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.
07 Sep 2011
complied by Rivers McCown
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. This year, especially, is unpredictable because nobody truly knows what the effect of the lockout will be. We can only guess.
Let's say we think the Pittsburgh Steelers have the best chance of any team in the AFC to make it to the Super Bowl -- 20 percent, perhaps. For the sake of argument, we'll also say that Baltimore, New England, and San Diego each have a 10 percent chance to make the Super Bowl, ten other teams have a five percent chance, and Tennessee and Denver are there to make sure everybody has a full schedule.
OK, so we pick Pittsburgh to win the AFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is four in five chance the pick will be incorrect. So all preseason predictions are going to be mostly wrong. It is unavoidable.
As we note every year, we're going to make picks anyway, because that's part of running a football site: you make picks.
For the fourth year, instead of each picking 12 playoff teams, we're showing our individuality by each arguing our point in categories such as "team likely to beat its projection" and "who will go first in the 2011 draft." Our college writers make similar comments about the FEI projections that ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011. However, the official FO predictions are based on the statistical projection system, even when the output looks a little strange. You can find those projections here, and as a reminder, the playoff forecast is:
AFC divisions: San Diego, Houston, Pittsburgh, New England
AFC wild cards: Baltimore, New York Jets
NFC divisions: San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, Philadelphia
NFC wild cards: Atlanta, Chicago (narrowly over the Giants)
Super Bowl: Pittsburgh over Philadelphia
First Pick in the Draft: Tennessee
We often say -- even though some people don't seem to ever hear it -- that 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."
All right, let's rock.
Tom Gower: I think the St. Louis Rams are better than they were last year, and with a semi-competent receiving corps and an improving cast of defensive players, they will win the NFC West and at least eight games.
Mike Kurtz: Green Bay. The Lions are steadily improving but have yet to reach competitor status, and the Vikings and Bears are both in decline. Sweeping the division should be pretty easy, and that sets them up nicely for an impressive record.
Sean McCormick: St. Louis. I understand that Sam Bradford's rookie season was probably blown a bit out of proportion -- he didn't exactly throw up a Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Ryan-type performance -- but Bradford showed me more than enough to believe that he will be a good quarterback and soon. The Rams have also done a nice job of stocking their defensive and offensive lines. In a weak division, a team that can protect the quarterback and go after the quarterback should really be good for more than five wins.
Rivers McCown: St. Louis. I know I'm aiming at low-hanging fruit with the projection of 6.6 wins, and I also know they have a brutal early-season schedule, but this team does play six games against the rest of the NFC West. Bradford is the best quarterback in the division in my eyes, I like McDaniels as an offensive coordinator, and I also like Robert Quinn across from Chris Long. That doesn't necessarily mean I'd pick them to win the division, but even if they only win half of their NFC West games, they only need to go 4-6 against the rest of their schedule to beat that projection.
Brian McIntyre: Green Bay. With perhaps the deepest and most-talented roster in the entire league, and a quarterback in his prime, the Packers appear poised for an 11 or 12 win season.
Ben Muth: Denver. The Broncos go from the chaos of the Josh McDaniels regime to the steady hand of John Fox. They get back their best player in Elvis Dumervil, and they have a decent quarterback in an average division. That seems like six-to-eight win team to me.
Aaron Schatz: The Dallas projection is based on the idea that the Cowboys' defense will not recover from last year's decline, but you've got to think that Mike Jenkins is better than he was last year. If he plays halfway between his 2009 and 2010 performances, and Rob Ryan can improve the pass rush just a little bit, that should give the Cowboys an average defense, which combined with the return of Tony Romo should make them more of a 9-7 or 10-6 team and put them right in the middle of the NFC Wild Card picture.
I also think the Green Bay offensive projection came out a bit low.
Mike Tanier: The Chiefs. Their number is low for a team with good offensive and defensive fronts, young talent, and a somewhat weak division.
Danny Tuccitto: Green Bay Packers. Their Pythagorean difference, strength of schedule difference, and likely AGL improvement all suggest more wins this season than last. FOA11 projects fewer.
Vince Verhei: Kansas City Chiefs. They’ll have to win a bunch before the Pats-Steelers-Bears-Jets-Packers death march late in the year, but their schedule up to that point isn’t otherworldly – it’s two games against the Chargers and eight other games in which they could be favored. Then they finish with marshmallows in Oakland and Denver. Plus, there’s always the chance Thomas Jones gets injured and Todd Haley is forced to use Jamaal Charles like a feature back should be used.
Robert Weintraub: Dallas. Eight wins seems very doable with the question marks in the division, plus the firepower on offense. New Orleans seems low too.
Tom Gower: Saying the Indianapolis Colts if Peyton Manning misses extensive time would be too easy. Most years there are some lines in FOA that I look at and think "no." This year, though, the lines I don't like the most are ones I think FOA is pointing in a better direction than conventional wisdom. I'll go with one of those, the Cleveland Browns.
Mike Kurtz: Pittsburgh.
1. 13 wins is kind of insane with a first-place schedule, even with the NFC West and AFC South thrown into the mix.
2. Mike Wallace does not actually possess the ability to warp time and space, as many have speculated.
3. I have a reputation to uphold.
Sean McCormick: New York Giants. The secondary depth is severely depleted, and while I still think the front four is going to be excellent, teams will be able to spread the Giants out and neutralize the pass rush. Also, Eli Manning has had a dreadful training camp, which makes me worry that the offense won't be able to keep up when the defense gives up points.
Rivers McCown: Buffalo. I don't want to say mean things about Buffalo, because the city has suffered enough. I just don't see seven wins there for a rag-tag offense (spoiler: not a Ryan Fitzpatrick guy) and a defense built on players trying to rehabilitate their value and get a new contract somewhere else. I guess that was kind of mean after all. Well, now we're even for Frank Reich.
Brian McIntyre: Cleveland. Playing the NFC West and a possibly Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts team should be good for the ol' win total, but I'm not sure they have enough talent and depth in the front seven to stop the run effectively enough to get to eight wins. Plus that December/January schedule -– road games against the Steelers, Cardinals, and Ravens sandwiched by home games with the Ravens and Steelers -– is beyond brutal.
Ben Muth: Cleveland Browns. You're either in on Colt McCoy, or you're not. I am not. I'm seeing shades of Rick Mirer, and the Browns don't have a ton of weapons around him. I think Peyton Hillis regresses and I don't like any of their receivers. Plus the Eric Steinbach injury could really hurt.
Aaron Schatz: I understand all the mathematical reasons why the projection system likes the Minnesota Vikings, but I think there's a problem with the "OL continuity" variable here, because it doesn't recognize that the Vikings offensive line, despite continuity, has dissolved into soft pudding. I also have questions about the defense. Is Erin Henderson really a starting-quality linebacker? Is there enough on the defensive line? And what if Antoine Winfield suddenly gets old? I know that the Vikings have an easy schedule, but I still don't think that gives them more wins than the Cowboys or Giants.
Also, Seattle projected with one of the five best defenses in the league seems a bit silly, but the offense is projected so low that the overall projection comes out as expected.
Mike Tanier: The Steelers. After seeing them beat the Eagles up in the preseason, I was starting to think the Steelers are capable of anything, and they have a lot of talent all over the roster. But 13 wins is a lot in a tough (other than the Bengals) division, and their defense is getting old. I also have a feeling that a couple of the teams with sack-heavy defenses, like the Steelers and Packers, are going to lose a game or two on momentum-swing penalties: the borderline hit that becomes unnecessary roughness instead of a strip sack.
Danny Tuccitto: Cincinnati Bengals. If this team wins seven games, I'll wear a tiger suit to all of my live fantasy drafts next season, and post pics on Twitter as proof. A rookie quarterback, a rookie No. 1 wide receiver, and a strongside defense imported from San Francisco is not the recipe for success; it's not even the recipe for mediocrity.
Vince Verhei: Pittsburgh Steelers. I really want to take “none of the above.” All the teams at the top of the projections look like they belong there. Since I don’t think that’s an option, I’ll go with Pittsburgh just because their projection (13 wins) is so high. We can find four losses for a team with question marks at tackle and cornerback, can’t we? Let’s say they drop one of the Ravens contests, fall on the road to Andre Johnson and the Texans, and lose at home to New England. And then … hmm. This is harder than I thought. A road game in Kansas City? A Monday nighter in San Francisco? Let’s say they rest their starters in Week 17 against Cleveland and lose on the road. Still counts as a loss.
Robert Weintraub: This might be my bias talking, but Cleveland should fall short of 9 wins. On reason in particular to bet on that is their injury situation, which doesn't figure to improve with that training staff. I like Dick Jauron, but I also think they will miss Rob Ryan's fire at DC.
Tom Gower: The obvious answer is somebody who plays a bigger role than KUBIAK is expecting. The Steelers' Antonio Brown seems like a good fit for that.
Mike Kurtz: Darren McFadden. The AFC West defenses are very bad! I'm not even sold on the Chargers, really. Plus, what else is the team going to do? Not run with McFadden? Pshaw. His per-play stats and DVOA will probably stink, but his accumulation stats will be fantastic.
Sean McCormick: Matthew Stafford. Our numbers are pretty down on Stafford, while most of the conventional football world thinks he is ready to blow up. If you watched Stafford in the preseason, you can understand where the conventional wisdom is coming from. There are a lot of quality weapons in that Detroit offense, and the team seems inclined to let their quarterback sling the ball rather than babysit a run dominated offense. Provided he stays healthy, I expect Stafford to comfortably beat his projection.
Rivers McCown: Ryan Mathews. I'm willing to write most of last year off because of the high ankle sprain. The fumbles are still a problem, but the Chargers didn't trade up to get him just to have him split carries. If he's healthy, I'm expecting a workhorse. I don't care how many nice things they say about Mike Tolbert.
Brian McIntyre: Calvin Johnson. With a healthy Stafford, Johnson could be in for a 90-catch, 1,500-yard, 12-touchdown season.
Ben Muth: Vincent Jackson. I think he comes in with a big chip on his shoulder and becomes a top five fantasy guy for the first time in his career. At the very least, I expect top 10, which is higher than he is currently projected at.
Aaron Schatz: I don't know why I can't get the Calvin Johnson projection to go higher without cheating, but we do have this strange habit of underrating him.
Mike Tanier: Jimmy Graham. We got a little conservative with a player that the Saints really want to use a lot. Graham, I think, is going to have Witten numbers.
Danny Tuccitto: Sam Bradford. He's been on my radar ever since Aaron sent out the first round of projections in preparation for FOA11. Josh McDaniels might be a lot of things, but he's not a coach who fails to maximize passing talent. He coaxed 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns out of Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton. Bradford, whose KUBIAK is basically equal to that, can do much better.
Vince Verhei: Reggie Bush. He’s listed as the top running back on the Dolphins’ depth chart right now, and while I don’t really think he’ll lead the team in rushing, I think it will be close. I also think he’ll easily top his projected 382 receiving yards.
Robert Weintraub: I hate this prediction because there is so much leeway. Sure, I'd like to say Ben Roethlisberger, because I think he's going to have a huge year, but it's not like KUBIAK thinks he'll stink. So, the hell with it -- this is the season Matthew Stafford stays healthy and fulfills his destiny. Oops, just put the whammy on him. Sorry, Staff.
Mike Kurtz: Ray Rice. I've been shouting this from the rooftops, and while I may be eating significant crow, the offensive line is not going to be as strong for him as it was last year. Baltimore's offense is going to transition more toward the passing game, and Rice is just not an impressive player. Plus, he's stuck in a division with fairly impressive defenses. I'm stuck with him in both of my leagues and it makes my soul hurt.
Sean McCormick: Cam Newton. Our projection is a decidedly low bar for the number one overall pick to clear, but I think he'll still fall short. Newton undoubtedly has an NFL arm, but he looks clueless on the field, he has no viable receiving threats outside of Steve Smith (who he has been completely unable to reach in the preseason), and with the combination of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina will likely have the lowest pass/run split in the league. Otherwise, I see a first year somewhere between Mark Sanchez and JaMarcus Russell.
Rivers McCown: Andre Roberts. I'm sure he'll be a little bit better this year, but we're really projecting someone who nearly had a -40% DVOA in limited time last year to have 850 receiving yards? I'll take the under, and I'm betting the new-found focus on tight ends in Arizona will also cut into his targets.
Brian McIntyre: Peyton Manning is far too obvious, so I'll say Drew Brees. Between the re-signing of Pierre Thomas, trading back into the first-round to select Mark Ingram and picking up fullback Korey Hall in free agency, the Saints clearly want to run the ball more this season.
Ben Muth: Matt Ryan. There are a lot of reasons not to like Matty Ice. Tony Gonzalez is old, Michael Turner has gotten a lot of carries the past couple of years, and rookie wideouts always seem to dissapoint. I'm also not too high on the Falcons offensive line. That leaves Roddy White, and I don't think he gives Ryan enough production to finish sandwiched between Tom Brady and Tony Romo in the top 10.
Aaron Schatz: Always hard for me to pick, since I'm the KUBIAK guy, and I can generally lower a player's role variable when I feel it is necessary. I love A.J. Green, but that Bengals offense does look like it's going to have a hard time getting him the ball.
Mike Tanier: Tie: Michael Vick and Michael Turner. Vick’s completion percentage is far too high. The Eagles will be very strong this year, but they are going to have some games where the offensive line is a mess and Vick winds up 12-of-24 with a long touchdown or two and 75 rushing yards. The Falcons are going to spread the ball around much more this year, and Turner is becoming more and more of a grinder with age.
Danny Tuccitto: Tie between Arian Foster and Antonio Gates. Show me a lower-body injury to a skill position player, and I'll show you a guy who's poised to have, "battled through injuries all last season" offered as an excuse by his coach next year. In Gates' case, I think Norv Turner's been saying that since Dubya was president. Full disclosure: I have Gates in all leagues, so this is a statement against interest. As for Foster, losing Vonta Leach doesn't help the situation either.
Vince Verhei: Steven Jackson. His rushing numbers look about right (1,155 yards, six touchdowns), but I’m not sure where these 560 receiving yards are supposed to come from, considering he’s only gone over 400 once in his career.
Robert Weintraub: Michael Turner looked like the accumulation of carries and hits was starting to catch up to him this preseason. Perhaps that means nothing, but my initial reaction to a prediction of 12 TDs and nearly 1500 yards is "no chance."
Bill Connelly: Texas A&M. I don't think they are a top 10 team by any means, but I'm absolutely willing to believe top 20. Their recent history very much tamped their projections down, however.
Brian Fremeau: Mississippi State. We totally overvalued Auburn and the Bulldogs are a real threat to contend as the SEC West's fourth power team (behind LSU, Alabama and Arkansas). Last year was a nice step forward, and this year they can get to eight or nine wins again.
Tom Gower: College football requires less quarterbacking than the NFL, but it helps to have a good one and Baylor's Robert Griffin III is one of the better ones. I think the Bears end up bowl-eligible with six or seven wins.
Rivers McCown: Texas A&M. I think they have too much offensive talent to be kept out of the top 20.
Ben Muth: Stanford. Andrew Luck is the best player in the country. David DeCastro is the best offensive lineman in the country. Moose Martin is the best LT in the country. Chase Thomas is going to lead the Pac-12 in sacks. And most importantly, I'm an unabashed homer. All this adds up to 14-0 and a national title.
Aaron Schatz: North Carolina. Last year's performance was likely depressed because of all the suspensions, and there's so much defensive talent there.
Robert Weintraub: Tennessee has dragged down the SEC East the last few seasons, but there is a surfeit of talent there, waiting to explode. And it's not as though the rest of the East is riding high. Surprise challenger for a trip to Atlanta in December.
Bill Connelly: Auburn. There is no recent precedent for coming from out of (relative) nowhere to rank No. 1 in F/+, and there is no recent precedent for then turning around and losing nearly every single playmaker. The projections had no idea what to do with AU, but in the end they were probably ranked far too high.
Brian Fremeau: Auburn's the obvious choice and I agree with Bill. I might be cheating a bit by not predicting this before the blow-up against Baylor, but TCU is destined for a bigger step back than we originally projected. The Horned Frogs have been so dominant lately it was too easy to assume they could overcome another wave of personnel losses. They'll take more lumps than usual and finish outside of the top 20.
Tom Gower: I said last year Auburn was a 6-6-type team with two gamechangers in Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. Newton and Fairley are now playing on Sundays, and Auburn should be happy with bowl eligibility in a tough SEC West.
Rivers McCown: Auburn. Utah State already demonstrated why.
Ben Muth: LSU. The Mad Hatter seems due for some bad luck.
Aaron Schatz: Auburn. Hey, that's what everyone else thinks, who am I to argue?
Robert Weintraub: Pitt will be interesting this season but 10 wins seems like a stretch. Don't discount the Wannstedt departure factor though: that could be worth a game or three.
Tom Gower: Pittsburgh Steelers over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mike Kurtz: New England over Philadelphia. I think the Patriots' defense will be just good enough to win a bunch of shootouts leading to a Super Bowl where the Eagles' vaunted new secondary is completely and totally outschemed.
Sean McCormick: Patriots over Saints.
Rivers McCown: Baltimore over Philadelphia.
Brian McIntyre: Saints over the Patriots. How miserable will Colts fans be if the Saints and Patriots are playing for the Lombardi Trophy in Lucas Oil Stadium?
Ben Muth: The Chargers beat the Saints 31-27.
Aaron Schatz: New England over Green Bay. The team projection system likes New England and Pittsburgh as the two best teams, and if it comes down to those two, New England generally hasn't had a problem beating Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh the last few years. As much as I love Philadelphia to win the NFC, I would be worried about their offensive line and linebackers, and Green Bay just has a lot more depth.
Mike Tanier: Steelers over Eagles. I can pick the Steelers to win the Super Bowl and still fall short of a 13-win projection, right?
Danny Tuccitto: Green Bay Packers over Baltimore Ravens. Repeat champions have been rare over the past decade, but teams usually overshoot Pythagoras in their championship season. If you go all the way back to 1992, no champ has undershot it by two full wins ala the 2010 Packers. As far as the Ravens go, they'll probably be more efficient in both pass offense and pass defense, this might be the year that the perennial AFC powers (i.e., IND, NE, and PIT) falter, all the Jets do is lose AFC Championship Games, and I just can't see Norv Turner head coaching a team to a Super Bowl appearance.
Vince Verhei: Eagles over Patriots.
Robert Weintraub: New England over New Orleans.
Bill Connelly: Alabama over Oklahoma. I like to keep it simple, though Boise State (they're great and have an easy schedule) and Virginia Tech (they're very good and have a pretty easy schedule) could throw a kink into things.
Brian Fremeau: I like Oklahoma, but I'm going to go with the numbers and say that Alabama (though deserving due to schedule strength) won't get the nod due to the loss column. I think Virginia Tech is going to cruise to an undefeated regular season and is my sleeper pick to sneak into the championship game.
Tom Gower: Alabama Crimson Tide over ... some one-loss team. Let's go with Virginia Tech.
Rivers McCown: Stanford over Oklahoma.
Ben Muth: Stanford beats some SEC team (I'll go Alabama), 27-13
Aaron Schatz: Alabama over Oklahoma.
Robert Weintraub: Alabama over Boise State
Tom Gower: With the first pick, the Cincinnati Bengals select Andrew Luck with their own pick.
Mike Kurtz: Tennessee. The Titans are a train wreck, and while they've locked down Chris Johnson, he's surrounded by garbage and I question his motivation now that he's been paid. Also, any team where Kenny Britt is considered a valid diva receiver must be purged with fire.
Sean McCormick: I expect (and am kind of hoping) that Carolina will be the worst team in the league again, putting themselves in the position of not being able to draft Luck because they reached on Cam Newton. Seattle has the worst non-rookie quarterback in the league, and should be close enough that they can swing a deal to trade up for Luck.
Rivers McCown: Seattle, and they trade up a few slots, giving up a couple of future No. 1's as well as some other goodies, to do it.
Brian McIntyre: With the first pick in the 2012 draft, the Miami Dolphins select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The Dolphins defense is talented enough to win close to eight games. All that's missing is a quarterback. Miami trades up to select Luck, which should be easier to do now that first overall picks are no longer carrying a "$50 million in guarantees" price tag.
Ben Muth: With first pick in the 2012 draft the Seattle Seahwaks select Andrew Luck. My other draft prediction is that two Stanford guys go in the top 10.
Aaron Schatz: Oakland.
Mike Tanier: The Bengals take Luck, and totally botch the ensuing QB controversy with Dalton.
Danny Tuccitto: Seattle Seahawks via trade. The Bengals will "earn" the first pick, but they just drafted Dalton, and the offers for Luck will be Coreleone-esque. Seattle will be bad enough to have the requisite draft value for trade, and Pete Carroll hates Jim Harbaugh bad enough to acquire his protege out of pure spite, even if it means pulling a Ditka.
Vince Verhei: Raiders finish in last place. With no second-, third-, or fourth-round picks, they trade the first overall pick to New England (who have extra first- and second-round picks, so far). Luck sits behind Tom Brady for a few years, Ryan Mallett becomes trade bait a la Kevin Kolb, and the Patriots’ next ten years look a lot like their last ten years.
Robert Weintraub: San Francisco, with its own pick. I don't necessarily think Luck is a lock -- these things never work out as we expect them to. But the Harbaugh factor means that barring a serious injury, the reunion will be complete.
122 comments, Last at 06 Mar 2012, 12:25pm by WeaponX