2016 Pregame NFL Preview by David Malinsky1

2016 Pregame NFL Preview by David Malinsky

2016 Pregame NFL Preview by David Malinsky


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<strong>NFL</strong><br />

<strong>Preview</strong><br />

<strong>2016</strong> Season<br />

<strong>David</strong><br />

Malinsky<br />


Bio<br />

<strong>David</strong> Malinsky is into his fourth decade of helping to set the pulse of the<br />

Sports Betting world, after first hearing that special heart­beat as a<br />

professional journalist in the late 70's. He published the first issue of The<br />

Gridiron Report in 1981, when beating the game became a full­time quest ­<br />

eventually leading to his move to Las Vegas in 1988. Throughout the 90's<br />

<strong>David</strong> could be heard as the host of the legendary Stardust Line radio<br />

show ­ in addition to expert contributions across countless media outlets.<br />

Throughout his storied career, <strong>David</strong> has been intimately involved with<br />

each of the industry’s three essential platforms. As a professional bettor,<br />

participating in the famed Stardust Lottery on a daily basis, plus two<br />

separate multi­year periods working exclusively for the most successful<br />

syndicate the sports betting world has ever known. As an oddsmaker,<br />

serving as a paid consultant for multiple Nevada Hotel/Casino properties.<br />

And, from the other side of the counter, over 10 years of experience<br />

developing sportsbooks across the Latin America/Caribbean region. Dave<br />

Malinsky has seen it all from point­blank range, and he’s willing to share<br />

his unique perspective with you. But the genuine passion for Winning has<br />

never waned, and he continues to put into play a working encyclopedia of<br />

edges when the bell rings each day. Dave publishes his renowned "Point<br />

Blank" column each weekday <strong>by</strong> Noon ET at <strong>Pregame</strong>.com<br />

Follow Dave: @<strong>Pregame</strong>PHD<br />

"Dream" Pod: <strong>NFL</strong> <strong>Preview</strong><br />

Malinsky, Bell, and Fezzik<br />

Billy Walters interviewed <strong>by</strong><br />

<strong>David</strong> Malinsky and RJ Bell

<strong>NFL</strong> Team Index<br />

Arizona Cardinals<br />

Page 4<br />

Los Angeles Rams<br />

Page 30<br />

Atlanta Falcons<br />

Page 5<br />

Miami Dolphins<br />

Page 31<br />

Baltimore Ravens<br />

Page 7<br />

Minnesota Vikings<br />

Page 32<br />

Buffalo Bills<br />

Page 9<br />

New England Patriots<br />

Page 34<br />

Carolina Panthers<br />

Page 11<br />

New Orleans Saints<br />

Page 35<br />

Chicago Bears<br />

Page 13<br />

New York Giants<br />

Page 36<br />

Cincinnati Bengals<br />

Page 14<br />

New York Jets<br />

Page 38<br />

Cleveland Browns<br />

Page 15<br />

Oakland Raiders<br />

Page 39<br />

Dallas Cowboys<br />

Page 17<br />

Philadelphia Eagles<br />

Page 41<br />

Denver Broncos<br />

Page 18<br />

Pittsburgh Steelers<br />

Page 42<br />

Detroit Lions<br />

Page 20<br />

San Diego Chargers<br />

Page 44<br />

Green Bay Packers<br />

Page 21<br />

San Francisco 49ers<br />

Page 46<br />

Houston Texans<br />

Page 23<br />

Seattle Seahawks<br />

Page 47<br />

Indianapolis Colts<br />

Page 24<br />

Tampa Bay Buccaneers<br />

Page 49<br />

Jacksonville Jaguars<br />

Page 26<br />

Tennessee Titans<br />

Page 51<br />

Kansas City Chiefs<br />

Page 28<br />

Washington Redskins<br />

Page 53

4<br />

Arizona Cardinals<br />

The Cardinal defense could be a major early-season storyline<br />

The production of the Arizona defense remained strong in the first season of the post-Todd Bowles era,<br />

largely because most of the defensive staff remained in place, James Bettchner stepping up as DC after<br />

assisting under Bowles. The opportunity for upside was there because of a talented secondary, and while<br />

Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers were lost from that group the quality of players coming in makes it a<br />

net-win, in particular in terms of pass rush. And that is where the focus goes – despite those great overall<br />

numbers in 2015 the Cardinals were only #20 in Sack%. That may be about to change.<br />

With all hands on deck the secondary is outstanding, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu each amongst the<br />

<strong>NFL</strong>’s best at their positions. Now major talents like Chandler Jones, who was acquired from New England,<br />

and Robert Nkemdiche, drafted in the first round, join the mix, and it becomes an intriguing blend of both<br />

talent and tactics.<br />

How good might Jones be in this defense? Some savvy teammates like what they see so much that they are<br />

willing to project 20 sacks as a target. First Peterson - “There’s no doubt about it. He has that potential to be a 20-plus<br />

sack guy. … He’s in a contract year, too, so I know he’s going to be even that much hungrier.” And Mathieu - “In this<br />

division, yeah, he can get 20 sacks. In this division, they rely on their quarterbacks to make plays – i.e. San Francisco and<br />

Seattle. I just figure it like this: If (Dwight) Freeney had eight sacks in a backup role, Chandler should probably get 20 in a<br />

starting role.”<br />

Part of why the sack rate can climb is of course the ability of those guys in the secondary to cover receivers,<br />

so Peterson and Mathieu know of what they speak. Pass Rush and Pass Coverage are connected, and where<br />

the focus needs to go in terms of projected the Cardinals is how they connect tactically, especially given the<br />

lay-out to the early part of the season.

Mathieu is not just one of the best players at his position, but also one of the most versatile. New starting<br />

safety Tyvon Branch also brings a high degree of versatility, which means the ability of Bettchner and his staff<br />

to use each of them in “hybrid” concepts. Meanwhile they have already talked about Jones being slotted at<br />

any of the LB spots, and he can also rush as a DE with his hand in the ground. Nkemdiche is a fit in various<br />

places across the defensive front, bringing an added layer of being able to rush the passer from inside.<br />

The versatility of the various components allows for a lot of creativity from the defensive staff, hence why<br />

that becomes the focus point in charting their progress in August. If they mesh quickly enough to run some<br />

complex schemes, consider that opening salvo to the season in terms of the inexperience of the QBs they will<br />

be up against –<br />

Week #1 – Jimmy Garappolo<br />

Week #2 – Jameis Winston<br />

Week #3 – Tyrod Taylor<br />

Week #4 – Case Keenum/Jared Goff<br />

Week #5 – Colin Kaepernick/Blaine Gabbert<br />

That can be a defensive coordinator’s dream, being able to throw a lot of different cover packages and blitz<br />

schemes against some guys that may struggle to recognize them.<br />

5<br />

Atlanta Falcons<br />

Can the Falcons become a Dan Quinn defense in <strong>2016</strong>?<br />

There are so many ways to view Atlanta’s roller coaster of 2015, the Falcons going from 6-1 to 8-8, and many<br />

will start in the sexier football arenas – gosh was Julio Jones good, but can Matt Ryan and new OC Kyle<br />

Shanahan get on the same page. There is some validity in studying those components, especially with<br />

Mohamed Sanu on board to open up the field for Jones, and the playbook for Ryan/Shanahan. But I don’t<br />

believe that is the proper focus point – in season #2 for Dan Quinn, I will be looking more towards Quinn<br />

putting his stamp on the team, and there may indeed have been something to see in 2015 that many would<br />

have missed.<br />

Quinn is a defense guy, and in his two seasons as the Seattle defensive coordinator the Seahawks were<br />

outstanding, built off of a particular aggression. That made for quite a challenge in Atlanta, where the Falcons<br />

were awfully soft on that side of the ball. So let’s set the perspective, using the Football Outsiders weighted<br />

defensive tables –<br />

Atlanta Defense<br />

2013 #30<br />

2014 #32<br />

2015 #22

6<br />

Quinn’s first season brought a substantial impact, though possibly far off of the market perceptions. If you go<br />

from good to great you get noticed. If you go from bad to good you get noticed. If you go from terrible to<br />

below average, folks will yawn.<br />

Now let’s add more to that. Was it a case of Quinn installing his system, and getting the Falcons to play more<br />

aggressively? Not really, because the personnel were not there, as the 2013/2014 numbers indicate. Last year<br />

the Falcons were dead last in both net sacks, and net sack percentage, and they were almost in a league of<br />

their own –<br />

2015 Sacks Sack %<br />

<strong>NFL</strong> Avg 37.1 6.1%<br />

Atlanta 19 3.3%<br />

The Atlanta defense generated a pass rush at a level that made them only slightly more than half of an average<br />

team. Quinn did not take them from #32 to #22 with his real playbook, he did it more <strong>by</strong> tightening up the<br />

fundamentals with what was already there. Now the changes may come.<br />

The Falcons brought in likely starters in DE Derrick Shel<strong>by</strong> and LB Sean Weatherspoon through free agency,<br />

and LB Courtney Upshaw will also see a lot of snaps. In the first two rounds of the draft came SS Keanu<br />

Neal and LB Deion Jones, and in particular note that they are not just talent upgrades, but prototypes of a<br />

Quinn defense – they can both run and hit. It would also not be a surprise if Dwight Freeney was added to

7<br />

the roster soon as another pass rush option. Now that some pieces are there for a puzzle to be assembled,<br />

let’s let Quinn’s own words set the direction -<br />

“It’s a really strong group. These guys really want to battle together. We don’t want to put so much out there, so far ahead of the<br />

player, when right here, right now, that’s really what we can control. That’s the message that we send right now. Stick to the<br />

process. How good can you get right now? We’ve got a long time to play before we get into that (playoffs) discussion. But we are<br />

ready to battle, I can tell you that.”<br />

“It’s a great time, man. It’s the central theme of the program and it’s why I like having competition right at the front, right at the<br />

outset. It’s going to be tough. Guys have to earn their spot. … I can’t wait for that part of our game to come to life. It’s going to<br />

make a difference in the way that we (pass) rush, the style that we play. We are probably going to play some more man-to-man<br />

knowing that we have some ability to do that.”<br />

Power Ratings are a prime tool in football handicapping, but understanding the nuances behind each team’s<br />

strengths and weaknesses is every bit as essential. There is a makeover taking place and a different style of<br />

football being brought forward in Atlanta, and those that understand the style component may be a step<br />

ahead of the rest of the marketplace.<br />

Baltimore Ravens<br />

The Ravens offensive stats from 2015 are meaningless<br />

The Baltimore 2015 season produced one of the biggest outliers of any team in terms of expectations, and to<br />

best set the perspective let’s put it into the context of the John Harbaugh years -<br />

Harbaugh W/L<br />

2008 11-5<br />

2009 9-7<br />

2010 12-4<br />

2011 10-6<br />

2012 10-6<br />

2013 8-8<br />

2014 10-6<br />

2015 5-11<br />

To take things a step further, let’s isolate 2014 and 2015 based on where the Offense and Defense placed on<br />

the Football Outsiders Weighted rankings -<br />

2014 2015<br />

Offense #8 #22<br />

Defense #12 #18

It brings that appearance that something went really wrong, especially on offense, and that indeed was the<br />

case. But what went wrong is something that can be easily corrected – just have your best players on the field<br />

playing the games. Here are the full games lost from some of those key cogs in 2015 -<br />

Joe Flacco 6<br />

Justin Forsett 6<br />

Crockett Gilmore 6<br />

Steve Smith 7<br />

Jeremy Zuttah 7<br />

Eugene Monroe 10 (retired)<br />

Dennis Pitta 16<br />

And of course there was the issue on defense of Terrell Suggs only playing in the opening game.<br />

The problem in terms of measuring the offense is that not only did the injuries prevent a proper evaluation of<br />

the talent, but of the tactics as well, Marc Trestman spending so much of his first season applying band aids<br />

to patch things together, instead of adding layers of sophistication. Hence why it gets rather interesting to<br />

follow along in the current training camp, because off of the worst season of his career, Joe Flacco may now<br />

be in the best playbook, and with the best talent, that has surrounded him. Though for now, injuries still<br />

remain a factor.<br />

8<br />

The first matter is whether or not Flacco is back to full health, and we can use his own words for that - "My<br />

knee is not 100 percent, but it feels great. I don't think about it when I'm out there. It's not perfect. I can feel it standing here<br />

right now a little bit. It's not totally normal. But, as far as going out there and operating on the field, running around and doing<br />

things, I don't pay attention to it."

If Flacco is indeed healthy the supporting cast brings a lot of potential. There is depth and versatility in the<br />

RB corps. Few teams are deeper at TE, where they are so well stocked that four may make the roster, which<br />

opens up Trestman’s playbook for some two TE looks. Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman not being able to<br />

practice yet has limited the development of the overall offense, but that has also meant other WRs getting<br />

more time with Flacco in camp. If all hands on deck this is not only a deep group, but a versatile one as well,<br />

with Smith and Mike Wallace able to stretch the field in a way that opens up so much room underneath to<br />

throw to the RBs , TEs and slot receivers, with the size of Perriman and Kamar Aiken a plus.<br />

There is a lot of upside here. Some of that comes from natural football ability, and the rest from how the<br />

markets could struggle to adjust because this group will perform so much better than in 2015. Training camp<br />

has not been ideal so far for bringing all of the pieces together, but it is a storyline I am following closely.<br />

9<br />

Rex Ryan’s expiration date did not extend to <strong>2016</strong><br />

Buffalo Bills<br />

Ryan’s personality has made him a rather big story across the Sports Mediaverse in his coaching career, and<br />

when his first two seasons as HC with the New York Jets saw the team reach the AFC Championship game,<br />

his star was shining brightly. He was building a reputation as a “player’s coach” for his ability to<br />

communicate, and had also earned his stripes for defensive acumen.<br />

Since then Ryan has gone 34-46 across five campaigns, and there is something tangible to it – recent rules<br />

changes have altered the way that defense is played, which has particularly hurt his playbook, and despite the<br />

fact that he has motivated his players well, he is not an overly organized guy in terms of football fundamentals<br />

and details. For the way the game is played in <strong>2016</strong>, he may be one of the weaker HC’s in the <strong>NFL</strong>.<br />

Let’s set some perspective, both in terms of defensive acumen and the ability to field a team prepared to play<br />

with poise and polish. This is best done <strong>by</strong> two directions when a HC changes teams – measuring his impact<br />

on the new team, and also what happened to the group that he just left. In terms of football discipline, how<br />

about looking at the number of penalties, and the number of yards.<br />

Pen Yds<br />

Buffalo 2014 124 1022<br />

Buffalo 2015 143 1249<br />

Buff NET (both years) -19 -247<br />

Jets 2014 109 932<br />

Jets 2015 96 787<br />

Jets NET (both years) +13 +145<br />

The 2015 Bills finished dead last in the <strong>NFL</strong> in both number of penalties and yards, and the net difference<br />

with Ryan on board was more than a full penalty per game, and 15.4 added yards per game. Meanwhile the<br />

Jets significantly cleaned up their act after Ryan left.

10<br />

How about defense, which should be Ryan’s specialty. As always, we go to the Football Outsiders weighted<br />

rankings for the preferred measure –<br />

2014 2015<br />

Buffalo #2 #24<br />

Jets #22 #6*<br />

I do put an * next to the Jets because getting Darrelle Reavis back indeed made for an impact, though not<br />

nearly enough impact to explain the jump. But now consider what the tables mean –<br />

A. The defense with the single biggest dropoff in the <strong>NFL</strong> from 2014-15 was the one that Ryan took over;<br />

and…<br />

B. The defense with the single biggest net gain in the <strong>NFL</strong> from 2014-15 was the one that Ryan left.<br />

So just how excited should Buffalo fans be as the new season approaches? Ryan is a colorful character who<br />

the Mediaverse will continue to flock to because he provides great material. But it wasn’t just tactics with the<br />

Bills last season, it was also the fact that for once he did not seem to connect with his roster. And while that<br />

roster was still good enough to go 8-8, the potential was there to have been much better. Ryan may have<br />

summed it up best himself - “At times, it appeared easy for the competition and complicated for us.”<br />

Exacerbating matters in terms of <strong>2016</strong> is that two promising rookies, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, have<br />

both suffered injuries, taking away critical assimilation time (each was penciled in to start after the draft).<br />

Might it be that when Lawson and Ragland get their first full training camp it will be under a different HC<br />

next summer?

11<br />

Carolina Panthers<br />

The Panthers had a Pro Bowler from every position group last year<br />

Let’s start with this because it matters. Despite going 15-1 in the regular season, and leading Arizona <strong>by</strong> as<br />

many as 34 points and Seattle <strong>by</strong> as many as 31 in the NFC playoffs, before closing mostly -4.5 in the Super<br />

Bowl vs. Denver, Carolina is not rated as the favorite to either win the most games this season, or the Super<br />

Bowl. There has been a tendency across the various pre-season publications, and reflected in the betting<br />

marketplace, that what was close to being a historic season will not come close to being repeated.<br />

It is easy to understand an aspect of that – the betting markets and the Sports Mediaverse did not get the<br />

Panthers right in 2015, and in fact there was one of the highest degrees of market error in recent memory<br />

across a team’s regular season – the Panthers beat the expectations <strong>by</strong> 126 points across 16 games, more than<br />

a full TD per week. In the NFC playoffs the projections were even more off the mark, and while it was<br />

indeed a sloppy ending vs. Denver in Super Bowl 50, it was not a case of Carolina losing on talent – first<br />

downs were 21-11, and total offense 315-194, in favor of the Panthers, with YPP at 4.2 to 3.5.<br />

What did the markets miss last year, and perhaps again this season? There is one aspect I will deal with in a<br />

moment because it is something I badly missed my own read on early in 2015 – the Carolina pass game was<br />

much more productive than I would have projected. But instead of pegging the team as having over-achieved,<br />

let’s note how historic 2015 really was. The Panthers didn’t just have 10 players in the Pro Bowl, which is<br />

unique <strong>by</strong> itself, but were the first team to ever have at least one player from every position unit -<br />

QB - Cam Newton<br />

RB - Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert<br />

WR/TE - Greg Olsen<br />

OL - Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner<br />

DL - Kawann Short<br />

LB - Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly<br />

DB - Josh Norman*<br />

* - Now gone<br />

It is not hard from a football aspect to understand what that means – you are fielding a team not only with a<br />

lot of strengths, but also one that lacks particular weaknesses that can be exploited. Take a moment to think<br />

about that from a Football Science standpoint. Carolina finished in the Top 10 on the Football Outsiders<br />

charts in Running, Passing, Run Defense and Pass Defense.<br />

When you have good players across all units it is not just about physical talent, but also the playbook<br />

flexibility that comes with it. At the same time, you limit the options of the opposition, not providing them<br />

with elements that they can exploit. The Panthers were indeed a damn good team in 2015. Now there are two

major questions – how much they will miss Norman, with some good prospects in the fold, but no one of his<br />

abilities; and where the ceiling is for the passing game, which I had a terrible read on to begin last season.<br />

Carolina rated #9 in offensive pass efficiency last season<br />

First note that I again use the Football Outsiders charts as the measure. I thought the loss of Kelvin Benjamin<br />

was going to be a crippling blow. Not only was he the team’s best receiver, but there was also a style fit with<br />

Newton – Newton has tended to be “wild high” with his throws, and at 6-5 Benjamin was the ideal fit for<br />

him. Benjamin caught 73 passes as a rookie in 2014, good for nine TDs at 13.8 per catch.<br />

12<br />

As it turns out Benjamin was indeed missed – imagine a team going 15-1 without any WR catching 50 passes?<br />

But Newton stepped up to make the other pieces fit, elevating his passer rating from 82.1 to 99.4 largely<br />

through getting the most there was to get out of some role players at WR, along with Olsen’s (77 catches)<br />

dynamic season. Some of that was the late-season development of 6-4 Devin Funchess in his rookie season,<br />

with Funchess only getting seven catches in the first seven games, before stepping up with 24 the rest of the<br />

way.<br />

Now fast forward to this season and what could happen is that the biggest 2015 Carolina weakness now<br />

becomes a <strong>2016</strong> strength. The plan is to match Benjamin/Funchess as starters in what will be one of the<br />

biggest and most physical tandems in the league, the ideal prototypes to work with Newton, while also having<br />

the speed of Ted Ginn and Corey Brown to spread the field. Put those guys out wide, and have Olsen<br />

working the middle, and there is a major upside out there, especially since defenses have to be respecting a<br />

staunch ground game at the same time.<br />

I believe there is also a chemistry that is worth following. Newton and the TE/WRs went to the Under<br />

Armour facilities in Baltimore last week for a pre-training camp session, something that appears will be an<br />

annual event. There is a significant degree of hunger showing with this bunch, and while losing Norman is an

issue against the talented QBs and WRs in the NFC South, the Panthers overall have the opportunity to be a<br />

better team than they were in 2015. It is unlikely that they repeat 15-1, but the marketplace may be selling<br />

them a bit short, and I will get back to that in a moment.<br />

13<br />

Chicago Bears<br />

John Fox’s second season in Chicago will not be as vanilla as the first<br />

We begin Chicago <strong>2016</strong> a much different way than Chicago 2015, when there was a take of “Do the Bears<br />

have any playmakers on Defense” as the lead. They didn’t, setting all-time franchise records for fewest<br />

turnovers forced (17), and fewest interceptions (8). They were #26 in yards-per-play allowed, and #29 on the<br />

Football Outsiders adjusted defensive ratings. Yet despite that, and the fact that Fox is considered a great<br />

defensive mind, I thought he did a damn good job of getting what he could from what he had. Now the<br />

defense has added some good personnel, and it may well allow Fox and DC Vic Fangio to open up a pretty<br />

deep playbook.<br />

Going 6-10 should have been considered a positive result for the 2015 Bears, given their limitations. Fox tried<br />

to turn each game into a slow motion grinder, hoping to stay close enough to gut it out at the end, and<br />

outside a non-competitive cycle in the second half vs. Arizona, and the full game at Seattle the following<br />

week, when Jay Cutler was out (and Fox was at his crafty best against the Seahawks, somehow getting that<br />

game to halftime down only 6-0), 11 of the 14 Chicago games were decided <strong>by</strong> five points or less in<br />

regulation. The Bears managed to win a few of them, although a pessimist would not be wrong in stating that<br />

with a couple of bounces going the other way, they could have been 1-15.

The defense does not have to be vanilla this season. Akiem Hicks will step right in at DE, as will Danny<br />

Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at ILB (Trevathan already being familiar with Fox’s schemes from their years<br />

together in Denver), and rookies Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard will find their way into the mix. There<br />

are few teams better or deeper at LB, especially with Pernell McPhee healthy again.<br />

Does this sound similar to what was written about the Giants earlier in the week? Some of it is. Part of what<br />

held Chicago back last year was the inability of some good defensive coaches to put their playbook out there,<br />

which changes now – not only is there a second year of experience in the packages with the holdovers, but<br />

there could be as many as five new starters, all talent upgrades, on the opening Sunday (admittedly the<br />

secondary is still lower-tier).<br />

Here is one way to tell early if Fox has confidence in the defense – how much the offense gambles. The Bears<br />

kept it vanilla on that side of the ball as well last year in part to hide the defense (#27 in SPS in neutral<br />

situations). Now with Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White healthy there is a chance to attack vertically more<br />

often, and if the fears of putting the defense in a bad setting are reduced, which they should be, it will allow<br />

for things to open up.<br />

14<br />

Cincinnati Bengals<br />

Andy Dalton doesn’t have Hue Jackson’s playbook anymore (nor Marvin Jones/Mohamed Sanu)<br />

The daily tour across the <strong>NFL</strong> teams takes us to Cincinnati today, where you are going to read good things<br />

about Dalton in the pre-season magazines; it is inevitable. A random sample from one major publication<br />

brought – “He took real leadership of the team, but it was his decision making and protection of the ball where he showed the<br />

biggest areas of improvement. After throwing 37 interceptions in 2013-14, Dalton cut those back to seven last year, while<br />

throwing 25 touchdowns. His yard-per-attempt was a career-best 8.42 and he completed 66.1 percent of his passes.”<br />

The statistics are absolutely true – they happened, but what about the interpretation? Was it really Dalton<br />

making those strides, or was it the fact that he had Hue Jackson’s playbook, and arguably the best supporting<br />

cast in the skill positions of any <strong>NFL</strong> QB? That offensive potential was the theme when the Bengals were<br />

previewed here last year, and they did not disappoint.<br />

Dalton had a career-high 106.2 Passer Rating, never having been above 88.8 before, and only 83.5 in 2014.<br />

But how much of that should be attributed to him stepping up, and how much was the terrific supporting<br />

cast, and Jackson opening up that “Pandora’s Box”? When A. J. McCarron had to replace Dalton for the final<br />

three games it was still a 97.1 Passer Rating, and that includes the weighting of a road game against Denver,<br />

the best defense in the league, as a big part of that sample.

15<br />

The pieces around Dalton are still good, but there is work to be done. Jones and Sanu are gone, and while<br />

Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd bring potential as their replacements, how quickly will they fit in? New OC<br />

Ken Zampese has been with the Bengals since Marvin Lewis took over, but does he bring anywhere near the<br />

creativity and flair of Jackson? I peg Dalton as an average talent that was given a QB’s dream in 2015, but<br />

now will have much more falling on his shoulders, especially having to direct the offense through a transition<br />

cycle vs. an arduous early schedule (Steelers, Broncos and Patriots within a span of three weeks).<br />

The Bengals have the talent to not just make the playoffs, but get to the Super Bowl, if they get elevated play<br />

out of the QB position. There is a genuine question as to whether Dalton can elevate – was 2015 part of an<br />

ascending arc, or did it instead reflect his ceiling? My inclination is towards the latter, and with others in the<br />

Sports Mediaverse painting a different portrait it could mean some opportunity ahead.<br />

Cleveland Browns<br />

Hue Jackson accepted quite a challenge, but it may just work (eventually…)<br />

Long-time readers will know <strong>by</strong> now that I have an affinity for Jackson, who in particular has an outstanding<br />

offensive mind for the way the modern <strong>NFL</strong> is played. As such there might be the expectation that he can do<br />

well in Cleveland, turning around a moribund Browns franchise. In truth, the first thoughts didn’t go in that<br />

direction; instead there was a wonder if Jackson wanted another crack at a HC job so badly he may have<br />

stepped into the wrong place at the wrong time. Just one season after coaching a Cincinnati offense that was<br />

loaded at the skill positions about as well as any team in the league, he now has to install a playbook for a<br />

personnel group that in recent years has rivaled the worst.<br />

Those Cleveland struggles have not been a result of bad luck. Eight straight losing seasons have brought an<br />

average of 4.6 wins per campaign, and a case could be made that this has been the worst front office in the<br />

<strong>NFL</strong> across that span. Hence the difficulty that Jackson faces, because the Browns are a full tier below the<br />

rest of a tough division, with Baltimore and Pittsburgh having won Super Bowls over the past eight seasons,<br />

and Cincinnati a perennial playoff contender. Yet here comes the “but”…

16<br />

The pieces to that offense may have become real interesting real fast. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are an<br />

intriguing compliment at RB because their skill sets are different, and Johnson might catch 75 passes in this<br />

offense. He has an upside that Crowell doesn’t, but if Johnson does go to the next level it brings a relative<br />

value to Crowell in being a journeyman that can carry a lunch pail. Meanwhile the WR corps is in the midst of<br />

what may turn out to be a stunning makeover. If you graded the Cleveland WRs as the <strong>NFL</strong>’s worst last year<br />

you weren’t wrong, but now there is the return of Josh Gordon, along with one of the best draft hauls ever<br />

for a team at the position, adding talented rookies Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis and<br />

Jordan Payton. And don’t neglect Terrelle Pryor, who is showing even more ability to make the switch to the<br />

position.<br />

Rather quickly Jackson has been given a bevy of puzzle pieces to work with, and if time is on his side it can<br />

lead to many of the pages of his extensive playbook getting into play. Except of course that it takes a QB to<br />

make it all work, and there is a valid question as to whether Robert Griffin can be the main piece that<br />

connects it all together. Training camp reports have been a mixed bag, the problem of not just RGIII<br />

establishing that his skill set can work, but the difficulty of adjusting to a new system and a bunch of new<br />

faces around him, especially with the inexperience of those other skill players.<br />

Let’s also address on one of the most intriguing aspects of the offensive huddle – could the rapport between<br />

Griffin and Gordon, who played together at Baylor – help each of them through the transition? I filed this<br />

away from Griffin a little while ago -<br />

“Josh is family. We went to Baylor together. I love the guy. I don’t know what’s going to happen with him in the league or with<br />

the team, but he always knows that he has a brother in me. If the opportunity comes that he can get reinstated and play for the<br />

Browns, then I won’t be upset with that — let’s just put it that way. He is family.

The Browns may not win many more games in <strong>2016</strong> than last year, but the team flow may change. If Griffin<br />

can settle in the offense is capable of making a leap (#27 on the Football Outsiders charts from 2015), while<br />

the defense is likely to get gashed often in the trenches again. As such, it is possible that we may find some<br />

Totals that are a bit short, with Cleveland games bringing the potential to be much looser than in recent<br />

seasons.<br />

17<br />

(Editor Note: Written before Romo’s injury)<br />

Dallas Cowboys<br />

Dallas Cowboys <strong>2016</strong> - Might Tony Romo be younger than most folks think<br />

Dallas had the #4 offense in the <strong>NFL</strong> in 2014, using the Football Outsiders adjusted tables, with Romo<br />

having a 113.2 Passer Rating, the best of his career. The Cowboys fell off of a cliff because of injuries last<br />

year, most importantly Romo being lost twice, but the talent in the <strong>2016</strong> offensive huddle may be even better<br />

than 2014. The <strong>NFL</strong>’s best OL is now a more experienced and more cohesive unit, and the depth and<br />

versatility at RB and WR has been upgraded.<br />

So that brings us to Romo. While there is an obvious question about a QB returning from an injury-riddled<br />

season, especially with many across the Sports Mediaverse pointing out his age (he turned 36 in April), might<br />

there be a silver lining here? Romo has missed 24 regular-season games over the past five campaigns, the<br />

equivalent of 1.5 seasons. While the clock indeed ticks away each day, might all of the wear and tear he has<br />

avoided across this stretch have him with more left in the tank than his chronological age indicates?<br />

This is not just the physical issue of having avoided so much contact, and Romo’s right arm having thrown<br />

far fewer passes than had he stayed healthy, but also being mentally fresher because there was not the<br />

intensity of preparing game plans and sorting details on the practice field each week.<br />

The starting point here is to ignore the 2015 Dallas offensive statistics. Just throw them out from your own<br />

trackings, and be prepared for the fact that most stat sources will treat them as having been legit. That is an<br />

important fundamental lesson that is also well-placed to go first this season - those 2015 offense evaluations

carry no real meaning in terms of measuring this group. And should Romo show an early spark in his step,<br />

the time missed across those recent seasons indeed leaving him younger than his birth certificate in terms of<br />

“football years”, there is a significant upside here, this offense having the opportunity to be among the<br />

league’s best. In true Cowboy fashion, I may be quick to the trigger here.<br />

18<br />

How bad of a QB can the Broncos still win with…<br />

Denver Broncos<br />

It is a bit of a trip down memory lane as the <strong>NFL</strong> camp tour continues, this time with the Denver Broncos.<br />

My first experiences at watching live <strong>NFL</strong> games were with the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1968, back when they<br />

were playing up on the hill at old Pitt Stadium, and tickets were easy to come <strong>by</strong>. It was a disastrous 2-11-1<br />

season that ultimately brought the good fortune of hiring Chuck Noll afterwards, and then history was made.<br />

But for fans that fall it only produced a QB battle between Dick Shiner and Kent Nix that was compelling<br />

because they were so even in ability, each lacking it, in one of the worst QB battles ever in the <strong>NFL</strong>*. The<br />

Broncos may be challenging that…<br />

(* - RB Dick Hoak threw 16 passes as an emergency #3 that season, and had a higher Passer Rating than Nix)<br />

Denver had a season for the ages last year, especially when put into the context of the modern <strong>NFL</strong>, and the<br />

emphasis on the QB and the passing game. The Broncos absolutely won with defense, which managed to<br />

overcome the limited physical abilities of Peyton Manning, and limited experience of Brock Osweiler. How<br />

much did that defense have to off-set?<br />

Football Outsiders Offense<br />

#18 Overall<br />

#25 Passing<br />

That was the Bronco placement. If we eliminate the esoterics that FO factors in, how about the base <strong>NFL</strong><br />

guidelines -<br />

<strong>NFL</strong> Passer Rating<br />

Broncos 76.3 (#31)<br />

How successful should a team expect to be when performing at that level? Let’s look at the lower quadrant of<br />

teams in 2015 Passer Rating, #25 through #32 -<br />

Bottom Quarter in Passer Rating:<br />

Denver 12-4<br />

Other 7 38-64<br />

Let’s try it another way. What were the precedents for teams closest to the ballpark that the Broncos rated in<br />

passing from the previous two seasons -

19<br />

Team Passing Rating between 74-78<br />

2014 Tampa Bay 2-14<br />

2014 NY Jets 4-12<br />

2014 Oakland 3-13<br />

2013 Washington 3-13<br />

2013 Minnesota 5-10-1<br />

2013 Buffalo 6-10<br />

2013 Houston 2-14<br />

2013 Oakland 4-12<br />

What Denver did was remarkable. The Broncos made the playoffs with an extremely poor passing attack,<br />

then in those three post-season games they averaged 14 first downs and 254 yards, only scoring five offensive<br />

touchdowns. It was 5.1 net yards per pass attempt, a half yard below the worst team in the <strong>NFL</strong> during the<br />

regular season. Yet they won all three games, and earned the Lombardi Trophy.<br />

So having said that, just what does it mean to be midway through the pre-season and still not have a #1<br />

having emerged from Mark Sanchez/Trevor Siemien/Paxton Lynch? This is a bad group, but can they<br />

necessarily be worse than the QB play the team won with last year?<br />

Perhaps they can be. Siemien is the lone holdover to the system, and he has yet to prove that he can be a #2<br />

<strong>NFL</strong> QB, much less a #1. Sanchez was brought in as a veteran that could manage a game, and be<br />

fundamentally sound, but he has been anything but that, already turning the ball over three times in two preseason<br />

appearances. Lynch is talented but extremely raw, and did not get many college reps either in this kind<br />

of system, or against <strong>NFL</strong> caliber defenders.<br />

One of the problems with having three players fighting for the spot, and the folks at Pro Football Weekly<br />

(who are pretty good) are detailing it as having become a genuine 3-way, is that none of the QBs have much<br />

chance to get better in camp, since they do not get enough reps with the first-team. That is even more of an<br />

issue when two new faces are in the mix, and in truth Siemien may know the playbook, but did not get many<br />

reps with the first team offense last August.<br />

For as limited as Peyton Manning was in terms of making plays, there was at least a knowledge of the system,<br />

and some veteran savvy that lent a confidence to the rest of the team. That will be missing this time. While

any of the three candidates are a physical upgrade over the 2015 Manning, none of them will be commanding<br />

a huddle.<br />

But that just takes us back to square one of a most intriguing notion – the Broncos may have truly dreadful<br />

QB play this season, yet they just won a Super Bowl with dreadful QB play.<br />

20<br />

Detroit Lions<br />

Just how real was the Matthew Stafford/Jim Bob Cooter splash<br />

The Detroit surge in the second half of 20015 was most unlikely – the Lions went from 1-7, capped <strong>by</strong> a 45-<br />

10 burial vs. the Chiefs in London, to a 6-2 the rest of the way, and only a rather remarkable Aaron Rodgers<br />

Hail Mary throw kept that from being 7-1. The turnaround came after a <strong>by</strong>e week and some shuffling of the<br />

coaching staff, with the unheralded Jim Bob Cooter taking over as OC, and you can connect the dots<br />

between those wins and losses to the dynamic ascension in the passing game as Cooter and Mathew Stafford<br />

began working directly together -<br />

Lions CMP% YPP TD INT PR<br />

First 8 64.5 6.97 13 11 84.1<br />

Last 8 70.0 7.44 19 2 100.1<br />

Cooter had been the QB coach with the Lions in 2014, but prior to that his resume was thin and rather<br />

unspectacular, certainly nothing indicating the kind of genius to make the kind of turn that the Lions did.<br />

Hence there is a question raised – was this so much about the tactics, or was it instead Jim Caldwell keeping<br />

the team composed during the bad times, and having them play hard down the stretch? Was it as much about<br />

effort as it was X’s and O’s? That closing 3-0 SU and ATS stretch came against the Saints, 49ers and Bears,<br />

three teams finishing off losing seasons that were not playing with a lot of spark.<br />

Hence the question going forward – is there anything really special about the playbook, because outside of<br />

Stafford, who is talented but has never found consistency, the rest of the offense is rather pedestrian. And<br />

now they have to find a way to open up opposing defenses without Calvin Johnson commanding so much<br />

attention. The Lions did pretty well in adding Marvin Jones, but while he and Golden Tate are solid #2 guys,<br />

can either of them consistently beat the top cover CB from opposing defenses? The RB situation is similar –<br />

Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are decent complimentary players, but there is not a true #1.<br />

Stafford tried to spin it optimistically in the off-season - "We used to feature Calvin, and everybody kind of got theirs<br />

after that. I think it's going to be tougher for defenses, in a certain way, that they don't know who we're going to. There's no guy<br />

to key in on. … Calvin was a once-in-a-lifetime type player, a great talent, a great teammate. But at the same time, the guys that<br />

we have are pros, they're good players.”

21<br />

That spin is assuming a first-rate playbook and the ability to dial up the right game-day calls. Is that a proper<br />

expectation, or is this an offense with below average talent and an inexperienced OC? I have an inclination<br />

that the late surge was more about Caldwell having the team play hard than anything special in terms of<br />

tactical adjustments, and they merely out-worked some struggling and disinterested opponents.<br />

Is Jordy Nelson really that damn good?<br />

Green Bay Packers<br />

The Green Bay Packers were a disappointment in 2015, though still making it into the second weekend of the<br />

playoffs, before a tough O.T. loss at Arizona. The offense had a stunning fall from #1 on the Football<br />

Outsiders adjusted charts in 2014 to a dismal #21, and you could see it easily in the Aaron Rodgers final<br />

tallies -<br />

Aaron Rogers CMP% YPP INT TD PR<br />

2014 65.6 8.4 5 38 112.2<br />

2015 60.7 6.7 8 31 92.7<br />

Those is a rather staggering decline for a player that may be the <strong>NFL</strong>’s best at his, or any position, when he is<br />

on top of his game. Contributing greatly to that was the absence of veteran WR Jordy Nelson, who had been<br />

considered a good player, but not necessarily a great one – just one Pro Bowl appearance through his first<br />

seven seasons (he was also an alternate twice). Yet what may have been happening in 2013 and 2014 was the<br />

developing of a truly special relationship between Rodgers and Nelson, a QB/WR chemistry that took each<br />

beyond their individual abilities, and across those season Nelson caught 193 passes, 21 going for TDs. Then it<br />

got interrupted.

22<br />

Nelson’s injury did not cause a ripple in the betting marketplace, and there were many in the Sports<br />

Mediaverse detailing how Randall Cobb, who had a big 2014 season, could step in to his shoes. It was a prime<br />

topic here last August, because there was a considerable difference in physical strength and style of play<br />

between the two, Nelson at 6-3/217 and Cobb 5-10/192. There was also something else that did not get fully<br />

appreciated – when a #2 WR moves into the #1 spot he has to take on the top cover CB from opposing<br />

defenses, and some guys just are not geared for that. Cobb wasn’t. Instead of putting up bigger numbers as<br />

the #1 he fell off significantly, despite getting targeted a few extra times. So let’s set the perspective, doing a<br />

comparison of Cobb as the #2 in 2014 to the #1 in 2015, and then comparing his production at #1 to that of<br />

Nelson’s the previous season -<br />


2014 (Cobb) 127 91 10.1 12<br />

2015 (Cobb) 129 79 6.4 6<br />

2014 (Nelson) 151 98 10.3 13**<br />

* - Yards Per Target ** - Nelson’s 2014<br />

The gap between Cobb’s 2014 and 2015, and his 2015 and Nelson’s 2014, are substantial. Cobb produced far<br />

fewer catches despite more touches, and the yardage was not what an offense can live with from their #1<br />

option - for Rodgers and the passing game there was a 38 percent drop on every attempt to what should have<br />

been the go-to WR.<br />

Is Nelson really that good? It is not easy to prove that as an individual player in isolation, but frame it as “Is<br />

the Nelson/Rodgers chemistry that good” and it makes more sense. Not only do those two have a special feel<br />

for attacking defenses, but in the overall scheme the presence of Nelson means that Cobb can go back to<br />

being what he is, a terrific #2 that gets the benefit of working through defenses that have been adjusted to<br />

shade Nelson. It wasn’t just that the Packers lost Nelson’s abilities; the chemistry of the entire passing game<br />

was thrown off.<br />

Nelson is going to begin training camp on the PUP list, as is likely #4 WR Ty Montgomery, so the reassimilation<br />

process will be a bit behind schedule, but they do expect both of them to be at full health when<br />

the regular season begins. Is Nelson’s presence alone enough to take the Green Bay offense from #21 back to

the elite? It may well be, despite the fact that he is unlikely to be garnering Hall of Fame votes down the road.<br />

In this case it is mostly about the sum of the parts.<br />

23<br />

Houston Texans<br />

How long will it take the Texans OL to come together?<br />

One of the best annual individual battles across the <strong>NFL</strong> training camps is not taking place this summer, J. J.<br />

Watt pass rushing against Duane Brown in Texas. Matching the best defensive player in the league up against<br />

a OT that has been to the Pro Bowl has made for some tremendous skirmishes. That is not happening now,<br />

both players unable to take part in training camp contact because of injuries, and while Watt’s absence is<br />

being well-regarded <strong>by</strong> the Sports Mediaverse, when and how well Brown returns is a major issue for the<br />

Houston offense.<br />

OLs work more in tandem than any other position group on the field, and no matter how much individual<br />

talent there is it takes a working chemistry to be effective. As such this is a particularly awkward camp for<br />

Brown to be missing, with two new starters being brought in to replace the departed Brandon Brooks and<br />

Ben Jones, and let’s set some perspective <strong>by</strong> looking at the line vs. the 49ers on Sunday -<br />

LT – Chris Clark<br />

LG – Xavier Su’a-Filo<br />

C – Greg Mancz<br />

RG – Jeff Allen<br />

RT – Kendall Lamm<br />

That group made a combined 17 starts for the Texans last year, or essentially the equivalent of one full season<br />

for one player. Clark is a solid back-up, but not necessarily ready for a big load at LT. Su’A-Filo only started<br />

nine games in his second season. Mancz saw limited action in three games as an undrafted rookie free agent<br />

last year, and is filling in for rookie Nick Martin, who was out with a back injury. Allen started eight games for<br />

the Chiefs last year before being signed this past off-season. Lamm started four games as an undrafted rookie<br />

free agent in 2015, and is filling in for the injured Derek Newton.<br />

Ideally when the season opens it would be Brown/Martin/Newton back in their starting roles, but the<br />

preferred OL is likely to not get a single snap on the field together in the pre-season. Martin is talented, but<br />

missed over a week of practice with a back injury and now has a high ankle sprain, and that brings the<br />

obvious development issues with a rookie. Newton is having to work through a hamstring injury.<br />

What is Brown’s status? They can’t get too specific yet, but we can use his own words as an exercise in<br />

caution - "I'm listening to my body a lot. I'm 30 years old and I've played in this league a good amount of time. I'm not going<br />

to push it to the point where I have a setback. I'm listening to my body closely, but I feel good and I think I'll be ready to go when<br />

the season starts.”

24<br />

This group has potential, but how long will it take for the pieces to properly fit? Over the first seven weeks of<br />

the season there are challenging road games at New England, Minnesota and Denver, teams that will throw<br />

some complex defensive packages at them, and exacerbate potential chemistry issues. While there indeed<br />

should be a focus on Watt’s timetables, the shrewd handicapper will also be diligently following the progress<br />

of Brown and that OL.<br />

It will take a lot of Luck for the Colts to win…<br />

Indianapolis Colts<br />

The Colts surrounding Andrew Luck were not very good in 2015, but neither was he<br />

The 8-8 ride form Indianapolis last was anything but an average team playing average football – it was a major<br />

roller coaster in which the Colts were good enough to out-score the two Super Bowl teams in regulation<br />

within a span of six days in early November (27-24 over Denver and 23-23 into OT at Carolina), and also had<br />

the dubious distinction of back-to-back road losses <strong>by</strong> 35 points each just a few weeks later. Of course when<br />

Luck misses nine games that can happen, a player that may mean more to his team than any other, largely<br />

because the rest of the squad is not exactly loaded with talent.

Let’s set some perspective first <strong>by</strong> detailing those other position groups, and a good way to do that are from<br />

the pre-season ratings put together <strong>by</strong> the hard-working folks at Pro Football Focus showing where each<br />

unit is positioned compared to the rest of the <strong>NFL</strong> -<br />

Colts Ranking<br />

RB #29<br />

WR/TE #22<br />

OL #16<br />

DL/LB #26<br />

DB #20<br />

It is difficult to fault any of those placements. It is when the folks at PFF come to Luck that the task of<br />

properly power rating this team is made even more challenging.<br />

25<br />

While they do rate him #9 among all QBs, their takeaway from 2015 was anything but positive - Luck played in<br />

just seven games last season, after missing Week 6 with a right shoulder injury and the final eight games with a lacerated kidney<br />

and torn abdominal muscle. His play in the seven games he was healthy for was certainly not up to expectation, as he ranked 35<br />

out of 36 QBs in passing grade (through Week 9), threw the second-most interceptions (12), had the worst PFF QB rating and<br />

the lowest adjusted completion percentage (which takes into account drops, throwaways, passes batted at the line of scrimmage and<br />

hits that alter throws).<br />

The truth is that when Luck did play he wasn’t very good, the Colts going 2-5 and his passer rating at a<br />

career-low of 74.9. Where did that 74.9 place him? At #32, right below Colin Kaepernick and right above<br />

Nick Foles. Some of those early struggles were Luck playing through an injury, and some of them are also an<br />

issue of the supporting cast. But for as bad as that cast is, the team did manage to go 6-3 when he did not<br />

play, Matt Hasselbeck putting together an 84.0 passer rating.<br />

Luck is healthy again, and it will put one of the season’s most intriguing early Eye Tests directly on him. With<br />

such a pedestrian supporting cast he is going to have to play extremely well for the team to make a run at the<br />

playoffs, and for as limited as the roster is, it was Luck’s own play that made them worse in 2015, instead of

etter. The early schedule is favorable for a turnaround, with the opportunity of perhaps a 4-1 before back-toback<br />

division road showdowns at Houston and Tennessee, and in 2014 I might have projected Luck as the<br />

kind of QB that could navigate those waters and bring those wins home. It would be wrong to make that<br />

assumption this time.<br />

26<br />

If Bortles is good the Jax “O” could be great…<br />

Jacksonville Jaguars<br />

The tour of the <strong>NFL</strong> training camps heads to Jacksonville, where Gus Bradley once showed up looking to<br />

build a defense-first team, which has now morphed have turned into something unexpected on the other side<br />

of the ball. Then time to ponder something that has been a lingering thread discussion this season – has<br />

Archie Bradley gone from “prospect” to “suspect”.<br />

If Blake Bortles has real upside the Jaguars ceiling is the sky<br />

Quarterbacks tend to live on island in the way that they are rated <strong>by</strong> the Sports Mediaverse, getting too much<br />

credit when an offense succeeds, and taking too much blame when it doesn’t. As such the early career arc of<br />

Bortles is already a prime example –<br />

Passing Stats YPP TD INT PR<br />

2014 6.1 11 17 69.5<br />

2015 7.3 35 18 88.2<br />

It would have been easy to peg Bortles as “not ready for prime time” for that rookie season, and to then claim<br />

the major increase was a result of his maturing. There genuinely is a real degree of truth to that, but let’s build<br />

a different model here that might mean even more in terms of rating his past, and understanding what <strong>2016</strong><br />

could bring for the Jaguars offense –<br />

A. 2014 was a bad season to be a QB in Jacksonville<br />

B. 2015 was a much better season to be a QB in Jacksonville<br />

C. <strong>2016</strong> may be a damn good season to be a QB in Jacksonville

27<br />

In 2014 Denard Robinson led the Jaguars in rushing. He is fighting to win a roster spot now. Bortles was<br />

second, many of those yards coming when he was scrambling for his life, a rookie season in which he was<br />

sacked 55 times. The leading receiver was Cecil Shorts with 53 catches, and Shorts is now scrapping to make<br />

the roster in Houston. #2 receiver Allen Hurns, #3 Allen Robinson and #4 Marqise Lee were all rookies. The<br />

OL was a mess, and the reality is that Bortles did not have much chance to play well at QB with that<br />

surrounding cast.<br />

It got better in 2015. T.J. Yeldon was drafted to be the lead RB, and would have likely topped 1,000 yards if<br />

not for injury. Robinson and Hurns stepped up in their second seasons to catch 144 passes, including 24 for<br />

TDs, developing a rapport with Bortles, although Lee’s season was cut short <strong>by</strong> injury. Julius Thomas came<br />

on board at TE to add a dimension, and caught 32 passes despite his season also being cut short <strong>by</strong> injury.<br />

Now Yeldon, Lee and Thomas are healthy, and Chris Ivory has been added to bring even more punch to the<br />

ground game. The OL still won’t be a strength, but the talent and depth across the non-QB skill positions<br />

rivals just about any team out there. Hence why the focus now goes to Bortles – he has the physical tools to<br />

utilize all of the weapons that are surrounding him; it becomes a matter of having the leadership and moxie to<br />

make it all come together.<br />

Jacksonville rated #29 in adjusted offense <strong>by</strong> the Football Outsiders in 2014, and improved to #23 last year.<br />

The potential is there to go from #23 to top 10 this season, as we find out just how much upside Bortles<br />


28<br />

Kansas City Chiefs<br />

The challenge of grading the 2015 Chiefs Defense…The challenge of not taking greatness for<br />

granted…<br />

It would seem that stamping the 2015 Kansas City defense would be easy. The group was riddled <strong>by</strong> injuries<br />

in 2014, Eric Berry and Derrick Johnson missing a collective 25 games, and of course that showed in their<br />

failing to make the playoffs. In 2015 Houston and Berry played every game, the latter winning <strong>NFL</strong><br />

Comeback Player of the year honors, and you can see the upgrades on the Football Outsiders adjusted<br />

defensive ratings –<br />

Chiefs Total “D” Passing “D”<br />

2014 #20 #13<br />

2015 #2 #5<br />

Easy enough, right? Just stamp it and move on to the next team, and be prepared to really like them this<br />

season, especially with Berry back in camp now, and ready to be the leader of the unit once again.<br />

But there is a slight problem with that. The 2015 campaign also brought some favorable rolls of the dice to<br />

the defense in terms of the QBs (and the Passer Ratings) that they got to face. When will be the next time a<br />

team gets anything close to a Manziel/Clausen cycle back-to-back?<br />

HOUSTON: Brian Hoyer (91.4); Ryan Mallett (67.9)<br />

DENVER: Peyton Manning (67.9)<br />

GREEN BAY: Aaron Rodgers (92.7)<br />

CINCINNAT: Andy Dalton (106.2)<br />

CHICAGO: Jay Cutler (92.3)<br />

MINNESOTA: Teddy Bridgewater (88.7)<br />

PITTSBURGH: Landry Jones (77.3)

29<br />

DETROIT: Matthew Stafford* (97.0) – First Game after mid-season OC Switch<br />

DENVER: Manning (67.9); Brock Osweiler (86.4)<br />

SAN DIEGO: Philip Rivers (93.8)<br />

BUFFALO: Tyrod Taylor (99.4)<br />

OAKLAND: Derek Carr (91.1)<br />

SAN DIEGO: Rivers (93.8)<br />

BALTIMORE: Jimmy Clausen (66.7)<br />

CLEVELAND: Johnny Manziel (79.4)<br />

OAKLAND: Carr (91.1)<br />

(<strong>NFL</strong> Average: 88.4)<br />

There were only three games all season against QBs that finished in the Top 10 in Passer Rating, and one of<br />

those was the contest against Detroit in London when the Lions had just made their change at OC, and did<br />

not seem prepared. In the other game against a Top 10 they actually got sliced up in a 36-21 road loss to the<br />

Bengals, Dalton having his single-game high in yards per pass and his #3 game in passer rating, the latter only<br />

trailing the two walkover wins vs. the Browns (Cincy beat Cleveland <strong>by</strong> a combined 68-13).<br />

The Chiefs defense looks good on paper, and may indeed be good. There is a serious handicapping point to<br />

be made about facing an easy schedule that will be a lead topic early in the football season – You do not<br />

downgrade a team because their schedule was soft; if they handle bad teams the way they are supposed to they are on track. But<br />

what you do focus on is not blindly upgrading, and making sure the performances do bring the proper merits.<br />

Kansas City did take advantage of those weak QBs in 2015, as the Chiefs were supposed to. I did not find<br />

many faults. The problem was that when they did have to step up it was not pretty, and also note that in what<br />

was a disappointing campaign for Rodgers and the Packers, his best yards per pass, and second best passer<br />

rating, came in a 38-28 win over the Chiefs. As such there is work to be done here; making easy assumptions<br />

about that 2015 KC defense could lead to problems as this season unfolds.

30<br />

Los Angeles Rams<br />

How easy is it to have a QB battle when the OL and WR/TEs aren’t any good?<br />

The attention in Tinseltown is naturally going to be mostly on Jared Goff, so as the process of breaking down<br />

reports comes in each day, naturally there will be a lot of headlines like - Rookie Jared Goff shows off his<br />

arm and release to Rams and fans at training camp from the Los Angeles Times. And it does help in the<br />

franchise transition that there is the sex appeal of Goff, which does draw interest. But a passing game requires<br />

more than just a QBs arm, and that is where it gets problematic for Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff.<br />

Fisher has called for a competition between Goff and Case Keenum for the starting QB job, and one of the<br />

reasons why the winner is actually getting a rather dubious prize is also why judging the battle will be difficult<br />

– does this offense bring the worst collective group of talent at WR/TE/OL of any team? Those aren’t<br />

exactly the tools to help a young talent develop.<br />

First let’s set a perspective as to what the passing attack means in the overall scheme for this bunch – Todd<br />

Gurley has a chance to be as good as any RB in the <strong>NFL</strong>, and while the secondary has some shuffling to do<br />

(part of why they lost Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod to free agency is that they thought they had the<br />

depth to step right in) this is a playoff-calibre defense.<br />

But you have to have a QB that can throw the ball, WR/TEs that can get open and then catch it, and some<br />

OL to create enough time for that to happen, in order for a passing game to work. The Rams rated #31 on<br />

the Football Outsiders adjusted charts in 2015, only ahead of the Cowboys and their injury-ravaged QB<br />

platoon. Keenum can be a game manager if there are good players around him. As such, he is not a fit here.<br />

Goff has potential, but is nowhere near the usual prospect level associated with a #1 pick. And then come the<br />


I don’t see any upside at WR. Tavon Austin is a valuable role player, but is not a feature #1. Kenny Britt and<br />

Mike Quick would only be the #3 option for many teams, and some #4 or perhaps waiver wire. TEs Cory<br />

Harkey and Lance Kendricks can block, but are not threats in the passing game. Meanwhile there are three<br />

drafted rookie WRs and a drafted rookie TE on the roster, but a QB der<strong>by</strong> is hardly the time to be exploring<br />

that group in training camp (something to watch on that front is for Fisher to play the veteran WRs deeper<br />

into pre-season games than usual if Goff is #2 in the rotation, so that it is not rookie throwing to rookie<br />

clouding the evaluations).<br />

Then there is the OL, one in which the Rams have invested a lot of recent draft picks, so there is youth -<br />

three of the top six in terms of snaps played last year were rookies. But is there upside? Greg Robinson was<br />

the #2 player taken in the 2014 draft, and has yet to look like it. Rob Havenstein did have a decent rookie<br />

year, but do the others bring high ceilings?<br />

Hence the difficulty for Fisher and OC Rob Baras, and a plot line that I will be following. The Rams know<br />

that Keenum is not the QB of the future, so it becomes a matter of time before they turn things over to Goff.<br />

But is that WR/TE/OL group so limited that there is not all that much a QB can do to make a difference<br />

anyway?<br />

31<br />

Miami Dolphins<br />

You can start liking Adam Gase (and staff) now, but don’t start betting until later<br />

Our recent focus was on the sloppiness of Coach Ryan and the Bills, dealing with a coach who may be a step<br />

out of place in the modern <strong>NFL</strong>. In Miami it may be much different, the Dolphins going from being one of<br />

the most under-coached team in the league over the last couple of seasons, and certainly that being the case<br />

down the stretch last year, to having a couple of guys that may be strong fits for the next wave, HC Adam<br />

Gase and DC Vance Joseph.<br />

Each is young yet has valuable experience, and because of how that experience has been accrued they are not<br />

bogged down <strong>by</strong> the notion of having to shift gears across what has been a changing football landscape. Of<br />

course it does not hurt that there are war horses like OC Clyde Christensen and OL coach Chris Foerster on<br />

one side of the ball, a combined 47 <strong>NFL</strong> campaigns for them, while Jim Washburn and Matt Burke 32<br />

seasons to the defense, which aids the assimilation processes.<br />

Let’s focus on the good first, Gase bringing in his way of doing things - "What we are trying to do, and I think I<br />

heard about this first from coach (Pete) Carroll out there (in Seattle) is get them in, work hard, and get them out of here so they<br />

have an opportunity to study and get good rest. Get them home early enough to allow them to recover and get energized, make sure<br />

the coaching staff has time to get energized. And what we've done, and what our whole philosophy is we're about is efficiency.<br />

Let's get here, let's work, whenever we're on the field, or whatever our recovery time is, let's maximize the time we have here<br />

together and when we're done with what we need to do and accomplish what we want to, then we get out of here.”<br />

It isn’t just coach-speak, let’s let Dolphin veteran leader Mike Pouncey take it from there - "It's been very<br />

impressive to see. There's a lot of excitement around here and I really feel like the team has embraced what coach Gase and his<br />

staff have brought with them. Everything is very competitive and there is a competitive edge to everything they do. Just to see how<br />

he is competing with his coordinators, and the approach the coaches take to each practice, that rubs off on us, too.

"They are very high energy. Very efficient. He really gets what players need to be successful and he has a proven track record with<br />

his offense. Everybody around here feels energized. … Guys are really responding to the new schedule. It's very efficient and<br />

instead to sitting around a lot of the afternoon that down time is divided up throughout the day. We're getting time to rest and<br />

recover and everyone shows up ready to work. I think it's been great for all of us."<br />

So far so good. And there was something else from Gase that I liked about as much as I have heard from any<br />

coach all summer - "I've got to do what we do best as an offense, not what I like. It's irrelevant what I like. I've got to do<br />

what our guys do well."<br />

That is something that is refreshing because so many coaches are tied to a particular system, and try to force it<br />

out there whether the current roster fits or not. Many of the true greats – Lombardi, Landry, Shula, Parcells,<br />

and Noll among them – had a flexible philosophy that helped maximize whatever talent they had to work<br />

with.<br />

Now the caution – because Miami has been so under-coached, the Dolphins are not going to hit the ground<br />

running. They need Football #101 before the advanced layers can be added, and as such the early offensive<br />

performances have been horrific. Gase was rather blunt about it after a recent scrimmage - "It was like somebody<br />

screwed something up every play and it was always a different guy so you can't just point to one thing … I don't think anything<br />

has poked its head [up] to say, 'This is what we're best at.' "<br />

The Dolphins will be a work in progress this season. I think Gase and Joseph are a good fit for the modern<br />

<strong>NFL</strong>, but it will take time for their playbooks to get installed. It may not even happen in <strong>2016</strong>, but if there are<br />

some positive signs through their early struggles we just may find some value spots late in the schedule.<br />

32<br />

Minnesota Vikings<br />

(Editor Note: this was written before the Teddy Bridgewater injury)<br />

Do the Vikings have the <strong>NFL</strong>’s best assistant coaches?<br />

Minnesota was a step ahead of schedule last year, an 11-5 campaign in which the Vikings closed awfully<br />

strong, a 3-0 SU and ATS over their last three regular-season games in which they beat the market<br />

expectations <strong>by</strong> 52 points, before that shank from Blair Walsh prevented a win over the Seahawks and a<br />

deeper playoff run.<br />

One of the keys was a vastly-improved defense, a combination of talent and tactics making a jump from #23<br />

on the Football Outsiders adjusted charts to #13 in Mike Zimmer’s second season. You can now rate the<br />

defensive roster in the plus category across all three units, DL, LB and DB, and they should be handled well –<br />

not only is Zimmer a defensive specialist, but DC George Edwards is in season #19, DL coach Andre<br />

Patterson #19, LB coach Adam Zimmer (Mike’s son) #11, and secondary coach Jerry Gray #21. Edwards,<br />

Zimmer and Gray came on board with the HC, while Patterson is in his fifth season with the Vikings. That is<br />

a lot of experience.<br />

But now the offense may have even more. OC Norv Turner is in season #32, WR coach George Stewart<br />

#10, OL coach Tony Sparano #18, TE coach Pat Surmur #18 and RB coach Kevin Stefanski #11. Sparano<br />

and Shurmur were added this past off-season, Turner came in with Zimmer, while Stewart and Stefanski have<br />

each been with the Vikings at least a decade already.

33<br />

Here is the rarity – in Turner, Sparano and Shurmur there are 21 seasons of <strong>NFL</strong> head coaching experience.<br />

That is truly unique, and let’s let Zimmer lay it out -"The No. 1 thing is, they're all good coaches. They've all got great<br />

reputations. No. 2 is, when you're a head coach, you're never afraid to speak your mind. The possibility of all of them sitting in<br />

there, and the personalities of guys like Tony and Pat, they're not afraid to speak their minds on ideas. I just think the more good<br />

coaches you can get, the better it is. … You’re always looking for different ideas, different ways to do things. I love hearing guys<br />

say, ‘When we were in St. Louis we did it this way, when we were in Philly we did it this way,’ or Tony, when he was in Miami.<br />

Sometimes you get in one system and you get pigeonholed.”<br />

Here is why it could particularly matter with this team – if Laquon Treadwell brings what I think he can to the<br />

WR corps, and Alex Boone and Andre Smith shore up the OL, this is a team without a weakness. While the<br />

ground game on offense is the only aspect of play that may approach top-tier status, it means that they have<br />

the pieces to run deep playbooks on both sides of the ball, and in particular this leadership can help to<br />

develop Teddy Bridgewater, who may only need to be a game manager with the pieces around him.<br />

Might the Vikings be a little better in close games than other teams? Could this collective brain trust be that<br />

much of a difference? It will be intriguing to watch – if the various egos mesh on the sidelines, this group of<br />

assistants rivals any that I have charted across my years of studying the <strong>NFL</strong>.

34<br />

New England Patriots<br />

The Gronkwoski/Bennett TE duo is the <strong>NFL</strong>’s best ever, and it means a whole lot from many<br />

directions<br />

To have an athletic freak in the 6-6/265 pound Gronwkoski has meant wonders for the New England<br />

offense, the Patriots being able to line him up in so many different places to create mismatches. I know<br />

someone that grades him out as the <strong>NFL</strong>’s most effective player, and would not argue the point. Gronk’s<br />

presence has enabled the offense to be first-rate despite not having any Pro Bowlers at the WR and RB spots.<br />

But what happens when you add a similar athletic freak in 6-6/273 Martellus Bennett? It opens the door for<br />

some of the most intriguing offensive possibilities of my football lifetime.<br />

The question, of course, is how well these pieces come together given the unusual layout to the Patriots<br />

season. Were this to be Tom Brady at the helm all the way the playbook possibilities would be almost<br />

limitless, the O’s able to be lined up so many different ways because of his savvy in not only directing the<br />

placement, but also in getting the ball out to where it best fits.<br />

This isn’t just about great individual talent, but the fact that opposing defenses are going to struggle to find<br />

any kind of answer. Precious few DBs are strong enough to cover either of them, and precious few LBs are<br />

fast enough to stay with them. And with the ability of each to lineup in a traditional TE spot, in the slot, or<br />

out wide, it exacerbates those defensive headaches. Hall of Fame nominee Willie McGinest laid it out well -<br />

“If both of these guys stay healthy, I can just tell you it’s going to be a nightmare for defenses to try and stop, just because of the<br />

different formations you can run, and pass out of that people don’t really understand.”<br />

The two players also recognize the prospects, and it has been interesting to follow along as their own<br />

chemistry develops. They genuinely seem to like each other, which makes it even easier to reach for a high<br />

level. First from Gronkowski - “I do see that dynamic playing out, for sure. Every single time he steps out on the field, and<br />

we’re out on the field together, we want to make each other better players. That’s what gets you to another level. He’s a great tight<br />

end . . . it’s great to learn from each other and amp up each other’s game to the next level.”<br />

Now Bennett - “Gronk is (expletive) good. It’s been a pleasure playing with him. I think we’ve been raising each other’s game.<br />

He does some things very well and I do some things different. The thing is, we’re built alike, but we’re two totally different players.<br />

The way we run routes, the way we go about our business is totally different. It’s been very fun playing with him because he’s very

passionate. He brings it every day in meetings and on the field. It’s just been a joy to play with him because he’s one of those guys<br />

that makes you up your game, and I try to do the same for him, but I think we’ve just been feeding off each other a lot.”<br />

But how much of this development do we see with Jimmy Garrapolo at the helm? Do the Patriots install their<br />

offense the way that they plan to run it all season, and have Garrapolo do the best he can, or will there be<br />

early tweaks to the system around his abilities? How many of those complex formations (imagine those two<br />

guys lining up on the same side, which will happen on occasion) don’t get fully put into the playbook now<br />

because of the QB shuffling that will take place in camp?<br />

There is so much to see here. With Brady for all 16 games, and a healthy Dion Lewis at RB, this might be the<br />

league’s best offense, based on how intricate the designs can get and the talent to execute them. But will the<br />

Brady suspension curtail some of that creativity? The power rating for this offense will be volatile, but with<br />

one of the highest ceilings I have allowed for in a long time.<br />

35<br />

New Orleans Saints<br />

How much better might the Saints Defense be on tactics alone (was Rob Ryan so bad that he even<br />

hurt the New Orleans offense last year)?<br />

Rob Ryan has been a feature topic several times through the first two football cycles of Point Blank, a guy<br />

that kept getting hired around the league as a Defensive Coordinator despite producing some truly bad<br />

defenses at every stop, somehow managing to maintain a reputation anyway. After the New Orleans defense<br />

finished #28 on the Football Outsiders adjusted rankings for 2014 they got off to an even worse start last<br />

season, and Ryan was fired in the middle of it. The unit ended up dead last at #32.

Confusion reigned the past two seasons, from the top down. Now it is up to Dennis Allen, who has a<br />

reputation for being a sound defensive strategist, although his stint as HC at Oakland was dismal, an 8-24 that<br />

saw him fired four games into the 2014 season. The Saints hired him to assist under Ryan last year, and he<br />

took over in mid-November, but there was not much opportunity to have impact.<br />

Hence the task for the handicapper – how much of that awful defense was the talent level, and how much<br />

was it Ryan being overmatched <strong>by</strong> the way the sport is played in <strong>2016</strong>? There has been some talent added,<br />

with James Laurinaitis stepping right in at MLB, and rookie Sheldon Rankins likely starting at DT. But might<br />

simply cleaning things up also move them up a few notches on the ladder? It might, especially when one of<br />

the first things I came across while going through their training camp reports was this, from guard Tim Lelito<br />

-<br />

"They're (the defense) getting aligned faster. Everyone knows the assignments. Compared to last year, there's hardly any (missed<br />

assignments) this year on the defensive side of the ball. We're stopping practice a lot less. Coach isn't blowing the whistle: 'Hey,<br />

line up here. What are you doing over there?' It's better for us, because we're getting more reps in and getting better as a team."<br />

That is a rather remarkable thing to read, and some savvy on Lelito’s part – it wasn’t just that the defense was<br />

inept, but that some of that ineptitude actually hurt the New Orleans offense in terms of maximizing practice<br />

time. Let’s add some more from HC Sean Payton - “I would say one of his (Allen) strengths is his organizational skills.<br />

He’s extremely detailed in the meetings, not only with the players but also with his staff when they are meeting defensively. He’s<br />

very thorough with regards to the explanation and communication of each scheme."<br />

This is not going to be a good defense; the personnel is not there. But they have a chance to be far better than<br />

the 2015 edition, with a couple of talented players added and the likelihood of mistakes being eliminated.<br />

By the way, Ryan has resurfaced as a defensive assistant under his brother Rex in Buffalo. He carries with him<br />

a resume that truly only a brother could love.<br />

36<br />

New York Giants<br />

Steve Spagnuolo finally has a toolbox to repair the Giants defense<br />

NY Giants also enforce one of the key notions discussed on Monday, that of tossing out the 2015 statistics<br />

of the Dallas Offense. Yes, I know how much many of you like “clean” data sets, those lovely 16-game<br />

compendiums that you can compare to the official <strong>NFL</strong> compilations to see that your charts are not in error.<br />

And, of course, it means that you don’t have to necessarily keep them yourselves anyway if using every play of<br />

every game – just follow the official sets that are out there. But it is the wrong thing to do, and in fact a big<br />

part of the success you can have across the gridirons is in taking advantage of the “official” statistical<br />

gibberish that gets out there, much of it used verbatim across the Sports Mediaverse. Such as the utterly<br />

useless numbers from the 2015 NY Giants defense…<br />

The Giants were terrible at stopping opponents last year, which would seemingly be a bad reflection in DC<br />

Steve Spagnuolo, who had returned to the role where he once won a Super Bowl ring. But Spagnuolo never<br />

really had a chance, which was a focus point across this very page last August.

37<br />

Take a unit that was #26 on the Football Outsiders charts in 2014, strip them of some key players, especially<br />

during training camp when the new system was supposed to have been installed, and there wasn’t much<br />

chance of anything good happening. That turned out to be the case, the Giants finishing #31 on the FO<br />

charts last year. But that #31, with the various ugly individual components that led to it, is of almost no value<br />

whatsoever in terms of projecting the <strong>2016</strong> unit.<br />

Now many of the walking wounded are healthy from the start, including Jason Pierre-Paul, who will be joined<br />

up front <strong>by</strong> Damon Harrison and Oliver Vernon. Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard have been added at<br />

LB. CB Janoris Jenkins comes on board to pair with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for a solid CB tandem,<br />

with rookie Eli Apple ready to step in to the nickel packages. Landon Collins now has a season under his belt<br />

at safety, which means that Spagnuolo can throw so much more at him.<br />

That last element really matters – for much of last season the Giants were about as vanilla as it gets. Collins is<br />

the only returning player that started all 16 games in Spagnuolo’s scaled-back schemes, but his starting as a<br />

rookie was not necessarily something they wanted anyway. The playbook was kept limited because the faces<br />

were changing week-<strong>by</strong>-week, and there was almost nothing at all left over the last three games, when they<br />

allowed 122 points and 1,283 yards as 6-7 collapsed to 6-10. It wasn’t just that they were under-manned, but<br />

that they were under-manned in a way that left them tactically vulnerable as well.<br />

This is not going to be a great defense, but there is a chance to be at least average, and perhaps even a step or<br />

two on the ladder above that. That is a major difference from how the head stone of their 2015 season reads,<br />

and it will be interesting to see how quickly the markets react.

38<br />

New York Jets<br />

How bruised and battered will the Jets be after game #7?<br />

I have talked about a couple of scheduling draws so far in terms of strategic particulars, like the Cardinal<br />

defense getting an early cycle against inexperienced QBs. But with the Jets it is much different – no team<br />

opens with a tougher sequence, and for a group that enters with high expectations off of a 10-6 campaign,<br />

what happens if early losses mount up and create more pressure than they may be able to deal with?<br />

Here is how it lays out (Home Games in CAPS) -<br />

Week One: CINCINNATI<br />

Week Two: Buffalo (Thursday)<br />

Week Three: Kansas City<br />

Week Four: SEATTLE<br />

Week Five: Pittsburgh<br />

Week Six: Arizona (Monday)<br />

Week Seven: BALTIMORE<br />

If the focus is on the first six, five are against playoff teams and the other is against the Bills, who went 8-8. I<br />

extend it to Game #7 because if the Ravens are healthy they are a playoff contender, while the setting also<br />

matters – the Jets will have to travel back after a Monday night road game, and there is not the usual home<br />

field advantage because the Ravens will be playing at the same venue for the second consecutive week (they<br />

face the Giants in Game #6).<br />

For now the projection is that the Jets will be underdogs in each of the first six games, and if they lose most<br />

of them, which I expect, perhaps even the Ravens are road chalk for #7. It at least turns after that – nondivision<br />

games vs. the Browns, Rams and 49ers are on the slate. Hence why this becomes the focus point for<br />

the Jets – when things slow down will they be a lifeless team without any shot at the playoffs, or will the<br />

reading between the lines indicate that they may have some fight left in them? If the latter is the case, they<br />

become one of those “horse stepping down in class” settings, which could mean some live value, and unique<br />


39<br />

This is a difficult test for Todd Bowles. It is not just a matter of the confidence of the team, but also a matter<br />

of keeping the players physically fresh through such a grueling cycle. It is entirely possible that he could do a<br />

good job and have his team well-prepared for every game this season, yet 10-6 could still turn into 7-9 or<br />

perhaps even 6-10. It is something that gets exacerbated <strong>by</strong> being in the New York media bubble, so it bears<br />

watching closely.<br />

Oakland Raiders<br />

For the Raiders, the Secondary becomes Primary…<br />

The Oakland passing game is a prominent story; the ability of the Raiders to defend the pass may be<br />

just as big<br />

It is somewhat proper for the Sports Mediaverse to focus on the development of Derek Carr throwing to<br />

Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, it is a legit story. It isn’t often that you get the dynamic of a young QB<br />

working with a pair of WRs that were first-round draft choices, and that duo combined to catch 157 passes in<br />

2015, good for 1,992 yards and 15 TDs. As such, that will be the lead for many as they evaluate a team that<br />

came off of seasons of 4-12, 4-12 and 3-13, but elevated to 7-9 in Jack Del Rio’s first campaign, and if<br />

another year together only makes the passing game better there can be playoff aspirations.<br />

Yet it is the other side of the ball where there might be an even more important handicapping story taking<br />

place, because it will be happening off the radar screens. Largely based on tightening up the fundamentals and<br />

bringing a better playbook into play the Oakland defense made a big leap in 2015, despite a below-par<br />

secondary, and it is that back line that deserves some focus now.

40<br />

Let’s start with how much better the overall defense, and pass defense, were in 2015, using the Football<br />

Outsiders as the measure, as well as opponents Passer Rating –<br />

Raiders Total D Pass D Opp PR<br />

2014 #26 #28 #27<br />

2015 #12 #16 #11<br />

Kudos to Del Rio and DC Ken Norton Jr. for that, because it wasn’t about personal in the secondary. Now it<br />

may be – only <strong>David</strong> Amerson returns among the starting cast, and a case can be made that the Raiders have<br />

upgraded at all three of the other positions.<br />

Yes, Charles Woodson had a tremendous career and will be celebrated in Canton, but at this stage Reggie<br />

Nelson is younger and better. Nelson will be joined at safety <strong>by</strong> rookie Karl Joseph, meaning a pair of 1 st<br />

round picks manning the back end, Nelson showing that his draft slot was proper, and Joseph already<br />

exhibiting the potential that could make him special.<br />

At CB the Oakland tandem of Amerson, who finally lived up to his potential last year, and free-agent<br />

acquisition Sean Smith, not only brings quality, but one of the biggest and most physical tandems in the<br />

league (Amerson is 6-1/205 and Smith 6-3/220). Behind them may also be the <strong>NFL</strong>’s best back-up corps,<br />

with former starter DJ Hayden, a first-round draft pick, still on board, as well as former starter Travis Carrie,<br />

who is likely to get the nod in the nickel packages. And backing up Joseph and Nelson is Nate Allen, a former<br />

#2 draft pick.

Considering the leap the Raider defense already made in 2015 there is an interesting ceiling here, especially<br />

with Bruce Irvin being added to help Khalil Mack and the pass rush, and note that Irvin can fit in seamlessly<br />

because Norton was his position coach for a few years with the Seahawks. The current depth chart shows<br />

eight of the 11 starters being 1 st or 2 nd round draft choices, an indication of the talent level, and it could go to<br />

nine if Dan Williams beats out Justin Ellis in a competitive battle at NT. Carr and the WRs may bring the sex<br />

appeal, but it would not be a surprise if it was the Oakland defense that makes bigger strides this season, and<br />

has a greater impact on the team’s fortunes.<br />

41<br />

Philadelphia Eagles<br />

Do the Eagles have a Past/Present/Future crisis (and is Doug Pederson ready to handle it)…<br />

Things could get rather awkward in Philadelphia this season. The Eagles were not too far from a playoff spot<br />

last year and naturally believe they are close. Yet there has been a complete coaching overhaul, with major<br />

systems changes on both sides of the ball, and making those transitions difficult is that the team sacrificed<br />

some draft picks that might have contributed immediately, for a player that apparently won’t be part of the<br />

picture this season.<br />

So do they want to win now in <strong>2016</strong>? Or do they instead want to transition into the future, taking the time to<br />

get the new playbooks installed, and filling those X’s and O’s with players better suited to the schemes? There<br />

are mixed signals galore, and because serious questions about the ability of Doug Pederson to fill out the<br />

crossword puzzle, there is a lot of potential volatility.<br />

Pederson had a non-descript career as an <strong>NFL</strong> back-up, wrapped around time with the WLAF. His only head<br />

coaching experience was four seasons at Calvary Baptist Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana. He has had all of<br />

three seasons as an <strong>NFL</strong> coordinator, handling a Kansas City attack under Andy Reid that did not see off<br />

many fireworks. Little of that, from one of the thinnest resumes to be a HC in the modern <strong>NFL</strong> era, suggests<br />

that Pederson is ready for this particular challenge, especially with the Eagles saddling him with a reduced<br />

present, in exchange for Carson Wentz and the future. If that is indeed to be Pederson’s future anyway.<br />

Now comes the conundrum for both the Eagles and those of us that have to power-rate them. With a<br />

significant re-design on offense from Chip Kelly’s uptempo schemes, and Jim Schwartz converting the<br />

defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (at least Schwartz has some HC experience to help Pederson settle in), this would<br />

be a savvy season for a franchise to be happy with a 6-10 or 5-11, in order to set the tone for 2017 and<br />

beyond, perhaps also time to begin getting Wentz involved. Instead, here is the pressure that Pederson is<br />

feeling -<br />

"In this league, I don't think there is time any more. I've seen coaches get fired after one year, after two, after three. You've got to<br />

win now. You do everything you can in the offseason with free agency, with draft picks, to bring guys in that help you win now.<br />

… So, as far as time, I don't think there's time. I'm going to coach every game to win now. That's the way we're going to<br />

approach it."

42<br />

That is a tough approach when taking over a team off of a losing campaign, and one that did not exactly<br />

move the needle in terms of adding personnel. Except for Wentz, of course. But what is his role going to be?<br />

More from Pederson -<br />

“Typically, the third quarterback is down (not on the game day roster). It’s hard right now to look down the road, but if we had<br />

to play this week, Carson would be down. He’d be the third quarterback. He’d be deactivated. That’s probably the direction<br />

we’re heading, I would think is going that route.”<br />

That would be fine if Wentz had been taken in a middle round, with a pick the team already owned. Instead<br />

the franchise paid a premium to move up to select him, despite needs at so many positions. That is not the<br />

ideal way to welcome in a new coach, especially someone that lacks experience in the very transition he will be<br />

sorting through. By believing they are positioned to both win now and win later the Eagles may not<br />

accomplish either, and for Pederson there may not even be a “later” – will he even last long enough to be the<br />

HC for Wentz? I see the ceiling being low for this team in <strong>2016</strong> even if things mesh well, and the chance for<br />

the floor beneath them to be unsteady if they don't.<br />

Are the Steelers building another curtain?<br />

Pittsburgh Steelers<br />

The big focus for most of the Sports Mediaverse as <strong>2016</strong> approaches is the terrific cast of characters<br />

Pittsburgh has in the skill positions, and how often they can get all of those hands on deck is indeed a big<br />

story. Put the full group out there and it is likely the <strong>NFL</strong>’s best, but that did not happen often enough across<br />

the 2015 schedule, and won’t this time either. But there is another major storyline to follow on the other side

43<br />

of the ball, and it could lead to a breakout for a LB corps that they are trying to build in a particular image,<br />

and the seeds planted may be ready to start producing fruit.<br />

Having dominant and athletic LBs has been the major part of the Steeler defense through the years, Chuck<br />

Noll winning Super Bowls with the Ham-Lambert-Russell trio in a traditional 4-3, and then the<br />

Cowher/Tomlin cycle looking for a different prototype out of their 3-4 sets. After the defense fell a few pegs<br />

there was a concerted effort to bring that part of the game back, since it is essential in the Tomlin schemes,<br />

and it led to three straight years of spending a #1 draft pick at the position, Jarvis Jones (Georgia, 2013), Ryan<br />

Shazier (Ohio State, 2014) and Bud Dupree (Kentucky, 2015). It wasn’t just about particular football<br />

performance with those three, but also the fact that they can run. So now comes <strong>2016</strong>…<br />

Jones has been an underachiever, so much so that the team declined a fifth-year option for him, which means<br />

free agency at the end of the season. The move comes from two directions, one being a football reality related<br />

to performance, but the second being whether it lights a fire for him to improve. From DC Keith Butler, who<br />

has been with the team for 14 years - “That's the reason why we did it. We like Jarvis. There is nothing wrong with<br />

putting him in that situation. Sure, if he was a Pro Bowler, we would get all the stuff sewn up, but he hasn't done that. I would<br />

rather put him in (this) situation to see how he responds.”<br />

The story is much different with Shazier and Dupree. They are not just players that have already shown the<br />

ability produce at their positions, but also bring an athleticism that allows for a layer of complexity to be<br />

added to the playbook. But it can take some time – Shazier has missed 11 games to injury over his first two<br />

seasons, while Dupree was only able to work his way into the starting lineup five times as a rookie.<br />

Let’s go back to Butler for a take on Shazier, and in particular note that aspect of a player being “on<br />

schedule” at the position in the Pittsburgh schemes - “I think all of us should have that expectation (Pro Bowl) for<br />

him. He's shown the ability to move probably better than anybody that I've seen at that position. So he's gonna continue to learn,<br />

and I've always said that for a linebacker, probably the most productive years are years three and four. (From those years)<br />

through seven or eight, that's where knowledge of the game and talent are usually melded most at that time.”

The learning curve for Dupree, who can run a 4.5 despite being 6-4/269, also has an arc that Butler discussed<br />

in a way that the student of football can relate to - “He's got to have go-to moves that he's going to use in certain<br />

situations when he's not even thinking about it. Usually, the good pass rushers have one or two moves like that they can use when<br />

everything is happening so fast around them and they're not even thinking about it. They just use it.”<br />

Dupree is already aware of that, and showed up at camp lighter than the 269 listed, and ready to go to work -<br />

“Double-digit sacks — that's the goal. Getting double-digit sacks means that you are just at a different level. That's the goal for<br />

me. … I added some things and am better at things. You've got to have that move that is your go-to move. (But) then you gotta<br />

have some counter-moves. I learned that.”<br />

This is a situation not just of the ability of the individual players, but how they can connect together. One of<br />

the things that Tomlin/Butler are doing in the <strong>2016</strong> camp is moving Dupree and Jones around, which can<br />

create favorable matchups. Might that also light the fire that can turn the career of the latter around?<br />

What the Steelers do on offense is easily visible, and will be out there for all to see. Watching that LB corps<br />

develop will take some diligence, but that is where the shrewd handicapper may find some edges. Just don’t<br />

expect to see all that much of them tonight…<br />

44<br />

San Diego Chargers<br />

Will the Chargers have much (any) of a home field advantage?<br />

This starts with the general notion that the San Diego home field has been of only minimal benefit through<br />

the years, for some logical reasons. There are a lot of transplants in southern California from other regions,<br />

which can mean fans buying tickets to root for the teams from their original home; while the weather is<br />

almost always good, not bringing any peculiarities to aid the home side; and the fact that teams traveling from<br />

other time zones get the benefit of added time on the clock for east/west travel also comes into play (the<br />

Chargers lose time when they play at Kansas City and Denver each season; the Chiefs and Broncos get to add<br />

some when they head to S.D.).<br />

How minimal has it been? Let’s trace it back five seasons –<br />

SD at Home SU ATS Net ATS<br />

2015 3-5 2-6 -45 pts<br />

2014 5-3 3-5 +22.5 pts<br />

2013 5-3 5-3 +24.5 pts<br />

2012 3-5 2-6 -47 pts<br />

2011 5-3 3-5 +7 pts<br />

Total 21-19 15-25 -38 pts<br />

Note that the Net ATS of roughly -1 point per game does not equate to a 15-25 distribution, but in that<br />

sample a couple of blowouts did have a major impact on the numbers.

This time around there is an added pressure, the cloud of Measure C and Measure D, which will be up for<br />

voter referendum on November 8, and will determine whether the team is to remain in San Diego, or move<br />

up the coast to Los Angeles. Much like a political contest, there is open campaigning going on to try to sway<br />

the voters, and so far the projections are not promising, with a recent SurveyUSA poll showing 39 percent<br />

support for “C”, and 29 percent for “D”.<br />

The Chargers themselves are pushing it, which makes for a most unusual, and most awkward, handicapping<br />

evaluation. With half of the home games coming after the vote takes place, what will the energy level be like<br />

from the players on the field, and the fans in the stands, should the outcome be a “no”? It particularly matters<br />

because I don’t expect the Chargers to be fighting for a playoff spot, with a dearth of talent on a roaster that<br />

lacks upside. And while San Diego is indeed a great place to live, since the alternative is merely moving a<br />

couple of hours up the coast, it is not like the players are battling to avoid Siberia.<br />

I will be measuring the mood carefully as things progress (did you get that one?), and the best place to start is<br />

with 14-year veteran Antonio Gates, who has played his entire <strong>NFL</strong> career with the Chargers, although being<br />

such an elder statesman leads him to the expected high level of diplomacy -<br />

“That can be a distraction for some guys, especially the young guys. Myself and Philip [Rivers], guys who have been around, say,<br />

look, I know you hear a lot of stuff about whether we might be here or not. Screw all of that. Let’s go out and play football and<br />

win some games, and I am quite sure it will take care of itself. Winning football games, we like to think it helps. We are not<br />

sure. But we like to think that. That’s kind of our [mindset]. Obviously we don’t want to focus too much on the stadium<br />

situation, because we want to win football games. But at the same time we feel like we can kind of play a part in it. That’s where<br />

we are at with it.<br />


But perhaps slipping into a little more honesty is back-up QB Kellen Clemens, who is in his third year with<br />

the team - “That’s an interesting side note. That will—let me see how I want to say this. We will have to maintain our focus<br />

through the entire season, no matter which way it goes. Obviously it would be a big sigh of relief if on Nov. 8 we get the necessary<br />

votes to do it. But it was emotional last year thinking we might be leaving. If it’s a sure thing … you hate to even think about<br />

that possibility at the end of the year.”<br />

At the best of times the Chargers do not bring the usual <strong>NFL</strong> home field advantage. Over the final half of<br />

this season there may be a question as to whether they have any at all.<br />

46<br />

San Francisco 49ers<br />

Are the betting markets reading Chip Kelly wrong?<br />

I don’t have to go on at length about Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert; they aren’t very good, and it is<br />

not a stretch to say the 49ers have the league’s worst QB rotation (though Cleveland can challenge that).<br />

Those QBs are matched up with what may well be the <strong>NFL</strong>’s worst WR group as well. The RB can at least be<br />

among league average, but they have to find holes behind an OL that will be lower quadrant.<br />

So does a coach want to take this group and speed the pace? That could be suicidal. With this kind of offense<br />

you actually want to run fewer plays, not more, because winning games will be more about giving the defense<br />

opportunities to have impact. And there is an added aspect of trying to go up-tempo when there is a QB<br />

battle going at play – if it is a case of just one guy it is much easier, but the constant switching in practice<br />

makes it difficult.<br />

On Thursday the two QBs were just 10-27 in 11-on-11 drills, and Kaepernick even had an 0-4 cycle in sevenon-seven.<br />

What each of them need to do is learn the base playbook first, and for Kelly to in turn learn about<br />

them to make his tweaks, before tempo becomes much of a factor at all. I am also not one getting caught up

in the “Kaepernick is a fit for the Kelly playbook” narrative. Some across the Sports Mediaverse have fallen<br />

into that because Kaepernick is a good runner, but while he is indeed “fast” when he gets up to speed, he is<br />

not necessarily “quick” because of his frame. There is a difference.<br />

The 49ers were #26 in offense on the Football Outsiders adjusted ratings for 2015, and the only new piece<br />

added to the puzzle is free-agent guard Zane Beadles, who is a drop from the departed Alex Boone anyway.<br />

And note that Anquan Bolden, now with Detroit, caught more than twice as many passes (69) as any other<br />

player (Torrey Smith with 33). As such, I do not expect San Francisco to come out of the gate with a blazing<br />

pace on offense, and even if there is an attempt at that it just means a lot of quick 3-and-outs anyway.<br />

Now for the market aspect of this. The average San Francisco Total was 43.0 last year. When the 49ers played<br />

the Rams the posted Totals were 41 and 39.5, and the scoreboards produced 33 and 35. Yet somehow the<br />

Week #1 Monday night affair between these teams is sitting on a 46. So instead of going into more detail<br />

about the 49ers, let’s just play…<br />

47<br />

The Seahawks are rebuilding the OL (again)…<br />

Seattle Seahawks<br />

If it only seems like a year ago the Seattle OL was being posed as a major question mark it is because it was,<br />

that issue being foremost when we previewed Seahawks 2015 here. Now here we go again, and to<br />

understand how drastic the shifting has been, let’s go to the recent depth charts -<br />

Seattle OL 2014** 2015 <strong>2016</strong><br />

LT Okung Okung Gilliam<br />

LG Carpenter Britt Glowinsky<br />

C Unger Lewis * Britt<br />

RG Sweezy Sweezy Ifedi<br />

RT Britt Gilliam Webb<br />

* Drew Nowak also started seven games<br />

** Super Bowl Champs<br />

This is a lot of shuffling taking place for a team of an elite level. It isn’t just the changing of the names but<br />

also the positions, and Britt has to be setting some kind of <strong>NFL</strong> record <strong>by</strong> starting in three different spots in<br />

his first three seasons in the league.<br />

To best grade the performance of the OL in 2015 you first have to understand just how good Russell Wilson<br />

is. Wilson is mobile, makes good decisions, and is one of the best QBs in the sport. Yet even with that<br />

mobility he was sacked on 8.6 percent of all drop-backs, which rated #29 across the <strong>NFL</strong>. Of course the<br />

reality was even worse than that – Wilson is credited with 103 rushing attempts for 553 yards, and while there<br />

are indeed some zone read packages in the offense, a lot of those rushing attempts were his ability to avoid a<br />

sack and turn the play into positive yardage.<br />

Now this group literally starting all over again, with a different starter at each position. Britt is not the only<br />

one making a switch, with J’Marcus Webb starting 16 games at guard for the Raiders last year. Webb is also<br />

the only one that has more than three <strong>NFL</strong> seasons under his belt, and Ifedi is a rookie. This may not be a

48<br />

haphazard assortment however; the Seahawks claim to have a plan, with the group built for physical<br />

toughness in terms of establishing a power ground game. Let’s let respected OL coach Tom Cable set the<br />

tone -<br />

“I don’t think your team is any good unless you’re good on the line of scrimmage. There’s a toughness, and mentality that comes<br />

with that. Was it a part of going out, getting this group, and putting it together; absolutely. Let’s face it, it’s like a bar fight every<br />

play in this league so if they can’t handle that, if they cower to that, if they give into that they can’t play on this team and we don’t<br />

want them. There has to be a certain mentality that comes with it, but you have to be able to do right in that manner too. That’s<br />

really what we’re working at now.”<br />

Before you get too confident from that there is the fact that it has to be taken with a grain of salt as<br />

“CoachSpeak”, especially when the Seahawks signed free agent Jahri Evans over the weekend. Evans brings<br />

experience and savvy, including six straight Pro Bowl appearances in his resume. But the birthdate on that<br />

resume shows that he is 33, which is a big part of why the Saints released him in February. Does his being<br />

signed this late indicate some unease with the others? That is a story line to follow.<br />

This may be a “tough” OL, but will it be at least an average one, with “good” likely out of reach this season?<br />

It matters because in the NFC West there are some difficult defensive fronts to block, and note that for as<br />

strong as the Seattle home field advantage is, both the Cardinals and Rams won in the Pacific Northwest last<br />

year.<br />

Here is where I will put my focus – the Seahawks could easily get out of the gate 5-0 through a favorable early<br />

schedule, which could distract the markets from seeing what may be a genuine weakness. I will be watching

the various chartings of this OL closely, and if they indeed show signs of struggle there could be some value<br />

situations fading Pete Carroll’s team after that soft early stretch.<br />

49<br />

On being Jameis Winston at 22…<br />

Tampa Bay Buccaneers<br />

As the tour across the <strong>NFL</strong> continues the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are up next, at what may well be a turning<br />

point for what has been a struggling franchise – there is a new sheriff in Dirk Koetter taking over, and a<br />

deputy at QB in Jameis Winston that may be bringing some truly unique qualities to the table. But today in<br />

looking at Winston there is not going to be a single football statistic mentioned.<br />

Some of this will be remedial to past PB readers, but let me set the stage first. While many attached a lot of<br />

weight to Winston’s off-field antics, and he indeed made some colossal mistakes, the reputation that was built<br />

off of those errors in judgment may have painted a misleading portrait going forward. While Winston’s<br />

failures could come across as the prototype for the young, spoiled, immature super-athlete, there was also<br />

something off to the side that was worth adjusting for in the Power Ratings - Winston also happens to be an<br />

extremely bright young man.<br />

To review some of that, Winston was admitted to Stanford, before deciding to play closer to home at Florida<br />

State (and since there was little likelihood of him playing more than a season or two of college ball, the<br />

Stanford education was not going to be a benefit). He scored 27 on his Wonderlic test; Peyton Manning and<br />

Drew Brees both scored 28, and they are considered two of the smartest QBs to ever play the game.<br />

Winston’s physical skills were enough for him to be a starting <strong>NFL</strong> QB at the age of 21, but there is another<br />

side of the equation emerging during his first off-season at the professional level that is worth a study. Could<br />

it be that despite his past mistakes, or perhaps because of learning from them, Winston might actually become<br />

a “character” guy?

50<br />

Some of this is normal athletic stuff – Winston hired Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s former trainer, to work<br />

with him in the off-season and has lost weight. But some of it goes far beyond. In only his second <strong>NFL</strong><br />

season, and still only 22, there is a bigger picture in play not just for him at this position, but the team around<br />

him. Let’s start with his own words -<br />

“If you’re trying to push leadership on guys, that guy is not going to want to follow you. Me and the Chaplain, Doug (Gilcrease),<br />

we were talking about Biblically what leadership means. Leadership means to serve others. As long I as I can serve the guys<br />

around me, I feel like I’m doing a good job of being a leader to them and I know they will do anything for me just like I will for<br />

them.’’<br />

Gerald McCoy is the best Tampa Bay defensive player, a first-round pick in 2010 that has been selected to the<br />

Pro Bowl four times. He is a six-year veteran, and 28 years old -<br />

"Me and Jameis had a private conversation about what he feels like this team needs me to be as a leader. I'm not going to say,<br />

but I think it will be obvious when it happens, because you guys are used to doing things a certain way.<br />

"That's going to change. The face of the franchise came to me and said 'Hey, listen. If we're going to win, we need you to do this.<br />

OK?' My quarterback said this is what he needs, so it's what I'm going to do. If he feels like that's what our team needs in order<br />

for us to win, who am I to tell him, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' I want to win, too.<br />

"He's an intelligent guy, young or not. Very mature, very intelligent. He sits back and watches and analyzes, and he's seen<br />

something he feels like I can do to help this team be better. It's not hard to do. It's just a matter of me just doing it. I love Jameis,<br />

man. He's like my brother.”<br />

That gets to the point that I believe matters – it is not just Winston stepping up and learning to play his<br />

position better, but what his impact on this team will be, and he may be cut from a much different cloth than<br />

the mistakes of his life history indicate.

51<br />

Part of the anticipation of <strong>2016</strong>, of course, is the chance to mesh Dirk Koetter’s offensive designs with the<br />

available talent. Koetter already has an appreciation for Winston as a team member, and not just the QB -<br />

"Jameis is very perceptive about not only what he needs to get better but what our offense and our team needs to get better. That’s<br />

one of the things when you’re around him more, he’s mature way beyond his years with that sort of thing. The reason I got a smile<br />

is because that’s a good thing for the Bucs.’’<br />

I bring this up as the Tampa lead because it may still run counter to some of the Winston narratives out there.<br />

There will be plenty of time to talk football specifics as they emerge, in particular how much upside this<br />

offense can have if the WR/TE corps is healthy, the latter part of last season bringing a thin assortment of<br />

targets. But for now it is the atmosphere around the locker room that matters. The Bucs have not won a<br />

playoff game since Super Bowl XXXVII, and have gone 23-57 the last five seasons. Does the presence of<br />

Winston add a level of energy and confidence <strong>by</strong> having this group believe they can win? They did go from 2-<br />

14 in 2014 to 6-10 in Winston’s rookie campaign, and may be working in camp with a higher degree of<br />

confidence than most 6-10 teams carry forward.<br />

Tennessee Titans<br />

The counter-culture of the Titans ground game (and be prepared to like Derrick Henry)…<br />

The Titans are going to run the ball, and run it well<br />

It isn’t any secret that the modern <strong>NFL</strong> has become a passing game, dominated <strong>by</strong> QBs and their receivers,<br />

the rules making it more difficult for the defenses to stop them. You can see below the steady increase in<br />

passing yards per team per game, up a little over 10 percent since 2010, and except for 2014 the number of<br />

passes thrown has increased annually.<br />

<strong>NFL</strong> Avg ATT YDS<br />

2010 33.7 221.6<br />

2011 34.0 229.7<br />

2012 34.7 231.3<br />

2013 35.4 235.6<br />

2014 34.9 236.8<br />

2015 35.7 243.8<br />

This season we are going to find out what happens when one team attempts to go against that flow, opting to<br />

ramp up for a power ground game to attack defenses that have gotten smaller and quicker, and could be<br />

vulnerable to such tactics. But the story with Mike Mularkey and Tennessee actually began last season, when<br />

he took over the reigns amidst a disappointing opening to the campaign.<br />

Here is what a couple of OL starters had to say about the sudden change in focus when Mularkey took over,<br />

which I felt worth filing away at the time. First from Chance Warmack - “Coach Mularkey has been preaching the<br />

run since day one, he takes it to heart to run the ball with a physical attitude, and we mirror his expectations.” And Byron<br />

Bell - “We started off with a run period, and that set a tone. Guys were getting after it, we had a couple of guys scrapping. We’re<br />

bringing out the physicality.”

It did not lead to much of a change in fortunes on the field, the Titans only going 2-7 under Mularkey, but<br />

there was not much cause for hope if the focus goes to running the ball and the three top rushers were<br />

Antonio Andrews, Dexter McCluster and <strong>David</strong> Cobb. That is not the story now. The first question is<br />

whether or not the counter-culture of a more physical approach can work in <strong>2016</strong>, and I believe that answer is<br />

yes. The second is whether this particular team can make it work, and I answer that yes as well.<br />

Things are interesting up front. While the OL was nothing special in terms of performance LY and has much<br />

to prove, three starters are recent first-round draft choices – Warmack (2013), Taylor Lewan (2014) and Jack<br />

Conklin (<strong>2016</strong>). If those draft pedigrees were proper there is upside, especially with Ben Jones brought in as a<br />

free agent to upgrade at center.<br />

The transformation at RB is substantial. DeMarco Murray may have been a disappointment with the Eagles<br />

last year, perhaps to be expected after being overworked so badly in Dallas in 2014, but that got him out at<br />

only 193 carries, which may be a long-term boost for him. And then comes Derrick Henry, perhaps the most<br />

unlikely player to be under-rated that there could be, yet that may be his proper classification. Win a Heisman<br />

Trophy and a National Championship and ordinarily you are at the other end of the spectrum, yet somehow<br />

Henry was still on the draft board when pick #45 rolled around. Pencil him in as a major key.<br />

The Titans were pleasantly surprised that Henry was still on the board that late in the 2 nd round, but have<br />

been even more surprised <strong>by</strong> what he has shown in camp, and then the first two pre-season games (15 carries<br />

for 105 yards and a TD). There is a layer of explosiveness he is showing that was not visible at Alabama.<br />

52<br />

Here is the gist – many college RBs put up big “system” numbers. Spread offenses and option running<br />

packages get them out into open space, and it is not unusual for big runs to break open when the runner is<br />

not faced with contact, or having to make decisions – they simply take advantage of what the scheme<br />

provided. That was not the case with Henry. He earned so many of those yards at Alabama inside of a system<br />

that rarely got him into open field, with so much of the production being methodical plunges into the line.<br />

Henry only caught 17 passes in his Crimson Tide career.<br />

Fast forward to training camp and Henry has shown explosiveness as a runner, and also the skill set to be a<br />

good receiver. Let’s let Mularkey detail the later - “I think he’s been impressive, especially with the one-on-ones. He’s a<br />

very good route runner. Some of the teamwork we did and some of the routes that he ran, again, I always say there’s a lot of young<br />

guys that everything is so fast for them, they speed up the process. I haven’t seen that with him. He’s very patient, getting the<br />

depths he’s supposed to be getting at, beating guys that are cover guys, so I’ve been pretty impressed with him.”

There may be something to see with this offense, and in particular Henry could be a gem. If the scouts were<br />

correct in the draft positions, that OL that group can take a leap forward as they come together, and the RB<br />

corps is outstanding (among the Tennessee cuts will be Andrews, Cobb or Bishop Sankey, who will all catch<br />

on with another team). With the ability of Marcus Mariota to handle the read option and put additional<br />

pressure on defenses, something Mularkey has said he is willing to dial up, there is a key dimension added. Be<br />

prepared to like the way this team is going to run the ball, and also to look for situations to put that into play.<br />

53<br />

Washington Redskins<br />

Can the Redskins balance the Best WRs, but Worst RBs…<br />

The Redskin offense is a fascinating case study as the <strong>2016</strong> season approaches – a case can be made that they<br />

have the best WR/TE group in the league, and also the weakest corps of RBs. So just how well is that going<br />

to fit?<br />

Washington has a ridiculous cast for Kirk Cousins to throw to in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison<br />

Crowder and Josh Doctson out wide, and plenty of depth behind Jordan Reed at TE. It provides so many<br />

different ways that a defense can be challenged down the field, and it played a big part in the average skills of<br />

Cousins producing a 101.6 Passer Rating in 2015’s run to the playoffs. Cousins entered the season with more<br />

interceptions (19) than TD passes (18) across an undistinguished career, but turned that into a 29-11 the other<br />

way. The passing game was good enough to rate #6 on the Football Outsiders charts, despite the not getting<br />

much help from a running attack was #32.<br />

That naturally becomes the starting point for this season – the offense was #13 on the FO “Weighted<br />

Offense”overall despite how bad the ground game was, and there is a chance for the latter to get even worse,<br />

with the league’s worst group of RBs as training camp opens. But did that #13 also show us where there<br />

might be a wall? Of the 12 offenses ahead of them, none rated lower than #16 in rushing, and eight of them<br />

finished in the Top 10. So what happens overall if you are #32 in rushing –

54<br />

FO “Weighted Offense”<br />

2015 Redskins #13<br />

2014 Raiders #27<br />

2013 Ravens #32<br />

2012 Cardinals #32<br />

2011 Titans #17<br />

2010 Panthers #31<br />

That sets an interesting perspective. While it is indeed a passing league these days, you have to be able to have<br />

some semblance of a ground game to make the pass work at anywhere near maximum capacity. The Redskins<br />

don’t have that. Losing Alfred Morris was not a big deal; he was only a serviceable “system” guy and had been<br />

showing production declines <strong>by</strong> the season. But Matt Jones may be lesser than Morris, averaging only 3.4 per<br />

carry as a rookie, while also having one of the <strong>NFL</strong>’s highest fumble rates. He is a classic #2 type that not<br />

only lacks the explosiveness of a starter, but may also be subject to wearing down in the role.<br />

But what else is there? Chris Thompson is an under-sized guy better as a 3 rd -down receiver out of the<br />

backfield than someone that could be the #2 runner, and rookie Keith Marshall is a wild card, possessing<br />

great speed but having his development hampered <strong>by</strong> college injuries. As pedestrian as Morris was last year<br />

there are 202 carries <strong>by</strong> him that have to be replaced. Might they come from someone that is going to be cut<br />

<strong>by</strong> another team in August?<br />

As explosive as the Redskins receivers are, they are going to have the ball thrown <strong>by</strong> an average QB, without a<br />

RB that opposing defensive have to respect. One less WR, and one more RB, may have been a much better<br />

fit. Does this imbalance lower the ceiling for an offense that may not live up to the sex appeal those explosive<br />

receivers indicate should be there?<br />

--<br />

All 32 teams previewed! Any questions? <strong>David</strong> Malinsky answers them daily in the <strong>Pregame</strong>.com Forums.<br />

You can follow Mr. Malinsky on Twitter: @<strong>Pregame</strong>PHD<br />

Read <strong>David</strong> Malinsky’s “Point Blank” column every weekday at <strong>Pregame</strong>.com

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