Oakland Raiders 2019: Better Prepare for Vegas

Oakland Raiders 2019: Better Prepare for Vegas
Oakland Raiders 2019: Better Prepare for Vegas

Oakland Raiders 2018 Stats Review:

Record: 4-12

Pythagorean Wins: 3.7

ATS: 6-10; average line 6.0

Over/Under: 6-9-1; average total 47.6

Close Games Record: 3-3

Turnover Differential: -0.4

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 81.7 (19th)

Offense: 25th in EPA per play (-0.041);  5.52 yards per play

Defense:  32nd in EPA per play (+0.165);  6.44 yards per play

Become a member for the 2019 season and get all team previews, win totals, weekly game analysis, and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

The Bad and the Ugly

The only reason the Oakland Raiders didn’t hold the first overall pick in the 2019 draft was their head-to-head win against the Arizona Cardinals. When studying a 4-12 team, we would usually find substantial positive regression factors, as we did with the Jets. But not so much with the 2018 Raiders. They were just atrocious and didn’t underperform by a lot against the second-hardest schedule (.547). Their Pythagorean win expectation of 3.7 was the second-lowest number in the league, and they had a record of 3-3 in close games. Their injury luck was slightly below average, and their turnover margin of -0.4 was not extraordinarily bad.

Winning four games or less in consecutive seasons is as hard as winning twelve or more. Based on that fact alone, the Raiders should somehow improve. But there aren’t a lot of indicators pointing towards a massive improvement. Their historically weak defense should improve, but the room for improvement is limited due to their schedule (we will get to that).

They also ranked 25th in offensive EPA per play and offense is more sticky from year to year than defense – especially when the quarterback remains the same. As much as he tries to be that guy on Hard Knocks, Derek Carr isn’t a competent signal-caller. He isn’t even average. He had one good season in a great environment, that’s it. In what was supposed to be a friendlier environment for the quarterback, Derek Carr finished 27th in QBR out of 33 qualifying players.

Except for some more defensive contribution, the Raiders can’t count on lousy luck to shift to their side.

The Former Incredible Offensive Line is Incognito

I didn’t think the Raiders offensive design was terrible last year. But if you don’t have a quarterback who can execute your offense and preferably checks it down to avoid a sack, you are in trouble. Carr had his best season when the offensive line was the best in the league, and he could throw from clean platforms. As soon as he feels pressure, he gets frantic.

In my 2018 Raiders preview, I criticized the hiring of offensive line coach Tom Cable who his hands down the worst position coach in the NFL based on his track records. Cable left the Seahawks, and suddenly they had solid line play. Cable came to Oakland, and suddenly a top-five unit turned into a below-average group. Kolton Miller was a disaster as a rookie, giving up 16 sacks himself, according to Pro Football Focus. He never was an excellent prospect coming out of college.

Miller will start at left tackle, and Oakland shouldn’t be optimistic about a massive improvement, especially not under Cable. The Raiders made Trent Brown the highest-paid tackle, but he was only the 59th-graded tackle out of 85 by PFF. Their most significant reasoning was that he benefited a lot from Tom Brady and a quick passing game and didn’t play well on a per-play basis.

In a shocking move, the Oakland Raiders traded away left guard Kelechi Osemele, one of the league’s best at his position until he played under Cable. His replacement is Richie Incognito, a former Pro Bowler who will miss the first two weeks of 2019 due to a suspension. Right, guard Gabe Jackson will miss at least half of the season due to injury. Center Rodney Hudson will probably be the lone quality starter in week one. For a quarterback who gets frantic and seeks his check-down with the slightest sign of pressure, this is a nightmare setup.

Oakland Raiders Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Oakland Raiders Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Trading for wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is coming off his least efficient season, was one of the biggest storylines during the off-season, but it’s uncertain whether he is going to be a full go for the Raiders. Brown dealt with a foot issue and left training camp because he is not allowed to play with his standard helmet. He only practiced with the team twice thus far. And he also goes from Ben Roethlisberger to Derek Carr.

Without Brown, that would leave the Raiders with speedsters JJ Nelson, Tyrell Williams, and rookie slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. You could dream of a better wide receiving depth chart. Oakland also needs to replace 101 targets, 68 receptions, 896 yards, and six touchdowns from tight end Jared Cook. The 6’2″ Darren Waller, who had a good camp, is the frontrunner for the job. However, Waller has 18 receptions through his four-year NFL career.

Without Antonio Brown, this offense looks worse on paper than its 2018 version. With him, I doubt that they are vastly improved.

Defense

The scheme of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther relies on creating pressure with four rushers while playing disciplined coverage on the backend. That wasn’t a good recipe in 2018. The Raiders rushed with four guys almost 75 percent of the time but ranked dead-last in creating pressure. With such a bad pass rush, it could have been a smart idea to call more blitzes to create pressure via the scheme. But Guenther refused it – the Raiders had the fourth-lowest blitz rate. And they got shredded.

The only additions to the worst defensive line in 2018 are rookie defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby. Guenther is hoping to get a second-year leap out of defensive tackles PJ Hall and Maurice Hurst. The defense looks improved at linebacker where Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall are joining Tahir Whitehead in 4-3 base sets.  Veteran experience and communication ability will always help, but Burfict and Marshall aren’t blessed with great athleticism or coverage ability at this stage of their respective careers.

Oakland Raiders Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Oakland Raiders Defensive Depth Chart Projection

The secondary is filled with question marks. On paper, the Raiders improved their middle-of-the-field-coverage with Lamarcus Joyner and added mad-tackling rookie Johnathan Abraham for the box. But their cornerback group remains a problem. Their highest-graded cornerback – Gareon Conley – ranked 76th among 125 qualifying cornerbacks. Daryl Worley (112th), Nevin Lawson (108th) and Nick Nelson (124th) don’t keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night, either. I see this defense slightly improved due to the linebackers and the Joyner addition, but the pass rush remains a work in progress, and the cornerbacks should once again be overmatched against a tight schedule.

2019 Schedule

Now it’s getting hideous for Jon Gruden and his team. We would expect the strength of their plan to regress, but it’s not getting more comfortable. According to current Pinnacle win totals, the Oakland Raiders are projected to play the third-toughest schedule at .5224. Using 2018 EPA per offensive play numbers, their program projects to be the 7th-hardest. It makes sense when looking at their program. Playing four games against the Chiefs and Bolts does a lot. Teams like the Vikings, Jets, Lions, and Packers will likely feature improved passing attacks. We should also expect a guy like Broncos coach Vic Fangio to get the best out of Carr.

But it gets even uglier. At 32,000, the Raiders will travel the most miles of all teams. As a team from the Pacific time zone, they are going to play six road games at 1 PM ET plus a London game. From weeks three to eight, the Raiders will play five straight games outside of California. The NFL scheduling committee crushed the Raiders.

Oakland Raiders 2019: Better Prepare for Vegas

I think the Jets and the Raiders make up for a very cool comparison. Both teams won four matchups last year, but enter the 2019 season under entirely different circumstances. The Jets have a quarterback who enters year two and has a lot of upside in an improved environment whereas Derek Carr has no hidden potential left. The Jets also have a lot of positive regression going for them like a better record in close games. The third argument is the schedule. Gang Green is expected to face one of the most relaxed programs in the league, whereas Oakland will deal with one of the hardest.

I can hardly see the Raiders win more than six games and I would go with seven wins as their absolute ceiling if they land on the positive side of variance. The Raiders look like a 5-11 to 6-10 team on paper, and I would lean towards the under on their win total of 6. But the timing for the best market entry is already gone as markets have bet this total down from 6.2 to as low as 5.8 now. Maybe the over gets some money entering the market with more positive Antonio Brown news the upcoming days. At a better price, I would consider a play on the under.

However, the Raiders shouldn’t do anything this year. Oakland’s goal should be to get ready for Las Vegas in 2020. Maybe they will also think about a new quarterback.

New York Jets 2019: Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

New York Jets 2019: Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
New York Jets 2019: Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

New York Jets 2018 Stats Review:

Record: 4-12

Pythagorean Wins: 5.3

ATS: 5-11; average line 4.2

Over/Under: 10-6; average total 43.0

Close Games Record: 2-6

Turnover Differential: -0.6

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 74.6 (13th)

Offense: 30th in EPA per play (-0.111);  5.04 yards per play

Defense:  21st in EPA per play (+0.062);  5.88 yards per play

Become a member for the 2019 season and get all team previews, win totals, weekly game analysis, and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Disastrous Setup

The New York Jets had no chance to survive in 2018: a mistake-prone rookie at quarterback, a lousy offensive line, injuries at wide receiver and a defensive-minded head coach who didn’t do his offense any favors. Sam Darnold played as advertised: young and inexperienced, lousy footwork, many interceptions but also incredible Mahomes-Esque throws out of the structure and out of his mechanical platform. He has been one of the worst signal-callers up to his injury but had a durable finish. From weeks 10 to 17, Sam Darnold had the highest QBR of all quarterbacks, even though playing only four games. That’s a reason to be optimistic, but it was just a four-game sample.

On the season, the New York Jets had some bad luck. They went 2-6 in close games and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 5.3. A dumb penalty decision by Todd Bowles likely cost the Jets a win at Tennessee. Sam Darnold lit up the Packers, but on the most critical drive, the Jets trusted their run game that produced 2.3 yards per rush. On back-to-back long downs. They led 35-20 entering the fourth, but never got the ball in overtime. Those were two games they should have won. They had a -0.6 turnover differential, and it could have been worse if defenders hadn’t dropped a lot of Darnold’s interceptable passes

Gang Green was more like a 5-11 team and their close game differential along with some significant changes on the offensive side point towards positive regression.

Adam Gase and Le’Veon Bell

The priority for the Jets this year was giving Darnold an offensive-minded coaching staff and improve his supporting cast. In theory, they achieved that. But I am having a hard time predicting the impact of Adam Gase on this team. On the one side, he’s an offensive-minded coach who has orchestrated incredible offenses with Peyton Manning and guided Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill to career years in 2015 and 2016. He also made the best out of an atrocious Dolphins roster, at least win-loss-wise. However, of the 23 games, Miami won since 2016, 20 were by one possession. But out of the 26 losses, 20 were by more than one score. His situational play-calling was questionable, too. Depends on how you see it: glass half-full or half-empty?

I disagreed with the expensive signing of Le’Veon Bell because teams tend to call too many inefficient runs to justify a high running-back salary. At least he provides a security blanket for Darnold, proper pass protection and is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. According to camp reports, Gase is using Bell and Ty Montgomery creatively:

Montgomery and Bell are regularly on the field together. Gase lines them up in the backfield, or one in the backfield with the other split wide, in the slot or at H-back. From there, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens. The Jets had one play where Darnold pitched the ball to Montgomery with Bell as the lead blocker. It’s going to be fascinating to watch Bell and Montgomery work together during the season.

If Gase uses running back passes on early downs, gets creative with Bell and Montgomery and stays unpredictable, I’m okay with it. Ty Montgomery is a former receiver, so lining him or Bell out wide often makes sense. But it’s an if. Glass half-full or half-empty?

The Offensive Line

Aside from an expected second-year leap for Darnold and an offensive-minded head coach, the offensive line could propel the whole team. First of all, the Jets signed Frank Pollack as their new offensive line coach who is a very underrated signing. Pollack orchestrated one of the best offensive lines for the Dallas Cowboys from 2013 to 2017. At the center, Spencer Long, who was a disaster in 2018, gets replaced by the unretired Ryan Kalil.  The older Kalil-brother has been dealing with injuries lately but should be a significant upgrade for Sam Darnold and the whole unit. Left guard Kelechi Osemele has been one of the best guards in the NFL before joining Tom Cable at Oakland. He’s a significant upgrade over James Carpenter.

Kelvin Beachum, by far the best offensive lineman last year, will stay at left tackle. His injury is something to monitor. Brian Winters should stick at right guard, but at right tackle, there could be a battle between Brandon Shell and rookie Chuma Edoga, the latter who looked good in his first pre-season game. If Edoga can provide an upgrade over Shell, this offensive line is a vastly improved unit over 2018. For an offense, the jump from bad to average is much more valuable than a leap from average to elite. This Jets offensive line looks to be an average unit.

New York Jets Offensive Depth Chart Projection
New York Jets Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Robby Anderson played 68 percent of snaps, Quincy Enunwa played 53 percent last year, many of those being banged up. Both guys are healthy and get joined by Jamison Crowder, who has already built a connection with Sam Darnold during training camp. Chris Herndon could have a breakout season, but not before week five because he is suspended for the first four matchups.

Overall, this offense looks much improved from last season. Sam Darnold is entering year two under an offensive-minded coach, with an improved offensive line and potent weapons in the passing game. The delta between 2018 and 2019 performance will define the season.

The Defense is Stacked with Holes

The Jets had two massive holes on their defense, going into the off-season: cornerback and edge rush. They didn’t address corner at all and drafted edge-rusher Jachai Polite in the third round. Polite got some first-round grades but fell because of off-field issues. He’s currently running with the second team in training camp. With rookie Quinnen Williams, Leonard Williams and nose tackle Steve McLendon, the New York Jets have a strong interior line but almost zero pass rush outside. With expensive acquisition CJ Mosley, Jamal Adams, and Marcus Maye, they also have at least decent coverage over the middle of the field. But their cornerback depth chart reads like one of the worst in the league.

New York Jets Defensive Depth Chart Projection
New York Jets Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Trumaine Johnson is the best cornerback on the roster, but he doesn’t belong to the elite. He is currently sidelined with a hamstring issue. Therefore, the Jets have the worst cornerback depth right now. Also, Gregg Williams is a very aggressive defensive coordinator, who likes to call many high-risk blitzes and loves to line up his free safeties deeper on the moon. That will inevitably lead to some massive space for opposing offenses. As bullish as I am on the Jets offense, as bearish I am on their defense. They played one of the easier schedules last year, but couldn’t finish higher than 21st in EPA per play.

2019 Schedule

The New York Jets have one significant advantage: they play one of the most relaxed schedules in the league. According to current Pinnacle win totals markets, they are supposed to represent the second-most manageable program (.4695) after playing the 13th-hardest in 2018 (.506). Considering 2018 EPA per offensive play numbers, the Jets are projected to face the third-easiest slate of opposing offenses (-0.0053). The Jets will travel the fewest miles and won’t play outside of the eastern time zone once. They go to Miami in November, when the heat the humidity have cooled down. They have a bye week to prepare for their opponent with the highest win total outside of New England – a road game at Philadelphia.

Because of their fourth-place finish, Gang Green gets to play Oakland and Jacksonville. The Miami Dolphins are in rebuild mode, and they are the consensus-worst team in the NFL. The Bills are almost in the same position as the Jets, just that folks are higher on Buffalo’s defense than their quarterback, opposite of the Jets. The Patriots and 42-year-old Tom Brady will play their first season without Rob Gronkowski and might need some time to adjust early in the season – both matchups are before week eight. Maybe they can sneak out a win against New England. The AFC North is a tough division to face, but there are some winnable games against the NFC East with teams like the Redskins or Giants.

It could hands down shape up as the most relaxed schedule in the league.

New York Jets 2019: Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

The New York Jets are primed for a massive improvement on offense, but at the same time, this improvement dictates how far they can go in 2019. Therefore, they have an exciting range of outcomes this year. Will the offense overcome the other question marks on the team? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? It is the first year since 2015 that I am optimistic about a Jets season. With Gregg Williams at DC, minimal pass rush and a weak cornerback group, this defense will be mostly dependent on the schedule – which is very relaxed. But I am not counting on this defense to contribute a lot.

Do I think the Jets are a playoff team on paper? Not at all. But their schedule could mask a lot of weaknesses and propel them into playoff contention in December. The win total for the Jets opened around 7.3 and got bet up to 7.5, with the original Pinnacle number being priced at -163 on the Over. That means the Jets need to win eight or more games 62 percent of the time. If things go south quickly, it could be another transition year, but I don’t think 9-7 or 10-6 is out of reach either. It could be boom or playoffs for Gang Green. The common projection is probably in the 8-8 range. Tiny lean is on the over, but I would instead grab a much better priced 7.5, risking the push opportunity.

New England Patriots 2019: Same Procedure as Every Year

New England Patriots 2019: Same Procedure as Every Year
New England Patriots 2019: Same Procedure as Every Year

New England Patriots 2018 Stats Review:

Record: 11-5

Pythagorean Wins: 10.8

ATS: 9-7; average line -7.4

Over/Under: 5-11; average total 49.5

Close Games Record: 3-2-1

Turnover Differential: +0.6

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 78.6 (18th)

Offense: 6th in EPA per play (+0.110);  6.02 yards per play

Defense:  5th in EPA per play (-0.025);  5.76 yards per play

Become a member for the 2019 season and get all team previews, win totals, weekly game analysis, and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

The Smartest Team

The New England Patriots weren’t the best offensive team, but they got the job done. They weren’t the best defensive team on a play-by-play basis, but they once again were one of the smartest. Since 2010, this defense ranked in the top-7 of opponent yards per point. Bill Belichick never has the best personnel, but they have a unique ability to limit opponent’s scores. Offense, defense, and field position. The Patriots were an 11-5 team by all means. They gave up a few games but went 4-1 against playoff teams. They had a Pythagorean win expectation of 10.8 and were on the right side of the turnover margin (0.6) while playing the 8th-easiest win-loss schedule (0.482).

Rob Gronkowski has dealt with a back injury the whole season, Julian Edelman was suspended for the first four games, and the Pats lacked some receiving weapons on the outside early in the season. With a cheat code – offensive line coach Dante Scarneccia, the pickup of Josh Gordon and their running backs, the Pats built a slightly alternative way to attack opposing defenses throughout the year. Early in the season, some teams like the Jaguars, Titans, and Lions were able to capitalize on the Pats’ weaknesses. But that didn’t last long as soon as Josh Gordon got to speed up and Edelman was back to full strength.

Gronk is Gone

Rob Gronkowski has retired. And that’s inevitably going to be a problem for the New England Patriots. Gronk has been the best tight end over the past decade, and it’s not close. Since 2009, 459 players saw targets 100 times or more. Rob Gronkowski had 792 targets and ranked second in expected points added per target (0.60). Hunter Henry (115 targets) ranks first. Every time a Patriots quarterback targeted Gronk, the offense had 0.6 expected points more after the play than pre-snap. It is crazy. Also, Gronk was a special run-blocker at his position.

It’s impossible to replace such a player, and the Patriots understand that. Instead of trying to replace Gronk, they went a different route. They signed and drafted Demaryius Thomas (6’3″), Dontrelle Inman (6’3″), N’Keal Harry (6’4″) and Cameron Meredith (6’3″). Josh Gordon (6’3″) is appealing for reinstatement. The current front-runner for the TE-position, Matt LaCosse, is 6’6″ tall. The Patriots are going to spread out opposing defenses and create targets with higher catch radiuses for Tom Brady. That is why the Patriots are the most exceptional team of the past decade – they are always one step ahead. Where defenses are trying to build nickel and dime defenses with shifty cornerbacks and safeties in the box, the Pats create height advantages.

Imagine the Patriots audibling to five-wide with James White, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, N’Keal Harry and Demaryius Thomas in space. It’s hard to defend Edelman and White over the middle, but now Brady has alternatives with higher catch radiuses than he had last year with guys like Chris Hogan (6’1″), Phillip Dorsett (5’10”) or Cordarrelle Patterson (6’2″).

New England Patriots Offensive Depth Chart Projection
New England Patriots Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The Patriots have Tom Brady, OC Josh McDaniels, and Bill Belichick. They will continue to find ways to attack opposing defenses. Both tackle spots might be the weak links on this offense, but with coaching guru Dante Scarneccia, I wouldn’t be much concerned. Without Gronk and with a redshirt sophomore (Isaiah Wynn) coming off an injury at left tackle I am not expecting the Pats to blow away teams early in the year. They are usually ‘slow’ starters, too. But we should expect the Pats to be okay and to continue to be a top-10 offense. But they are not the 2018 Chiefs.

The Genius of Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick lost defensive end Trey Flowers, but instead of overpaying he replaced him with former Eagle and Seahawk Michael Bennett. He should be able to contribute about 80 to 90 percent of what Flowers did, and that’s enough. With rookie Chase Winovich and linebacker/edge rush hybrid Jamie Collins, Belichick will find enough ways to create pressure by scheme and concepts. When Collins spent his first four years with the Patriots, where he had defensive grades of 72.2, 85.3, 85.2 and 82.9 that ranked 20th, 5th, 7th, and 10th. In Cleveland, he didn’t rank higher than 58th. Bill Belichick knows how to use his players. With linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, Belichick has enough personnel

New England Patriots Offensive Depth Chart Projection
New England Patriots Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Stephon Gilmore had a fantastic 2018 season, but cornerback performance tends to be volatile. It’s not far-stretched to expect some regression. Jason McCourty, brother of safety Devin, was a tremendous low-cost pick-up last year. With an excellent safety group consisting of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duran Harmon, Bill Belichick can keep one of the best secondaries together from last year. The only weak spot might be at the slot-cornerback position, but it’s not a surprise that three safeties played at least 695 snaps last season. This defense is going to be good again, and they are going to benefit from one of the easier schedules still.

2019 Schedule

Same procedure as every year: by Pinnacle regular-season win totals, the New England Patriots are projected to play the most relaxed schedule in the league at .4616. And that includes four games against the Bills and Jets who are expected to make jumps. The markets are at 7.5 wins for the Jets and 7.1 wins for the Bills. By offensive EPA per play numbers from 2018, the Pats are projected to play the 2nd-easiest program at -0.0057.

The average offense the Pats will face this year averaged negative EPA per play last year which is bogus. But before people cry about the AFC East: Over the past ten years, the Patriots have the NFL-best record against non-divisional opponents. Only two of their opponents (KC, PIT) ranked top-10 offensively. But we might also expect improvements from teams like the Eagles, Browns, Ravens, and Jets whereas teams like the Dolphins, Giants, and Redskins don’t look to surpass their 2018 performances.

New England Patriots 2019: Same Procedure as Every Year

Same procedure as every year. If not for a substantial offensive improvement from the Jets or Bills, we shouldn’t expect the Patriots to be challenged for the division title. They will suffer from the loss of Gronkowski at least early in the year. But the Patriots will always evolve and find ways to win. It’s hard to believe the Pats are going to earn less than ten victories, but I don’t think they will cruise towards twelve wins comfortably either. The markets have cooled down a bit on them, pushing the win total from 11.4 to 11.1. That seems very fair, repeating their 11-5 record should be on the horizon.

Miami Dolphins 2019: Tank for Tua?

Miami Dolphins 2019: Tank for Tua?
Miami Dolphins 2019: Tank for Tua?

Miami Dolphins 2018 Stats Review

Record: 7-9

Pythagorean Wins: 5.1

ATS: 7-9; average line 3.5

Over/Under: 8-7-1; average total 44.9

Close Games Record: 7-1

Turnover Differential: +0.3

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 95.3 (23rd)

Offense: 28th in EPA per play (-0.070);  5.38 yards per play

Defense:  27th in EPA per play (+0.087);  6.26 yards per play

The Enigma

There are some enigmas in life. One is the question about how the Miami Dolphins won seven games in 2018 and held the 13th pick in the draft instead of a top-6 one. They ranked bottom-six in both offensive and defensive EPA per play, and QBs Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler had the worst seasons of their careers. And that means something. How was it possible that the Dolphins didn’t finish with a much higher draft pick? There are three reasons: the league-wide best record in close games along with Dallas, the third-easiest win-loss schedule (.469) and incredible turnover contribution by their defense.

Their defense was very lousy on a per-play basis, but that unit collected 29 takeaways (4th-most) for 322 percent of total win probability added (3rd-most). Only the Rams and Bears added more win probability via takeaways. Either the Fins defense gave up a big play, or they forced a turnover. Those had a significant impact on the game script. The last-second lateral touchdown against the Pats, the goal line fumble recovery against the Bears – there are the two games the Dolphins could have easily lost which would have represented their season performance a lot better.

Overall, the Miami Dolphins played more like a 4-12 or 5-11 team, which is also mirrored by their Pythagorean win expectation of 5.1.

Let’s Rebuild!

Miami cleaned up their coaching staff and roster to start a rebuilding process. Nobody can fault them for this. Brian Flores, their new head coach, spent the last three years as the linebacker’s coach at New England. Hiring someone from the Belichick coaching tree is probably not the worst idea. However, Flores is a defensive mind who is coaching to coach a team and call plays for the first time. That’s a little red flag, at least for the upcoming season.

New offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea spent the past ten years as the wide receivers coach for New England. He has never called plays before, which is another red flag for 2019. First-year play-callers tend to struggle. The offensive personnel matters, but even geniuses like Andy Reid, Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Bruce Arians or Pat Shurmur weren’t able to orchestrate offenses that ranked higher than 23rd in pass DVOA in their rookie seasons.

O’Shea will likely implement the Patriots Erhardt-Perkins system. But we have no clue how that’s going to look like, especially with questionable personnel at quarterback and along the offensive line. The optimistic part of off-season reports was that O’Shea is interested in fitting the scheme towards the skill set of his players.

Points Out of Nowhere for the Miami Dolphins?

It’s going to be a battle between journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and newly acquired sophomore Josh Rosen for the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback job. According to camp reports, Fitzpatrick is ahead of the young Rosen. The latter had an abysmal rookie season, and any severe prediction for 2019 would be a blind guess at most. Fitzpatrick has been a below-average starter who had a couple of solid seasons in sound systems (2014, 2015, 2018), but his career has been up and down. During those seasons mentioned, he always had a better supporting cast than this year: DeAndre Hopkins & Andre Johnson, Eric Decker & Brandon Marshall, Mike Evans & DeSean Jackson.

Miami Dolphins Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Miami Dolphins Offensive Depth Chart Projection

A few days into training camp, the Miami Dolphins already replaced their offensive line coach. New coach Dave DeGuglielmo used a starting combination of Laremy Tunsil, rookie Michael Deiter, Daniel Kilgore, Will Holden and Jesse Davis from left to right. On paper, this is most likely the worst offensive line in the NFL. Only Tunsil should be considered an adequate starter. According to The Draft Network, Deiter is such a refined prospect that he could be a solid NFL starter right out of the gateway. But rookie offensive linemen are wild cards.  It’s hard to believe that either Fitzmagic or Josh Rosen are going to have success behind this unit.

Kenny Stills is as reliable as it gets and might be a trade asset at some point in August. DeVante Parker, who never lived up to his first-round status, should battle with newly acquired Allen Hurns for the second WR spot. Albert Wilson has been the NFL’s best screen-receiver at Kansas City, but he missed most of 2018. Jakeem Grant is the guy for screens and gimmick plays. Tight end Mike Gesicki is looking to take the expected step forward. I wouldn’t rank this receiving corps at the bottom. But it’s hard to see where points will come from in combination with Ryan Fitzpatrick and a weak offensive line.

Improvements Needed on Defense

Flores will likely bring Belichick’s modern defensive approach to South Beach. That means multiple fronts, various blitz packages, a lot of man coverage, and opponent-adjusted game plans. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham approves:

“The pass rush is going to come from us game-planning it,” Graham said. “Just like anything we do on defense, we’re going to try to exploit the weaknesses of the offense.

Whether they have the right players in place, remains to be seen. As mentioned, this defense was terrible on a per-play basis but had a lot of high-leverage turnovers. The latter is very likely going to regress. Flores and Graham need this defense to take a big step forward to contribute to winning games next season.

Miami Dolphins Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Miami Dolphins Defensive Depth Chart Projection

I have no clue about how the front-seven is going to look like in week one, and I think it’s a waste of time thinking about it. We will likely see many various formations and rotations until Flores and Graham find the guys they trust. The secondary, however, looks to be very decent on paper. The unit had 17 interceptions. For comparison, the 49ers had two as a whole. But they cannot rely on turnovers. According to camp reports, Torry McTyer has a chance for the second outside cornerback spot opposite of Xavien Howard. TJ McDonald and Reshad Jones are a decent safety tandem, Xavien Howard is a stud, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has a lot of potentials. But even with solid secondary play, I am having a hard time seeing a jump from bottom-five to the average for the Fins defense.

2019 Schedule

Everything comes together. Despite playing in the AFC East, the Miami Dolphins are projected to face the fourth-hardest schedule (.5172), according to Pinnacle win totals markets. Markets are considering the Bills and the Jets to be vastly improved teams. Their win totals are currently sitting at 7.0 and 7.4 wins, respectively. Two games against the Patriots, a second-place schedule against the Chargers and Colts, and three matchups versus Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland don’t help. In the NFC it could be worse than facing the East, but it’s far from reality to project victories over the Eagles and Cowboys.

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Their defensive schedule is projected to be the 9th-easiest, according to 2018 EPA numbers. But that takes into consideration that a team like the Jets (two matchups) isn’t going to improve offensively.

Miami Dolphins 2019: Tank for Tua?

“#Tank4Tua” is a hashtag that’s already making the rounds on Twitter, even though we don’t even know whether Alabama signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa is going to be the consensus number one pick in next year’s draft. The Dolphins are in rebuild mode, and they already have 13 picks in next year’s draft. Ryan Fitzmagic is not the answer. If Josh Rosen isn’t the answer either, the Fins are going to lose many games. That could inevitably lead to the worst record in football and the number one draft pick.

The Dolphins will feature a rookie head coach, two first-year play-callers, and either a below-average Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen at quarterback. Rosen had a horrible situation last year, but the current doesn’t seem like an upgrade. Also, they probably have the worst offensive line in football and an underwhelming receiving corps. I think there is a reason why the season wins total at a juiced 4.5 number is the lowest across the board. It’s hard to find more than five wins on that schedule. If you can shop around and find a 5, that doesn’t seem like a bad bet on the Under, depending on the price.

Los Angeles Chargers 2019: More Wins Than Children?

Los Angeles Chargers 2019: More Wins Than Children?
Los Angeles Chargers 2019: More Wins Than Children?

Los Angeles Chargers 2018 Stats Review

Record: 12-4

Pythagorean Wins: 10.6

ATS: 9-7; average line -4.8

Over/Under: 8-8; average total 47.8

Close Games Record: 6-1

Turnover Differential: 0.1

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 100.0 (25th)

Offense: 4th in EPA per play (+0.146);  6.37 yards per play

Defense:  8th in EPA per play (-0.015);  5.49 yards per play

Masters of Close Games

Finally, the Los Angeles Chargers had the luck they deserved – after so many years stacked with injuries, and collapses from their special teams. They still ranked in the bottom-eight of injury luck, but they went a terrific 6-1 in close games.  They ranked top-10 on both sides of the ball, and Philip Rivers was awesome – he played a decent mile above his career path. However,  their season ended how some folks predicted it would end: Anthony Lynn and DC Gus Bradley got outcoached by a mile against a great coaching staff at Foxboro.

Since 2009, 38 teams had a close game differential of -5 or worse, or +5 or higher. These 38 teams saw an average absolute change of 4.34 wins the next season.  Only two sides were able to win the same amount of games again; not a single team overcame the regression. The Chargers have a very talented roster, so they will likely land on the positive side of the distribution. But we should expect them to lose more games in 2019.

Against the Cardinals, the Bolts were down 10 (lol) and won. At Kansas City, they were down 14 and won. At Pittsburgh? Down 16 and won. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel randomly decided to go for two after the late touchdown that made the score 19-20, Tennessee failed. Going for it a couple of drives earlier at 12-17 would have been the better option mathematically. They had a two-point win against CJ Beathard.

On top of that, the Bolts were expected to play the second-easiest schedule. They ended up playing the fifth-easiest schedule in terms of wins and losses. Expect some regression going forward.

The Return of Hunter Henry

The biggest problem for the Chargers remains the coaching staff. I have no faith in Anthony Lynn and DC Gus Bradley played zone coverage exclusively against Tom Brady, until the game was over. The Bolts lost deep-threat Tyrell Williams, but they get TE Hunter Henry back. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, 232 receivers saw 50 or more targets. Hunter Henry ranked second in receiving expected points added per target. Rob Gronkowski ranked first. Even regressing from that performance level, Henry will be an incredible addition to this offense. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Hunter Henry look like a top-10 receiving trio on paper, maybe even better.

Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Melvin Gordon could hold out the season, but that shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Austin Ekeler is the more talented receiver, and Ekeler and Justin Jackson can replace a fair share of Gordon’s rush production. The biggest concern, in my opinion, is the offensive line that didn’t get addressed at all. Chargers GM Tom Telesco got a lot of praise for the picks of Jerry Tillery and Nasir Adderley, but he didn’t upgrade a lousy offensive line, whether in free agency or the draft.

Right tackle Sam Tevi and left guard Dan Feeney were among the worst at their respective positions last year and allowed a combined 125 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Right guard Michael Schofield wasn’t much better either. Center Mike Pouncey played worse as advertised. Left tackle Russell Okung, the unit’s best player, has dealt with a severe medical condition and it’s uncertain whether he will or want to continue his career. The Bolts should give 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp a shot at left or right guard this year; it can’t get worse. Philip Rivers is a good quarterback, and his receiving weapons are deadly. But this offensive line is going to cause trouble, especially when the coaching staff doesn’t try to optimize play-calling tendencies.

The Defense is Loaded

There shouldn’t be a debate about the defense, which is top-10 material on paper. With Tillery and Adderley, the Bolts filled needs, but it’s not easy to predict rookie impact. Because of a lack of alternatives, I expect both guys to see significant playtime. The Draft Network sees Tillery as a pass rush specialist which is extremely intriguing when considering the lack of interior rush last year. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are one of the best edge-rushing duos in the league. Last year’s rookie Uchenna Nwosu played a little over 300 snaps as a rotational pass rusher and did a stable job. Add some contribution by Tillery and blitzes by All-Pro Derwin James, and you have a terrific pass rush together.

Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Mike linebacker Denzel Perryman’s season was over after nine games. He returns and gets help by 36-year old Thomas Davis (Pro Bowl 2015-2017) who brings a lot of experience and game intelligence to this unit. Last year’s fourth-round-pick, linebacker Kyzir White, who instantly became a starter, went to IR after week three. Anthony Lynn raved about his “speed and explosiveness” during the off-season. It could be the best linebacking group the Los Angeles Chargers have had in a while.

The cornerback group consisting of Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King is outstanding. Derwin James was the steal of the 2018 draft, getting All-Pro honors in his first season. He can do everything – playing in coverage, stopping the run and blitzing. Adrian Philip will likely get the start at free safety, but Nasir Adderley could see significant playing time depending on his development.

Last year, this defense gave up 30 points to the Steelers, 28 to the Rams, 31 and 28 to the Chiefs, and 41 to New England. Offenses dictate matchups, but if the Chargers defense wants elite status, they need to take a step forward against good attacks.

2019 Schedule

After playing an extremely relaxed program last season, it will get slightly harder this time. According to the current Pinnacle season win totals, the implied strength of schedule for the Los Angeles Chargers is 0.4915 which would rank 25th. As measured by 2018 EPA per offensive play, their defense is projected to face the 15th-hardest schedule (+0.0394).

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Their 3-1 record against the NFC West could get replaced by 2-2 against the NFC North along with two early eastern time matchups at Chicago and Detroit. Will the Raiders be able to sneak out a win with an improved receiving corps? One of their home games gets replaced by a neutral field matchup against the Chiefs in Mexico City, and the Bolts will play two cold-weather games in December at Arrowhead and Mile High. All in all, other teams play significantly more brutal programs.

Los Angeles Chargers 2019: More Wins Than Children?

The positives: the Los Angeles Chargers have a good quarterback, a good receiving corps and a good pass defense. On the negative side: Philip Rivers could regress a little bit, they could feature one of the worst offensive lines, their coaching staff doesn’t seem to put them over the top, and they must expect negative regression in close games. But the overall talent level is too good to expect a massive regression of four or more wins and the strength of their schedule will likely be in the bottom half.

I expect the Chargers to win around ten games, which would be one more than Philip Rivers has children. And I expect them to battle with the Chiefs for the division title once again which should be a close race. It’s hard to win 12+ games back-to-back in this league, and I doubt the Bolts will be able to achieve that. But they should be able to provide Philip Rivers with another playoff ticket.

The season wins total opened at 9.8 (adjusted for juice) and betting markets cautiously attacked the over to push the number to 9.9. I think the current line is spot on, but the Over is priced heavily. The Chargers need to win 10 or more games 60 percent of the time to cash that ticket.

Jacksonville Jaguars 2019: Not Getting Outta The Slump

Jacksonville Jaguars 2019: Not Getting Outta The Slump
Jacksonville Jaguars 2019: Not Getting Outta The Slump

Jacksonville Jaguars Stats From 2018

Record: 5-11

Pythagorean Wins: 5.7

ATS: 6-9-1; average line -0.2

Over/Under: 6-10; average total 41.8

Close Games Record: 2-6

Turnover Differential: -0.8

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 114.6 (27th)

Offense: 29th in EPA per play (-0.102);  4.9 yards per play

Defense:  9th in EPA per play (0.00);  5.3 yards per play

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Defensive Regression and Blake Bortles

The Jacksonville Jaguars of 2018 were the victim of bad quarterback play and defensive regression. Their defense was still borderline top-10 last year, but it was a significant decrease from their historical performance of -0.18 expected points added per defensive play in 2017 to zero. Their +0.6 turnover margin from 2017 changed to -0.8, that was a swing of 1.4 turnovers per game. It was also a big mistake to extend the contract with Blake Bortles. The Jaguars organization got fooled by an outlier season and didn’t evaluate Bortles’ full career. Last season he reverted to his career level.

Jacksonville also suffered from a few significant absences. Blake Bortles, as weak as he played, got benched five games for Cody Kessler who was even worse than Bortles. All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell had to call it a year after week twelve, stud center Brandon Linder went to IR after week ten. 2017 All-Pro cornerback AJ Bouye struggled with injuries; he also missed three games. WR number one, Marqise Lee, didn’t play a single snap in 2018.

On the season, the Jaguars underperformed and were more like a 6-10 team. As mentioned, Jacksonville had a weak turnover margin and went 2-6 in close games.

From Blake Bortles to Nick Foles

The Jaguars signed former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles who comes to Jacksonville with a Super Bowl-winning pedigree. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo worked as the quarterback’s coach for Foles at Philadelphia, but Mike Zimmer fired him from his first OC job last year because he was too pass-heavy and couldn’t get the run game going.

The critical question when evaluating potential improvements over 2018 is whether Nick Foles is an upgrade from Blake Bortles. Foles had an outlier season in 2013 and peaked at the right time for the Eagles. Over his career, Nick Foles has a Quarterback Rating of 52.4 and an average EPA per dropback of -0.022. Blake Bortles has a career QBR of 45.7 and averaged -0.047 EPA per dropback over five seasons.

Nick Foles is, in fact, an upgrade over Bortles, especially when you consider his ability to execute within a great offensive structure. But the difference between both is not as massive as the Jaguars thought when signing Foles to a long-term deal. He will be dependent on his supporting cast, and also on John DeFilippo, who needs to scheme up to Foles’ strengths. That raises the next question: is “Flippo” allowed to run the offense precisely as HE wants, or does he need to follow the run-first approach by Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin? Will they force him to distribute significant carries to Leonard Fournette? We need answers. But at least, we should expect a pass-happier, more QB-friendly scheme that increases the total efficiency.

Unproven Weapons

Marqise Lee comes back from his injury, and I expect him to be the unquestioned starter at the top of the receiving depth chart. He gets followed by third-year players Dede Westbrook (101 targets last year) and Keelan Cole. Veteran Chris Conley and second-year player DJ Chark should battle for roles to complement. The tight end depth chart reads underwhelming names like Geoff Swaim, James O’Shaughnessy, and third-round pick Josh Oliver. According to the Draft Network, Oliver lacks blocking and route-running skills, which seems like he shouldn’t see the field very often this year.  Swaim and O’Shaugnessy have a combined 81 career receptions. Running back Leonard Fournette is not a vertical threat in the passing game. It is one of the weaker receiving groups in the league and Flippo should be interested in more 11 or 10 personnel.

Jacksonville Jaguars Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Jacksonville Jaguars Offensive Depth Chart Projection

There are some questionable spots along the offensive line. Left tackle Cam Robinson is coming off an ACL tear and hasn’t proven to be a quality long-term starter yet. Many scouts praised second-round rookie Jawaan Taylor, who people expected to go early in the first round. He can be an impact starter at right tackle, but he is only 21 years old and hard to project. Brandon Linder is a stud center, whereas Andrew Norwell should bounce back from injury. AJ Cann is a below-average starter at right guard. Nick Foles switches from an elite offensive line and receivers like Alshon Jeffery or Zach Ertz to a downgraded supporting cast.

The Defense? Some Question Marks

The Jacksonville Jaguars still have a premium defensive line. Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, Abry Jones, and Yannick Ngakoue form an incredible pass rush on first down. The frightening part: both first-round picks from the past two drafts aren’t expected to start. DT Taven Bryan should still be the third guy in the rotation whereas Josh Allen should see most of his snaps in distinct passing situations when Campbell slides inside. With Allen’s coverage skills, DC Todd Walsh could get creative and use him as a linebacker in sub-packages. In the absence of Telvin Smith, former Packer Jake Ryan and some young guys will give their all to complement Myles Jack at linebacker. But Smith’s absence is a loss in my book.

Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Defensive Depth Chart

Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye are stud cornerbacks and likely the best duo in the league. But behind them, it gets surprisingly thin on the secondary depth chart. Slot cornerback DJ Hayden had his first career year with a PFF coverage grade above 60 (73.7) which is likely going to regress to his career mean. For instance, a coverage grade of 60 would have ranked 88 out of 130 qualifying cornerbacks last year.

The projected starting safeties Jarrod Wilson (341 career snaps) and Ronnie Harrison (328) have a combined 669 career snaps under their belt. I don’t understand why the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t draft a safety or tried to sign free agents like Tre Boston or Eric Berry yet. Outside of Ramsey and Bouye, this secondary is concerning. Overall, we shouldn’t expect this defense to play above their 2018 level, rather below, which challenges the offense even more.

2019 Schedule

Easy is something else. The current win totals markets at Pinnacle project the Jacksonville Jaguars to play the 13th-hardest schedule at 0.5050. However, in terms of 2018 EPA per play, their defense is projected to face the 2nd-hardest program in the entire league. Excluding rushing offense, Jacksonville is going to meet the most brutal schedule. And it makes sense when checking their actual 2019 schedule. They are going to play seven teams – KC, NO, LAC, IND (2x), ATL and CAR – that ranked top-10 in  EPA per offensive play in 2018. They only play against two teams who ranked bottom-ten: the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders. With 22,508 miles, the Jaguars will travel the seventh-highest distance, with games at London, Denver, and Oakland. An intriguing scheduling spot:

Week 9 vs. HOU: It’s the first London game for the Texans and Bill O’Brien who are going to jump two more time zones than the Jaguars. It’s an advantageous spot for Jacksonville, but it could be priced into the line, depending on their travel schedule.

Jacksonville Jaguars 2019: Not Getting Outta The Slump

I am having a hard time seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars winning more than seven games this year. They aren’t built like a playoff contender. They have too many holes along their offensive line, tight end group, and secondary, which I do not see Nick Foles compensating with his play. The receiving unit as a whole is underwhelming, too. Especially not when considering the brutal schedule for their defense. Nick Foles might be a small upgrade over Blake Bortles, but he’s playing with a weaker supporting cast than he had with the 2013 and 2017-2018 Eagles.

I see the Jags in the range of 6-10 to 7-9 with an average to above-average defense but a below-average offense. The markets agree with me – their season win total took a lot of action on the under since the opener. It got bet down from 8.1 to 7.7 at Pinnacle. The current price for the Under is -137. My lean is on the Under, but the good price is long gone. The difference in break-even shifted to 7.3% since May 20th.

Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore
Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

Indianapolis Colts Stats from 2018

Record: 10-6

Pythagorean Wins: 10.3

ATS: 8-7-1; average line -1.1

Over/Under: 8-7-1; average total 47.7

Close Games Record: 4-4

Turnover Differential: 0.1

Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 116.5 (31st)

Offense: 7th in EPA per play (+0.10);  5.95 yards per play

Defense:  10th in EPA per play (+0.01);  5.5 yards per play

Frank Reich Came, Saw And Conquered

It was a completely different Indianapolis Colts team from years before. General manager Chris Ballard has done an outstanding job since he took the position in 2017. He got fortunate that Frank Reich fell into his lap, but these two look like a dream case scenario for the Colts. There is no doubt in my mind that Indianapolis is going to be a perennial playoff team in the future. Andrew Luck was back in full strength, the offensive line rose to the top-five territory, and Frank Reich looks like an incredible play-caller. They went 10-6 along with a playoff win over the overmatched Houston Texans. But as great as their long-term future looks, this wouldn’t be an objective team preview without looking at a few disturbing things from 2018.

The Colts were a 10-6 team, all things being equal. But there is one thing that’s slightly concerning to me: their defense. Indy played the most manageable defensive schedule in the league, as measured by the opposing average -0.018 EPA per play. Their pass defense ‘only’ ranked 16th in EPA per dropback. Over their 9-1 stretch to finish the season, the best offense they have faced ranked 14th in EPA per offensive play (Dallas). Seven of their ten opponents ranked in the bottom-ten.

They were a zone-heavy defense that played recognizable zone coverage 59.3 percent of the time (#1 in the NFL), and also played cover-2 at the highest rate by a mile, according to Sports Info Solutions. Indy rushed the passer with four or fewer players 83 percent of the time, one of the highest standards in the league as well. They wanted to keep the game in front of them, and they only created pressure at a 28.1% clip, 24th in the league. That scheme can easily get exposed by good quarterbacks who can dissect your zone coverage. That’s what the Chiefs did in the divisional round. Going forward, keep in mind that the Colts defense is likely going to regress.

The Indianapolis Colts Offense is not Permitted to Lose a Step

With defensive regression in mind, the Colts need to hold at least their offensive level and nothing points in the opposite direction. Frank Reich seems to be an incredible play-caller. To me, the first step in evaluating an offensive play-caller is checking the situational play-calling tendencies on the macro level. For instance, Reich called 61 percent passes on 1st & 10+ in the first half (#4 in the NFL) while averaging 2.8 yards more per pass than per run. That’s most likely still too low, but it’s +EV play-calling. The rest is the scheme, quality of personnel, and also variance.

Being able to run the ball helps, too. You are still running the ball on 39 percent of the plays. But such a split gives your offense a head start and reduces the amount of difficult third-down situations. As a result, the Colts had the second-smallest distance to go on third down (6.3 yards) and the highest conversion rate (48%) in the NFL. The latter should regress a bit.

Indianapolis Colts Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Indianapolis Colts Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The offense is returning Andrew Luck with a full off-season and all five offensive line starters. Tight end Jack Doyle comes back from injury and will join Eric Ebron – Doyle was Indy’s first tight end when healthy last year. The Colts also added Devin Funchess and rookie Parris Campbell to their receiving corps. Campbell provides speed and athleticism underneath whereas Funchess will try to capitalize from this prove-it deal. Last year’s rookie Deon Cain missed 2018 entirely and could provide more depth. That’s not a grand receiving corps, and they are somehow more dependent on the scheme. Overall, the offense is not permitted to lose a step, and it’s unlikely they will.

Houston, Do We Have a Problem?

The Indianapolis Colts defense is returning ten of eleven starters. But as mentioned before, I don’t expect them to hold their level of 2018. They added Justin Houston, which was a great addition and should boost the pass rush. But otherwise, this defense is still very young and needs to execute at a high level with the combination of zone defense and a low blitz-rate. Houston and Jabaal Sheard form a decent edge knife, whereas the interior is not exceptional. Indy is hoping to get more production out of the edge-rush rotation with second-year players like Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay or rookie Ben Banogu. Mike linebacker Darius Leonard is a stud, but the depth is thin aside of him.

Indianapolis Colts Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Indianapolis Colts Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Free safety Malik Hooker got a top-15 coverage grade by Pro Football Focus last year, but to me, it seems like they are wasting some of his talents by playing cover-2 at such a high clip. He’s got the range to play centerfield. Because of injuries and ability, the Colts couldn’t get the strong safety position right last year. Three of their first four cornerbacks on the depth chart – Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore, and second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin – will be 24 years old or younger in week one with a combined 2.407 snaps of NFL experience. Last year’s coverage grades by Desir, Moore, and Wilson ranked 28th, 50th, and 70th out of 130 qualifying cornerbacks – against the most manageable schedule as measured by EPA and DVOA. I think the better offenses in the league will have no issue scoring points on the Colts.

2019 Schedule

Win-loss wise, Indy played the second-easiest schedule in 2018 (0.465). According to Pinnacle win totals, it’s not projected to get significantly harder. With current odds, the projection is 0.4902, which ranks 26th overall. However, their predicted defensive schedule based on 2018 EPA/pass numbers differs a lot and ranks 9th. A lot of that has to do with playing against the NFC South, of which all four teams ranked top-14 in pass EPA last year. Carolina will have a healthy Cam Newton; the Bucs have Bruce Arians as their head coach now.

Three more games against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Steelers within the AFC are everything but a cake-walk. Add the Texans, and Indy is going play against nine teams that ranked in the top-14 in EPA per dropback last year, including five(!) in the top-6. Also, we should expect a slightly improved Jaguars offense with Nick Foles and John DeFilippo.

Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS
Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS

Technically, their program is comfortable. The Colts will play on the west coast once, and they will play all games inside a dome or Florida weather after November 3rd. But they will finish the year with three road games out of four along with a three-game stretch against the NFC South. A decent situational spot to potentially fade the Colts occurs in week 11 when the Colts host the Jaguars before traveling to Houston for a Thursday night game. Indy will play the Dolphins at home before whereas the Jaguars come out of their bye week.

Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

The Colts should easily compete for the divisional crown in 2019. They have the essential pieces together: quarterback, offensive line, coaching, and a good-enough receiving corps. Their offense should once again dictate a lot of matchups. But their defense and its schedule is a deadly combination that should also lead to more shootouts and more demanding games for Indy. Less Derek Anderson and Ryan Tannehill, more of Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Big Ben.

Markets have pushed their win total to Over 9.5 -143 by now, which equals an actual line of 9.86. That’s where I would cut, too. If the win-total moved to 10 at some point in the summer, I would see some value on the Under. Don’t get me wrong – they are a decent team. But it’s not like we should expect them to cruise to 13-3 and the first seed in the AFC. There are too many good offenses on their schedule.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get all team previews, win totals, weekly analysis, and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?
Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

Green Bay Packers Stats From 2018

Record: 6-9-1

Pythagorean Wins: 7.4

ATS: 6-10; average line -2.4

Over/Under: 8-8; average total 48.0

Close Games Record: 3-6-1

Turnover Differential: 0.0

Offense: 11th in EPA per play (+0.07);  5.8 yards per play

Defense:  22nd in EPA per play (+0.07);  5.7 yards per play

Bye, bye, Mike McCarthy!

It finally happened: Mike McCarthy got fired after a disastrous home loss against the Arizona Cardinals when the Green Bay Packers were 4-7-1. All reports indicated that Aaron Rodgers and McCarthy had a destroyed relationship. McCarthy might have been an outstanding offensive coach in early years, but he couldn’t adapt his offense while the league has been evolving. There were reports that Rodgers called many audibles because he didn’t like McCarthy’s play calls.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t play like a consistent top-five quarterback over the past four years, and that shouldn’t be a discussion. It was part McCarthy’s static scheme, part a lack of quality wide receiver play but also Rodgers himself. It didn’t help that he played with an injured knee and a tibial plateau fracture since week one last year. The combination sets up for failure.

Fun fact: despite all the struggles and Rodgers’ injury, the Packers offense were 9th in offensive expected points added per play through 16 weeks with Aaron Rodgers as the starter. They went pass-heavy on early downs, which is +EV, but they didn’t use their excellent run game enough in situations where you should use it. Often the Packers called a pass on third and short that resulted in a lousy result instead of getting an easy first down by running with the second-most efficient run game, as measured by EPA.

The defense couldn’t produce a consistent pass rush, and the young secondary played with two rookies at the cornerback positions. The Packers had some bad luck, for instance going 3-6-1 in close games. Their Pythagorean win expectation was 7.4 wins, and they could have gone 7-9 or 8-8 despite all the off-field issues.

Welcome, Matt LaFleur!

The 39-year-old Matt LaFleur will be a rookie head coach for the Cheeseheads in 2019 and also call offensive plays. As a Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay disciple, Matt LaFleur showed two faces as a first-year play-caller at Tennessee last year. First, the positive side: As Ted Nguyen has beautifully broken down for The Athletic, LaFleur showed a lot of the Shanahan/McVay principles at Tennessee last year.

Many plays have led to success in the past. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Marcus Mariota had the third-highest expected completion percentage. The staple is the outside-zone run scheme with married play-action passes. Play-action is a cheat code in this league. The Packers used play-action 20 percent of the time last year, 27th in the league. The Titans used it on 29 percent of their passes, good for 6th overall.

 

There were two reasons why LaFleur’s offense failed last year. One, he didn’t have a talented attack. Marcus Mariota was injured, and it’s still up in the air whether he gets a big contract. Secondly, his situational play-calling was one of the worst in the entire NFL. It was too run-heavy and too predictive. For instance: on 1st & 10 outside of the red zone, LaFleur called 59 percent runs, despite averaging four (!) yards per play more through the air in that situation. Their 8.6 yards per passing play on 1st & 10 ranked 9th in the NFL. In Green Bay, LaFleur will have a better offensive line and a better QB. His situational play-calling can only improve from now on.

Aaron Rodgers – Return to Greatness?

There are some certainty and some uncertainty. We know that Aaron Rodgers is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. He just hasn’t been showing that consistently over the past years. We also know that Green Bay is returning four starters from an offensive line that graded as the best pass-blocking unit in 2018, by Pro Football Focus. The next thing we know is that Matt LaFleur will install a McVay/Shanahan style offense with an outside-zone run scheme and a lot of play-action. And one priority is being unpredictable:

“We also want to create what we call an illusion of complexity. Meaning we are going to run the same concepts but how many ways can we run them? Whether it’s out of 11 personnel, 12 personnel 13 personnel. Just to maybe make it look a little more difficult to the defense.”

But there are three things we don’t know: will Aaron Rodgers be fully committed and buy into LaFleur’s offense and will their relationship work? At age 35, Rodgers doesn’t have many years left to work on his legacy. Will Matt LaFleur improve his play-calling tendencies? And will the young receivers step up and progress throughout the season? If Aaron Rodgers buys into LaFleur’s system and you can answer one of the latter two questions with “yes,” we could see the Packers offense at the top of the league. Aaron Rodgers *can* return to greatness in this setup.

Young Guys Catching Passes

We don’t need to lose too many words about the offensive line. Left tackle David Bakhtiari might be the best pass-blocking tackle in the league, Bryan Bulaga isn’t much worse either. Corey Linsley is a stud at center. The guard positions are the two question marks, but that was the case in 2018 as well. Lane Taylor should get the starting gig at left guard while second-round rookie Elgton Jenkins might battle with free-agent acquisition Billy Turner for the right guard spot.

The guard positions are not as exciting as the core of Bakhtiari, Bulaga, and Linsley. An underrated loss might be new Browns coach James Campen who has coached the Packers offensive line for over a decade. New OL coach Adam Stenavich spent the last two years with the 49ers and collected some experience in the outside-zone scheme.

Green Bay Packers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Green Bay Packers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Davante Adams has turned into a premium wide receiver, but many guys in the depth chart are still very young. Second-year players Marquez Valdes-Scantling (“MVS”) and EQ St. Brown occasionally flashed last year while MVS saw a lot more snaps – he had 73 targets in his rookie season. Both averaged over 15 yards per reception.

St. Brown has all the physical tools to be a quality wide receiver in the NFL. If both make a step forward, it will be significant for the Green Bay Packers. MVS and Geronimo Allison are likely to start next to Adams. J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerov are in the rotation as well.

It’s no secret that Jimmy Graham has probably lost a small step. He’s also 32 years old. But he is coming off an 89-target season with 55 receptions for 636 yards. That 11.6 yards per reception was close from his career average of 12.2. Rookie Jace Sternberger will likely need some time to adjust to the NFL. I expect LaFleur to make full use of the running backs, especially Aaron Jones. Fullback Dan Vitale might also see his fair share of targets.

What’s in Store for the Defense?

The Green Bay Packers will feature an improved defense this year; anything else would be false to predict. The interior defensive line with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark is top-notch. With Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and rookie Rashan Gary, the Packers boosted their edge rush. The Cheeseheads overpaid for the two Smiths, but it’s probably a significant improvement over last year. Gary is still raw and needs time to develop to rush the passer from the outside. Za’Darius Smith can also excel at rushing from the interior. I would expect the depth chart below on earlier downs and Za’Darius lining up inside with Gary on the outside on obvious passing downs. Kyler Fackrell had 10.5 sacks last year but was underwhelming on a play-to-play basis.

Green Bay Packers Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Green Bay Packers Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Blake Martinez has developed into a good linebacker at the pro level, and his PFF coverage grade was superb last year. Oren Burks is a second-year athletic player who needs to take the next step as soon as possible. I don’t know how the rotation at LB is going to look. DC Mike Pettine might also use three safeties a lot.

Last year’s rookie cornerbacks Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander had solid seasons. I’m not quite sure how Pettine is going to line this group up. Jaire Alexander is naturally more of a slot guy, but he played 500 snaps on the outside last year, probably because of a lack of depth. Kevin King only played 15 games the past two seasons and at 6’3″ I would expect him to play outside with Alexander in the slot.

Rookie strong safety Darnell Savage got the ‘playmaker’ label by draft pundits. He planned to play near the line of scrimmage with excellent tackling skills and instincts. Adrian Amos comes over from Chicago and might play a hybrid role between playing centerfield and dropping down in three-safety sets with Tramon Williams checking in. Improved pass rush, slightly improved secondary – Mike Pettine has a bigger arsenal of weapons.

2019 Schedule

The Green Bay Packers have the advantage of a third-place schedule, playing against Carolina and at San Francisco (after their bye week) within the NFC instead of the Rams or New Orleans. The NFC East seems like the most comfortable division to face, with games against Eli Manning (or Daniel Jones) and Dwayne Haskins (or Case Keenum). In inter-conference matchups, Green Bay is going to face the Chiefs at Arrowhead and the Chargers on the road, too. But they also have two home games against Joe Flacco and Derek Carr. Vic Fangio might play a role in that matchup. And the home-field advantage for the Bolts is almost non-existing.

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The NFC North is not a cake-walk. There are going to be four exciting matchups against the Vikings and Bears while Aaron Rodgers and company should match up well with Detroit. According to Pinnacle win totals, the Packers will play the 19th-hardest program in the league which fits the eye test when looking at their schedule.

Green Bay Packers 2019: Return to January?

The Packers have some positive regression going for them. Aaron Rodgers is healthy, and he’s going to play in a quarterback-friendly scheme with better play designs and more play-action. The offensive line is returning four starters. Young receivers like EQ St. Brown and Marquez Valdez-Scantling could take a step forward.

Even if Matt LaFleur doesn’t improve on his play-calling tendencies at all, he will have a better quarterback to execute it. But in his second year, we should expect some improvement. The defense improved its pass rush and looked to have an improved secondary as well. The schedule isn’t a neck breaker, either. Everything points in the right direction. We need to figure out whether the Rodgers-LaFleur connection works.

If Rodgers buys into Matt LaFleur, this could be one of the best offenses in the league next year. Despite all the struggles, they went 10-10-1 with a +25 point differential in full games with AR since 2017. In my opinion, the floor with a healthy Rodgers is 8-8, and we should go from there. If the offense is clicking, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers march into the playoffs comfortably. But there is still some uncertainty involved. The regular-season win total sits at 9.5 with an under tendency at -148. That makes it a right 9.1. I lean towards an overplay at 9. I think this is a 9-7 team with upside – I’m certainly a bit higher on the Cheeseheads than the betting markets.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

 

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!
Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions Stats From 2018

Record: 6-10

Pythagorean Wins: 7.0

ATS: 9-7; average line +2.8

Over/Under: 6-10; average total 46.3

Close Games Record: 2-4

Turnover Differential: -0.3

Offense: 20th in EPA per play (0.01); 5.2 yards per play

Defense: 23rd in EPA per play (0.08); 5.8 yards per play

No Kerryon, No Party?

Matt Patricia’s first year as the head coach of the Detroit Lions was unsuccessful. The team finished 6-10 after falling off a cliff midway through the season. The main reason was the injury to rookie running back sensation Kerryon Johnson. At least that’s what the media and many Lions fans have been telling us since December. Let’s dig into the data: Over the first ten games with Kerryon Johnson healthy, the Lions averaged -0.04 expected points added (EPA) per rush, good for rank 23rd.  After week eleven, when Johnson was out, Detroit averaged -0.04 EPA (data pulled from nflscrapR) per rush, too. That ranked 19th over that span.

They didn’t miss a beat of efficiency in the run game. Four guys of their starting offensive line almost played the full season. They ‘only’ lost right guard TJ Lang who battled injuries since the beginning of the year. However, they lost more important players like WR Golden Tate after week seven and WR Marvin Jones in week nine. Until the departure of Tate, the Lions ranked 9th in passing EPA (+0.16). Until the injury of Marvin Jones, they ranked 13th (+0.09).

With the absence of Tate and Jones, the Detroit Lions dropped to 25th in EPA per dropback (-0.04) for the remainder of the season. You cannot lose two decent, experienced wide receivers and expect a quarterback like Matthew Stafford to perform as well as before especially when he played with broken bones in his back. The reason for their offensive decline was not the run game.

Their defense, the unit Patricia was mostly responsible for, didn’t contribute to winning many games either. However, the Lions were a slightly underperforming team: they went 2-4 in close games and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.0.

“Pound the Damn Rock”

After the season, the Lions decided that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had to go. But before Cooter’s arrival, Matthew Stafford had a career QBR below 52. With the remainder of the 2015 season, he produced numbers of 58.3, 65.2, 65.2 and 53.8 in 2018. His 2018 finish would have been higher without the bad injury luck. He played like a below-average quarterback before 2015, but like an above-average signal-caller under Cooter.

Former Seahawks-OC Darrell Bevell will call the plays this year and try his best to fulfill Matt Patricia’s offensive philosophy of establishing the run as early and as much as possible. The Lions made it clear this off-season that they are going to be a run-oriented team. Patricia hopes that Bevell can replicate his run success with the Seahawks in Detroit.

There is just one problem: passing leads to winning, not running. The more you run on early downs, the more third downs your quarterback faces which inevitably puts more pressure on your signal-caller, contrary to conventional wisdom. Imagine you have an offense that averages 0.16 EPA per dropback and -0.04 EPA per rush. In a vacuum, a 70/30 pass/run split would lead to +0.10 EPA per play. A 50/50 split would result in +0.06 EPA per offensive play. Why would you sacrifice efficiency for too many inefficient run plays, to establish a “culture” or “branding”?

The second point is that the Seahawks’ run success under Bevell occurred mostly due to Russell Wilson’s high-efficiency runs. He’s also a quarterback that can make up for -EV play-calling, as he demonstrated in 2018. If we ignore QB scrambles, the 2011-2017 Bevell-led Seahawks ranked 14th in EPA per rush over that stretch. Take away designed QB runs, and it gets even lower. Also, we all agree that Stafford isn’t Wilson.

Heavy Formations

When the Lions step on a football field in 2019, they will have established the run. But that likely won’t hold Bevell back from going run-heavy on early downs. They will likely use a lot of 21 and 12 personnel sets. They signed former Steelers tight end Jesse James and drafted TE TJ Hockenson 8th overall. Hockenson seems to be one of the best tight end prospects in years. He can be a weapon in the passing game and is already a very good run-blocker – the perfect fit for Patricia’s offensive philosophy.

Kerryon Johnson is back healthy, CJ Anderson is another power runner the Lions signed in the off-season. Theo Riddick is best-suited as a receiving back. Fullback Nick Bawden, last year’s 7th-round pick, is coming back from his ACL tear. He was Rashaad Penny’s lead-blocker at San Diego State when the Aztecs ran all over opposing defenses. This offense screams run-first and dense formations. If you run the ball, it’s preferable to have a good run game. But Bevell’s history isn’t indicative of this.

Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The offensive line is what I would describe an average unit on paper. Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner are solid tackles. Last year’s first-round pick Frank Ragnow will switch to center, which pushes Graham Glasgow to left guard. Right guard Kenny Wiggins seems like the weakest spot – I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Joe Dahl as the starter in week one.

The learning curve for tight ends is usually very steep in the NFL. Hockenson will likely contribute more in the run game than he will in the receiving game early in the season. But with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, the Detroit Lions have two quality wide receivers on the outside. Danny Amendola was most likely a homer signing by Matt Patricia. Over his career, Matthew Stafford is an average quarterback at best. He needs a strong supporting cast to succeed. Depending on the development of Hockenson, this could be a good passing offense, as indicated by their early-season performances in 2018. But I doubt that Bevell and Patricia will maximize their efficiency.

Defensive Performance Can Only Go Up

On defense, the Detroit Lions should see an improvement over 2018, especially in the passing game. But the ceiling shouldn’t get fans too excited. They added former Patriot Trey Flowers who graded as the 12th-best pass rusher by Pro Football Focus. Fourth-round pick Austin Bryant provides depth in the rotation as likely the third guy behind Flowers and De’Shawn Hand. The interior is clocked by run-stopping genius Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson.

Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart

The linebacking corps is still concerning as Jarrad Davis hasn’t lived up to his first-round status from 2017 and guys like Christian Jones and Devon Kennard don’t move the needle as much. However, the secondary is slightly improved. Former Seahawk Justin Coleman has been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league and will be a significant upgrade over a guy like Nevin Lawson from 2018. Rookie Amani Oruwariye went off the board later than a lot of draft pundits predicted, and he might start over Jalen Tabor. He projects as the prototype cornerback that Patricia wants to have on the outside. All in all, the defensive line and the cornerback group are slightly improved, which should lead to higher defensive efficiency. But I am not expecting miracles.

2019 Schedule

According to Pinnacle regular-season win totals, the Detroit Lions are expected to face the 15th-hardest schedule at 0.5012. Everything else seems to be an average projection, too. But their 2019 program has two faces: over the first eight weeks, it’s going to be extremely brutal, before it gets much lighter starting in week eight. Until week eight, they will play the Chargers, Eagles, Chiefs, Packers, and Vikings. While the road opener at Arizona looks to be the easiest of the bunch, the Lions won’t know what they are getting with Kliff Kingsbury in week one.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Detroit is the Guinea pig for the Kingsbury-offense. With a run-first approach, it will be hard to keep pace against those high-octane passing offenses. A 1-5 start into the season wouldn’t surprise me at all. Their only advantageous spot during that stretch is getting the Chargers at home on an early east start. After that brutal stretch, it will get more comfortable with games against the Giants, Raiders, Redskins, Bucs, and Broncos. I’d say the Cowboys are beatable at home, too.

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

My best-educated guess is that the Lions are slightly improved over last year – personnel-wise. But their coaching staff is concerning me, and that’s a big reason why I predict them to fail to make the playoffs this season. They could be a top-15 passing offense, but Patricia and Bevell aren’t willing to make full use of that. Their strategy can work against the worse opponents in the league, who can’t go ahead on the scoreboard to get the Lions offense out of its comfort zone.

Detroit’s win total sits at 6.5 with a tendency towards the over which is entirely fair, in my opinion. This team is skilled enough to beat up some light opponents, but they lack top-end quarterback play or coaching to make the most out of this squad. Their divisional opponents are good, too. My best guess is a 7-9 finish after a bad start that could get Matt Patricia fired mid-season.

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Denver Broncos 2019: Minor Improvements

Denver Broncos 2019: Minor Improvements
Denver Broncos 2019: Minor Improvements

Case Keenum Was Not the Answer

Before 2018, the Denver Broncos decided that journeyman Case Keenum would give them their best chance at winning football games. But Keenum was a prime example for statistical regression. Before his prolific 2017 year, Keenum had an aggregated career quarterback rating of 40.8 – significantly below average for signal-callers. Then he suddenly bumped to 72.8 in 2017 (Hey Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen!). John Elway decided that this anomaly was the new standard and rolled with Keenum. He was an upgrade from the Trevor Siemian mess the year before. But Keenum finished the 2018 season with a rating of 46.9, reverting to around his career path. The Broncos offense ranked 5th in “rush DVOA,” but only 24th in pass DVOA. Unfortunately for them, passing is significantly more critical for winning football games.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Even though the defense played at an above-average level throughout the year, it wasn’t all on Case Keenum. Elway traded away wide receiver Demaryius Thomas after week eight, Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles in week twelve. Only two starting offensive linemen played 16 games. The two best players along the line, left guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis, went to IR in weeks six and nine, respectively. On the season, the Denver Broncos went 6-10 but had 7.4 Pythagorean victories.  They went 4-6 in one-possession games with a positive turnover differential of +0.4. Their defense created 25 turnovers. Overall, Denver was more of a 7-9 team than a 6-10 one. Head coach Vance Joseph got fired anyway – the right decision.

Flacco SZN

John Elway revamped the coaching staff with former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who will be a rookie head coach at age  61. He will likely be one of the most experienced rookie head coaches in the history of the league. Fangio is one of the best defensive minds in the league and should easily be an upgrade over Vance Joseph and Joe Woods.

Elway also made another *splash* signing when he traded a third-round pick to Baltimore in exchange for QB Joe Flacco. But the latter is Case Keenum with a stronger arm. Over his career, Flacco averaged 0.013 expected points added (EPA) per dropback. Keenum sits at 0.003. Only 3.7 points separate these two in their respective career QBR with Flacco having the lead. In a friendlier scheme with a robust offensive line, Joe Flacco will likely look better than Keenum did in 2018. However, first-year play-caller tend to struggle.

New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello served the past two years as the quarterback’s coach for the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan. He also spent the 2015 season as the offensive quality coach for the Atlanta Falcons when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. According to reports, Scangarello used Shanahan staples when he coordinated the Wagner offense in 2016. Outside zone scheme, play-action out of running formations, sweeps – we will probably see plenty of Shanahan stuff. This offense is most likely looking more creative than it did under Bill Musgrave. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak might be the most underrated signing. He has coached a terrific Pittsburgh Steelers unit from 2014 to 2018.

An Underrated Supporting Cast

The offensive line could finish as an average unit. Left tackle Garett Bolles hasn’t lived up to his draft status; he’s hoping to get pushed by Munchak. Ronald Leary has been a rock-solid guard throughout his career, whereas rookie right guard Dalton Risner ranked 19th on Pro Football Focus’ Big Board as a tackle. According to draft pundits, Risner should easily slide in and play right guard. His and Bolles’ development is critical for the success of this unit. Risner will kick in because the Broncos signed free agent Ja’Wuan James, formerly with the Dolphins. James is a reliable veteran addition. Center Connor McGovern will try to fill the void left by Matt Paradis, who is now a Panther, full-time.

Denver Broncos Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Denver Broncos Offensive Depth Chart Projection

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders might not be ready for week one, but last year’s rookies showed a lot to be optimistic about this group. Courtland Sutton finished his first pro year with 42 receptions for 704 yards and four touchdowns.  DaeSean Hamilton got the starting gig after Sanders went down. Over the last four games, he had 25 catches for 182 yards and two scores. I struggle to figure out the backups, but Sutton, Sanders, and Hamilton look like a decent unit on paper.

In the first round, the Broncos drafted receiving tight end, Noah Fant. The learning curve for rookie tight ends is steep, so we shouldn’t expect miracles. But he is expected to contribute early. Former college star Jake Butt is coming off his second ACL tear in two years. He was competing with Jeff Heuerman for the starting job last summer. Especially with Sander’s absence, I’m expecting many 2-TE-sets by Scangarello. We will also likely see heavy usage of full back Andy Janovich.  Running back Phillip Lindsay had a good rookie season but is coming off a broken hand.

All in all, this can be an underrated squad, depending on the development of the tight ends and Mike Munchak’s work. With Joe Flacco, the ceiling is not high. But there should be a more upper floor than in 2018.

Get the Mastermind Vic Fangio to Work!

Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell – who spend the last eight years coaching secondaries under mastermind Fangio – have some functional pieces to send out on the field. As mentioned, Fangio is a significant upgrade at the coaching position. He will scheme the defense up to its strengths. While the interior defensive line doesn’t stand out, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb form one of the best edge-rushing tandems in the entire league. According to Pro Football Focus, these two collected 121 combined pressures against one of the harder schedules. With Chubb entering year two, they can only improve. Linebacker Brandon Marshall left the Broncos towards Oakland which means that Todd Davis and Josey Jewell will pave the way. In terms of coverage, both guys have some development in front of them.

Denver Broncos Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Denver Broncos Defensive Depth Chart Projection

In the secondary, Fangio has a functional group on the outside. He brought over slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, one of the best in the league. Chris Harris, also among the best on his position, will play opposite of 31-year old Kareem Jackson. The latter should get targeted a lot by opposing offenses as he seems to be the weakest spot. Free safety Justin Simmons will play alongside William Parks – the two are not close to the level of Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos last year. The performance of this defense is going to get dictated by opposing offenses but also by Vic Fangio. They have a terrific edge-rushing duo and two very good cornerbacks, but the rest isn’t particularly good and can get exploited. This defense seems like an average to an above-average unit that has borderline top-10 potential with Vic Fangio.

2019 Schedule

The Denver Broncos are going to walk a stony road this year. Using the wisdom of the crowd – the regular season win totals at Pinnacle – gives us a clue about their potential strength of schedule. According to these totals, the Broncos are projected to play the second-hardest program in the league at 0.5244. Within their division, they are going to play four tough matchups against the Chiefs and the Chargers, both who went 12-4 last year. In the AFC, they will face the South with three teams potential playoff teams from 2018. An early east game at Buffalo in late November, as well as a matchup against the up and coming Browns, is no cake-walk either.

On top of that, Vic Fangio’s squad will play a tough-nosed AFC North. After their bye week in week ten, Denver is going to travel in four games out of five. Intriguing scheduling spots:

Week 6 vs. TEN: The Broncos have a sandwich matchup between playing on the road against the Chargers and receiving the Chiefs four days later for a prime time game. Home teams before a Thursday game have been bad against the spread, especially as favorites. The lookahead line is Broncos -2.5. But keep in mind that this is more than likely priced into the line.

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Denver Broncos 2019: Minor Improvements

The Denver Broncos are an improved team from last year, but I would describe these improvements as a minor. Denver should have a little bit more luck overall. The offensive line should be healthier, but Joe Flacco is only a small upgrade over Case Keenum if all.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw rookie Drew Lock on the field at some point. The receiving corps has potential but is still very young. Vic Fangio is a defensive mastermind whereas we don’t know what to expect from Rich Scangarello as a first-year play-caller. We can only assume that his scheme is going to be more QB-friendly than Bill Musgrave’s. Is Fangio giving him full control of the offense, or is he interested in a strong-defense / run-first approach?

The neck breaker might be a robust program with a lot of quality opponents. While I expect them to improve, the ceiling is not very high when your quarterback is Joe Flacco. Anything more than 8-8 would surprise me. Therefore I mostly agree with the markets which hold the Broncos at the win total of 7 with little downwards tendency. Seven wins seem like a fair projection. I wouldn’t touch any Broncos futures at all though. If the win total were 6.5, it would have some value for the over.