Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Jun 2013

ESPN: How NFL's Worst Teams Can Improve

ESPN recently ran its "Future Power Rankings," rating each team on how well set up they are for the future. In this piece, I take a look at the bottom five teams and what they need to do to improve: Jacksonville, Oakland, Buffalo, Tennessee, and the New York Jets.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 27 Jun 2013

24 comments, Last at 15 Jul 2013, 2:38pm by Karl Cuba


by Mehllageman56 (not verified) :: Fri, 06/28/2013 - 11:49am

I'm not able to read the article (I'm not an insider), but just the paragraph I can read makes me optimistic that Aaron took a sledgehammer to the original rankings. The chances that the worst teams of any given year would be all from the same conference is pretty damn small. The list also took no notice of cap room; the Niners were ranked first, but they're already up against the cap this year.
To go back to Aaron's paragraph about the Jets; its all about quarterback play. The insider rankings assumed quarterback play would remain the same, but that is a really silly argument considering that about 6 quarterbacks have the potential to be drafted in the first round next year. At this moment we have no idea which teams will employ them.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 06/28/2013 - 2:50pm

He didn't really take a sledgehammer to the ratings, he didn't really address the methodology at all. He does mention quarterbacking, which is what you would expect.

I don't think the 49ers are as cap strapped as you assume. They have three things working in their favour there, firstly the front loading of some past contracts. They paid Patrick Willis $17 million in cash a couple of years ago and made a similar arrangement with Joe Staley.

They just received another break as Justin Smith agreed to a extension and pay cut that gave the niners extra cap room thus year (about 5 million I think) and saw him sign on for two more years for about seven million in total.

They also have several veterans on expiring large money contracts that should provide cap room to extend players like Kaepernick and Aldon Smith. $6m from Gore, $6m from Boldin, $7 million from cutting Rogers, $5 million from Whitner, $4 million from Goodwin. The replacements for some of those players are already on the roster and the niners have continued to stockpile draft picks (probably 6 in the first 3 rounds next year)to help find replacements for the rest.

by theslothook :: Fri, 06/28/2013 - 6:40pm

It will be interesting to see how much the 49ers withstand another year of perceived regression to the mean. While pristine health was a big factor - there were major contributions for many unlikely sources. Alex Boone was a revelation. Frank Gore had a career resurgence. Whitner(while having a post season to forget) was quite effective for them, as were culliver, brown, and rodgers. Are all of these players above average, good, or even great? Idk. I could see slippage from any of them.

And that's the trouble with teams who don't possess an elite qb. Slippage from the rest of the roster is harder to mask. I say this barring any huge strides from Kaep which is likely, but which I'm ignoring for now.

by Mehllageman56 (not verified) :: Sat, 06/29/2013 - 3:27am

I think the main issue is whether Kaepernick is an elite qb or not. Many quarterbacks looked elite for a year or so, and then fell down to earth. I'm not a Niners fan, but I think he will prove to be. You're correct in your assertion that teams without the elite quarterback regress to the mean, but I don't know if that describes the Niners situation.

by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 06/29/2013 - 6:13pm

It's quite funny to see the opposing views represented here and on the 49er Super Bowl Nation site. Most of Niners Nation reacted with outraged fury at FOA's prediction of regression, there was much wailing and a collective temper tantrum. The people like me who tried to explain that the underlying assumptions were entirely valid were in the vast minority. It doesn't help when you have to try to explain ideas like wins not always being the strongest indicator of team strength.

Now FO people are waiting for the regression, which is amusing because I've been trying to tell NN folks that they are wrong to dismiss FO because almost every prediction of regression came true, it just missed on the wins by a few.

Regression on volatile special teams? Check. Pretty much everything but Andy Lee's punting and the kicking game was a total shambles.
Regression of defensive turnovers? Check
The expected increase in injuries was partially true and quite possibly partially hidden. As soon as the season ended nearly a quarter of the starters went in for surgery: the Smiths, Staley, Iupati, Gore, Brooks were all dealing with injuries. They ended up down to one decent receiver and all the top four outside linebackers were all hurt to some degree.

This was largely overlooked because a couple of other positive factors kicked in, the arrival of Alex Boone as a really good guard provided the final piece of a great line and Kaepernick turned up. Obviously Kaepernick's play is going to be one of the most significant factors in how good the niners are going forwards. I think he has the talent, the work ethic, the intelligence and the coaching to continue to improve but time will tell.

The point I'm trying to make is that the niners did see most of the expected regression but they remained a little lucky with injuries and improved in some other areas which made up for it.

by theslothook :: Sat, 06/29/2013 - 7:47pm

I agree with everything you said. Still, to say Kaep was responsible for staving off regression is slightly inaccurate. The 49ers were very much a sb contender with alex smith at qb. I would say both smith and kaep were equivalent players till about the NE game, when Kaep's upside started to really blossom.

The big I was making was, yes, the regression happened but contributions from unexpected sources contributed mightily to the 49ers. Are we so sure these same things can be counted on next year? I'm not saying they can't, im not even saying I expect them to fail, I'm just wondering:

1) Boone - out of nowhere star. Maybe he stays great, or he has a mike jenkins like career nosedive. Or maybe he regressed to being just a solid, good player. Hard to say.

2) Goodwin - There were reasons to suspect he was on the downside of his career when he was cut by the saints. He was old and had come a season of injuries. Two straight years of good health and good play. Will that continue going forward? Again, maybe, maybe not.

3) Gore - I honestly think gore's about to fall of a cliff, but the 49ers have L. James and rb isn't a big issue anyways.

4) Dbs - who knows what to make of this group. They had a good season but imploded in the playoffs. I think whitner is a box player. Culliver is young, but again(see mike jenkins). I think brown is good, but rodgers is also old and possibly could see a fall off.

5) Aldon Smith - This is the biggest mystery. Was his dip in production shoulder related or Jsmith related? Idk, but the before and after results were pretty staggering. If its the latter, that could be a real concern.

Again- I think these are the areas that could spell regression to the 49ers. One or none may happen, but that's how they should be viewed.

by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 06/30/2013 - 12:28pm

I thought Smith was looking like he'd hit the wall. I don't think he could have beaten the Bears and maybe the Pats as well, that's why I think Kaepernick's arrival was important.

I think Boone's pretty good, he's probably less of a surprise to niners fans than everyone else, a talented prospect that overcame alcoholism.

Goodwin is probably on the downwards slope but cap issues were also involved in him moving on from New Orleans. The niners would look to replace him with either Looney or Kilgore if he falters.

Gore hasn't had much pace or burst for a few years, it's all about vision for him. I think he'll probably be OK and there are several young backs hungrily awaiting carries behind him.

Frankly, I'm sick of the Aldon Smith talk. Justin Smith is 34, his teammates have put up 14 plus sacks twice and both times it was Aldon Smith. I'm sure there's some synergy between them but the desire to rubbish them is just inane.

The defensive backs are more interesting, the niners only have Culliver under contract after this year so you can bet they'll be drafting a couple early next spring. I don't see any substantial reason for the group to decline if the pass rush is as good as it was before the Smith Brothers got hurt and they should have much better depth on the line next year.

I don't really understand why you think the 49ers in particular will regress more than other teams. What is it about them that you don't like?

by theslothook :: Sun, 06/30/2013 - 2:35pm


I'm just being nitpicky. They are arguably one of three or 4 best teams in football and I suspect will be again next year. Like you mentioned, all of the purported weaknesses I listed are all things I could say about any team. Take Denver - Manning could get hurt or regress like Favre in 2010. The broncos defense was possibly a huge fluke, getting contributions from unknowns like chris harris, mitch unrein, vickerson, and tony carter. The running game is a huge unknown with their rbs. Plus the division is going to be tougher next year.

To the aldon smith thing. I tried to watch him closely, but I was too busy. I asked a 49er friend about him. He noted that aldon has a good bull rush and has got really good hands to knock back blockers - but hes very impotent when there was a bit of traffic. Ie- if there was a standard rush, he wold often get caught in the wash. He said this because he was convinced that the 49ers this year had a very overrated pass rush. Again, these are his opinions. NOw, regardless of all of it, I think aldon will keep getting better as a player so that part is fine. But I think I agree with him about the 49er pass rush - there were some games it was overwhelming(chicago, detroit, gb, nyjets, etc). But there were a bunch of games it wasn't.

by Perfundle :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 12:12pm

Well, Chicago, Green Bay and NY are awful at pass protection, so those weren't a surprise.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 4:29pm

Most prolific pass rushers load up on the weaker blocking they encounter.

When you say he had a bunch of games, he had six without a sack. Three came at the end of the year when he and Justin Smith were hurt and even then he gave Solder fits at the start. He sat out most of the second half of the final game of the season against the Cards and opportunities to pin his ears back in that horrendous Seattle game were few and far between. The same can be said for the Giants game and he got by Kalil av few times but Ponder skittered away and made a good throw. In summary, he didn't get any pressure against Buffalo.

by Perfundle :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 12:10pm

"I thought Smith was looking like he'd hit the wall. I don't think he could have beaten the Bears and maybe the Pats as well, that's why I think Kaepernick's arrival was important."

Huh? Before he got hurt, he had just gone 7-8 with one TD against St. Louis (a good pass defense) and 18-19 with three TD against Arizona (A great pass defense).

Also, I don't think they would've needed a good performance out of Smith to beat Chicago with Campbell playing.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 4:08pm

I meant that he'd hit the wall in terms of being as good as he could get. Her was awful against the Giants and if he had repeated that performance versus the Bears we could have lost that one, the Bears usually play a similar scheme to the one the Giants used that day. I had no confidence in him for the playoffs.

His impressive stats during his last game and a half slightly cover up that he was throwing a lot of very short passes. I think I commented on one of the Audibles threads that the game against the Cards was the least impressive 18 of 19 games you'll ever see. The cards loaded up to stop the run and left the short pass open all day.

by greybeard :: Sat, 07/06/2013 - 8:11am

I agree. Of the hundreds of 18 of 19 games QBs had, The one by Smith was the worst.

by greybeard :: Sat, 07/06/2013 - 8:13am

I also agree that when a QB repeats the worst performance of his last 30 starts there is a good chance that the team will lose to another team.

by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 07/07/2013 - 5:19pm

Another notably poor performance came against the same team in the NFC Championship game the previous year, where we might have won if he'd have been able to complete more than one pass to a wide receiver.

Look at Gore's stat line from that Cards game, it's terrible. Does that mean that Gore was rubbish and Smith was great or does it tell you about how the Cards looked to stop the 49er offense that day?

My opinion (and of course you are welcome to regard it as less than worthless) is that in that game Smith did a very good job executing tasks that were made simple by a defensive scheme tailored to stopping Gore.

by greybeard :: Tue, 07/09/2013 - 10:00am

Arizona tried to stop Gore and Smith excelled. So that does not count. Because every QB out there would have thrown for 95% completion with 13 ypa 3 TDs and no interceptions under those conditions.
And he did not play well against Giants twice. That means that he will keep on playing bad against other teams on every game. Except for Arizona because they focus on Gore and let Smith beat them.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 07/09/2013 - 2:48pm

Smith's play in the Giants game gave me the impression that he could not be relied upon to be a qb who didn't lose the game while the niners won with defense, special teams and the run game. I'm entitled to that opinion without you resorting to that prissy response.

The sample size on that 95% completion rate is tiny, three drops and his numbers drop to good not historic and even then it's one game out of a career.

What would be useful is if we had something that could provide insight into the mindset of the coaching staff that would suggest they thought he had hit a wall. Perhaps if they had made some move like benching him in favour of a player who had never started a game?

by greybeard :: Mon, 07/15/2013 - 5:23am

You are making strawman arguments. If a few games against a team define someone's upper limit then yoy can claim any quarterback to have hit a wall. As an example Manning had a six interception game against San diego and then a four interception game against them a few years later.

You are the one who did not find his performance against Arizona not impressive. A few drops here and there and it still would be impressive. I did not bring it as a proof of anything other than how you are emphasizing performance at one game and then de-emphasizing performance at another game in a random manner. You are simply rationalizing the thoughts you already have, not providing evidence for them. And I am pretty sure your thoughts were formed before the giants game. Most likely preceded that game by a few years.

Harbaugh thinks Kap is/will be better QB than Smith. Unless you know what Harbough thinks the upper limit of Kap is that tells nothing about the upper limit of Smith.

(Edited for correcting spelling)

by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 07/15/2013 - 2:38pm

I am not making strawman arguments, I suggest you google the term. Unless you are referring to the final paragraph where I was simply responding to you in the manner that you deserved after deciding to sarcastically attack me for simply explaining my opinion to another poster.

I was giving MY OWN OPINION of why I PERSONALLY thought that Kaepernick caused improvement in the 49er offense. I don't have to provide any evidence backing my opinion to people that cannot even be civil.

"And I am pretty sure your thoughts were formed before the giants game. Most likely preceded that game by a few years."

Dead wrong, you can look at my history on this site where I have defended Smith over the years but as I have said several times, I felt that he had stopped the growth he had showed under Harbaugh and as the special teams had regressed I felt that we would need more from the quarterback position to progress in the playoffs.

"You are the one who did not find his performance against Arizona not impressive. A few drops here and there and it still would be impressive."

Did I say that or did I say he was good? (Clue: "his numbers drop to good") However, I thought there were other factors facilitating his production.

And you've still not got Harbaugh right.

by Perfundle :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 12:24pm

Another thing that helped was that their opponents regressed to the mean even more. The most obvious of these was Green Bay, whose offense simply didn't look in sync for most of the year. Detroit also dropped precipitously. Then they played Chicago without Cutler and Arizona both times without Kolb.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 4:33pm

Well you've done a good job grinding every little bit of that axe.

by Mehllageman56 (not verified) :: Fri, 06/28/2013 - 3:44pm

I was going by Over the Cap's list of the five teams who needed money from the June 1st deadline. I guess I assumed the cap issues would be lingering into the next couple of years, but going by what you are saying, the Niners have found a way around it. You're right about them stockpiling picks, and how that could solve any long term cap issues.
I was less annoyed by the Niners topping the list, then by ESPN dropping the Jets to the bottom. I just figured they wanted to pound on their favorite whipping boy no matter what.

by St Paul Divorce Lawyer (not verified) :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 12:07am

team work and unity is the best way to success