AFC East Preview

Posted: 09/06/2017 by levcohen in Football

The season starts tomorrow night with Chiefs-Patriots, so I’m running out of time to finish my division previews. I still have the entire AFC to do, so I’ll make sure I get the AFC East and West done before tomorrow night’s game and then I’ll squeeze in the last two before the rest of Week 1 begins. Unfortunately, the AFC East remains uncontested. The Patriots have won it eight straight times and 13 of the last 14. New England is a -1,000 favorite to repeat again, which is frankly absurd yet impossible to bet against. The question isn’t “who’s going to win the division?” but rather “by how many games?” That’s especially true after a preseason that saw the Bills tank unabashedly (they dealt their top receiver and cornerback) and the Dolphins lose a starting lineman, their quarterback, and their middle linebacker to serious injuries.

1. New England Patriots (13-3): The Patriots are the best team in football. That is by no means a bold statement, because it’s quite obvious. This team has won 10+ games every season since 2003. They’re 176-48 since then. They went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl last year, then added Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, among others. Julian Edelman’s torn ACL definitely hurts the offense, but check out the weapons Tom Brady still has at his disposal: Cooks, the team’s best deep threat since Randy Moss; Rob Gronkowski, the most dominant tight end in NFL history; Chris Hogan, who caught 17 balls for 332 yards and two touchdowns in three playoff games last year and is due a bigger role; Danny Amendola, a reliable slot receiver; James White and Dion Lewis, two electric receiving backs; Mike Gillislee, probably a more efficient version of LeGarrette Blount; Dwayne Allen, a good second tight end; and Rex Burkhead, a running back who has drawn rave reviews. That’s just not fair. Oh, and even if Brady gets hurt, the Patriots still have Jimmy Garoppolo, a hell of a backup quarterback. The offensive line has the same five starters as last year and should be even better as the three young interior starters improve. It’s maddening, but even with Edelman sidelined, it’s hard to find flaws in this offense. The whole dynamic changes if Gronkowski gets hurt again. The famously injury prone tight end is healthy coming into this year, but it remains to be seen whether he can get through a full season without a setback. With a healthy Gronkowski, this team has best offense of all-time potential, especially now with Cooks, a second player who can stretch a defense. With a wounded Gronk, it’s still a great offense but probably more of an ordinary great offense.

The Patriots have invested a lot of money into their secondary, and it’s paid dividends. Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty were All-Pros last year. Gilmore, signed from the Bills, is a good #2. Eric Rowe is a great depth option and a good #3. The defense isn’t going to be great, but that’s kind of a moot point, especially during the regular season. The offense is so good that the defense only needs to be mediocre for the Pats to win games comfortably. Maybe that changes during the playoffs, but this is a regular season preview, so there’s no point wasting words talking about New England’s solid but unspectacular defense.

The Pats are great, but they’re not going to go undefeated. I find that storyline to be pretty ludicrous, and a clear sign that people are just grasping at interesting subplots during what should be another ho-hum regular season in New England. I know they did it once before, but this team isn’t that good, and the schedule is too tough. The Pats have to play the AFC West, the NFC South, and at Pittsburgh (game of the season candidate on December 17th). There will be some losses in there. Just don’t count on too many, especially since they should go 6-0 against their division.

2. Miami Dolphins (6-10): I wrote about the Dolphins here. They were one of the teams I picked to underperform. My worries haven’t changed, and there’s now another significant one: the news that their Week 1 game has been postponed because of the incoming hurricane to Week 11 means that the Dolphins will have to play 16 straight games. In my other post, I detailed how tough their schedule to end the season was set to be. Now, instead of a BYE they have a tough game against Tampa. A brutal end just got even tougher. There’s still a decent chance that the Dolphins can crack .500, but that’s largely because there are two other teams in the division that are so bad.

3. Buffalo Bills (6-10): The Bills were a pretty decent football team last year. They went 7-9 and had a +21 point differential. They were very competitive in most games, although not competitive enough to save Rex Ryan’s job. There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Sean McDermott. And Sean McDermott clearly wants to start over with this roster. So, too, does rookie GM Brandon Beane, who, like McDermott, came from the Panthers. The team’s three top receivers — Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin — are all gone. Starting corners Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore are gone. Middle linebacker Zach Brown, who had 149 tackles last year, is gone. Overall, 30 of the 53 members on the roster are new. That includes the entire secondary, bar special teams ace and fourth safety Colt Anderson. Now, the Bills have one of the worst receiver groups and perhaps the worst secondary in the NFL. Tyrod Taylor’s going to have a lot of trouble finding open receivers. I expect a lot of checkdowns to Charles Clay. Most of the offense is going to come from running back LeSean McCoy, who should get a huge workload, especially since there’s no viable backup running back (bye bye, Mike Gillislee). I’m worried that McCoy will get injured, as he so often has. But even if McCoy stays healthy, it’s unlikely that the run game will be as dynamic as it was last season, when it ranked #1 in DVOA. And the pass game is going to suck, so the offense is coming way down from #10 in DVOA. Pair a below-average offense with a below-average defense that’s even worse this year and throw in a tough schedule and what do you get?? Six wins, and that’s only because they play four games against the Jets and Dolphins.

4. New York Jets (4-12): We’ll know just how hard the Jets are trying to lose by seeing when they start Christian Hackenberg. Josh McCown is a journeyman quarterback, but he’s not terrible. Hackenberg is terrible. To start the season, anyway, the Jets will throw McCown out there. How long will he be able to stay healthy? Well, he’s injury prone and got hurt in the last preseason game (why the Jets were playing their starting quarterback in the fourth preseason game is beyond me), so probably not very long. Regardless of who’s playing quarterback, though, this is a really bad football team. Running back Bilal Powell is the best player on the offense, and it isn’t particularly close. He’s also almost 29 and has never had more than 176 carries in a season. The receiver group is the worst in football, with Robby Anderson serving as the token #1 and rookie third rounder Ardarius Stewart starting on the outside. I didn’t even know who Eric Tomlinson was before writing this, but it turns out he’s the starting tight end. The offensive line isn’t horrendous, but it’s also not good. The offense is certainly worse overall than it was last year, and it finished 31st in offensive DVOA last season.

The defense isn’t much better. It finished 21st in DVOA last season and is also significantly worse this year. Sheldon Richardson is now a member of the Seahawks, linebacker and mainstay David Harris is now on the Patriots, so only Muhammad Wilkerson remains from the good Jets defenses in the early 2010s. Adding Morris Claiborne at cornerback definitely helps, but Buster Skrine is still starting across from him, and Buster Skrine is not very good. Both starting safeties are rookies, and no matter how good Jamal Adams (I think he’s quite good) and Marcus Maye are, that’s a recipe for disaster. The defense does have some promising youngsters, like defensive end Leonard Williams (who’s already a stud), Adams and Maye. But their starting middle linebackers posted PFF ratings of 47.1 and 36.2 last year. Skrine’s rating was 45.5. Only Williams, Wilkerson, and Claiborne have proven they can be above-average starters.

This just isn’t a team with a lot of good players. Williams, Claiborne, Wilkerson, Powell, Adams, andddd… that’s about it, I think. Wins will be tough to come by.

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NFC West Preview

Posted: 09/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

The NFC West was once a force to be reckoned with. In 2013, the division went a cumulative 42-22. The Cardinals missed out on the playoffs despite going 10-6. Things have changed since then, as first the Niners and then the Cardinals suffered steep declines. Now, the Seahawks are the last good team standing in a division that went 23-39-2 last season. The ‘Hawks have won double-digit games five straight times. Even last year, when their defense fell off a little and both Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson, probably their two best players, were banged up, they cruised to the #3 seed. Vegas expects more of the same this year: the Seahawks are -275 to win the division. Given that both the Rams and the Niners are in the midst of rebuilds, it seems that only Arizona can challenge Seattle for supremacy in this division. Will the Cardinals put up a fight? Will the Rams and Niners again post two of the five worst records in football? Is this Seattle team significantly better than last season’s?

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4): The answer to that last question is a resounding yes. If there were any doubts in my mind that the Seahawks are a better team now than they were last year, those doubts vanished when the Seahawks traded for Sheldon Richardson, a dominant interior defensive lineman who was understandably a disgruntled New York Jet. The Seahawks can now role out a defense featuring Michael Bennett, Richardson, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and a healthy Earl Thomas. It’s the best defense Seattle has had since they finished first in DVOA in 2013 and 2014. And it’s not like the defense has been bad over the last few years — fifth last year, fourth in 2015. But the difference between elite and very good is a noticeable one, and the ‘Hawks have given up an increasing number of points for four straight seasons. That’s a trend that’ll be arrested this season. There’s just so much talent at every level. Bennett is one of the best and most versatile defensive linemen in the NFL. Wagner and Wright finished third and eighth among linebackers in PFF rating (90.8 and 86 respectively). Avril has had 8+ sacks in six of the last seven years, and both he and Frank Clark cleared 10 last season. Sherman is still an elite cornerback no matter what metric you favor. Chancellor graded out as the third best safety in the NFL (91.2 rating), and we now have confirmation that Earl Thomas is the key of the whole defense. The defense nosedived down the stretch, giving up 98 points in the final four games, all of which were without Thomas. He’s healthy now, and the addition of Richardson gives the defense a whole different dynamic.

The offense is same old, same old. And by that, I mean pre-2016 same old. Last year, the offense was mediocre for one reason and one reason only: Russell Wilson was clearly hampered by injuries for most of the season. Sure, the offensive line sucked, but it has for years. It sucks again this year, but Wilson is healthy now. And Wilson, more than any other active quarterback, has consistently shown the ability to transcend a porous offensive line. He can make stuff happen, and he will also open things up for what should be an improved backfield that has three interesting pieces. Thomas Rawls is the #1 on the depth chart and should have a bounce-back year after a season riddled with injuries. Eddie Lacy has become a bit underrated, I think, and C.J. Prosise is an excellent pass-catching running back. They’ve all had injury concerns, but that’s why Seattle has three of them! As for the receiving options, Doug Baldwin is the most overlooked elite receiver in football. Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged almost 1,100 yards and has 21 touchdowns. And I think tight end Jimmy Graham is in for a huge season.

In case you need another reason to love the Seahawks this year, how about this: they have a soft schedule. In addition to playing four games against the Rams and Niners, they get the entire AFC South. That’s a nice slate. Here’s the top seed in the NFC.

2. Arizona Cardinals (9-7): I know I should be bullish on the Cardinals. They got super unlucky last season (7-8-1, +56 point differential). They have a really soft schedule. They have a talented defense that has finished sixth, second, seventh, third, and third in DVOA over the last five years. Tyrann Mathieu is healthy again and should help the defense remain steady even without the services of Calais Campbell, who departed in free agency. Outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden combined for 23.5 sacks last season. The defense is legit, the schedule is easy, and they got unlucky last year. Oh, and they have David Johnson, who’s good enough to be the consensus preseason #1 player in fantasy football (for what that’s worth). And yet…

I just don’t trust Carson Palmer. It’s never a good sign when a 37-year-old quarterback has a precipitous dropoff in production. After his career season in 2015, maybe last year was the start of a decline, or maybe it was just a return to normalcy. Either way, 2015 Carson Palmer is not coming back, and no other version of Carson Palmer is good enough to get the Cardinals to double-digit wins. Especially since the Cardinals have made no attempt to improve his weapons. Johnson is great and Larry Fitzgerald is Larry Fitzgerald, but who else is there? In the words of Bruce Arians, “Not very pleased with our wide receiver room, I must have been seeing things back in the spring when I said we had 12 guys that could play in the NFL. I think we might have two, but we’ll look around and see who’s available.” That’s… not good.

For all the reasons I mentioned above, the Cardinals will be fine. They’ll hover around .500 and probably beat up on their division again (they were 4-1-1 against the division last year and 3-7 against everyone else). But I don’t think they’ll make any serious noise with Palmer at quarterback and not much explosiveness on the offense.

3. Los Angeles Rams (5-11): I’m going to keep these last two short, because there isn’t much to say about the 2017 prospects of the Los Angeles Rams or the San Francisco 49ers. I’ll be interested to see how the LA offense does in Sean McVay’s first season as head coach. McVay is the ex-Redskins Offensive Coordinator, he’s just 31-years-old, and he’s a very highly regarded offensive mind. Can he make Jared Goff good at football? That remains to be seen, but given how well Kirk Cousins played under McVay, I guess it’s not impossible. The offense around Goff is definitely improved. Going from Greg Robinson to Andrew Whitworth at left tackle will make his life easier. So will having a real #1 receiver in Sammy Watkins. And maybe Todd Gurley will be able to run for more than 3.2 yards per carry. For LA’s sake, I certainly hope so. Seriously, though, Gurley ran for 3.2 ypc last year and Goff averaged 5.3 yards per attempt. It won’t take a lot for the Rams to be better on offense than they were last year, when they had the worst DVOA of any team since the 2005 Niners.

Defensively, the Rams are screwed if Aaron Donald continues his holdout. Donald might be the best defensive player in the NFL. That’s how dominant he is. His PFF rating last year was 98.5. That’s not a typo. Unfortunately, he’s holding out. The Rams, who finished 15th in defensive DVOA last year, are immediately a subpar defense without Donald. I’ll give them five wins, but that’s only because they’re playing an Andrew Luck-less Colts team in Week 1 (and the rest of the AFC South later on) and because they play the Niners twice.

4. San Francisco 49ers (4-12): More than half of San Francisco’s roster is new. That includes all six of their receivers, both quarterbacks, two of three tight ends, four of nine offensive linemen, and one of three running backs. Those are just the offensive changes. This is not going to be a good football team. They went 2-14 last year, so I guess I understand why they made so many changes. But they’re not much better this year. Brian Hoyer is a textbook journeyman filler quarterback. Pierre Garcon is a good receiver, but the rest of the additions are basically no-names. The offensive line stinks, especially now that Joe Staley is not as productive as he once was. I think the defense might improve, thanks largely to a defensive line that features three straight first round picks, including #3 overall selection Solomon Thomas. But “improve” may mean going from 28th in DVOA to, say, 22nd. That’s not going to cut it, especially since the offense is so horrendous. They’ll win four games and keep stockpiling picks and young players as they bide their time.

NFC South Preview

Posted: 09/04/2017 by levcohen in Football

Over the last few years, the NFC South has consistently been a really fun division. It hasn’t been the best division in football by any means (although back-to-back NFC Super Bowl representatives have come from the division), but it’s always fun. It’s the rare division with four competent quarterbacks. Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan are all among the best handful of QBs in football (yes, Cam is still up there, down year last season aside). And Jameis Winston could soon join them if he harnesses all of his ability and cuts down on the interceptions. It’s not a division that has lacked offense over the last few years, and that won’t change this year. But aside from the 2015 Panthers, the division hasn’t had a really good defense since the Panthers’ in 2013. That’s three years with only one good defense, which is hard to do. The lack of defense is the reason this defense seems so up in the air before every year. Each team has the potential to explode if they get even average defense, but that hasn’t happened often. Can Atlanta possibly bounce back from the Super Bowl? Will Cam and the Panthers turn it around? Are the Bucs overhyped? Will the Saints stop wasting otherworldly performances from Drew Brees? Nobody has shorter than +170 or longer than +400 odds to win the division, so it should be a fun one.

1. Carolina Panthers (10-6): This is a bit of a contrarian pick. The Panthers are coming off of a 6-10 season and a last place finish in the division. It was a massive letdown after their 15-1 season that ended oh so close to a Super Bowl victory. I’m betting that the roster, which has remained largely the same since 2015 (plus and minus a few major changes, of course), is much worse than the 2015 season indicated but much better than last year did. The defense remained decent last season, but it dropped from second in DVOA to 10th. It was still the best defense in the division, but it was nowhere near good enough to overshadow a disappointing offense. A lot of that had to do with the loss of shutdown corner Josh Norman. It’s hard to argue with the stats: in 2015, the Panthers were third in DVOA against #1 receivers; last year, they were 24th. They remained stingy against tight ends and running backs, a sure sign that their linebackers remain a strength. But it’s hard to overcome a porous secondary. The Panthers didn’t make any splashy free agent signings to improve their secondary, but the moves they did make should help. Ex-Colt Mike Adams is a big upgrade at free safety over Tre Boston and should help limit big plays. Captain Munnerlyn remains a decent corner, and he’s a huge upgrade over guys like Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain. But remember that the Panthers started two rookie corners last season in Daryl Worley and James Bradberry. Both showed glimpses, and both remain starters this season. I’d be shocked if one or both did not show meaningful improvement, which should help the defense a lot. Barring another Luke Kuechly concussion (please, Luke, stay healthy), the rest of the defense is stacked. Kuechly is the best middle linebacker in football, and 34-year-old Thomas Davis is still going strong next to him. Shaq Thompson, now entering his third season, put up an 85.0 PFF rating last year, 13th among all linebackers. He’s not a great pass rusher, but he more than makes up for that with his stout pass coverage and run defense. Even in a down year, Carolina finished second in the league in sacks last season, one off of Arizona’s 48. It was their fourth straight season of at least 40 sacks. Losing Kony Ealy won’t hurt as much as you might expect, because Ealy was awful last season. The pass-rushing specialist only had five sacks, and his 54.8 PFF grade was 76th of 110 qualified edge rushers. Plus, he only started six games and was more of a rotation player. The efficient front four of Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short remains intact. The defense will be good. They probably won’t be one of the very best in the league, because the secondary remains weak, but they’ll get enough pressure on quarterbacks to limit offenses.

It’s the offense that really needs to improve this year, and I think it will. There’s no doubt that Cam Newton had a poor season. He completed just 53% of his passes, through for 19 touchdowns and 14 picks, and only rushed for 359 yards (easily a career low). Despite starting 15 games, it seemed like Cam was always banged up. He’s a tough guy, but he can’t keep taking the beatings he consistently took last year. Four-fifths of the starting offensive line remains the same. Center Ryan Kalil, probably the best of the lot, is healthy now after he missed seven games last season. And his brother Matt is the only new starter, replacing Mike Remmers at left tackle. Matt Kalil has been pretty bad these past few seasons, so the offensive line isn’t going to give Cam much time. But that’s ok, because Cam now has four great options to quickly throw short to if he’s being pressured. In addition to old reliable Greg Olsen and the rejuvenated Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers now have rookies Christian McCaffery and Curtis Samuel, their first two picks. McCaffery, a running back, and Samuel, a slot receiver, are electric runners. Put the ball in their hands and they will make stuff happen. I admit that I’m placing a lot of faith in Cam, because Cam needs to change his style of play. He can’t hold onto the ball for too long and continue to get pummeled. He needs to change, and he now has the weapons to do so. I’m very optimistic about the Panthers’ chances this season, especially since I think they’ll start the season 3-0 (@ SF, vs BUF, vs NO).

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6): On paper, everything looks great. Everyone can now agree that Matt Ryan is a stud. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are great running backs. Julio Jones is Julio Jones, and Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are still very good complements (Sanu the possession receiver, Gabriel the deep threat). Tight end Austin Hooper should emerge in his second season and give Ryan yet another dangerous target. Four of five starters on the offensive line, all of whom started 16 games last year, are back. The only one who isn’t is right guard Chris Chester, who retired. Replacement Ben Garland is untested, but at least he’s been on the roster for three years now and should be accustomed to this offense. Everyone who made the offense the best in football last year is back, except for OC Kyle Shanahan. And while I understand that losing an offensive coordinator can be a big deal, I don’t think the loss of Shanahan is the end of Atlanta’s offensive dominance by any means. Yes, they’ll probably lose more players to injury this year. Freeman, Ryan, and the entire offensive line all started all 16 games. Jones played 14, which is about as many as you can expect from him. Sanu started 15. But even if we assume some bad injury luck, this is a great offense on paper.

The defense was bad last year, not that it mattered. But it’ll definitely be better. It was one of the youngest units in the league last season, and a bunch of the young players looked really good. In fact, I would argue that their four best defenders are entering their second or third year in the league. That’s safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, and De’Vondre Campbell. Especially in the playoffs, all four of those guys were really good. I think they’ll be good this season. The return from injury of once-shutdown corner Desmond Trufant can only help, although I’m not sure how much we can expect from Trufant. And nose tackle Dontari Poe should help a run defense that was fifth-worst in the league per DVOA.

So the offense is still elite, and the defense is improved. What’s stopping me from giving the Falcons 12 wins and the division championship? Well, it’s just so hard for me to believe that they can be completely over what happened in the Super Bowl. Heck, it’s still too painful for me to really write about (I really hate the Patriots). They’ve said all the right things, but that has to have an impact this year. Teams who are coming off of a Super Bowl loss generally struggle the next year. Just look at Carolina last season. And none of those teams (and I mean none of those teams) lost the way Atlanta lost last season. I’m splitting between my head (stacked roster, improved defense, they’ll be even better than last year’s 11-5 team) and my heart (Super Bowl hangover, out-of-nowhere offensive regression) and giving the Falcons 10 wins and a wild card because they’ll lose the tiebreaker to Carolina. I was going to give them nine wins, but I think I’ve been giving too many teams nine wins, so 10 it is. I hope they get another crack at a Super Bowl.

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9): The Saints have finished 7-9 three straight times and in four of the last five seasons. Their team is going to have the same problems they always have, so it’s hard for me not to predict a 7-9 season. Every year, I have a gut feeling that the Saints will finally get some improvement from their defense and surprise everyone. After all, their offense is always good. They’ve been in the top-10 in DVOA every year since 2011 and top-12 (cherry picking, but still) in every year of the Drew Brees era. That’s 11 straight seasons! So every year, I think the Saints will be good. Last year, I picked them to go 9-7, writing:

Look: the Saints went 7-9 last season even though they had a historically bad defense. So if their defense can rebound to even be just bad, they’ll be able to jump over .500… This is the only team I can see stealing the division from the Panthers. A lot of people are picking them to finish last, but I think they have a pretty good chance of making the playoffs. In Brees I trust.

The year before, I picked them to go… 9-7. I wrote:

Are the Saints being left for dead a little bit? After their disappointing season last year and the subsequent trade of Jimmy Graham for the less-exciting Max Unger, the Saints are now +225 to win the NFC South, the third-best odds in the division. I’m pinning my hopes mainly on Drew Brees, who had a season that was mediocre for a future HOFer last year.

And the year before that, I projected a 12-4 (to be fair, everyone thought they would be good that year). Here’s what I wrote then:

The Saints went 11-5 last year, and I think they could be even better this season. By that I mean first round BYE good. Maybe even #1 seed good… They might not finish in the top-10 again defensively, but they should remain in the top half of the league, and along with the expected offensive boost and relatively soft schedule, that will be enough for them to improve to 12-4.

In all three of those seasons, the Saints went 7-9. This year, I’m not making the same mistake. I’m not going to take a leap of faith and pin my hopes on a 38-year-old Drew Brees. I still think Brees is quite good, but the loss of Brandin Cooks (and, for three games, the suspended Willie Snead) and the undefeated record of father time indicate that he might fall off a little this season. And I’m certainly not going to predict massive improvement from a 31st-ranked defense starting three sub-23-year-olds in the secondary and Manti Te’o (played three games last year, has graded out at 34.2 and 37.8 on PFF the last two years) at middle linebacker. The offense will be good and the defense will be bad and the New Orleans Saints will go 7-9 again. I am interested to see how Adrian Peterson does on New Orleans. He’ll definitely have more room to run than he did in Minnesota, but I still think he takes a backseat to Mark Ingram in the backfield. It should be an efficient running game.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): Everyone’s very, very excited about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s partially because they surprised everyone and went 9-7 last year, winning six of their last eight games and coming fairly close to a playoff berth. It also has a lot to do with the fact that the Bucs are on Hard Knocks and thus are getting a lot more exposure than any other team. There are things to like about this team. Mike Evans is an absolute beast, and DeSean Jackson is the perfect complement. Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers are good defensive linemen. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander make a lot of plays, although they miss a lot too (35 missed tackles between them last season). Doug Martin has looked good in training camp and will provide a steady running option when he returns from suspension. But I’m already running out of things to like. I’m not a huge Jameis Winston fan. I know I called him competent earlier, and I think he is, but it’ll be hard for me to consider him much more than that until I see him cut down on mistakes and make some good things that aren’t “throw the ball up to Mike Evans and let him get it” happen. Jackson is a flashy signing, but how much will he ultimately help the team? Probably not much. O.J. Howard, the tight end out of Alabama, is a flashy first round pick, but rookie tight ends are almost always ineffective. The offensive line is mediocre at best, with left tackle Donovan Smith failing as of yet to provide anything more than replacement level value (66th out of 78 tackles in PFF grade). And most of all, I don’t like the defense as much as most people do. Sure, McCoy and Ayers are good. Yes, David and Alexander make things happen. But the defense misses a lot of tackles, and they relied heavily upon 29 takeaways (third in the league) last season. If that number drops a little bit, and the likelihood is that it will, I don’t think there’s enough talent to keep teams out of the end zone. The fact that Vernon Hargreaves made the All-Rookie team says a lot about rookie corners in general. He gave up more than 200 more yards than any other cornerback (to be fair, he did see more passes thrown into his coverage than any other corner). Brent Grimes was a beast last year, but he’s now a 34-year-old cornerback with an injury history. I have a hunch that last year may have been his last great season. One of their starting safeties was signed a few days ago, barely a week before the season. That’s T.J. Ward, the ex-Bronco who’s hard-hitting but also makes a lot of mistakes.

A lot of people are excited about the Buccaneers, but I see no real reason to be excited. They had a -15 point differential last year, and I just don’t think they’re meaningfully better this season. They have a tough schedule, with extra games against the Giants and in Arizona. After their BYE, they have a brutal schedule: @ ATL, @ GB, vs DET, vs ATL, @ CAR, vs NO. If they’re not at least 6-4 before their BYE, I fear that the Week 17 game against New Orleans will be meaningless. It’s not a bad team, but it’s also not a likely playoff team.

NFC North Preview

Posted: 09/03/2017 by levcohen in Football

I’ll continue with the division previews with the NFC North, a division that has seemed to be the Packers’ to lose for ages. That remains the case this year, as Green Bay is clearly the class of the division while the other three teams are all deeply flawed. I do think there’s a good chance that a second team from this division will make the playoffs, and I know it won’t be the Bears. If things break right for Minnesota or Detroit, this could be a two team race. They’re very different teams and have been constructed in very different ways, but I think they’re of pretty similar quality talent-wise.

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5): I wrote about the Packers here. I predicted that they’d win more than 10 games. I think it’s pretty safe to peg them for double digit wins, but any more than 11 feels like a stretch given that they have some pretty tough games. They start the season with Seattle and @ Atlanta, so they could easily be in an 0-2 hole quickly. Road games in Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Carolina later in the season will also be tough. But there’s a reason I had the Packers on my list of likely pleasant surprises. I think they’re a really good football team, and I think they’ll cruise to the NFC North championship barring an Aaron Rodgers injury.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7): Before their BYE last year, the Vikings were flying high. They were 5-0 and had not given up more than 16 points in a game. Their defense was dominant, and Sam Bradford was doing enough to win games. Then, the bottom fell out, and the Vikings finished the season with three wins in their last 11 games. Part of that was natural regression. Their 5-0 start was keyed by an incredible +11 turnover differential (12 turnovers forced, just one turnover). They were a net zero on turnovers down the stretch. Part of it was regression from the offense. And a lot of it had to do with injuries to the defense. Sharrif Floyd missed the last 15 games. Stud safety Harrison Smith was banged up down the stretch. Xavier Rhodes got hurt. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks got hurt. It wasn’t pretty. The defense still finished finished in DVOA, giving up the third fewest yards and the sixth fewest points. Their weighted DVOA, though, was 18th-best, showing that the defense, too, slumped down the stretch. Now, they should be fully healthy, and that’s a scary thought for other teams. Their front four might be the best in football. Linval Joseph has had consecutive dominant seasons, Floyd should return to his run-stuffing self this year, Everson Griffen has 30.5 sacks in the last three years, and Danielle Hunter notched 12.5 takedowns last season. It’s a tremendous front four. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are a pair of athletic, dynamic linebackers who can make big plays. I do worry about the corners. Trae Waynes has been nothing short of awful in his first two years since being a first round pick, while Rhodes is thought of as a shutdown corner but in fact has a lot more letdowns than you’d like from a stud corner. But Smith is a stud at safety, and the team’s pass rush should help lessen the burden on the secondary. This defense should be elite.

The defense is what gives the Vikings a baseline of seven or eight wins. The offense is what will likely keep them from much more than that. The offensive line was a dumpster fire last season and doesn’t return a single starter. That’s probably a good thing, but it’s tough to imagine an o-line with five new starters performing well right away. Sam Bradford will again be the quarterback. I feel bad for Sam Bradford, because he got crushed last year, still broke the record for completion percentage, and hasn’t gotten any credit for him. Yes, he’s a dink and dunk quarterback who won’t win a game by himself, but the guy completed 71.6% of his passes last year and only threw five picks. The Vikings will hope that ex-Florida State running back Dalvin Cook can lessen the stress on Bradford and the offense. I think Cook is going to be a really good NFL running back, and the 1-2 punch of Cook and Latavius Murray should be a whole lot better than any Minnesota running back was last season. The Vikings should be better offensively than they were last year, when they finished 26th in offensive DVOA and 31st in rushing DVOA. That means they’ll likely be a pretty good team, because they had a +20 point differential last season and should be healthier this year. I don’t have enough confidence in the offensive line to predict more than nine wins, but a playoff run is definitely possible.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10): The Lions, coming off a 9-7 season in which they were unlucky not to win the NFC North, seem to be a lot of people’s pick to be a darkhorse contender. As you may expect, almost all of that revolves around the hype that the offense is garnering. The fact that Matthew Stafford just got the biggest QB deal in NFL history helps. After six consecutive 4,200+ yard seasons, Stafford has his fair share of fans, especially since he makes throws that shouldn’t be possible from all kinds of weird arm angles. Stafford’s a fun quarterback, and he’s been a pretty good one since he’s cut down on his interceptions. But I’m not comfortable with saying he’s anymore than pretty good and clearly a few rungs below the league’s elite. Stafford certainly has weapons. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate were a good 1-2 combo last year, and third round pick Kenny Golladay should be a viable third receiver. Throw in pass-catching maestro Theo Riddick, who should be the third down back, and athletic tight end Eric Ebron, who had the misfortune of being drafted two picks before Odell Beckham, and you have a complete receiving core. I’m also excited about the return of running back Ameer Abdullah, who should provide Detroit with the running game they so sorely lacked last season, when they averaged 3.7 yards per carry as a team and didn’t have a single 400 yard rusher. It’ll be a balanced offense, and it should be a good offense, one that has a top-10 ceiling. But some people are projecting an elite offensive season, and I just don’t see that happening.

The defense has nowhere to go but up. It’s actually pretty impressive that this team made the playoffs despite finishing dead last in defensive DVOA. Perhaps that’s an indication of how the NFL has changed over the last few years and how it may continue to change. But even in a league where offense rules, it’s still nice to have a good defense. And the Lions aren’t going to be a good defense this year, either. They need a big bounce-back year for Ziggy Ansah, the most talented defender on the team. Last year, in the prime of his career, he mysteriously dropped from 14.5 sacks to 2.0, looking much less explosive in the process. It wasn’t just a product of bad luck; Ansah legitimately looked like he had fallen off. If Ansah can’t sack the quarterback, nobody on the Lions is likely to. This is a team that had just 26 sacks last year, and leading sacker Kerry Hyder (8.0) is out for the season with a torn Achilles’. The second leading sacker, Devin Taylor, is off the team. And nobody they brought in is going to rack up many sacks. That’s going to put even more pressure on the secondary, which has no new starters. That’s not a good thing, because this team finished 32nd in pass defense and it wasn’t close. To put it simply, the defense is going to stink. The Lions were lucky to win nine games last year, and I think they might fall off big time this year. I just don’t think they did enough this offseason to improve the team.

4. Chicago Bears (5-11): This year is all about Mitchell Trubisky. I have to say that I was quite surprised when the Bears traded up a single pick to snag Trubisky at #2. This is a guy, after all, who started for only one year at North Carolina, hardly a football powerhouse. He was darn good that one year, but one year is one year. Will he suffer the same fate as so many recent highly touted quarterbacks? The success rate of highly-drafted quarterbacks is not great. I’m not going to plant my flag on one side or the other, but I will say that Trubisky is the Chicago franchise at this point. Now, he’s not going to start the season as QB (Mike Glennon will). But given that he was drafted so highly and given that Glennon is unlikely to have that much success, I think it’s likely that he starts a handful of games this year. And the season will be deemed a success for Chicago if he shows enough flashes in those games.

Outside of the quarterback position, the Bears aren’t very interesting offensively. That’s especially true now that top receiver Cameron Meredith went down with a gruesome-looking knee injury. Jordan Howard’s a second year back who made some noise last year, but he’s more of a two-down back who struggles to catch the ball and isn’t a great pass protector. I also think it’s unlikely that he averages 5.2 yards per carry for a second consecutive season.

I do think the defense will be decent, which is why I have them moving from three to five wins. They ranked 12th in the league with 37 sacks last year, and they should again be able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In Akiem Hicks, Willie Young, Pernell McPhee, and Leonard Floyd, the Bears have four skilled pass rushers who can bother tackles and get around the edge. Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman form a tremendous duo at middle linebacker; in fact, Freeman was PFF’s top-rated linebacker in the league (93.9 rating). The starting secondary is entirely new. Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, and Prince Amukamara are all established veterans with track records of competency, while fourth round pick Eddie Jackson will start at safety right off the bat. The defense isn’t as strong from top to bottom as, say, Minnesota’s, but it should be solid, which is what will push the Bears to semi-respectability. But again, none of this really matters. The Bears aren’t going to be a playoff team this year, and it won’t be particularly close. But can Jordan Howard repeat last season’s performance? What kind of progress does Trubisky make? Those are the questions that really matter.

NFC East Preview

Posted: 09/01/2017 by levcohen in Football

The NFL season is really sneaking up on us. I know this because the fourth preseason games were all played last night and because this is Week 1 of the CFB season, both sure signs that the start of the NFL season is less than a week away. The Chiefs and Patriots play a week from yesterday in Foxborough, and I’m super excited. I still have to preview every division in the league, and I’m starting today with the NFC East.

1. New York Giants (10-6): All of the pieces are in place for the Giants to be an elite, 12-win team. They return a defense that finished second in DVOA last year and looks to be terrific again this season. Damon “Snacks” Harrison is one of the best run stuffers in the league (92.5 PFF run stop grade, best among interior linemen) and was a first-team All-Pro last year. Harrison’s proficiency allows the Giants’ defensive ends to focus on getting to the quarterback. That’s what Jason Pierre-Paul does best, while Olivier Vernon blossomed into one of the best all-around defensive ends in the league in his first season with the Giants. The linebackers remain the weakest part of the defense. But all reports say that B.J. Goodson has shined this preseason and is ready to take over as middle linebacker. The 24-year-old has the chance to take an already stout defense to the next level. The secondary had three All-Pros last year (that’s five total on the defense), as Landon Collins became a difference-maker at safety (92.5 PFF rating, second best among safeties) and the duo of Janoris Jenkins (88, 8th among corners) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (89.9, fifth) is terrific in coverage. There aren’t a lot of holes in the defense, and the team also has some depth on the defensive side of the ball. This is clearly the best defense in the division.

The reason that the Giants have a higher ceiling this year than they did last year is that they added some explosive weapons to the offense. Say what you want about Brandon Marshall, but there’s no doubt that he’s still a capable receiver and a massive upgrade over Victor Cruz. Marshall gives the Giants three dangerous receivers, as both Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr. have survived injury scares and look set to enter the season healthy. Beckham is Beckham; he can take a simple slant to the house and break a game open. But Eli Manning tried to force the ball to Odell last year, something that shouldn’t have to happen with Shepard a year older and with Marshall and first round pick TE Evan Engram now on the team. The return from injury of pass-catching running back Shane Vereen should also give Eli an extra security blanket. I said that the Giants could be an elite team. There are a few reasons that I don’t think they will be. The first is that the run game, which has struggled so mightily for years now, still doesn’t have a true difference-maker. I think Paul Perkins is a serviceable player, but nobody’s scared of the run game. That puts more pressure on Eli Manning, who just isn’t a great quarterback anymore. That’s the biggest reason I think the Giants will win 10 games and not 12. Eli finished with an 86.0 passer rating, 22nd among 30 qualified quarterbacks. He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt (25th) and threw 16 interceptions (tied with Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler for fourth). That’s not good company to keep. In a lot of ways, I think the Giants are actually pretty similar to the Jaguars. So maybe I’m being too bullish about New York. But I do think they have an elite defense, and I do know that Odell can win a few games by himself, so I’m not comfortable pushing the Giants below 10 games. I do think the bust potential is pretty high, though, in a way it isn’t for either of these next two teams.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7): The Giants have the best defense in the division, but the Eagles aren’t far behind. They finished fourth in DVOA last season and could be even better now that Jim Schwartz has had another year to implement his system. If the Eagles are going to be good, they’re going to need their pass rush to be dominant. I believe it can be. Brandon Graham graded out as the second best edge rusher in the entire league (PFF rating of 93.9). He only finished with 5.5 sacks, but that was more bad luck than anything else, and I think he could easily push for double-digit sacks this season. Fletcher Cox had a disappointing season as he fell into the funk after being double-teamed into oblivion down the stretch. That should change this year, as Timmy Jernigan will garner a lot of attention right next to him. But the biggest reason to expect improvement from the pass rush is first round pick Derek Barnett, who will split snaps with Vinny Curry but who has shown the ability to be an instant difference-maker on the edge, looking tremendous all camp. Throw in the depth provided by new signee Chris Long and the defensive line should be able to consistently generate pressure with four pass rushers. That’s what Schwartz wants, as he’s not a heavy blitzer.

The pressure should allow the Eagles to cover up their weakness at corner. It’s a weakness they’ve tried hard to fill, as they traded Jordan Matthews for Ronald Darby, signed Patrick Robinson, and drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the second and third rounds. Darby will be the team’s best corner in a few years, but Jalen Mills is still a question mark next to him and the slot corner position is still up for grabs. The good news for the Eagles is that they have a rock-solid safety combination in Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins, and signee Corey Graham gives them the option to play three safeties at once. And I haven’t even mentioned their best defensive player yet. That’s middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who’s tremendous in coverage (90.7 rating in coverage, second best in the league among linebackers) and improving against the run. If Hicks stays healthy, this defense is a force to be reckoned with.

The offense won’t be great, but it should be good enough. Carson Wentz is a better quarterback right now than Eli Manning is, and he has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. I don’t think he’s there yet, but he should perform better than he did last year. Even without Matthews, he definitely has better weapons. Torrey Smith is the legitimate deep threat the Eagles have so sorely missed since DeSean Jackson was cut, and Alshon Jeffery has the potential to be Philly’s most dominant receiver since Terrell Owens. Jeffery has had a boatload of injury problems, which is why I’m being somewhat conservative with this Eagles win prediction, but when he’s healthy he’s pretty much unstoppable. I expect tight end Zach Ertz to break out every season, but it hasn’t yet happened. There’s no question that Ertz is a gifted pass-catcher. He just needs to put it all together and have an awesome, injury-free season. That could easily happen this season. And Darren Sproles gives the Eagles an exciting weapon out of the backfield (or occasionally out of the slot). Wentz has enough weapons to piece together a winning season, especially since his offensive line should be one of the best in the league. Jason Peters remains solid at left tackle, and Lane Johnson is a beast at right tackle. Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks are good starting guards. The only big question mark is Jason Kelce, the center who’s been very shaky especially as a run blocker over the last few years. Kelce is the starting center right now, but don’t be surprised if the Eagles give him a quick hook and go with solid Stefen Wisniewski at center. It might take that kind of move to get LaGarrette Blount untracked. Blount has been downright bad this preseason, but everyone knows how tough he can be to take down when he runs with a full head of steam. The reports about the Eagles’ cutting Blount was always malarkey. Wendell Smallwood is a talented backup, but this running game doesn’t look like it’ll be too good. The pieces are mostly there for a successful offense, but it seems that something usually goes wrong. This team has an 11-win ceiling, and I’m confident enough in Wentz and the defense that I can say pretty confidently that this will be at least a mediocre team (barring, of course, a Wentz injury). I’ll split the difference and give the Eagles nine wins.

By the way, expect some positive regression for the Eagles this year. They went 1-6 in one score games last year, so 9-7 might actually be a conservative prediction. I’ll stick with it, though, because they play in a good division and have a tough schedule.

3. Dallas Cowboys (9-7): I wrote about the Cowboys here. The latest news is that Ezekiel Elliott may not miss any time this year, which actually changes a lot. If Zeke’s suspension is lifted, the Cowboys are a lot more likely to come closer to repeating what they did last season. But I still think that the defense will take a big step back and that Dak Prescott will make some more mistakes, so I’ll still shave four wins off of last year’s total.

4. Washington Redskins (7-9): This is a really tough division from top to bottom. That’ll cost the Redskins, who are a solid team but a team in flux. It was a tough offseason for Washington, largely because their quarterback had very public contract negotiations with the front office that ended in a lowball offer and a franchise tag for the second consecutive year for Kirk Cousins. In his ensuing press conference, the owner called Kirk “Kurt,” which pretty much sums it up. Cousins has proven himself to be a good quarterback. He’s not one of the best four or five in the league, but he’s good, which means the Redskins should be pretty desperate to keep him. That seems relatively unlikely to happen after this year. I don’t know whether or not that will impact Washington’s play this year, but it can’t help. Guess what also can’t help? Losing Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Yes, the Redskins did bring in Terrelle Pryor and still have Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed. Cousins has weapons to throw to. But Garcon and Jackson paced the team in targets and each had over 1,000 yards receiving. That’ll be tough to replace. As Jay Gruden has said, the offense now runs through Reed, an immensely talented tight end who has shown no ability to stay healthy. Reed has had a ton of concussions as well as shoulder, knee, hamstring, and foot injuries. If he gets concussed again, there’s no telling how long he’ll be out for. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it seems pretty safe to bet that Reed will again miss a handful of games. This is an offense that finished fifth in DVOA last year. I think that was their high water mark and that they’ll be closer to the 10-14 range this year.

The defense also had a hectic offseason. Mainstays Chris Baker and Ricky Jean-Francois, among others, are gone. The base defense will likely feature six new starters. The whole front three (Jonathan Allen, Stacy McGee, Terrell McClain) is new. Allen should be good as a rookie, but the other two aren’t much more than average players. Zach Brown and second rounder Ryan Anderson are new starters at linebacker, and D.J. Swearinger is the new free safety. Swearinger was the ninth-best safety in the league last year (per PFF), and Brown was a second-team All-Pro who finished 17th among linebackers with a 83.1 PFF grade. The cornerback across from Josh Norman remains a concern. Will it be Breshad Breeland again? Might it be third round pick Fabian Moreau? No matter who it is, it seems pretty likely that opposing quarterbacks will again pick on Washington’s #2 quarterback, and they’ll have time to do so because the Redskins don’t have a great pass rush. I think it’s reasonable to expect the ‘Skins to finish better than the 25th they finished in defensive DVOA last year. Swearinger, Brown, Allen, and Anderson are good additions, and it’s nice that they spent their first four picks on defensive players. But will the defense be good enough to offset the offensive slide that I’m projecting? Maybe in a weaker division, but not in this NFC East. The Redskins will be competitive and solid, but they’ll end up with the worst record in the division.

3 Teams That Will Underperform Expectations

Posted: 08/30/2017 by levcohen in Football

I wrote about three teams that I think will outperform their Bovada over/under win totals. Here are three that I’m less optimistic about.

Dallas Cowboys, Under 9.5: I remember how good the Cowboys were last year. I remember that they went 13-3 and cruised to the NFC East Championship. I remember how close they were to beating the Packers and being one home win away from the Super Bowl. I remember all of that. But I can’t help but think that the bottom fell out for the Cowboys this offseason. Ezekiel Elliott was suspended. Randy Gregory was suspended again. David Irving and Damontre Moore are suspended. Nolan Carroll and Damien Wilson may still be suspended. This was a team that god incredibly lucky injury-wise last season, but this year starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens is already out indefinitely with a fractured tibia. The defense, which finished 18th in DVOA last year, isn’t likely to be any better this season. The team’s biggest addition was first rounder Taco Charlton, who has big upside but is a raw pass rusher and is unlikely to make much of a difference this season. The pass defense has long been suspect, and with Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown again starting on the outside, I don’t expect that to really change. Whether the defense is mediocre or terrible hinges on two things: the pass rush and Sean Lee. Can Charlton provide an instant impact? Can the edge rushers put pressure on opposing QBs even after all the suspensions? And can Lee, who’s a total beast when he’s on the field, stay healthy? The ex-Penn State linebacker has played in 29 games the last two seasons but started 17 in the previous three years. He’s now 31 and has been a bit banged up in preseason, so it remains to be seen if he can have another relatively injury-free season. For a defense that’s already lost a lot of talent, a Lee injury would be devastating.

There’s going to be a huge onus on the offense to do its part in shootouts. Last year, when Elliott was running roughshod and when the offensive line was remarkably healthy, there wasn’t much pressure on Dak Prescott. Dak had a great rookie year, but there weren’t many times that he had to throw the team back into the game; the fact is that the Cowboys generally played from ahead. Odds are that the o-line won’t be quite as healthy this year and that Prescott will have to do more, especially while Zeke is out. And I’m not sure he’s good enough as a pocket passer to keep his team in games that are in danger of getting out of hand. The fact that the Cowboys have to play the tough AFC West and a first place schedule (added games @ Atlanta and vs. Green Bay) doesn’t help, either. That’s one of the toughest schedules in football, especially since the NFC East is likely to be competitive from top to bottom. Dak still has weapons and he’ll still be fine, but he’ll have to be a lot better than fine to get the Cowboys to 10 wins. More likely, I think, is an up and down season that finishes with between seven and nine wins.

Miami Dolphins, Under 7.5: The Dolphins are another team that easily cleared their projected win mark last season. They went 10-6 last year, and they closed the season on a 9-2 tear. But they took advantage of one of the softest schedules in the league, as the Steelers were the only team they beat that had a winning record (they were then destroyed in the playoffs by the Steelers). And even their wins against lackluster competition weren’t that convincing. It took overtime for them to beat the Browns. Wins over Buffalo came by a combined six points. They beat the Jets by four, the Rams by four, the Cardinals by three, and the Niners (on a stop on fourth and goal) and Rams by seven. That’s eight one-score wins out of 10. The Dolphins had a -17 point differential, and the history of teams outperforming their talent level one year and then doing it again the next is not very expansive.

I haven’t yet mentioned the most obvious reason to be bearish on the Dolphins: they lost their quarterback. Ryan Tannehill first hurt his knee late last season. But he opted against surgery last offseason, instead deciding to keep playing with an unstable knee and a huge brace. Surprisingly enough, that plan did not work. Early this preseason, Tannehill re-injured his knee. Predictably, this time he opted for surgery, ending his season before it started. Matt Moore’s a good backup but not a longterm starter, so the Dolphins brought in Jay Cutler, who had retired to broadcasting but who wanted to play for ex-OC Adam Gase again. Cutler is Cutler: he has a strong arm and can make some nice plays downfield, but he’s going to hurt you with his turnovers and inconsistency. The Dolphins will try to take pressure off of him by running early and often with Jay Ajayi, but Ajayi has already been concussed this preseason, has knee injuries in his past, and is a clear risk to go down again, especially if he’s overworked. To make matters worse, there have been rumors that the Dolphins have put leading receiver Jarvis Landry, who’ll be a free agent after this year, on the trading block. Not what you want to hear heading into the season. I expect a breakout from DeVante Parker, Cutler’s most physically imposing wideout, but the Dolphins are going to need all the weapons they can get.

The injury bug wasn’t limited to the quarterback position. Guard Ted Larsen tore his biceps, starting middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan tore his ACL, and depth corner Tony Lippett tore his Achilles’. The loss of McMillan obviously hurts the most. The rookie was outstanding throughout his first training camp and was set to provide Miami with some badly needed help at MLB. Now, Rey Maualuga, who has been on the team for less than two weeks, is the starting middle linebacker. He’s 30, and fellow starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons is 31. The rest of the defense looks better, with Ndamukong Suh and the ageless Cameron Wake up front and emerging star corner Xavien Howard on one side. But I’m not fond of starting corner Byron Maxwell, and safety Reshad Jones can only cover up so many mistakes. And slot corner Bobby McCain has gotten burned time and time again in his NFL career. The defense will be solid, but it’s not going to be good enough to carry this team to a bunch of wins.

The schedule this year is a whole lot tougher than it was last season. It starts out relatively tame, but here’s Week 9 on: vs Oakland, @ Carolina, BYE, @ New England, Denver, New England, @ Buffalo, @ Kansas City, Buffalo. That’s probably 3-5 or 2-6 right there. If it’s 3-5, the Dolphins will have to go at least 5-3 in their first eight to hit the over. And that includes games at Baltimore, Atlanta, and the Chargers. I just don’t see it happening.

Indianapolis Colts, Under 8: I would never put the Colts on here if Andrew Luck were healthy. I still trust Luck and think he’s a very good quarterback who can cover up some pretty clear flaws that this roster has. But Luck hasn’t thrown a pass to an NFL receiver since January. He’s ramping up his throwing now, but he still hasn’t practiced since shoulder surgery. It seems highly unlikely that he’ll be back for the start of the season now and more likely that he’ll miss three or four games. The rest of the roster isn’t good enough to keep the team afloat without Luck. Remember, Luck was great last year and the Colts still went 8-8. Now, the rest of the division is slowly getting better (yes, even the Jaguars, who have a very good defense). And the Colts have the same problems they’ve had for year: makeshift offensive line that can’t protect Luck, shallow defense, really bad defense. To make matters worse, top corner Vontae Davis will miss at least the first week with a groin injury, and center Ryan Kelly is out for six to eight weeks with a broken foot. There’s really nowhere to hide for the rest of this team now. As you might expect, the skill position players are much worse without Luck than they are with him. That’s most evident with T.Y. Hilton, who led the league in yardage last season but is no better than an average receiver without Luck. It’s hard to imagine many rosters surviving the loss of a star quarterback; it’s impossible for this one to do it. For the Colts to win more than eight games, Luck’s going to have to be healthy for the vast majority of the season. Given the number of hits he takes, I just don’t think that’s particularly likely. It’s that simple.

3 Teams That Will Outperform Expectations

Posted: 08/28/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s football season. The preseason is all but over, with only the meaningless (except for fringe roster players, that is) fourth preseason week left to go. Very few important players play in the last preseason game, and that likely will remain true after a week in which Julian Edelman, Spencer Ware, and Cameron Meredith (among others) were lost for the season in preseason games. It’s really a shame that those three guys, all of whom are good players who were to have big roles in their respective offenses, suffered knee injuries in games that practically shouldn’t have even been happening. I’ve long been a proponent of cutting down to two preseason games, and even then I’m not sure how much established stars should be playing in the preseason. Anyway, the games are about to start mattering again, so I’m going to name three teams that I think will clear Bovada’s over/under win total.

Tennessee Titans, Over 8.5: The Tennessee Titans went 9-7 last year. They are clearly better this year than they were last year. They play in a weak (albeit improved division). Their out-of-division games include the entire NFC West — another weak division — and the AFC North. I think it’s pretty likely that they win at least nine games again this season. This is a bet on more improvement from Marcus Mariota, who is fully recovered from the leg injury that ended his 2016 season and who won’t turn 24 until midway through the season. Mariota quietly had a great, efficient season, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and throwing 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He’s the perfect quarterback for a run-heavy offense, a guy who can throw the ball down the field without turning it over much, and also a guy who can make plays with his legs. The Titans also have two running backs who can make plays with their legs. DeMarco Murray is the stater, and he’s a darn good one. He ran for nearly 1300 yards last season and was also the team’s third leading receiver (53 catches). And Derrick Henry, the second-year man out of Alabama, may well be the best backup in the league. He hasn’t looked great this preseason, but last year he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and racked up 450 yards as Murray’s backup. Henry should get a slightly larger piece of the pie this year, and the Titans should continue to rely on the run. Mariota’s weapons have improved with the additions of Corey Davis (first round pick) and veteran Eric Decker. The offensive line is all back, led by standout tackles Taylor Lewan and All-Pro first teamer Jack Conklin (he did it as a rookie, no less). The Titans improved from 32nd in DVOA in 2015 to ninth last year. They’re a rock solid offense with the potential to be among the league’s most efficient.

The defense is not as good, but it should be good enough. Jurrell Casey is a stud lineman, a healthy Brian Orakpo should improve the pass rush, and the Titans have certainly improved a secondary that was their Achilles’ heel last year. They signed Logan Ryan (three years, $30 million) from the Patriots and Johnathan Cyprien (four years, $25 million) from the Jaguars. They also drafted USC’s exciting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson with their second first round pick. Jackson will make some mistakes early on, but he has the potential to be a shutdown cornerback for the Titans.

Overall, I think the Titans are the clear AFC South favorites. The Jaguars are improved but still have no quarterback. The Colts are a shaky team with the potential to be terrible if Andrew Luck can’t get healthy. And the Texans still have the same great defense and also still have the same lack of a quarterback. Maybe Tom Savage is better than Brock Osweiler, but the fact that Deshaun Watson hasn’t been able to win the starting job is troubling. He hasn’t looked great in his first preseason. So the division is the Titans’ to lose, and I don’t think they’re going to lose it. Nine wins should just be a formality for this talented bunch.

Cleveland Browns, Over 4.5: What?? The Cleveland Browns?? But they’re the Browns! They won one game last year! That’s true. But there are a few reasons I expect the Browns to be significantly better than they were last season. They were terrible last year, but there was also a degree of bad luck to their 1-15 season. They lost four games by a single score, including two in overtime. They also have a coach, Hue Jackson, who’s now entering his second year and who should be able to make far more of an impact now than he ever could have last season. I like Jackson and think his work will have tangible results this year. The Browns have a lot of winnable games on their schedule, including: vs NYJ, vs JAX, @ CHI, @ IND, @ HOU. I also expect them to win one or two games in their division, which has only one real force (the Steelers). Most importantly, I really like Cleveland’s defense. Signing Jason McCourty obviously helps. Jamie Collins has had a full offseason to acclimate to Cleveland and could have a breakout season. Emmanuel Ogbah and Danny Shelton are talented defensive linemen who should provide pressure and especially help against the run. But the biggest reason to like Cleveland’s defense is Myles Garrett, the #1 overall pick. Whatever you think about Myles Garrett, you must admit that he’s a tremendous addition to any defense. He probably became the most freakish athlete in the NFL the second he shook Roger Goodell’s hand on draft day. His vertical jump was 41 inches (four inches higher than Von Miller). He bench pressed 225 pounds 33 times, two reps short of the combine’s highest total. He posted a 10’8″ broad jump, one of the best ever from a defensive lineman. He ran a 4.57 second 40-yard dash, despite being 272 pounds. He is an unbelievable athlete, and no matter how high his motor is, he’s an important addition to the defense. I think the defense will be more dynamic and better than it was last year, which should help it finish far higher than 30th in DVOA. It’s not an elite defense by any means, but it’s a respectable one.

How good is DeShone Kizer? Or rather, how not-terrible is he? The second round pick-turned starting quarterback isn’t likely to be good in his rookie year, but he doesn’t have to be good to improve Cleveland’s quarterback situation. The fact that he was able to win the quarterback competition — albeit against Brock Osweiler, not the strongest competition — is encouraging, and most of the reports about him have been positive. He also has some weapons, including Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson in the backfield (with Johnson also lining up in the slot), second-year receiver Corey Coleman stretching the field, and free agent signing Kenny Britt serving as the safety blanket. It’s not a flashy set of weapons, but it’s not a barren one, either. And the offensive line has long been the least-bad part of the team, thanks largely to the ageless Joe Thomas at left tackle. I don’t expect Kizer to be great, but he doesn’t have to be great to get the Browns to five wins. Given their defensive improvements, five wins should be well within their reach.

Green Bay Packers, Over 10: It feels kind of dirty to pick a team with a round number as their over/under, because there’s such a strong chance of a push. But since 10 teams have round numbers set as their over/unders, I think it’s fair for one of my three picks to have one. And I think the Packers are much more likely to win 11 games than they are to win nine. It’s hard to forget the dominant stretch they had to close last season, after Aaron Rodgers promised that the then-4-6 Pack would win out. They did, in fact, win out, winning by an average of 13 points. Then, they won two more games for good measure before bowing out to a better Falcons team in the NFC Championship Game. I think they’re the best team in the NFC heading into 2017.

The offense is the offense. It hasn’t changed that much over the last few years, and who can blame Green Bay? Aaron Rodgers is the co-best QB in the league, and the only reason there’s a co there is that he has been known to have more cold streaks than Tom Brady has had. But he makes throws that nobody else can make, and he also has the athleticism and brain to make plays up after he’s been flushed out of the pocket. Only Russell Wilson is better at that. Rodgers has pass-catching-maestro Ty Montgomery to throw to out of the backfield. He has trusty Jordy Nelson. He has Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. Martellus Bennett is the best pass-catching tight end he’s had in a long time. Anyway, no matter who Rodgers is throwing to, the offense will be one of the best in the league as long as he’s healthy. And while health has been an issue from time to time, I’m going to assume that he’ll be relatively healthy. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will win at least 10 games.

It’s the defense that let down the Packers last season, and especially the pass defense. During their four game losing streak, they gave up 153 points. Their pass defense ranked 23rd in DVOA, as they never seemed to recover from an early concussion to Sam Shields which knocked their stud corner out for months. As usual, the Packers didn’t add much help via free agency. But I am a fan of second round pick Kevin King, who should start at corner right off the bat. Ladarius Gunter, who got burned time after time last year, won’t likely have to play as much this year. And the secondary should be better-protected by an improved pass rush. Clay Matthews, who was banged up last season and held to five sacks, unfortunately just went down with a “mystery injury” in Green Bay’s third preseason game. But Matthews should certainly provide more pass-rushing oomph than he did last year. When he’s healthy, the Packers have two real game-changers on defense (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix being the other). This isn’t a defense that’s going to suffocate offenses. It’s going to give up points, and that’s fine, because the offense is going to put up a lot of points. All the defense needs to do is steal some possessions with turnovers. I think this defense can do that, and I think this team will likely win between 10 and 12 games.