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» Scramble for the Ball: With All the Fixings

An idiot's (two idiots'?) guide to Thanksgiving football, prepped and primed for the monsters-in-law who only watch these three games in a year.

16 Aug 2017

Scramble: 2017 South Over/Unders

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: I've probably mentioned this before, but it is former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who is usually credited with coining the phrase "a week is a long time in politics." It's an even longer time in sports. One of the delights/curses of sportswriting, especially in preseason, is how quickly things change after an article is written and before its publication, never mind the following week's article.

Bryan: And it was Canadian singer/songwriter Ed Robertson who coined the phrase "It's been one week since you looked at me / Threw your arms in the air and said 'you're crazy'."

Andrew: Or, more aptly for the Buccaneers, "Five days since I laughed at you / and said 'You just did just what I thought you were gonna do.'" (This line also works for Jaguars quarterbacks, Saints defenders, Texans coverage teams, and Colts owners. Yes, we're covering the South divisions this week.)

Bryan: So, since writing about the East divisions, we had Ezekiel Elliott get a much larger than expected suspension. We had Buffalo trading away its top wide receiver and cornerback, and including Philadelphia in that trade. Other than that, though, everything we said pretty much stands, right?

Andrew: That depends. Did we account for Miami losing a starting cornerback for the year, as well as their starting quarterback? Maybe, instead of going straight for the team record over/unders, we should run an over/under on the number of players from the South divisions who will end up on injured reserve in the next week. Or, again more aptly for the squads we're covering, the number of starting players teams in the South divisions will trade away in the next week.

Bryan: The advantage of doing the South this week is we get to see the Buccaneers and Jaguars go at it on national TV on Thursday, so we'll get to see just how disastrous of a week this is within about 24 hours of this article going up. We apologize, in advance, for preemptively jinxing Florida football for 2017.

All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.

AFC South

HOUSTON TEXANS (8.5)

Andrew: Our tour de farce begins in the AFC South, the champion of which actually won an honest-to-goodness playoff game last year.

Bryan: Yeah, but it was a playoff game featuring a quarterback making his first ever career start. If Oakland had still had Derek Carr -- or even Matt McGloin -- available, I find it hard to believe Houston could have gotten past them. But no, it's Connor Cook, most notable for a draft experience where everyone and their brother climbed over themselves to not pick him, who got the start and the L.

Andrew: Well you must remember, Tom Savage was out too, so the Texans... you know what, I can't even finish that line. Houston quarterbacks, man. I loved Rivers McCown discussing them in this year's chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac. They're all the same guy. It's Briatom McMalletweiler. You just copy and paste the syllables you need game by game.

Bryan: Well, they have upgraded at the position for this year, surely? Let me check the depth chart and it's... Tom Savage again? Oh good lord. If Deshaun Watson can't win a quarterback competition against Savage, you might as well drop the elbow on the Houston season right here and now. And it's not like our projections are in love with Watson, either!

Houston ranked 29th in DVOA last year, and had just 6.5 Pythagorean wins. And we're being asked to expect them to have a winning record this year, despite the eighth-hardest schedule in football. I mean, the AFC South has to take on both the NFC West (which I'm probably far too high on) and the AFC North (which is always tough, outside of Cleveland). They have trips to New England and Seattle on the schedule. And they're being asked to improve with either a rookie or retread at quarterback. Where does the improvement come from, or are they just supposed to be lucky again?

Andrew For me, this comes down to a couple of things. First: is Watson going to be handed the reins, or will he have to wait a couple of weeks while Savage gets injured? Second: is J.J. Watt going to be J.J. Watt again? If Watson gets to start, I can at least see how the Texans score consistent points. Not a lot of points, necessarily, but some. If Watt is then back to being Watt, with the other pieces emerging on that defense, "some" might well be enough.

Bryan: I'll spot you that the defense will be terrifying if Watt's back to full strength. It was frightening enough last year without him! It feels like this is a team that's designed to win a bunch of 7-3 or 10-7 games, and I'm just not sure that's sustainable. Without seeing where a sudden offensive boost is going to come from, I can't project a winning record for these guys. They're not going to go 8-2 in one-score games again this season. Under.

Andrew: Didn't you say the exact same thing about Miami? Somebody, somewhere, must have a truly horrendous record in one-score games to make up for all these other teams going 8-2.

Bryan: For the record, the Eagles and Bears were 1-6 in one-score games, the Browns and 49ers were 1-5, and the Bengals were 1-6-1.

Andrew: Bears. Bengals. Browns. 49ers. It all makes sense now.

Back to the Texans, just remembering that DeAndre Hopkins is still breathing might be enough to improve the offense. Losing A.J. Bouye could be big though. If that pass rush doesn't pick up immediately where it left off against New England, the Texans don't really have the coverage players behind them any more. I think, sadly, that I must agree. Under seems most likely.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (8)

Bryan: I'm a little shocked to see an actual line here! We have no real idea when Andrew Luck will be back, and there's a heck of a difference between a Luck-led Colts team and Scott Tolzien taking snaps. I was expecting this to be like Miami and not have a line available.

Andrew: Aside from Luck, the Colts probably have improved quite a bit, at least in terms of personnel. Luck is still that key piece though. He's missing a lot of games to injury of late, and playing hurt in the games he isn't missing. Are we already at a point where the best thing the Colts can do for their future prospects is put Luck on ice, get him fully healthy -- no question marks, no rehab, not even a bruise -- churn the roster to make it as strong as possible for his return, and let 2017 play out as it will?

Bryan: That's exactly it. It's not like there's a switch on his arm that goes from "broken" to "fixed." Even if he does play from Week 1, will he be at 100 percent? Will rushing back to meet the Week 1 deadline just cause him to play hurt and increase his odds of a long-term injury? These are incredibly important questions, and four weeks out, we don't have a real answer to any of this yet. He hasn't thrown a single pass yet! That's not good!

You're right, though, that Chris Ballard has really done a good job adding talent -- or at least new players -- to a team that really struggled at times last season, especially on defense. They might have 11 new starters on D on opening day. You can't say that they're not at least trying to improve there.

Andrew: Right. And that's why I said churn the roster while you get Luck healthy. Not all of those moves are going to work, but none of them are potentially crippling if they don't. You'll learn who's going to fit, and not be wedded to those other guys because you're afraid to ruin a potentially successful season. It's better than squeezing 12 starts out of D'Qwell Jackson and Erik Walden as some kind of spray-on linebacker corps, then having to do the same again the following year with two different stopgap veterans.

Bryan: There's no guarantee they'll be better with Anthony Walker or John Simon, but at least it will be different. When you're a fan of a bad team -- or, in this case, a team that was bad at one thing in particular -- sometimes, that's enough to bring hope and optimism.

Andrew: Hope and optimism are not words I readily associate with the AFC South. Even with a healthy Luck, I fear the offense won't be nearly enough to overcome the defense's remaining shortcomings. Maybe next year. Under.

Bryan: Frank Gore, while a legend, is also roughly eight billion years old and really shouldn't be the focal point of a running game in 2017. With all the time and effort spent revamping the defensive line, it would have been nice if they had spent some energy on the offensive line, too. I'm with you on this one. Without a surplus of... good fortune or... serendipity, I don't see the Colts being... fortuitous enough to come out of the AFC South this year. Perhaps some... generous die rolls will go their way, but I'm less than optimistic. And if we were to say they go 8-8, that's probably enough to win the AFC South.. Under.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (6.5)

Bryan: Speaking of teams that struggled in one-score games last season, Jacksonville went 2-8. I like that stat because it means that a small improvement on the field can result in a massive improvement in the record column. So, that means we're all in on success in Jacksonville this season, right?

Andrew: Maybe. How many of those games did Scott Kacsmar have to write about, and how many looked closer than they were due to some garbage-time Bortling?

Bryan: Bortles' ability to look fantastic when down by 21 points continues to astound me. He had a DVOA of 23.0% when down by more than one score last season, and -27.3% in all other scenarios. That's really, really strange! Has Jacksonville considered putting a tarp over their scoreboard and just projecting some huge deficits to trick Bortles into playing better?

Andrew: I believe the prevailing theory is that defensive strategy and play calling changes when the opponents are up by that much, and Bortles is able to play better thanks to those simpler reads. I wonder whether there's some alternate reality where rugby-style clock rules, Andy Reid's time management, and Blake Bortles' garbage-time performance converge to generate the perfect never-ending drive trailing by 10.

Bryan: All that may be true, but somehow, Bortles is the only quarterback who can take advantage of it; there's no statistical connection between trailing and better quarterback play. So, we have our strategy for the 2017 season here. Every week, the Jaguars make sure to get everyone into the stadium an hour before Bortles shows up, booing and complaining. His teammates grouse about how they're trailing as the scoreboard plays lowlights from previous seasons' matchups. "Starting quarterback" Chad Henne gets pulled just as Bortles shows up late, and Doug Marrone tells Bortles to just go out there and make the score respectable. Just a massive system of keeping Bortles completely in the dark as to what the game situation actually is, because Blowout Bortles is a top-10 quarterback in the league, somehow. It's a strategy that can't possibly fail.

Andrew: Alternatively, build a stupendously good defense, draft a first-round running back, and hope Tom Savage throws more interceptions than Blake Bortles does.

Bryan: Well, sure, if you want to be rational about these things. I suppose we'll call that Plan B.

Andrew: Plan "Be slightly less bad than the Texans." It's in the AFC South team-building handbook, the chapter immediately after "fluke into gaining the first overall selection when Peyton Manning is available" and before "concealing underperformance through relocation, by Jeff Fisher."

Bryan: In all seriousness, I kind of love the potential on defense here. Paul Posluszny, Myles Jack, and Telvin Smith might be the best linebacker corps in football? Maybe? Adding Calais Campbell to the defense is bound to help in the short-term, too, though he's getting up there in age.

Andrew: Pos isn't quite the player he used to be, and I think you're getting ahead of yourself on the other two. It does have the potential to be really, really good though.

Bryan: They probably overpaid for A.J. Bouye based on one season of great work, but it was great work. And Barry Church is an above-average addition to the secondary, too. I dunno, if they keep adding talent to the defense, it eventually has to translate on the field. One would assume.

Andrew: Even allowing for the talent in Houston's pass rush, I would hope that this would be the best defense in the division. If the Jaguars are to finally break the cycle of "offseason champion, top-five draft pick," the defense will be the reason why. All the offense should have to do, in theory, is not screw it up. Says I, about the quarterback who threw two interceptions that deflected off his receivers' feet last year. Not screwing up is not guaranteed. Still, this is the only AFC South team that truly tempts me with an over, so I'm going to succumb to that temptation.

Bryan: Our projection has the Jags well over the 6.5-win mark... but I don't see it. As much as I love the defense, I think the quarterback position is a nightmare, and I don't trust Marrone and company to be able to hide Bortles' weaknesses or help him take the much-needed step forward. It feels like this is a team set up to be a really great situation... for next year's highly drafted quarterback. Under.

TENNESSEE TITANS (8.5)

Andrew: Well whaddaya know? Mike Mularkey, canned by the Jaguars after one year in charge, managed to assemble something almost resembling a good football team in Tennessee. They're joint favorites for the AFC South! Were the Titans a one-year wonder, or are they an actual contender to lose a playoff game on this division's behalf?

Bryan: Tennessee is a hot sleepery-pick. I've seen people project them as high as 11-5 this season. Forget drinking the Kool-Aid, these people are investing in Kool-Aid franchises and ramping up production.

Andrew: People are picking the Titans to go 11-5? It's times like this I wish I ran a budding bridge-sales business. Though I picked them for the first overall pick last year, so maybe I'm not the foremost authority on Titans football.

Bryan: You can see where the optimism is coming from, though. They've got a young quarterback making those next steps. Our new QB Hope index gives Marcus Mariota a 91 percent chance to be a franchise QB, trailing only Derek Carr from the last three draft classes. That goes back to your Jaguars playbook there: "Be bad in a year when you can draft a quarterback and have them be the real thing."

Andrew: DeBortling.

There's a lot to like about Tennessee aside from Mariota. The running backs are good. The approach on offense appears to suit them. The defense doesn't appear in any danger of becoming one of the league's top units, but they aren't a train wreck either. The special teams are competent.

Bryan: They made a conscious effort to improve on defense, as well. Logan Ryan has come over from New England. Johnathan Cyprien had a very good season last year in Jacksonville.

Andrew: He did? There's a first time for everything, I suppose.

Bryan: Yeah, Cyprien struggled in his first three years in the league, but something seemed to click for him last season. If that holds up, then Tennessee will be very pleased.

Andrew: My instinct is to mistrust any secondary in which Johnathan Cyprien and Logan Ryan will play key roles -- Ryan being a Belichick component, not an established top corner -- and I'm not completely sold on the rest of the secondary either.

Bryan: Yeah, I think the operative word is "effort" to improve on defense. It's a team that's going to rest on its offensive laurels, especially if they use more of the aggressive shotgun style that they team used when they needed to gain offense fast. Comebacks, two-minute drills; that sort of thing.

Andrew: All told, I expect the Titans to be fine. Not great, not terrible, just fine. The defense should be reasonably flameproof. The offense should be sustainable. Is that enough to take them over eight wins, given the schedule? No, I don't buy it. They aren't going to sweep the division, so they'll need a bare minimum of two wins from Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Arizona to hit the over. I think 8-8 is more likely, putting them just a shade under.

Bryan: It's enough for me to call them favorites in the division, though it would help if they could ever beat Indianapolis. They hit 9-7 last year, too, and the division isn't a particularly challenging one. I've also gone under on all other three teams in the division, so those wins have to go somewhere, right? I'm just not sure it's Tennessee. The AFC South is going to be a major exporter of wins this season. I think they can get two wins from your grouping there, and if you were to tell me that one AFC South team was going to hit 11-5, I'd agree it's Tennessee. But you can keep the Kool-Aid; I'm fine with my water, an 8-8 record, and the AFC South title. Under.

Wow, we're really down on the AFC South. Seven unders. That's sounding like a division where 7-9 might end up taking the whole thing. Are we being too negative? Or maybe, when you somewhat arbitrarily divide a league into groups of four, one of those groups might lag behind the rest. The 2016 AFC South was the third-worst division in the realignment era, and 2015 was sixth-worst. I guess we're just expecting status quo and will be pleasantly surprised if things flip.

NFC South

ATLANTA FALCONS (9.5)

Andrew: Do you remember much of the preseason build-up for the 2008 Patriots? The general sense in some quarters that, no matter what, there was only one possible outcome for the season that would be remotely satisfactory? Given all that had happened the season before, especially in the title game, none of that incredible previous season mattered and no amount of regular-season success would do, it was Super Bowl or bust?

Bryan: Yeah, if I remember correctly, it was supposed to be a redemption season for 18-1. The feeling that it was something of a fluke loss in the Super Bowl, and that the way to prove it was to pick up right where they left off and steamroll everyone again.

Andrew: Are you picking up a similar vibe about this year's Falcons? They obviously didn't have the same regular-season success as the 2007 Patriots, but they had the Super Bowl won and they let it get away. Is there the same sense of gritted-teeth determination to make amends?

Bryan: I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but you don't get opportunities to win a championship every year, unless you're playing in Foxborough. It's hard enough to climb to the top of the mountain once. To have to do it again is very, very difficult. I don't believe in the "Super Bowl Losers Curse" or any of that nonsense, but it felt like everything clicked for Atlanta down the stretch in a way you can't guarantee will happen again.

Andrew: Lest we forget, the Falcons actually lost their opening game at home last year, and weren't even clear favorites for the division as late as Week 13. They scored a lot of points, but allowed 28 or more seven times in their first nine games. Then they patched that up, went on a six-game tear, and had the Super Bowl won in the middle of the third quarter. I think they're a better team this year than last, but man, that one's going to be hard to top.

Bryan And remember, they got off to a super-hot start in 2015 before coming back to Earth, too. Atlanta has been streaky for two years; it's a team that runs hot and cold. They ran hotter than pretty much any team in recent memory did at the end of last season, right up until about 17 minutes left in the year. Now, we're asking Matt Ryan to repeat an MVP-type year with a new offensive coordinator who has never called a play in the NFL. And I've got serious questions about the front seven, at least, from a "Super Bowl contender" viewpoint.

Andrew: Fortunately, Super Bowl picks are a whole 'nother article.

Bryan: And one Atlanta won't feature in for me. I think you have to count on Atlanta being who they were for the first two-thirds of the season, and not count on that hot streak coming at just the right time to pick them up. It feels like 2016 was the year when everything lined up perfectly, and they're due for a bit of a falling back to Earth this season.

Andrew: Even if things don't go as well as last year, I still like the Falcons for 2017. Four of Atlanta's five losses last year were one-score games; the defense improved drastically as the season went on (it couldn't have gotten much worse, to be fair); they return every starter on offense except the worst one (Chris Chester) and the fullback (Patrick DiMarco); and they have upgraded majorly in the center of the defense with Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford.

Bryan: Counterpoint: it's possible every other NFC South team has gotten better this offseason. The schedule is tougher, with nasty trips to New England and Seattle clogging up the slate. They're trying to replicate historic greatness on offense, and some regression to the mean should be expected there. Plus, I mean, they just lost in one of the most gut-punching ways possible. That's going to be lurking over their shoulder the entire year. I still like them to win the division and make a playoff run, but I think I'm going to have to go under, barring a sudden and dramatic improvement on defense.

Andrew: Admittedly, ten wins is a lot. Going 10-4 in the non-Seattle, non-New England games is a tough ask. It's certainly possible, though, even with Green Bay and Dallas on the home slate. I fancy 10-6 and the division for Atlanta, with some offensive regression offset by defensive improvement. It won't quite heal the scars from February, but a run through the AFC East in October will help them get over the Darkest Side of Houston's Finest Day.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (8.5)

Bryan: It's a good sign to fire your general manager days before training camp opens, right? That's the hallmark of a well-run and organized franchise that has a long-term plan?

Andrew: Wide receivers are a hallmark of a well-run and organized franchise that has a long-term plan. Offensive tackles, too.

Bryan: And cornerbacks! Let's not forget cornerbacks.

Andrew: Still, at least they drafted another defensive lineman. I was worried they were about to run out.

Bryan: And it's really great how they've suddenly decided to do a 180 from their previous offensive philosophy, switching from big, tall receivers to win jump balls to shifty, explosive guys like Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. I'm sure everything's going to mesh together perfectly right off the bat.

Andrew: To be fair, "winning" jump balls may be overstating the achievements of their big, tall guys. McCaffrey's a legitimately good player, though perhaps less suited to Cam Newton than to almost any other quarterback. I am not enamored with their offensive line though, and the tackle situation seems like it is as responsible for the GM's departure as anything else.

Bryan: Here's the thing: that has been true for years, and they still managed to go 15-1 two seasons ago. When Newton is healthy, he's still the most exciting quarterback in the game. His MVP award may not have been fully deserved -- that was a defense-led team, and we all know it -- but no one has done more with less. And now they've given him two very promising playmakers to go alongside Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen (and the massive void that is the rest of the receiver corps, admittedly). Yes, the offensive line still is, shall we say, a work in progress, but this is a formula that has worked before. If they can navigate that transition on offense, then I think there's something here. And the defense still can be very good, especially if Luke Kuechly plays the entire season and Shaq Thompson continues to step up as age begins to sap Thomas Davis.

Andrew: Their schedule is a lot softer, too. It's quite easy to find seven wins, and I won't assume they'll lose all of the other games. Barring an unforeseen Newton injury or a complete defensive meltdown like they had at the start of last October, I think the over is quite a realistic outcome.

Bryan: Our projections in the book have Carolina and Atlanta with exactly the same DVOA, in a mirror image of one another. Match Atlanta's offense to Carolina's defense and... well, you probably still don't have Super Bowl favorites, but you'd have something pretty special there. With that softer, last-place schedule, I'm also going over on Carolina. Assuming they don't fire Ron Rivera two days before the regular season starts.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (8)

Andrew: This line must be swayed by some sort of elite quarterback modifier, because I cannot see any way in any universe that the Saints merit an eight-win money line. They have been 7-9 four times in the past five seasons with a quarterback who's only getting older; traded away their No. 1 (or at least No. 1A) receiver from last season; lost their starting left tackle and their best interior lineman for the year (and possibly longer); are trying to trade their only established cornerback; and have no clear, definitive answers to any of the issues that have kept them out of the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.

Bryan: Apart from that, everything seems fine down in the Bayou.

Andrew: Well, they signed a 32-year-old running back who missed almost the entirety of last season to injury, so there's that.

Bryan: Seriously, though. Can they really be that terrible on defense for the fourth year in a row? At some point, something has to click, right?

Andrew: You'd think that, but show me where. Or how. Or why they should get any benefit of the doubt. The Saints' three- or five-year record on defense is appalling. I know somebody has to be the worst team in the league, but not by this much. And we have them projected to finish 32nd again. That would be the third time in six seasons.

Bryan: Well, they signed, uh... Manti Te'o and Alex Okafor. That's certainly... something. They got Carolina's fourth-best linebacker in A.J. Klein. I actually do like Marshon Lattimore quite a bit, but the Saints defense wasn't something that could be bolstered by one promising rookie. They needed to go all-Colts and blow everything up, in the idea that any change would be better than what they have been doing.

Andrew: Well, to an extent, they have done that. The defense is very, very young. If Delvin Breaux leaves -- although it's a bit harder to trade him now that he has a broken leg -- the average age of the top five defensive backs will be 22. Which is a recipe for utter disaster, but last year it was older and was a disaster anyway, so whatever. At least we don't have to worry about the team's depth, because we know for sure that there isn't any.

Bryan: Scott had a great stat here, which I'm going to quote verbatim:

No quarterback in NFL history has been let down more by their defense than Drew Brees. You can make an argument that he's the unluckiest great player in NFL history. Not only have his defenses been consistently and utterly terrible, but he also had the bad fortune of being simply an all-time great quarterback in an era with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady resetting quarterback expectations.

Andrew: There are other arguments to be made here, and if you want my full perspective I literally wrote the book (or at least the chapter) on this team, but here are some other numbers for you: at every single number of offensive points from 21 to 34 inclusive, the Saints either led the league or are tied for the league lead in the number of games lost. While no other team in the top five offenses by mean DVOA since 2014 has missed the playoffs even once, the Saints have not only missed the playoffs every year but had a losing record every year.

Bryan: So… we're taking the under here?

Andrew: I can absolutely see a situation where Dennis Allen doesn't make it to November, Mike Nolan is promoted to steady the ship, Sean Payton does the job of his life coaching the offense, and the Saints overachieve to finish 7-9. It's not impossible that they could hit or even eclipse eight wins, because Drew Brees is a magician. He's also 38, and throwing to Ted Ginn, Coby Fleener, and Alvin Kamara instead of Brandin Cooks, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles. At least the defense should be better next year. Like it should have been this year. Like it should have been last year. Under.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (8.5)

Andrew: Still, at least the Saints didn't draft a kicker in the second round.

Bryan: Football Outsiders Theatre presents: a short play in four tweets.

~FIN~

OK, that's not entirely fair. The Buccaneers have believed more in analytics than Koetter's off-the-cuff remarks in 2015 would indicate, and the picking (and subsequent failure) of Roberto Aguayo doesn't entirely void everything Tampa has done to try to build a team. Also, the time-stamps don't quite line up on the analytics talk, but I've never let that get in the way of a good joke before. But good lord. I can't remember any other decision where everyone went "this will go terribly," and then were proven right in such a short period of time. Never, ever, ever, ever draft kickers, boys and girls.

Andrew: The good news is, other than the opportunity cost of selecting a different player, that pick won't be actively harming the Buccaneers' chances this year like it was last. If you draft a safety and he doesn't pan out, you keep him on the bench until he shows progress and cut him if he doesn't. If you draft a kicker and he doesn't pan out, there's nowhere to hide that bad decision: he's costing you games right in front of your face. Nobody sticks a kicker on the bench until he's ready.

Bryan: Aguayo also managed to outdo Connor Barth and Kyle Brindza from 2015, so you can see the logic there in an "improve what we were terrible at" sort of way. It's just… you don't need to buy a fancy gold Rolex watch just to see what time it is. A baffling decision at the time that has only aged worse in retrospect.

But he's gone! Let's talk about Buccaneers who actually will be on the team in 2017.

Andrew: I have really mixed feelings about this projection, because it seems like everybody else is very high on a team that our numbers really aren't impressed by. The Buccaneers were 9-7 last year, very close to the playoffs, and it sure looks like they improved the roster.

Bryan: Longtime FO commentator MilkmanDanimal described the 2016 Buccaneers offense as "Winston flinging the ball downfield in the vague direction of Mike Evans, and Evans then doing something amazing." Is adding O.J. Howard and DeSean Jackson enough to give them some variety when they have the ball?

Andrew: Well the big difference between Winston flinging the ball downfield in the vague direction of Mike Evans, and Winston flinging the ball downfield in the vague direction of DeSean Jackson, is Mike Evans is 6-foot-5, whereas DeSean Jackson is 5-foot-10. When Winston's more likely to toss an Eli Manning special 6 feet over his intended target, that definitely suits Evans better. To be clear, I really like Winston, but he is being asked to throw deep routes constantly when his deep ball is still Three Bears' Porridge.

Bryan: It feels like that's where all the hype is coming from -- take last year's improved defense, sprinkle in some big-time weapons on offense, spice it up with some third-year improvement from Winston, and voilà! A playoff team.

Andrew: The problem is "last year's improved defense" was really only the pass defense, counted less than half a dozen games, and needed almost perfect health plus a turnover rate only a shade under the league lead at .156 turnovers per drive.

Bryan: Tampa ranked third in AGL at linebacker and fifth in AGL in the secondary, too. So their depth is less than proven.

Andrew: They're very shallow at cornerback, where one of their starters (Brent Grimes) is 34 and, coincidentally, currently hurt. At linebacker too, where they have two excellent players backed up by a rookie coming off a torn ACL, and a second-year player who is... currently hurt. Their one major loss last season was a rotational defensive end, Jacquies Smith, at the position where they entered the season with the greatest depth. So whatever injury luck they did not enjoy at running back, they certainly did benefit from on the defense.

Bryan:: That kind of hits all the major points. Every year, there's some team that our projection systems don't really like, compared to the general hype. I generally agree with our projections there (shocking news, from the Football Outsiders writer!), because group-think often has a way of piling up and spinning out of control. Any slip-up on defense, and you could be looking at a pretty bad team! I don't think they'll fall too far, but I'm skeptical of the offensive upgrades making a contender out of them overnight. Put this bandwagon back in the shop for a season for some retooling; there's stuff here, but it's not quite ready for prime time yet. Under.

Andrew: What does it for me is the fact that we expect so many different things not to live up to the hype. If it was just that we didn't think Jackson would be that great, Winston was still fine last year throwing to Russell Shepard and the ghost of Cecil Shorts. If it was just the turnover numbers, that's still a solid defense without the big plays. If it was just Brent Grimes' age, you can work around that temporarily. If it was just the pass rush, they get Smith back. It's not "just" anything. It's a lot of different things all pointing the same way, so even if you split the difference you're still probably looking at another building year. Next year, Howard will be primed for a breakout. Next year, they should have a chance to fix the remaining holes. Next year, the line will have another year together. This year, there's likely to be some excitement, but I'm not convinced there'll be enough to overcome the remaining roster holes. I'll take the under too, with 8-8 my favored outcome.

Bryan: Man, we've been really pessimistic this go-round. Only four overs and 12 unders. Sorry, South! It looks like we're just super down on all of you. We need to lighten the mood a bit.

Maybe we'll find some optimism next week as we listen to the Village People and Go West. Good luck in your preseason game tomorrow night, Jags and Bucs, and break a leg!

Wait, wait, no, don't do that! Sigh.

Football Outsiders doesn't answer fantasy questions on Twitter, so if you don't have a Premium subscription and access to the 24-hour Fantasy Answering Service, the Scramble mailbag is one way to get a Football Outsiders answer to your fantasy questions! Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, kickers who are actually worth second-round picks, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at scramble@footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter on 16 Aug 2017

37 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2017, 6:35am by psncodes1

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 8:17am

The AFC South feels like the 2014 NFC South or the 2013 NFC Central -- where everyone is within a game of 7-9.

9
by Bryan Knowles :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 1:39pm

When I went through and predicted every team's record, game-by-game -- not how I decide the over/unders, but just for entertainment purposes -- I had a three-way tie for first with Tennessee, Indianapolis and Houston at 7-9, and Jacksonville at 6-10. Probably won't happen that way -- I could easily see the Titans or Colts (w/ healthy Luck) going 9-7 a fair chunk of the time, with double-digit wins not a crazy possibility. Even Jacksonville could surprise if Bortles finally, finally, FINALLY takes that step forward. But...yeah. I'm fairly sure the AFC South is going to be the worst division this season.

10
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 1:56pm

When I look over the Colts roster, it's amazing how of a deodorant Andrew Luck has been for for Ryan Grigson and his drafting/free agenting. Do you think they could be 2011 bad if Luck misses significant time (I remain skeptical about the positive reports about his health)?

11
by Bryan Knowles :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 1:58pm

If they stick with Scott Tolzein? Maybe not -quite- 2011 bad because, ooh, that was terrible. But a Luck-less Colts team probably loses double-digit games.

22
by theslothook :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 1:16pm

I could see 2011 bad. THere is not a single proven player on this roster in my opinion outside of Kelly(hurt) and Hilton(dependent on Qb).

I don' trust Vontae Davis as a true consistent corner - hes more of the cromartie deangelo hall of cornerbacks - and the rest of the defense is a giant question mark.

I'd be happy if they put andrew luck in bubble wrap - shipped him to hawaii to laze in the sun and heal up and punted the entire season.

Damage this bad takes more than a year to clean up.

3
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 11:39am

Was there not one last year?

6
by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 12:19pm

This time last year, we didn't actually have a Scramble team yet. Our first Scramble wasn't until Week 1 of the regular season.

8
by Bryan Knowles :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 1:36pm

Yeah, I was only brought on at the last possible minute last season. Picked me up off waivers after cut-down day, as it were.

4
by MilkmanDanimal :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 11:50am

Well, I'm certainly honored that my cogent and/or blatantly obvious analysis has been ensconced in Scramble for all time. Winston is not and will never be a notably accurate QB, and both Evans and Jackson have mentioned ball placement to him on Hard Knocks, and we're only two episodes in. Evans has basically been a giant eraser for so many of Winston's mistakes, because he's got such a huge catch radius and can simply overpower so many defenders when going up for a less-than-perfectly thrown ball. I know DSJ is a guy who likes deep balls; well, I hope he gets used to not catching fly patterns, because Winston can't throw them. Per the article earlier on QB accuracy for routes, -18.2% DVOA and 18.2% completion percentage (there's some odd symmetry for you) on fly routes. When he throws a post route and can just loft it so the receiver can adjust, he's way more accurate, because he can put the ball where the receiver can go get it, but, when he's got to drop the ball in precisely to the WR between a defender and the sideline, he's patently terrible. Way too many of his passes wind up being accidental 50/50 balls.

For what it's worth, I'd take the under on Tampa this year. OJ Howard isn't going to contribute as a rookie, it'll take a bit to figure out how DSJ is going to be used, the running game is still unsettled, and safety is still a lousy enough position that Chris Conte continues to have a @#$!!! job.

Also, regarding Hard Knocks, if you aren't watching it, you're missing out on Peak Gerald McCoy, who is an utterly hilarious dork off-the-field. The man's got a lifesize Batman in a comics-filled man cave, is constantly making stupid jokes, and I want to be his new best friend.

5
by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 12:14pm

Your first paragraph is why I think Chris Godwin could turn out to be a better fit than DeSean Jackson, even though Jackson is the better pure receiver at this point in their respective careers. I even wonder whether the offense would be better with Jackson in Adam Humphries' slot role, with Godwin as the other outside guy. That's not what they signed Jackson to do, but they didn't sign him to sail fly patterns over his head either.

7
by MilkmanDanimal :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 12:36pm

Godwin has looked really impressive in camp, but, well, Kenny Bell looked really impressive in camp two years ago, so I think I've learned to temper my expectations. Jackson's going to have a lot of value on deep routes just because somebody with his speed is going to pull a safety over, meaning a bit more freedom for Evans (seriously, what Evans has done with a QB with shaky accuracy and hardly any other receiver options is AMAZING). So, Jackson's going to run a lot of those deep routes anyways, if for no reason other than a threat. He's going to do his damage on well-designed crosses or digs to get the ball in some space and then run (hopefully, depending on ball placement), and, yeah, that's more slot WR than anything else.

Koetter's typically been creative enough to where I think he'll find creative ways to use everybody, but I've come to accept that Winston is never going to have the accuracy to drop the ball in the bucket 30+ yards downfield.

12
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 3:28pm

DeSean did okay with Michael Vick.

13
by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 5:25pm

Wait, since when does being "third in the league in AGL" mean they DIDN'T miss games due to injury? Saying it like that suggests they had a high number of AGL.

Either way it's really confusing, and ranking teams by AGL needs more context or something.

14
by Bryan Knowles :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 5:29pm

I can see where it would be confusing, and apologies if it was difficult to follow in context!

We rank AGL by fewest games lost, much like you would rank defenses by fewest yards allowed. So, Tampa Bay ranked third at linebacker by only losing 0.8 adjusted games, and fifth at defensive back by only losing 3.3 adjusted games.

15
by jtr :: Thu, 08/17/2017 - 5:54pm

It's pretty incredible that the Colts are managing to turn around all 11 (12 if you count nickel corner) starting positions on defense. It's hard to imagine that has happened very often. Even perennial losers have a few players worth keeping around. Can somebody run a check to see if that's ever happened in the modern era?

36
by Bobman :: Mon, 08/28/2017 - 5:12pm

RE The Colts' potential 11/12 man turnover on starting D, they should return Vontae Davis at CB, so there's one returning man. And injuries could influence this in either direction i.e. a new should-be starter might not for a few weeks because of injury, or one of their young DL guys from Stanford two years ago (Anderson/Parry) might start but didn't last year because of injuries.
Either way, it's a major overhaul. I like that Mathis is volunteer coaching the pass rushers. Not sure if he's hoping for a coaching career or just couldn't leave the game (though was wise enough to leave it as a player whose time had come). If an undersized fifth-rounder who ended up as a long-shot HOF candidate after a dozen years can't inspire and teach, nobody can.

16
by Theo :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 4:20am

Bortles has been working out in the offseason working on his mechanics 2017 ©.
So I have all the trust in him to be a far better QB than before and lead the Jaguars to their full potential.

19
by Guest789 :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:51am

This comment was perfectly timed.

20
by MilkmanDanimal :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 12:05pm

I think it's pretty clear at this point a top-five draft pick every year is the Jaguars' full potential with Bortles around.

17
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:15am

"Losing A.J. Bouye could be big though. If that pass rush doesn't pick up immediately where it left off against New England, the Texans don't really have the coverage players behind them any more."

Bouye's a good player, but corner is still a position of relative strength for the Texans with Jonathan Joseph, Kevin Johnson and Kareem Jackson. The guys from #4 on down don't look so hot, but whose do?

Reports from camp and the first pre-season game are tentatively positive on the two big questions of the Texans' offseason: Watt looks like Watt, and Watson looks like a real NFL quarterback, even if he won't necessarily be the opening day starter.

I'm cautiously optimistic that this team may actually be good.

23
by theslothook :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 1:18pm

The defense could be amazing. I like the talent at all levels. If Deshaun Watson can be Mark Sanchez like(a pretty low bar even for a rookie) they might be able to ride this team to the playoffs.

18
by morganja :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:15am

From a football perspective, Jacksonville would seem like a perfect place for Kaepernick.

21
by Bryan Knowles :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 12:41pm

While Jacksonville makes a lot sense, I maintain Seattle would have been the perfect choice.

Their offense is already based around a mobile QB, so the whole "we'd have to change our whole style to fit him in!" argument doesn't really fly; while you can't just group all mobile quarterbacks together in one big homogeneous lump, Kaepernick is an acceptable poor-man's Wilson and the basic offensive philosophy wouldn't have to change.

Wilson is susceptible to injury. While he hasn't missed a game yet, he was banged up for most of last season behind that offensive line, so I'd place him high on the list of "players who could miss time due to injury". Lose Wilson for the year, and the Seahawks aren't contending no matter what. Lose him for, say, a month, and you still COULD contend, as long as you have a capable backup in place.

Their current backup is Trevone Boykin, a former UDFA out of TCU. Boykin has struggled in training camp this season and has never shown anything of note on the field, including preseason games. He also has been in trouble with the law multiple times in his two years in the league. While these relatively untested players could burst out when given an opportunity, I wouldn't call it the most reliable situation.

It just seemed like a match made in obvious heaven when the Seahawks were looking at Kaepernick, and I was very surprised a deal wasn't done at that time.

27
by morganja :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 8:38pm

Totally agree, except that he would be the starter in Jacksonville and probably be the difference in winning that division for them.

31
by Mr Shush :: Mon, 08/21/2017 - 4:36am

You really think they're that close? I think they finish 4th with or without him, unless Luck misses significant time.

32
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Mon, 08/21/2017 - 5:54am

In the AFC South, why not? (Depending on how much of a leap you think Tennessee will take this year). Jacksonville has a real defense. If their offense is just average, they're within range of 8-8. They have enough skill position talent to be more than average if they had a real quarterback. As it stands now, Bortles is an anchor the rest of the team is dragging behind them.

33
by MilkmanDanimal :: Mon, 08/21/2017 - 10:27am

Jacksonville not only has a real defense, they have a pretty solid set of skill position players. Nice group of WRs, and Fournette should improve the running game. The offensive line isn't great, but, if the QB didn't suck, Jacksonville looks pretty good.

24
by theslothook :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 1:33pm

I'm trying to remember another stretch of time where a division has been this consistently awful. The nfc west from about 2008 to 2010(4 straight years) was beyond horrible. Then in two years, that completely switched.

Depending on how good you think the Colts were in those latter Peyton Manning years, from about 2010 and onward - this division has been awful where three out of the 4 have been among the worst three teams in football and the 4th was probably 7-9 level bad.

25
by Bryan Knowles :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 1:48pm

Don't have time to do a super-duper deep dive analysis, but Football Perspective looked at division-wide SRS since the realignment before last season, and here are the longest stretches for each modern division being below average:

NFC West: 8 years (2004-2011)
AFC South: 8 years (2009-present)
AFC West: 6 years (2007-2012)
NFC South: 5 years (2003-2007)
NFC East: 3 years (2002-2004 and 2013-2015)
NFC North: 3 years (2004-2006)
AFC North: 2 years (2012-2013)
AFC East: 2 years (2012-2013)

Of course, just "below average" might not be the best way to do this -- you want to give extra points for teams being truly terrible and take away points for a great year by one team in the division -- but for a quick and dirty glance, yeah, the AFC South has been bad forever, it seems.

The NFC West all turned around in about one year, though, so maybe the AFC South can do it too? Maybe?

26
by theslothook :: Fri, 08/18/2017 - 1:58pm

The afc west turnaround suggests it CAN happen. But it took some insane drafting in a very short period of time for that turnaround to be possible. Plus some all star coaching.

Instead = the more likely pattern is continual malaise.

29
by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 08/19/2017 - 10:41pm

The AFC West did not turn around in one year! I realize it may appear that way, but the foundations were being laid for several prior seasons, and it wasn't that much of a surprise when it came together. Recall Oakland running away with the "surprise team most likely to contend for the SB" (the name of the award notwithstanding lol)

30
by theslothook :: Sun, 08/20/2017 - 10:48am

Meant NFC west

35
by t.d. :: Wed, 08/23/2017 - 8:06am

the nfc west went from the worst division to the best in the blink of an eye, too (and, pretty quickly, back to being pretty bad again)

28
by RobotBoy :: Sat, 08/19/2017 - 5:10am

'Bucs OC Dirk Koetter blasted analytics, calling it a “freaking joke” that numbers on piece of paper could help...'
'Cuz this is football! And this game, this football, is about three yards and a cloud of dust; it's about men being manly; it's about grit and it's about tough and you can't measure tough, no you cannot, and that's a fact all your bespectacled, pocket protector slide-rule geeks who can't get laid in a whorehouse with a platinum card will never understand!'
And there ladies and gentlemen, is exhibit A for why your Bucs have not won a playoff game since 2002.
Divine justice means Aguayo gets picked up by another team where a simple mechanical tweak turns him into the most successful kicker in NFL history.
Atlanta's offense most likely won't be as good as it was last year but that defensive turnaround looked like the real deal to me with a lot of young players figuring things out. There's excellent speed on the unit and a fierce pass rush. Before the ran out of gas from being on the field forever, they had the Patriots stonewalled, even if you leave out the good fortune of the two turnovers. The over doesn't seem like a big reach.

34
by t.d. :: Wed, 08/23/2017 - 8:02am

I thought (and am thinking) that it's nuts that teams like the Jags (or Broncos for that matter) haven't kicked the tires on Colin Kaepernick. Probably should do some due diligence on Nick Mangold, while they're at it

37
by psncodes1 :: Fri, 09/22/2017 - 6:35am

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