3 NFL teams that will be worse than expected

Posted: 08/19/2014 by levcohen in Football

Last time, I outlined three teams that I thought would outperform expectations, based on Bovada’s team over/under lines. Those three teams were the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans. Today, I’ll do the flip side. Which teams are being overrated by Las Vegas and will be worse than expected?

Cleveland Browns, under 6.5: The Browns haven’t won more than six games since 2007. They won four games last season and five two years ago. What has changed? Well, for one, the Browns drafted incredibly popular quarterback Johnny Manziel. That’s probably influenced the over/under. Unfortunately for Browns fans, Manziel is not close to a finished product. He’s said as much, and he has been pretty bad throughout the preseason. It’s safe to say that, at least for the first half of the season, the Browns will have below average play from their QB. Manziel is a rookie QB who fell to the back half of the first round, while Brian Hoyer is a journeyman who had a few good games last year but is unlikely to sustain that over a long period of time. They also don’t have the offensive weapons to lift a below-average starting quarterback. Josh Gordon took over the league last year, but looks set to miss at least half the season due to yet another violation of the NFL’s drug policy. He’s appealing his original year-long suspension and might get it reduced, but he’s sure to be sidelined for at least the first quarter of the season, if not more. The Browns have been frantically looking for a suitable Gordon replacement (bar Megatron, nobody can post the numbers Gordon did last season) by acquiring Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, and Nate Burleson. All three are established NFL receivers, but none can come close to having the impact Gordon has had. The Browns’ best receiving option is now Jordan Cameron, the tight end. Cameron is very good, but it’s a problem when he’s the only explosive weapon in the passing game. The running game figures to be a bit better, led by Ben Tate (until he gets injured) and supported by rookie Terrance West and a solid offensive line. That improvement in the run game, however, probably won’t be enough to lift last season’s 26th ranked offense by DVOA (per Football Outsiders) into mediocrity. I’m more optimistic about the defense, which looks good in the preseason and should be tough to throw on. This could be a league-average defense, if not better. I expect the Browns to start out slowly, with a rookie QB (assuming Manziel starts) and without Gordon. They could lose their first four games, at Pittsburgh, home against New Orleans and Baltimore, and at Tennessee. They would then face an uphill battle, as they have tough road games in Cincinnati, Atlanta, Carolina, and Baltimore in the second half of the season. I think they’ll be slightly better than last year’s 4-12, but I’m pretty confident that they won’t top six wins. 5-11 or 6-10 are the most likely scenarios for this team, which puts them solidly under the 6.5 line.

Dallas Cowboys, under 7.5: How could I pick the Dallas Cowboys, a team that seemingly defines mediocrity and finishes 8-8 every year, to finish with a losing record? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with their offense. I actually think their offense will be pretty good, with the obvious caveat that Tony Romo must stay healthy (no sure thing given his back issues). Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams are a scary duo on the outside, and they’re supplemented by Romo’s friend, steady-as-ever tight end Jason Witten. DeMarco Murray is one of the most talented all-around running backs in football, although he has frequently been injured. The Cowboys have also continued to improve their offensive line, focusing on the interior in the first round for the second straight year by drafting guard Zack Martin a year after taking center Travis Frederick. Those two should both be good, and they are joined by one of the best young left tackles in football: Tyron Smith. So the offense, which has star power and depth, should put up numbers. They should be balanced, as the run game is perhaps the biggest strength on the team. But if what I think will happen does indeed happen, and I think it will, then the result will be a lot of big deficits and, therefore, more throws. Why will they be down early and often? Because their defense is probably the worst in the NFL. Think about this: the defense that allowed the most yards in football by nearly 20 per game is now without their two best defensive players. Sean Lee, the sensational middle linebacker, is out for the year with a torn ACL (granted, he misses most of every year. It’s a shame, because he’s really good). Meanwhile, longtime defensive playmaker DeMarcus Ware is also gone, so the Cowboys will be without their sack leader. Now, their best defensive player is probably Brandon Carr. Outside of Carr, I struggle to name a single defensive starter on the Cowboys. That’s a problem, and the Cowboys defense, which was already bad last season, will be worse this year. It’s easy to see a scenario that the Cowboys are 4-12 or 3-13 this year. It starts with a Romo injury, which is unfortunately not unlikely. Then, the team will have to rely on the run game, which will be fine.. until DeMarco Murray also gets hurt, as he does every year. Couple an injury-prone quarterback with an awful defense, this team could be the worst in football. I’m not predicting that, but I also think it’s unlikely that they win eight games.

San Francisco 49ers, under 10.5: This one is more controversial, and it’s more of a gut feeling. This is a team that has been so good and so consistent over the last few years, highlighted by trips to the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship game in the last two years. I just think that’s a run that’s hard to sustain, especially without an elite quarterback and in a tough division. The 49ers still absolutely have the talent to win 11 games again this year, but I don’t think they’re as good as they have been over the past two years. The offense should mainly be the same as the one that was very up-and-down last season. Most of that inconsistency, of course, has to do with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Along with Robert Griffin III, Kaepernick is one of the most divisive quarterbacks in the NFL. At his best (think 2012 NFC Championship game against the Packers), Kaepernick terrorizes defenses with both his legs and his arms. He’s big, fast, and has a strong arm, and is one of the more dominant players in football when he’s on. Far too often, though, he’s not on. For example, after he threw for 412 yards in week one, he completed less than half of his passes in three of the next four weeks, including blowout losses at the hands of the Seahawks and Colts. In the end, Kaepernick completed just 58.4% of his passes last year, 31st of 37 qualified quarterbacks. Who was he above? Eli Manning, who had a terrible year last season. And then he was ahead of Terrelle Pryor, Jason Campbell, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, and Brandon Weeden. On a team as good as the 49ers, with a good offensive line, a good running game, and good weapons, that 58.4% is awful. I don’t know how much that will improve this season, so the offense will continue to be inconsistent. Frank Gore returns, but he’s now 31 years old, well into the danger zone for running backs. The 49ers are still without a really explosive wide receiver, with tight end Vernon Davis serving as the closest thing to it. Outside receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are both good route runners and big guys, but they don’t have the speed that it takes to break down elite defenses. In all, this should be a good offense, but it’s not going to be one that will carry the team. I think the defense is going to take a step back this year. Donte Whitner is gone, which further weakens a secondary that is probably the weakest part of the team. Against teams with top receivers, the 49ers could give up huge chunks of yardage. Unfortunately, they will have to go against Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, and Larry Fitzgerald all in the first three weeks. The 49ers are also going to be without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, arguably their two best defensive players, for the first half of the season (Bowman due to injury, Smith with a suspension). A defense that was once teeming with talent still has Patrick Willis and a soon-to-be-35-year-old Justin Smith, but much of the defense is a question mark. Pair a similar offense with a downgraded defense, and you see the cracks. Another thing that is sure to go against the 49ers’ favor is their schedule. They have six games against their own division, which doesn’t have a weak team and is the toughest in football. They also play the AFC West, which has arguably the best team in football (Denver), along with another possible playoff team in San Diego. They lucked into playing the NFC East, but their two extra games are against the Bears and the Saints. That’s a tough schedule, one with very few “gimme” games. In the end, I just have a feeling that the 49ers are going to take a step back this year, one that’s admittedly been reinforced by 23-3 and 34-0 losses in their first two preseason games. They’ll still be a fine team and win nine or 10 games, but I don’t think they’ll win any more than that.

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