was similarly slightly above average. In between them, left guard Richie Incognito was a bit below average. Other observers thought better of Incognito and he was given an alternate slot in the Pro Bowl. Both right guard rookie third-round pick John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills were well below average. In fact, both were the fourth-worst at their position. I’ll cut Miller a little slack, as this was his first full offseason as a pro. He wore down last season and should be in better condition this year. Mills just isn’t very talented. The Bills expected 2014 second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio to have won the job by now. Seantrel Henderson was a bit better than Mills last season, but he was sidelined due to Crohn’s disease. He has not recaptured the top spot on the depth chart. I expect a training camp battle for the job. Overall, this is a below-average line.
Twenty-one sacks. That’s how many Buffalo had last season. The NFL average was 37. Denver led the NFL with 52, and that worked out well for them. Sacks aren’t everything, but apart from Jerry Hughes, the Bills weren’t all that effective at generating hurries either. Outside linebackers Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams both had five sacks, but Hughes had 32.5 hurries, while Williams had 14.5. Williams went public with his anger about the defensive scheme and there were whispers that he ended up quitting on the team. The Bills released him and he has since singed with the Dolphins. First-round pick Shaq Lawson was drafted to replace him. It was public knowledge that Lawson was dealing with a shoulder injury, but it was hoped he’d be able to play through his issues this season. News of his surgery did not go over well with the Bills’ fanbase:
With Lawson on the PUP list, IK Enemkpali has risen to the top of the depth chart. He wasn’t that effective for the Bills last season. Hughes may be facing a lot of double teams this season. (Update: IK Enemkpali is done for the season with an ACL tear. The front-seven has had the shit kicked out of it this offseason.)
Nose tackle Marcell Dareus regressed badly last season. He averaged seven sacks in his first four seasons and was coming off of ten in 2014. Last year, he managed only two. It wasn’t as if the Bills asked him to bulk up and focus on the run, as his numbers there weren’t impressive either. Defensive end Kyle Williams is coming back from knee surgery. At age 33, his best days are behind him. Rookie third-round pick Adolphus Washington was a solid value. He is going to rotate with Corbin Bryant at the other end. There isn’t much depth here.
The linebacker corps was bolstered by first-round pick Shaq Lawson and second-round pick Reggie Ragland. Lawson is expected back around week eight. Ragland is going to miss the season entirely with an ACL tear. I had Ragland as the 11th best overall player in the draft, although with a caveat:
Reggie Ragland: There is a concern that Alabama players look better on film than they really are. The issues are twofold: They are surrounded by elite talent and have an easier time making plays. Furthermore, they are generally already very well coached, so there isn’t much room for improvement in the NFL. Ragland is hit pretty hard in both respects. I see a guy who can attack the line of scrimmage, with solid horizontal range attacking the running game. The major concern is his coverage abilities, which are still a question mark. I’m confident he’s a good value in the latter half of the first round.
Even with the “Alabama penalty,” he was a great pickup for the Bills. His absence will hurt. 2012 second-round pick Zach Brown moved into the starting lineup to replace Ragland. Brown failed to impress in Tennessee and is on a one-year deal in Buffalo. 2014 third-round pick Preston Brown has been a serviceable role player. He’d provide good depth off the bench if he weren’t in the starting lineup. Hopefully he’ll improve in his third season. Despite the Bills’ best efforts, this is a very weak front-seven. Losing Ragland and Lawson is a problem. Any further injuries, especially to Hughes or Dareus, could prove disastrous.
The one bright spot for the Buffalo Bills defense was their cornerbacks. Rookie second-round pick Ronald Darby was excellent. As a general rule, rookie cornerbacks struggle. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a star. 2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore has lived up to his draft status. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and it is going to be tricky to reach a deal. In his favor, he has an excellent reputation. The problem is that he’s not quite elite. If he wants to get paid like an elite cornerback, he may face a tough negotiation. The apply named Nickell Robey is serviceable. His job security is questionable. Strong safety Aaron Williams should be fully recovered from neck surgery. He’s a solid contributor when healthy. Free safety Corey Graham was moved over from cornerback when Williams got hurt. He handled the move well enough to keep the job. Overall, this is the strongest unit on the defense. Without a solid pass rush, though, their results will likely be poor. In 2013 and 2014 Buffalo’s DVOA vs. the pass was second and first, respectively. In 2015, the pass rush disappeared and their ranking dropped to 18th.
Buffalo’s special teams were a mixed bag. The excellent coverage units led to the best opponent starting drive position (19.9 yard-line) in the NFL. Unfortunately, the return games were awful. Also, kicker Dan Carpenter missed six XP’s last season. The Bills also committed 25 special teams penalties. They’ll want to get that down below one-per-game. Overall, their special teams graded out slightly better than average. The big 2016 rule change is that touchbacks will now come out to the 25 yard-line. That punishes kickers who excelled at generating touchbacks, and puts a premium on elite coverage units if teams decide to go for higher kickoffs with less distance. It’s a small change, so I am not sure how much teams will respond to it.
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the Bills. It’s unlikely the running game will be as effective this season as it was in 2015. They lack a clear receiving threat after Sammy Watkins. The front-seven has been decimated by injuries. The pass rush looks anemic. And then there are the Ryan brothers. Putting Rex and Rob Ryan on the same team is a bold move. Rob’s track record has not been good lately. Despite that, the Bills have a few things going for them. The biggest is that Tyrod Taylor is an NFL-quality quarterback. He was eighth in the NFL in DVOA last season. That’s very impressive for a guy who won the job in the preseason. They also catch a few scheduling breaks, including facing the Patriots in Foxboro without Tom Brady. Taking that into account, the most likely result for the Bills is a deeply unsatisfying 8-8.
Miami Dolphins
Talent Wins: 6.48
Expected Wins: 6.64
DVOA Wins: 6.1
Last Year: 6-10 (5.8 Pythagorean Wins)
Flash back to draft night. Consensus top left tackle Laremy Tunsil is free-falling. I am hoping against hope that he will fall to the Giants, but I expect the Titans to snag him. Instead, they take Jack Conklin. After the Bears take Leonard Floyd, the impossible dream has come true. There are rumors the Giants are receiving enticing offers to trade down, and I’d be fine with that. Instead, they take Eli Apple. Tunsil falls to Miami. My loss is Ryan Tannehill’s gain.
Ryan Tannehill’s numbers fell off a cliff last year. Not his basic stats:
2014: 4,045 yards, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

2015: 4,208 yards. 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
That looks fairly comparable, but check out the advanced metrics:
2014: 4.1% DVOA, 630 DYAR

2015: -10.6% DVOA, 20 DYAR
Oof. New head coach Adam Gase has made supporting Tannehill a priority. The Dolphins’ front office and coaching staff has been a bit of a clusterfuck for years, so having one clear voice in command will be helpful. Tannehill isn’t a natural star, so his success will be dependent on the talent around him.
Jarvis Landry managed a statistical feat that neither of the “Marks Brothers” managed in Dan Marino’s heyday: 100+ receptions (110), 1,000+ yards receiving (1,157). Then again, I don’t think they ever were the beneficiaries of 167 targets. Like Tannehill’s, Landry’s advanced metrics regressed from 2014:
2014: +/- +8.7, DVOA -0.8%, 102 DYAR

2015: +/- +2.3, DVOA -7.1%, 72 DYAR
The Dolphins had two head coaches in 2015: The incompetent Joe Philbin and the overmatched Dan Campbell. I expect Landry to see improvement this year simply due to more competence from the top down. I’m less confident in Kenny Stills:
2014: +/- +15.5, 30.3% DVOA, 285 DYAR (In New Orleans)

2015: +/- -5.9, -17.2% DVOA, -22 DYAR
The shift from New Orleans to Miami was enormous. Goodbye Brees, hello Tannehill. Stills did not handle it well. Stills was considered a premier deep threat before last season. Perhaps he rededicated himself this offseason. More likely, Miami is going to end up disappointed with their acquisition. My notes from last season included the terms “Lazy,” “Butterfingers,” and “No sideline sense.” I am not optimistic.
2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker is another story entirely. He came back from foot surgery to electrify late last season. He looks fantastic and should pair with Landry to push defenses. The Dolphins traded up into the third round to grab Leonte Carroo. This is what I wrote on him before the draft:
“Leonte Carroo: Carroo blocked multiple punts at Rutgers. He can work outside, or move in to the slot. He’s missed time with various injuries, including multiple concussions. His coaches have told NFL scouts they had a love-hate relationship with Carroo. There are multiple red flags here. The reward can be high, though, as he has the talent to be a solid #2 receiver.”
I’ve gotten to the point where I view multiple concussions as a serious red flag. I don’t think I would have made the trade, but I understand it. Carroo is an excellent #4WR. He should work his way up the depth chart in time.
Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off of a pair of disappointing seasons (-84 combined DYAR). I’m confident he isn’t quite that bad. He’ll split time with Dion Sims. Sims missed time last season with a concussion. When healthy, he’s probably the best option for the Dolphins.
Running backs aren’t very important in the 2016 NFL, but the Dolphins are pushing it. 2015 fifth-round pick Jay Ajayi struggled last season (-7.5% combined DVOA, 11 combined DYAR). Despite that, he’s the incumbent starter. His challenger will be the used-up Arian Foster (-9.8% combined DVOA, 29 combined DYAR). Both of them provided all of their positive value as receivers. Foster is on the way down, so I’d pin my hopes on Ajayi improving in his second season.
The Dolphins are sandbagging Tunsil right now, and I am not sure why. Here is what I wrote about Tunsil before the draft:
“Laremy Tunsil: The best offensive lineman in the draft. I cannot believe the rumors I am hearing of Ronnie Stanley going ahead of him. Yes, he needs to get a bit more powerful, but for now he makes up for it with elite speed. Whichever team ends up with Tunsil is going to have an excellent start to their draft.”
Let’s look at the current starters. Left tackle Brandon Albert was fantastic last season. I had him second overall, behind only Joe Thomas. Left guard Dallas Thomas was awful. I’d expect Tunsil to be better than him in week one despite a positional change. Center Mike Pouncey was excellent, ranking fifth overall in my center rankings. Right guard Billy Turner was solidly below-average. Not quite as bad as Thomas, though. 2014 first-round pick Ja’Wuan James hasn’t lived up to expectations. Injuries have been a part of that. Still, he struggled when healthy last season. This may be his last chance to prove himself at right tackle. If he continues to struggle, we may see him moved inside. Jermon Bushrod provides excellent depth at tackle. The problem is the Dolphins’ major need is at guard. Given how good Albert and Pouncey are, it’s surprising the rest of the line has struggled this much. I’d expect Tunsil to make an immediate impact. We’ll see if the Dolphins feel the same way.
If you ignore the red flags, this is a pretty fearsome defensive line. I am not going to ignore the red flags. Ndamukong Suh is still a monster. Six sacks and 34.5 hits+hurries are impressive. But even those numbers don’t tell the full story. He is still the focus of offensive blocking schemes, creating opportunities for the rest of the pass rush. He remains as dominant as he was in Detroit. At 29, we’ll see how long that stays true. He’ll play alongside Earl Mitchell. Mitchell was mediocre last season. Frankly, I would have preferred the Dolphins take A’Shawn Robinson or another defensive tackle over cornerback Xavien Howard in the second round. Mitchell will rotate with Jordan Phillips. Phillips is the much more dynamic pass-rusher and may end up stealing the starting job.
Mario Williams and Cameron Wake will start on the outside. In 2012, they combined for 25.5 sacks. In 2014, they topped that with 26. The problem is they’ve never actually played together. Last year Wake was playing well before an Achilles injury ended his season. He might not be 100% to start the season. Williams might have outright quit on the Bills. As great as the pair once were, both are on the wrong side of thirty. I’d expect Williams to still have something left in the tank. Wake is 34 and is likely going to see some physical decline. Andre Branch and Jason Jones provide good depth here.
The linebacker corps has some issues. Kiko Alonso no longer has the range he had knee pre-surgery. I’m not sure the Dolphins are going to be happy with the version of Alonso they traded for. Jelani Jenkins played through injuries last season. He put up decent numbers, but even when healthy he isn’t a difference maker. The best of the group is middle linebacker Koa Misi. He has the speed to play outside. He’s a quality veteran who knows how to do his job. Overall, this is a unit that offenses are going to attack. There isn’t much in the way of quality depth here.
The Dolphins have rebuilt their secondary. When they traded the eighth overall pick in the draft to the Eagles, they received linebacker Kiko Alonso, cornerback Byron Maxwell, and the 13th overall pick. Maxwell is pencilled in as the #1CB. He wasn’t particularly effective for the Eagles last season. Rookie second-round pick Xavien Howard was a reach, although he is a polarizing prospect. Some scouts had him rated roughly where the Eagles took him. Howard looks the part (6-1, 200). He’s physical, and he’s familiar with playing man-to-man. I’m less impressed with his athleticism and technique. Look for him to be a flag magnet once he gets onto the field. That might not be for a while, as he is currently on the PUP list. Backup Tony Lippert is currently in the #2CB role. It doesn’t sound like it is going well.
Chimdi Chekwa is a dark horse to steal the starting job. Things are a bit more settled at safety. Strong safety Reshad Jones is the best player in the defensive backfield. He’s solid against both the run and the pass. Free agent pickup Isa Abdul-Quddus got his ass kicked last season. I’m genuinely curious what the Dolphins saw on film. He’ll start at free safety. Michael Thomas will provide depth here. This is not a deep secondary.
The Dolphins’ special teams are legitimately strange. Punter Matt Darr was excellent last season, but the coverage units were abominable. They hurt more than he helped. Kicker Andrew Franks was roughly average. He only attempted 16 field goals, which is hard to do when starting 16 games. Jarvis Landry was excellent handling returns last season. The bulk of the special teams units have been replaced, so we’ll be seeing new faces in the coverage and blocking units. The pressure will be on Darren Rizzi to pull the units together. Overall, the Dolphins have been in the bottom third of special teams units each of the past three seasons. Given all the turnover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that trend continue.
It’s strange to look at a team that is neither a championship contender or in rebuilding mode. The Dolphins have made numerous moves to help them win now. The thing is, they aren’t a threat to win the division. I don’t see them snagging a wild card spot either. They have rescued themselves from the dregs, and they have a reasonable schedule. A consistent coaching philosophy should help as well. Overall, I see some slight improvement on last season: 7-9.
New England Patriots
Talent Wins: 10.32
Expected Wins: 10.55
DVOA Wins: 9.8
Last Year: 12-4 (11.7 Pythagorean Wins)
Over the past six years, the Patriots have won 75 regular season games. They haven’t won fewer than 10 games since 2002. If not for the Deflategate suspensions, it would be easy to just say “12-4” and move on. They open the season without Brady on the road at Arizona. After that, they get three fairly easy home games. 2-2 would be a lousy result, but even that would keep them on pace to win the AFC East for the eighth straight season. A 3-1 result would keep them on pace for a fifth straight 12-4 season. At that point, Tom Brady will return healthy and ready to lay waste to… the Cleveland Browns. Not exactly the toughest first game back, but that’s how the schedule goes.
At age 39, Tom Brady remains on the short list of best quarterbacks in the NFL. The only elite quarterback in the AFC that can challenge Brady is Ben Roethlisberger. The October 23rd matchup at Pittsburgh is going to be enormous. There was no slippage at all in Brady’s numbers last season:
2014: 18.1% DVOA, 1,176 DYAR

2015: 19.5% DVOA, 1,312 DYAR
The only major issue for Brady is that he will only have 12 games to put up numbers this season. That leaves the other four games to Jimmy Garoppolo. Over the course of two seasons Garoppolo has taken one game’s worth of snaps. In that time he was pretty bad: -24.7% DVOA, -30 DYAR. By the time he takes the field in Arizona, he’ll be as prepared as Bill Belichick can make him. Unlike in his other appearances, he is being groomed to start. That probably won’t be enough to defeat the Cardinals. Games at home against the Bills, Dolphins, and Texans (but not the Jets), should all be winnable.
Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season since 2011. When healthy, he is the Patriots’ most important weapon. Over the past two seasons, he’s been remarkably consistent, averaging 20.3% DVOA and 236 DYAR. Those aren’t quite the eye-popping numbers from his peak. He’s great, but will need some more help this year. He’ll get some of it from Martellus Bennett. He struggled in Chicago last season (-10.7% DVOA, -18 DYAR), but averaged 72 DYAR the previous two seasons. After being the #1 option in Chicago, he should feast against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola put up fairly similar numbers last season:
Edelman: 61 receptions, 692 yards, +/- +2.6, 144 DYAR, 8.1% DVOA

Amendola: 65 receptions, 648 yards, +/- +8.1, 139 DYAR, 8.6% DVOA
Amendola was slightly more efficient. Interestingly, they combined for 16 starts. Health is a concern for both of them. Amendola is currently on the PUP list, recovering from ankle and knee surgery. Edelman is recovering from foot surgery. Concussions are also a potential issue for Edelman. Keshawn Martin is also a serviceable option in the slot. Nate Washington is holding on to the #4WR job by his fingertips. It’s not that there are any great options pushing him. It’s just that he hasn’t looked good.
LeGarrette Blount has retained his role as the #1RB. His DVOA (0.2%) understates his value. The Patriots win games with Brady and the passing game. NFL rules incentivize running the ball in the second half if you have a sufficient lead such that keeping the clock moving is more important than maximizing expected value. That’s where Blount comes in. He isn’t much of a factor in the passing game, apart from blocking for Brady. Dion Lewis accumulated 155 combined DYAR in seven games last season. Prorate that to a full season and you’d have 354 combined DYAR, which would have led all NFL running backs. An ACL tear ended Lewis’s season and he is still on the PUP list. He’s expected to be ready to start the season. If he’s healthy, he could prove to be the Patriots’ best weapon after Gronk.
In the four games he managed to stay on the field, Nate Solder was the worst left tackle in the NFL last season. Marcus Cannon and Sebastion Vollmer were both a little below-average. Josh Kline was fairly effective when injuries forced him into the starting lineup. Right guard Jonathan Cooper was slightly below-average for the Cardinals last season. He should help stabilize the interior of the line. Center Bryan Stork was third-worst by my reckoning. Backup David Andrews was merely lousy in his time replacing the injured Stork. The Patriots’ current plan is to start Solder at left tackle, rookie third-round pick Joe Thuney at right guard, Stork at center, Cooper at right guard, and Vollmer at right tackle. Stork and Solder will have to play much better than they did last season for that to be a good plan. As for Thuney, he was a surprising pick. I double-checked my notes and no one had him going that high. He is coming off a strong season, giving up no sacks at tackle. He’ll have to adjust to moving to guard. He wouldn’t have been necessary, but 2015 fourth-round pick Shaq Mason has not impressed the coaching staff. I thought he was below-average, but not to the point I’d look to acquire his replacement in the following draft. Overall, this line has a lot of depth. What it might lack is a premium performer. Solder and Vollmer have worn down. This may prove to be the Achilles’ Heel for the Patriots’ offense.
The key questions for the Patriots’ defensive line:
1. Can Jabaal Sheard maintain his excellent performance while being the focal point of the offensive protection scheme? He had eight sacks in 13 games last season. He’ll be expected to play roughly 50% more snaps this season.
2. How much does the addition of Chris Long make up for the loss of Chandler Jones? Injuries have slowed him. He had 32.5 sacks in 2011-2013, but only four since. He will need to return to form.
3. How much will Rob Ninkovich’s triceps tear slow him? He’s a key part of the pass rush. If he is slowed, the Patriots’ pass rush could be anemic.
4. Can 2015 third- and fourth-round picks Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers make an impact? Injuries limited Flowers to one game last year. Grissom just wasn’t very good. He couldn’t earn time apart from on special teams.
5. Is 2015 first-round pick defensive tackle Malcom Brown a budding star? He was excellent last season and should be even better this year. Frankly, I was pissed when he fell to the Patriots.
Brown will play alongside journeyman Alan Branch. Terrance Knighton (Pot Roast) will also see playing time in short-yardage situations. Rookie third-round pick Vincent Valentine was another Belichick special. He’s enormous and showed potential at Nebraska. An injury limited him in his final college season. Frankly, I had him as a seventh-round pick or a premium free agent, so presumably the Patriots know a lot more about him than I did. Or they messed up. Their draft record hasn’t been sterling lately. This might be a good defensive line against the run. The problem is that the most important job is pressuring the quarterback. This pass rush looks a bit weak, especially if Ninkovich is slowed.
Linebacker Jamie Collins is one of the best at his position. He’s solid in coverage and against the run. He had two sacks against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. He may be asked to do a bit more blitzing this season if the defensive line struggles to get to the quarterback. He’ll play across from journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Dont’a Hightower will patrol the middle. Hightower is just a hair below the elite level. This is a strong unit, with Shea McClellin proving excellent depth.
The Patriots’ secondary is the most complete unit on the team. Malcolm Butler is a solid #1CB. 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan gambles a bit. His success rate was high enough that the Patriots haven’t asked him to change his style of play. Rookie second-round pick Cyrus Jones is going to compete for the nickel job. He was another reach, at least according to my draft rankings. Justin Coleman and EJ Biggers are also competing for the job. Free safety Devin McCourty is one of the best at his position. His range allows Patrick Chung to play as a safety/linebacker hybrid. I’m a bit surprised 2015 second-round pick Jordan Richards hasn’t made a push up the depth chart. He’s currently stuck on special teams. Overall, this is a very good unit. The key question is how much help they will get from their pass rush.
Stephen Gostkowski was worth a bit more than a point-a-game for the Patriots last season. Put another way, he was worth roughly half of a win over an average kicker. Their kick coverage unit was solid as well. Unfortunately for the Patriots, the new touchback rules will mitigate their advantage. It was an off-year for punter Ryan Allen and the punt coverage unit. Allen was slightly above average in terms of distance, but at the expense of hang time. He won the Ray Guy award twice in college, so he should be able to fix the issue this season. Danny Amendola is slated to return kicks. Julian Edelman has that job for punts. I’d be tempted to hand Edelman’s job over to Cyrus Jones.
While the Patriots are still the class of the AFC, there are some major concerns. The offensive line was an issue last season. Injuries hurt, but the starters were awful even when healthy. The pass rush looked questionable before Ninkovich got hurt. It’s tough to win when you are losing the battle along the line of scrimmage. It can be done, though. Brady, Gronk, and Belichick are all on their way to Canton. The linebacker corps and the secondary are solid, as are the special teams. So long as the Patriots don’t put themselves in too deep a hole in their first four games, they’ll control their destiny. Games at Denver and Pittsburgh will set the table for the AFC playoffs. If Brady were available to start the season, I’d go with 12-4. With him gone for four weeks, the expectation is 11-5. In 2002, that was good enough for home field advantage for the Oakland Raiders. Will 11-5 be good enough to nab the #1 seed this year? Maybe. The elite of the AFC are weaker than they’ve been in years. Most likely, variance leads to a team going 12-4 or better, but that’s not a certainty.

 
New York Jets
Talent Wins: 8.22
Expected Wins: 7.42
DVOA Wins: 7.2
Last Year: 10-6 (10.0 Pythagorean Wins)
There’s a lot to unpack here. The Jets controlled their playoff destiny last season. Had they defeated the Bills they would have clinched a wild card berth. Instead, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions. The Jets lost 22-17 and finished with the most disappointing 10-6 season I can recall. I should note that the Jets faced a comically easy schedule last season. That won’t be the case this year. I was surprised at how much talent the Jets have on their roster. The truth is that the defense really is quite good, as is the receiving corps. However, storm clouds remain on the horizon because Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a long term solution and the Jets have shown no aptitude in drafting quarterbacks.
Let’s start with the options the Jets passed up when the decided to re-sign Fitzpatrick:
Geno Smith: Over the past three seasons, he’s put up a -17.6% DVOA and accumulated -332 DYAR. He’s shown himself to be below replacement level. That might be more tolerable if he were viewed as a positive influence in the locker room. Instead, the team pretty much shrugged when linebacker IM Enemkpali broke his jaw. Geno is still under contract, but he has no future with the Jets.
Bryce Petty- The 2015 fourth-round pick shocked the Jets coaching staff with how unprepared he was. That’s on the scouting department. While they knew he would be a project, his bafflement at the playbook caused significant consternation. It appears the Jets are prepared to write Petty off.
Christian Heckenberg- Scouting reports from Jets camp have been abominable. He’s failing on every conceivable metric. This is what I wrote about him before the draft:
“Christian Hackenberg: I know he’s had some bad coaching, but you can’t watch his film and feel like you’re seeing a future pro. I know he had a great freshman year, but watching him stand in the pocket and take unnecessary sacks has soured me on him. Oh, and he also has Goff-style small hands. I see very little upside here.”
It’s still early, but Hackenberg has all the hallmarks of a bust. That leaves the Jets with Fitzpatrick. That’s a mixed blessing, because this looks like a perfect time for the Jets to go 3-13 and draft Deshaun Watson or Brad Kaaya. Fitzpatrick has matured into a competent quarterback. Over the past two seasons (28 games) Fitzpatrick has averaged a 4.6% DVOA and accumulated 925 DYAR. Those are the kind of numbers that lead to a winning record (9-7 in 2014 with Houston, 10-6 last year with the Jets), but out of the playoffs. That’s a miserable place to be. I winced when the Jets re-signed Fitzpatrick because he’s good enough to beat bad teams, but not good enough to lead the Jets to the playoffs.
Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker form an elite pair. Their stat lines for last season shows just how important they were to the Jets’ offense:
Marshall: 173 targets, 109 receptions, 1,502 yards, +/- +7.0, 9.3% DVOA, 303 DYAR

Decker: 132 targets, 80 receptions, 1,027 yards, +/- +4.2, 13.6% DVOA, 278 DYAR
They staged a low-level strike until the Jets resigned Fitzpatrick. That’s what happens when you see Geno Smith in practice. Now, about the third option… the rest of the Jets’ receiving corps combined for a staggering -275 DYAR, with an average DVOA of -33.6%. That’s hard to do. Really hard. 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro was not part of that disaster, having missed the season with a torn labrum. He was lousy as a rookie (-7.0% DVOA, 1 DYAR). Currently he’s sitting behind Kellen Davis on the depth chart. As for Davis, he averaged -3 DYAR-per-target last season. That was “good” enough for a -56.7% DVOA. He’s the guy atop the tight end depth chart because he’s a solid blocker. His 11 targets last season were probably just to remind the defense he was an eligible receiver. This is the guy the Jets 2014 second-round pick can’t unseat on the depth chart. I… I need to move on.
Matt Forte was the Jets premium free agent pickup this year. If those numbers give you pause, remember that he’s a 31-year old running back in the modern NFL. Despite only playing in 13 games last season, his combined DYAR remained steady:
2013: 306 DYAR, 7.7% DVOA

2014: 240 DYAR, 2.3% DVOA

2015: 304 DYAR, 14.4% DVOA
Forte was very efficient last year. We’ll see if he can maintain that level of play in New York. In 2013, Bilal Powell proved he wasn’t worthy of a starting gig (-21 DYAR). Since then, he’s been a capable backup. Last year he saw his role split roughly evenly between running and receiving. The results were decent (-1.0% DVOA, 61 DYAR). You can live with that, but it’s clearly Forte’s show at this point. (Update: Maybe not. Forte is being slowed by a hamstring injury. Hopefully that heals before the season starts.)
The big news for the Jets offensive line is the loss of D’Brickashaw Ferguson. He was an above-average left tackle last season. The Jets played hardball in contract negotiations, so he decided to retire. Enter Ryan Clady. Clady was good in 2014, but missed 2015 with a torn ACL. I’m hopeful that he’ll be 100% in 2016. Left guard James Carpenter was excellent last season. I had him fifth overall for his position. Nick Mangold put together another strong season. I graded him ninth best among centers; at age 32 he may be slipping a little bit. Right guard Brian Winters was a bit below-average last season. He’s currently in a training camp battle with 2014 fourth-round pick Dakota Dozier. Right tackle is up in the air. Incumbent Bruno Giacomini is coming off of a strong season (tied for fifth-best right tackle by my numbers). He’s currently sidelined with a back injury. Ben Ijalana has risen to the top of the depth chart in Giacomini’s absence. Rookie fifth-round pick Brandon Shell is a potential option as well. Shell is going to need some time to develop his skills, but may find himself starting later this season. Overall, this a strong unit.
Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Muhammad Wilkerson power one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL. Wilkerson is still recovering from a broken leg that ended his 2015 season. He is expected to ready week one. The trio combined for 20 sacks and 118 hits+hurries last season. Free agent pickup nose tackle Steve McClendon will man the middle of the line. He’s a solid contributor. The Steelers used him as part of a rotation. It isn’t clear how many snaps the Jets expect him to play. 2015 seventh-round round pack Deon Simon provides questionable depth.
2015 third-round pick outside linebacker Lorenzo Maudlin put up decent numbers last season (four sacks, 22.5 hits+hurries). Those numbers only become eye-popping when you notice he only needed 253 snaps to put them up. Even as a pass-rush specialist, that’s an excellent performance. The departures of Sheldon Pace and Quinton Coples have opened up two starting spots. Maudlin has taken one. The other looks like it will go to rookie third-round pick Jordan Jenkins. I loved the Jenkins pick. He was a DE/OLB hybrid at Georgia. NFL teams had concerns he didn’t have the strength to play end or the range to go into coverage. He’s at his best attacking the line of scrimmage. I anticipate the Jets’ coaching staff will do a good job of taking advantage of his strengths and hiding his limitations.
There are interesting developments in the middle. David Harris is still above-average, but has seen his play slip. Erin Henderson isn’t talented enough to lock down a starting spot. This is an area where the Jets needed an infusion of talent. The front office agreed and drafted Darron Lee in the first round. Here is what I wrote about Lee before the draft:
Darron Lee: He’s a coverage linebacker. Solid range, decent pass rush ability. Should be an effective pro.
I may have undersold his range. He’s not quite a safety, but the Jets will be happy putting him against all but the best tight ends and running backs in coverage. His weakness is an inability to fight through or disengage from blocking. Lee is switching over from playing on the outside and will need a little while to learn his new role. I expect him to take Henderson’s job some point this season. Bruce Carter provides decent depth here.
The front-seven masks the issues, but this is a flawed secondary. Darrelle Revis is still one of the best. He faded a bit in 2015 and I’m wondering if we’ll see further decline this year. Buster Skrine got his ass kicked in the slot last season. He wasn’t much better on the wing either. He was excellent in Cleveland in 2014, so last year may have been a fluke. 2013 first-round pick Dee Milliner is still a disaster.
The first thing I noticed on that video is the great catch by Allen Robinson. The second thing I noticed is that it was a terrible throw. Robinson torched Milliner, but the throw made it a close play. The third thing I noticed is that Milliner went for the interception. I suppose his plan would have worked if it weren’t for those meddling kids. Milliner has awful natural instincts. Rookie fourth-round pick Juston Burris was a fairly big reach. He has the ability to play cornerback or safety. Right now we’ll see his skills put to work on special teams. Marcus Williams may be the beneficiary of a lack of talent above him. The 2014 undrafted free agent is better than Milliner and more prepared than Burris.
The light came on last season for 2014 first-round pick strong safety Calvin Pryor. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a star. Free safety Marcus Gilchrist was solid last season. Some teams treat their safeties interchangeably. The Jets have learned their lesson with Pryor. He’s purely a strong safety. The depth here isn’t great. Rontez Miles is the first man up. The Jets would prefer he stay down.
The Jets’ punting unit was awful last season. Ryan Quigley ranked 31st in net punting average. A decent share of the blame should go to his coverage units. They were average in 2015, and I’d imagine it was a focus of the coaching staff this offseason. Quigley was let go, and the Jets had an Australian punting battle in camp. Seriously. The competitors:
Seventh-round draft pick Lachlan (Lac) Edwards; Undrafted free agent and two-time Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Although Hackett was the funnier of the two, that wasn’t enough as the Jets decided to go with the 6-5 Edwards over the 5-11 Hackett. I have no idea if that was the decider. I checked my notes and had Hackett and the best college punter, with Edwards sixth. I suspect the Jets coaches know what they are doing. Kicker Nick Folk tortures me, but he’s been roughly average on balance. It looks like free agent pickup Jeremy Ross is being given both return jobs. He’s shown competence in both roles previously. Overall, the Jets special teams should bounce back to being roughly average.
The Jets are looking at a much tougher schedule than they faced last year. Even if they maintain an equal level of performance, they are likely to drop an additional 1-2 games. Then again, they are far more competent than I was expecting. Head coach Todd Bowles was very impressive last season. At this point I am more concerned about the incompetent front office (and ownership). For now, I’m expecting an 8-8 season. No playoffs. No high draft pick. The worst of all worlds.

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