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 24 percent of the time, which happen to be the odds based on our most recent simulation. Imagine then that 14 other teams in the AFC each have a 5 or 6 percent chance to make it to the Super Bowl. (Let's be honest, the Bills are just trolling us.)
OK, so we pick New England to win the AFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is a 3-in-4 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 with our 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 2019 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, Houston, Los Angeles Chargers
AFC wild cards: Baltimore, Tennessee
NFC divisions: New Orleans, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota, Philadelphia
NFC wild cards: Green Bay, Dallas
Super Bowl: New England over New Orleans
First Pick in the Draft: Buffalo Bills
"Officially," we are projecting three new playoff teams in the AFC, with Houston, Baltimore, and the Chargers replacing Kansas City, Buffalo, and Jacksonville. But the separation at the top is clear -- the Patriots and Steelers are virtually tied at the top, a win and a half ahead of any other team. The NFC is just absurdly tight at the top, with just 0.7 wins separating the top team (New Orleans) from the second wild-card team (Dallas).
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 2018 staff predictions.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO BEAT ITS FOA PROJECTION
Dave Bernreuther: Jacksonville Jaguars. No matter how little one trusts Blake Bortles, the AFC is still very weak, and this team is still too deep. Even in a tougher division, nine wins would be a disappointment. A 10-6 record while still being a coach/quarterback away from being a true contender still feels right. The Bears and the Rams also seem like easy bets here, as well as my annual over bet on the Patriots -- 10.5 seems oddly low for them, but that just seems too easy.
Scott Kacsmar: Atlanta Falcons. I picked them last year for this, and I think they're slotted a couple of spots lower in projected wins (8.1) this year thanks to the second-hardest projected schedule. However, I'm going all in on Atlanta as a first-round bye team again like they were in 2016. I think the offense picks up in Year 2 of Steve Sarkisian -- it still won't reach 2016 levels, but it should be near the top of the league. I still have faith that the young defense will improve. The Falcons came the closest to knocking off the last two champions (2016 Patriots, 2017 Eagles) in the playoffs. I think they finally get over the hump this year and join the 2006 Colts, 2012 Ravens, and 2015 Broncos as teams that had to suffer some setbacks before finally winning the Super Bowl.
Derrik Klassen: Baltimore Ravens. Full disclosure: I am banking on John Harbaugh having enough sense to turn to Lamar Jackson before it is too late. Given that the defense will quietly be a top-10 unit again and the special teams will dominate as per usual, all the offense needs to be is a slight step up from the garbage fire it was last year. Between renovations to the receiving corps, draft picks along the offensive line, and a bright, athletic rookie quarterback in Jackson, the Ravens have the pieces to get the offense into shape and return to the playoffs.
Bryan Knowles: Tennessee Titans. I really like the fit of the Shanahan/McVay offense for Marcus Mariota, and think that Matt LaFleur's arrival could quickly propel the Titans into a top-ten offense. The Titans had the eighth-highest DVOA when using play-action a year ago, and that should be a central part of the offense this season. That alone would be enough to give the Titans a significant boost, but I think they'll also be less predictable and more dynamic on defense. In an AFC South filled with question marks, I wouldn't be stunned if the Titans turn in their first double-digit-win season in a decade.
Rivers McCown: Jacksonville Jaguars. I completely understand why our DVOA projections look at past statistical jumps like this and are skeptical. I still think their defense is poised to be a short-term balloon that lifts them up -- in my eyes they are the most talented unit in the NFL. And while I think each team in the AFC South is at least a little feisty this year, they still all have weaknesses. I feel confident the Jags can reach at least eight wins. I'd personally project nine.
Andrew Potter: Kansas City Chiefs. The question mark hanging over the inexperienced quarterback makes this a volatile team whose season could have a wide range of different outcomes. That said, unless Patrick Mahomes flames out spectacularly, I expect Andy Reid to fashion another exciting, innovative offense from the deepest roster of skill players he has yet assembled in Missouri. The defense is the bigger question mark, but the return of Eric Berry can only help, and I like the additions they have made to last year's unit. A well-coached, explosive, but probably inconsistent team should be thinking wild card at the very least in the AFC, and I expect the Chiefs to fit that description perfectly.
Aaron Schatz: Los Angeles Chargers. Yes, we have them now winning their division, but it's the closest division in the projections and I have a feeling it won't be that close. (Well, it might be that close if Kansas City can also outperform its projection...) There's been a strange result in the defensive projections the last couple years, where the league as a whole comes out overall much better than 0%, and then every team gets its rating dropped so that the league averages 0%. I hope to figure out what's going on before we do next year's forecast, but in the meantime, the Chargers projection ended up in a similar to the 2017 Vikings projection: The Chargers didn't make many defensive changes so the projection system spat out a similar number to last year and then moved it down to normalize the whole league. I was right when I called Minnesota last year as my "team most likely to beat its FOA projection," so this year I'm calling the Chargers for the same reason. Their defense will be decidedly better than average.
Vincent Verhei: Kansas City Chiefs. Given all the Chiefs sacrificed to trade up for Patrick Mahomes, it would be a disaster if they miss the playoffs in his first year as a starter after winning the division last season. Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt are an awfully good set of weapons. The defense is likely to improve, if only because it can't get much worse. I'm not blown away by Denver's offseason, and Jon Gruden has quickly returned the Raiders to laughingstock status, so the Chargers look like the only serious competition in the division. (Please note that last year I picked Kansas City to fall short of their projection, and instead they exceeded it by almost two wins, so it's possible that I just have a total blind spot when it comes to this team.)
Rob Weintraub: Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta at eight wins feels low, though maybe I'm succumbing to local hype (let's hope). Ditto the Giants at just six. I gotta be optimistic my Bengals top seven wins as well, but then they have been breaking my heart for decades...
Carl Yedor: Chicago Bears. This may be cheap because of the Khalil Mack trade, but they underachieved by 1.2 wins below Pythagorean expectation in 2017 in a Stone Age offense that should vault forward into the 21st century this season. They also only need to do better than 29th in DVOA. Their schedule should be friendly enough for them to exceed our projection.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF ITS FOA PROJECTION
Dave Bernreuther: Buffalo Bills. They're the lowest projected team, and I'll still take the under every time. Even in a terrible conference there's no way that team wins six games. The easiest game on their entire schedule might be Indianapolis, and with Andrew Luck back, that makes it a tough one. Last year's joke of a playoff appearance was but a tiny interruption in western New York's suffering. It's going to be another long decade. I might be a bit odd but I can also find eight losses for Seattle even if they sweep the AFC West. Russell Wilson is good enough to win some games entirely on his own. He's not good enough to win most games entirely on his own.
Scott Kacsmar: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was one of the hardest teams for me to find wins for on the 2018 schedule, and I even have them upsetting the Steelers in Week 3. Beyond the Jameis Winston suspension, I think they start 1-4 and things just snowball from there, eventually leading to the firing of Dirk Koetter and the coaching staff. Ronald Jones had a very disappointing preseason, and I'm not convinced the offense is going to be able to run the ball well. The defense has few places to go but up, but that still might not be a good unit. They play in a division with three teams that I think are clearly better. It's tough to see this team winning seven games unless Winston comes back with a purpose to secure a long-term deal.
Derrik Klassen: Oakland Raiders. There is nothing about Jon Gruden's first offseason that suggests this Raiders team will be good. An already bad defense has now lost its best player in Khalil Mack and a mediocre offense from a year before does not look appreciably better. Granted, quarterback Derek Carr could have a rebound year after struggling last season due to a lingering back injury, but even then, he would likely need a career year to keep Oakland above .500. Too many things have to go right in such an uncertain situation to bet in favor of the Raiders.
Bryan Knowles: Seattle Seahawks. I've spent most of the offseason watching film of Brian Schottenheimer offenses. It has not been a good time. Even if you buy into the run first, run second, and then throw a 4-yard curl on third-and-5 strategy, there are reasons for concern. Doug Baldwin's gimpy. Brandon Marshall looks like he'll have to play a significant role. Rashaad Penny is overweight and missed chunks of the preseason with injuries. Add in the massive losses on defense, and the odds that it'll take a year or two for the admittedly promising young players on that side of the ball to fill some very large shoes, and this feels a lot like it could be Pete Carroll's worst season in Seattle.
Rivers McCown: Dallas Cowboys. The receiver situation is already dire, I don't think Travis Frederick is likely to play much at all. They didn't replace Jason Witten. I don't have a lot of confidence in the coaching staff to manage around the lack of depth on the roster or potential future injuries. I think they'll be fine, but I don't think they'll be a contender like the projections do.
Andrew Potter: Oakland Raiders. I picked the Raiders in this spot last year, and I see even less reason to be optimistic this time around. Last season's best wide receiver now plays in Baltimore. This decade's best defender now plays in Chicago. The players who remain have reacted largely with shock to the latter of those moves. Jon Gruden is not exactly famed for his harmonious locker rooms, and the Khalil Mack trade will not have helped his case either on or off the field. The Raiders have also now assembled the league's oldest opening-day roster since at least 2012. Gruden has a lot of work ahead to make the Raiders competitive; I expect them to get worse before they have a chance to get better.
Aaron Schatz: Seattle Seahawks. There are Brian Schottenheimer believers out there. I am the opposite of that. I hope for the sake of the 12s that he proves me wrong.
Vincent Verhei: Baltimore Ravens. I struggled with this one. Considered New England, just because if they finish with anything less than the most wins in the league, I'd win. Also thought about Minnesota, because I'm skeptical that Kirk Cousins will be all that the Vikings think he will be. In the end I went with Baltimore, who we have with the third-most wins in the AFC. That's partly because I have questions about the awkward transition the offense is going through, partly due to the schedule that includes four games against the NFC South.
Rob Weintraub: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It just seems to be setting up for a downfall in Tampa, with the offseason being a decision point on Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter. Seven wins in that division is too much to ask from the Bucs.
Carl Yedor: Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys' trump card is their mauling offensive line, and that line is already dealing with some potentially serious injuries in the preseason. Travis Frederick is out indefinitely, Zack Martin may have dodged a bullet with a preseason knee injury, La'el Collins injured his ankle in practice, and Tyron Smith was banged up for part of last season. If the offensive line can't stay on the field together, it will hurt the potency of the rushing attack and give Dak Prescott less time in the pocket. For a team that needs its offense to carry it, that spells trouble.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO BEAT KUBIAK PROJECTION
Scott Kacsmar: T.Y. Hilton, WR, IND. We currently have him as WR15, but I think with Andrew Luck back and such a shaky wide receiver corps, this could be a huge year for Hilton, who led the NFL in receiving yards in Luck's last season (2016). Hilton has never scored more than seven touchdowns in a season, but the catches and yards should be there. Again, if the next-best receivers on the team weren't the tight ends (Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron), then I probably would pick someone else, but I think Luck is going to rely on his WR1 a ton this season.
Derrik Klassen: Tarik Cohen, RB, CHI. If anyone is going to get the most out of a unique talent such as Tarik Cohen, it is Matt Nagy. Nagy, now the head coach of the Bears, formerly served as Andy Reid's offensive coordinator in Kansas City with weapons such as wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce, and running back Kareem Hunt. Nagy is more than creative enough to enable Cohen as a pass-catcher in space and get him more valuable touches in the run game.
Bryan Knowles: Royce Freeman, RB, DEN. This is almost entirely about volume. KUBIAK has Freeman and Devontae Booker sharing the workload 55/45; Freeman comes out slightly ahead in carries, though Booker ends up with the better projection thanks to his receiving value. Denver will start the season with the two in a committee, but Freeman has been pretty clearly the more exciting player when he has been on the field so far. He's the one scoring touchdowns and causing tacklers to miss. I don't think it will be too long before Denver realizes which back gives them the best chance to win. Freeman should be getting about 70 percent of Denver's workload by the end of the year and could be pushing up near the 1,000-yard mark.
Rivers McCown: Patrick Mahomes, QB, KC. Pair an Andy Reid offense with a quarterback prospect I liked a lot coming out of Texas Tech, mix in a dynamic skill position corps, and then the secret ingredient: a Chiefs defense that appeared to be coming apart at the seams last season. Outside of Justin Houston and Chris Jones, I don't know that any of the Chiefs players are question-mark free. This is a recipe for shootouts. Mahomes, versed in these sorts of things in the Big 12, will make his share of mistakes, but the volume and explosiveness of the offense make me think big fantasy points are coming.
Andrew Potter: Andy Dalton, QB, CIN. Our most recent KUBIAK ranks Dalton 26th of 32 starting quarterbacks using the default scoring. Dalton has consistently outperformed that ranking by about ten spots over his seven-year career, and I see no reason to expect that this season will be any different. The AFC North can be brutal on passing stats, and Dalton notoriously struggles with certain matchups; but Cincinnati's out-of-division schedule is hardly a murderer's row of opposing pass defenses, particularly in the first half of the year. Dalton should be a good matchup starter for people who did not get one of the very top statistical passers, and a solid mid-round QB2 in two-quarterback formats.
Aaron Schatz: Jared Goff, QB, LAR. He came out as QB25, but he was QB12 for fantasy purposes last year. I know, we're expecting some Plexiglass Principle regression with the Rams offense, but this seems like too much.
Vincent Verhei: Delanie Walker, TE, TEN. I know he's 34 this season, but we're projecting him with fewer yards than he has had in any of the past four seasons, while at the same time we're projecting the rest of Tennessee's passing numbers to go up. Rising tides and all ships and whatnot.
Rob Weintraub: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, CHI. Let it ride!
Carl Yedor: Christian McCaffrey, RB, CAR. McCaffrey is the clear No. 1 running back for a Carolina team that loves to run the football. The offensive line is a bit of a concern, but the former Stanford star has looked good in preseason and already got 113 targets last year in the passing game.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF KUBIAK PROJECTION
Scott Kacsmar: Le'Veon Bell, RB, PIT. Is he going to play this Sunday or not? It's hard to lead all players in fantasy scoring if you're going to sit out the real games. But even if Bell is back on Sunday, I think the Steelers start to use James Conner more in preparing for the future without Bell. Maybe that split can help keep Bell fresher for the stretch run too. In the end, I think the other big three backs (Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson) finish ahead of Bell in fantasy scoring this season.
Derrik Klassen: Devontae Booker, RB, DEN. To be frank, Booker is not the most talented back on the roster. Booker has shown precious little ability to be more than a run-of-the-mill two-down back in the NFL, while rookie Royce Freeman possesses a similar, albeit better version of Booker's skill set. Freeman should steal a good deal of Booker's touches and sink Booker's ability to put up fantasy points.
Bryan Knowles: Deshaun Watson, QB, HOU. I'm as big of a fan of Watson's half-season as the next guy, but we are talking about just six and a half games of work. And yet, in some formats, Watson actually is our highest-ranked quarterback in KUBIAK! A lot of that is his rushing value and yes, that's a huge bonus in a fantasy league, but I'd hesitate just a moment before crowning him. Both he and Jimmy Garoppolo are really tough to project because of the lack of track record, but Garoppolo is (sensibly) down towards the middle of the pack, while Watson is next to the top. He'll be a fantasy starter, sure, but maybe with about 500 fewer passing yards than we currently give him.
Rivers McCown: Rashaad Penny, RB, SEA. I've only caught a few glimpses of him but he seems to get an awful lot of the benefit of the doubt that Chris Carson is just some no-name schlub instead of a player who has impressed at every opportunity. I don't know why the Seahawks spent a first-round pick on Penny given these circumstances, but I don't think he'll be the player with the most points in this backfield barring an injury. (Sorry Vince.)
Andrew Potter: Delanie Walker, TE, TEN. Last season, despite the third-highest catch rate of his 12-year career, Walker's yards per reception and yards per game were both their lowest in four years. (His touchdown mark was too, but I would not be surprised to see a modest rebound there.) This season, I expect the 34-year-old's target share to move in a similar direction. As the most consistent receiving option in the Titans offense, Walker has accounted for over 100 targets in each of his past four seasons, but recent high draft pick Jonnu Smith should eat into that figure a bit more next season, and there may be fewer tight end targets to share around if Matt LaFleur's offense is a reasonably faithful derivative of his mentors' schemes. Given his age and competition, Walker as TE6 to me looks closer to a best-case scenario than a baseline projection.
Aaron Schatz: Adrian Peterson, RB, WAS. He had a couple of big games with Arizona last year, and that should be a good offensive line, but the guy is 33. I kept moving him up the projections with each update since it's clear he's going to be the starter, but it would not be surprising if he turns out to be completely toast and loses the job by midyear.
Vincent Verhei: Tom Brady, QB, NE. I've made this same pick three years in a row, and every year I am wrong, yet every year I get more confident about it. As noted in our piece on overrated fantasy players: "Brady will be 41 this season. Only once in NFL history has a quarterback that old thrown for more than 20 touchdowns: Warren Moon, who threw for 25 scores with the Seahawks in 1997. Only three others that age (Moon in Seattle in 1998, Vinny Testaverde with Dallas in 2004, and Brett Favre with Minnesota in 2010) have even broken double-digits." Eventually Brady will have a bad season, and when that happens, in 2022, I'll be the one screaming "I told you so!"
Rob Weintraub: Kirk Cousins, QB, MIN. Let it ride!
Carl Yedor: Alshon Jeffery, WR, PHI. Jeffery is a trusted target of both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, but the combination of Jeffery's nagging injury, Wentz's ACL recovery process, and the presence of Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor will likely reduce his season-long production.
SUPER BOWL LIII WINNER AND LOSER
Dave Bernreuther: New England Patriots beat Minnesota Vikings. Miami might surprise some this year, but they're not going to do enough to stop the Patriots from getting home-field advantage and as close to a free pass to the Super Bowl as there has been since ... well, last year. The NFC is stacked, and paying so much for Kirk Cousins when they could have just kept Teddy Bridgewater for next to nothing was pure insanity. But even so, that team is just so strong from top to bottom even with that money wasted. I see the Rams cruising to the top seed but being unable to hide their weakness at quarterback against a vicious Vikings defense. But then I see the Patriots being fresher and smarter in the final game. Which is far too easy a pick, but it's easy because it's still really likely.
Scott Kacsmar: Atlanta Falcons over Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, the Falcons get to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium with a real home-field advantage. I think this is the year the Steelers get over their own humps by beating the Jaguars and Patriots, but fall short in the Super Bowl to an Atlanta team that has been close in recent years.
Bryan Knowles: The New England Patriots get their sixth ring, beating the Los Angeles Rams 26-23. Afterwards, both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick step aside and maybe the AFC can have a new champion next season. Maybe.
Rivers McCown: Atlanta Falcons over New England Patriots. The Patriots are chalk until they show me otherwise. I could see many NFC teams in this spot, but I think Atlanta has the best combination of offensive and defensive ceiling.
Andrew Potter: New England Patriots over Green Bay Packers. I know, I said the same last year. When in doubt, pick the best quarterback in each conference and roll with it.
Aaron Schatz: Los Angeles Rams over New England Patriots. I believe in the Rams' coaching staff and their ability to hold back some of the expected regression, and there's so much talent on that defense now. I thought about going with a wacky subjective choice in the AFC, maybe the Houston Texans, but the same thing as last year and the year before and the year before that... the odds just say you are more likely to be correct picking the New England Patriots than any other team.
Vincent Verhei: Philadelphia Eagles over Pittsburgh Steelers. I know the Eagles are due for serious regression on third downs and in the red zone, but I can't get past the fact that as soon as Carson Wentz hits the field, they will be a more talented team than the one that beat New England in the Super Bowl. As for Pittsburgh, there are really only two good teams in the AFC, and I already said that Tom Brady will decline, so Steelers win the conference by default.
Rob Weintraub: For the umpteenth straight season, I'll go with New England Patriots over Green Bay Packers. We have to have the league's two best quarterbacks tangle in the Super Bowl at least once, right? Right?
Carl Yedor: New England Patriots over Minnesota Vikings. The AFC is a cakewalk again, and the Patriots should take advantage of the three bad teams in their division to lock up the top seed. In the NFC, Minnesota reaches the Super Bowl for the first time in over 40 years but comes up just short again.
WITH THE NO. 1 PICK IN THE DRAFT [TEAM] SELECTS [PLAYER]
Dave Bernreuther: The Buffalo Bills select someone who isn't at all worthy of the draft capital. Or maybe Nick Bosa.
Scott Kacsmar: The Buffalo Bills select Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama. I was going to give them edge rusher Nick Bosa, but I'm guessing they'll want to afford Josh Allen more time to launch rockets off course.
Derrik Klassen: Buffalo Bills select Ed Oliver, DT, Houston. The Bills already selected quarterback Josh Allen last spring (heaven help them), so another quarterback is almost certainly out of the question. Ed Oliver is a versatile, explosive defensive lineman who could give the defense a much needed spark.
Bryan Knowles: The Las Vegas Raiders select Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State as they look to add an elite pass rusher to their defense.
Rivers McCown: The Buffalo Bills make a small trade down with the New York Jets, who select Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State.
Andrew Potter: The Buffalo Bills select the best available trade, which is ultimately used on the most enticing quarterback (Drew Lock? Justin Herbert?). Absent a suitably irresistible offer, Buffalo selects Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State.
Aaron Schatz: The Buffalo Bills select Ed Oliver, DT, Houston, trying to find their own Aaron Donald.
Vincent Verhei: New York Giants select Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn. Each of the terrible AFC teams will pick up a handful of wins against each other, while the Giants look much worse than any other team in the NFC. And so they will finally pick Eli Manning's replacement.
Rob Weintraub: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers trade the first pick to the Denver Broncos, who select Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon.
Carl Yedor: The Buffalo Bills select Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State.