Scramble for the Ball: 2017 West Over/Unders
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Welcome to your third Scramble for the Ball of the 2017 NFL Season. In our first article, we praised the Bills just before they traded away their entire season and inspired Anquan Boldin's sudden retirement. In our second, we discussed the Jaguars in the waning moments of Blake Bortles' job security, the Saints as news broke of Delvin Breaux's broken leg, and the Colts immediately before they lost their starting center for half of the season. This week, we expect Derek Carr to be consumed by an actual black hole, Aaron Donald to hold out for the entire regular season, and everybody who works near [Insert Corporate Sponsor] Field at Mile High to be crushed under the weight of an invisible elephant.
Bryan: There will be plenty of opportunities for that to happen, live and in prime time, too. CBS shows Kansas City at Seattle on Friday, then broadcasts the Battle of Los Angeles on Saturday. Even the lowly 49ers get a prime-time game to strut their stuff on Sunday Night Football on NBC. Just another typical example of the West Coast bias that pervades sports media these days.
Andrew: All of which means we better get a move on, or our picks will go out of date faster than neckbeards and Pet Shop Boys cover versions.
Bryan: I'm fairly sure those were never in style to begin with. Anyway -- on to the over/unders! Go west, young man.
All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing
DENVER BRONCOS (8.5)
Andrew: The AFC West is a great division for viewers who hate quarterbacks. It's not so much that the quarterbacks are bad, though Denver's passing situation isn't exactly vintage Peyton Manning any more. Rather, every single team in this division has at least one top pass-rusher gearing up to pummel those passers. Von Miller is the best of that bunch: is that enough of an edge for the Broncos this year?
Bryan: It's enough of an edge to make sure they're not utterly terrible, at the very least. We've seen a team with a very good defense and no offense to speak of win its division as recently as last season down in Houston. Of course, the AFC West is a little more competitive than the AFC South has been. "Not utterly terrible" isn't the bar they're trying to clear here. Fortunately, they have former first-round pick Paxton Lynch riding in to save the da- -- wait, what? No? He can't beat out Trevor Siemian?
Andrew: Echoes of Houston here, for sure, as the highly-drafted prospect is set to ride the pine behind a lower-drafted mediocrity. The difference here: Deshaun Watson is a rookie. This isn't a rookie Paxton Lynch any more. If he isn't taking hold of this starting job ahead of Siemian, that does not bode well for his future.
Bryan: Would we be more optimistic about this team if they had, say, convinced Tony Romo to put off retirement? Or are the question marks on the offensive line and at running back -- and frankly, even a little bit at receiver -- enough to make us skeptical about this offense no matter who's back there?
Andrew: Not Romo, no, because about the only thing Romo is likely to guarantee at this point is the need for a solid backup. Now if it were, say, some other free-agent quarterback who had demonstrated the ability to play at a very high level for a playoff-caliber team, then maybe, but those guys don't just sit on the waiver wire waiting for a call.
Bryan: Sadly, at press time, Robert Griffin III remains unsigned.
Honestly, this team could compete in a lot of divisions as it's currently constructed. I don't expect the defense to be as good as it has been in the past few seasons, because that level of play is unsustainable, but there's no on-field reason for things to fall apart. Losing DeMarcus Ware isn't going to be the catalyst for a defensive collapse. The quarterback play is going to not be good, but that describes quite a few teams in the NFL. They don't have a third receiver, but Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are still solid options. They attempted to address their offensive line woes by signing Ronald Leary. I'm not as down on them as our projections, which have them 24th in the league in DVOA. That being said, this is the AFC West, and I'm just not seeing 9-7 from Denver again, not with this schedule. Under.
Andrew: I agree completely. This is a team that could be great on defense, but will struggle mightily on offense. The AFC West might be the toughest division in the league. They have a new and unproven coach. The Broncos will remain competitive, but this looks like a roughly .500 team in need of some big pieces to be better than that. Under.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (9)
Bryan: Forget the win total; what's the over/under for when Patrick Mahomes replaces Alex Smith? It's an odd situation, where a playoff team with a perfectly cromulent starting quarterback goes out and uses a first-round pick to draft his successor rather than bolster something else for a playoff run.
Andrew: Surely they don't intend to actually replace Smith with Mahomes during the season? That's no way to get your team to a Super Bowl!
Bryan: Jay Cutler replaced Jake Plummer in 2006, which turned out to also not be a way to get your team to a Super Bowl. You're probably right that the Chiefs won't make a move unless something falls apart this season, but that's a big old ticking clock in the ear of Smith.
Andrew: The Plummer-Cutler thing really irritated me at the time (and not just me), so you just made me glad we're done writing about Denver. It's definitely ominous for Smith's future to have Mahomes not only there but apparently playing very exciting football during the preseason. The Chiefs were one of my favorite teams to watch last year, with quarterback the one damp spot on an otherwise fiery outfit.
Bryan: Yeah, so far, Mahomes doesn't appear to be the next Jim Druckenmiller or Todd Marinovich, which is good for Chiefs fans and bad for Alex. This would be the second time he has lost his job to a hot up-and-coming young draft pick, too. I've got a soft spot for the guy after watching him struggle for so long on some truly terrible 49ers teams. I remember the 49ers faithful chanting that they wanted David Carr -- David Carr!! -- to enter the game to improve the level of quarterback play. No one appreciates the subtle and dangerous art of the checkdown!
Andrew: To be fair to Smith, he has been exactly what he was signed to be for the Chiefs: a safe quarterback who can help his head coach stabilize the franchise, keep things around him on schedule, help the younger players develop, then hand over to his successor when he becomes the guy who's holding the offense back. Everything I wrote about Chase Daniel's play in FOA 2017 (still available!) applies to Smith, except Smith is a better version of that hyper-conservative, functional passer.
Bryan: And, of course, the best way to help your conservative, functional passer succeed for your team with Super Bowl aspirations is to cut his top receiver in the middle of the offseason for no adequately explained reason. So long, Jeremy Maclin!
Andrew: Hello Travis Kelce, who was the main beneficiary during Maclin's absence last season. Kelce, those running backs, and Tyreek Hill give a lot of quality, versatility, and unpredictability around Smith, but at some point he will probably need to pass to an actual wide receiver. Right now, that guy is Chris Conley. Or Albert Wilson. Or ... wait, that's it? They could hold their wide receiver meetings in a cupboard.
Bryan: I will say this, though: for as poor as their offense looks on paper, they haven't looked bad in preseason. Yes, it's just preseason, and there are not enough grains of salt in the world to take that with, but it looks … competent!
Andrew: I found the Chiefs great fun to watch last year. As long as you can forget that Tyreek Hill the football jersey is Tyreek Hill the person, he's electrifying. Kelce is one of the best receiving tight ends in the game, and one of the few tight ends who can line up in any position, run any route, and even take a wide receiver screen 80 yards for a touchdown. Andy Reid does a lot with formations and packages to confound a defense, which often results in beautiful mismatches like Albert Wilson against Telvin Smith in deep centerfield coverage. Their running game is likewise one of the most creative in the league, and they are one of the few teams with a legitimately decent offensive line.
Bryan: Their defense, similarly, is fun to watch, if lacking the oomph or long-term success of Denver. Eric Berry is an amazing player to watch, and grouped with Marcus Peters and Ron Parker, you have a very, very good secondary. There's no more Dontari Poe -- a victim of their tight salary cap situation -- but you have very useful players like Ramik Wilson and Chris Jones to shore up the middle. Oh, and then Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, which are great assets to have in a division with at least two below-average offensive lines. I mean, there's nothing there that matches up with the best in the league at any one position, but it's a group without weaknesses.
I do have a limb I want to go out on here. With an adequate, if not amazing offense, and a solid, if not spectacular, defense, we could see NFL history made. The record for field goals in a season is 44, set by the 2011 San Francisco 49ers. And you know who their quarterback was, right?
Andrew: Alex Smith, the last time he had a highly-drafted rookie quarterback on the bench behind him.
Bryan: So yeah. I'm picking the Chiefs to go 9-7 and win the division -- a tough division, but fair. Now, what's their over/under again … ah hell, another round number. So, I have to decide if this is more likely a 10-6 team or an 8-8 team. That's a huge gap! Down with integer lines! I know they went 12-4 last season, but they didn't have to play the NFC East. I'm going to say the odds that they sputter due to a lack of receiving weapons are greater than the odds that they repeat double-digit wins, so I'm taking the under. Nasty line, this one.
Andrew: This line screams "push" like an over-caffeinated midwife, but I'm taking the over. This is the most balanced team in the division, and good enough to take wins away from all of the other good teams around them. I think they're the best of the West, in the AFC at least.
SAN DIEGO LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (7.5)
Bryan: Well, finally, justice is done. 56 years ago, George Pernicano and company ripped the Chargers from their rightful home in Los Angeles. They have been reaping the rewards of their ill-gotten booty ever since, but now, finally, the long and glorious history of the Los Angeles Chargers can be restored. They can remember all the classic moments of their one true home season. The loss in the initial AFL Championship Game! The time they played the Raiders twice in two weeks because the AFL didn't really get how scheduling worked! Their first general manager resigning before a game could even take place! Fantastic crowds!
Hey, I've got an over/under for you! In 1960, the Chargers averaged a home attendance of 15,768 in their one season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Will they beat that in the 30,000-ish seat StubHub Center?
Andrew: Will anybody even notice if they do? This division is quite unique, in that the team which has had clearly the best (or at least, most established) quarterback over the past three years has not been the favorite for the division in any of those years, never mind all of them.
Bryan: Yeah, Alex Smith and the Chiefs have certainly been unlucky. But what about the Chargers?
Andrew: Any suggestion that Alex Smith is actually a better quarterback than Philip Rivers rather than, say, in a better situation with better coaching, an actual offensive line, and more than one receiver or running back who can play six games without ending up on injured reserve ... any such suggestion should be met with smiting and derision. Smolder, under my derisive smiting!
Bryan: Maybe moving to Los Angeles and changing coaches will get rid of the weird voodoo curse someone placed on the Chargers. In the Mike McCoy era, the Chargers were leading at the end of the third quarter 30 times. They lost 12 of those games, more than any other team in the league. The average NFL team has a winning percentage of .822 when leading after three quarters. The Chargers were at just .600.
Andrew: I'm wary of that raw number without knowing how many opportunities they had. Is that a high rate, or simply a virtue of suckier teams not having as many leads to lose?
Bryan: It's the fourth-lowest rate, ahead of the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Browns. Congratulations, Los Angeles, your team is slightly better than the dregs of the league! Of course, those three teams don't have much experience playing with leads; you'd think at some point the Chargers would figure this stuff out.
Andrew: In their defense, the San Diego Chargers won 27 games over Mike McCoy's four seasons, just under seven per year. The Jaguars and Browns won exactly 15 apiece over that period, and the Buccaneers won 21. So slightly better only pertains to this one specific item.
[ad placeholder 3]
As for the Los Angeles Chargers, things are actually looking reasonably decent on the field. Well, as long as you aren't looking directly at the line when they're on offense.
Bryan: It's alright, I saved my eclipse glasses, so I can look at the offensive line without going blind now.
But you're right -- there's a lot of talent on this team, relocation jokes aside. The skill positions are deeper and I think the defense fits better into Gus Bradley's 4-3. Joey Bosa, especially, is going to take off with a full season in the league and without a long holdout. They've got the cornerbacks to compete in a division without a real superstar quarterback -- I see you, Raiders fans, we'll get to you -- and the nice thing about blowing a lot of fourth-quarter leads is that a small improvement on the field can end up leading to a large improvement in record. I'm actually taking the over here.
Andrew: There's a lot to like about that defense, especially with the front seven bookended by possibly the best pass-rushing duo in the division -- not the best two individual rushers, but it's a terrific pair. That said, every other team in this division has at least one elite pass-rusher, and player-for-player Denver and Kansas City should have better secondaries. The difference between those three will come down to what happens on offense, and the Chargers offensive line was wrecked by the Saints -- the SAINTS!!! -- defense this week to the tune of eight sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 13 tackles for loss. Yes, it's preseason, but that's not exactly Khalil Mack and Von Miller out there. No, they didn't have Rivers playing, but that only goes to show what he's up against. This might be the toughest division in the league, and the Chargers yet again have a major weakness in the one area that can be exploited by every single other team in the division. I don't think that's as true of any other team in the AFC West, which unfortunately leads me to the under.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (10)
Bryan: Hoah boy. I'm going to have to go a bit Skip Bayless on this one and bust out the HOT TAEKS.
Andrew: I equip my ice spear and ready an action to hurl it at thy draconic takeage.
Bryan: Kinky, yet concerning.
Most of these over/unders are, honestly, very close, and I could be swayed either way with a little bit of conversation. But I really think the Raiders are going to be bad this year. And not in an "oh, they're due for some regression" sort of way, but actually, factually, a poor NFL team.
Andrew:I again don't much like their back seven, but I'm not really sure where you would see them getting that much worse. Care to elucidate?
Bryan: On defense, I love Khalil Mack and think Bruce Irvin's a very good player, too, but that's it. All the other projected starters range from slightly below adequate to complete unknowns to massive liabilities, and even two elite pass-rushers -- which Irvin does not qualify as, by the by -- is not enough for me to be buying this defense in any way, shape, or form. So there's your start.
Last year, they only outscored their opponents by 31 points. That's not the record of a 12-4 team; that's a 9-7 team that got lucky. They got two of those wins because lol Chargers, to boot -- a missed 36-yard field goal attempt and a Chargers fumble in their own end zone. Oakland was 7-2 in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, which I keep hammering on over and over again, because it is not sustainable. They got by, to a certain extent, on smoke and mirrors -- Eric Weddle dropping game-clinching interceptions, Cam Newton being strip-sacked late in a game, etc.
Andrew: A ballsy go-for-broke two-point conversion against the Saints.
Bryan: And I said I'd get back to this, but Derek Carr is not (yet) a superstar quarterback. I don't care how many MVP votes he got; it was mostly about the narrative of the young quarterback coming into a franchise that had been utterly, disastrously, miserably terrible for so long and gave them some semblance of quality play. People are projecting him to take the next step forward in 2017 -- which is why he got the $25 million-per-year megadeal which briefly shocked a nation who forgot that every new quarterback contract shatters records, but what if this is it? By their third season, most quarterbacks are who we think they are.
Andrew: Well, if last year is who Derek Carr is then he's the seventh-most valuable quarterback in the league per DYAR, or sixth-most efficient in DVOA. That's pretty darned good. While his offensive line was one of the five best in the game, he doesn't actually have the greatest cast of backs and receivers -- good, sure, but not "seventh-best in the league" good.
Bryan His adjusted interception rate is more than double his interception rate, as well -- he only threw six interceptions, but defenders dropped six more of them. That offensive line was the best in pass protecting in football last season, which also bolsters his stats. I dunno, I'm just not yet sold on him as a franchise leader. Not yet. He's in the same boat as a Joe Flacco or a Kirk Cousins to me -- certainly not a problem per se, but not someone I would expect to lead a franchise into the playoffs year after year based on his own skills. Again, could he get better? Yes, sure, he's still young -- but I don't see him there yet, and it feels like everyone else is assuming he'll make the jump.
Andrew: What interests me are those other numbers you mentioned: Carr and the Raiders could easily play at the exact same level this season and win three fewer games. I had thought to look for upward regression from the defense, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought last year. Seems like every time I watched them, Sean Smith was being roasted alive down the sideline or David Amerson was 20 feet away from the receiver he was meant to be covering, but they actually finished barely below average. Instead, the more likely regression candidate is the offense: ten spots higher than the previous year, with the fourth-ranked passing game by DVOA.
Bryan: And we haven't mentioned how they're moving to Las Vegas! That's going to do a number on your home-field advantage; no team in the league had a lower home attendance than the San Diego Chargers last season, and the St. Louis Rams were at the bottom of the league the year before. Forget what anyone else says, the surest way to get your fans to boycott your team and stop coming to games is to announce that you're leaving.
I dunno. I'm not saying they're going to be, like, Dennis Allen Raiders bad, but I could easily see 7-9 here. A 10-win over/under just feels crazy. I'm taking the under.
Andrew: I'm not as pessimistic as you are, but I think ten wins is a stretch. I'm always wary of double-digit over/unders, and I'm not nearly confident enough to take the over on this one. My wrists weren't made for pushing, so under it is.
Bryan: Of course, now that I've gone out on that limb, the Raiders will roll to a 13-3 season behind MVP Marshawn Lynch, and I'll look like a right fool. Ah well, I'm used to it.
Man, and I was just followed by Raiderjoe on Twitter, too. Now I feel bad. Let's move on to the NFC quickly before he puts down his Sierra Nevada.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (8)
Andrew: It's a peculiar feature of the West divisions that almost every team has a defense which is generally considered stronger than its offense, even those teams with genuinely good quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is/was/has been/could be one of those quarterbacks. The hype train these guys were on was ravaged like a Lannister loot wagon last season. Have they suitably reloaded for another attempt?
Bryan: It's less a matter of reloading as it is trying to keep Palmer upright and in one piece, so let's hope the trainers stocked up on their athletic tape this offseason. I think the problem the Cardinals had last season wasn't Palmer when he was upright and throwing passes so much as it was the fact that his oft-injured offensive line had just about the same amount of stopping power as a Jell-O mold. Arizona's sack rate rose from 4.4 percent in 2015 to 6.3 percent last season, which isn't good on a 37-year-old body. All the successful older quarterbacks who compare to Palmer -- John Elway, Dan Marino, Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner, Tony Romo -- had good-to-great offensive line play that allowed them to continue to operate well. Most of the flops were aided to obscurity by turnstiles at the line of scrimmage.
[ad placeholder 4]
Andrew: Well, in that case, I'm looking at their starting line and ... I'm not exactly encouraged by what I see. Where's the improvement coming from? Health alone?
Bryan: That's the hope. They had 28.1 adjusted games lost on the offensive line last season, sixth-worst in the league. They started nine different players at right tackle or right guard. They're also swapping sides for D.J. Humphries and Jared Veldheer, thinking that the Titanic's deck chair organization left something to be desired. But hey, as long as they're not getting three starts from Ulrick John -- who I thought was one of Robin Hood's Merry Men -- they're bound to be at least somewhat better.
Andrew: If that can work, the critical pieces of their successful offensive formula -- David Johnson, ageless Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Jermaine Gresham, a few speedy deep threats, and Bruce Arians piecing it all together -- are still in place: My biggest question marks are a couple of key defensive losses, and the disastrous mess of a kicking game.
Bryan: "A couple" defensive losses might be underselling it; they're replacing nearly 5,000 snaps from a year ago. They have solid plans in place for everyone (well, possibly everyone except for Calais Campbell, where it's "everyone needs to step up"), but that's a lot of moving parts to try to replace in one offseason. Especially at safety, on a team that might lean more on safety play than anyone else in the NFL.
Andrew: I'm not completely sure they rely on their safety play the most of any team in the division (Seattle), but I take your point that the safties are important. They have lost some terrific players. Even the most solid of solid plans are still only just plans until we see how it fits on the field.
Bryan: At least the special teams can't be as bad as a year ago, right? Right? ... Right?
Andrew: I don't know. Why don't we look at how changing the kicker impacts on an underperforming unit? Like, say, in Tampa Bay ... okay maybe not. How about in New Orleans ... no. San Diegoooh. This is not promising.
Bryan: I do think the Cardinals will be alright this year, though. Better than alright; I think they could be playoff bound once again. There's a high ceiling and a low floor here, but I'm comfortable taking the over on 8-8 and seeing how that ends up.
Andrew: What we've only briefly mentioned here is coaching: I do think the Cardinals are well coached on offense and defense, but I'm beyond skeptical about their special teams given how consistently they've underperformed under Amos Jones. It's all about potential with Arizona -- they could easily go on a tear and finish 11-5, or fall apart and go 5-11. I think they'll be a playoff contender, and that means over eight wins.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (5.5)
Bryan: Thought experiment. What if Jared Goff is just bad? And I mean that in a hopeful way -- "just" bad, as opposed to record-shatteringly awful in every split we can find?
Andrew: I don't actually know what Goff is, and I refuse to draw any firm conclusions from whatever it was that Jeff Fisher's Rams were trying to do last year. You can't put a young quarterback in that situation and expect him to succeed. No, Andrew Luck wasn't exactly on the 2006 Colts when he took his first professional snaps in Indianapolis, but it was at least a 21st century professional football offense. Jared Goff might be terrible, but he never stood a chance.
Bryan: Are you implying Jeff Fisher isn't the quarterback guru the city of Los Angeles needed? I'm shocked, shocked by this development.
Andrew: And I would not be shocked, shocked at all to see development from Goff. That doesn't mean I'm expecting to see the second coming of Kurt Warner, or even Marc Bulger, but it would be good to see him receive actual coaching, running plays with a non-zero chance of success, possibly even throwing to real wide receivers (yes, I know Kenny Britt is good) before dismissing him as a thinner JaMarcus Russell.
Bryan: And credit to the Rams; they went out and got Goff some help. Andrew Whitworth is an upgrade on the offensive line, and they've imported the powerhouse Buffalo passing game of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, with third-round pick Cooper Kupp likely also displacing Tavon Austin as an "actual receiver to throw the ball to." I think it's not entirely unreasonable to just pretend last year didn't happen and count this year as Goff's "real" rookie season. In which case, I ask again -- what if Goff is just bad this year? All of a sudden, you look at that defense and start to go hrmmm...
Andrew: If Goff is merely replacement level -- say, between the level of Joe Flacco and Case Keenum -- then the Rams are probably hitting the over, possibly 8-8. If he's any better than that, they're playoff contenders. Assuming Wade Phillips lives up to his billing.
Bryan: Wade Phillips has the magic touch when it comes to defenses. Everywhere he goes there's an immediate and substantial improvement. With the talent that Los Angeles has on defense, look out!
So here's @sonofbum's record by DVOA. DEN: 27 to 4. BUF: 19 to 10. ATL: 26 to 12. SD: 30 to 13. DAL: 14 to 9. HOU: 31 to 6. DEN II: 4 to 1.
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 31, 2017
Of course, that previous paragraph is null and void if Aaron Donald's holdout continues into the regular season, which some reporters claim it might. I'm not usually one for saying that any given defensive player is an irreplaceable loss, but Donald's not just any given defensive player.
Andrew: If any defensive coordinator can compensate for him though, it's Phillips. The Rams have a talented front even without Donald, though he is clearly their best defensive lineman. The secondary is the bigger question, but Phillips has claimed that they are a lot better than people realize. Which, again, of course he has -- he's not going to say they suck. Still, it's not the defense I'd be worried about at all. They also have terrific special teams, where they've ranked in the top quarter of the league every year since 2013.
Bryan: So we're back to Goff, then. And, to be fair, the offensive line keeping Goff upright, and Todd Gurley showing more of his 2015 form than his 2016 form and ... let's just group all the offense together into one big bag of question marks and leave it at that.
Andrew: The schedule is still a concern, too. There are not a lot of obvious wins, in or out of the division. I still think they'll scrape together six wins though. A win against a luckless Colts team in Week 1 would be a great boon to get them going -- and if I'm Indianapolis, I'm not rushing Luck back for that game, especially without his starting center. The schedule is more reasonable at home than away. They'll make life tough on some teams, win a war of attrition or two, and hit six or seven wins. Over.
Bryan: I'm with you here -- there's enough young promise here where I could see some natural development helping boost them from the absolute dregs of the league. Maybe the Rams will finally get their 7-9 bullsh*t after all. Over.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (4.5)
Andrew: Four head coaches in four seasons. Penny-pinching ownership. Coach and general manager removed after a two-win season. This isn't a 49ers offseason, it's the prologue to a book of Bill Walsh leadership sermons. It took even Walsh himself two full seasons to dig the 49ers out of the wreckage of his predecessors. Is there any hope at all for John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to beat that pace?
Bryan: The hardest part of being a 49ers fan is figuring out what to do with all this bandwagon merchandise. I've worn a hole in my Jim Harbaugh Khakis, and my Jim Tomsula Bludgeon commemorative T-shirt is beginning to get a little thin, but I've still got months of Chip Kelly-branded smoothies to get through. Now I've got to get on board with the Lynchahan San Fran Master Plan? This is exhausting!
Andrew: You cannot possibly have bought bandwagon merchandise for teams quarterbacked by Blaine Gabbert and now Brian Hoyer. Your team is collecting reject quarterbacks from the AFC SOUTH, of all divisions.
Bryan: Woah, woah, woah, let's put a knife-edge worth of difference between Gabbert and Hoyer here. Hoyer is a bad NFL starter. Gabbert is a bad NFL backup. Believe me, it's been awhile since the quarterback position in San Francisco has featured someone capable of looking like an NFL-caliber player.
Really, that's the story of the 49ers' offense this year. They're taking bad NFL starters into their lineup and seeing improvement over the utter disasters that were there before. How many franchises would be excited to see Marquise Goodwin as their second wideout? Is Aldrick Robinson your idea of an ideal third receiver? It is if you've suffered through Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton!
Andrew: There are still some pieces here, though. We named five good players on the Jets; it should be possible to do the same easily enough for the 49ers.
Bryan: Sure. NaVorro Bowman, even coming off of injuries, is a good player. DeForest Buckner is a budding star. Joe Staley is still a top-10 left tackle, though he's aging. Kyle Juszczyk is the best fullback in the NFL, for whatever that's worth (it's worth 42 points in Scrabble if you can smuggle in an extra "Z"). Pierre Garcon is the best receiver the 49ers have had since ... I'm going to say Anquan Boldin at the least, and probably a bit further back than that. Brian Hoyer was a legitimately good quarterback last season, albeit in a limited sample size. That's six right there, before we start arguing about oft-injured Carlos Hyde or once-Pro Bowler Eric Reid.
Andrew: Brian Hoyer is just good enough to get you crushed mercilessly in a playoff game, which...
Bryan: Do you know how badly the 49ers faithful would love to be crushed mercilessly in a playoff game right about now?
Andrew: ... was exactly the point I was making!
Bryan: The draft looks very promising for the 49ers already, as well. Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster have looked very, very sharp in preseason action, and even third-round surprise C.J. Beathard has been showing promise at quarterback, which should help when he inevitably takes over in December for a team well out of contention. After years and years of the cupboard being bare -- no team got fewer starts from their draft picks over the last five years than the Trent Baalke 49ers -- there's actual legitimate reason to be hopeful for the future in San Francisco. No, I'm fully on board here.
Andrew: The future has potential, certainly. Not the immediate future though, which is our main concern here.
Bryan: Oh, definitely. The 49ers do not have cornerbacks of any shape or size, and they're just kind of crossing their fingers that the offensive line will suddenly mature into something respectable. The 49ers had so many holes everywhere that it was an impossible situation to fix in an offseason. That's why Lynch and Shanahan got six-year deals; it's acknowledging that the situation is terrible and there's some serious digging out to do before respectability is even something worth considering.
Andrew: I can see a situation where the front seven comes together quite quickly, particularly against the run, and Hoyer performs almost competently in a mediocre run-based offense featuring Vance McDonald as the top receiver. They do, however, face a truly brutal schedule, and it's hard to see where five wins could possibly come from. Jacksonville maybe? At Chicago? L.A. Rams?
Bryan: The 49ers have the longest active Week 1 winning streak in the NFL at six years in a row. Give them seven months to gameplan, and they can beat anyone in the league.
Andrew: So they're good for 1-15, at least. I don't see a situation where a team this talent-starved, even with much-improved coaching, wins more than a quarter of its games against this schedule. Lynch and Shanahan have time. Good. They'll need it. Under.
Bryan: No, I'm all in on the hype train here. And by "all in," I mean "6-10 and some entertaining losses." Frankly, I'll take it. Over.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10.5)
Bryan: Seattle just lost their starting left tackle for the season, and I don't think that actually makes them any worse. Is that a statement of credit to the Seahawks in general, or a statement as to just how bad their offensive line is?
Andrew: That Matt Tobin could probably be an upgrade is a statement of how bad their offensive line is. It's possible to see what the Seahawks are trying to do. It's more difficult to see how they actually achieve it. Is the idea, honestly, to just hope again that Russell Wilson can run away from the pass rush and not get hurt?
Bryan: The logic is sound -- you can't be great everywhere in the salary cap era, so be great everywhere but one spot and hope you can scrape by there. It makes a lot more sense in Madden or something where you can turn the injury slider down, though. While Wilson did manage to survive all 16 games last season, he was notably hampered at times. If he goes down, they've only got Trevone Boykin behind him. That's not exactly comforting; it might be the worst backup situation of any of the major Super Bowl contenders -- which, don't get me wrong, Seattle still is, offensive line or no offensive line.
Andrew: This is a team fighting to keep on top of the attrition that comes with being one of the most talented teams in the league. They still have their key secondary pieces and a lot of top-level talent, but they're leaking depth on defense and not quite as formidable as they once were. I like the Bradley McDougald signing for that reason: they now at least have a backup plan if they lose one of their safeties for a few games, rather than hoping Steven Terrell can stick a finger in the dam.
Bryan: The Legion of Boom isn't what it once was, but it's still the best defense in football from top to bottom. Obviously, the broken leg for Earl Thomas was a death blow for them, but they still finished as a top-five defense. They're beginning to get to the point where they're aging out of greatness -- Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are now on the wrong side of 30 -- but that's a problem for the 2018-and-beyond Seahawks in all likelihood, not something to fret over this year.
Andrew: Did Tyler Lockett finally oust Jermaine Kearse from the starting lineup, do we know? Baldwin, Lockett, and Paul Richardson could be a lot of fun to watch with Jimmy Graham and Russell Wilson, assuming the line ever lets them run a pass route. Adding that to, as you say, one of the best defenses in the league should mean a ten-win team, and unless Arizona goes wild there isn't a huge amount of competition for the division title.
Bryan: Unless, of course, all the hits lead to not just a diminished Russell Wilson but an inactive one. A healthy Russell Wilson is a spectacular player to watch. A hobbled one just doesn't make everything tick in the same way. And if he misses, say, a month of the season, that could really damage this team's playoff hopes.
Andrew: Injuries, however, being eminently unpredictable, I am comfortable again crowning Seattle in the NFC West. Their schedule is quite tough in places, but they are one of the few squads where I worry more for the teams facing them. I think they hit around 12-4, and quite comfortably over even a ten-win money line.
Bryan: I don't think it's quite a New England in the AFC East or Pittsburgh in the AFC North (we'll get to that) situation, but the Seahawks are one of just a handful of teams I feel comfortable projecting with double-digit wins on average, so yeah, I'll give them the division. About half the league could realistically get to that double-digit win margin, but the Seahawks are one of the few I'd be legitimately surprised to see come up short. For the fourth time in the NFC West, I'm taking the over, so I guess the division better be a lot better than most people are projecting!
Andrew: Love is blind, as far as the eye can see. At least you took the under on the entire AFC South, so you clearly have those matchups only going one way.
Bryan: It's an import/export thing, apparently. Shippin' those wins to the wicky-wicky Wild Wild West.
Andrew: With that, we'll see you next week, where we further analyze how disastrously we have jinxed the entire league (or the general attrition of the NFL preseason, whichever works) as we spread our electric blue eyes across the frozen hellscapes of the AFC and NFC North.
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, pictures of invisible elephants, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at Contact Us.