Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
04 Sep 2008
compiled by Bill Barnwell and Doug Farrar
Here's your standard warning: Predictions are probably wrong. It is the intrinsic nature of the NFL: there are so many variables and so much luck involved in a 16-game season that teams will make the playoffs or bomb for totally unexpected and sometimes baffling reasons.
Let's say we think the Philadelphia Eagles have the best chance of any team in the NFC to make it to the Super Bowl. Perhaps we think they have a 20 percent chance to make it, and we think that six other teams have a 10 percent chance to make it, and eight other teams have a 2.5 percent chance to make it, and they will also play some games in Atlanta this season.
OK, so we pick Philadelphia to win the NFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is four in five chance the pick will be incorrect. So preseason predictions are all going to be mostly wrong.
As we always say, we're going to make picks anyway, because that's part of running a football site: you make picks. However, we ran into an additional problem in 2007. Each member of the FO staff gave his picks for the 12 playoff teams and then answered a few other questions about expectations for the upcoming season. That included not just the regular writers but even our adjunct members like David "QB Projections" Lewin. After the season, anyone who wanted to criticize FO found it pretty easy. You were bound to find something completely stupid predicted for every single team, even if it was only the opinion of one writer. If one person questioned the projection of Green Bay as NFC North champion, we would end up with a blog that said "See, Football Outsiders said Green Bay would suck." Comments like this showed up around the Web. We're used to criticism, but this was just lame and annoying.
Therefore, we're doing a couple of things differently in 2008. There are no staff picks for the 12 playoff teams. The only FO predictions for the 12 playoff teams are the official predictions from the DVOA projections which we ran yesterday:
AFC divisions: San Diego, Baltimore, Indianapolis, New England
AFC wild cards: Jacksonville, Denver
NFC divisions: Seattle, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia
NFC wild cards: Minnesota, Dallas
Super Bowl: New England over Philadelphia
First Pick in the Draft: Atlanta
However, we are still doing subjective predictions for things like "team likely to beat its projection" and "who will go first in the 2009 draft." We've written about this in many places: we do not believe that our statistical methods are perfect. Our subjective views are informed by our objective numbers, but not dictated by them.
However, we want to make this clear: EACH OF THE OPINIONS LISTED BELOW IS THE OPINION OF THAT WRITER AND THAT WRITER ONLY. These are not "Football Outsiders predicts," okay? Also, these predictions were made before the update to the DVOA projections that moved Houston out of a projected wild card spot and Dallas into a projected wild card spot.
All right, let's rock.
Aaron Schatz: New York Jets. I'll go with Bill Simmons on this one. Favre really improves the offense, but even more important is Alan Faneca, who basically improves the Jets at three positions because Ferguson and Mangold no longer have to cover for the existence of a black hole between them. I think they're getting some of the talent they need for the 3-4 (Harris!) and they'll be better on defense. And the schedule for every AFC East team is very, very easy, so they'll be in the wild card hunt with Denver and Houston. Also Minnesota, but only on defense.
Ben Riley: Dallas. Three things I have learned from watching HBO's Hard Knocks documentary:
Bill Barnwell: Indianapolis. The Colts are getting a huge boost this year from having the most injured defense in football by a large margin last year, and DVOA has always struggled to project how fantastic and consistent their offense is on a year-to-year basis. Then again, that's based upon Peyton Manning, and the idea that his knee is fine.
Brian Fremeau: Pittsburgh. I like the offensive backfield and the defense too much, certainly enough to see the team get to at least .500. I'm not sold on the rest of the division, either, so the wins ought to be there.
Bill Connelly: Dallas. There's explosive potential in as many bad ways as good, but 8.1 just seems a game or two low to me. I'm just not betting on them in the playoffs.
Doug Farrar: New Orleans. In 2005, a team kept its offense together while making a heavy investment in an improved front seven, hoping that a below-average secondary could survive. That team was the Seattle Seahawks, the eventual NFC Champion. The Saints have made similar commitments to their defense while insuring offensive consistency, the Deuce McAllister injury situation notwithstanding. PFP 2008 says that everything's an "if" with this team, but I believe that the "ifs" will work in their favor. Now about that HiZ thing...
Michael Tanier: Dallas. Why do our wackiest predictions always involve the NFC East? I think there must be two or three little variables we don't quite measure there: the Philly Sports Curse, some residual Bill Parcells effect in Dallas, whatever. Because the teams all play each other, the little variables appear to throw everything out of whack. Yeah, two years ago the predictions were largely right, but this year's picks look uncomfortably like last years.
Ned Macey: Oakland. First, the AFC West seems weak this year with San Diego's injury concerns, Denver's mediocrity, and Kansas City's general ineptness. Second, the defense should be a top 10 unit, the running game was good last season, and I'm cautiously optimistic about JaMarcus Russell.
Russell Levine: Cleveland. I'm not crazy about anybody else in the AFC North. I think Derek Anderson keeps Brady Quinn solidly on the bench all season, Braylon Edwards becomes one of top three receivers in the game, and they get to at least nine wins.
Sean McCormick: New York Jets. Chad Pennington was the 24th-ranked passer in football last year according to DYAR. Brett Favre was third. As overblown a media story as the Favre comeback might be, I have a hard time seeing how he doesn't improve the Jets by more than 0.5 games. I also think that the original 7.4 projection was probably too low simply because it is rare for teams to go out and make as many significant changes to their roster as the Jets did. Say what you will about the money New York threw around, but Kris Jenkins, Alan Faneca, Damien Woody and Calvin Pace all looked like major upgrades on paper, and they've looked like major upgrades in limited preseason action. The Jets have been alternating 10-6 seasons with losing seasons for the past few years now, and with the upgraded roster and a schedule that includes the NFC West and the AFC West, I think they'll probably battle Houston for that second wild card spot.
Vince Verhei: Dallas. Their low projection is mainly because they've been injury-free for several seasons, and they're "due" to see more guys go down. I see two flaws in this logic. First, if I flip a coin four times and get four heads, the coin is not "due" to come up tails. The next time I flip it, it is still a 50-50 shot to come up heads or tails. Second, it seems just as likely to me that their low injury rate is due in part to an elite medical staff, and that medical staff will still be around.
Aaron Schatz: Kansas City. Yes, I now, this isn't a team we're projecting to be good, but even the idea of them going 6-10 seems absurd. Right now this is practically an expansion team -- okay, if an expansion team was well-run and had been given draft picks for three seasons instead of one. There's tons of talent but it is all learning and the quarterbacks blow. Also Minnesota, but only on offense.
Ben Riley: Minnesota. Are you ready for the ultimate in football blasphemy? I don't think Adrian Peterson is that good. With a heavy emphasis on the "that." The reality is that Peterson had two huge games last year that accounted for 520 rushing yards and six rushing TDs -- that's 39 percent and 50 percent of his annual total, folks. Meanwhile, he closed out the season with 3, 78, 27 and 36 yards rushing. There's no doubt that he'll take over a few games this year, but in the meantime, the Vikings have an entire to season to play. The projection system may think Tarvaris Jackson can win 10.1 games, but I sure don't.
Bill Barnwell: Green Bay. Brett Favre made that offense work and did a huge amount of the work in making their guards look good. Aaron Rodgers has been positively Rob Johnson-esque behind the same line over the last three years, and it's going to have a significant cascade over their entire offense. Combine that with a vastly overrated secondary and the Packers could be getting into shootouts they can't keep up in.
Bill Connelly: Baltimore. There's not a quarterback on that roster that makes me confident in 8.5 wins.
Brian Fremeau: Philadelphia. The NFC East might split its division games across the board, and if so, the Eagles would have to be perfect against everyone else. Those expectations are unreasonably high. They still might be the best team in the NFC at 10-6.
Doug Farrar: New England. A tougher division than meets the eye, and that offensive line has me worried.
Michael Tanier: Baltimore. I understand the logic here, particularly the idea that the Browns will take a step back and the Ravens play the Dolphins and Raiders. But I think we are underestimating how bad the offensive line will be, how inconsistent the quarterback play will be,
and how willing John Harbaugh is to pick rebuilding over winning now.
Ned Macey: Tampa Bay. They haven't made the playoffs in consecutive years in the Gruden era, and they are too dependent on two really old guys in Joey Galloway and Jeff Garcia. Plus, I like Carolina and New Orleans to be much better this year.
Russell Levine: New England. They'll still be good enough to win the East, but I'm worried about the line, Brady's health, and that the reality of learning that they were mortal will lead to a slow start.
Sean McCormick: Carolina. When you're looking for teams to really fall off a cliff, it's always a good idea to zero in on the quarterback situation, and I just don't like what I see here at all. Jake Delhomme is coming off a major injury, he's 33, and the backup situation is not good. I'm also a little bothered by Carolina's approach to the draft; the combination of Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah smacks of management trying to impose a strategy that the rest of the roster isn't completely suited for, and in any event I'm not sure that bringing back three yards and a cloud of dust is the way to go in today's NFL. You win by being able to throw the ball, and aside from Steve Smith -- who, incidentally, will miss the first two games of the season due to suspension -- the Panthers look about as toothless on offense as San Francisco, Chicago and Kansas City. Nine or ten wins strikes me as a bit much, even in the NFC South.
Vince Verhei: None, really. I could pick Philadelphia, simply because their projection is so high (most wins in the NFC) that it will be hard to match. Houston is projected to sneak into the playoffs, but they'll likely have to win at least once against Jacksonville or Indianapolis to do that, and I don't seem them pulling that off with their secondary. I see them as a 7- or 8-win team, not an 8- or 9-win team, and that one-win difference is huge.
Aaron Schatz: Like I said last year, it is strange for me to answer this because I'm the one who sets the subjective playing time variables in KUBIAK. However, there are no playing time variables for quarterbacks, and like everyone else, I don't quite get why the equations end up so down on Tony Romo again.
Ben Riley: This is an easy one, because until very recently he didn't even have a projection: Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals. According to his Going Deep profile, "The one guy everyone compares Hightower to is Marion Barber III, but Hightower probably would have come off the board before the fifth round if that were accurate." It's accurate, and a somewhat odd contention given that Barber himself lasted until the fourth round of the 2005 draft. Hightower has been running people over in training camp and the Cardinals already plan to get him five to 10 touches per game. By midseason, he'll be splitting carries if he hasn't taken over for the decrepit Edge James completely.
Bill Barnwell: Frank Gore. Regardless of who's playing quarterback, Gore's going to get 1,000 yards. Having a healthier line will help dramatically.
Bill Connelly: Tony Romo. Unless he's handing it off too much and his arm gets rusty...
Brian Fremeau: Rashard Mendenhall. As long as I'm riding that Pittsburgh backfield, let's take it all the way to the house. Which Mendenhall (and Willie Parker, for that matter) will do.
Doug Farrar: Julius Peppers. I'm referring to sacks here. Whatever was bothering him last season sure wasn't there in the preseason. He was very much his old self. Contract year, too.
(Note: For those who haven't opened the IDP KUBIAK workbook, Peppers is projected for 7.5 sacks, which would be around 20th in the league.)
Michael Tanier: Julius Jones. He's been great in camp, and I think he's more versatile than he demonstrated in Dallas. We have him contributing almost nothing as a receiver, in part because of Maurice Morris, but the guy's going to have more than 47 receiving yards.
Ned Macey: Carson Palmer. I still think he's the third or, at worst, fourth best quarterback in football. He has two great receivers, and the end of the Rudi Johnson era should radically improve the run game over last season.
Russell Levine: Felix Jones. Just a hunch, but I think he ends up being a bigger part of the offense than Barber and topping 1,000 yards for the year.
Sean McCormick: Steve Slaton. One of the rewards of watching a lot of preseason football is that you can keep an eye on young running backs who might emerge. Unlike most other positions, running back performance translates fairly well from the preseason to the regular season, and Slaton has looked very comfortable in Houston's zone blocking scheme. With Ahman Green looking like a potential cut, there isn't much standing between Slaton and a starting job on an up and coming offense.
Vince Verhei: Roddy White. Whoever is playing quarterback in Atlanta, they will have to throw the ball somewhere. White's competition at wide receiver includes the inferior Michael Jenkins, the animated corpse of Brian Finneran, and no other player who has ever caught 50 passes in a season. And there is no Tony Gonzalez or Brian Westbrook to steal catches; their top three backs -- Ovie Mughelli, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood -- plus the entire tight end roster have only 174 career catches combined. It may be a long season in Atlanta, but they will score some points and catch some balls, and White's the guy most likely to do it.
Aaron Schatz: Bernard Berrian. Perhaps I should not have made him a full "number one" receiver in the playing time variables, because it spits out 977 yards and nine touchdowns. I know that the running game opens things up for Tarvaris Jackson to throw downfield, but come on, not that much.
Ben Riley: Donovan McNabb. Let us assume for a drug-induced moment that McNabb stays healthy for an entire season. Who exactly do we think he's going to throw 28 touchdown passes to? DeSean Jackson looks like a nice pickup for the Eagles but he is a rookie. Fellow wideouts Reggie Brown had all of four scores last year, Jason Avant had two, and Hammerin' Hank Baskett racked up, uh, one. Unless Brian Westbrook decides to play wide receiver permanently, there's no way McNabb hits his KUBIAK numbers.
Bill Barnwell: Ryan Grant. I know what he did last year, but he did that with Brett Favre. Doing that with Aaron Rodgers is totally different.
Bill Connelly: Earnest Graham. Granted, Cadillac won't be threatening him for playing time any time soon, but those projections are pretty high, and I'm simply not sold on him yet. He was a great out-of-nowhere guy last year, but lots of guys have one solid season...and 1230 rushing yards is a bit much.
Brian Fremeau: Ryan Grant. Hate to do this to a fellow Domer, and I think Grant will have a productive season, but I don't think he'll put up the same kind of gaudy numbers as last year either.
Doug Farrar: Jeff Garcia. I'm as big a fan as you'll find. But his age, risk-taking brand of mobility, Tampa Bay's pass-blocking issues, and the receiver situation leads me to believe that either an injury or a streak of iffy games could have either Garcia out for a few games, or Jon Gruden pulling him for Luke McCown. At some point, the bubble's going to burst.
Michael Tanier: Earnest Graham is an obvious choice. I think the Bucs running game will be really good, but the distribution of carries is going to be more spread out than we thought a month or two ago.
Ned Macey: Marshawn Lynch. I understand that almost everyone splits carries these days, but I see a number of 20-carry, 62-yard type games, as the passing game is so weak that defenses will key up on him.
Russell Levine: Ronnie Brown. He can't seem to stay healthy, and worse, Parcells may not like him. If Williams stays healthy, Brown won't come close to the 1,100 yards we have him down for.
Sean McCormick: Javon Walker. His projection isn't anything amazing, but his training camp and preseason has disaster written all over it.
Vince Verhei: The easy answer here is Peyton Manning, given the tenuous nature of his knee. But even if he misses a game or two, we all still expect him to be king of the hill whenever he comes back. I'm going with Braylon Edwards. We're expecting the Browns as a whole to decline, we're expecting Derek Anderson to decline, and it only figures that Edwards, a boom-or-bust guy with a catch rate around 50 percent, we'll be dragged down with them.
Aaron Schatz: Steven Jackson's holdout. Most holdouts are overblown, and running back holdouts are particularly overblown, given what we've learned about running back fungibility. Favre may have gotten way too much press, but that trade does have significant impact on two teams, and the Jackson holdout doesn't end up meaning anything to anyone.
Ben Riley: I mean, there's no real question what the answer is, but for sake of creativity I'll go with the flaccid preseason performance of the Cleveland Browns. I know I'm swimming against the FO-conventional wisdom here, but I think the Browns are a good team and one flaccid preseason performance isn't enough to scare me straight.
Bill Barnwell: Favre. The Jets could win the Super Bowl, score a touchdown on every drive, and Favre's boyish exterior could cause a rift in the space-time continuum to develop, allowing every football writer to jump through and play games of youth football on demand as their ten-year-old selves, and this story would still be overblown.
Bill Connelly: Favre is a given, so I'll say "Ricky Williams is back!!!" Ronnie Brown will be starting by Week 4. And I'm not just saying that because Brown is on my fantasy team and I have my fingers crossed. Until Usi got hurt, I was going to say "Strahan's retirement" because Justin Tuck could be unbelievable. But he can't replace both of them.
Doug Farrar: Favre, sure -- but is it really overblown? One of the five best quarterbacks in league history heads to the major market while he:
I think the truly overblown story of the past few years, and it continued through this preseason, was the "Here Comes Sheriff Goodell" bit. The Commish talks a tough game, but I have not seen any positive effect on the league's disciplinary problems. None whatsoever.
Michael Tanier: Favre of course. I think the amount of energy spent covering the Steven Jackson holdout was pretty ridiculous. You can set your watch by these types of holdouts. The guy is always back by the third preseason game.
Ned Macey: Peyton Manning's injury. I know there is suspicion after the way they handled Harrison's injury last season, but at worst, wasn't Manning going to miss like one game? Everyone who took Manning at fantasy drafts around August 18th will win their league.
Russell Levine: Favre. Packers will still be good, Jets will win an extra game or two, and then we get to play this game again next year.
Sean McCormick: Peyton Manning's injury status. It's a late-breaking story, but it seems to be gathering a head of steam. The Colts are probably getting hit a little bit for the way they handled the Marvin Harrison injury, but I'll be very surprised if the caution they're showing with Manning is indicative of a serious injury problem. It's possible, though unlikely, that Manning will need to sit out the first one or two games, but I think that's as far as it goes.
Vince Verhei: Anybody who doesn't list the Brett Favre soap opera in this slot is just trying too hard to be creative.
|Aaron Schatz||New England||Green Bay|
|Ben Riley||San Diego||Dallas|
|Bill Connelly||New England||Dallas|
|Brian Fremeau||New England||Carolina|
|Doug Farrar||Jacksonville||New Orleans|
|Ned Macey||Philadelphia||New England|
|Vince Verhei||New England||Seattle|
|Brian Fremeau||Ohio State||Florida|
|Doug Farrar||Georgia||Ohio State|
|Michael Tanier||Ohio State||Oklahoma|
|Russell Levine||Auburn||Ohio State|
|Vince Verhei||Oklahoma||Ohio State|
|Aaron Schatz||Atlanta||Michael Oher|
|Ben Riley||San Francisco 49ers||Cullen Harper|
|Bill Barnwell||Kansas City Chiefs||Matt Stafford|
|Bill Connelly||Kansas City Chiefs||Matt Stafford|
|Brian Fremeau||San Francisco 49ers||Alex Boone|
|Doug Farrar||Kansas City Chiefs||Michael Oher|
|Michael Tanier||Kansas City Chiefs||Michael Oher|
|Ned Macey||Atlanta Falcons||Fili Moala|
|Russell Levine||Atlanta Falcons||Michael Oher|
|Sean McCormick||Atlanta Falcons||Michael Oher|
|Vince Verhei||Detroit Lions||Michael Crabtree|
76 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2008, 12:45pm by t.d.