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» 2017 ALEX: Midseason Report

The latest ALEX update looks at the recent draft class that is struggling, the unusual Chicago strategy, and what's gotten into Alex Smith? We also looked at Tyrod Taylor's declining ALEX, but rising conversion rate that Buffalo just sent to the bench.

17 Sep 2015

Scramble for the Ball: A New Dawn

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

After four years of Scramble excellence from Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower, we hope to be more Steve Young than Brian Griese in succeeding them. Some untouchable parts of this column will stay the same and there will be some new stuff, too. As Michael Buffer might say in the kitchen, let's get ready to scramble.

Andrew: I don't know about you, but Week 1 felt pretty chalky. The Bills and Titans looked much better than expected. Not even we could have expected the 158.3 perfection from Marcus Mariota. But other than that, teams that we suspected might be a little overhyped (e.g., the Indianapolis Grigsons) looked that way, and teams we thought could be really good (e.g., the Rams) also looked that way. Even there, special teams weirdness made that game kind of a Groundhog Day experience.

Sterling: I know our DVOA rankings this week had every winning team in the top 16, which has never happened before. Only five teams that closed as favorites ended up losing, and in addition to the Rams, the Eagles also covered with their two-point loss in the Georgia Dome.

Andrew: So not too much in the way of fluky wins in Week 1 with the rankings not making any opponent adjustments yet. The team that performed better won across the board. A very just Week 1. That should tend to mean that there's a little more information than usual in the teams that won these games, since they were good rather than lucky. So let's ask this: what team caused you to update your expectations the most in terms of where they're headed this season on the upside? And which team on the downside?

Sterling: The easy answer here is Buffalo, but let's see how teams adjust to Tyrod Taylor before we start circling the wagons for the Bills. (Note to readers: this is where you cry foul at the heinous conspiracy taking place now that both Scramble writers are Patriots fans. #DriveforFive #CounttheRINGZ) I'll go with the 49ers, not necessarily because I think they'll be good, but because they might not be the tire fire that Jim Tomsula's first interview was. I'm hesitant to condemn any team this early, especially since the biggest flops were already destitute franchises like Washington and Oakland. I'm going to leave the bad cop role to you, 'cause I don't see an obvious choice? Tampa Bay? Indy? The Browns' new jerseys?

Andrew: Yes, you could almost just answer those questions with, "Small sample size. We're on to Cincinnati." And the Week 1 flops were remarkably chalky. The Raiders are pretty ominous, but we were already pretty down on Derek Carr. If I had to pick, I'd go with Tampa. And no, I'm not closing the book on Jameis Winston. I'll wait until at least Week 2 to do that. It's more than just Winston's inauspicious beginning, too. I expected that defense to be better. To me, Alterraun Verner is often mighty iffy and I'm not sure I believe in what Lovie Smith is doing schematically anymore, particularly with that pass rush. Too many quarterbacks can make that throw Mariota made against the zone on the Kendall Wright touchdown.

Sterling: It is mighty suspicious to hear Cowboys fans complain about Bruce Carter's coverage woes for years, then for Tampa to sign him and immediately assume he'll be a good fit for the Mike linebacker role so critical to Smith's Tampa 2 coverages. Carter didn't even make it to Week 1 as the starter -- fourth-round rookie Kwon Alexander is there now -- so now there's $4.25 million guaranteed sitting on the bench there. I'm actually tempted to point the spotlight at Carter's former employers. A lot of people think the Cowboys run game sans DeMarco Murray will still be good this year, and I'm tempted to agree. But so much revolved around the run game being great last year -- it kept a shaky defense off the field and shielded Tony Romo from abuse. It seems the public has accepted Dallas as the NFC's third wheel behind Seattle and Green Bay, but with Orlando Scandrick gone and Dez Bryant down, I don't quite see that.

Andrew: Oh, that's a great point. Scandrick going down has been underemphasized. He's been a consistent charting favorite. I'm not sure there is a third wheel behind the big two, but I might lean Atlanta over either Philly or Dallas. That defense may be better than expected -- they were 18th in VOA this week against an offense that might end up in the top ten. And I thought they wouldn't be able to run behind that line, but they had some success against a good Eagles front. And Julio Jones is scary. So on the upside, I'm going with the Falcons as the team that showed the most, even though they just squeaked out that game. Do you think I'm getting a little crazy on the Falcons here off a game where they didn't even cover?

Sterling: Nah, I honestly think the NFC's middle class is so wide-open. It reminds me of 2012 when the AFC was basically New England, Baltimore, an overvalued Houston team and ... uh, that's about it. Labeling Atlanta as the best team outside of the Seahawks-Packers hegemony sounds like a bold move, Cotton, but it could pay off if the Falcons defense plays more like it did in the first half of the Eagles game moving forward. I found that teams under first-year defensive minded coaches, like the Falcons, don't tend to improve a whole lot in Year 1, but Atlanta did at least turn over their defensive personnel enough to make a bigger jump seem plausible.

Andrew: Right now, do you want the field or Seahawks/Packers to win the NFC?

Sterling: This is definitely the mathematically wrong answer, but I'm going chalk and taking the kingpins after what I saw in Week 1.

Andrew: My heart is with you, but my head won't let me turn down 14 teams against two. Shall we bet the usual amount, Mortimer?

Sterling: Yep -- Winner gets a year's free subscription to Scramble 2016.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Kendall Wright (TEN): 186.2% DVOA
In his first three seasons playing alongside Jake Locker and the like, Wright never posted a positive DVOA and ranked no higher than 49th among wide receivers (2014). On Sunday, he caught all four of his targets for 101 yards and a touchdown, posting the highest DVOA of any receiver who qualified in Week 1. The counting stats were held down because the game situation only required Mariota to throw 16 times, but more targets likely will come in future weeks.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

Lookie there, our top three quarterback DYAR leaders happened to also be the top three quarterback fantasy scorers. The most surprising was clearly Marcus Mariota, who is currently owned in just over 36 percent of ESPN leagues and started in under 10 percent of them. In Quick Reads, Vince found that Mariota had (most likely) posted the best debut DYAR of any passer in the DVOA era. But even while only looking at rookie quarterbacks who started Week 1, Mariota didn't quite match that feat in the fantasy realm. Based on Pro-Football-Reference's fantasy scorekeeping, Mariota tied for the second-best point total of any rookie quarterback in Week 1. Mariota and Robert Griffin III each had 25 points, while Cam Newton holds the crown with 26.1 fantasy points in his 2011 debut. (Note that by standard scoring, Fran Tarkenton would have had 33.1 points in his debut if fantasy football had existed in 1961.) Nevertheless, that surely won't stop owners from rushing to waivers for the eminently popular Titans signal-caller.

But relative to his position, Carlos Hyde and his 29 points were the fantasy MVP of Week 1, scoring nearly 33 percent more than the second-highest running back. For reference, the man who Hyde's replacing in San Francisco, Frank Gore, posted a higher fantasy total just twice during his 10 years in the Bay Area. The only problem is that the Niners now have a positive association with those hideous black unis and their impossible-to-see-on-TV jersey numbers. So unlike the Seahawks' equally ill-conceived lime uniforms, it appears we'll get a sequel with these duds.

Goat of the Week

An owner in my league went into Sunday night down 20 with Adrian Peterson and Odell Beckham Jr. remaining in play and no players left for the other team ... and somehow lost by 11. Those two were the most actively harmful players this week, with both receiving starts in 99.5 percent of ESPN leagues yet posting lower point totals than Chris Owusu and Will Johnson. Calvin Johnson was started in 99.4 percent of leagues and essentially posted the same line as Beckham, and in leagues without fractional scoring, his 39 receiving yards capped a bizarrely frustrating afternoon for Megatron and his fantasy owners.

I would say that teams are still shaking off the preseason cobwebs, but given that there are probably too many preseason games to start with, that doesn't seem especially logical. There were a surprising number of high-profile flops -- take a look at the worst lineup money could have bought in Week 1. Unless you're Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King, in which case, exit this web page immediately:

  • QB (1): Peyton Manning (5 points, 86.6% started in ESPN leagues)
  • RB (2): Peterson (5 pts, 99.5%), C.J. Anderson (4 pts, 97.4%)
  • WR (2): Beckham (4 pts, 99.5%), Johnson (3 pts, 99.4%)
  • TE (1): Greg Olsen (1 pt, 95.2%)
  • FLEX (1): Dez Bryant (4 pts, 92.3%)

Maybe it's not fair to include the injured Bryant, but we could have subbed in Demaryius Thomas (6 pts), Justin Forsett (5 pts) or Brandin Cooks (4 pts). There are flubs every week (at least there better be, otherwise this section won't exist), but for a non-bye week, it seemed as though there was an especially large number of minefields.

The New Loser League

As you may have seen earlier, we've introduced a new rule for the 2015 Loser League. Wide receiver penalties are now determined by targets (a minimum of three) rather than receptions (previously a minimum of two). That change actually had rather large implications in Week 1 -- ten wide receivers had exactly two catches on two targets this week, which would have been Loser League gold in past years, but now draws the dreaded 15-point penalty. Our sincerest apologies to those who selected Bruce Ellington and his two-catch, five-yard performance on Monday night. On the other hand, you were much happier if you picked one of these players this week:

Quarterback: Thanks to his lowest passing yardage total since Week 15 of the 2010 season, Joe Flacco finished with a league-low Loser League point total of 2. Flacco technically had 34 passing yards in the 2012 regular-season finale, but he played sparingly as the Ravens had already clinched playoff positioning in that game. Flacco's 117-yard passing performance was the lowest of any quarterback who played from start to finish on Sunday.

Running Back: Hope you picked the right backfield-by-committee. Newly acquired Terrance West had 41 rushing yards on 13 carries for the Titans, but a fumble bumped him down to a league-low 2 points. Six more backs had three points, with Frank Gore and C.J. Anderson among the "real" fantasy starters who ended up seeing their totals depressed due to injury.

Wide Receiver: Two receivers -- Sammy Watkins and Louis Murphy -- had the zero-catch, three-target holy grail for the position. Kamar Aiken and Eddie Royal joined them as the scoreless quartet for the week, while eight more wide receivers garnered one point. With Aiken and Steve Smith suffering from Flacco's no-good-very-bad day, the Ravens were the only team to place two receivers among that dirty dozen.

Kicker: The post-Josh Scobee era is off to a rocky start in Jacksonville, as Jason Myers went 1-for-2 on field goals and missed his only extra point attempt to finish with -4 Loser League points. If Adam Vinatieri reaches the Hall of Fame, they won't wax poetic about his 2015 season-opener, in which he missed his only kick, a 52-yarder in the second quarter. Consequently, Vinatieri was the only other kicker to finish in the red in Week 1.

To see the current standings, head over here.

Super Huge Mega Lock of the Week

Titans (-1) over BROWNS

We swear that the Week 1 Mega Lock had QBASE binky Marcus Mariota getting three against QBASE non-binky Jameis Winston. All Week 1 performances, like college quarterback projections, reveal only a little. But a few more performances like Week 1 and maybe we should just go with the simplest explanation based on a career of almost uninterrupted collegiate success: Mariota is really good at football. Those darts he threw early to Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright on Sunday showed up repeatedly in his intermediate throws while at Oregon. So this is nothing new. Sunday was Mariota's 25th consecutive start averaging at least seven yards per attempt. Since the start of 2014, Mariota has averaged more than 10 yards per attempt eight times in 16 games and has thrown just four interceptions. (By comparison, Jameis Winston has averaged 10 yards just once and has thrown 19 picks.)

So let's ride the Mariota train one more week while the bandwagon is still filling up. What could go wrong betting on the Titans to follow up on a Week 1 blowout under Ken Whisenhunt's leadership?

Record: 1-0 (we swear)

Cinemax Presents: Exotic Propositions

Denver to win AFC West (Even)

In this spot, we will highlight a futures or prop bet that looks appealing at the going rate. Early in the season, that will often be a bet relating to a team that has looked unimpressive early in the year or maybe has lost some close games. The odds on the Patriots dropped precipitously last year in the wake of their slow start. The odds fell even further on the 2010 Packers after they started the year 3-3. Often there is some value to be had in teams that either got unlucky early in the year or that are likely to rebound towards their expected form.

We think the Broncos make sense in that role. Barring a Peyton Manning implosion, Denver is the best team in the AFC West on both sides of the ball. We like their chances to stay atop the division even if Manning plays not quite at his 2014 level. They just beat one of the best teams in the AFC with Manning at about his worst. In Week 1, Denver's defensive VOA (-58.8%) was the best in the league.

Scramble Mailbag

With Bill Simmons currently out of commission, there's a distinct power vacuum in the sports mailbag universe. Help Scramble fill the void by sending your questions, complaints, and snide remarks to scramble@footballoutsiders.com. Remember that fantasy questions need to be sent by Wednesday morning to be considered for Thursday's column each week. After that, you'll need to send your questions to the FO Premium fantasy answering service.

Q: Suppose that you sign up for daily fantasy football for the first time and play in a 50-50 league with 11 participants. Sam Bradford is on your team. You edge into fifth place and the money by 0.7 points with three minutes left. All you need is Sam Bradford to avoid throwing an interception while getting less than ten yards. Two dump-offs and a pick later and you come up just short after Matt Ryan loses three yards on quarterback kneels. Is it OK to blame the loss on Chip Kelly for paying way too much to get Bradford? And what is the proper response if you lose on quarterback kneels?

- Andrew, Los Angeles

Burn everything in your vicinity and shoot a series of smear commercials against Fan Duel that would make a presidential candidate blush. Hey, at least it's a daily fantasy beat, so you don't need to angrily stare at Sam Bradford's unblinking ESPN headshot the rest of the season as it silently mocks you back.

The quarterback kneels is actually the most infuriating part of that; at least the interception required a terrific diving catch from Ricardo Allen. Why kneels are counted as a "rushing" play still boggles my mind, just as spikes shouldn't be counted as incompletions. I know retroactively fixing box scores is probably last on the NFL's list of priorities at the moment, but if they had time to think about extra points all offseason, spikes and kneels seems like an easy fix.

Q: In this week's Any Given Sunday, there was a note about how 11 of the Colts' 31 losses to non-AFC South teams since 2012 have come by double-digits. But the public generally sees Indy as a top-tier team; even after their dispiriting Week 1 loss, the Colts are still the fourth choice to win the Super Bowl. With all the age on the roster and the bizarre situation surrounding Chuck Pagano's future, are the Colts the hardest team to bet this year?

-Sterling, Clinton (NY)

Old guys in positions where old guys usually fail, coach with a murky future, team with a much better win-loss record than expectation recently, leaky offensive line, it all sounds like a reason to say that the Colts are actually an easy team to bet. It looks like you should just bet against them with glee. Plus, you get to bet against a team that values assets exceedingly poorly (see Richardson, Trent and Walden, Erik). And with the Colts getting more love this offseason, it seems likely that they at least were somewhat overvalued heading into Week 1.

But I do think the Colts are in stay-away territory more than maybe any other team. Since the start of 2013, Indy is 21-15 against the spread, and they had many of the same issues in previous seasons. As long as they have Andrew Luck, it is almost impossible to feel good about betting against the Colts. I feel even more strongly about not betting on them for now, at least against the spread. If we could bet on a team making a midseason panic move where they gave up a high draft pick for a replacement-level player, give me the Colts.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 17 Sep 2015

14 comments, Last at 19 Sep 2015, 10:07am by Athelas

Comments

1
by LyleNM :: Thu, 09/17/2015 - 4:20pm

Aw, no KCW or KCGF?

6
by apk3000 :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 9:04am

You can only give the Redskins' ST the KCW award so many weeks in a row.

9
by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 9:59am

My first thought, exactly. KCW is a classic that deserves to survive. Other than that, good column, though.

------
Who, me?

2
by TimK :: Thu, 09/17/2015 - 6:03pm

Something is very wrong with the basic arithmetic in the Loser League listings. Some players have no score as well, which might be related?

Otherwise welcome to the new scramble overlords (though I kind of miss KCW).

11
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 12:03pm

This is fixed. It was an error in listing individual player scores for Week 1, but the team scores were all correct.

3
by vrao81 :: Thu, 09/17/2015 - 6:03pm

Colts only have 16 regular season losses since 2012, including this season, not sure where you are getting 31 from.

12
by jtr :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 12:24pm

Tracing it back to the Any Given Sunday column the stat came from, the original stat was that 11 out of 31 out-of-division GAMES were double digit losses, but that the stat was misinterpreted by the reader who submitted the question.

4
by dab3dab3 :: Thu, 09/17/2015 - 6:05pm

Eagles did not cover. They were favored by 3. Lost outright against Falcons.

5
by Cythammer :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 2:25am

"It reminds me of 2012 when the AFC was basically New England, Baltimore, an overvalued Houston team and ... uh, that's about it."

No. By this site's own rating the Broncos were better than any of those teams.

7
by Since1stTMQExile :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 9:09am

Sorry for the tangent, but I just have to say how exciting it was to spot Sterling's bio in the back of the Almanac a couple weeks ago. A couple more Scrambles under his belt, and I think he can safely pass Toby from "The Office" in my unofficial "Went to Hamilton College Celebrity Power Rankings:"

1. Columbo
2. Elihu Root
3. B.F. Skinner
4. Ezra Pound
5. The Guy (literally) who played for the Ducks
6. His roommate who coached UMaine's Hockey team
7. Nat Faxon
8. Toby from "The Office" (American version)
13,455. My Wife
13,456. Me

10
by Shattenjager :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 10:46am

I had only ever heard of Hamilton College from Ward Churchill going to speak there while I was in college at CU (I believe that was specifically the engagement that sparked the controversy about things he had written years earlier.) and Terry Brooks having gone there. So I think you're underrating Brooks in your rankings. ;)

13
by Since1stTMQExile :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 1:05pm

No doubt. In other words: "Terry Brooks is clearly ranked too low because..." I had never heard of him before, but that is not surprising. You can easily bump the fired UMaine coach off the list since he was only a celebrity here in Maine. Still, not a lot of sparkle in the Hamilton Alumni list. No's 10-2 are really wide open, as far as I'm concerned!

14
by Athelas :: Sat, 09/19/2015 - 10:07am

Hamilton is one of the hottest colleges at Lincoln-Sudbury RHS (MA) right now.

I have no idea why. Another incredibly hot college is Kenyon, but that is the John Green Effect.

8
by Since1stTMQExile :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 9:21am

deleted double post