compiled by Vincent Verhei
This is one of our favorite features to write every year. It is also one of our most hated pieces to write every year.
Every group of football fans -- be they fantasy leaguers, officemates, drinking buddies, television crews, or in our case, a loose-knit collection of laptop warriors enslaved to our Internet connections -- loves to debate and discuss which teams will excel in the ensuing season, and which will suck. For our crew, it's an especially sweet time. After months of squinting at spreadsheets preparing our annual book (still available!), we get to put the data aside and put our knowledge to the test. It's a chance to find out if we're as smart as we think we are. The downside, though, is that our picks our on record. Here's what we thought would happen in each of the past five years.
So here's your standard warning: Predictions are probably wrong. It is the intrinsic nature of the NFL -- there are so many variables and so much luck involved in a 16-game season that teams will make the playoffs or bomb for totally unexpected and sometimes baffling reasons. We can only guess.
Let's say we think the Green Bay Packers have the best chance of any team in the NFC to make it to the Super Bowl -- 16.5 percent, perhaps, by some odds. We'll also say that Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia each have a better than 10 percent chance to make the Super Bowl, and everyone else is bringing up the rear.
OK, so we pick Green Bay to win the NFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is a four-in-five chance the pick will be incorrect. So all preseason predictions are going to be mostly wrong. It is unavoidable.
As we note every year, we're going to make picks anyway, because that's part of running a football site: you make picks.
For the sixth year, instead of each picking 12 playoff teams, we're showing our individuality by each arguing our point in categories such as "team likely to beat its projection" and "who will go first in the 2014 draft." Our college writers make similar comments about the FEI projections that ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. However, the official FO predictions are based on the statistical projection system, even when the output looks a little strange. You can find those projections here, and as a reminder, the playoff forecast is:
AFC divisions: Denver, New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis
AFC wild cards: San Diego, Cincinnati
NFC divisions: Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans, Philadelphia
NFC wild cards: San Francisco, Chicago
Super Bowl: Denver over Green Bay
First Pick in the Draft: Oakland (Due to a programming error, this has not been officially calculated yet, but all simulations so far have the Raiders far behind any other team.)
And yes, "officially," we are projecting only one new playoff team in each conference, with the Steelers replacing the Chiefs in the AFC and the Bears replacing the Panthers in the NFC. Ten of 12 playoff teams repeating is extremely unlikely as a single event, but when we forecast each individual team on its own, that's what we end up with.
We often say -- even though some people don't seem to ever hear it -- that we do not believe that our statistical methods are perfect. Our subjective views are informed by our objective numbers, but not dictated by them. However, we want to make this clear: EACH OF THE OPINIONS LISTED BELOW IS THE OPINION OF THAT WRITER AND THAT WRITER ONLY. These are not "Football Outsiders predicts."
(Ed. Note: You also may notice fewer names below than in past years... we'll be working on changing that in the near future. -- Aaron Schatz)
All right, let's rock.
NFL Team Most Likely to Beat FOA 2014 Projection
Cian Fahey: Chicago Bears. The Bears could easily win the NFC North and be a contender for the NFC Championship. After establishing their quality on the offensive side, GM Phil Emery spent his offseason rebuilding the defense. The defense still has plenty of soft spots, but the roster is set up to mimic the type of team that the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl with a few seasons ago.
Tom Gower: This is always a section that's more interesting from people who have not written a series of columns going through every team and making projections on their upcoming season. I suppose I could say the Packers or the Broncos, teams whose projected win total is tamped down by the compressed nature of the projection system. The more interesting answer is a team I like that projections don't, and that's the Ravens. As discussed in Scramble, I think a conceptual offense like Gary Kubiak's could do a lot for this team and that they, rather than the Steelers, are the team whose more favorable schedule could put them ahead of the Bengals atop the AFC North.
Scott Kacsmar: Seattle Seahawks. I was burned by the NFC's defending No. 1 seed in this category last year, but I think there's an easy argument for Seattle being the best team in the NFL over the last two years. They actually have balance. Pencil this team in for double-digit wins.
Mike Kurtz: New York Football Giants. As I said in the NFC East Scramble, we collectively need to stop wringing our hands over the Giants' defense, and realize that the four aces are never coming back. In its place is a less flashy but extremely competent front seven that stops the run and a secondary that has serious upside. Throw in an easy schedule and a lot of regression for Eli Manning, and the Giants should once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Rivers McCown: St. Louis Rams. I'm somewhat down on the 49ers without Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman for most of the season, and with a cornerback corps I see as shaky. The St. Louis defensive line is going to devastate teams -- and it matches up well with Seattle and Arizona's weaknesses. Yeah, Shaun Hill isn't optimal ... but I was really down on Sam Bradford anyway. I can see a vintage 8-8, 9-7 Jeff Fisher season sucked straight out of 2009 here.
Ben Muth: Baltimore Ravens. I think John Harbaugh is a good head coach and I like what I think Gary Kubiak will bring to the offense. I think the AFC North will be down as a whole and I think Baltimore takes it from a Bengals team that slides a little this year.
Aaron Schatz: At first, I was going to say Detroit, because there just seems to be way too much talent here to finish 18th in offensive DVOA like we have projected. Then I looked. Last year, do you know where Detroit finished in offensive DVOA? 19th! So instead, I'll go with the New York Giants. Screw the preseason. Eli Manning knows what he's doing and he's not ready to go all Matt Schaub-y yet. Their defense is good and their defensive coordinator is good. (Remind me sometime to start the "Perry Fewell deserves a head coaching shot" bandwagon.) I also think Baltimore will be more of a wild-card contender than we have projected.
Vince Verhei: Detroit Lions. The latest DVOA projections give them a bit of a boost, but they're still scraping the bottom of the NFC. I see a team that was pretty average last year, with a passing attack that should be much better with the addition of Golden Tate. No, I'm not thrilled in the secondary, but this looks like an 8-8 team to me, not 6-10 or worse.
NFL Team Most Likely to Fall Short of FOA 2014 Projection
Cian Fahey: San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers' offensive line has had a number of issues to overcome in the offseason, while the defensive front seven will be missing two key starters for half of the season. Justin Smith's decline is well underway and Frank Gore has staved his off for a long time. Colin Kaepernick needs to take a step forward as a passer for the 49ers to maintain their success.
Tom Gower: I suppose I could say the Steelers, because that's what I did last year and because of my Ravens affection, but I really think the answer has to be the Cardinals. I expected their defense to decline hard last year, and it didn't. With John Abraham providing the pass rush and sans Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker, this could be the year defensive regression strikes with a vengeance. Even with San Francisco's defensive losses and Sam Bradford's injury, the schedule isn't easy and I don't trust the offense to score enough to keep them respectable.
Scott Kacsmar: Buffalo Bills. When we ran our piece on the teams most likely to be picking first in the 2015 draft based on FOA projections, I wondered where Buffalo was. I don't trust EJ Manuel and the defense has every reason to regress after losing the defensive coordinator and arguably its two best players (Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso). That pick traded to Cleveland to get Sammy Watkins could be very valuable, because I certainly don't see an 8-8 team here.
Mike Kurtz: This is kind of cheating, but the St. Louis Rams are particularly well situated to underperform this year; Sam Bradford has been no great shakes, but he is at least a legitimate NFL quarterback. The Rams are playing in the toughest division in the league, are relying on a hope and a prayer on offense, and have some significant chance of the non-linemen portions of the defense regressing.
Rivers McCown: I understand the system is giving the Bills a lot of credit for their young core, and I think there's a chance the defense can hold up well enough to contend in a weak AFC, but until I see EJ Manuel develop into something, I'm reluctant to forecast eight wins here.
Ben Muth: Buffalo Bills: I wouldn't be surprised if the Bills sweep this category. Signing Kyle Orton a week before the 2014 season inspires as much confidence as "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" does.
Aaron Schatz: I would have said Buffalo, but the updated projection dropped them a little bit, and I still think the Bills are the second best team in the AFC East. So instead, I'll say Tennessee. It seems weird to say a team projected 23rd in DVOA is projected too high, but because of the easy schedule we end up projecting them to go an average of 8-8. I think the average will be more like 6-10. This team just seems very, very blah and beige, with apologies to Jurrell Casey who is great. And like Tom Gower keeps pointing out, even if Jake Locker can improve his accuracy, he has a hard time staying healthy AND OH MY GOD CHARLIE WHITEHURST.
Apropos of nothing, I want to say something about the New York Jets. I don't necessarily think they'll be worse than the projection, but what a fascinating season it will be for that defense. Which will be stronger: the game-planning of one of the greatest defense-oriented head coaches in recent history and the power of an awesome front three, or an impotent pass rush and the total mess of a secondary?
Vince Verhei: San Diego Chargers. I feel bad about this, because I really like Philip Rivers and I'd like to see him and his team do well. But I don't see the defense being any better than it was last year, and I don't like their odds against the NFC West.
Player Most Likely to Best KUBIAK Projection
Cian Fahey: Russell Wilson. Before the fourth quarter of games last year, the Seahawks essentially ran a balanced offense. With a healthy Percy Harvin and an offense that looks set to spread the field more, Wilson's potential to put up huge numbers is evident.
Tom Gower: My default answer is "pass catcher who plays a bigger role on his team than we expect." I'm historically bad at guessing that, but Cody Latimer has a chance to be that guy.
Scott Kacsmar: Marshawn Lynch. Until we see the wheels come off or he goes to another team, I'm expecting 1,200 rushing yards and 12-plus touchdowns from him in this offense, which still shouldn't have to try passing more this year. He still wants to get paid big money, but that's not coming from Seattle or another team without first showing he's still all about that action.
Mike Kurtz: Ben Roethlisberger. The team took steps toward giving Roethlisberger the offense he wants (and in which he is most effective) during the second half of last season, and considering the hatred he has inspired among Steelers fans, I imagine Todd Haley is willing to go along at least for job security purposes. I think Roethlisberger is still an elite quarterback, and the organization is slowly starting to remember that.
Rivers McCown: Jordan Reed, Washington. I think he'll finish as a top-five fantasy tight end.
Ben Muth: Toby Gerhart. I believe in a man with the middle name "Gunnar."
Aaron Schatz: Tom Brady. First half of last season was a fluke. He was back to full strength in the second half of the year. His arm strength is no longer what it once was, but neither is Peyton Manning's. Brady's stats might be up there with the rest of the Quarterback Big Four.
Vince Verhei: Tony Romo. The last KUBIAK rankings had Romo 14th among quarterbacks. When healthy, Romo has been a top-10 fantasy quarterback every year since 2007. The Dallas defense will probably be awful again, and Romo will probably spend most of his fourth quarters throwing pass after pass in a desperate game of catch-up.
Player Most Likely to Fall Short of KUBIAK Projection
Cian Fahey: Carson Palmer. Palmer played well early in the preseason, but the final game showed off the warning signs of what could be coming. Palmer is 34 years of age and underwhelmed in a difficult situation last year. If he loses any more of his physical ability, it won't matter that the supporting cast around him is much improved.
Tom Gower: I think there's a split between people who love Giovani Bernard's talent and those who love his role; I like the former, but am not sure he gets the carries or touchdowns KUBIAK has him projected for. I'd also put Andre Ellington in the same category.
Scott Kacsmar: Michael Crabtree. If you haven't heard by now, FO is projecting bigger passing numbers for the 49ers this season. The losses on defense certainly help make that more probable, but I still don't see a huge season from Crabtree, who has hit 900 yards once in his career (1,105 in 2012). Maybe the 2014 version of Colin Kaepernick will be the best quarterback he's ever played with, but the 49ers have several weapons this year, so it's not like Crabtree has to be force-fed the ball. I know, cue the "one-read quarterback" statements, but I think Kaepernick will get Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis involved a lot too.
Mike Kurtz: Giovani Bernard. Not because he doesn't have the talent, simply because Marvin Lewis has shown he has no idea what to do with his running backs (particularly the good ones).
Ben Muth: Carson Palmer: I know KUBIAK doesn't even like him, but I have a feeling the wheels are going to fall off completely.
Aaron Schatz: The easy answer since I put the projections together is "any receiver on New England or Philadelphia" because I had absolutely no idea how to portion out pass targets on those teams and got stuck projecting too many receptions and hoping someone gets injured. (Note: for Patriots, this is more "waiting" than "hoping.") A harder answer would be someone where I straight out disagree with the projection system. Let's say... Roddy White. Thirty-three seems like a bit of an advanced age for a receiver who is more of a speed guy than a possession guy in an offense with an iffy offensive line and a super-talented youngster on the other side of the field for when that offensive line actually holds up.
Vince Verhei: Steven Jackson. Take a look at Jackson's player page, and specifically the ten players most similar to him over the past three years. It's a list of some awfully great players (including Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James, Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Roger Craig, and Tony Dorsett) at about the precise moment they stopped being great. The next season, those ten players rushed for an average of 355 yards, and only Harris) was even able to top the 600-yard threshold. I'm thinking Jackson is completely shot, and nobody in Atlanta has quite realized it -- yet.
College Team Most Likely to Beat F/+ Projection
Bill Connelly: Kansas State.
Scott Kacsmar: Texas A&M. Kevin Sumlin can coach with the best in the game. He might be stepping over into Jason Garrett's shoes in the near future.
Rivers McCown: I don't think any of the projections are wildly out of line near the top, but I like North Carolina to be a surprise ACC Championship game representative.
Ben Muth: Arizona. I think Rich Rod is a heck of a coach and I wouldn't be shocked if they won the Pac-12 South this year.
Chad Peltier: Right now it looks like Texas A&M. The F/+ projection is low(ish) for A&M because of that 72nd-ranked defense, but A&M can win shootout after shootout this season.
College Team Most Likely to Fall Short of F/+ Projection
Bill Connelly: Before the season started, I was thinking Texas A&M. Now I'm thinking South Carolina.
Scott Kacsmar: Florida State. Can you tell I love that we're able to answer these college questions after the first week of the season? I don't follow the NCAA enough to have a good grasp on these projections, but based on that performance against Oklahoma State, I don't see the Seminoles running the table again this year. Fortunately we have a playoff system, which is roughly the one I've been suggesting for a decade, to better decide a champion.
Rivers McCown: Vanderbilt. The rest of the world is about to realize just how important James Franklin was for that program.
Ben Muth: Washington: I think they take a slight step back in Peterson's first year, but he'll eventually take them higher than Sark ever did.
Chad Peltier: Several Pac-12 teams may underperform due to a competitive conference this season, but I'll have to go with Auburn. That 39th-ranked Projected Defensive F/+ is glaring, as is their incredibly difficult schedule.
Super Bowl XLIX Winner and Loser
Cian Fahey: Seattle Seahawks over Denver Broncos. Everyone is scared of the repeat, but the best team in each conference hasn't changed. The Broncos have changed a lot of the pieces on their offense and their defense, but the team overall remains close to what it was last year. The Seahawks will likely have a less effective defense, but the offense should significantly improve.
Tom Gower: It's hard to pick anybody other than the Broncos from the AFC after last year's top seed made a bunch of major additions on defense. From the NFC, I like the No. 1 seed, which brings with it home field that could prove the decisive edge. I'll take Denver over Green Bay.
Scott Kacsmar: Seattle over Denver. I hate this pick, but I'd rather be right than different. We have precedent with Buffalo and Dallas in 1992-93. Like those games, this time it will be closer, but Seattle's still a more complete team.
Mike Kurtz: Denver Broncos over Green Bay Packers.
Rivers McCown: New Orleans over Denver.
Ben Muth: The Packers beat the Broncos.
Aaron Schatz: The probabilities are so, so, so in favor of Denver -- and of the great NFC teams, Seattle is BY FAR the worst matchup for the Broncos (or for the Patriots, for that matter). If another team from the NFC makes it, I see Peyton Manning driving off into the sunset with a second ring just like his boss John Elway. Who will the Broncos beat? Well, these are the subjective picks, so this is my chance to go away from just picking in line with the DVOA projections. Let's say... Denver over Philadelphia.
Vince Verhei: Packers over Broncos, and I picked that before the DVOA projections put those two teams on top of the pile. A full year before actually -- Packers over Broncos was my pick last year too, and I'm sticking with it.
NCAA Championship Winner and Loser
Bill Connelly: Florida State over Alabama.
Cian Fahey: Florida State over Alabama
Scott Kacsmar: Oregon over Florida State.
Rivers McCown: Florida State over Michigan State.
Ben Muth: Oregon beats Florida State.
Chad Peltier: Alabama beats Florida State in the title game. Sure, we have no idea how Jake Coker will perform, but my guess is that it won't matter too much -- the Tide will keep rolling no matter who is under center. I like their defense to outperform the sky-high expectations.
Vince Verhei: Oregon over Alabama.
Who Wins the Heisman Trophy?
Bill Connelly: I'll stick with Jameis Winston.
Cian Fahey: Todd Gurley.
Scott Kacsmar: Marcus Mariota, Oregon.
Rivers McCown: Connor Cook, Michigan State.
Ben Muth: Marcus Mariota.
Chad Peltier: I don't feel overly confident in any single player, but I'll go with Todd Gurley. He seems poised for a huge year, given that he's healthy, he has one of the best offensive lines that he has ever run behind, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo can always turn to the ground game if Hutson Mason struggles.
Vince Verhei: Marcus Mariota.
With the No. 1 Pick in the Draft, [TEAM] selects [PLAYER].
Cian Fahey: The Oakland Raiders selects quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Raiders clearly have the least talent in the NFL and they are starting a rookie quarterback. Even though Derek Carr was taken atop the second round, the Raiders need a quarterback around whom they can build their franchise. Mariota is a special talent who plays the game like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, just with more athleticism.
Tom Gower: It's almost too easy to say the Raiders, at the bottom of all our projections because they're unlikely to be good and a heavy favorite to have a top-5 pick. As we saw with the parade of Jacksonville and Oakland responses last year, though, the worst team in the league going in doesn't necessarily end up with the first overall pick, even if they do in fact turn out to be pretty bad. In that case, give me the Cleveland Browns, and after taking Manziel this year I'll give them USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
Scott Kacsmar: Raiders select quarterback Marcus Mariota. I already picked him over Winston in the title game and for the Heisman. For it to be Oakland, I don't see Matt Schaub lasting the full year, so Derek Carr likely started and played terrible to secure the No. 1 pick. A team shouldn't let the 36th pick in the draft persuade them from drafting a potential franchise quarterback at the top.
Mike Kurtz: With the No. 1 Pick in the Draft, the Oakland Raiders select Jameis Winston.
Rivers McCown: The Oakland Raiders trade the first overall pick to the Arizona Cardinals, who select Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon.
Ben Muth: With the No. 1 Pick in the Draft, the Raiders select Brett Hundley.
Chad Peltier: Jameis Winston. There might be some mechanics and throwing motion issues, but he's incredibly accurate and physically dominating. I don't think any NFL team can pass that up.
Aaron Schatz: Oakland selects DE/DT Leonard Williams, USC. It seems like the quarterbacks who were hyped in the preseason have fallen in the draft process in every recent year except 2012.
Vince Verhei: I've been going back and forth between Oakland and Cleveland for weeks now. Then I looked back over predictions of the past and realized that this will be the fourth year in a row I'm picking either Oakland or Cleveland to get the top pick. Sucks to be the Raiders and Browns. While I think the most intriguing scenario would be Cleveland getting the top pick (No way they give up on Manziel after one season, so would they try to trade down?), in the end I'm picking Oakland for the third time in four seasons, and I expect them to take Mariota.