by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Welcome to the final installment of Scramble's 2014 over/unders preview. Let's start once again with a reader fantasy question.
Paschal Brooks: Autopick went nuts last night. Gave me RBs Matt Forte, Montee Ball, Giovani Bernard, Toby Gerhart, Ryan Mathews and Joique Bell at the cost of only getting T.Y. Hilton, DeAndre Hopkins, Brian Hartline and Rueben Randle at WR. Have been offered Victor Cruz for Gerhart. What do you think? Thanks
Tom: For one, I hope for your sake you're in a league where you start 2/2/flex instead of 2/3.
Mike: This really comes down to whether you are in a PPR league.
Tom: How so?
Mike: The two players have roughly equal projected value for most leagues.
Tom: The macro-level question is spot on, you have a glut of running backs and need wide receivers. Now it comes down to the specific players. Gerhart is likely to be a volume back on a mediocre offense and almost certainly surplus to your requirements.
Mike: Wide receivers are generally easier to pull off the waiver wire than running backs because they're less consistent. PPR leagues make receivers more consistent.
Tom: Right, so the trade comes down to whether you think you can do better than Cruz, which in my book is based on how much you like Cruz.
Mike: Unless he is in a 2/2/flex.
Tom: Or a weird multi-flex setup, even.
Mike: Right. In a PPR league, I like the trade. In a non-PPR league, I'd have to know. If he has three set receiver slots, definitely go for it. If there are a lot of flex slots, then probably not. Instead, keep your eye on early breakout candidates among the undrafted rookie receivers.
Tom: Point No. 1: You already have Rueben Randle. Cruz gives you another Giants wide receiver. Doubling down on the same team might concern people. Cruz is likely to be the better, more consistent Giants receiver. That doesn't worry me. Point No. 2: Cruz is a Giants receiver. The Giants are undergoing a scheme transition on offense. Eli Manning hasn't looked great in the preseason and have what seems like a questionable offensive line. That may limit Cruz's value. Point No. 3: Especially with the news that Odell Beckham may not be ready for a couple weeks, Cruz is guaranteed to get volume, which means consistent point production like Mike mentioned. I concur with Mike. PPR or start 3WR, I'd definitely do it. Non-PPR or 2/2/flex, it depends on how much you trust the Giants offense. I'd do it, just because I'm more likely to win Week 1 with Cruz than without him.
That out of the way, the usual lines are courtesy of Bovada. At Bovada, those over/under win totals are accompanied by numerical lines, indicating whether a team is likelier to go over or under. As Mike and I are engaged in a grand exercise of passing judgment on teams rather than wagering money, we will be discussing teams only in relation to their over/under win totals and ignoring the betting odds. We have previously covered the AFC and NFC East, South, and North divisions, which leaves just the West divisions left. First up, the AFC.
DENVER BRONCOS (11.5)
Mike: So, you're the Denver Broncos. You pick up the greatest quarterback of all time because he randomly became available, you curb-stomp all of your opponents in the regular season, and you make the playoffs look pretty easy to boot. Sure, you were humiliated in the Super Bowl, but that's just one game, You're in a good spot to sit back and enjoy another year of domination, right? So of course, Denver goes out and somehow gets better. How can they do that, Tom. How is that legal?
Tom: They had the worst pass defense in the league in the games Von Miller missed last year. That's the sort of stat that makes me think it's worthwhile to go back to the early days of the Internet and resurrect GeoCities pages and their too-often festooning with flashing and blinking and scrolling. It's weird, because the Broncos were this offensive juggernaut last year.
Mike: I think Firefox might still support !
Tom: I should've said it "almost" makes me think it's worthwhile.
Mike: Too late! You reminisced it! You can't un-reminisce it!
Tom: Yet, that sort of stat (and the late-season injury to Rahim Moore, plus the loss of Chris Harris in the postseason contributed to that) makes the Broncos seem more like Yet Another Peyton Manning Team carried to undeserved greatness. But, yes, the Broncos now have the second edge rusher they lacked last year (and needed so desperately in Miller's absence), the second quality safety they needed, and two good starting corners (assuming Harris is recovered from his ACL). The only thing they don't have which they had last year are nickel linebackers, with Wesley Woodyard in Tennessee and Danny Trevathan injured to start the season. And I guess a second running back.
Mike: Oh no, their fourth linebacker and second running back might not be very good (for part of the season)! I hate this team because it means the Steelers have basically zero chance at a conference championship this year. Over.
Tom: The schedule could make the season more interesting, but even the compressed win projections in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 have the Broncos winning 11 (OK, 10.7) games. Over.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (8.0)
Tom: Or, what sort of sorcery is Andy Reid capable of? And you can throw Dave Toub into that mix as well.
Mike: Dave Toub is basically the best sorcery, as anyone who has watched the Bears in the past decade can attest.
Mike: I think that it's hard to say enough about how well Reid put together a system that could propel a rather talent-starved team to success.
Tom: The Chiefs by our numbers last year finished as an average offense and the ninth-best defense, but Toub's top-ranked special teams unit helped transform that into the NFL's last undefeated team. Teams generally improve when they bring in a new head coach, if only because teams to get new head coaches after seasons in which they were unlucky.
Mike: Well, and Andy Reid is a really good coach. That also helps. That said, their record was inflated drastically by some great injury luck and a really easy schedule.
Tom: They get that dead cat bounce improvement, and there was a lot of dead cat bounce improvement coming off Romeo Crennel. The question I have is, where did the Chiefs get better this offseason? The offensive line is worse.
Mike: Secondary is worse.
Tom: Wide receiver was a weakness, and they pretended like they were Cleveland and didn't have any problems there. The secondary is indeed worse. Dee Ford could be a good player, but he's not better than Tamba Hali or Justin Houston right now. Of course, this line is 8.0. The Chiefs went 11-5 last year.
Mike: Simple regression plus losses on the line will likely turn Jamaal Charles into merely a great running back instead of a jaw-dropping behemoth. And as Charles goes, so goes the entire offense. I'd say they're due for some special teams regression also, but come on; Dave Toub.
Tom: Right, thus my sorcery question. The stat that stands out to me is that the Chiefs faced the easiest schedule of opposing defenses last year. The AFC East may not be good, but if the Jets find some cornerbacks by Week 9, the Chiefs could be facing three pretty good defenses. Compare that to the AFC South last year.
Mike: So yes, they went 11-5 last year. That 11-5 was also the biggest sham in the league. It's going to take more time and effort for Reid to put together a paper wolf. Under.
Tom: Plus the NFC West.
Mike: I still can't believe I remembered their mascot is a wolf.
Tom: I'm not ruling Reid or Toub out, as they've both done sorcery before. But I'm not betting on this team either. Under.
Mike: Followed closely by continuous disbelief that their mascot is actually a wolf.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (5.0)
Mike: I always love team salary trivia. Did you know that the Raiders' highest-paid linebacker last season was Bobby Bonilla?
Tom: That stat was surprisingly hard to nail down precisely, and I won't swear to the numbers in the book. I mean, the dead money in Week 1 wasn't the same as the dead money in Week 9, which wasn't the same as the dead money in Week 17.
Mike: Alas, like the dream of a winning season for the Raiders, salary data is ephemeral.
Tom: The 2014 Raiders are more talented than the 2013 Raiders. They have better players. Dennis Allen might be a really good head coach, and we have no idea because the Raiders the past couple seasons have been a revolving door of mostly untalented players. I noted in last year's West Over/Unders column that the Raiders had turned over almost all of their starters from what I wrote about them from Football Ousiders Almanac 2012. Well, guess what? They're turning over a boatload of starters once again. The schedule gets harder, and they're losing a home game to London. Against the Dolphins.
Mike: I'm also not certain that Matt Schaub is an actual upgrade at quarterback.
Tom: See what you miss by not being on Twitter?
Mike: After basically any quarterback season except 2012 Matt Schaub --
You know, sometimes I hate the Internet.
Wait, does anyone actually think Carr can run an NFL offense?
Tom: Uh, maybe?
Mike: Did Dennis Allen forget how the preseason works?
Tom: My pre-draft answer was "He's not likely to do so successfully in 2014."
Mike: The only adequate response to this is a NSFW image involving Jackie Chan. And no, Tom, not the one you're thinking of.
Tom: I was told the chicken gave its informed consent. Signed a waiver and everything.
Mike: That's between you and the FBI.
Tom: That's between Jackie Chan and the FBI and the chicken, you mean.
Mike: I try to avoid being involved in whatever Mr. Chan does to his chicken.
Tom: It will get better eventually, Raiders fans. Under.
Mike: I like to hope it will, but this Raiders team feels like "meet the new bad-to-mediocre starters, same as the old bad-to-mediocre starters." This roster doesn't even really have any bright spots, just continual, churning mediocrity. I suppose the black hole moniker is fitting. Under.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8.0)
Tom: Or, Football Outsiders' projections against everybody else, 2014 edition.
Mike: This is time for a serious mea culpa.
Tom: You were wrong, and your nemesis Rex Grossman is actually a really good NFL quarterback?
Mike: Don't even joke about that, Tom. It's just not funny.
Last year, albeit in the staff prediction column and not Scramble, I predicted Philip Rivers to underperform his putrid KUBIAK projection. To the point where I actually received an email from our editor asking if I had read the projections. I wanted a bold prediction and I thought Rivers was going to collapse in a fiery implosion of suck. Boy, was I wrong.
Tom: Yes, you were. And I hope your prediction for last year is wrong this year, too, as I made him my fantasy quarterback the other day. Malcom Floyd gives them three actual wide receivers for their 11 personnel sets, Donald Brown gives them another talented running back, and the offensive line isn't any worse than it was last year. The question is the same it was last year, and a similar one to Chicago's -- will the offense be good enough to cover for a defense that is likely to be improved but could still be pretty bad?
Mike: No, I think Rivers will have another successful year. Maybe not quite as successful, with this year's stronger schedule, but definitely enough to keep the team competitive, despite a secondary that, at least on paper, seems to somehow be even worse.
Tom: I think Brandon Flowers is a big addition and gives them one reliable cornerback. Though I do hate that their top three cornerbacks are all shrimps. What I do like about the defense is that they could have more than a handful of games of quality edge rusher play, unlike what Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram were able to do in the limited time they were healthy last year.
Mike: I think the Chargers are in the wrong division, and particularly this year have the wrong schedule to be fielding an undersized secondary. A young, undersized secondary.
Tom: I'm not sure that undersized cornerbacks are ever not a problem unless you're facing a run-and-shoot team (or the 2011 Titans). But if the offense is just as good, if the defense could be just the fifth-worst the Chargers could go 9-7 or 10-6. That's the rub.
Mike: Personally, I see a lot of teams on the schedule that simply cannot keep up with San Diego's offense. Granted, San Francisco and Seattle can and Denver can just blow the Chargers out of the water, but it's a nice set for an offense-only squad. Over.
Tom: San Diego is one of the more fascinating teams this year, in terms of which way they could go, and they were definitely the team for which our projection stood out for me. The push would tempt me, if I believed in pushing this year. Give me a reluctant over.
Tom: And now the raisin in the sausage end, the NFL's best division in 2013.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (7.5)
Tom: Preview of Thursday's staff predictions article: I'm not a fan of the 2014 Cardinals' prospects, and was not even before Darnell Dockett got hurt. The Cardinals defied my projections of defensive regression last year, while Bruce Arians turned a real quarterback into an average passing offense.
Mike: You wonder why I miss him so.
Tom: I watched Todd Haley give a lot of carries to Thomas Jones and few to Jamaal Charles. That was enough to make anybody look good by comparison. What Arians has done the last two seasons in Indianapolis and Arizona makes him actually look good rather than just "good by comparison." I just don't trust the offensive line and don't think they'll have anything resembling a sustaining run game. Both Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington were impactful players for them, and they're huge losses. John Abraham had a really effective season; I don't see it happening again.
Mike: I love the addition of Jared Veldheer, but he's coming off an injury. Their other anchor on the offensive line is a sophomore who has yet to play a regular-season snap. Not trusting is charitable.
It is worth mentioning that Arians did a pretty good job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger alive through some particularly putrid offensive lines. Carson Palmer is not really that kind of quarterback, however.
Mike: What's worse, the Cardinals' weakest aspect by far last year was rushing offense. Rushes off left end, however, were a point of strength, where the team managed to finish second in left end ALY.
Tom: Right. San Diego last year was able to intentionally grind out drives, because they had a sustaining run game. I don't think Arizona will be able to do that.
Mike: So the big upgrade to Veldheer is less of an upgrade run blocking than we might think or hope.
Tom: The Cardinals didn't run off left end much, less than an average team. I'm hesitant to read much into that stat. Of course, the Cardinals went 10-6 last year. The line is 7.5. Once again, regression seems to be a common expectation.
Mike: Less than average is still enough to consider. In any case, the offense is unimpressive and the defense is likely to regress. And the Cardinals play in the most difficult division in football. Under.
Tom: I think there's a good chance the defense falls off a cliff, like down into the bottom ten of our rankings. If that happens, the Cardinals are going something like 4-12. Under.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Mike: Apparently Bovada is as skeptical about the Rams as I am. They don't even get a line!
Tom: The Rams actually saw their Over/Under number change, going from 7.5 as of the July 28 email I received with all the lines, to 6.5 at some point, presumably after Sam Bradford's injury.
Mike: How depressing is it that I'm shocked they lost a full game in the process?
Tom: Since the number is currently 6.5, I assume we should just go ahead and use 6.5 instead of doing our normal pretending we're in a weird "July 28 lasts over a month" time bubble.
Sam Bradford posted an above-average passing DVOA last year, in addition to leading the league in horizontal yards as a percentage of total yards. (The Broncos throw tons of shallow crosses, too; they just got upfield on theirs.)
Mike: It's sad when you have a specific concept of downhill passing to correspond to your concepts of downhill running.
Tom: Shaun Hill, meanwhile, has thrown 16 passes in the NFL in the past three seasons, though he posted a similarly slightly above-average passing DVOA back in 2010. The Rams will run the ball a lot, play well along the defensive line, and see how many games they can win. Jeff Fisher's in heaven once again.
Mike: Considering they are terrible at running the ball, the answer is most likely "not many."
Tom: Zac Stacy posted an average rushing DVOA last year. It was just the carries he didn't get that were mistakes. Daryl Richardson got cut by the Jets this week. Bennie Cunningham isn't going to get much work either. The offensive line should be better with the addition of Greg Robinson. Their guard play in particular last year was pretty bad at times. It should be better, especially when it comes to running the ball.
Mike: On the 250 carries he did receive, Stacy accumulated a whopping 80 DYAR, or 23rd in the league. I think your faith in Stacy is as misplaced as the "e" I keep subconsciously trying to insert into his last name.
Tom: I'm not telling you he's a star player. I'm telling you he's a decent player who can function effectively in the role he'll be asked to play. Square peg, square hole.
Mike: The role which, this year, will be "carry the offense." I don't see how that can be anything other than a disaster.
Tom: No, that's the defensive line's job. And the line is ridiculous. Robert Quinn is insane, you don't kick Chris Long off your team because he's a liability, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford could rush the passer, and they added Aaron Donald. This reminds me of the 2000 Titans line, when the backups may have been better than half the starting lines in the league.
Mike: Let's not give short shrift to the linebackers, either. James Laurinaitis has been consistently underrated and Alec Ogletree has serious potential. The Rams have a great collection of talent. Probably enough to be the third-best defense in their division!
Tom: I share neither of your opinions about their linebackers, and think this could be right there with, or even ahead of, Seattle as the best defense in the division. Yes, I admit I may I love, love, LOVE ridiculously dominant pass-rushing lines with an unhealthy passion.
Mike: That really is the problem, because all of St. Louis' division rivals have at least something approximating a functioning offense. Unhealthy indeed. Under.
Tom: And because with that defensive line, Gregg Williams won't have to go blitz-wacky, when he is at his creative riskiest. When that works like it did in New Orleans in 2009, it's beautiful. When it doesn't, it's a game-losing mess. Jeff Fisher is also a wizard at putting together mediocre records with teams that should win between six and 10 games. At 6.5, give me the over.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (10.5)
Tom: Between that July 28 email and now, the numbers behind Over and Under have shifted from Over -130/Under Even to Over +120/Under -150.
Mike: San Francisco and Seattle are going to be the two toughest lines because the action is going to be really close on both of them.
Tom: It seems to me like the change in San Francisco's perceived strength has a lot to do with the defense, including Aldon Smith's suspension we now know to be nine games. But by our numbers, this wasn't the sort of top-three defense last year they'd been the previous two seasons. NaVorro Bowman is out, too, yes, as is Glenn Dorsey. I think San Francisco has enough defensive talent and good enough coaching they could still be average to above-average on defense until Smith and Bowman return.
Mike: While I don't necessarily disagree with your assessment of the defense, it is worth noting that our stats are likely skewed to some degree by a fairly ugly beginning to the season, defensively. The loss of Smith is far more worrisome for this year than where the 49ers' defense finished in our rankings last year.
Tom: I think people's perceptions are being skewed by the good performances in their last two playoff games, instead of their average performances the six games before that. Is it right to be concerned about San Francisco's defense, especially early in the season? Yes, absolutely. But the more interesting question is just how good the offense will be.
Mike: On that note, I was very impressed by Colin Kaepernick's maturation as a passer.
Tom: When? I think that's the big question, how much maturation he did last season and how much he has left to do chronicles an apparent decline in the effectiveness of the line and the run game. Because of that run game and the defense, the 49ers have attempted close to the fewest passes in the NFL the last couple seasons. Kaepernick has mostly been asked to execute an intentionally limited passing game. It's hard to play offense that way forever, and this may the year forever comes to an end in San Francisco and Seattle.
I don't share your confidence in Kaepernick's progress as a passer. I think it could happen -- between Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, he has a pair of quality targets for the passing game with whom he can execute, and throw Vernon Davis in there as well.
Mike: I don't agree that the offense is necessarily limited because of Kapernick's alleged shortcomings.
Tom: I think they've called a limited offense, because they generally haven't had to open it up.
Mike: I think the offense appears to be more limited because of the unproductive running game and the fact that just throwing it to Boldin has worked pretty darn well thus far. It's difficult to quantify this sort of thing, but it is worth noting that there is nothing unusual about Kaepernick's splits by pass distance, whereas quarterbacks in truly and obviously limited offenses skew heavily toward short passes. Kaepernick was also an elite quarterback by DVOA and DYAR last year, so when he did throw, he was consistently effective and amassed significant value, which quarterbacks in limited systems simply do not do. I think both sides come down to the eye test. I think he looked good in 2013, particularly in comparison to 2012.
Tom: Good enough you think the 49ers will win 11 or more games against a schedule we rated as the fourth-hardest in the league?
Mike: I think I'm less fond of Arizona and St. Louis than most. 11 is a lot of games, especially with the big names on defense the team will be missing. With Smith and Bowman, I like the over. Without them? Probably not. Under.
Tom: OK, we're on the same page. Under.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11.0)
Tom: Fitting, to end with the defending Super Bowl champions. You'd almost think I planned it that way, though I alas did absolutely no such thing.
Mike: An amusing conspiracy of bilingual alphabetization.
Tom: As shown in FOA 2014, regression towards the mean the next season has been the near-inevitable result of having a historically great defense. As awesome as Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are, the Seahawks' corner depth took a hit with the departures of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. Red Bryant played a key role for them. Chris Clemons stopped getting sacks, but he still got a lot of pressure.
Mike: There is also the looming possibility of being hit by the double whammy of the beginning of Marshawn Lynch's decline phase and an offensive line that largely relies on everything going right.
Tom: Another way I think they're like San Francisco is they have the backs if their lead guy shows his age. There, it's Carlos Hyde behind Frank Gore. Here, it's Christine Michael and Robert Turbin behind Marshawn Lynch.
Mike: There's room for real regression on offense as well.
Tom: That line is a real concern, though. What makes Seattle so fascinating is we've seen Russell Wilson play extraordinarily well when called upon to throw more. Again, like Kaepernick, that hasn't happened much. And Seattle has quality depth at wide receiver. Percy Harvin's the superstar but Doug Baldwin's good, Jermaine Kearse has turned into a player, and Paul Richardson's a gamebreaker in even a limited role.
Mike: The drop-off between Lynch and Michael or Turbin is much larger than that between Gore and Hyde, though.
Tom: Michael's really, really talented. The line is the concern. They have two-fifths of a good one, and we'll see if J.R. Sweezy really has improved that much.
Mike: Yes, we have seen Wilson play extremely well. We have also seen some pretty extreme interception luck. Michael is very talented. Lynch is already one of the best running backs in the league, and apparently doesn't even need an offensive line to do so. That is a well-nigh irreplaceable asset. And it is good that the Seahawks have excellent depth at receiver, because there is no way Harvin starts all 16 games.
Tom: I'm trying to outline the argument Seattle's offense could be as good as its defense this year and the Seahawks be a complete team instead of a defense with an efficient but limited offense.
Mike: I can see a very reasonable argument along those lines. The problem, from our perspective, is that this division is where offenses go to die.
Tom: They're playing the NFC East, where offenses go to be resurrected from the dead, and the AFC West, where you have a couple more cases of ditto.
Mike: So half of Seattle's schedule makes an efficient, limited offense a plausible path to victory, and the other half doesn't. Since I refuse to push, that means they need to put up 12 wins with this schedule. They did so last year, but basically everything went right last year. That doesn't frequently happen, even for great teams. 11-5 sounds just right. 12-4 is a bridge too far. Under.
Tom: It seems only fitting that we end this series with another extraordinarily tempting push, given my terrible inclination to do such a thing and the fact that I'm forswearing it this year. Seattle has just been so good at home, and the claims for drastic offensive improvement are plausible enough in my eyes. With a line of 11.0, I'm looking at 12-4 or 10-6. This could look silly in three weeks given a plausible chance of starting 0-3 amidst a plethora of "What's wrong with the Seahawks?" and "Super Bowl hangover" articles, but I'll take the aggressive over.
Tom: Now that we've told you how the NFL season is supposed to go, teams, do us a favor and make us look good.
Mike: There's a first time for everything, right?