2016 NFL Preview: NFC South

Last year Carolina beat up on a weak division. Tampa Bay is on the way up, but Atlanta and New Orleans still have major holes. Carolina looks like they are still the class of this division, despite some odd moves.

NFC South:

Carolina Panthers 10-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9
New Orleans Saints 7-9
Atlanta Falcons 6-10

 

 

 

Atlanta Falcons

Talent Wins: 4.85

Expected Wins: 6.96

DVOA Wins: 7.3

Last Year: 8-8 (7.8 Pythagorean Wins)

I should explain the outlier. Half of the difference between the scouting-based wins and the market-based wins is the rating for Matt Ryan. The other half comes from the defense. If I were to bump up Ryan’s grade to where he was in 2013/2014, Atlanta would have 5.89 talent wins. Let’s take a look at Ryan and see whether or not last year was a fluke, or a sign of problems to come.

2013: 4,515 yards, 26 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 13.3% DVOA, 1,124 DYAR

2014: 4,694 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 14.9% DVOA, 1,101 DYAR

2015: 4,591 yards, 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, -1.9% DVOA, 389 DYAR

In terms of traditional stats, only the touchdown total shows a decline. However, on film his loss of accuracy was apparent. Was it a physical issue? He didn’t appear to be hurt. His protection was excellent. His receiving corps was mostly garbage, but deserves significant blame for the problems of the offense. Oddly, the Falcons saw their record improve from 6-10 to 8-8 even as Ryan’s play declined. The general assumption is that last year was a fluke. The markets are effectively giving Ryan a mulligan. Besides, the Falcons won eight games last year with “lousy Ryan.” The thing is, the Falcons were terrible last season. Their schedule was garbage, and they were a bit lucky. This year, their schedule is much tougher. Will Ryan bounce back? My sense is we’ve seen some genuine decline. He turned 31 in May. Football takes a lot out of you. Not everyone can be Tom Brady or Drew Brees. If Ryan has declined, the rest of the offense will need to chip in to make up the difference. That starts with Julio Jones.

2014: 163 targets, 104 receptions, 1,593 yards, +/- +7.2, 16.2% DVOA, 356 DYAR

2015: 203 targets, 136 receptions, 1,871 yards, +/- +10.6, 8.5% DVOA, 343 DYAR

OK, maybe I lied. Jones has damn near maxed out. When you are seeing close to 13 balls a game, defenses will focus on stopping you. Despite that, Jones was still highly efficient. The real question is how much help does Jones get from the rest of the receiving corps. New #2WR Mohamed Sanu is going to be asked to take the heat off of Jones. I don’t expect that to work. Sanu has averaged a -5.2% DVOA over his past three years in Cincinnati. At best, he’s a mediocre #3WR. The actual #3WR is 2015 fourth-round pick Justin Hardy. Hardy failed spectacularly last season (-24.8% DVOA, -32 DYAR). His college tape revealed a weakness against press coverage:

https://gfycat.com/NeglectedSomeGuernseycow

Word got around in the NFL. All the NFL gifs I found last season have all been deleted, but if you can find a site that has film from his game at Carolina, they put on a clinic. Hardy is fine in space, so it will behoove the Falcons’ coaching staff to find a way to maximize Hardy’s strengths. Either that, or find a wide receiver that can get off the line of scrimmage. The fact that Aldrick Robinson is the Falcons’ #4WR speaks to the lack of other options.

Tight end Jacob Tamme had a great season:

2015: 59 receptions, 657 yards, +/- +5.6, 5.7% DVOA, 68 DYAR

The problem is that is what counts as a great season for Tamme. He’s a safety valve, not a downfield threat. If he is one of your leading receivers, something has gone horribly wrong. Rookie third-round pick Austin Hooper was a good pickup. Here is what I wrote about Hooper before the draft:

Austin Hooper: Multiple scouts have said they wished Hooper had stayed at Stanford for an additional season. He’s a mediocre blocker. He can step out away from the line, but at that point he’s competing with slot receivers, and doesn’t have elite talent. I’m not sure where Hooper will make his mark in the NFL.”

I’ve mellowed a bit on that stance. He provides a mix of size and athleticism that Tamme lacks. Given the lack of options at wide receiver, the Falcons may be forced into running 2TE sets to take advantage of their talent.

2014 fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman saw 338 touches last season. He ended up gaining 1,634 yards-from-scrimmage (-0.7% DVOA, 158 DYAR). Injuries have slowed him. He may be forced into a workhorse role until he breaks down. 2015 third-round pick Tevin Coleman struggled last season (-21.7% DVOA, -58 DYAR). It’s too early to label him a bust. Falcons coaches were very unhappy with his hands. Coaches are just simple cavemen. Fumbles confuse and frighten them. If he hasn’t solved his fumbling issue, he’ll see his playing time dwindle.

The bright spot for the Falcons’ offense is their offensive line. Left tackle Jake Matthews ranked third in my positional rankings. There was a clear top three, and he is the youngest of the group by eight years. Left guard Andy Levitre was below-average and has looked brutal this preseason. Free-agent import center Andy Mack was good last season in Cleveland, but has also struggled this preseason. Right guard Chris Chester was average last season, but has been sucked into the Levitre-Mack vortex. The interior of the line only has a few weeks left to get their shit together. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder was excellent last season, matching Matthews with a top-three ranking. On paper, this line looks excellent. Mack was brought in to strengthen the core. The wings were already strong. It’s possible that the line is just experiencing a few hiccups. I don’t want to overrate preseason football. It is something to watch out for, though.

OK, I give up. Where are the Falcons hiding their pass rush? They had 19 sacks last season. That was the fewest in the league (league average was 37). Their plan is to pair up defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby, with Vic Beasley providing a boost from outside linebacker. Last season, these three combined for 10.5 sacks and 71.5 hits+hurries. Shelby was in Miami last season. I will say that this trio have all performed admirably against the run, and the overall pressure is decent. They’ll still need to finish the job for the defense to be successful. Tyson Jackson and 2015 fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett will start inside, with Ra’Shade Hageman and Jonathan Babineaux providing depth. Frankly, if not for the fact that opponents are allowed to throw a pointed prolate spheroid to receivers running outside and past the line of scrimmage, this would look like a great defensive line.

Beasley played through a torn labrum last season. We may see a more dynamic player now that he is healthy. He’ll play at defensive end in nickel situations. Sean Witherspoon is a familiar face in Atlanta. He’ll play on the weak side. He didn’t do much for the Arizona defense last season. Paul Worrilo patrols the middle. His lack of range dovetails with his lack of coverage skills. His coverage numbers look better than they should because he often didn’t get close enough to be considered in coverage. It’s a bit like the Derek Jeter effect. You can’t be charged with an error on a ball you can’t reach. Rookie second-round pick Deion Jones will provide depth. He has elite speed, but failed to show the level of production to go with it. He only started as a senior. He may be a safety/linebacker hybrid in the NFL.

2013 first-round pick Desmond Trufant is due to get paid:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/atlanta-falcons/desmond-trufant-12302/

The Falcons picked up his fifth-year option. His coverage numbers are ludicrous when you take the lack of a pass rush into account. If he maintains this level of play he’ll be looking at either an enormous contract, or a franchise tag. #2CB 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford played well last season. He may split time as a nickel cornerback after 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins comes back from his four-game suspension. Collins didn’t have great numbers last season. I’ll excuse that, as rookie cornerbacks generally struggle and Atlanta seems happy with his improvement. Rookie first-round pick Keanu Neal was an unexpected choice. He plays with a ferocity that jumps out on film. That also leads to some bad angles and missed tackles. He’s also dealt with injuries, both in college and now in the preseason. He’s expected to start at strong safety week one. I’ll go on the record and say I think this pick was an error. I expect opponents to take advantage of his aggressiveness. I also think he’ll have difficulty staying on the field. 2014 fifth-round pick Ricardo Allen has converted from cornerback to free safety. He has decent speed and coverage ability. Not so much power, although stopping the run is not the Falcons’ major weakness.

Kicker Matt Bryant is currently battling Shayne Graham. Bryant was poor last season and may soon be out of a job. Punter Matt Bosher was solid, but his coverage units were not. Tevin Coleman will return kicks, while Eric Weems will return punts. Overall, this is not an impressive group.

Four years ago, the Falcons were 13-3 and came a drive away from making it to the Super Bowl. Since then, they have won four, six, and eight games. The roster is still feeling the aftereffects of the Julio Jones trade. The overall lack of talent is a major problem. A weak pass rush will likely doom the defense. I’m seeing a team that will struggle for years. Matt Ryan might bounce back, but it won’t be enough. 6-10.

 

 

 

Carolina Panthers

Talent Wins: 10.46

Expected Wins: 10.05

DVOA Wins: 8.6

Last Year: 15-1 (12.4 Pythagorean Wins)

I do not know what a constitutes a catch in the NFL. Without that knowledge, I cannot say whether or not the officials botched this call:

http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2016/2/7/10934408/super-bowl-50-catch-rule-controversy-jerricho-cotchery-panthers-broncos-2016

Maybe Carolina should have had a first down. Maybe not. I’ll probably never know. It matters not. Denver took control of the game on the next play; that defense carried Peyton Manning to a second ring, and now Cam Newton has a lot of work to do to get his first. The good news is the Panthers play in the NFC South, which means it should be fairly easy to get back to the playoffs. After that, we’ll see.

Heading into last season, there was little to suggest Carolina was about to become a juggernaut. They had gone 12-4 in 2013, but fell back to 7-8-1 in 2014. According to DVOA, they were the 24th-best team in the NFL in 2014. They were outscored by 35 points in the regular season, but managed to win their division. They upset the Cardinals in the wild card round, but Seattle ended their season a week later. Here is what their projections were heading into 2015:

Expected Wins: 7.87
Scouting Wins: 8.30
DVOA Wins: 8.0
2014 Record: 7-8-1 (7.0 Pythagorean)

I ended up projecting seven wins for them based on the loss of 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin to an ACL tear. As it turns out, they won more than seven games. What happened?

Cam Newton bounced back from a lousy 2014 season:

2014 (14 games): 3,127 yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, -14.5% DVOA, -105 DYAR

2015 (16 games): 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 7.6% DVOA, 630 DYAR

And the defense led the NFC in both sacks (44) and interceptions (24). The Panthers saw their net turnover margin jump from +3 to +20. I can assure you the Panthers won’t see their net turnover margin remain at +20, so the onus will be on Newton to maintain his level of play. Actually, he might be able to increase it simply from better performance from his teammates. Last year, the Panthers lost more yardage to drops than any team in the NFL. The return of Kelvin Benjamin will help. There will still be a few drops, as Ted Ginn is who he is at this point, much like this guy:

https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0185/4636/products/SeanDanconia_1958_1024x1024.jpg?v=1447712587

Benjamin didn’t have an efficient rookie season:

2014: 145 targets, 73 receptions, 1,008 yards, +/- -7.8, -11.8% DVOA, 9 DYAR

With two years of film work, he should be much better this season. As for Ginn, last year showed what happens when you overuse him:

2015: 96 targets, 44 receptions, 739 yards, +/- -6.4, -2.5 DVOA, 77 DYAR

The expectation is that 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess will move up the depth chart. The Panthers have been very pleased with his progress and we should see him targeted frequently early in the season. Corey Brown rounds out the group. The 2014 undrafted free agent has been a pleasant surprise (8.8% DVOA, 89 DYAR last season). He’s coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, so he might be slowed a bit early in the season. Tight end Greg Olson has maintained a fairly high level of play:

2014: 123 targets, 84 receptions, 1,008 yards, +/- +5.1, 14.7% DVOA, 178 DYAR

2015: 124 targets, 77 receptions, 1,104 yards, +/- +3.3, 8.9% DVOA, 132 DYAR

He’ll benefit if Benjamin takes some of the coverage away from the middle of the field.

Most of the value from the rushing game came from Newton last year:

Newton: 119 rushes, 645 yards, 8.1% DVOA, 142 DYAR

Everyone else: 380 rushes, 1573 yards, -2.4% DVOA, 118 DYAR

Cam Newton earned his MVP trophy for leading this offense to such success without much support. I really must stress how soft the schedule was last year. This year is going to be much harder. Jonathan Stewart has shown signs that he is beginning to wear down. Surprisingly, Fozzy Whittaker has worked his way up to #2 on the depth chart. That speaks poorly for 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne. Whittaker isn’t very talented and has done most of his work on special teams.

I graded every Panthers offensive lineman above-average last year. In the case of right tackle Mike Remmers it was a close thing, but he just kept his head above the water-line. Left tackle Michael Oher doesn’t get much respect. He gave up a few more sacks than you would like, but makes up for it in other ways. Left guard Andrew Norwell was a star, finishing third in my rankings. Right guard Trai Turner was no slouch, finishing ninth. Center Ryan Kalil was solid as well. Overall, this is a stronger line than generally given credit for.

The Panthers’ defense is a bit unusual in terms of how the responsibilities are distributed. The linebackers are responsible for an enormous area of the field. That gives the secondary an easier job. That was one of the reasons they were able to lead the NFL with 24 interceptions. The other was the pass rush. In this case, the pass rush starts with the defensive line.

2013 second-round pick Kawann Short showed his 3.5 sacks in 2014 weren’t a fluke. Last year he grabbed 11 while producing 23.5 hits+hurries. That’s just an incredible rate. If he comes anywhere close to that this season, we’ll need to start putting Short in the conversation for best lineman in the NFL. 2013 first-round pick Star Lotulelei has lived up to expectations and is a very stout defender. 2014 second round pick Kony Ealy will start at end, across from Charles Johnson. Ealy had a very good season, with five sacks and 30 hits+hurries. Johnson was a disappointment who is beginning to morph into a run defense specialist. Mario Addison was exceptional on passing downs, nabbing six sacks and 25 hits+hurries in only 392 snaps. Rookie first-round pick Vernon Butler will team with free-agent pickup Paul Soliai to provide depth at tackle. Here is what I wrote about Butler before the draft:

Vernon Butler: He can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. I’m going to be shaking my head if he falls to the second round. If he does, I hope the Giants snag him.”

Butler provides a great mix of agility and power. Soliai is a seasoned veteran. The defensive line could stand to have one more premium end, but that’s nitpicking. This is an excellent line.

2012 first-round pick Luke Keuchly is clearly the best middle linebacker in the NFL. He is flanked by a pair of first-round picks at different stages of their careers. 2005 first-round pick Thomas Davis had one of his best seasons (5.5 sacks, 19.5 hits+hurries, solid coverage and run numbers). 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson is the question mark. He was used sparingly but played well. This year, he will be out there full time. The depth here is mediocre, but the starters are as talented a group as any in the NFL. This is an excellent front seven.

Cornerback Josh Norman had an interesting offseason:

http://www.espn.com/blog/carolina-panthers/post/_/id/20536/josh-norman-was-sideswiped-by-panthers-decision-to-rescind-franchise-tag

The NFL was collectively dumbfounded by general manger Gettleman’s decision. Norman was a dominant cornerback in the Panthers’ system. They had him locked in on a one-year deal at a below-market rate for his skills if they so chose. Instead, they let him go and he signed for $50M guaranteed:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/washington-redskins/josh-norman-9964/

It worked out for Norman. Will it work out for the Panthers? As I noted before, their secondary has a limited amount of responsibility. The linebacker corps covers an extended amount of the field. As such, the Panthers are throwing three rookie cornerbacks onto the field. Second- and third-round picks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley will take over as the starting cornerbacks, while fifth-round pick Zach Sanchez will start at nickel. I didn’t rate any of these guys as week-one starters heading into the draft. The Panthers have an unusual system, and perhaps they can value certain things while ignoring others. They’ve clearly prioritized size and length at the expense of speed. This might work out in the long run, but I have to assume there will be some growing pains. 2014 fifth-round pick Bene’ Benwikere looks like he will be the dime cornerback. As you might imagine, the depth here isn’t great. Strong safety Kurt Coleman had excellent coverage numbers last year. 2014 fourth-round pick free safety Tre Boston was good in limited usage last season. The Panthers’ secondary is built around a strong pass rush and an elite linebacker corps. On most teams, this secondary would get roasted. It might work out for Carolina if the front seven performs.

Carolina has mediocre special teams. Ted Ginn is a solid return man, handling both kick and punt return duties. Kicker Graham Gano has been dependably lousy. Punter Mike Scifres had neither a good net or gross last year in San Diego. Because special teams are fairly random, Carolina might end up with solid numbers this year, but that isn’t my expectation.

No team in the NFL exceeded expectations more than the Panthers last year. They rode a pathetically weak schedule to home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. They took advantage of Seattle with a re-sodded slick field. Arizona was a shell of itself due to Carson Palmer’s injuries. They outgained Denver 383 yards to 231 in the Super Bowl, but still lost by 14 due to turnovers and poor special teams. They lost Josh Norman, but got Kelvin Benjamin back. Is that a wash? The schedule is going to be much tougher this season. Cam Newton gives the Panthers a weapon no other team can match. That should be good enough to win the division for the fourth straight season. 10-6.

 

 

 

New Orleans Saints

Talent Wins: 8.11

Expected Wins: 7.00

DVOA Wins: 7.4

Last Year: 7-9 (6.4 Pythagorean Wins)

The Saints may end up breaking my statistical model. I have an effective floor for how bad a defense can be. Think of it like the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who found a way to play below replacement-level over the course of a season. Last year, the Saints’ defense was the worst in the NFL by a solid margin (26.1% DVOA; Chicago was next-worst at 11.3%). The Giants gave up more yardage, but no one gave up more points. New Orleans identified this as a problem. They drafted defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round. He broke his fibula in the preseason and will miss the first few weeks. Rookie second-round pick Vonn Bell is still trying to work his way up the depth chart. Cameron Jordan is returning from back surgery. If his play has slipped (10 sacks, 43.5 hits+hurries), we may see the Saints go into battle with a defense that is significantly worse than it was last season, and I’m not sure I’m prepared for that. Let’s talk about the offense for a bit, since too much discussion of the Saints’ defense can get a bit morbid.

Last year, Drew Brees remained an elite quarterback (15.8% DVOA, 1,111 DYAR). If all goes well, he’ll celebrate his 38th birthday with a win in the NFC Divisional round. He’s seen his accuracy and arm strength decline a bit. The end for quarterbacks can come the same way bankruptcy came to Hemingway:

http://www.economicnoise.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/hemingwayqt1.jpg?9d3a8d&9d3a8d

Brees battled nagging injuries in 2015. If he’s healthy this year, we may see him hover around 20% DVOA, 1,500 DYAR territory. That’s the good scenario. The bad scenario is a six-foot, 37 year-old man getting his ass kicked as the Saints collapse. The Indianapolis Colts won 12 or more games every year from 2003-2009. They won ten games in 2010. They won two in 2011. Old quarterbacks are risky like that. We will have to wait and see on Brees.

The good news for the Saints is that if Brees remains elite, he has a solid crew of receivers to throw to. 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks has proven himself to be an effective slot receiver (7.1% DVOA, 192 DYAR in 2015. 2014 undrafted free-agent Brandon Coleman has shown himself to be a diamond in the rough (17.9% DVOA, 113 DYAR last season). There was some concern that Coleman would find himself pushed down the depth chart to make room for rookie second-round pick Michael Thomas, but for now, Coleman remains the #2WR. Here were my thoughts on Thomas before the draft:

Michael Thomas: The dude looks the part. Big, strong, huge hands. His best plays show you tremendous potential, but there should have been more of them. He could be a beast as a blocker as well. I understand there are some issues with his attitude (his Twitter account has had some uncomfortable moments). On day two, I think the talent is worth the risk.”

Thomas can fit quite easily into 3WR sets with Cooks and Coleman. The diminutive Cooks can find holes inside, while Thomas and Coleman work outside. The addition of Thomas will cut into Willie Snead’s playing time. Snead was a pleasant surprise for the Saints last season (10.1% DVOA, 175 DYAR). At this point, Snead will have to win some practice battles to find his way back onto the field.

Tight end Coby Fleener was remarkably hit-or-miss in Indianapolis:

2013: 87 targets, 52 receptions, 608 yards, -11.3% DVOA, -24 DYAR

2014: 92 targets, 51 receptions, 778 yards, 10.1% DVOA, 112 DYAR

2015: 84 targets, 54 receptions, 491 yards, -15.9% DVOA, -49 DYAR

Somehow the Saints decided that was worth an $18M investment:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/new-orleans-saints/coby-fleener-9844/

Don’t look for him to do much blocking, he’s just an oversized receiver.

Mark Ingram has had trouble staying healthy, missing 12 games over the past three seasons. He’s been reasonably effective when available (1.3% DVOA, 271 DYAR over 36 games). Tim Hightower was exceptional as Ingram’s backup last season (21.3% DVOA, 161 DYAR). If Brees stays effective, this could be a highly dynamic offense this season.

A key part of that is continued strong play from the offensive line. 2013 third-round pick left tackle Terron Armstead had a solid season. Senio Kelemete was mediocre last year. He’ll start at left guard. Center Max Unger finished sixth in my positional rankings. He was a great addition. Tim Lelito has played every offensive line position except left tackle. He was a top-five guard last season, and will start this season at right guard. 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat was supposed to be a starting right tackle at this point. He made eight starts last season at left tackle and left guard, but struggled badly. Zach Strief will return to start at right tackle instead of Peat. Strief was roughly average last season. Overall, this is a strong line.

It was fun talking about the Saints’ offense, but unfortunately all good times must eventually come to an end. Let’s lay out a best-case scenario:

1. Cameron Jordan returns at full strength and has another dominant season.

2. Kasim Edebali makes the transition from OLB to defensive end. He improves upon his five sacks from last season. He had only eight hits+hurries, so that seems like a bit of an outlier.

3. 2016 first-round pick Sheldon Rankins returns quickly from his fractured fibula. He anchors the defensive line.

4. 2015 fifth-round pick Tyeler Davison proves his rookie season wasn’t a fluke. He wasn’t necessarily a difference-maker. Merely grabbing a decent starter in the fifth round would be a nice win for the Saints.

5. Free-agent pickup Nick Fairley reaches his potential. He was a disappointment in Detroit and signed a one year deal in New Orleans. The hope from his camp is that he impresses in New Orleans and signs a major deal this offseason.

6. Rookie fourth-round pick David Onyemata contributes immediately. Onyemata was a clear reach for a player who has the physical gifts, but not the experience. He is coming from the University of Manitoba, so I’ll be rooting for him.

http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/sports/saints/article_7a9128fa-abc4-5c0d-a560-351204ebadf4.html

That’s asking for a lot to go right, and that’s just the defensive line. The depth at defensive end is miserable. Bobby Richardson and his 0.5 sacks in 2015 is the first man off the bench.

It gets worse in the linebacker corps. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitus was never blessed with speed, and the Saints are getting the version that has lost a step. Craig Robertson may end up making a push for Laurinaitus’s job. Dannell Ellerbe was slowed by injuries last season. At this point, he might be doomed to be a shadow of the player he once was. 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony showed impressive speed, making 144 tackles last season. His coverage numbers were bollocks, but I’m expecting those to improve now that he’s had a year of experience. He’s been moved to the outside, so expect the tackle numbers to drop. 2015 second-round pick pass-rush specialist Kikaha Hau’oli was supposed to provide depth on the outside. An ACL tear has put that plan on ice, as he’ll start the season on the PUP list. I’d be surprised if he contributes this season. The Saints have made some effort to improve it, but this remains a terrible front-seven.

Delvin Breaux successfully made the transition from the CFL to the NFL. When I say “successfully,” I don’t want to imply his stats were good. No one in the Saints secondary had good coverage stats; they were torched from top to bottom. Breaux kept his job and remains the #1CB. That counts as a success in my book. 2015 third-round pick P.J. Williams is taking over as the #2CB. He missed his rookie season with a torn hamstring. Film work is nice, but I am expecting him to struggle, as he is still effectively a rookie. 2015 fifth-round pick Damien Swann is the favorite to win the nickel job. Free safety Jairus Byrd has been a disappointment in New Orleans. Injuries have been an issue, but even when healthy he’s been ineffective. The Saints traded up to draft Von Bell in the second round. I noted before the draft that Bell is a “solid prototype safety. Could play either role.” They are already looking at having Bell replace Byrd. 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro bounced back from a poor 2014 campaign. He had an excellent season and will be looking to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

Kicker Kai Forbath is expected to win his training camp battle against Conner Barth. Neither are premium players, and either way, punter Thomas Morstead will handle kickoffs. Morstead’s punting regressed last season, from awesome to merely above-average. Marcus Murphy is sidelined with a concussion, so Travaris Cadet is expected to handle both return duties. Assuming either Forbath or Barth can handle the field goal and XP duties, these should be solid special teams.

I have two main concerns with the Saints. The first is that Brees has to be getting awfully close to his expiration date. We’ve seen some decline, but the chance exists that his play will fall off a cliff. If it does, Luke McCown would be in over his head as the starter. At age 35, McCown is no spring chicken either. 2015 third-round pick Garrett Grayson is a known unknown. He’s listed as the #3QB on the depth chart, but if the season were really going down the tubes, we might see the Saints throw him onto the field to see what he’s capable of. My second concern is that the defense still looks awful. The Saints have had terrible injury luck and we haven’t reached September yet. The best-case scenario is that the offense can carry them to shootout victories. That’s a lot to ask. The defense has been awful four of the past five seasons (although last year was particularly bad). In that time, the Saints have averaged nine wins a season, going 7-9 three times. That feels right again. A good offense can only do so much when stapled to a sieve. 7-9.

 

 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Talent Wins: 7.57

Expected Wins: 7.14

DVOA Wins: 7.2

Last Year: 6-10 (6.0 Pythagorean Wins)

The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the playoffs, they lost at home 24-14 to the Giants. That was in 2007. They missed the playoffs at 10-6 in 2010, but that was a mediocre team which outscored its opponents by a net of 23 points. Since then it has been a long drought for Tampa Bay. Is this the year it ends? Jameis Winston has provided hope. However, the rest of the roster should temper the expectations. The Buccaneers were a terrible team two years ago and it takes time to rebuild.

Seeing a rookie quarterback throw for 4,000 yards isn’t as shocking as it used to be, but it was still an impressive season for Winston:

2015: 535 attempts, 312 completions, 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 2.1% DVOA, 467 DYAR

He also ran for six touchdowns (7.6% DVOA, 42 DYAR). He’s been compared to Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger. The concerns about off-field issues haven’t materialized and the Bucs are very happy with Winston. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but he should mature into a very good quarterback.

At age 33, Vincent Jackson isn’t the star he once was. Last year, he formed a good bond with Winston (11.2% DVOA, 111 DYAR). A knee injury ended his season. He’s healthy now, but a shadow of the player he was at his peak. 2014 first-round pick Mike Evans followed up an excellent rookie season with a tough sophomore campaign:

2014: 123 targets, 68 receptions, 1,051 yards, +/- +3.8, 11.4% DVOA, 222 DYAR

2015: 148 targets, 74 receptions, 1,206 yards, +/- -6.2, 2.8% DVOA, 187 DYAR

The biggest issue was drops. If he has managed to solve that, we should see him work with Winston and become an elite #1WR. The talent is there. 2015 fifth-round pick Kenny Bell is battling Adam Humphries for the #3WR job. Bell missed his rookie season with a hamstring injury. He’s been awful this preseason. As for Humphries, he isn’t very talented. That he caught 27 balls for the Bucs last year is a sign of how thin their roster was. And perhaps still is.

2014 second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins is currently battling Cameron Brate for the starting tight end job. Seferian-Jenkins looks the part, but hasn’t put it together on the field (4 DYAR over his career). He’s loathed by the coaching staff, both for his attitude and for his lack of availability. He’s missed 16 games over his two seasons. Brate isn’t nearly as talented, but has made the most of his opportunities (36.2% DVOA). This is a tough spot for the Bucs because Brate doesn’t have the talent to support 60+ targets in a season. Seferian-Jenkins has earned his way to the doghouse, though. If the Bucs had a better receiving corps, this would be less of an issue, but the depth there is awful. It’s a tough spot and I’m not sure what the Bucs will do.

I must say that the Bucs got great production out of their running backs last season:

Doug Martin: 321 touches, 1,673 yards-from-scrimmage, -2.6% DVOA, 92 DYAR

Charles Sims: 158 touches, 1,100 yards-from-scrimmage, 13.1% DVOA, 200 DYAR

I’d cut 2012 first-round pick Doug Martin (formerly known as the “Muscle Hamster”) some slack. Teams geared up their defenses to stop him yet he kept the offense moving forward. 2014 third-round pick Charles Sims is a modern scatback. I wonder if the Bucs would be served running a base 2RB offense with both backs on the field. It’s not like they need to make room for 3WR or 2TE sets.

2015 second-round pick left tackle Donovan Smith was thrown into the fire. He managed to survive 16 starts. He graded out below-average, but for a non-premium pick rookie, that’s great. He should be better able to handle the pressure this season. Left guard J.R. Sweezy will start the season on the PUP list, so we may see 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile start in his place. Pamphile played poorly last season in limited usage. Sweezy played poorly last season with no sample size issues to speak of. Center Joe Hawley was solid last season. 2015 second-round pick Ali Marpet got his butt kicked last year, but like Smith, he should be better this season. Marpet is currently dealing with an ankle injury, but should be good to go in week one. Right tackle Demar Dotson was lousy last season, but the Bucs’ next best option is Gosder Cherilus, and no one wants that. I expect the line to struggle this season.

The Bucs are rolling the dice on free-agent pickup Robert Ayers. He had 9.5 sacks and 36 hits+hurries in 12 games last season. That was a career year for the 31 year-old defensive end. He’ll start across from 2013 fourth-round pick William Gholston. Gholston has frustrated the coaching staff with his potential (21 hits+hurries last season, but only three sacks). His numbers against the run were solid but not dominant. Backup Jacquies Smith impressed coaches with his speed rush (seven sacks, 16.5 hits+hurries). He isn’t as complete a player as Gholston, though. Rookie second-round pick Noah Spence will also be part of the rotation. Here is what I wrote about Spence before the draft:

Noah Spence: Banned from the Big Ten for ecstasy abuse. Transferred from Ohio State to Eastern Kentucky. He’s a legit pass rush threat in the style of Bruce Irvin (i.e., soft against the run). Someone is going to overlook his potential issues. I’d prefer it wasn’t the Jets.”

Talent plays in the NFL. Howard Jones provides additional pass rush skills deep in the rotation (five sacks, 16 hits+hurries last season in limited usage).

Gerald McCoy remains a force on the inside (8.5 sacks, 21 hits+hurries). His numbers against the run have declined a bit. He’ll play alongside a DT rotation of Clinton McDonald and 2013 fourth-round pick Akeem Spence. Both McDonald and Spence have battled injuries. McDonald is coming back from a pectoral injury that ended his 2015 season after six games. For the most part, both are space eaters, with little push or ability to collapse the pocket. The Bucs might want to look to add a premium defensive tackle in the draft in 2017.

The Bucs showed no fear in throwing rookies into the fire. 2015 fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander started 12 games before a PED suspension ended his season. There some highlights, but also numerous blunders. He’ll be moving to the inside this year, and he’d better show significant improvement or else this will be a weak link in the Bucs’ defense. 2012 second-round pick Lavonte David is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and will be given a chance to shine more in the new defensive scheme. New defensive coordinator Mike Smith brought in Daryl Smith, as Daryl is familiar with the new scheme. Rookie sixth-round pick Devante Bond is being groomed to take over for Smith. Smith has been sidelined this season with an injury, as has Bond. We may see Josh Keyes start week one. The major question for this unit is Kwon Alexander. My guess is opponents are going to attack him mercilessly and make the Buccaneers pay.

The Bucs drafted cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III 11th overall. I had him at the seventh best player in the draft:

Vernon Hargreaves III: Excellent technique. So good, in fact, that I worry that he doesn’t have much room for improvement. You may have to settle for him being a solid #2 cornerback if he doesn’t prove to have an additional gear.”

I’m a little surprised Hargreaves has only worked his way up to the nickel job. Free agent pickup Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner both struggled last season. Grimes is past his prime and Verner has never managed to fit into Tampa Bay’s system. Strong safety Chris Conte had a hit or miss season, with equal measures of both. Free safety Bradley McDougald was a disappointment after a strong 2014 season. Overall, this is a questionable group despite the additions of Grimes and Verner.

I understand the Bucs needed a new kicker. I felt silly giving Roberto Aguayo a fourth-round grade. It was stunning when the Bucs took him in the second round. He hasn’t impressed this preseason and the management may look pretty dumb unless Aguayo turns out to be awesome. Oh, did I mention that the Bucs traded up to grab Aguayo? This is not a smart front office. Punter Bryan Anger knows all about being overdrafted. He was poor last season in Jacksonville. We’re seeing newcomers take over in the return game as well, so the entire special teams have been rebuilt. I have low expectations for Anger. As for Aguayo? I wish him the best of luck.

Tampa Bay is on the way up. They still have a fair amount of holes, but having a franchise quarterback allows you to focus on fixing them. Winston will return the Buccaneers to the playoffs. It just won’t be this year. They’ll acquire a bit more skill talent in time. For now, 7-9.

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