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.
22 Aug 2007
by Bill Barnwell
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This week's Scramble for the Ball takes a look at the over/under lines for all 16 AFC teams. Of course, the projected wins for all 32 teams are listed in this year's Pro Football Prospectus, but since you've already got a copy for yourself and one for Grandma, it would be no fun to just abide by the book. I'll be explaining my choices and disagreements with the system where relevant.
Analyzing the over-under lines has been a Scramble tradition since the column started in 2003. Last year, I was able to get 17 out of 32 right, doing much better in the NFC than in the AFC. The big miss, of course, was Baltimore; my former co-writer Ian Dembsky was the proud recipient of a purple Ed Reed jersey at our yearly fantasy baseball draft as a result. It may or may not be a coincidence that, this year, I won't have a co-writer to lose a bet to. The only actual bet that I placed last year while I was in Vegas was on the Chargers at +/- 9.5 -- which, fortunately, worked out well.
Ah, the first line of the year is always a sweet sound. Allow me to explain how the line works to those of you uninitiated. A line of +/- 9.5, like the Chargers' line from last year, allows you to place one of two bets: the Over, which would be a bet that the Chargers would win 10 or more games, or the Under, which would be a bet that the Chargers would win 9 or less. If the Chargers went 9-6-1, the bet would be a tie and the money would return. At sports books, the odds are usually tilted one way or another depending upon the action being received by the casino; for example, the Ravens line at 9.5 currently is at -135 for the Over bet, but +105 for the Under bet. That means that you'd have to bet $135 to win $100 (as well as your $135 back) on the Over, but you'd only have to bet $100 to win $105 (plus your $100 back) on the Under. It also means the casino is seeing more action on the Over. For the purposes of this article, we'll just be picking the over/under without any allowance for what the current betting lines are. The over/unders for each team come from our sponsor, Doc's Sports Odds.
So, what do I think of the Ravens? Well...
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 9.0 Wins
The Ravens were my biggest miss last year -- mainly because, since they were Jason Whitlock's sleeper pick to go to the Super Bowl, it seemed like a good idea to run in the other direction. While their defense was expected to be great and was, their offense went from being a plodding mediocrity to actual competence (15th in the league); that and some good special teams will get you into the playoffs.
The biggest concern about the Ravens going into training camp was the loss of RT Tony Pashos, off to Jacksonville. The Ravens will likely replace him with former second-round pick Adam Terry, who served as a reserve lineman last year. Now, a much bigger concern on the line has developed, with All-World LT Jonathan Ogden still on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a painful turf toe injury. While Ogden will likely not miss time, turf toe is an injury that lingers and will likely affect his play for the entire season. While Ogden is still a left tackle that about 30 of the league's 32 teams would rather have than their own, a little bit of degradation in his play is to be expected. There's lots of depth at offensive line for the Ravens, but no one able to step in and replace the mammoth Ogden.
On the defensive side, the loss of Adalius Thomas would be a bigger blow until you remember, well, that this is the Ravens, pretty much a defensive factory and probably one of the five best drafting teams in football. Jarret Johnson will take over for Thomas on the strong side and he's the kind of nonstop player that can make plays behind an excellent defensive line like the Ravens'.
So why, then, am I going with the Under? Age and regression, particularly on the offense. Almost every one of the Ravens' stars are past their prime: Steve McNair, Ogden, Derrick Mason, Ray Lewis -- even Chris McAlister (30) and Ed Reed (29) are getting up there in years. The odds of McNair staying healthy for a full season again are markedly slim, and it's hard to endorse Kyle Boller at this point. Furthermore, the Ravens' offense was 17th in the league on first down, 22nd in the league on second down, but sixth on third down; that's primed for a regression to the mean.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 6.2 Wins
You see how similar these projection lines are and, for a second, you really want to go behind the curtain and see what Vegas has cooked up underneath it all. I wonder who their system is named after. HANRATTY? RHOME? Oh well. The biggest thing for the Bills, regardless of their team's skill level, is the fact that they'll be facing what we project as the most difficult schedule in football. For reference, the team with that honor in 2005 was the Chargers, who went 9-7 sandwiched between 12- and 14-win seasons with the same roster. In 2006 it was the Broncos, who went from 13-3 to 9-7. This puts a significant damper on any enthusiasm I may have had for the Bills.
And, the thing is, there's not really a whole lot to like here. You'd like to trust Marv Levy as a personnel evaluator, and Donte Whitmer appears to be a potential star at safety, but John McCargo missed almost the whole season, the Takeo Spikes trade ended up being pretty much for nothing, and they have to replace the core of their defense in Spikes, London Fletcher-Baker, and Nate Clements. Fortunately, they replaced one of the NFL's best corners ... with one of its worst, in Jason Webster. He'll keep the position warm for Ashton Youboty, mainly because of the fires that will be raging on Webster's side of the field. Bringing in talented new offensive linemen helps, but our research in this year's annual shows that offensive lines that stick together get better. It's going to be a long year in Buffalo. Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 8.7 Wins
The best news about the Bengals' hopes for this upcoming season actually came this week, as left tackle Levi Jones finally got back on the field after off-season surgery on his left knee. Jones is the Bengals' best offensive lineman and the most irreplacable, especially after the departures of Eric Steinbach and Rich Braham on the interior. The old backups, Andrew Whitworth and Eric Ghiaciuc, are now the starters, which creates holes behind them. If Jones can't go, the Bengals could move Whitworth to left tackle and start Stacy Andrews at guard; Andrews is, of course, the brother of All-Pro Eagles left guard Shawn Andrews.
I'm slightly more sanguine than our projection system on the Bengals defense because I really do think Marvin Lewis is a good teacher. With that in mind, he's refreshed the secondary with new talent at cornerback, where Tory James was way past his prime and Deltha O'Neal had regressed. Johnathan Joseph was fantastic in run support last season, and had a very solid success rate (53%, 36th in the league) for a rookie corner; meanwhile, the Bengals spent a first-round pick on Michigan corner Leon Hall. Big Ten first-round defensive backs this decade have been a mixed bag; while Nate Clements is a star, and Donte Whitner looks to be an excellent safety for years to come, Chris Gamble, Marlin Jackson, Willie Middlebrooks, Jamar Fletcher, and Ahmed Plummer are a mix of washouts, retirees, and fringe defensive backs. The other move the Bengals made was to bring in LB Ed Hartwell, who was a star in Baltimore but failed to make an impact due to injury in Atlanta. While Hartwell initially played on the weak side in preseason, he's been moved back into the middle, and if he beats out Ahmad Brooks for the middle linebacker spot, he might steady what's been a disappointing defense. With an average schedule and a healthy Carson Palmer for a full season, I'm going to ignore the projection system and go with the Over.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 7.6 Wins
Here's a projection I agree with. While I did mention in the Bills section that offensive lines that stick together tend to improve, and that the Browns spent their first-round pick on left tackle Joe Thomas and signed guard Eric Steinbach away from Cincinnati, the line was so dire last year (31st in the NFL) that bringing in replacements can only help. A full season with center Hank Fraley and/or the possible return to health of former All-Pro center LeCharles Bentley also bodes well for what was a line in shambles.
The other somewhat hidden factor that should bounce back for the Browns this season? Injuries, particularly on the defensive side. The Browns, as a whole, were more hurt in 2006 than any team has been in the six years we've tracked injuries. A likely regression to the mean on those injuries would result in a healthy, deep team. There's a serious success story brewing here, and a real chance to make money. Over.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 8.7 Wins
Remember when I was saying how hard the Broncos' schedule was last year? Well, this time around, it's 29th in the league. That's a huge boon to the Broncos right there, regardless of their own performance. Another factor affecting them was their weird third down tendencies; while the offense was significantly worse on third down than could be expected, the defense was actually a good amount better. Both those should balance out and be more consistent this season.
The two biggest things for this upcoming Broncos season are intertwined: The development of Jay Cutler at quarterback, and the health of Matt Lepsis at left tackle. Cutler was slightly better than Jake Plummer on the whole last year, but Cutler also didn't have the benefit of playing behind Lepsis. The Broncos offense struggled to account for Lepsis' departure; while they were second in the league at running behind left end in 2004 and 2005, they were 30th last year. Every metric we have for the offensive line shows them going from an elite line to an average-or-worse one last year. With George Foster and Cooper Carlisle gone, the Broncos will also have to revamp the right side of their line while hoping Lepsis returns to form. He's already struggled with a balky groin in preseason, but I'm willing to give the Denver offensive line and Mike Shanahan the benefit of the doubt. I'll go with the Over.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 6.0 Wins
Our hope last year (in the sense that we at Football Outsiders, as kind human beings, don't like to see young quarterbacks or really any players get mauled and fail to have a career) was that the Texans' offensive line would improve following the arrival of Gary Kubiak, who had been the beneficiary of excellent line play in Denver. Unfortunately, our patron saint didn't bring his offensive line with him, and the line actually got worse. While a good amount of the blame can be given to the now-departed David Carr, the line wasn't doing him any favors, either. Bringing in Jordan Black from the Chiefs is a move designed to tread water with the idea that LT Charles Spencer might one day return from his broken leg, but it doesn't seem likely anytime soon. Ephraim Salaam, who appears to be favored to Black as the starter at left tackle, inspires little in the way of hope.
With that in mind, the Texans might be a passable team if they'd hit on any of their first-round picks dedicated to improving their defensive line, but only Mario Williams appears to be a keeper at this point. The Texans used their first-round pick this year on defensive tackle Amobi Okoye to replace 2005 first-round pick Travis Johnson, and talk around the league now is that Okoye may have been more of a combine wonder than an actual football player. Either way, at 20, Okoye still has a good amount of developing to do. Poor middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is surrounded by flotsam, and cornerback Dunta Robinson, jetsam. Outside linebacker Jason Babin has failed to develop altogether, and the result is about half a defense. The good players on this team and the fans of Houston deserve better, but it's hard to see where better is coming from. Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 8.9 Wins
Well, that is a pretty big gap -- just as big as the Browns' gap, and I stuck with the book there, so I'll do the same here and say Under, for a variety of reasons. The Colts have a difficult schedule (sixth in the league), having to play against the tougher AFC West as opposed to the weaker AFC East in 2006. They've already lost Anthony McFarland, their best run stopper, and they weren't exactly good against the run to begin with. That makes five defensive starters they'll need to replace. Even if you have the same opinion of Cato June that most of us at Football Outsiders did, Freddy Keiaho is still markedly inexperienced and will need to get his feet under him.
The hope is that Bob Sanders will stay healthy in 2007, but he's yet to make it through an NFL season without being injured, and because of his small frame and style of play, that's likely to continue. With each giant contract the Colts hand out, their depth gets worse and worse, and as the Redskins have shown, that's not exactly a framework for success. You can expect the offense to be fantastic, but I don't think it keeps the team up at its familiar level this year. Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 11.8 Wins
The big shocker of the year when the numbers came out was how much our projection system liked the Jaguars. There are myriad reasons for the projection, but the biggest might be the Jaguars schedule, which is ranked 28th in the league for its lack of difficulty. Playing the declining AFC West and mediocre NFC South is a boon to the hopes of Jaguars fans. They have a boatload of young offensive talent, and replaced the weak link on their offense, right tackle Maurice Williams, with the Ravens' excellent Tony Pashos. Their stud defensive tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, are in their prime, and the Jaguars replaced the weak link on their defense, safety Deon Grant, with first-round pick Reggie Nelson.
They also have a pretty good quarterback, although Jack Del Rio seems determined to disparage him most opportunities he gets. Byron Leftwich enjoys the benefit of an excellent running game, a consistent offensive line, and history: the average quarterback makes it to his first Pro Bowl at 27, Leftwich's current age. The only thing he needs is some support from a coaching staff which has neglected to give him any over the past couple of seasons. The dalliances with David Garrard are over, and Del Rio knows his job depends on this season. Expect him to stick with Leftwich following a quick start (the benefits of playing Tennessee and Atlanta), and the Jaguars to be the surprise team of the year. Over.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 5.2 Wins
I think we can fit a couple more people on the Chiefs-for-last-place bandwagon if anyone's interested. There are so many negative things here -- if you've read our site for any period of time, you're familiar with what we think about Larry Johnson's upcoming season, and if you've read The Week In Quotes for that same period of time, you know about Herman Edwards. The Chiefs' skill position stars are old, their vaunted offensive line is in tatters, defensive end Jared Allen is suspended for the first two weeks of the season, and the secondary is aging and relying more on reputation than current skill. But hey, we've got Brodie Croyle! Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 5.6 Wins
The Dolphins have the second-hardest schedule in football, and they spent their first-round pick on a kick returner. They've got another new quarterback, another revamped offensive line, and their defense is holding up the mighty wrecking ball that is time for as long as they possibly can. There's just not evidence that the real problems with this team are being addressed in any way that will make them competitive for the 2007 season, and with that in mind, it's really difficult to support their potential for winning eight games.
Is it possible that they could exceed this projection? Sure. Trent Green could throw for 3,500 yards because of Cam Cameron's offensive guru-osity, Chris Chambers could finally break out, Ronnie Brown could stay healthy and run for 1,500 yards behind a Hudson Houck miracle of an offensive line, Jason Taylor could remain the best defensive player in football, Matt Roth could turn into Adewale Ogunleye 2.0 across from him, Channing Crowder could drop back into pass support without making anyone on the defensive staff cry, and Will Allen could turn into Sam Madison in his prime at age 29. All that is possible, but it's not likely. This is a mediocre team with very little upside, and with that in mind, you have to take the Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 12.1 Wins
I have to admit, I'm a little cautious about this. The Patriots have the best projection in the book, the one with a 77 percent chance of winning 11 or more games. In 2005, Philadelphia had a similar projection, and they crashed under injuries and Terrell Owens. In 2006, Seattle was the team with the best projection, and they also didn't match it. Should Tom Brady take out insurance? Nah.
The difference between the Seahawks and the Patriots is the depth of the latter. While an injury to Brady would be catastrophic, it's hard to say that there's any one player whose loss the Patriots would really be unable to recover from. Even Richard Seymour, as good as he is, could be replaced by a combination of Jarvis Green and Mike Wright. If you believe Asante Samuel will eventually return, like I do, there's even more of a reason to get behind this team as the Super Bowl favorite. Then again, if Brady gets hurt, Randy Moss raises brouhahas, and the Patriots go 6-10, well, I won't forget to say I told you so. Over.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 8.8 Wins
It's my own personal experience covering the Jets last year, combined with their schedule (fourth-hardest in football) that makes me say Under on this one. I wrote at length in the Jets essay why their defense was very lucky last year, and with the holdout of cornerback Darrelle Revis and the continued lack of a real nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme, I still believe that the Jets defense will be closer to its 26th overall ranking (by DVOA) than its sixth overall ranking (by points scored) in 2007. The Jets offense and defense were both much better on third down than they were on first and second, which is also likely to disappear.
There are reasons to think the Jets will improve in some spots: running back Thomas Jones is a huge upgrade on Kevan Barlow, and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold are further developing into the core of the Jets' offensive line. Unfortunately, there are as many negative indicators as there are positive ones. The likely departure of guard Pete Kendall leaves the Jets without a player who was arguably their best offensive lineman last year, and while Chad Pennington made it through 16 games for the first time in his NFL career last year, it's unlikely he'll be able to repeat the feat in 2007. As I wrote in the book, I think the Jets will be more talented and play better than they did in 2006, but they'll still perform worse. Under.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 6.5 Wins
It's so difficult to analyze the Raiders because of the paucity of things we actually can know and trust about them. Can we really tell how good anyone was under Art Shell? Who will be starting at the skill positions? How long will they last before they get replaced? Is Lane Kiffin actually a competent coach? Will JaMarcus Russell ever sign? (Note that Peter King said in his column this week that the fact that Russell doesn't want to play for the Raiders is, "...the biggest open secret in the league right now.") We can say with some certainty the defense will be good, and that most offenses that are 31st or 32nd in the league across the board tend to get better the next year. With that in mind, I'll follow the projection system and say Over.
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PFP 2007 Projection: 9.1 Wins
Clearly, the projection system has an idea of what the line is and wants to steer me towards the Over. I'll follow it, and here's why: I think Ben Roethlisberger is the Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback we saw in his first two seasons, not the injured quarterback who was struggling with his confidence all year. I think Santonio Holmes is a number-one receiver as soon as this year if he sees enough of the ball. I think Alan Faneca's contract year will have him mauling people to earn a big salary as opposed to moping and playing the string out. I think Lawrence Timmons will make an impact as soon as this year -- remember, these are the Steelers, they don't miss on draft picks -- and that Mike Tomlin will build Ike Taylor's confidence up to the point where he's a corner of some regard again. I hope, on the other hand, that Jeff Reed keeps his pants on all year long, both on and off the field. I can't be so sure about the last one.
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 8.6 Wins
It should be noted that while the mean projection for the Chargers' season is 8.6 wins, they're given only an 18% chance of winning 11 games or more, which is why I feel pretty confident about sticking with the Under. The book's essay details most of the Football Outsiders' thoughts on Norv Turner, and I tend to concur. Furthermore, the Chargers were very lucky when it came to injury last year, as they were the fifth-healthiest team in football in 2006. That's likely to change in 2007, and if those injuries happen to be to Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers, Marcus McNeill, or Jamal Williams, serious holes could develop that the Chargers would really struggle to fill.
On defense, the Chargers will have to replace the excellent Donnie Edwards and while there are several candidates to fill the role, none have really stood out as of yet. The secondary would really benefit if Antonio Cromartie developed into a top-flight cornerback. Otherwise it's merely average, and exploitable by the league's better passing attacks and teams who can handle the Chargers pass rush. Oh, and Norv Turner is their coach. Someone thought this was a good idea?
PFP 2007 Mean Projection: 6.9 Wins
The one thing that I don't think the projection system is really accounting for is the effect of losing Pac-Man Jones for the whole season, and how much that truly hurts the Titans defense from top to bottom. Jones is a lot of things, but an excellent cornerback was one of them, and while Nick Harper has a ring, he's no Pac-Man. If Cortland Finnegan can push Reynaldo Hill out of the starting lineup, that would improve things further.
There are other negative indicators as well. The Titans were better on third down than on first and second, they have a tough schedule (eighth in the league), and they have question marks at running back and wide receiver. Getting back Albert Haynesworth for a full season helps, but there's just too many variables pointing towards a regression. Under.
Jason: 16-team league, pretty standard scoring; I have the fifth pick. My worst nightmare has come true and the first four off the board are Tomlinson, Jackson, Gore, and Addai. I'm scared to death of Johnson. What do I do? Parker? Westbrook? Yikes.
Well, yes, I would avoid Johnson like the plague, but that goes without saying. I'd go with Westbrook. The Eagles are one of the two or three smartest franchises in football, so they know how to use him without overworking him. He's injury-prone because of his size, but he's pretty likely to see 250 valuable touches and score ten or eleven touchdowns. I'm willing to hear arguments for Parker or even Laurence Maroney or Rudi Johnson (with the idea that someone has to get those Chris Henry touches and touchdowns), but I think Westbrook is your best bet here.
(Other) Jason:I am in an auction league with a generic scoring system kind of like the one described in Pro Football Prospectus 2007. The main and huge difference is running backs do not get a point for receptions, causing wide receivers and the elite tight ends (mainly Gates) to become very valuable. For example, according to the Fantasy Football Prospectus Projections, in our league LaDainian Tomlinson would get you a total of 269 fantasy points, while Marvin Harrison would get you 257 fantasy points. Now I understand that there is much more depth with wide receivers and less with running backs, therefore, making the running backs value a little higher, but technically, not that much higher.
This is my second year in this auction so I know how much gets spent on each position. For example, 59 percent of all the money in the draft gets spent on running backs, 27 percent on wide receivers, and so on. These guys in the auction do not realize how valuable the receivers and Gates become because running backs do not get a point for a reception. So basically, my question is, how would you handle this? I am trying to figure out what the correct strategy would be. Last year, I took Gates and good wideouts and got stuck with Droughns and Mike Bell as my running backs. Overall, these backs get way overpaid for and I know it, but should I go with the flow and overpay also, just not by a lot, or should I go with my strategy like last year? What would you do?
To be honest, Jason, I think you might be overstating the value of wide receivers relative to running backs and underestimating the scarcity of running backs in your system. I'm not sure exactly how your scoring system works, as I was unable to connect the point systems you gave me with our projections for Harrison and Tomlinson, but if receivers get a point and running backs do not, and running backs are similar to wide receivers in value across the board, scarcity and variability becomes a huge factor, I think bigger than you're accounting for. Namely, many more wide receivers are likely to gain points each week as opposed to running backs. I agree that you might be able to hold off on grossly overpaying for the star backs, but you should really leave the draft with better than Reuben Droughns and Mike Bell this time around. I would recommend trying to get at least one stud back (in the top 6-8 range, perhaps), and using the money saved on the second back across your wideouts and tight ends. Furthermore, if you scan the waiver wire each week (keeping in mind the defensive splits essay I wrote in this year's book), I'm willing to bet you'll be able to find wide receivers who can outperform your opponent's worst starter each week. I don't think you'll be able to do the same at running back.
Next week, Scramble returns with the NFC over/unders! How many words can I get into a Giants preview without cursing? The over/under is ... in the single-digits.
75 comments, Last at 05 Sep 2007, 6:40pm by Easy Like Sunday Morning