As of this writing I don’t know the results of the early game.

Football Outsiders is backing the Broncos:

Broncos -3.5 33173 33836 0

As is ESPN’s FPI:

Broncos 65236 45303 0

 

 

 

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Football Outsiders had a good afternoon and they’ve cut their debt to $351,107. They can continue to drive it down with a Dallas cover:

Cowboys -4.0 114717 111376 0

ESPN’s FPI is off to a hot start and are up $350,931. They will also be backing Dallas, although not with as much gusto:

Cowboys 7320 3678 0

ESPN’s FPI is off to a strong start. It’s currently up $271,248.

Team Risked To Win Result
Chiefs 57895 220000 220000
Jets 11031 35300 -11031
Bears 98916 242345 -98916
Texans 80540 38352 -80540
Redskins 65200 65200 -65200
Lions 253467 304160 304160
Raiders 47800 62140 62140
Ravens 0 0 0
Browns 59365 219650 -59365
Rams 16373 9250 0
Packers 130370 100285 0
49ers 29851 54031 0

It’s a bit of a slower start for Football Outsiders, who are currently down $577,134

Team Line Risked To Win Result
Patriots -10.0 162815 169328 -162815
Jets 8.5 0 0 0
Bears 7.0 92500 77083 77083
Texans -5.5 120826 119630 -120826
Redskins 1.0 93400 93400 -93400
Lions 2.0 129160 123010 123010
Raiders 2.5 19600 19600 19600
Bengals -3.0 178600 178600 -178600
Steelers -8.0 241186 234161 -241186
Rams -4.0 80000 80000 0
Packers -3.0 160630 146027 0
Panthers -5.5 0 0 0

I accidentally gave Football Outsiders a $100,000 bankroll. I’ve retroactively corrected that and given them their promised $1M. Same for ESPN’s FPI.

FPI got off to an early lead with the Chiefs victory over the Patriots. We’ll see if they can keep it up:

Team Risked To Win Result
Chiefs 57895 220000 220000
Jets 11031 35300 0
Bears 98916 242345 0
Texans 80540 38352 0
Redskins 65200 65200 0
Lions 253467 304160 0
Raiders 47800 62140 0
Ravens 0 0 0
Steelers 59365 219650 0

As for Football Outsiders, they’ll be trying to dig out of an early hole:

Patriots -10.0 162815 169328 -162815
Jets 8.5 0 0 0
Bears 7.0 92500 77083 0
Texans -5.5 120826 119630 0
Redskins 1.0 93400 93400 0
Lions 2.0 129160 123010 0
Raiders 2.5 19600 19600 0
Bengals -3.0 178600 178600 0
Steelers -8.0 241186 234161 0

 

Seattle Seahawks: 12-4

Arizona Cardinals: 8-8

San Francisco 49ers: 6-10

Los Angeles Rams: 5-11

 

 

 

Arizona Cardinals

 

Talent Wins: 8.51

DVOA Wins: 8.3

FPI Wins: 8.5

Last year: 7-8-1 (9.4 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 8.71

 

A tale of two Carson Palmers:

2015: 342 completions, 4,671 yards, 8.1 NY/P, 34.4% DVOA, 1,688 DYAR

2016: 364 completions, 4,233 yards, 6.2 NY/P, -7.8% DVOA, 156 DYAR (in fifteen games)

Is that what it looks like when a deal with the devil comes due? Palmer will turn 38 two days after Christmas. Two years ago, Palmer was injured before the NFC Championship game. The Panthers demolished Arizona and things went downhill from there. Can Palmer bounce back? From 2012-2014, Palmer averaged a 3.0% DVOA. 2015 was a major surprise. Take it away and 2016 looks normal in context. I don’t see how he recaptures the magic. If I were Carson Palmer and Santa offered a 5.0% DVOA, 600 DYAR season, I’d take the gift. Getting old sucks, except for Tom Brady.

Wide receiver John Brown played through a severe illness last season. His stats reflected that:

2015: 65 receptions, 1,003 yards, +6.6 +/-, 29.9% DVOA, 352 DYAR (in fifteen games)

2016: 39 receptions, 517 yards, -0.6 +/-, -1.9% DVOA, 61 DYAR (in fifteen games)

The issue was related to his sickle-cell trait. The 2014 third-round pick has since suffered a quad strain. Brown has been missing practice. If he’s slowed or unable to play, the offense will be severely hampered.

Larry Fitzgerald saw a fairly steep efficiency decline last season as well:

2015: 109 receptions, 1,215 yards, +14.7 +/-, 18.9% DVOA, 363 DYAR

2016: 107 receptions, 1,023 yards, +7.3 +/-, -6.8% DVOA, 71 DYAR

He turned 34 in August. He still has great hands, but his movement isn’t what it was. Perhaps he can improve on what he showed last season, but I can’t see him returning to the glory years.

Jaron Brown is returning from a torn ACL. If he isn’t 100%, he won’t be able to provide much to the offense. 2015 fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson has shown some potential over his first two seasons:

2015/16: 45 receptions, 867 yards, -5.5 +/-, 4.5% DVOA, 146 DYAR

He’ll have an opportunity to earn a larger role in the offense this season. One concern: He’s a natural deep threat, but Carson Palmer’s arm strength isn’t what it was.

Finally, there is rookie third-round pick Chad Williams. He’s been slowed by a shin injury. Williams was universally considered a major reach. He’s going to have to adjust to the jump from Grambling to the NFL. He had some nice measurables, particularly his hand size. He wasn’t invited to the combine, and has had off-field issues with guns and marijuana.

Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a good blocker and a poor receiver. His -137 DYAR over the past three years tells the tale. Injuries have limited 2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas to eight career receptions. I have no idea what he’s capable of when healthy, since that’s never been the case. If all goes well, we’ll see Gresham stick to blocking while Niklas attacks the defense.

Running back David Johnson is coming off of an amazing season:

2016: 293 carries, 1,293 yards, 5.1% DVOA, 177 DYAR

2016: 80 receptions, 879 yards, 27.7% DVOA, 274 DYAR

That’s 2,116 yards-from-scrimmage (451 DYAR). The 2015 third-round pick was targeted or carried the ball 414 times. I don’t think that’s sustainable. I don’t know who the Cardinals should use to share the load. Andre Ellington is a RB/WR. He’s not really a great fit at either role. Rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Logan is small (5-9, 195), and fast (4.37 40-yard dash). He can be a change of pace back. Kerwynn Williams is the running back of last resort. I guess the Cardinals plan on running Johnson into the ground while he’s still on his rookie contract.

2015 first-round pick D.J. Humphries and Jared Veldheer are flopping positions. Humphries is moving from right to left tackle. Both were decent at their respective positions last year. Actually, Fluker played reasonably well at left tackle in limited usage last season. I’m more interested in whether Veldheer can handle the new role. Left guard Mike Iupati was mediocre last season. Injuries may have hampered him. Center A.Q. Shipley was tenth in my positional rankings. 2016 fourth-round pick Evan Brohm is taking over at right guard. Rookie fourth-round Dorian Johnson provides great depth:

Dorian Johnson: The more film I watched of him, the more I liked him. He doesn’t have the power to dominate people, but he was always where you wanted him to be. Played clean and drew very few flags. He definitely needs to get stronger, but that’s something an NFL strength coach can take care of, especially for his second season. I’m a fan of Johnson and expect him to succeed in the NFL.

This was a very good line in 2015. Injuries sapped it last season. If healthy, it should be a bit above-average this season.

Seattle has the reputation, but over the past two seasons the best defense in the AFC West was in Arizona. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to continue this season. Losing Calais Campbell in free agency was an enormous blow. It will be very difficult to replace his eight sacks and 44 hits+hurries. He averaged over 1.5 blockers per play, which means the rest of the defense now will have a much harder job.

Corey Peters, Josh Mauro, and Frostee Rucker will now start on the defensive line. They combined for 0.0 sacks last season. 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche lost his rookie season to an ankle injury. He looked good in the preseason until a calf strain sidelined him. He’s a major question mark who could possibly mitigate some of Campbell’s loss. 2015 fourth-round pick Rodney Gunter hasn’t impressed in Arizona.

2015 second-round pick Markus Golden and Chandler Jones combined for 23.5 sacks and 86 hits+hurries last season. Jones lived up to the Cardinals’ expectations. Golden looks explosive on film. They are as good a pair of 3-4 outside linebackers as you’ll find in the NFL. 2014 third-round pick Kareem Martin and Jarvis Jones provide mediocre depth. Martin is a converted defensive end. I can see using him in short yardage situations. Jones has been disappointing in both Pittsburgh and Arizona. He’s a failed prospect who was supposed to be able to get to the passer. He’s failed at that role.

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is entering his 14th season. You don’t get to play that many without being very good, but his range is clearly shrinking. 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon was just activated off of the PUP list. He is recovering from ankle surgery. If he’s not ready to go week one, we’ll see rookie first round pick Haason Reddick start:

Haason Reddick: I’ve seen him listed as a defensive end and as an inside linebacker, so that should give you some sense to his versatility. I have him as an outside linebacker, but who knows where he’ll end up. He’s coming off a monster senior year. He’s best when attacking the line of scrimmage, but he has the athleticism to drop into coverage. He’s a player I’d like to see end up with the Giants given their need for linebackers.

With Bucannon available, we have a nice blend of youth and experience. If he can’t go, we may end up with one player who isn’t quite ready and another pushing up against his expiration date.

Patrick Peterson remains one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Justin Bethel and Tyvon Branch will try and handle the attention as teams avoid Peterson. Both Bethel and Branch took pay cuts to remain in Arizona. Tyrann Mathieu’s play slipped badly last season. He might have been slowed by injuries. If he’s not 100%, or has lost a step, opponents will attack him mercilessly. Free-agent pickup Antoine Bethea turned 33 in July. The mind is willing, but there’s some question as to how long the body will be able to hold up its end of the bargain. Rookie second-round pick Budda Baker should see playing time in the nickel or at least the dime:

Budda Baker: Jumps off the film. So many great moments. He had a mediocre combine and doesn’t really look the part of an NFL safety. He’s not a true ballhawk, but may be an excellent nickel/dime cornerback in an era where that’s part of the base defense. He’s going to be a nice value pick. The fact is, he’s the right player entering the league at the right time.

He can play safety as well. There’s a lot of talent in this secondary. Mathieu is the major question mark. Well, that and the pass rush. If Campbell’s absence gives opposing quarterbacks more time, the secondary will suffer.

Punter Matt Wile is battling Leone Richie to hold onto his job. Wile was poor last season. I know little about Richie. Kicker Phil Dawson is entering his 19th season. He’s decent on field goals, but his leg strength for kickoffs is long gone. It looks like Kerwynn Williams will be the designated return man for both punts and kicks. Their punt coverage has been abysmal for years. The Cardinals’ special teams are bad and they should feel bad.

There are two major reasons to be concerned about the Cardinals. First, they lost their best defensive lineman. They have no one on their roster who can hope to replace him. Without him, we’ll likely see their outside linebackers struggle to get to the quarterback due to increased blocking available to stop them. Offensively, Carson Palmer has to turn back the clock. Age and injury has taken its toll on his receiver corps. Maybe I’m being too harsh. My sense is that Palmer has begun his inevitable decline. If so, no more Super Bowl runs for Arizona for a while. 7-9.

 

 

 

Los Angeles Rams

 

Talent Wins: 6.01

DVOA Wins: 8.0

FPI Wins: 6.0

Last year: 4-12 (3.3 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 5.60

 

Does DVOA expect Jared Goff’s hand size to regress to the mean? He only played seven games, but let’s look at what a pro-rated sixteen game season would have looked like:

2016: 256 completions, 2,489 yards, 3.8 NY/P, -74.8% DVOA, -2,014 DYAR

Those numbers are unfathomable. This isn’t looking like a bad pick as much as it looks like Chernobyl. There’s no point in looking at how the receivers and running backs performed because they all did poorly. Except for Kenny Britt (6.4% DVOA, 166 DYAR). He’s now in Cleveland. The Rams decided that Western New York is where to find wide receivers. First they signed Robert Woods in free agency. More recently, they traded for Sammy Watkins. Let’s look at Watkins first. Here is what I had written in the Bills chapter before the trade:

“The Bills declined their fifth-year option on Watkins. That is a very bad sign, and it suggests they don’t expect him to fully recover from the foot injuries that have plagued him. Trading up for Watkins seemed like a terrible idea at the time (it was), but since then the Bills had to feel hosed:

2014: 65 receptions, 982 yards, -8.5 +/-, -5.7% DVOA, 71 DYAR

2015: 60 receptions, 1,047 yards, +9.6 +/-, 28.9% DVOA, 312 DYAR

2016: 28 receptions, 430 yards, +0.6 +/-, -1.3% DVOA, 48 DYAR

That’s a disappointing rookie year and a great second season, followed by an injury-shorted campaign. He showed that he was capable of being a star in the NFL, but given he’s recovering from multiple surgeries, it’s hard to project him as anything more than an average receiver. If he’s able to return to greatness, he’s an unrestricted free agent after this season, so he’ll have a chance to get paid. Good luck Mr. Watkins.”

Well then. Plan B. Now that he’s in Los Angeles he might be caught in a vise. If he plays poorly (or if Goff can’t get him the ball), it will be hard for him to get paid. If he returns to his 2015 form, the Rams can threaten to hit him with the franchise tag. Rough beats Mr. Watkins. He looks like damaged goods on film. His explosiveness in and out of cuts isn’t what it was. He’ll have to learn how to beat defenses with technique. As for Woods, he got paid. I have no idea how he pulled it off:

2014: 65 receptions, 699 yards, -0.3 +/-, -11.4% DVOA, 11 DYAR

2015: 47 receptions, 552 yards, -2.8 +/-, -14.6% DVOA, -12 DYAR

2016: 51 receptions, 613 yards, +7.2 +/-, 7.9% DVOA, 117 DYAR

Full credit to him for upping his play. Still, if that’s his peak, he’s a weak #2WR.

I’d give Tavon Austin a pass for his awful 2016 (-39.1% DVOA, -219 DYAR), but it’s following his miserable 2015 season (-30.6% DVOA, -122 DYAR). He provides some value in the running game, but I wouldn’t use that as an excuse to give him a second contract. Oops. Rookie third-round pick Cooper Kupp might bite into his playing time:

Cooper Kupp: If it’s tough to judge film from receivers in the MAC or other lower-level FBS conferences, it’s downright brutal to try and project from FCS film. Kupp was awesome at Eastern Washington, with one exceptional skill: Great hands. He caught a ton of balls that were off target. Doing that repeatedly builds trust, even if you don’t have great playmaker ability. Going to be an effective slot receiver, if not much more.

Play Kupp in the slot, Austin in the backfield, Woods and Watkins on the wings. It could work… if Goff can hold up his end of the bargain.

Rookie second-round pick Gerald Everett gives the Rams an additional weapon:

Gerald Everett: Everett looks the part, and had a decent combine. He dominated lower level competition at South Alabama. However, he has small hands, and hasn’t shown a great ability to block. He doesn’t have the pure receiving skills to make a living as a split end, so I’m not sure what his niche is. He’s kind of a tweener, and I think I’d pass on him.

The Rams don’t mind digging into the lower levels of competition. He’s athletic enough to produce in the NFL. Now it’s up to the coaching staff to get him ready. He’ll join incumbent tight end 2016 fourth-round pick Tyler Higbee. Higbee’s struggles last season were about more than just Goff (who only appeared in seven games). Higbee backed up Lance Kendricks and only saw 29 passes come his way. He dropped four, caught eleven, and put up a -68.5% DVOA (-109 DYAR). Good lord.

Todd Gurley suffered as much as anyone last year:

2015: 255 plays, 1,294 yards-from-scrimmage, 195 DYAR

2016: 336 plays, 1,212 yards-from-scrimmage, -53 DYAR

It’s tough when you face eight men in the box. That’s not going to change until Goff proves himself.

The offensive line has received a boost. New left tackle Andre Whitworth finished fifth in my rankings last season. Left guard Rodger Saffold has been a bit below-average. New center John Sullivan should be an upgrade over what Tim Barnes gave them last year. 2015 second-round pick Rob Havenstein is moving inside from right tackle to right guard. He was roughly average at right tackle last year and should be able to handle the move. 2015 third-round pick Jamon Brown is taking over at tackle. Brown looked awful last year, so I have to hope the Rams’ coaching staff knows what they’re doing.

We may see Aaron Donald play hardball with the Rams. If Donald holds out, the Rams’ defense is going to fall through the floor. They were already going to face complications from switching to a 4-3 to a 3-4. Without Donald, the defensive line (Ethan Westbrooks, Michael Brockers, and rookie sixth-round pick Tanzel Smart) will be overmatched. One brief note about Smart: He was a nice value pick. He was very hard to move in 1-1 blocks at Tulane. He needs better technique when double-teamed. As for Donald, his eight sacks and 68 hits+hurries understates his influence. He was always the focus of the offensive blocking and still managed to dominate. I don’t blame him for wanting to get paid. However, he’s quite far from free agency, so I don’t expect the Rams to offer him more than a token amount of cash to allow him to save face. If he returns to the fold, this is a solid unit. If not, whoa boy. (Note: The Rams had planned to have Dominique Easley be part of the DL rotation, but he’s out for the season with a torn ACL. Perhaps more leverage for Donald, unless the Rams would prefer to join Tankapalooza 2017.)

In addition to losing Easley and possibly Donald, the Rams will be without their most effective linebacker from last season: William Hayes signed with the Dolphins in free agency. Connor Barwin and Robert Quinn are set to start, with Matt Longacre and Cassanova McKinzy filling out the rotation. Concussions ended Quinn’s 2016 season. He hasn’t been fully healthy since 2014 and I’m concerned about his ability to stay on the field. Rookie fourth-round pick Samson Ebukam dominated at Eastern Washington. I’m a bit concerned the Rams’ front office doesn’t fully grasp how to discount for level of competition.

Coming off of a 171-tackle season, 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree should enjoy the transition to the 3-4. The expectation was that he would pair with Mark Barron inside, but it’s not clear that the Rams like Barron in that role. Barron is a converted safety who excelled outside. He may end up being moved back to safety or used as a hybrid. In either case, we may see Cory Littleton start on the inside. Littleton was an undrafted free agent who impressed with his effort. He doesn’t have Barron’s athleticism, though. My sense is that it’s fine to have Ogletree, Littleton, and Barron all on the field, but if the Rams are only playing two of them, Littleton really should be the odd man out far more often than not.

Despite seeing his interception total shrink from seven to one, cornerback Trumaine Johnson played very well last season. He wanted to be rewarded for his performance. The Rams only had one conversation with his agent before deciding negotiations were fruitless. As such, he’ll be playing under the franchise tag for the second straight season. He’ll play across from Kayvon Webster. Webster is familiar with the new defensive system. Webster was a 2013 third-round pick for the Broncos. He only made two starts with them in four years, both in his rookie season. What I’m trying to tell you is that he’s been a career backup and I don’t have much data on him. Troy Hill is suspended for the first two games (PEDs), so the appropriately named Nickell Robey-Coleman will get an opportunity to win the #3CB job.

Things are a bit unsettled at safety. 2014 fourth-round pick Maurice Alexander is taking over at strong safety, replacing the departed T.J. McDonald. Both played significant snaps last season. The dropoff from McDonald to Alexander was steep. 2014 second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner is moving from cornerback to free safety. It’s an odd move, as he was at his best in the slot. I’ll grant he has the talent to make the move work. He’ll just have to get used to a different role. Rookie third-round pick John Johnson might be a better natural fit at free safety in nickel and dime packages.

Punter Johnny Hecker is the best in the NFL. He’s playing at a Hall of Fame level. His coverage units are excellent as well. Kicker Greg Zuerlein played quite well last season. The Rams brought in Travis Coons to challenge him in camp. I expect Zuerlein to keep his job. The Rams’ return games were just average. Tavon Austin hasn’t shown us much as a punt returner. He’ll return kicks as well, along with Pharoh Cooper. Overall, these are very strong special teams. It’s a shame they’re stuck on the Rams.

I’ll be blunt. The Rams are an unmitigated disaster. The front office is incompetent. New head coach Sean McVay looks like he’s in over his head. Jared Goff has a long way to go just to get to replacement level, to say nothing of average or good. I have to think he’s going to be one of the biggest busts in NFL history. The defense looks a bit shorthanded even if Donald shows up. If he sits out, the Rams are a real threat to win Tankapalooza 2017. The only thing that gives me pause is their schedule. They could face the Luck-less Colts week one. What a shit show that game could turn out to be. They only have seven home games, facing Arizona in England. They may start off with a winning record, but they should go downhill fast. 4-12.

 

 

 

San Francisco 49ers

 

Talent Wins: 4.14

DVOA Wins: 6.5

FPI Wins: 5.0

Last year: 2-14 (3.9 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 4.99

 

It’s a brand new era in San Francisco. After years of incompetent management, they cleaned house. Kyle Shanahan has earned a reputation as a great offensive mind. We’ll see if he can handle a promotion to head coach. John Lynch was a surprise choice as the new GM. He already earned his contract, fleecing the Bears in the draft. I’m a huge fan of what the 49ers did this offseason. It starts with quarterback Brian Hoyer.

Hoyer is the opposite of Cam Newton. He’s quite accurate on short-to-midrange passes, but falls off on deeper throws. That’s probably an issue of arm strength, which means it’s unlikely to be fixed. It hasn’t stopped him from being productive:

2014: 242 completions, 3,326 yards, 6.8 NY/P, -5.3% DVOA, 107 DYAR (in 14 games in Cleveland)

2015: 224 completions, 2,606 yards, 6.1 NY/P, -3.0% DVOA, 227 DYAR (in 11 games in Houston)

2016: 134 completions, 1,445 yards, 7.1 NY/P, 19.4% DVOA, 401 DYAR (in 6 games in Chicago)

I was curious what that prorated to over one sixteen game season:

2014-16: 320 completions, 3,913 yards, 6.6 NY/P, 0.4% DVOA, 392 DYAR

That would be a top-20 season. Playing quarterback at an NFL level is quite hard. Hoyer can do it reasonably well. Backup Matt Barkley is available for tanking purposes only. Rookie third-round pick D.J. Beathard was a shocking pick. Josh Dobbs, Nathan Peterman, and Brad Kaaya were all still on the board. Beathard didn’t impress in his senior year at Iowa. Perhaps the 49ers saw some traits on film that they felt they could develop while fixing his flaws. Fair enough.

Free-agent pickup Pierre Garcon is coming off of a pair of strong seasons in Washington:

2015: 72 receptions, 777 yards, +3.9 +/-, 2.4% DVOA, 128 DYAR

2016: 79 receptions, 1,041 yards, +8.8 +/-, 16.3% DVOA, 262 DYAR

Kirk Cousins was certainly a part of his success. Nonetheless, he should work well with Hoyer. The question is who can be a solid #2WR.

Taylor Goodwin flamed out in Buffalo (101 DYAR 2014-16). Injuries played a major part, as he missed 21 games over the past three years. His greatest asset is his speed. As I noted earlier, Hoyer doesn’t excel at the deep ball. Shanahan crushed defenses last year by getting the ball to receivers in space. If Shanahan can do the same for Goodwin, he could have a career year.

Jeremy Kerley wasn’t effective with the Jets in 2014-15 (-37 DYAR), but that was in limited usage. He had his star turn last year in San Francisco:

2016: 64 receptions, 667 yards, -9.0 +/-, -26.4% DVOA, -124 DYAR

Oof. I’m sure he too is excited to see some competent play from his quarterback.

#4WR Aldrick Robinson knows Shanahan’s system. He’s a midrange-to-deep threat who performed well in limited usage in Atlanta:

2016: 20 receptions, 323 yards, +1.5 +/-, 24.5% DVOA, 91 DYAR

Rookie fifth-round pick Trent Taylor led the NCAA in receiving yards at Louisiana Tech. He’s a natural fit in the slot and a potential punt returner.

Fellow rookie fifth-round pick George Kittle looks to have won the starting tight end job. He’s the most athletic receiver the 49ers have at the position. Logan Paulson is a solid blocker at #2TE. The new regime does not appear to be fans of #3TE Garrett Celek.

Given the lack of support he’s had, 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde’s 2016 season was amazing:

2016: 217 carries, 988 yards, 15.3% DVOA, 204 DYAR (in thirteen games)

2016: 27 receptions, 163 yards, 6.2% DVOA, 38 DYAR (in thirteen games)

Staying healthy has been an issue (he’s missed fourteen games over the past three seasons. Backup Tim Hightower is coming off of a strong season in New Orleans (194 DYAR on 159 plays). He’s a competent receiver who should see some playing time. Rookie fourth-round pick Joe Williams actually retired at Utah before coming back. His strong speed score indicates he’s a dynamic athlete. The film backs that up as well.

Left tackle Joe Staley has seen his play slip a bit. He’s still above-average though. Left guard Zane Beadles is very good. Center Daniel Kilgore was a bit below-average, but nothing to get worked up about. 2016 first-round pick Joshua Garnett is going to miss the season with knee issues. That puts Brandon Fusco into the line of fire at right guard. Depth is nice when you don’t have to use it. I’d be a bit concerned about Fusco. 2015 seventh-round pick right tackle Trenton Brown is mediocre, which makes him a great value pick. This is a lopsided line. The 49ers recently traded for Laken Tomlinson to replenish their bench.

On paper, the 49ers have a great defensive line. 2016 first-round pick Deforest Buckner pairs with free-agent pickup Earl Mitchell inside. Buckner is coming off of an excellent season (six sacks, 37 hits+hurries). He needs to work on his technique against the run. Better balance would be helpful there.

2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead can start across from 2013 second-round pick Tank Carradine. Armstead battled injuries last season and only appeared in eight games. His surgically repaired shoulder is a potential issue. Carradine has four sacks and forty tackles for his career. My guess is he’s listed as the starter to give rookie first-round pick Solomon Thomas time to develop. It is possible the switch to the 4-3 better fits his skill set. As for Thomas, here’s what I wrote about him before the draft:

Solomon Thomas: He’s tremendously talented, but fit is a concern. He’s not a pure pass rusher, and he doesn’t quite have the size you want to stuff the run. Still, I don’t want to overthink this. He’s an excellent football player with great film. He’ll find a spot to play no matter where he ends up. Given the positional value of edge rushers and the lack of elite quarterbacks in this draft, I can understand why he’s the favorite to go second overall. FYI, while SackSEER loves Garrett and has him first overall, it has Thomas fifth among pass rushers. Again, he’s not a pure edge rusher.

There’s a lot of talent up front, but how well it fits together is a question. Buckner has shown what he can do. We’ll have to wait and see about Armstead and Thomas. Free-agent pickup Elvis Dumervil and 2014 fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch are in the mix as well.

Rookie first-round pick Reuben Foster is set to start at outside linebacker:

Reuben Foster: If we just go off the film and the measurables he’s be a lock to go in the top 10. His range and power are tremendous, as is his recognition. He can attack the line of scrimmage or work in coverage. However, there are two major concerns. The first is that he took a lot of wear and tear at Alabama. There are concerns that he’s an elevated injury risk. The second is his diluted sample at the combine. Even so, he’s a premium talent and he’s still going to hear his name called in the first round.

Foster’s shoulders were a major injury red flag. He fell to 31st overall, where the 49ers traded up to get him. If he can stay on the field, he’s a steal. Foster joins 2015 third-round pick Eli Harold and veteran Navarro Bowman. Bowman is coming back from an Achilles tear. The 49ers aren’t sure whether Foster or Bowman will play inside. If Bowman is 100%, the is an excellent group. Harold is developing. He’s a decent pass-rusher who needs to build up the rest of his game. The worst-case scenario is that Foster and Bowman can’t stay on the field, and Harold is overwhelmed. The depth here is poor.

2016 fourth-round pick Rashard Robinson has been promoted to #1CB. He played very well in limited usage as a rookie and might be a diamond in the rough. 2014 fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson will start across from him. Johnson only has six career starts, and hasn’t impressed when given the chance.

Rookie third-round pick Akhello Witherspoon might have been the best flag football cornerback in the draft. He can cover quite well, but his tackling skills leave something to be desired. I thought he was a pretty big reach.

2014 fifth-round pick Kieth Reaser got his ass kicked last season. He’s in the mix, as is K’Waun Williams. Williams is coming back from a severe ankle injury. Reaser hasn’t been the same since coming back from an ACL tear.

2013 first-round pick Eric Reid and 2014 first-round pick Jimmy Ward give the 49ers a safety pairing they can trust. In theory, anyway. In practice, 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt may take Ried’s job. Ward is a converted cornerback. Both have had trouble staying on the field (they missed a combined 11 games last season). If we see Lorenzo Jerome, it means something has gone terribly wrong.

Punter Brett Pinion is coming off of a solid season. He handles kickoff duties as well. Kicker Robbie Gould is pretty good at his day job, but he doesn’t have one of the stronger legs in the NFL. The biggest issue for the 49ers is their blocking on returns, particularly kickoffs. Jeremy Kerley is slated to return punts, while Raheem Mostert and Victor Bolden Jr. will return kicks. I should note that the 49ers coverage units are above-average.

The 49ers are rebuilding. The best-case scenario for the defense is very good indeed. There’s a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Some severe injury concerns as well, though. Will the 49ers be able to put together a consistent pass rush? That, more than anything else, will determine the success of their defense. Offensively, it comes down to how well Shanahan and Hoyer can manage their weapons. It’s not a bad coach/QB pairing. The offensive line gives me pause. Carlos Hyde powered through it last year, and perhaps he can do so again. I see the 49ers as a step up from the Tankapalooza 2017 pack. 6-10.

 

 

 

Seattle Seahawks

 

Talent Wins: 11.27

DVOA Wins: 9.8

FPI Wins: 10.3

Last year: 10-5-1 (9.8 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 10.66

 

Injuries shut down the Seahawks last season. Russell Wilson wasn’t 100% and the offense suffered. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas missed nine games. The defense was looking at a potential decline before the Jets stepped in. Sheldon Richardson could not have improved his situation more. The Seahawks added an elite defensive lineman, which should help all levels of their defense. As for the offense, it comes down to protecting Russell Wilson. We’ll get to that in a bit.

An injured Russell Wilson wasn’t quite the player he was in 2015:

2014: 285 completions, 3,475 yards, 6.6 NY/P, 5.5% DVOA, 772 DYAR

2015: 329 completions, 4,024 yards, 7.1 NY/P, 24.3% DVOA, 1,313 DYAR

2016: 353 completions, 4,219 yards, 6.7 NY/P, 4.0% DVOA, 568 DYAR

He actually had more passing DYAR last year than he had in 2014 (569 to 503), but his lost rushing skills more than made up for the difference (-1 to 269). You don’t necessarily want your quarterback exposing himself to extra hits, but the threat is important to open up holes in the defense. Wilson should be able to recapture most of his 2015 form.

Both Doug Baldwin and 2015 third-round pick Tyler Lockett saw their efficiency decrease as Wilson struggled:

Baldwin:

2015: 78 receptions, 1,069 yards, +13.3 +/-, 39.6% DVOA, 414 DYAR

2016: 94 receptions, 1,128 yards, +12.9 +/-, 13.0% DVOA, 263 DYAR

Lockett:

2015: 51 receptions, 664 yards, +8.1 +/-, 35.1% DVOA, 249 DYAR

2016: 41 receptions, 597 yards, -0.1 +/-, 5.5% DVOA, 99 DYAR (in fifteen games)

With Wilson healthy, we should expect something more like 2015 than what we saw last year. Lockett broke his tibia and fibula in week 16. He should be 100% to start the season. It appears he’ll be working out of the slot while 2014 second-round pick Paul Richardson works across from Baldwin. Injuries have severely limited him:

2014-2016: 51 receptions, 599 yards, +7.7 +/-, -1.6% DVOA, 69 DYAR

He’s shown flashes of potential. I’m sure the Seahawks want to see what he can do when healthy.

Rookie third-round pick Amara Darboh brings size if not speed. He’s an accomplished blocker who needs to work on his timing and cuts. He’s notably struggled against press coverage. The coaching staff will need to teach him how to maximize his skills to be an effective possession receiver. I don’t mean to sound too negative on Darboh. I had him as the 91st best player and the Seahawks got him with the 106th pick. He’s valuable, but a bit of a project.

Tight end Jimmy Graham finally met expectations in Seattle last season:

2016: 65 receptions, 923 yards, +3.7 +/-, 25.1% DVOA, 204 DYAR

He’s effectively the real #2WR. It’s a contract year for Graham.

The Seahawks’ running game is a known unknown. Will the Seahawks go with Thomas Rawls? Eddie Lacy? Or 2016 third-round pick C.J. Prosise?

Lacy was excellent in 2014 (301 DYAR) and in 2016 (70 DYAR in five games). He only managed 23 DYAR in 2015. He’s coming over from Green Bay, so the difference in quality of the respective offensive lines might be a rude shock. He’s coming back from a broken ankle that ended his 2016 season.

2015 undrafted free-agent Rawls had an awesome rookie season (229 DYAR in thirteen games), but struggled last season (20 DYAR in nine games). Injuries have been a major problem for Rawls. He’s currently dealing with an ankle injury.

Prosise is a converted wide receiver. He produced 100 DYAR in 49 plays last season. As with Lacy and Rawls, health is a concern. My guess is the Seahawks will start whoever is healthiest between Lacy and Rawls, and use Prosise as a change of pace back.

And now we come to the epic flaw in the roster. The Seahawks’ offensive line was possibly the worst in the NFL last season. If I’m reading this depth chart right, 2016 third-round pick Rees Odhiambo is going to start at left tackle. He’s had problems staying healthy. He played left tackle at Boise State but was thought to be a better fit at guard in the NFL due to his length issues. 2016 first-round pick Germain Ifedi is getting the nod at right tackle. He has the talent to handle the job. The 2014 second-round pick is the only sure thing. He finished eighth in my rankings last season. I cannot wrap my head around Luke Joeckel’s new contract. I thought there must have been a mistaken extra zero, as I had him as the worst left guard in the NFL last season. He only played in four games, but when he played, he was truly awful. Right guard Oday Aboushi signed a much more reasonable deal. He also played quite a bit better than Joeckel last season, in a similarly sized sample. Rookie second-round pick Ethan Pocic might be the first man off the bench at all five positions:

Ethan Pocic: For a guy rated as the top center in the draft, Pocic got his ass kicked on film a lot. Lamp is going to be off the board well before Pocic, but if I needed a center, I think I’d rather gamble that Lamp can hold the position down. Pocic is versatile and can play guard or tackle if asked. Thing is, I don’t particularly like him at either of those positions. His height is also a concern, but the real problem is an NFL-quality nose tackle should eat him alive. I’d pass on Pocic.

As much as I wasn’t a huge fan of Pocic, the Seahawks’ offensive line needs all the help it can get. Personally I would have taken Dion Dawkins or Taylor Moton. Probably Moton. The line has been entirely rebuilt. Usually that’s a bad sign. In Seattle, it might be cause for celebration. 2015 fourth-round pick Mark Glowinski did a decent job at left guard last season. Well, better than Joeckel. If Joeckel struggles, he’s a viable option.

The addition of Sheldon Richardson is a literal game-changer for the Seahawks’ defense. He’ll pair with 2016 second-round Jarran Reed. The hope was that rookie second-round pick Malik McDowell would be part of the rotation, but an ATV injury may have already ended his career. Rookie third-round pick Nazair Jones will provide depth. He’s a natural run-stuffer.

The Seahawks build their defense around their pass rush and their secondary. Last year the top three pass-rushers did their jobs:

Cliff Avril: 11.5 sacks, 53 hits+hurries

Frank Clark: 10.0 sacks, 29 hits+hurries (in fifteen games)

Michael Bennett: 5.0 sacks, 41 hits+hurries (in eleven games)

It’s a strong group. David Bass was signed to provide depth. I’d be a bit concerned about Avril and Bennett being on the wrong side of thirty, as well as Bennett’s knee.

Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain excellent. Both are coming off of excellent years, particularly Wright. Free-agent pickup Michael Wilhoite is scheduled to start across from Wright, but I’m not sure how often Seattle will play the base 4-3 over the nickel package. Terence Garbin is also in the mix if Wilhoite struggles.

When Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are on the field, the Seattle secondary is elite. Their absence torpedoed the Seahawks. Both are still among the best in the NFL. Thomas is a premium free safety, while Chancellor is a prototype strong safety. Free-agent pickup Bradley McDougald was signed to provide high quality depth behind Thomas. Rookie third-round pick Delano Hill is backing up Chancellor.

The Seahawks looked into trading the disgruntled Richard Sherman. His play has slipped a bit and it’s possible Seattle simply wants to break off the relationship one year too early as opposed to one year too late.

Jeremy Lane looks like he’s been promoted from nickel to #2CB. I’m not sure I love the promotion. Former #2CB DeShawn Shead is still on the PUP list after an ACL tear in the divisional round against the Falcons. Neiko Thorp and Justin Coleman might be given chances to win the job. Rookie third-round pick Shaquill Griffin may be used at cornerback or safety, or as a hybrid. Rookie fourth-round pick Tedric Thompson gives the Seahawks insurance behind Chancellor and Hill.

I’m not gonna lie, it feels really weird to see Blair Walsh in a Seahawks uniform after this. Walsh was absolutely terrible last season in Minnesota. I can’t see this as a good plan. Punter Jon Ryan should have been fired years ago. The punt coverage isn’t great either. Tyler Lockett has been given the return duties. Personally, I’d give them to JD McKissic and Paul Richardson. The Seahawks’ special teams look like they’re a real weakness and I expect them to cost the Seahawks at least one win.

There are four clear contenders in the NFC. Dallas in the East, Green Bay in the North, Atlanta in the South, and Seattle in the West. Green Bay’s roster is a bit thin beyond Rodgers. Dallas has a problematic defense. Atlanta has to deal with a brain drain on the coaching staff and the Super Bowl hangover. Seattle is the most complete team in the conference. That’s despite having a scary (in a bad way) offensive line, and subpar special teams. No matter. I still see them as the team to beat in the NFC. 12-4.

 

 

 

 

NFC Wildcard Round:

Minnesota Vikings @ Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys grind the Vikings down. Cowboys 24, Vikings 17.

Carolina Panthers @ Green Bay Packers

Green Bay lights Carolina up. Packers 34, Panthers 20.

NFC Divisional Round:

Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

A playoff rematch. The result remains unchanged. Falcons 38, Packers 31.

Dallas Cowboys @ Seattle Seahawks

The Cowboys put up a valiant fight, but the Seahawks survive. Seahawks 24, Cowboys 23.

Falcons @ Seahawks

Apt. Seahawks 27, Falcons 24.

Super Bowl LII in beautiful Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 4, 2018.

Seattle Seahawks @ New England Patriots

This was the hardest Super Bowl prediction I’ve ever had to make. On one hand, I think the Patriots are the team most likely to win the Super Bowl. On the other hand, I think the Seahawks are a slightly stronger team overall. If this game were to take place and both teams were reasonably healthy, I’d take the Seahawks to win. However, the NFC is much tougher than the AFC, so Seattle is less likely to make it to Minneapolis. Ultimately, I decided to predict the game itself. Last time New England took advantage of an injured Seahawks secondary and barely won. This time Seattle is prepared and slows down the Patriots passing game. Seahawks 27, Patriots 20.

Yep. I’m finally predicting someone other than the Patriots claims the crown. Ultimately, right now my sense is that the NFC Champion is going to be a stronger team than the Patriots. We’ll see how that actually plays out. Enjoy the season y’all.

Atlanta Falcons: 10-6

Carolina Panthers: 9-7

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9-7

New Orleans Saints: 7-9

 

 

 

Atlanta Falcons

 

Talent Wins: 11.23

DVOA Wins: 8.3

FPI Wins: 9.3

Last year: 11-5 (10.9 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 9.44

 

All they had to do was call a couple of running plays and trust their kicker and the Falcons would have been enormous favorites to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they got cute/aggressive, and were maximally punished. Both coordinators were replaced (for different reasons), so we’ll see some schematic changes. However, before I get into that, I should discuss the talent projection.

We can all agree that the Falcons have a strong offense. The question is, “How strong?” Last year, they had the best offense in the NFL. The talent projections suggest that they are no worse than top-three heading into this season. Will that be the case with Shanahan out and Sarkisian in? The jump in difficulty from college to the NFL is enormous. Not just for players. Matt Ryan will be able to help, but Shanahan pantsed defensive coordinators last season. He wasn’t magic, though, as the offense struggled in 2015. Defensive coordinators will be well versed in how Atlanta beat defenses last season. They’ll be prepared, so it will be up to Sarkisian to find the next moves.

The Falcons can make up for some offensive regression with an improved defense. Theirs was 26th in the NFL last season (according to DVOA). The talent projections loved their linebacker corps. Will their defense be improved from last season? Most likely yes. They do have a young talented linebacker corps, and the defense improved quite a bit over the course of last season. Of course, there is one other issue: The Super Bowl Hangover. It’s not easy to play 3-4 extra games, end your season on a crushing defeat, and then return the following season. It’s something to keep in mind when looking at the Falcons.

Matt Ryan had established himself as a solid quarterback before his lousy 2015 season. Ryan responded with one of the best seasons in NFL history:

2014: 415 completions, 4,694 yards, 6.9 NY/P, 14.9% DVOA, 1,124 DYAR

2015: 407 completions, 4,591 yards, 6.8 NY/P, -1.9% DVOA, 392 DYAR

2016: 373 completions, 4,944 yards, 8.2 NY/P, 39.1% DVOA, 1,797 DYAR

In 2014 he had 19 interceptions/fumbles. In 2015 that number jumped to 29. Last year? 11. What happened? I wondered if it was a matter of improved offensive line play. They added center Alex Mack in free agency. Mack played well, but overall the line declined, particularly in pass protection. Everyone else other than Mack was a bit below-average. Right guard Chris Chester retired. So far, Ben Garland has been winning the camp battle for the job, ahead of 2016 sixth-round pick Wes Schweitzer and rookie fourth-round pick Sean Harlow. Both Schweitzer and Harlow are converted tackles, so it might just come down to familiarity with the position.

If it wasn’t improved offensive line play, how did Ryan manage to break through to the elite level? Let’s look at his receiver corps. Julio Jones enjoyed the fruits of the improved offense:

2014: 104 receptions, 1,593 yards, +7.2 +/-, 16.2% DVOA, 356 DYAR (in fifteen games)

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

2016: 83 receptions, 1,409 yards, +7.9 +/-, 31.7% DVOA, 458 DYAR (in fourteen games)

Jones has always been exceptional. The difference is that last year he didn’t have to carry the offense. He went from being targeted 12.7 times a game down to 9.2. That’s a pretty big difference. The addition of Mohamed Sanu was partially responsible:

2016: 59 receptions, 653 yards, +5.7 +/-, 6.5% DVOA, 123 DYAR (in fifteen games)

Solid results, but nothing special when you consider the offense he was in. What about budget free-agent pickup Taylor Gabriel?

2016: 35 receptions, 579 yards, +4/4 +/-, 33.7% DVOA, 181 DYAR (in thirteen games)

Whoa. Gabriel finished first in DVOA. This was after being cut by the Browns and signed for a minimum deal in Atlanta. In 2014, he was an undrafted free agent from Abilene Christian University. Was he one of the best receivers in the NFL? No. The Falcons gave him a second-round tender. Other teams could have come after him. They didn’t. He was extremely effective at turning short passes into medium-to-long gains. I don’t expect him to repeat that trick this season. His effectiveness explains quite a bit of Ryan’s boost. 2015 fourth-round pick Justin Hardy crossed over from the red to the black:

2015: 21 receptions, 194 yards, -1.6 +/-, -24.8% DVOA, -32 DYAR

2016: 21 receptions, 203 yards, +2.2 +/-, 14.8% DVOA, 70 DYAR

That’s a pretty nice efficiency jump. Hardy is a player who does more with less, so I’m not sure if he has much room to grow.

Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo excelled after Jacob Tamme went down last year:

2016: 32 receptions, 535 yards, +5.0 +/- (estimated), 51.2% DVOA, 191 DYAR

2016 third-round pick Hooper has significant upside. He won’t be able to maintain his efficiency, but he can become a major component of the offense. Toilolo is mostly just an additional receiver who happens to attempt the occasional block.

2014 fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman and 2015 third-round pick Tevin Coleman were an effective battery on the ground. Freeman carried most of the load:

2016: 227 carries, 1,079 yards, 6.4% DVOA, 148 DYAR

2016: 54 receptions, 462 yards, 24.9% DVOA, 141 DYAR

Like the rest of the Falcons’ offense, Freeman was effective. In this case, adding Mack to the offensive line made a huge difference. Coleman provided a great change of pace:

2016: 118 carries, 520 yards, 9.7% DVOA, 86 DYAR

2016: 31 receptions, 421 yards, 48.8% DVOA, 136 DYAR

Yeah, the Falcons’ passing game was insane last year. That won’t repeat itself. Even so, this is a good group. The Falcons’ offense should still be effective this year, even if they don’t cross the 500 point barrier again.

I hadn’t realized Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks (15.5, 43 hits+hurries). The 2015 first-round pick played both as a defensive end and as an outside linebacker. The rest of the defense chipped in a measly 18.5 sacks. Given how often opponents were passing to try and catch up, those aren’t great numbers (for the team overall). Seeing that as a major weakness, the Falcons added another pass rusher with first-round pick Takkarist McKinley:

Takkarist McKinley: Undersized, without great agility. Perhaps the best pure speed rush in the draft, but little else. Some teams can afford such a one-trick pony without weakening their defense, but most cannot, so McKinley better find the right fit. I wouldn’t like to see him end up in NY.

He’s recovering from shoulder surgery. It looks like he’ll be available week one. In general, the Falcons haven’t made stopping the run a priority. Adrian Clayborn was the next best pass-rusher on the roster (4.5 sacks, 34 hits+hurries in thirteen games). He tore his bicep in the Divisional Round against Seattle.

Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw are listed as the starters at defensive end. I don’t expect either to end up with 500+ snaps. They combined for three sacks last season, so perhaps this is simply the first down defense before they bring in their designated pass-rushers.

The biggest addition to the defensive line is tackle Dontari Poe. Poe used to be dominant in Kansas City, but his play slipped badly last season. He turned 27 in August and the talent is still there for a resurgence. He’ll play alongside 2015 fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett. This could be a fairly disruptive pairing. Jack Crawford and Ra’Shede Hageman provide decent depth.

I’ve already mentioned Vic Beasley. 2016 second-round pick Deion Jones had an impressive rookie season at middle linebacker. His two INTTD’s were the major highlights of his season. He made his share of rookie mistakes, but if he learns from them he has the talent to be a star. 2016 fourth-round pick De’Vondre Campbell struggled a bit. The effort was there, but his range wasn’t what the Falcons would have hoped. Rookie third-round pick Duke Riley may replace him.

Duke Riley: A pure weakside linebacker. He only started for one year and is still a bit raw. Great field coverage. Might need some time to adjust to the NFL, despite playing at LSU. I expect him to be a quality performer by his third season.

Riley is more athletic than Campbell. It’s a question of when coaches feel he’s ready to step in and contribute. Counting Beasley, there is a lot of talent in this unit. Continued improvement from Jones, Campbell and Riley is key.

Desmond Trufant’s return gives the Falcons a legitimate #1CB. There was a bit of a “Ewing theory” result in his absence, but a closer look revealed the secondary’s quality performance was more a matter of poor quarterback play than of anything the secondary was doing. His return moves Robert Alford back to #2CB. Alford is solid in his role. I don’t love Robert Poole at the nickel, but the Falcons don’t have anyone better available. Rookie fifth-round pick Demontae Kazee has the skills to take over in the slot. I thought he was a pretty good value pick. 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins is suspended for the first ten games of the season for PED use. It’s a cheap shot, but I feel like his play should have been better if he was cheating enough to get caught.

2016 first-round pick Keanu Neal did a solid job at strong safety. He earned a reputation as a thumper. His coverage skills were better than expected. If the coaching staff can improve his play recognition, we might be looking at a future All-Pro. 2014 fifth-round pick free safety Ricardo Allen is a converted cornerback. The Falcons are trading run support for range. He dropped his number of missed tackles from “unacceptable” to “acceptable.”

Matt Bosher handles punting (good) and kickoff (bad) responsibilities. Kicker Matt Bryant is excellent at field goals and XP’s, but neither is great at booming kickoffs. Andre Roberts is taking over returning punts and kickoffs. He had a pair of touchdown returns last year in Detroit. Expect to see Justin Hardy on some kickoffs as well.

The Falcons aren’t going to be as explosive as they were last year. They simply don’t have the raw talent to blow teams out that way. Last year, they won a lot of battles in the temples (film rooms). That’s unlikely to repeat itself. The defense should be improved. The pass rush is a major question. Vic Beasley shouldered an absurd amount of the load. He feasted on weaker opposition. If McKinley can help, great! If not, the defense is going to have some issues. And then there is the inevitable hangover. The Falcons are still a strong team. Just not as strong as they were last year. 10-6.

 

 

 

Carolina Panthers

 

Talent Wins: 8.58

DVOA Wins: 8.6

FPI Wins: 8.8

Last year: 6-10 (7.1 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 8.99

 

First, let me say that I approve of Dave Gettleman’s firing. He made too many negative EV moves to list, but two things stand out. First, he walked away from Josh Norman. That was stunning at the time. Second, he had a penchant for trading up in the draft. Multiple sources reported he tried to move up for Leonard Fournette. That’s a fireable offense.

Let’s look at the team that Gettleman built. We start with quarterback Cam Newton. Newton played through multiple concussions last season, as well as a torn rotator cuff. He dropped from 772 DYAR in 2015 to -66 last year. The surgery cut into his offseason preparation time. Newton has curtailed his reliance on the running game. That may keep him healthier in the long run, but defenses adjusted by using a spy much less often. This meant he faced tougher coverage. On the plus side, he has a few new weapons, which I’ll get to shortly.

#1WR Kelvin Benjamin showed up for OTA’s twenty pounds overweight. Don’t call him pudgy, portly, or stout. The 2014 first-round pick is coming off of his first efficient season (145 DYAR). He missed 2015 with an ACL tear and will need to prove to the Panthers he’s a long term option. He’s also had issues with drops. I expect his usage to drop.

#2WR Devin Funchess has disappointed the Panthers. The 2015 second-round pick has put together a -14.0 +/- over his career. Free-agent pick Russell Shepard may take Funchess’ job. Shepard only has 30 receptions over the past three seasons in Tampa Bay (78 DYAR). He’s a special teams ace as well, so he provides value even if he’s not catching the ball.

Rookie second-round pick Curtis Samuel will have a chance to contribute immediately:

Curtis Samuel: It appears there is a law that every evaluation of Chris Samuel must compare him to Percy Harvin. He’s a WR/RB/KR. Excellent speed, although not as elusive as you’d expect. Despite numerous highlights, he was never dominant at Ohio State. My concern is that he doesn’t have great hands, and a few high-profile drops may end up stunting his development. The speed is seductive, but I think I’d prefer to look elsewhere.

Over time you can see what a front office values. Gettleman did not appear to value good hands. Samuel is an upgrade over the current options.

The best wide receiver on the Panthers might be their new running back, Christian McCaffrey:

Christian McCaffrey: Tremendous athlete, but a rare offensive tweener. He doesn’t look to have the skills to break through the line. However, he’s awesome in the open field. He is going to embarrass some poor unfortunate linebackers who were just trying to do their job. The trick is getting him into space, which most likely means he’s going to have to do a lot of his damage as a receiver. He might end up being used in a similar fashion to how the Cardinals use David Johnson. No off-field concerns here, as he’s viewed as a locker-room asset. As such, he might go a bit higher than the film suggests.

The good news is that Samuel and McCaffrey are legitimate weapons that can upgrade the offense. The bad news is that throwing deep and throwing short are different skills. It’s not as bad as Jon Lester throwing to first, but Cam Newton really doesn’t have great touch. This would have been a great offseason to spend a lot of time working with the new rookies, but it wasn’t to be.

Tight end Greg Olson has been the steady metronome at the heart of the Panthers’ offense:

2014: 84 receptions, 1,008 yards, +5.1 +/-, 14.1% DVOA, 178 DYAR

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

2016: 80 receptions, 1,073 yards, +2.5 +/-, 8.3% DVOA, 134 DYAR

He turned 32 in May. #2TE Ed Dickson is just a blocker.

Running back Jonathan Stewart has been on a steady decline:

2014: 990 yards-from-scrimmage, 107 DYAR

2015: 1,088 yards-from-scrimmage, 33 DYAR

2016: 884 yards-from-scrimmage, -96 DYAR

Fozzy Whittaker doesn’t have the skill set to be an every-down back. Ditto for 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne. McCaffrey can do a lot of things for the Panthers. It would be a waste of his talent to trap him in the backfield.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is excellent. I had him as a top-five right tackle last season. Left tackle Matt Kalil missed most of last season. He peaked as a rookie five years ago. Center Ryan Kalil is poor. Left guard Andrew Norwell was roughly average last season. 2014 third-round pick Trai Turner was mediocre at tackle and guard last year. Perhaps he’ll be better this season with a clearly defined role. Rookie second-round pick Taylor Moton might get thrown to the wolves if Matt Kalil struggles or gets hurt. He also might end up contributing as guard.

Taylor Moton: He’ll get a shot to start at right tackle. He has excellent power but was somewhat vulnerable against speed. NFL coaching might be able to fix that. If not, he’s shown himself to be a quality right guard, which isn’t that bad of a floor once you get past the first round. I expect him to be a productive player and would be very happy if he fell to the Jets in the third round.

Overall, this line looks poor. If Matt Kalil turns out to be worth what the Panthers are paying him, then it will be quite a bit better than it has been for the past few years. I doubt that will be the case.

When the Panthers went to the Super Bowl, they had a strong offense. It was the defense that was elite. They actually improved their sack total from 44 to 47, but regressed badly elsewhere. The loss of Josh Norman may have been the primary culprit, as #1WR’s fed on the Panthers as opposed to getting dominated by Norman. Still, we should not mourn what was lost. Rather, we should celebrate what is still here.

Tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei combined for ten sacks last season. 2013 first-round pick Lotulelei was playing hurt last season. He’s recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. When he’s 100%, he’s an elite defender. 2013 second-round pick Short had eleven sacks in 2015. He got paid this offseason. If both of them are 100%, this is the best tackle pairing in the NFL. 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler provides quality depth.

Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers, Wes Horton, and rookie third-round pick Daeshon Hall will form the core of their defensive end rotation. Addison had an impressive 9.5 sacks despite only playing 433 snaps. Charles Johnson has been slowed by injuries. He turned 31 in July and may be on the downslope of his career. Julius Peppers turned 31 six years ago. He’s still very productive (7.5 sacks last season), but I’m not sure how many snaps he can give you. Wes Horton is a run-stopper at end. He can rush the passer, but it’s not his forte. Hall needs to bulk up. He was able to produce at Texas A&M because opponents focused on stopping Myles Garrett. The Panthers are hoping he’ll be a solid pass-rusher in a year or two.

Luke Kuechly is coming back from a severe concussion. If he’s 100%, he remains one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson is a tremendous athlete. He has safety-level speed. Thomas Davis is still playing very well. He turned 34 in March, so we may see Thompson stay on the field in lieu of Davis when the Panthers move to the nickel or dime. The depth here is purely of the special teams variety.

2016 second-round pick James Bradberry put together an excellent rookie season. Ditto for 2016 third-round pick Daryl Worley. Neither is up to the level of a strong #1CB, but both are competent. They should be even better this season, as rookie cornerbacks usually struggle. Free-agent pickup Captain Munnerlyn looks to have the nickel job locked down. 2016 fifth-round pick Zach Sanchez hasn’t impressed the coaching staff. Rookie fifth-round pick Corn Elder is a potential dime option.

Free-agent pick Mike Adams turned 36 in March. In Carolina, age is nothing but a number. He did a decent job in Indianapolis. I don’t love the signing, but being cheap in the secondary was Gettleman’s MO. Free safety Kurt Coleman has eleven interceptions over the past two seasons. Ballhawks are a dying breed these days, so enjoy him while he lasts.

The Panthers’ special teams have been lousy for years. They are currently undergoing camp battles at punter (Andy Lee vs. Michael Palardy), kicker (Graham Gano vs. Harrison Butker), punt returner (Christian McCaffrey vs. Damiere Byrd), and kick returner (Byrd vs. Fozzy Whittaker). The punt coverage has been abysmal. The kick coverage hasn’t been bad. I’m not sure if it’s bad luck, coaching, or personnel.

The Panthers were destroyed by injuries last season. When healthy, they have a fierce pass rush. Their secondary should be a bit better than it was last year due to player development. The offense gained a few new weapons. My major concern? Cam Newton. When he was a legitimate rushing threat, the defense had to account for him. Now that he wants to dial that back, he’s going to need to improve his accuracy and touch. I expect McCaffrey to boost the offense. I don’t like the wide receiver corps, and Olsen can only do so much. The silver lining? Their schedule is bollocks. I don’t think they are a good team. I do think they’ll have a good record. 9-7.

 

 

 

New Orleans Saints

 

Talent Wins: 9.96

DVOA Wins: 7.0

FPI Wins: 7.90

Last year: 7-9 (8.3 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 7.74

 

Let me briefly explain the outlier that is the talent wins projection. On paper, the Saints have a top-five offense and a below-average defense. In practice, the offense might remain in the top ten, but the defense has some fundamental flaws that have plagued the Saints for years. In that light, 10-6 might be viewed as the rose-glasses scenario. Reality might prove quite a bit grimmer.

After a couple of solid years (15.7% DVOA, 1,252 DYAR in 2014, 15.8% DVOA, 1,132 DYAR in fifteen games in 2015), Drew Brees bounced back with a monster season:

2016: 471 completions, 5,208 yards, 7.3 NY/P, 23.3% DVOA, 1,620 DYAR

It’s kind of amazing the Saints managed a losing record with that level of quarterback play, but bad luck and a bad defense can do that to you. Brees turned 38 in January. We just saw Tom Brady win a Super Bowl at age 39. Can Brees get a second ring? There were a few warning signs of wear and tear last season. The Saints recognized them and made a few moves to strengthen the running game. However, their biggest offseason move was a downgrade: Wide receiver Brandon Cooks for New England’s first round pick. That pick turned into offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk, whom I’ll discuss shortly. Losing Cooks will put a fair amount of pressure on Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. Last year the Saints had three receivers who threatened the defense. Brandon Coleman or Ted Ginn Jr. will have to step up for that to be the case again this year.

2016 second-round pick Michael Thomas is coming off of an incredible year:

2016: 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, +11.4 +/-, 31.6% DVOA, 431 DYAR

Yes, Drew Brees put Thomas in a position to succeed. Thomas did the same for Brees. He’ll see an increased workload in Cooks’s absence. That also means he’ll face more defensive attention. It will be very hard for him to maintain anything close to that level of efficiency.

Willie Snead took advantage of distracted defenses to feast in the slot. That was a bit of a usage change from 2015:

2015: 69 receptions, 984 yards, +8.8 +/-, 10.1% DVOA, 175 DYAR (in fifteen games)

2016: 72 receptions, 895 yards, +2.5 +/-, 12.5% DVOA, 206 DYAR (in fifteen games)

The departed Cooks helped both Thomas and Snead:

2016: 78 receptions, 1,173 yards, +8.7 +/-, 11.6% DVOA, 226 DYAR

Now that Cooks is gone, we may see the Saints keep Snead in the slot and try Coleman or Ginn Jr. outside. I have no faith that Ginn Jr. can do the job (-8.1% DVOA, 84 DYAR over the past three years). He can help out on special teams, but that’s about it. If he were a quality wide receiver, he’d still be in Arizona or Carolina. As for Coleman, he doesn’t have the athleticism to push defenses. He’s been efficient as the #4WR over the past two seasons:

2015-16: 56 receptions, 735 yards, +4.5 +/-, 15.3% DVOA, 190 DYAR

He’s not a natural fit as the #2WR. Cooks may have been unhappy in New Orleans. His presence will likely be missed.

Tight end Coby Fleener is unlikely to pick up the slack. His poor play angered Brees and the coaching staff (-4.5% DVOA, 16 DYAR). Backup Josh Hill stank as well (-20.4% DVOA, -20 DYAR). Remember, these guys had Drew Brees throwing to them. Maybe I’m making too much of the loss of Cooks. The Saints think they can survive without him. I am seeing a cascade effect that will make everyone else worse.

Running back Mark Ingram is coming off an excellent season (1,362 yards-from-scrimmage, 256 DYAR). The Saints want to make sure he has plenty of help. They signed Adrian Peterson to serve as his backup. Peterson was injured and useless last season (-87 DYAR). Will he be better this season? Whenever I watch him, he looks like he’s running in sand. The explosion and power look gone. He might not be as awful as he was last year, but the signing makes little sense to me. Rookie third-round pick Alvin Kamara may be the Saints’ change-of-pace back:

Alvin Kamara: Surprisingly polarizing prospect. I see a third-down back who can provide some value in the running game. He can also be useful in the return game and potentially as a slash RB/WR hybrid. There are rumors he bombed the interviews at the combine. He was suspended multiple times in college, and teams might decide he isn’t worth the potential headache. There is also the problem of a lack of top-end speed, especially given his lack of size. At best, a poor man’s McCafferty.

Kamara was productive at Tennessee. I see the Saints as a perfect fit for his skill set. Both Brees and Ingram should benefit from his addition.

Losing Cooks was a blow. The Saints got Ryan Ramczyk in return:

Ryan Ramczyk: He’s a very tough player to evaluate. He hurt his hip early in the year and still managed to put up very good numbers. Is the hip injury going to be a nagging problem? Or does he have another gear? Answering that would require medical information I am not privy to. If the hip isn’t an issue, we’re looking at an excellent option at either tackle position. What he lacks in raw power he makes up for with solid technique and excellent reaction speed. Even in pass protection, he’s very good at making the first move and winning the initial point of contact. That’s hard to teach, and is why he’s my #1 tackle prospect for the draft.

Ramczyk’s addition may prove fortuitous. Due to Terron Armstead’s shoulder injury, Ramczyk is going to get thrown into the fire as the Saints’ starting left tackle. It’s unclear if Armstead will be back in a few months, or if he’s out for the season. Left guard Andrus Peat did a yeoman’s job at left tackle and left guard last season. The Saints would like Max Unger to start at center. He’s recovering from foot surgery. I had him as the second-best at his position last year. If he can’t go, Josh LeRibeus will get the nod. I know almost nothing about LeRibeus apart from the fact that the Saints would rather not have to use him. New right guard Larry Watford is roughly average. Right tackle Zach Strief ranked second at his position as well, although the gap between him and Jack Conklin was sizable. Two big ifs here: left tackle and center. If Ramczyk can adjust to the NFL, and Unger can go, this line should be great. If Ramczyk strugges and LeRibeus goes, it could regress badly. I’m thinking scenario one is more likely. The Saints are acting like Unger will be available. As for Ramczyk, he might struggle a bit, but he has the talent to do the job. Also, Armstead might return midseason to save the day.

The Saints’ defense had two premium performers last year: defensive tackle Nick Fairley and defensive end Cameron Jordan. Last year, they combined for 13.5 sacks and 110 hits+hurries. The Saints signed Fairley to a new contract. Unfortunately for Fairley, a medical issue may end his career. He’s gone for 2017, so a weak defense just got weaker.

2016 first-round pick defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins will start alongside 2015 fifth-round pick Tyeler Davison. Rankins played well after returning from a fractured ankle. Without Fairley, he’ll be facing a guard and a center more often than not. Davison is a run-stuffer. He was great at providing depth, but this is an undeserved promotion. 2016 fourth-round pick David Onyemata may eventually force Davison back to the bench.

Cameron Jordan will now be playing on hard mode. Alex Okafor won’t be able to pick up much of the slack. This isn’t the contract premium free-agent pass-rushers sign. As you might imagine, the depth at defensive end is poor. Rookie third-round pick Trey Hendrickson was productive at Florida Atlantic. I gave him a fifth-round grade. I’m not expecting him to be able to contribute immediately.

Rookie third-round pick Alex Anzalone will join 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony and middle linebacker Craig Robertson. Anzalone will start on the weakside, while Anthony will handle the strongside. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Anzalone pick:

Alex Anzalone: Film suggested he might be a great athlete. Combine disabused us of that notion. He’s been unable to stay healthy. He’s not going to hear his name called in the first three rounds. At some point the potential outweighs the risks for a player has had some great flashes on film.

I was wrong, as he did go in the third. It’s likely we’ll see A.J. Klein at some point as well. Anthony has had trouble staying on the field. Dannell Elerbe was the Saints’ best linebacker last season, but he was placed on injured reserve and is no longer with the team. This is one of the worst front-sevens in the NFL.

2015 third-round pick P.J. Williams missed almost all of last season after suffering a severe concussion. Ken Crawley played 500+ snaps in Williams’ absence. He did a decent job. No one in the Saints’ secondary covered themselves in glory. Delvin Breaux’s injury has now become part of NFL history. The Saints were lucky that Marshon Lattimore fell to them in the first round:

Marshon Lattimore: Such an incredible talent. He has everything you’re looking for. He’s fluid, fast, with great anticipation and spatial recognition. In terms of pure talent he’s the best cornerback prospect I’ve seen in a long time. However, he’s battled hamstring injuries for years, and the demands of the NFL are a lot harsher than those of high school or college. I have less doubt about his ability to cover in the NFL than any other cornerback in the class, but can he stay on the field? It’s a major red flag, and one that would probably scare me away from taking him in the top six.

The Saints haven’t shown fear in the face of questionable injury histories. 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro missed five games last season. He’s another of the strong safety/linebacker hybrids that are becoming popular these days. 2016 second-round pick Von Bell impressed me. He looked quite good last season and should be even better this year. Rookie second-round pick Marcus Williams may see some playing time in the nickel or dime:

Marcus Williams: A solid athlete with excellent film. Williams is a bit of a FS/CB hybrid. He might want to bulk up a bit to play safety, or stay at his current weight and work as a #2 CB. The knock on him is that he’s a poor tackler. I’m not sure that’s quite fair, but I agree some more power would pay dividends, especially if he’s asked to attack the line of scrimmage. A solid player who should be a good pro.

I’m not sure how the Saints are going to use him. He gives them some flexibility, but it might not matter if players are getting thrown onto the field due to need.

Punter Thomas Morstead is quite good. Kicker Will Lutz is quite average. The Saints’ coverage units are quite bad. New return man Ted Ginn Jr. is quite fast. I’m quite tired of looking at the disaster that is the Saints’ roster.

The Saints play a soft schedule this season. Their offense is still among the best in the NFL. Despite that, I see them going 7-9 for the fifth time in six seasons. Their defense looks awful. Maybe they should have looked into going into full fire sale mode and traded Brees to a contender. I guess no one ever does that. What would the market price even be? Also, there’s the issue of the salary cap. Thanks to various shenanigans, Brees has the Saints by the balls. I suppose it’s a moot point. Eventually Brees will fade and the Saints will rebuild. For now, more mediocrity. 7-9.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

Talent Wins: 7.23

DVOA Wins: 7.2

FPI Wins: 8.2

Last year: 9-7 (7.6 Pythagorean wins)

Expected Wins: 8.40

 

Let’s set the table for Jameis Winston:

Weapons:

2014 first-round pick wide receiver Mike Evans:

2016: 96 receptions, 1,321 yards, +2.3 +/-, 10.0% DVOA, 309 DYAR

Free-agent pickup wide receiver DeSean Jackson

2016: 56 receptions, 1,005 yards, +4.3 +/-, 16.4% DVOA, 241 DYAR (in 15 games in Washington)

Slot receiver Adam Humphries:

2016: 55 receptions, 622 yards, -0.1 +/-, -1.9% DVOA, 68 DYAR (in 15 games)

Tight end Cameron Brate:

2016: 57 receptions, 660 yards, +6.9 +/-, 20.4% DVOA, 149 DYAR (in 15 games)

Rookie first-round pick tight end O.J. Howard:

O.J. Howard: Incredible talent. He’s an excellent receiver and an above-average blocker. Huge hands, solid speed, excellent agility. He’s the complete package and the best tight end prospect in years. It’s unusual to have the top tight end be a potential top-10 pick, but Howard is that good. Sixth overall would be a little high, but I wouldn’t complain if the Jets snagged him early.

The run on wide receivers let Howard fall to the Bucs with the 19th pick. They followed up with wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third-round. Godwin has played both outside and in the slot. Godwin was notable for his high catch rate of contested passes.

Mike Evans was excellent last year. DeSean Jackson gives the offense an additional dimension. Brate and Howard give the Buccaneers the ability to run 2TE sets with both as legitimate threats. That’s a lot of talent at Winston’s disposal. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken has to find how to best maximize it. He also needs to help Winston become more accurate. The 2015 first-overall pick hasn’t shown much improvement in that respect:

2015: 312 completions, 4,042 yards, 6.8 NY/P, 2.1% DVOA, 509 DYAR

2016: 345 completions, 4,090 yards, 6.4 NY/P, 3.6% DVOA, 537 DYAR

He’s had notable issues overthrowing receivers. Accuracy is not an easy trait to improve, but it can be done. He has an opportunity for a breakout season. If he stagnates, then the Buccaneers have a problem.

Running back Doug Martin is suspended for the first three games of the season. He was awful last year (-52 DYAR). Jacquizz Rodgers was a bit better (66 DYAR), but it’s unrealistic to ask him to carry the load as the every-down back. 2014 third-round pick Charles Sims has been a disappointment (-20 DYAR last season). Rookie fifth-round pick Jeremy McNichols showed quality blocking and receiving skills at Boise State. He was a pretty good value pick and may end up as the starting running back.

2015 second-round pick left tackle Donovan Smith was a hair above-average. He’s the only member of the offensive line who could say that. Everyone else was either mediocre or MIA. 2015 second-round pick Ali Marpet is moving from right guard to center. J.R. Sweezy missed last season with a back injury. If healthy, he should provide an upgrade over Marpet. The hope is that this line will be about average. The likelihood is that will be a bit worse than that.

The Buccaneers’ defense is a conundrum. They aren’t good at pressuring the quarterback, yet they have a high sack rate. That’s been true two years in a row. Two years ago, they were solid against the run, poor against the pass. Last year that flipped. I’d need to have seen more film on them to understand what is going on. What I can tell you is that they had seven players with three or more sacks, and none with double-digits. They were effective when blitzing. Will that repeat itself? Dunno.

Robert Ayers, William Gholston, and Noah Spence will form the core of the defensive end rotation. 2013 fourth-round pick Gholston is regarded as a run-stuffer. 2015 second-round pick Spence is more of a pure pass-rusher. Ayers was the best of the three at both jobs.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will start alongside free-agent pickup Chris Baker. It’s a good pairing. If McCoy recovers his form from a few years ago, it will be a great pairing. It’s too early to say if last year saw the beginning of a decline in his play or if it was just a blip. He still managed seven sacks and 33 hits+hurries. The question is whether he’s dominant or just pretty good. He’s currently slowed by a pelvic injury. I hate those. The depth here isn’t great.

Weakside linebacker Lavonte David remains one of the best in the business. We may see him attack the line of scrimmage even more than usual this season. 2015 fourth-round pick middle linebacker Kwon Alexander had a strong season as well, excelling in all areas. Strong side is a question. 2016 sixth-round pick Devante Bond might be the answer. He missed his rookie season due to injuries. He’s currently sidelined with a knee injury. Rookie third-round pick Kendall Beckwith might get the job. Beckwith tore his left LCL and ACL in college. The ACL tear occurred last November and the Bucs aren’t 100% certain if he’ll be ready week one. If he’s 100%, he has the talent to complete the trio.

Opponents were pretty ruthless when it came to attacking 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves. He lost more battles than he won, but managed to avoid being burnt to a cinder. The Buccaneers have to hope that he’ll be a savvier player this season. Brent Grimes did a very good job across from Hargreaves. The options aren’t great after the top two. 2016 fourth-round pick Ryan Smith failed at safety, so he’s returning to being a cornerback. Robert McClain may end up grabbing the nickel job.

Safety Chris Conte made two huge plays last season. His INTTD against the Bears sparked a rout. His interception in the end zone saved a game against the Chiefs. Apart from that? He was the last line of defense, and a poor one at that. Keith Tandy may be promoted due to Bradley McDougald’s departure. That would be a downgrade. Free agent pickup J.J. Wilcox and 2017 second-round pick Justin Evans are also in the mix. Wilcox is a big-hitter who needs to learn the system before he can replace Tandy. As for Evans:

Justin Evans: Hits like a truck. Not built like a truck. I have no idea how he’s stayed healthy, but I’d be worried the streak is due to end. He can play cornerback or safety. Not necessarily a great fit at either position. Has this weird trait where he’s really good at navigating past blockers and then whiffing on the tackle. If coaches can get him to eschew the big hits and just focus on making the tackle, his stats will improve. I don’t think I’d grab him in the first two rounds though.

Evans has the best range of any of the options. If he’s ready to play, I think I’d like him in the base nickel package.

The Bucs’ special teams were a hot mess last season. Roberto Aguayo was an utter disaster. He’s been replaced by Nick Folk, who in turn is facing a camp battle against Zach Hocker. Folk has caused me immeasurable pain, so I’m rooting for Hocker here. The kick return game was miserable as well, although that was more a function of incompetent blocking than anything else. The only thing that went well was the punting unit. Punter Bryan Anger was very good, as was his coverage team. The Buccaneers famously went 18 years without a punt or a kickoff return. That seems impossible, but they’re currently in the midst of another such streak, not having returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown since 2010. It might be time to sacrifice a chicken. (Update: It looks like Folk won. Darn.)

The Buccaneers could be the next NFC South team to take a trip to the Super Bowl. If Winston takes the next step, this offense has too many weapons to easily stop. The defense was solid last year and has some room for improvement. The special teams could vastly improve just by bringing the kicking game up to average. Winston has looked very good this preseason. I don’t want to read too much into that, but… what the heck. 9-7.