2016 NFL Preview: AFC West + AFC Playoffs

It speaks to how awesome the Broncos defense is that they are still considered competitive despite not having access to a quarterback ready to play in the NFL. This division is wide open.

 

AFC West:

Kansas City Chiefs 9-7
Denver Broncos 9-7
Oakland Raiders 8-8
San Diego Chargers 7-9

 

 

 

Denver Broncos

Talent Wins: 9.26

Expected Wins: 8.68

DVOA Wins: 8.2

Last Year: 12-4 (9.7 Pythagorean Wins)

For those of you wondering, yes, the 2016 Broncos are the first team to lose all of their quarterbacks following a Championship season. The 1999 Broncos turned to Brian Griese. It did not go well. However, last year the Broncos’ quarterbacks were horrible (-15.3% DVOA, -173 DYAR). Manning was terrible in the playoffs (-99 DYAR over three games). I can guarantee we’ll never see a quarterback win a ring playing that poorly ever again. It’s almost impossible to believe that it happened. This means that even if the defense steps back a bit this season, offensive improvement can make up for it. Unfortunately, the Broncos signed one of the few quarterbacks even worse than Peyton Manning last year.

Mark Sanchez was stunningly awful in Philadelphia last season (-46.9% DVOA, -227 DYAR). How bad was Sanchez when he was “leading” the Jets to a pair of AFC Championship games?

2009: -26.5% DVOA, -382 DYAR

2010: -4.3% DVOA, 234 DYAR

Yep, he really was close to average in 2010. That was a high water mark, though:

2011: -12.5% DVOA, -53 DYAR

2012: -29.4% DVOA, -593 DYAR

At that point, the Geno Smith era began in New York. Amazingly, Chip Kelly’s magic pixie dust worked on the Sanchize for one year:

2014: -1.4% DVOA, 210 DYAR

Even at his best, Sanchez has been a below-average quarterback. I’m willing to ignore his rookie season, but the 2012 and 2015 disasters tell the tale. Sanchez is barely qualified to be a backup. The fact that he is the starter on a contender shows just how hard it is to acquire a quality quarterback in the NFL. There is no “market price” for Aaron Rodgers because he cannot hit the market. The most logical trade is for Philip Rivers. He’s 34 and won’t be part of the next Chargers championship run. A trade would have the Broncos in line to win 12 games, while the Chargers would be in the running for a top-2 pick in the draft. That would make the Broncos clear AFC favorites. But what would the Broncos have to give up? Two first-round picks, plus two second-round picks? More? Less? Such a trade is unthinkable. That would be the case even if they weren’t divisional rivals. The Broncos could have tried to re-sign Brock Osweiler, but they have major salary cap issues, so that’s where we are. Sanchez wasn’t the only quarterback the Broncos acquired this offseason. Despite the best efforts of multiple teams who tried to trade up, Paxton Lynch fell to the Broncos in the first round. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Paxton Lynch: The more I’ve studied Lynch, the more I like what I see. The film says Goff is the best quarterback prospect, but Lynch has Wentz-level upside, with an even stronger arm. He’s also exceptionally tall. He got dinged up a bit in the draft process due to concerns about his attitude and ability to adapt to an NFL playbook. My sense is that both of those concerns are overstated and he’ll be fine if given time. The aggregate mock has him going 19th on average, which is a lot better value than betting the farm on Wentz. Mind you, I expect some team to trade up to snag Lynch. I like the fact he’s made 38 starts and has clearly improved over that time. I’d be very pleased if the Jets picked him up with the 20th pick. (I just heard a rumor the 49ers are looking at him with the 7th pick. If that’s the case, then he isn’t quite the value I was hoping for. I wouldn’t pan the pick though).”

Potential franchise quarterbacks don’t fall to the tail end of the first round without having major flaws. In Lynch’s case, teams are concerned he won’t be able to handle the complexity of the NFL. He wasn’t asked to make many decisions while at Memphis. I think those concerns were overblown. He might fail at the NFL level, but that’s true of both Goff and Wentz. I would have been ecstatic had the Jets rolled the dice on him. I’m getting to the point where I wonder if quarterbacks are so important that every potential franchise quarterback should be drafted before the best non-quarterback. I understand this creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. I mock the Jaguars for drafting Blake Bortles, but if they really felt he had the best chance of being a star, they made a rational decision. Of course, it still ends up with the Jaguars drafting Blake Bortles, so there are a few bugs in the system. I digress. Lynch may be the next great Broncos quarterback, but for now he’s just a rookie who has a lot to learn. Physically, he’s quite similar to Brock Osweiler, albeit a bit more mobile. Mark Sanchez is leading the Broncos’ championship defense. Good luck with that.

(Update: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE! Sanchez is out, 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian is in. Rodger Sherman wrote a thorough review of Siemian. Siemian has looked good this preseason, but we’ll discover how little that means week one. The Broncos are in a remarkably tough spot. Siemian cannot possibly have evolved from a player most teams weren’t even scouting to a quality NFL starter in a year on the bench. I can appreciate being stubborn and not wanting to pay Osweiler, but this is the downside of that decision).

The Broncos are hoping Demaryius Thomas has a return-to-form this season. He’s been on a downward slope:

2013: 26.5% DVOA, 465 DYAR

2014: 9.2% DVOA, 317 DYAR

2015: -8.7% DVOA, 56 DYAR

We can talk about the decline in quarterback play, but those numbers are stark. He’s only 29, but his best days may be long gone. At his best, he can elevate Mark Sanchez. More likely, they both suffer together. Emmanuel Sanders was awesome in 2014 (29.6% DVOA, 481 DYAR), but crashed hard last year (-4.1% DVOA, 90 DYAR). He can blame his quarterbacks, but again, that’s not getting better anytime soon. Surprisingly, the Broncos don’t have a true #3WR. Bennie Fowler, 2014 second-round pick Cody Latimer, and Jordan Norwood are all competing for the job, but the Broncos don’t appear enamored with any of them. The situation at tight end is even thinner. #1TE Virgil Green has 27 receptions over his past three seasons. 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman missed his rookie season with a torn ACL. The Broncos intend to feature him this season. He was a solid midrange threat at Ohio State. There is going to be a lot of pressure on him to perform. That’s true from Thomas and Sanders as well.

C.J. Anderson struggled last season (-7.9% DVOA, 11 DYAR). I mean, the entire offense struggled, so why should he be any different? He was much better in 2014 (16.6% DVOA, 261 DYAR). Ronnie Hillman is set to battle rookie fourth-round pick Devontae Booker for the backup job. I thought Booker was a solid value in the fourth round. He’s coming back from a torn meniscus, and wasn’t particularly fast to begin with. He’ll have to show he’s 100% to move up the depth chart. He’ll also have to improve his pass protection. Booker was highly productive as a runner and receiver at Utah, so expect to see him get a chance to shine at some point this season. As for Hillman, he’s produced -45 DYAR over the past two seasons. I was surprised when the Broncos re-signed him.

The Broncos are betting that Russell Okung is capable of holding the fort at left tackle. He was average last year in Seattle. 2015 fourth-round pick Max Garcia struggled last season. He’s slated to start at left guard this year. He’ll need to improve for the offensive line to be effective. Center Matt Paradis was a bright spot, finishing third in my rankings. Ty Sambrailo is being moved to right guard. He got his butt kicked in three starts last season. Donald Stephenson played poorly in Kansas City last year. He’s taking over at right tackle for the Broncos. This offensive line does not look great. Multiple players are being asked to change positions. There is some experienced depth on the bench, but it hasn’t shown much in the way of talent.

In my lifetime, there have been four dominant championship defenses. The first was the 1985 Bears. They held their opponents to 198 points in the regular season, and 10 total in their Super Bowl run. That was an incredible feat. They allowed even fewer points the next season (187), but were shocked at home by the Redskins in the divisional round, 27-13. The real area of decline for the 1986 Bears was the offense. They scored 456 points in 1985, but only 352 the following year. The Bears’ defense was based on power, and by 1987 it had come back to the pack.

The next great defense was the 2000 Ravens. Interestingly, the Tennessee Titans were the best team in the NFL that year, and were comparably good on defense. They allowed 168 points in the regular season, to Baltimore’s 155. They met in the playoffs and Tennessee outgained Baltimore 317 yards to 134. Baltimore had only six first downs, but scored touchdowns on an interception return and blocked field goal. Baltimore ended up allowing only 23 points in four games during their playoff run. The following season, Baltimore had no better than the fourth-best defense in the NFL. Still good, but not great.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers allowed 198 points in the regular season and another 37 in the playoffs. The defense scored four touchdowns in that playoff run. We don’t have DVOA numbers for the 1985 Bears. The Buccaneers are the second-ranked championship defense in DVOA history (which goes to 1989). The only team with a better defense was the 1991 Eagles, Those Eagles allowed 244 points, and they missed the playoffs, but let me assure you that it was the offense’s fault. For the record, the Eagles’ defense was still good the following season, but not the best in the NFL. In 2003 the Buccaneers allowed 264 points in a 7-9 campaign. They had the third-best defense according to DVOA, but an average offense and the worst special teams in the NFL did them in. Odd way to fail to defend a title, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Finally, we have the 2013 Seahawks. They allowed 231 points in the regular season, and 40 in the playoffs. They allowed 254 points the following season. That was good enough to lead the NFL, and they had the top-ranked defense according to DVOA. Due to injuries, it wasn’t nearly as impressive, and they allowed 67 points in the playoffs. They still would have won the Super Bowl had they remembered they had Marshawn Lynch, but we’ve already covered that.

The Broncos allowed 296 points last season, but don’t be fooled. It really was a defense on par with that of the Seahawks. They carried the worst championship offense we’ll ever see. The data seems pretty clear. We should see some regression. We’ve already seen two key losses in free agency (DE Malik Jackson, ILB Danny Trevathan). Free-agent pickup Jared Crick is not going to be able to replace Jackson. As for Trevathan, the Broncos will try to replace him internally. Let’s not mourn what has been lost, though. There is still a very strong defense in Denver.

2012 second-round pick Derek Wolfe and 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams will start on the defensive line, along with the aforementioned Jared Crick. Wolfe is a star and received a contract extension in January. Williams was expecting the Broncos to pick up his fifth year option. They declined. He’ll be looking to impress potential suitors this year. The depth along the line wasn’t great last year (although the starters were). Denver surprised observers by taking Adam Gotsis in the second round. Gotsis is still trying to get back to 100% after an ACL tear. He’s Australian and has played more Australian rules football than our kind. I’m sure the Broncos have a plan for him, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

Von Miller was dominant all season long, including the playoffs. He had 11 sacks and 60 hits+hurries in the regular season. He added 2.5 sacks against the Patriots and 2.5 more in the Super Bowl. He also had an interception against the Patriots. He was just a monster. DeMarcus Ware took advantage of all the attention on Miller. He managed 7.5 sacks and 27 hits+hurries. 2015 first-round pick Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett combined for 9.5 sacks and 30.5 hits+hurries last season. Expectations are high for Ray this year, and both of them will likely see an increase in playing time. Overall, this is a very deep pass rush, but we’ll see how much the loss of Jackson affects them.

Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan formed an elite pair of inside linebackers. Marshall remains, but will have to adjust to a new partner. Right now, it looks like Todd Davis will get the job. Davis was strong on special teams, but played few downs in the regular defense. While Davis doesn’t have a lock on the job, there isn’t great depth here, so he might win by default.

A great pass rush makes for a successful secondary. That was the case in Denver last year as Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby all performed very well. Talib’s availability might be in question. He was shot in the leg in a nightclub incident in June. Whle he should be physically ready to go for the opener, a potential suspension is looming. 2013 third-round pick Kayvon Webster would move up the depth chart if that is the case. He’s been exceptional on special teams, but this would be a different challenge. Safeties T.J. Ward and Darien Stewart have complimentary skillsets. Ward is a powerful linebacker/safety hybrid, while Stewart patrols deep. Rookie third-round pick Justin Simmons may eventually take Stewart’s job. Simmons played both cornerback and safety at Boston College. He was last seen getting his ass kicked at the Shrine Game.

Punter Britton Colquitt is currently enmeshed in a battle for his job against rookie seventh-round pick Riley Dixon (go Orange!). The rest of Denver’s special teams are solid, especially the coverage units.

Most defending champions would be in Super Bowl or bust mode. Not Denver. They’re an underdog to repeat as AFC West Champions. I know general manager John Elway understands the importance of good quarterback play to a franchise’s success. The realities of the salary cap limited his options, and so we’ve seen multiple areas where budget replacements will have to make do. I can’t see Mark Sanchez returning to another AFC Championship game. (Update: And so he won’t. Either Trevor Siemian is better than I think, or Paxton Lynch will be taking over the starting job at some point in the season. The defense carried the Broncos last season, but this might be a bit too much.) 9-7.

 

 

 

Kansas City Chiefs

Talent Wins: 8.37

Expected Wins: 9.52

DVOA Wins: 9.6

Last Year: 11-5 (11.2 Pythagorean Wins)

Yes, the Chiefs had a better Pythagorean record than the Broncos. Didn’t end up doing them much good, though. They were the “hot” team entering the AFC playoffs, but Jeremy Maclin’s injury in the Wild Card win over the Texans put them at a disadvantage heading into New England. Some Andy Reid clock management helped end their season. Will they get another shot? Their division, and the AFC in general, is weak. The competition may not be that tough, but how good is Kansas City? Looking up at the various win projections, the real oddity is the talent wins projection. The issue is entirely on the offensive side of the ball. Despite having the sixth-best offense (according to DVOA), the roster isn’t that imposing. See for yourself.

It begins with quarterback Alex Smith. Last year he had the 15th-best DVOA (3.0%) and 15th-best DYAR (468). I should note he is fairly mobile (86 DYAR rushing). Smith has a well-earned reputation for being part of the “Captain Checkdown” school. That puts the Chiefs at a competitive disadvantage, especially on third-and-long. Jeremy Maclin’s statistics tell the tale:

2014 (Philadelphia): 143 targets, 85 receptions, 59% completion rate, 1,318 yards, 15.5 yards-per-reception, +/- -1.5, 7.4% DVOA, 222 DYAR

2015 (Kansas City): 124 targets, 87 receptions, 70% completion rate, 1,088 yards, 12.5 yards-per-reception, +/- +9.6, 11.3% DVOA, 234 DYAR

While the net results were similar, the usage pattern was completely different. Beyond Maclin, the Chiefs lack imposing targets. #2WR Albert Wilson saw his targets double last season:

2014: 28 targets, 16 receptions, 16.3 yards-per-reception, 14.8% DVOA, 57 DYAR

2015: 57 targets, 35 receptions, 12.5 yards-per-reception, 1.5% DVOA, 61 DYAR

The 2014 undrafted free-agent saw his usage increase, but his efficiency dropped. There is talk of moving him into the slot this season. That would create room for 2015 third-round pick Chris Conley on the outside. Conley had a quiet rookie season (2.7% DVOA, 39 DYAR). He can stretch defenses, but that really isn’t Alex Smith’s style. 2013 third-round pick tight end Travis Kelce saw his traditional stats plateau last season:

2014: 67 receptions, 862 yards, 5 touchdowns

2015: 72 receptions, 875 yards, 5 touchdowns

But his advanced stats cratered:

2014: +/- +9.9, 23.0% DVOA, 174 DYAR

2015: +/- +0.2, 9.3% DVOA, 110 DYAR

While those are still respectable numbers, they suggest he won’t blossom into the star the Chiefs were hoping they’d found. There is one other issue with Alex Smith’s propensity for checkdowns. Because the defense expects him to throw short, they punish him when he throws to running backs (-29.5% DVOA, -52 DYAR). Sometimes the greatest risk is not to take one.

While the Chiefs’ running backs may have suffered in the passing game, they were almost universally effective when running the ball: 11.0% DVOA, 309 DYAR. Only Knile Davis struggled (-25.7% DVOA, -19 DYAR). Collectively, the Chiefs accumulated more DYAR rushing (395) than receiving (375). It’s hard to build a champion that way. The Chiefs will get a boost from the return of Jamaal Charles. He’s averaged five yards-per-carry over the past three seasons (and over his entire career). A knee injury limited him to five games last season. The Chiefs have been sidelining him this preseason, but expect him back for week one. When healthy, he’s been the most consistently effective running back in the NFL. (Update: There are whispers he looks a step slow post-injury. The Chiefs can still gain yards on the ground without him, but this would be a setback.)

The Chiefs have prioritized power in their offensive line. The tradeoff gives better run blocking, but less quickness in pass protection. Left tackle Eric Fisher is never going to live up to his draft status. Last season he matured into an average left tackle, which led to the Chiefs rewarding him. If the Chiefs could take a mulligan, they’d take Sheldon Richardson. It was a weak draft, and none of the top offensive linemen lived up to expectations.

Both guard spots were problem areas for the Chiefs last season. It looks like rookie fourth-round pick Parker Ehringer will solve that issue at left guard. He was a left tackle at Cincinnati. His skill set is better suited to play guard in the NFL. He’ll improve the pass protection, but at the expense of the running game. As for right guard, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will be given another shot. My stats say he got his butt kicked across the board, but perhaps he’ll bounce back this season. Center Mitch Morse was about average last year. He’s missed time with concussions, so his health is a concern. Jah Reid struggled at right tackle last year. Free-agent pickup Mitchell Schwatz will take over and put Reid back on the bench. The Chiefs have above-average offensive line depth, but none of it has impressed at the NFL level. With two new starters, it’s tricky to project how this line will perform. It should be a bit better in pass protection, but the power numbers will drop. Overall, I think we’ll be looking at a slightly weak unit.

The Chiefs’ defensive line was surprisingly disruptive last season (14 sacks, 56.5 hits+hurries). That was despite an off year for 2012 first-round pick Dontari Poe. Jaye Howard had a career year and made up for Poe’s decline. I’m expecting Poe to bounce back. Allen Bailey rounds out the starting lineup. He’s a bit stronger rushing the passer than he is against the run. Rookie second-round pick Chris Jones will be added to the rotation. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Chris Jones: Oh boy. First round talent, but major character concerns, on and off the field. The big one is a worry that he doesn’t like football and will quit as soon as he gets paid. That makes him a very tough guy to grab on day one.”

His highlights were eye-popping. His statistics weren’t. He only started for one year. The Chiefs are rolling the dice. There is a lot of variance with this pick. His bust rate is higher than normal. But so are his chances of developing into a Pro Bowl player. Overall, the defensive line depth is decent.

The Chiefs’ season might already be doomed. Tambi Hali and Justin Houston combined for 14 sacks and 64.5 hits+hurries last season. Those were disappointing numbers given their talent. This year might be far worse, as both have been on the PUP list this offseason. Hali is recovering from knee surgeries and was just recently cleared to practice. Houston is still sidelined and his timetable to return is uncertain. If they’re sidelined, there will be a lot of pressure on 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford. #4OLB Frank Zombo has five sacks in his three seasons with the Chiefs. I can’t stress enough how much they need Hali and Houston.

Derrick Johnson returned from Achilles surgery with a vengeance. He was as good as he was pre-injury, which is impressive at age 33. Josh Mauga wasn’t as impressive in the middle, and may be pushed by 2015 fourth-round pick Ramik Wilson. Wilson was solid in limited usage last season.

Opponents attacked rookie first-round pick Marcus Peters aggressively last season. They scored some big plays against him, but he won some battles too, grabbing eight interceptions. He was named rookie of the year. I’m not certain he deserved the award, but either way, the Chiefs grabbed a capable starting cornerback. It looks like he’ll start across from 2015 third-round pick Steven Nelson. Nelson struggled last year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lose the job to 2014 third-round pick Phillip Gaines. Gaines is coming back from ACL surgery. Ron Parker did everything for the Chiefs last year. He played nickel, dime, and free safety as needed. The latter is his job title, but look for him to see the field in multiple roles again this season. Eric Berry beat cancer to return to the field for the Chiefs. His play was inspirational, as he was still the star he was pre-lymphoma. This is a very talented secondary. Their success will be dependent on the health of Hali and Houston.

The Chiefs’ special teams were solid last year, but management was concerned it was missing something. They addressed that concern with their fifth-round selection of Tyreek Hill. He really is faster than me. He has SEC-level speed (4.25 40-time on his Pro Day). He’s listed as a receiver, but he lacks even rudimentary route skills. He had to leave Oklahoma State due to off-field concerns, and failed to dominate his competition at West Alabama. He pleaded guilty to domestic violence and was off most draft boards (including mine, which had 574 potential draftees).

There are too many instances to count to show that the NFL doesn’t care about domestic violence so long as you can help a team win games. (Josh Brown’s one game suspension has received derision from all sides.)

In purely football terms, Hill provides a jolt. He’s been given the punt return job, and may return kicks as well. That job competition is between him and Knile Davis. Punter Dustin Colquitt was excellent last season. He’s coming back from offseason knee surgery. The coverage units were even better, so even if he struggles a bit, the Chiefs should be OK. It was an off-year for kicker Cairo Santos. I’m surprised he didn’t face any competition in training camp. Overall, this should be an above-average unit.

For all of his game management flaws, Andy Reid is excellent at preparing his team to play. A good defense can fall apart fast when the pass rush disappears. I’m expecting the Chiefs to struggle early, but rally late when the pass rush is healthy. They might repeat as the hot team entering the playoffs, who then fail on the road. 9-7.

 

 

 

Oakland Raiders

Talent Wins: 9.27

Expected Wins: 8.33

DVOA Wins: 7.6

Last Year: 7-9 (6.9 Pythagorean Wins)

Is this a team on the cusp of turning the corner? Or are they a few years away? I initially thought the former. They found they quarterback of the future as well as a star receiver. The defense was rounding into shape. However, once I started digging deeper, I found some rot beneath the top layers. The offense is still short on skill talent. The defense was bolstered with the Raiders’ first three picks in the draft. I didn’t like two of the picks, but I’ll get to that soon enough. Let’s get back to the good news, starting with the quarterback.

2014 second-round pick Derek Carr made “the leap” in his second season:

2014: -14.9% DVOA, -150 DYAR

2015: 4.1% DVOA, 582 DYAR

Carr has thrown 53 touchdowns in his first two seasons, which trails only Dan Marino. The Raiders are hoping to see continued improvement from Carr this year. It would help if his supporting cast improved. His net-yards-per-pass was a mediocre 6.2. If his receivers had merely an average number of drops, I estimate that number would have been closer to 6.8 or so, which would have put him around the top 10 in the league.

Amari Cooper came into the league on fire. In his first three games he had 20 receptions for 290 yards. Unfortunately, his pace slowed. A foot injury hobbled him late in the season and he finished with 72 receptions for 1,070 yards (+/- -6.6, -1.0% DVOA, 122 DYAR). The Raiders aren’t worried about his foot, but his hands are a major concern. If he can cut down on the drops, he has the skills to dominate. I hope to see him return improved after his first full offseason. Speaking of dominance, we need to talk about Eugene Parker, an all-time great.

There are no agents in the NFL Hall of Fame. Heck, Marvin Miller can’t get into the MLB Hall of Fame, and he was as large a titan as they come. Parker was brilliant and forced the NFL to change its rules on at least one occasion. One of Parker’s final contract negotiations was for Michael Crabtree.

Want to know what Crabtree did to earn that $16.5M guaranteed.?

2015: 85 receptions, 922 yards, +/- -6.7, -13.0% DVOA, -4 DYAR

I thought Crabtree was a disappointment in Oakland last year and was expecting the Raiders to grab a wide receiver in the first few rounds. Instead, their first offensive pick was quarterback Connor Cook in the fourth round. My thoughts on Cook before the draft:

Connor Cook: He doesn’t have an NFL arm. He’s been murdered by anonymous scouts for his attitude, but the much bigger problem is his (lack of) velocity. Alabama took Michigan State apart, and they had no respect for his ability to make tough throws. His completion percentage was bollocks given the talent around him. He holds the Michigan State records for yardage (9,194) and touchdowns (71). He graded out as a second-round prospect on film. I don’t care. I don’t think his skills will translate to the next level. I’ll wince if some team gambles on him with a first-round pick.”

I guess I can’t fault the Raiders for taking Cook in the fourth round. I was baffled by their first two picks, though. I winced when they took safety Karl Joseph with the 14th-overall pick. I’ll talk about my thoughts on Joseph in a little bit. At the time, all of the wide receivers were still on the board. The Raiders could have taken playmaker favorite Corey Coleman, speedster Will Fuller, TCU standout Josh Doctson, or my personal choice, Laquon Treadwell. In the second round they could have gotten a good value with Michael Thomas. Instead, they grabbed defensive tackle Jihad Ward. The Raiders’ resurgence has been based on sound drafting. This year, they took some major risks and ignored what I considered an area of need. Then again, maybe I’m underrating Crabtree. We’ll see. #3WR Seth Roberts (no relation) has managed to work his way up from Pearl River Community College to West Alabama (where he walked on), to hanging on as an undrafted free-agent, to catching game winning touchdowns against the Ravens and Titans. Say what you will about his talent, but he’s worked his way up (13.3% DVOA, 114 DYAR).

I can’t figure out if the Raiders are screwing with us or if Lee Smith really is the #1TE. He’s a solid blocker, but he only had 12 receptions last year. 2015 third-round pick Clive Walford was expected to win the job. He was decent last year (-4.1% DVOA, 10 DYAR). He’s far more talented than Smith, so I am going to assume the current depth chart is just motivation for Walford. He has the talent to get open and the Raiders need capable targets. (Update: Walford is currently slowed with a knee injury. The Raiders dropped him on the depth chart due to the injury. Most teams don’t bother doing that unless a player is confirmed to be out. Walford is expected to be back to start week one.)

I fault teams for over-investing in their running back corps, but it is possible to go too far in the other direction. The Raiders #1RB (Latavius Murray) would be a backup (or worse) on almost every other NFL team. Despite an excellent offensive line, he managed to “produce” -15 DYAR last year (-9.8% DVOA). He made the Pro Bowl because he had 266 carries and nothing else matters. Rookie fifth-round pick DeAndre Washington has less talent than Murray, so I am not sure what the Raiders are hoping for.

On second thought, the Raiders have an excellent pass-blocking line. The run blocking was merely average. I’m still not impressed with Latavius Murray. Left tackle Donald Penn was solid. Free-agent pickup Kelechi Osemele was good in Baltimore last season. He should help Oakland’s line improve this season. I’m not a huge fan of center Rodney Hudson. He was a bit below-average last season and remains the weak link on the line. The addition of Osemele has moved 2014 third-round pick Gabe Jackson over to right guard. He was second overall in my left guard rankings last season and should do an excellent job on the right side. Right tackle is the question mark. 2013 second-round pick Menelik Watson appears likely to win the job. He’s returning from a torn Achilles that kept him sidelined last season. If he struggles, Austin Howard is prepared to step in. Overall, this line looks very good, with above-average depth.

The Raiders’ defense begins with 2014 first-round pick Khalil Mack (15 sacks, 40.5 hits+hurries). He has exceeded the Raiders’ lofty expectations. His numbers against the run weren’t quite as dominant as you’d expect, but that’s a small price to pay to disrupt opposing passers. He’ll start across from a platoon of 2015 second-round pick Mario Edwards and Denico Autry. Edwards is returning from a neck injury that ended his season after 14 games. Autry was the more effective player last season and may end up with more playing time this year if Edwards fails to improve. I’m a little surprised at what I am seeing on the depth chart at tackle. 2014 fourth-round pick Justin “Jelly” Ellis has kept his starting spot, while rookie second-round pick Jihad Ward is battling incumbent Dan Williams for the other spot. Williams played better than Ellis last season. I would have expected Ellis to be the one fighting for playing time. As for Ward, he was a reach. I had him rated higher than most and I wouldn’t have touched him for at least 30 picks. He’s had some flashes, but not much production. He’s an end/tackle hybrid who lacks the quickness to rush from the outside and the power to dominate inside. I’m skeptical of the pick. I will say that the depth along the line is solid, even if Mack doesn’t have much help in attacking the quarterback. Look for undrafted free-agent James Cowser to make an impact. I had him as a fifth-round talent, with a specialty in rushing the passer. SackSEER loves him and he was highly productive at Southern Utah. Anyone who can break Jared Allen’s college sack records (Cowser had 43 in his career) is worth a look.

The Raiders have beefed up their linebacker corps in the hope of improving their pass rush. Free-agent pickup Bruce Irvin nabbed 5.5 sacks to go along with his 27.5 hits+hurries last season. He’ll start across from Malcolm Smith. Malcolm is the proverbial “jack of all trades.” He was competent rushing the passer, mediocre in coverage, and decent against the run. The Raiders may get Aldon Smith to be an upgrade over Malcolm later this season, but it’s not certain that the NFL will clear him to play.

Commissioner Goodell has proven he can do whatever he wants. In this case, all he has to do is do decline to reinstate Aldon. I’m not going to attempt to predict Goodell. If Aldon Smith is cleared, he’ll provide a major boost. Rookie third-round pick Shilique Calhoun was my favorite of the Raiders’ three early picks. I had him as a second-round value. He can play DE or OLB. The Raiders are planning to add him to the OLB rotation. I expect him to be a difference-maker within a few years. 2015 fifth-round pick Ben Heeney is being asked to start at middle linebacker. He has decent speed. I’m expecting opponents to attack him until he proves he has the coverage skills to protect the middle. There are also concerns about his power and ability to attack the run. This may be an area the Raiders need to upgrade in 2017.

Last year, free-agent pickup David Amerson excelled in Oakland. The Raiders are hoping for a repeat performance. They are gambling that another import (Sean Smith) will hold down the other side. Smith played very well for the Chiefs last year. If you want to build a unit via free agency, the defensive backfield is probably your best bet, so long as you take scheme into account. T.J. Carrie did a fine job in the nickel and as a spot safety. Free-agent pickup Reggie Nelson is taking over at free safety. He had eight interceptions in Cincinnati last season. I can’t say I loved the move, as I think he’s starting to lose a step. Despite the free-agent acquisitions, the major addition came via the draft. Karl Joseph was a shocking pick at 14th overall (I remember hearing “bullshit” from the background when the pick was announced). I had to double-check my notes that evening. In retrospect it is a major gamble, but from a certain perspective it makes sense. Here is what I wrote about Joseph before the draft:

Karl Joseph: He’s coming off an ACL tear. Jumps out at you on film. Brutal hitter. He’s a strong safety better fit for a less enlightened era.”

He was playing out of his mind when a knee injury ended his season after just four games. He has great range, hits with ferocity, and has surprisingly good hands. He has the potential to become an excellent strong safety… if he can stay on the field. Even before his knee injury, there were concerns about his ability to stay healthy. The combination of his smaller size and thinner frame caused me to drop him in my ratings. There’s also the issue that he will have difficulty getting away from blocks. I know you have to trust your medical staff, and I’m certain the Raiders’ staff gave him a clean bill of health. There was still a risk involved and other areas of need on the roster. I don’t know who the Raiders had as the top wide receiver on their board, but I would likely have preferred him to Joseph.

The Raiders’ special teams were weak in most areas, and great in one. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski has become a liability. His range has dropped and I think he would have been vulnerable to a training camp battle. Both return units were lousy. DeAndre Washington might provide value here (I’ve already panned him as a running back). He’s competing for both return jobs. The good news is that punter Maquette King is excellent. The coverage unit was great as well. Together, they pretty much cancelled out the weakness from the rest of the unit. It’s hard to see that happening again if Seabass continues to decline.

Did the Raiders outsmart the league this offseason? Or did they outsmart themselves? The offensive line should be better, but the rest of the offense is pretty much unchanged. The defense has received multiple upgrades. The improved pass rush should help the rebuilt secondary. I’m very curious what kind of performance we see from Karl Joseph. The AFC West isn’t as tough as it has been recently. I don’t expect the Raiders to break through this year. 8-8.

 

 

 

San Diego Chargers

Talent Wins: 7.08

Expected Wins: 7.40

DVOA Wins: 8.2

Last Year: 4-12 (5.9 Pythagorean Wins)

It’s hard not to be down on the Chargers right now. Last season saw them go 2-6 in two different fashions. In the first half of the season, their defense got shredded, giving up 28 points a game. In the second half, their offense fell apart, scoring 16 points a game. It’s the latter that concerns me. Philip Rivers looked like he had a bit of “Old man Peyton” in him. If Rivers loses arm strength, both he and the Chargers are done.

I don’t want to give the impression that Rivers was bad last season. He finished with a respectable 780 DYAR (7.8% DVOA). However, here are the prorated versions of his two halves last season:

First 8 games: 5,506 yards, 36 touchdowns, 8.04 net-yards-per-pass

Last 8 games: 4,078 yards, 22 touchdowns, 6.36 net-yards-per-pass

Getting old sucks. The hits hurt more, you heal slower, and you lose strength. Rivers isn’t the elite pro he used to be. We’ll see how steep his decline is.

2013 third-round pick Keenan Allen was on pace for an excellent year when a lacerated kidney ended his season. He’s had an interesting run:

2013: 71 receptions, 1,046 yards, +/- +8.6, 28.2% DVOA, 343 DYAR

2014: 77 receptions, 783 yards, +/- +1.4, -8.0% DVOA, 43 DYAR

2015 (eight games): 67 receptions, 725 yards, +/- +8.0, 11.9% DVOA, 173 DYAR

He exploded onto the scene as a rookie. His role changed in his second season and he was less of a deep threat. He successfully adapted to the new role in his third season. He’s one of the best all-around receivers in the NFL, so it’s a question of whether Rivers can take advantage of Allen’s skills. Allen will start across from free-agent pickup Travis Benjamin. It’s hard to acquire good statistics in Cleveland, and Benjamin didn’t (51 DYAR over his last three seasons, -9.1% DVOA). I’m not sure how I feel about the Benjamin signing. He’s a deep threat on a team that doesn’t throw deep. Maybe his presence will change that. Dontrelle Inman and Tyrelle Williams are competing for the #3WR job. Inman played at safety last year when the Chargers were desperate.

The Chargers are planning to use Antonio Gates and rookie second-round pick Hunter Henry as complementary pieces. Here is what I wrote about Henry before the draft:

Hunter Henry: It’s easy to get frustrated with Henry. He’s a decent blocker, but not a great one. He’s a solid target, but not a major threat. He’s productive, and his coaches loved him. Is he good enough to justify a first-round pick? I guess, but I wouldn’t be all that happy with it. The more I watch him, the less impressed I am.”

In retrospect, that may have been a bit harsh. Henry is a competent tight end who will make the decline of Gates (he’s 36) less painful. Gates only made four starts last year. He still ended up with 496 snaps, 56 receptions, and 113 DYAR. He’s clearly fading, though. As for Henry, I think he was a decent value where the Chargers grabbed him

The Chargers’ most effective receiver last season was a running back: Danny Woodhead

2015: 82 receptions, 761 yards, 25.8% DVOA, 235 DYAR.

He wasn’t nearly as effective on the ground (-5.5% DVOA, 13 DYAR), but that might not have been his fault. 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon got stuffed (-17.4% DVOA, -68 DYAR). I warned y’all about drafting Badger running backs, but no one listens. Gordon is coming back from microfracture surgery. Rivers is getting to the point where it’d be easier on him to lean on a strong running game, but that’s not realistic. Short passes to Woodhead can keep the offense moving forward, but that has its limits. When you start seeing the safeties creep forward, but not to stop the run, you know you need to improve your deep passing game.

The offensive line has been a recurring concern for the Chargers. Left tackle King Dunlap was excellent in 2014, but below-average last year. Injuries limited him to seven games. Left guard Orlando Franklin was below-average as well. New center Matt Slauson was excellent at both guard and center last year. He is a good pickup who should help stabilize the line. Right guard D.J. Fluker was awful, averaging a penalty-per-start. Teams are generally unhappy if you are picking up more than 0.5 penalties a game. Right tackle Joe Barksdale was the one bright spot on the line. Well, let me rephrase: My stats had him solidly above-average. However, the Chargers couldn’t run to the right at all, and I am not sure how much of that falls on him and Fluker. The Chargers grabbed Max Tuerk in the third round. Here is what I wrote about him for the draft:

Max Tuerk: Coming off an ACL tear. Teams aren’t sure if he is a center, or an undersized tackle. He’s a great athlete, so a team may decide to draft him now and figure out his position later.”

He’s currently backing up Slauson. This isn’t a great line (or even a good one), but the depth is solid across the board.

So… I’ve been avoiding this for a while, but we need to talk about Joey Bosa. The Chargers are sticking to their guns regarding guaranteed money. The basics of it had been set by other top five picks, but the Chargers have decided to play hardball. Their theory is Bosa has nowhere else to go, so he’ll eventually cave. The risk is that if decides to sit out a year and enter the 2017 draft, the Chargers get nothing. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL doesn’t compensate teams with a pick if they fail to sign a player. Right now, I have no idea what Bosa and the Chargers will do. I’ll operate under the assumption that he folds before week one. (Update: Bosa folded.)

With him in the rotation, the Chargers can start a defensive line of Bosa, Corey Liuget, and free-agent pickup nose tackle Brandon Mebane. After grabbing seven sacks in 2012, Liuget has seen his numbers fall to 5.5 in 2013, 4.5 in 2014, and three last season. Adding Bosa would give him a boost, as offenses would have someone else to focus on. Mebane is a space-eater who will improve their run defense. As for Bosa, here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Joey Bosa: I’m not sold. He gets the most out of his talent, and he plays as hard as anyone. I just don’t see freakish athleticism on film. He could be a dependable starter for many years, but is that all you ask from a top-five pick?”

Bosa being the first non-quarterback off the board was a surprise. He’s a solid player. I respect the fact that the Chargers ignored his combine and drafted based on on-field performance. Still, there were “freaks” available, such as Laremy Tunsil or Jalen Ramsey. Heck, I’m more confident in DeForest Buckner. Bosa (if available) may start slowly after missing camp. If Bosa isn’t available, 2015 sixth-round pick Darius Philon will start. Philon played in 175 snaps last season. He’s OK providing depth, but starting would stretch his talents. I might add that without Bosa, the depth behind the starters will be very thin.

2012 first round pick Melvin Ingram is coming off of a monster year (10.5 sacks, 38.5 hits+hurries). He’ll start across from 2015 fifth-round pick Kyle Emanuel. However, the other impact player on the outside will be coming off the bench. Jeremiah Attaochu put his skills to work last year, nabbing six sacks and 32.5 hits+hurries. The Chargers would like him to be more consistent. He and Ingram certainly are the most talented pair the Chargers can put out on the field.

2013 second-round pick Manti T’eo has blossomed into the player the Chargers were hoping they’d get. The Chargers were pleasantly surprised 2015 second-round pick Denzel Perryman developed so quickly. He’ll pair with Te’o to form one of the better ILB tandems in the NFL. Overall, this is a solid linebacker corps. Last year they were weak against the run, but that was due to the defensive line. Rookie fourth-round pick Joshua Perry was a great value. He can play inside or outside. He’ll help provide good depth, and might be seen as part of the OLB rotation.

2014 first-round pick Jason Verrett gives the Chargers one good cornerback, but they’re short after that. Brandon Flowers is clearly slipping. Casey Heyward can cover the slot, but that still leaves the Chargers without a good option on the outside. It’s possible 2015 third-round pick Craig Mager will be thrown into the fire. He played sparingly (and poorly) last season. Cornerbacks usually struggle as rookies, so he might be the better bet. Promoting him would allow the Chargers to move Flowers to free safety, where his remaining skills might be better fit. The free safety job opened up after Eric Weddle left. Free-agent acquisition Dwight Lowry is currently penciled in for the job. Strong safety Jahleel Addae rounds out a questionable unit.

Rookie sixth-round pick Drew Kaser should fix what was an awful punting unit. Travis Benjamin will take over returning punts, fixing another weakness. The coverage units could stand some improvement, but overall, the Chargers’ special teams should be improved from terrible last year to average this upcoming season.

Time has taken its toll on Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. The weak running game is another issue. The defensive line looks soft even wih Bosa. The secondary has issues as well. The only particularly good news for the Chargers is that their schedule is soft. Even so, I’m seeing another long year in San Diego. 7-9.

AFC Playoff Seeds:

1. New England Patriots

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

3. Kansas City Chiefs

4. Indianapolis Colts

5. Cincinnati Bengals

6. Denver Broncos

Wildcard Round:

Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs

Homefield advantage proves key for the Chiefs as the cruise by their division rivals. 24-13.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

The Bengals finally manage to win a playoff game. Bengals 27, Colts 17

AFC Divisional Round:

Cincinnati Bengals @ New England Patriots

The Patriots stomp a Bengals team that isn’t ready to take the next step. The Patriots move on to their unprecedented sixth straight AFC Championship game. Patriots 41, Bengals 20

Kansas City Chiefs @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger outduels Alex Smith. Steelers 38, Chiefs 31

AFC Championship Game

This is the matchup the Steelers dread. It doesn’t work out for them. Patriots 31, Steelers 20

The Patriots have been the dominant team in the AFC for the past 14 years. Over that time they’ve appeared in ten AFC Championship games, winning six of them. That’s just a remarkable run. The Broncos had a lot go right last year. The Patriots looked like they were going to lock up homefield advantage, which would have made the playoffs play out quite differently. Instead, they collapsed late, and the Broncos were able to hold on at home. We’ll see if someone rises up to stop the Patriots this year, but I doubt it.

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