compiled by Vincent Verhei
This is one of our favorite features to write every year. It is also one of our most hated features 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 Football Outsiders Almanac (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 are on the record. Here's what we thought would happen in past seasons:
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 New England Patriots have the best chance of any team in the NFL to make it to the Super Bowl. Let's say we think they'll make it 35 percent of the time, which happen to be the odds based on our most recent simulation. Imagine then that 13 other teams in the AFC have a 5 percent chance to make it to the Super Bowl, while the Browns and Jets also, technically, exist.
OK, so we pick New England to win the AFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is a 2-in-3 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.
Then again, if we each picked our 12 playoff teams, there would be a lot of overlap and you wouldn't learn a lot. Instead, we're showing our individuality by each arguing without own statistical forecast, giving answers to questions such as "which team is most likely to beat its projection" and "who will go first in the 2018 NFL draft." (Our college writers made similar projections about the F/+ college football projections in this article last week.) 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 updated playoff forecast is:
AFC divisions: New England, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Tennessee
AFC wild cards: Kansas City, Baltimore (Cincinnati is close)
NFC divisions: Seattle, Green Bay, Dallas, Carolina
NFC wild cards: Arizona, New York Giants (Atlanta and Los Angeles Rams are also close)
Super Bowl: New England over Seattle
First Pick in the Draft: New York Jets, narrowly over Cleveland
"Officially," we are projecting two new playoff teams in the AFC, with Baltimore and Tennessee replacing Miami and Houston. But the separation at the top is clear -- the Patriots are nearly a full win ahead of the Steelers, who are nearly two full wins ahead of anyone else in the conference. In the NFC, there is a very tight cluster at the top -- Seattle, Green Bay, and Dallas are separated by less than one full win. The second tier is even tighter, with Carolina less than half a win ahead of a three-way bottleneck between the Cardinals, Giants, and Falcons.
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."
And now: here are your 2017 staff predictions.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO BEAT ITS FOA PROJECTION
Tom Gower: Seattle Seahawks, and this would have been my answer even before the Sheldon Richardson trade. Russell Wilson makes the offensive line work well enough, they'll find a workable run game from their collection of backs, and I expect the defense to be elite. Playing the AFC South doesn't hurt.
Scott Kacsmar: Atlanta Falcons. I still like Atlanta a lot to return to the playoffs. This was a very strong 11-5 team: third in DVOA, second in net yards per drive and net points per drive. The Falcons blew four fourth-quarter leads, and that ended up coming back to haunt them in the Super Bowl of course. The offense will obviously slip a little, but it should still be one of the league's best. Defense is where the Falcons can make up the most ground with a lot of young talent and the return of Desmond Trufant. I know the NFC South is notorious for quick turnarounds, but I think Atlanta stays on top.
Bryan Knowles: Los Angeles Chargers. While you have to be careful about teams that are relocating, I'm impressed with the talent they have assembled. They brought in Russell Okung to shore up the offensive line and they'll hopefully get full seasons out of Joey Bosa, Jason Verrett, and Keenan Allen. Moving on from Mike McCoy doesn't hurt, either. I know the traditional Chargers Injury Bug has already started attacking them, but I wouldn't at all be stunned to see them go 10-6 and end up in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Rivers McCown: Cincinnati Bengals. I did their chapter this year and the offensive line situation terrifies me. But when you look at what's happening in the rest of the AFC, a lot of the other statistical contenders for a wild-card spot have taken steps back. Baltimore, in particular, has a grisly injury situation. The Colts are without Andrew Luck for some time. The Broncos and Texans should still project to have poor quarterback play. And then, in Pittsburgh, one (increasingly common) Ben Roethlisberger injury wrecks that whole offense. Combine that with an easy schedule and a reload of skill position talent, and I think the Bengals have a good case to finish with 10 wins.
Ben Muth: New England Patriots. I think they're basically starting the season 6-0 within the division. That means they just need to go 6-4 the rest of the way to beat the projection.
Andrew Potter: Atlanta Falcons. Every important player returns to the offense, though of course it is very unlikely to reach last season's heights. The defense should be able to make up for a reasonable drop-off though; they've added some major pieces to a unit that was already improving over the tail end of last season. The AFC East and NFC North should provide plenty of opportunities for out-of-division wins, so as long as they take care of business in their own division they have a great chance to compete for a bye.
Aaron Schatz: Minnesota Vikings. I think I discussed this in one of the ESPN Insider pieces where we did early team projections, but the Vikings' defensive projection is very strange. The way the forecast works is that we do every team's mean projection, and then we normalize the league so that offense, defense, and special teams each average 0%. For some reason this year, a series of personnel changes led to a lot of teams ending up projected with above-average defenses (i.e. below 0%). The Vikings didn't have those changes, so essentially the projection system spat out the same defense as last year but then moved it down because it had to normalize the whole league. But of course the league doesn't play on my spreadsheets, and we know that the Vikings have all the same talent as last year except the young players are all a bit more experienced and the only really old player is Terence Newman. I also think the offense can be a little better than 22nd with a healthier offensive line. I expect the Vikings to be in the NFC wild-card race.
Vince Verhei: Houston Texans. If J.J. Watt is healthy, and everyone else plays as well as they did in 2016, the Texans could have the best front seven in the NFL. That would cover up the holes in the secondary, most of the time. On offense, I think Deshaun Watson is starting by midseason, and though he'll make plenty of mistake, he'll also make just enough big plays to get too much credit for Houston wins. One of our readers (sorry, I forget who or where) made the comparison to the 2009 New York Jets, who won 11 games including the playoffs with a rookie Mark Sanchez at quarterback and the league's best defense. I see Houston as being clearly better than Indianapolis or Jacksonville, and fighting Tennessee for the AFC South crown.
Carl Yedor: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the new weapons around Jameis Winston in the passing game, particularly DeSean Jackson taking the top off of defenses, the Buccaneers have the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The threat of Jackson going deep will make teams think twice about rolling coverage over to Mike Evans' side of the field. Moving on from Roberto Aguayo, who at this point was a sunk cost, should improve their special teams over their projected last-place finish as well.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF ITS FOA PROJECTION
Tom Gower: Jacksonville Jaguars. I imagine the Rams will be this year's version of what the Ravens were last year: writers registering their obvious dissent with the surprisingly optimistic projection from the book. (I almost picked the Jets last year, just to be different, and wish I did.) My real answer is probably the Colts, because of Andrew Luck's injury, but that feels like cheating, so I'll go inside with one of the teams I wrote about in FOA 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since I wrote the first draft of the team chapter in May, the situation with Blake Bortles has deteriorated much more quickly than I thought it would; the offensive line improvements they needed haven't come close to happening; Leonard Fournette was already banged up in the preseason; and the cornerback injuries, where they're stars-and-scrubs, have lingered longer than I expected them to. They're still in the AFC South, where all you need to go .500 is not repeatedly shoot yourself in the foot, but I have a hard time seeing them going 10-6 without getting very lucky, and any defensive regression could leave them at 4-12.
Scott Kacsmar: Los Angeles Rams. I just can't get with the Rams flirting with .500. Even after giving them upset wins over the Seahawks and Titans, I couldn't do better than 6-10, which still might be a success given how historically awful Jared Goff's rookie season was. It also helps that the Colts won't have Andrew Luck and Vontae Davis in Week 1 in a game I otherwise would expect Indianapolis to win. But I can't go above 6-10 for this team, and that's assuming Aaron Donald ends his holdout and plays immediately. Sean McVay could be a lock for Coach of the Year should the Rams actually pull off a winning record.
Bryan Knowles: Los Angeles Rams. I'm tempted to say Chicago, but they're not projected super-high to begin with. While I think the Rams will be improved over last year and will beat conventional wisdom, the updated projections still have them ranked 14th in DVOA, which feels like a bridge too far. Aaron Donald is still holding out, and Dominique Easley tore his ACL, which probably will hurt Wade Phillips' efforts to get that defense back to how good they used to be. They have roughly zero depth anywhere. Their offensive line was a shambles last season. And, of course, Jared Goff excavated new floors for quarterback play last season. Will they be better in 2017? Yeah, I think so. Will they be a borderline playoff contender? Not this year.
Rivers McCown: Buffalo Bills. I mean, it's an obvious one, right? This team is in complete and utter upheaval and I think they have set up the current pieces on their roster that can be part of a good NFL team to fail. The only hesitancy I have is how likely the non-Patriots division is to gift them with wins.
Ben Muth: New York Jets. Even in the putrid AFC East I can't see them getting to six wins.
Andrew Potter: Oakland Raiders. I want to say the Jets, because I don't see them getting close to six wins, but it's hard to undershoot the second-worst projection in a league still containing the Browns and 49ers. Instead, I'll say Oakland. So much of last season's success was the result of a pass offense that I think overachieved and will drop a bit in 2017. I don't see much to like about the defense, and they're now in a weird conflict with Sebastian Janikowski after the offseason will-he-won't-he with Donald Penn. A bit less luck against a prospectively tougher schedule, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Raiders miss the playoffs, never mind finish sixth in the league in DVOA.
Aaron Schatz: Cincinnati Bengals. They have so many good skill players, but John Ross isn't healthy and they sure seem insistent on sticking with lots of Jeremy Hill instead of moving to Joe Mixon right away. And that offensive line is going to be a real problem. I don't see this team improving over last season.
Also, I've stated this elsewhere, but I'll state it again here. The optimistic Los Angeles Rams projection is null and void if Aaron Donald's holdout stretches more than a game or two into the regular season. They need him to make that defense really shine.
Vince Verhei: Kansas City Chiefs. No wideout on the roster has ever had a 100-yard game. Two of the top four are gadget players who have never been full-time wideouts before. The lead running back is a third-round rookie who did not make the top 10 in this year's BackCAST projections. They have so little faith in their quarterback, they just traded up to pick his replacement, then put said replacement on the shelf. The top three linebackers have a combined age of 97, and only one of them played more than 600 defensive snaps last year. They're not likely to finish first in special teams again. There are no pushovers in the AFC West, and the out-of-division schedule includes the NFC East, plus games against Houston, Pittsburgh, and a road trip to New England in the season opener.
Carl Yedor: Indianapolis Colts. If Andrew Luck misses extended time into the season, which it looks like he very well might, the Colts are in for a rough time. Former general manager Ryan Grigson failed to build much of a roster around Luck (hence the "former" ahead of his title), but Luck was still able to drag Indianapolis to the playoffs in his first three seasons. Luck has been hurt in both 2015 and 2016, and coincidentally, the Colts were not a contender without him. With Luck's status uncertain for the early going and three of our top five defenses on the schedule in the first four weeks, it could be a struggle.
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PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO BEAT KUBIAK PROJECTION
Tom Gower: Allen Robinson, WR, JAC. I think I've gotten this wrong every year, or nearly so. My pessimism about the Jaguars is optimism for their fantasy projections, so I tried to be bullish on Bortles and Allen Robinson. Obviously with Bortles' job security, it's hard to be too bullish on him even as a straight fantasy play, but that fear of defensive regression means we'll see less of the Leonard Fournette offense and more of Jacksonville quarterbacks down too many points chucking it in the general direction of their receivers, as seen in 2015. I'm also slightly more optimistic on Rishard Matthews, whom I expect to again be the focal point of the Titans' passing offense.
Scott Kacsmar: DeVante Parker, WR, MIA. I'm going all in on Parker to pull off the "third-year breakout receiver" season in Miami. Some of that may be helped by Jay Cutler's playing style, where he'll willingly give his player some chances to make plays that maybe Ryan Tannehill won't pull the trigger on. Either way, I think Parker takes a big step forward in Miami instead of being a guy who puts up Rishard Matthews or Jamison Crowder numbers like KUBIAK projects.
Bryan Knowles: Randall Cobb, WR, GB. With many leagues switching to three starting receivers, you have to dig a little deeper to find your starters. Cobb to me seems like a really solid WR3 prospect. He's coming off of two subpar seasons, but one was due to his injuries, and the other was due to Jordy Nelson's injuries, leaving Cobb matched against top cornerbacks week in and week out. The Packers are a high-volume passing attack, and I like Cobb to get more than his fair share of touches. KUBIAK has him as the 65th receiver, but I don't think another 80/800/6 line is out of the question, like he did in 2015. That'd be worth the eighth-round pick it currently costs to get him."
Rivers McCown: Dalvin Cook, RB, MIN. I think he's an obvious three-down back right away and enters 2018 as a consensus top-five fantasy football asset.
Andrew Potter: DeSean Jackson, WR, TB. Jackson's best route is Jameis Winston's worst, but Dirk Koetter is clever enough to get Jackson involved in ways that take advantage of more than just his deep speed. As long as Jackson stays healthy, I expect him to be well ahead of WR42.
Aaron Schatz: Ameer Abdullah, RB, DET. I'm not sure why his projection came out so much lower than conventional wisdom, even when giving him a huge role on the team. Especially when the rest of the Lions projections are so high because of our assumption that the Lions will not have a historically low number of drives again.
Vince Verhei: Danny Woodhead, RB, BAL: On Bill Barnwell's podcast, I believe I said Woodhead would get a million 3-yard receptions playing with Joe Flacco. On reflection, that may have been low. It wouldn't stun me if Woodhead led the team in catches. Woodhead was the ultimate secret weapon in daily fantasy leagues when he was healthy two years ago, and should return to that status this season. I think he'll also be a starting-caliber running back in PPR leagues.
Carl Yedor: Kenny Britt, WR, CLE. Cleveland's offensive line should give DeShone Kizer plenty of time to throw, and Britt is the No. 1 target for the Browns. The Browns will still likely be trailing frequently, meaning they will be in a position where they need to throw to catch up. Kizer showed no qualms about throwing deep during the preseason. Britt managed a 1,000-yard season and finished 28th in receiving DYAR among wide receivers in 2016 despite playing with Case Keenum and Jared Goff, so even if Kizer struggles as a rookie, Britt should still be able to produce.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF KUBIAK PROJECTION
Tom Gower: LeSean McCoy, RB, BUF. Buffalo's transition into what Sean McDermott wants them to be ends up with McCoy's fantasy production as part of its collateral damage, and he finishes somewhere around 10th or 12th among running backs instead of fourth.
Scott Kacsmar: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, ARI. His yards per catch dropped to a career-low 11.1 in 2015 despite Carson Palmer's excellent season, and it dropped even lower to just 9.6 last season. Fitzgerald is now 34 and I think we'll see him drop out of the tier of premiere wide receivers. This could be a good chance to get John Brown back on track after health issues last year, and J.J. Nelson is an interesting deep threat with speed who started to contribute more in 2016. David Johnson will also eat up a ton of the short targets again.
Bryan Knowles: Derek Carr, QB, OAK. The former Highest Paid Player in Football is seventh in our KUBIAK quarterback rankings. Last year, he ranked 15th in fantasy points per game (depending on your system), so that's quite a jump -- against a tougher slate of defenses than he faced a year ago, to boot. He's also coming back from injury, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Marshawn Lynch vulture some goal-line touchdowns away from him. I also still have questions about Carr's accuracy and decision making; he's developing alright but he's not the MVP-candidate the media made him out to be last season. I'm staying away from Carr as a starter this year.
Andrew Potter: Greg Olsen, TE, CAR. This is a non-injury category, right? In that case, with Andrew Luck sidelined, I'll opt for Greg Olsen. By all accounts, Carolina's offense is set to change quite a bit as a result of their offseason acquisitions, most notably Christian McCaffrey. The most likely candidate to take a hit in that is Olsen, who has been Carolina's leading receiver every year since Steve Smith left for Baltimore in 2013. It's that bit harder to snag red zone touchdowns when you're blocking for a dynamic running game, and though somebody has to catch Newton's passes, that somebody won't be Olsen forever.
Aaron Schatz: Demaryius Thomas, WR, DEN. The projection had him bouncing back a bit in touchdowns, and for crying out loud somebody has to catch the ball in Denver. They really only have two wide receivers, Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But Thomas is 30 and it just seems like he doesn't make the great catches he used to make. The decline last year wasn't just about the quarterbacks.
Vince Verhei: Tom Brady, QB, NE: Last year I picked Brady here based strictly on his age. Then he had another good season, and now he's another year older at age 40, so I basically have to pick him again, right? I think I'm going to pick Brady every year here until he actually has a bad season -- at which point I will probably switch to picking Drew Brees.
Carl Yedor: Eddie Lacy, RB, SEA. With the emergence of seventh-round pick Chris Carson in training camp, an already-crowded Seattle backfield just got even more unpredictable. Thomas Rawls was running with the starters to begin the preseason, but given his past injury issues, who knows how many carries he'll end up getting. And C.J. Prosise provides a threat out of the backfield on passing downs, meaning that Lacy will have limited upside there barring an injury. I would avoid rolling with any of these running backs until there is a clear pecking order established, and Lacy has the highest projection with the most competition for his specific role.
SUPER BOWL LII WINNER AND LOSER
Tom Gower: The Seattle Seahawks run the ball at the goal line and get their revenge on the New England Patriots.
Scott Kacsmar: New England Patriots over Seattle Seahawks. I know, it's terrible to keep going to that one. I had Dallas back in February, but too many suspensions since then. Atlanta getting revenge in a rematch was my second consideration.
Bryan Knowles: Pittsburgh Steelers brings home one last title before Ben Roethlisberger rides into the sunset, beating Seattle 23-20 in a rematch of Super Bowl XL.
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Rivers McCown: I hate how wildly uncreative this feels, but New England Patriots over Seattle Seahawks.
Ben Muth: Green Bay Packers over Pittsburgh Steelers.
Andrew Potter: Seattle Seahawks over New England Patriots.
Aaron Schatz: New England Patriots over Green Bay Packers. It would be fun to be all counterintuitive but the Patriots' odds are so far ahead of the rest of the league, it just doesn't make sense to pick anyone else if you want to have the best possible chance of being correct. On defense, I'll guess that the Green Bay secondary will be in better shape than the Seattle offensive line by January.
Vince Verhei: Seattle Seahawks defeat New England Patriots. At this point I like Seattle's defense more than I like New England's offense. Those two teams have fewer weaknesses than Pittsburgh, Green Bay, or Dallas, and the dropoff after those five teams is mighty steep.
Carl Yedor: New England Patriots over Green Bay Packers. The Patriots should have a cakewalk in the division, with the Jets and the Bills effectively taking the season off and the Dolphins turning to Jay Cutler at quarterback in the absence of Ryan Tannehill. That should be enough for them to lock up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Green Bay faces off against Seattle in Week 1 at Lambeau, and a win there could be the determining factor in where the NFC championship game ends up being played. While the Patriots have been dealing with some injuries already, the Packers' defense would still likely struggle with the remaining array of weapons at Tom Brady's disposal.
WITH THE NO. 1 PICK IN THE 2018 DRAFT, TEAM SELECTS PLAYER
Tom Gower: The New York Jets select Sam Darnold, QB, USC. Tanking pays off!
Scott Kacsmar: The New York Jets select Sam Darnold, QB, USC. Like I say every year, we always seem to latch onto a certain quarterback for this, and it seems like that quarterback doesn't even come close to the No. 1 pick come April. It's happened before with Matt Barkley and Cardale Jones. At the very least, the Jets tanking to get the best quarterback in 2018 seems extremely probable at this point.
Bryan Knowles: The New York Jets select Sam Darnold, QB, USC. Too bad the draft's not in New York anymore.
Rivers McCown: The New York Jets select Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming, after Sam Darnold doesn't come out.
Ben Muth: The New York Jets select Sam Darnold, QB, USC.
Andrew Potter: The San Francisco 49ers select some college kid or other, let's say Arden Key, EDGE, LSU. The free-agent acquisition of Kirk Cousins takes pressure off the franchise to select a quarterback, giving John Lynch room to further upgrade the team's obvious strength with the draft's best player.
Aaron Schatz: New York Jets select Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. I would have had Cleveland here until the preseason, but the Sheldon Richardson trade helps ruin the "Jets defense may be too good for them to successfully tank" storyline.
Vince Verhei: San Francisco 49ers select Arden Key, EDGE, LSU. This race is wide open. There are more than half a dozen teams I could see ending up here. In the end it came down to San Francisco's very difficult schedule -- fifth-toughest overall by our projections, with only five games against teams with projected DVOAs below 0.0%. That includes all four AFC South teams -- imagine if they were playing the West or North instead! -- and I already said I think Houston will be better than its projection. The 49ers might not be favored in a game until back-to-back home tilts against Tennessee and Jacksonville in December. I agree with Potter that Cousins will be San Francisco's quarterback as soon as legally possible. So John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan will begin Year 2 of their Six-Year Program by getting their pass-rusher. And Key looks like the consensus top pass-rusher prospect in 2018 right now.
Carl Yedor: The New York Jets select Sam Darnold, QB, USC.