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.
05 Sep 2013
compiled 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. We can only guess.
Let's say we think the New England Patriots have the best chance of any team in the AFC to make it to the Super Bowl -- 29.7 percent, perhaps, by some odds. We'll also say that Denver, Houston, Cincinnati, and Baltimore each have a better than 10 percent chance to make the Super Bowl, a few other teams have a five percent chance, and Jacksonville and Oakland are there to make sure everybody has a full schedule.
OK, so we pick New England to win the AFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is a seven in ten 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 fifth 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 2014 draft." Our college writers make similar comments about the FEI projections that ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. 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: New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver
AFC wild cards: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh
NFC divisions: Washington, Green Bay, Carolina, Seattle
NFC wild cards: San Francisco, New Orleans
Super Bowl: New England over Green Bay
First Pick in the Draft: Minnesota
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: St. Louis Rams. As I discussed in Scramble, I think the defense will continue to be good and like the offensive pieces and Jeff Fisher's ability to get the most out of most mediocre teams.
Scott Kacsmar: Atlanta Falcons. They definitely will not be a No. 1 seed again, but this team has beaten its Pythagorean wins in all five years of the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. Double-digit wins again in 2013.
Peter Koski: Kansas City. Residing in the AFC West with the abominations that are Oakland and San Diego should provide at least three easy wins for a decent Chiefs team with Jacksonville, Buffalo, Tennessee, and Cleveland also on the schedule. Kansas City was last in Pass Offense DVOA in 2012. Andy Reid is much better than Romeo Crennel. Alex Smith is better than Matt Cassel. Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, and Eric Fisher should mean a much improved offense. Dontari Poe had a solid if unspectacular year at nose tackle for the 30th-ranked DVOA defense, but I will note Poe's No. 1 similarity score after his rookie season is Haloti Ngata. No pressure. Sean Smith is a big upgrade over Javier Arenas at right corner, completing a solid secondary. With Tamba Hali and Justin Houston applying the pressure, the Chiefs have a shot at a top-16 defense in 2013 and eight or nine wins.
Mike Kurtz: Atlanta. The Falcons added a serious upgrade at running back, already have a potent -- if extremely conservative -- passing game, and a defense that could be passable. In other words, they're built largely the same way other contenders are, with a little less flash. I'll take eight wins from that.
Rivers McCown: I'm having an exceptionally hard time picking out a team that FOA 2013 pegs as lower-rung that I think will jump up, which means we'll have to look at this as "which team is most likely to finish with the best record in the league." As much as I hate to pick them over the pangs of "bias" I hear from my own head, that's the Houston Texans. The AFC South is slim pickings, they have five games against Arizona, St. Louis, Oakland, San Diego, and Kansas City. Three of their five toughest opponents (49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos, Ravens) are at home, and Denver may have wrapped up a playoff berth by the time they play in Week 16. I don't think J.J. Watt is going to regress very much, and I have a hard time seeing this team against this schedule not winning 10 games.
Ben Muth: Cincinnati Bengals. I think they have the best offensive and defensive lines in their division. I think they have the two best players (Geno Atkins and A.J. Green) in their division. As long as Andy Dalton doesn't regress, this feels like the winner of the AFC North and a 10-win team.
Mike Ridley: Atlanta Falcons. Just like the 2011 49ers, the Falcons went 13-3 and were expected to have a huge dropoff the following year. I don't expect them to win the NFC South again, but I can't see them falling below .500, either.
Aaron Schatz: St. Louis. I think the defense is young enough to avoid the regression suggested by the system, although the offense still looks like a mess of unfulfilled potential.
Danny Tuccitto: Kansas City. They're the darlings of the stats community this year because of all the positive indicators for a turnaround. If I squint, they remind me of the 2011 49ers in terms of a talent-laden roster getting a big boost from competent coaching and vastly improved quarterback play; not to mention a joke of a schedule. That's not to say I think the Chiefs will go 13-3, but I could easily see 10-6 and a wild card berth. With games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Oakland, Cleveland, and Buffalo in the first nine weeks, it's not crazy to see them beating 6.6 wins by their Week 10 bye. For their playoff run, it helps that they finish with Oakland, Indianapolis, and San Diego.
Vince Verhei: Cincinnati. Honestly, this is a total stab in the dark. No team in this year's projections seem unreasonably low to me. So I'm going with the Bengals, who seem to have fewer obvious weaknesses than division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. They could easily win the division, which would mean they would probably beat their 8.9-win projection.
Rob Weintraub: Gotta think it's the Falcons. No Super Bowl, but more than eight wins.
Tom Gower: There aren't enough very high lines for me to have a candidate I love here, but I think the Steelers are the third best team in the division and go 8-8 or worse.
Scott Kacsmar: Oakland Raiders. Not that I have been covering the NFL for long, but it's hard to remember many teams entering a season with such a lack of talent on the roster. Two wins may be the ceiling. This was a very poor team last season who reached 4-12 by sweeping Kansas City, but the Chiefs are better this year. I might eat my keyboard if the Raiders win six games.
Peter Koski: The Chargers. San Diego was a bottom half (DVOA) offense last year and there is little indication it will be improved this year. The offensive line got worse and has looked nonexistent this pre-season. Antonio Gates is another year older, their receiving corps is already paper thin. Ryan Mathews is healthy, for now, and Danny Woodhead was brought in to play the "Darren Sproles" role in the offense. Apparently, New England was incapable of extracting the Sproles from Woodhead the last two seasons, but the Chargers will! At least Philip Rivers doesn't need to be "fixed."
Mike Kurtz: Indianapolis. Even with their extremely easy schedule, the Colts are going to have some serious growing pains. Fortunately, this is a normal side effect and will be forgotten when they blossom into flowers of manliness next year.
Rivers McCown: San Diego Chargers. Let's review: this team finished 22nd in offensive DVOA this year, with the worst adjusted sack rate in the league, and their major offseason fix was adding Danny Woodhead. They drafted D.J. Fluker to help protect the immobile Philip Rivers at right tackle. I think D.J. Fluker is a guard. They installed King Dunlap at left tackle. Nobody thinks King Dunlap is a left tackle. They lost promising hybrid endbacker Melvin Ingram for the season with an ACL tear, and their solution was to call up Dwight Freeney. That would be awesome if it was 2003. It is not 2003. Perpetually injured Derek Cox is their No. 1 cornerback, draft question mark Shareece Wright is ostensibly the No. 2, and offseason waiver claim Johnny Patrick and camp cut Richard Marshall are the depth at the position. The Raiders are a bigger mess, but there's no chance the Chargers are winning eight games when the only phase of the game they can claim as a strength is stopping the run.
Ben Muth: I was tempted to go with the Cardinals here, but I just can't see the Gang Green winning more than six games; the only thing worse than the Jets wideouts is the Jets quarterback situation. If I was Rex Ryan I'd rather watch Clemson play too.
Aaron Schatz: First of all, I'm taking my prerogative as editor to make a comment to the two choices above. I counter your Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez, and Brady Quinn with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Antonio Cromartie.
As for my choice here, I'll go with Washington. Even with Brian Orakpo back, I was shocked the system kicked out so little regression. I think this is still a playoff team, but I don't think it will be competing with Green Bay, Seattle, and San Francisco for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Danny Tuccitto: Carolina Panthers. I'm not drinking the Kool Aid (TM). Tampa Bay got a pass defense and New Orleans got their dear leader back. Atlanta seems poised to regress somewhat, but they're not going to be pushovers by any means. The Panthers also have to play Seattle, San Francisco, and New England. Elsewhere, Ron Rivera is not a good coach.
Vince Verhei: Oakland. This is saying quite a bit, because only the Dolphins and Jaguars (6.1 each) have fewer projected wins than the Raiders (6.4) in the AFC. But look at this depth chart and try to find an average NFL starter. Darren McFadden, who had the worst rushing DYAR of any starter in the NFL last season? Denarius Moore, below replacement level last season catching passes from Carson Palmer? A Frankenstein defense built entirely out of used-up parts from other teams? Jared Veldheer and Tyvon Branch are probably the best of the bunch, which speaks loads. There's no way this team wins four games, let alone 6.4.
Rob Weintraub: Tough to see the Jets getting to eight wins.
Tom Gower: The standard answer most years is "some receiver who plays a bigger role than we project." If Miles Austin really is healthy, then the targets in Dallas could be more evenly split than we have assumed. I do not have a candidate I love here.
Scott Kacsmar: Wes Welker. I just think when you take the league's most productive slot receiver and pair him with the league's most efficient slot-passing quarterback, it's going to be a perfect match in Denver. He will not see 120 receptions, but no reason he cannot get to 100 again.
Mike Kurtz: Russell Wilson. I'm not sure where KUBIAK is getting its significant decrease in touchdowns and completion percentage from. Wilson might not be the next Aaron Rogers, but he's all upside at this point.
Ed. Note: That significant decrease in touchdowns consists of going from 30 (26 pass, 4 run) to 28 (23 pass, 5 run). The significant decrease in completion rate is two percentage points. Is that really "significant?"
Peter Koski: LeSean McCoy. Shady is the best player on Philly's offense and I see him getting back to his 2011 form with a yards per carry creeping up to around 5.0. I don't know how successful Chip Kelly's transition to the NFL will be, but I do think that his impact will mean big things for McCoy.
Rivers McCown: Cordarrelle Patterson. In case you hadn't noticed, Christian Ponder has a problem with deep balls, and Jerome Simpson has a problem with everything besides making highlight reels. The Vikings are going to need someone to replace Percy Harvin as their explosive short passing game option, and I think Patterson has the skill set to pull that off. I expect him to best his KUBIAK projection by about 30 catches and 300 yards.
Ben Muth: Chris Ivory. He's going to get the ball because the Jets have literally no other options.
Mike Ridley: Jermichael Finley. In a contract year, it's time for him to finally put his otherwordly athleticism to good use.
Aaron Schatz: Trent Richardson. His quarterback sucks but I believe in Richardson, his line, and Norv Turner's desire to move safeties back with deep routes.
Danny Tuccitto: Daryl Richardson. Jeff Fisher at head coach plus Brian Schottenheimer at offensive coordinator plus Captain Checkdown at quarterback plus Jake Long at left tackle plus Scott Wells at center plus watching him shred the Niners run defense last year plus no great shakes behind him on the depth chart equals volume and production for Richardson if he stays healthy.
Vince Verhei: Larry Fitzgerald. Our projection: 83-1,105-8. His average in the three seasons since Kurt Warner retired: 80-1,115-6. I just can't accept that Carson Palmer won't have a massive impact on Fitz's stats, compared to the John Skeltons and Derek Andersons and Ryan Lindleys and Max Halls of the world.
Rob Weintraub: Feels like the biggest benefactor from EJ (Manuel) will be C.J. (Spiller). Adding the threat of a running quarterback will open things up for Spiller to really wreak havoc.
Scott Kacsmar: Reggie Bush. Maybe he's worth it if you are playing in a PPR league, but I just do not see the touchdowns coming that often this season. The running back position has also seemingly been cursed in Detroit since Barry Sanders retired. At least his name isn't Kevin Bush.
Peter Koski: Chris Ivory. I drafted Ivory and I'm rooting for him to play well, but I don't trust that he gets over 200 carries. He's yet to crack 150 in a season and has only played in 12 games total the last two seasons. Also, he's on the Jets.
Mike Kurtz: Philip Rivers. I think Rivers is done, which is a shame, but he's just not the same player he used to be. Blame Norv.
Rivers McCown: Ryan Mathews. I'm out on Mathews. I think the Chargers spend a lot of time trailing, I think Mathews is always a risk to get hurt, and I see Danny Woodhead getting a pretty even timeshare in San Diego because of those factors.
Ben Muth: Rashard Mendenhall. I don't like the player or the situation. I don't think anyone on the Cardinals breaks 600 yards rushing and I don't think Mendenhall is their leading rusher.
Aaron Schatz: It always feels strange to try to pick this category since I'm the one who decides how to give out expected roles, but I guess I'll say Jacoby Jones. I have him listed as a starter because the Ravens say he's a starter, but does Jacoby Jones strike anyone out there as a starting-quality wide receiver?
Vince Verhei: Danny Amendola. We're projecting him for 1,095 yards. If we take the best 16 games of his first four seasons, we get a total of 1,118 yards, so the projection seems possible. On the other hand, in his other 26 games (a larger sample), he's never even gained 50 yards. I don't think Wes Welker was just a product of the New England system, and I don't think you can stick in any generic fringe starter and expect similar results.
Rob Weintraub: What the heck -- Colin Kaepernick, because his receivers are a question mark and as a protest against the whole "Jaws thinks he can be the greatest ever" meme.
Bill Connelly: UCLA.
Brian Fremeau: A week ago, I would have picked Kansas State due to the Bill Snyder wizard effect, and though I think Kansas State may still rebound from their FCS loss, I don't see the Wildcats making a major move this year. I'll go with Michigan, because the Wolverines were the one team in my initial FEI projections that seemed to be the most underrated. I've since added other factors that have boosted Michigan's ratings, and they made a big jump forward after dominating their opener. Michigan looks like a team that will be a handful for most of their opposition.
Matt Hinton: Louisville. Our projections are downright frigid on the Cardinals, relegating them to 31st in the preseason F/+ projections while most preseason polls place them on the verge of the top ten. While the numbers like Cincinnati in the American (née Big East), though, there is nothing standing between Louisville and an undefeated season except Louisville. True, against their middling schedule, the Cardinals' F/+ ceiling is limited, leaving them with no room for error if they have any chance of landing in the top 25. (Last year, even their Sugar Bowl ambush of Florida only lifted them to No. 28 in the final F/+ ratings after two bad conference losses.) But the next defense that stands a chance against Teddy Bridgewater is whoever turns out to be the Oakland Raiders' opponent in the 2014 opener.
Scott Kacsmar: Louisville. As the Iron Sheik would say, Teddy Bridgewater does not drink the [expletive] Sprite. No reason they cannot go undefeated with that schedule.
Rivers McCown: Baylor. How many more out-of-nowhere offensive force seasons do we need before we acknowledge that Art Briles can coach them up? I think they're a factor in the Big 12 title race.
Ben Muth: Washington. I had this penciled in before their rout of Boise in week 1. I like Keith Price and their coaching staff, that goes a long way in college football.
Mike Ridley: Louisville. With all the talent on that team and the Charmin-soft schedule they play, there's no reason they shouldn't run the table.
Rob Weintraub: Michigan. More likely to go unbeaten than win just seven games. And I think Ole Miss can scrape over seven wins -- they have some huge, if young, talent on that roster.
Bill Connelly: Notre Dame.
Brian Fremeau: With the advantage of one week in the books, Boise State looks to be a good candidate here. A big flop against Washington makes them far more vulnerable in conference play than they have ever been under Chris Petersen. I'll go with Florida, however, a team propped up by program ratings and point-producing defense that probably still won't have enough offensive production to win a division or conference title in the SEC.
Matt Hinton: Oklahoma at No. 8. The Sooners are breaking in a new quarterback and a mostly new defense in a conference with three other teams (Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU) projected in the top twelve, not to mention Baylor and Kansas State. Last year, a far more accomplished lineup came up well short in its three toughest games, losses to Kansas State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and barely escaped a handful of upset bids. What reason do we have to believe the 2013 edition is going to fare better? Too many question marks in the lineup and too many landmines on the schedule for a top-10 finish.
Scott Kacsmar: Georgia, because the Bulldogs will lose at least two more games.
Peter Koski: Michigan State. I've been a Sparty fan for 25 years and they never live up to expectations. Never. Oh, they'll pull off miraculous wins from time to time, but then pair them with confounding losses. The top 20 hype and F/+ 10-2 projection has me penciling in a 7-5 season. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.
Rivers McCown: Man, it feels like kicking someone when they're down after you already watched Week 1, but I can't see Boise State doing much of anything with that offense this year. It's time for the Joe Southwick Era to end.
Ben Muth: Oregon State. I cheated a little bit and turned this in after their loss to Eastern Washington, but did you see that game against Eastern Washington? A pack of actual beavers could have played better defense, assuming they were allowed resources to build a dam. Someone might have tripped over a dam.
Mike Ridley: Texas. I think Texas rebounds in a big way this year, but I can't see them cracking the top 10.
Rob Weintraub: Michigan State. Too many losses to get to ten wins, plus, you know, they're Michigan State.
Tom Gower: Green Bay Packers over the New England Patriots
Scott Kacsmar: Denver over Atlanta. Unlike these teams in 1998, a prolific running back will not power them here. Like their Super Bowl XXXIII counterparts, they will need a running game in February when the weather is horrible in New Jersey.
Peter Koski: Green Bay over Houston
Mike Kurtz: Green Bay Packers over Cincinnati Bengals
Rivers McCown: I think the chalk picks are Denver and Green Bay. But, because I am that asshole who thinks "chalk in the NFL isn't going to be right very often anymore," let's say San Francisco over Cincinnati. I think the Bengals have the best skill position talent and best pass defense in the AFC. I think San Francisco has the best front seven and coach in the NFL. They have flaws at quarterback and wideout, respectively, but they're good enough to overcome those problems.
Ben Muth: Denver beats Green Bay.
Mike Ridley: Due to stubbornness, I'm sticking with my rapid-fire pick of Broncos over Packers.
Aaron Schatz: I'll go with our top-projected teams in wins rather than our top-projected teams in DVOA, especially since their pass rushes should be better in January than in September: Seattle over Denver.
Danny Tuccitto: San Francisco over Cincinnati, just so I can sit back during the Thursday night opener of 2014, and listen to Cris Collinsworth lament his two Super Bowl losses to San Francisco 400 times instead of the usual 100. It's really a shame NBC doesn't have broadcasting rights this season; that would make for great television.
Vince Verhei: Green Bay Packers over Denver Broncos.
Rob Weintraub: Seattle over New England.
Bill Connelly: Oregon
Brian Fremeau: I've picked Oregon before, and I'll stick with them again. Because I really want to see that game.
Tom Gower: The winner of the LSU-Texas A&M game, so I'll say we get another Alabama-LSU rematch.
Matt Hinton: Oregon. The Ducks lose Chip Kelly, but not the obsession with efficiency he instilled across the program. The new coach, former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, will run practices and games at the same break-neck pace, with most of the same players, including excellent sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. The defense was much better in 2012 than it got credit for, finishing second nationally in Defensive S&P+ and fourth in Defensive F/+; more than half of the touchdowns it allowed for the season (18 of 35) came with the Ducks already leading by at least 20 points. Oregon was easily good enough to be in the title game in 2011 and 2012 and will finally break through.
Scott Kacsmar: Oregon, just because I do not want it to be Ohio State.
Peter Koski: Stanford.
Rivers McCown: Oregon, because Marcus Mariota is not a normal human being.
Ben Muth: Stanford beats Clemson as SEC fans decry the BCS as completely illegitimate because a two-loss Bama team didn't get a chance to defend their belt.
Mike Ridley: Stanford. After finally knocking off Oregon last season, the Cardinal take the next step up. And just like Oregon, they'll fall to an SEC team.
Rob Weintraub: Any time a team has its ass crowned by the multitudes this early, it's a wise bet to look elsewhere. So let's try Stanford against LSU for the title, with the Cards ending the SEC streak.
...What am I talking about? It'll be Bama over Stanford
Bill Connelly: Lache Seastrunk, Baylor! Or Teddy Bridgewater.
Brian Fremeau: Teddy Bridgewater, edging out Jameis Winston and Jadaveon Clowney.
Tom Gower: This is about the only thing A.J. McCarron needs to complete his coating in WinnerSauce.
Matt Hinton: NOT Johnny Manziel, who has the burden of having to live up to last year's outrageous numbers -– and of having to play against a very angry Alabama defense –- even if he wasn't alienating voters with his transformation into a WWF-style heel. I would also say NOT Jadeveon Clowney, who is going to have a very hard time racking up the numbers necessary for a strictly defensive player to break through with opposing offenses so acutely aware of his presence at all times. Given the politics of the award, the best bet is Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who already has the name recognition among voters after finishing fifth in 2012 and will have both the stats and the successful record he needs at the end of the year as long as he's healthy. Clemson's Tajh Boyd is a very good candidate, as well, and will definitely have the numbers in the Tigers' offense. But quarterbacks are ultimately judged by the success of their team, and remaining dates with Florida State and South Carolina leave Clemson with higher bars to clear than Miller faces at OSU.
Scott Kacsmar: Johnny Manziel, because outside of being historic, that would be a great moment in live television. He's also pretty good.
Peter Koski: Jadeveon Clowney.
Rivers McCown: Teddy Bridgewater. Even if Louisville does lose to Cincinnati, as Bill's computer has foretold, he is going to put up ridiculous numbers. The only players I think could snag the spot from him are an undefeated Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, or Tajh Boyd.
Ben Muth: Marcus Mariota.
Mike Ridley: Jadeveon Clowney stops the defensive drought and brings home the hardware.
Aaron Schatz: I don't follow college football as closely as anyone else, but is Braxton Miller a ridiculous idea?
Vince Verhei: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Rob Weintraub: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Tom Gower: Oakland, and they don't love any of the quarterbacks enough to bypass Clowney.
Scott Kacsmar: The Oakland Raiders will take Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 1 pick. Maybe Tajh Boyd by the end of the year, but it will be Oakland, a quarterback and not Clowney. And I have no problem with that.
Peter Koski: The Raaaaaiiiiiiderrrrrrs. They pass on Clowney when someone offers them a Robert Griffin/Julio Jones-level package.
Mike Kurtz: Cleveland, which does not draft a quarterback, because they already have their quarterback of the future.
Rivers McCown: The Oakland Raiders will trade down with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who will take Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 1 pick.
Ben Muth: The Oakland Raiders select Teddy Bridgewater.
Mike Ridley: Jacksonville, who promptly exits the Blaine Gabbert era by picking Teddy Bridgewater.
Aaron Schatz: Jacksonville takes Clowney and then grabs a quarterback with pick No. 33. Based on the Lewin Career Forecast, of course.
Danny Tuccitto: It has to be Oakland, right? The only other contender is Jacksonville. Both need quarterbacks, so both would pass on Clowney.
Vince Verhei: Oakland Raiders get the No. 1 pick. They then trade down with Miami, who takes Clowney, and the Raiders end up with Bridgewater.
Rob Weintraub: Once again, total chalk is to pick Oakland taking Clowney, so I'll change it up and have the Jets taking Teddy Bridgewater, just for the sake of the fun the tabloids can have with that name on the back pages.
46 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2014, 9:43pm by justme_cd