Saturday, July 30, 2011

2011 NFL Season Preview

We've all had enough of the lockout talk.  It's time to talk some football!  You can forget about ESPN's yearly "strength of schedule" reports or misguided "power rankings", because you won't find that kind of fluff here.  When it comes to the real nuts and bolts of stat evaluation and finding you the best value against the spread, I got it covered.

What are the main areas of strength and weakness for each team heading into the preseason?  Will they go over or under the expected season win totals?  Who has the best chance to win their division?  Will underdogs dominate week 1 like they did last season?  Why is the '50 rule' and the 'points per drive' category so important to winning and losing?  Have totals really jumped the shark or will things return to normal in 2011?  What day of the week is the best to take a favorite or an underdog?   Are teasers worth your while?  Should you skip the preseason?

These are just some of the questions that will be answered in the coming weeks.   With any luck, the lockout will be over soon and teams will begin the frantic race for free agents and rookie signings.  In the meantime I'll be completing the makeover of the site and getting some preview articles ready for publish.  It should be another great year of football!

UPDATE #1: 
Setting the stage for free agency and training camp ....

AFC Overviews

NFC Overviews

UPDATE #2:

Handicapping Toolbox

UPDATE #3:
Now that the lockout is OFFICIALLY behind us we can look forward to a WILD week of movement.  Hundreds of players could be in new uniforms or left on the street when the dust settles.  Teams will obviously go up or down the rankings a bit depending how the rosters shake out, but most of the time the lines don't dramatically move unless there is a significant up/downgrade at QB or a large number of meaningful additions/subtractions.  There are some teams with a lot of high profile free agents or large cap space out there right now.

I'll have some early thoughts on week 1 games and some things to consider for those matchups coming soon.  The condensed offseason has created a different approach for the season openers and some unique opportunities to cash in.

2010 Power Rankings/Strength of Schedule 

UPDATE #4:
How has the lockout impacted predictions for the preseason/September?

List of key factors

UPDATE #5:

2011 Custom Strength of Schedule

UPDATE #6:

2011 Division Winners Predictions

UPDATE #7:

AFC Season Win Totals Preview

NFC Season Win Totals Preview

2011 NFL Season Win Totals, Division Winners: AFC Preview

One thing you should take note of is how the lines for season win totals compare to your own power rankings.  For example, the books have downgraded Chicago, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and given some love to the Detroit Lions.  This falls in line with my 2010 custom power rankings which identified overrated/underrated teams from last year.  Teams have obviously moved up/down based on offseason changes, but it's a good sign that I'm doing something right and provides more proof that you should completely ignore the "strength of schedule" rankings you see on all the football sites.

AFC EAST
New England 11.5
NY Jets 10
Miami 8
Buffalo 5

NE made a big splash acquiring Ocho and Haynesworth and everyone will naturally call them geniuses. What should be praised is how they managed to overcome their flaws in 2010.  The defense should take more strides this season and it's tough to bet against a team led by Brady/Belichick.  11.5 is a high number though--especially with a tougher schedule.  The Jets haven't been given as much love with a 10 number despite knocking out NE in the playoffs.  They lost out on Asomugha and still have Cromartie/Edwards on the open market, but this isn't a team that should take a step back this year.  They'll be in the hunt for double-digit wins once again.  MIA is in limbo without an Orton deal and adding Bush was an overrated move.  They will continue to toil in the world of mediocrity.  BUF got shafted by the schedule-makers in 2011 and face a mountain of trouble.  Losing Posluszny stung.

AFC SOUTH
Indianapolis 10
Houston 8
Tennessee 6.5
Jacksonville 6

I've been one of IND's biggest backers over the years, but my data doesn't lie--they are facing a decline.  Peyton has always been the great equalizer, but how healthy will he be?  Free agency has been non-eventful and a lot of holes plague the lineup.  HOU seems like the team poised to take over the division.  They bowed out of the Asomugha sweepstakes and upgraded with Joseph/Manning instead.  Great moves. 8 wins seems low and I expect heavy action on the over.  TEN should be ranked the lowest on this list.  Hasselbeck is a turnover machine and doesn't stay healthy.  They lost D-line coach Washburn and Babin followed suit.  Combine that with a new coach/CJ holdout and it could spell disaster.  JAX is a MIA clone.  Inconsistency is their specialty.  They lost Sims-Walker, but they've made good moves in free agency adding Posluszny, Session, and Landry.  6 wins is a soft number.  

AFC NORTH
Pittsburgh 11
Baltimore 11
Cincinnati 6.5
Cleveland 6.5

PIT and BAL will need 12 wins to cover this year, but their schedules are significantly easier than last year.  Both teams have pretty set rosters already and that stability will pay off early in the season.  The books overrated BAL though.  CLE had a respectable year last season given their challenges, but face a softer schedule in 2011.  Combining McCoy with new coaches isn't a formula for success though.  Two steps back and one step forward in the dog-pound.  CIN actually opened at 7.5 wins and quickly got bet down to 6.5.  I would have jumped all over that too.  This team is facing a nightmare season with Dalton/Gradkowski trying to implement the new WCO.  Nice pieces are in place for the future, but it will be a dark year in CIN.

AFC WEST
San Diego 10
Kansas City 8
Oakland 7
Denver 6

Ok put up your hand if you had KC winning the division last year.   Can they repeat the feat in 2011?  Don't hold your breath.  Adding Breaston and resigning Wiegmann were good moves, but their schedule is tough.  I'd be shocked if they reached double-digit wins again.  Bookmakers have made the proper adjustments and left them at 8 wins.  I really like what SD has done in free agency.  They've resigned a lot of their good players with the exception of Sproles.  They can't be as bad on special teams as they were last year so 10 wins is attainable.  I think that number should be a bit higher.  OAK is a mess.  They lost Asomugha and probably Miller too.  Jason Campbell is Mr. Inconsistent and reaching 8 wins is a tall task.  DEN was complete garbage last year and now have the "Chosen One" leading the charge.  Fox has turned around a sinking ship before, but don't expect to see improvements until the 2nd half of the year.  I don't see them winning 7 games in 2011.

NFC Teams

I'll have my official season win totals/division winner predictions soon as well as my 2011 strength of schedule for all 32 teams.

UPDATE: AFC Predictions

2011 NFL Season Win Totals, Division Winners: NFC Preview

Season win totals are usually a bet that the sharps attack early and are largely ignored by the general public.  However, this season there has been such high anticipation for the 2011 NFL season that the public are jumping in early on whatever bet becomes available. 

A lot of the big names in free agency are off the board which means that the offshore books are closer to releasing their full slate of futures for the 2011 NFL season.  The bookmakers in Vegas were brave this year and already released early lines with lower limits. Don't feel like you need to jump all-in on the lines as they become available to you because there will still be significant value when all the dust finally settles.


NFC EAST
Philadelphia 10
NY Giants 9.5
Dallas 9
Washington 6.5

WSH deserves to be at the bottom of the NFC East.  Rex Grossman is their QB.  They've made some nice additions in free agency, but will it be enough?  DAL is poised to have a bounce back year and 9 looks like a good number.   They are employing a whole new scheme on defense though so there will be a learning curve.  Like DAL, the G-Men haven't done very much in free agency and face an uphill climb.  Expecting 10 wins might be wishful-thinking.  The cream of the division has definitely risen to the top in free agency.  PHI has made dynamic moves including landing the big fish in Asomugha.  If Vick can stay healthy it's their division to lose and 11-12 wins isn't out of the question.

NFC SOUTH
Atlanta 10.5
New Orleans 10
Tampa Bay 8.5
Carolina 4.5

ATL kicked royal ass last year and made some nice additions in the offseason (WR Jones, DE Edwards).  10.5 presents a tricky number for us.  NO had a ton of free agents and have resigned a lot of them including Harper.  Sproles replaced Bush.  Their schedule is more difficult than last year.  It won't be easy to supplant ATL as division champs.  My data shows that TB overperformed last year and they haven't done anything in free agency for me to believe they'll ascend even further.  They do have a nice young nucleus to build on, but a tough schedule in 2011.  CAR had one of the toughest schedules last year and they were rewarded with another tough one this year.  Go figure.  Having said that I really like what they've done in the offseason.  Rivera will have a difficult time acclimating everyone to his system though--including Cam Newton.  4.5 seems a bit low, but given their challenges I understand why Vegas low-balled them.

NFC NORTH
Green Bay 11.5
Chicago 9.5
Detroit 7.5
Minnesota 6.5

11.5 might be a high number for GB, but their schedule isn't any worse than it was last year.  They also return a lot of their injured players from 2010.  Winning the division shouldn't be a problem.   CHI was one of the most fraudulent teams last year.  I like the Williams move and trading Olsen made sense given Martz's offensive philosophy.  Can they reach 10 wins?  I have my doubts.  DET is the sheik pick for 2011 and I'm leading the bandwagon.  They had a great year last year without Stafford and they've been active in free agency.  Their schedule a little tough, but 8 wins is definitely within their reach.  The wild card in this division is MIN.  Most people are down on Mcnabb, but it's impossible to be worse than the 2010 Favre/Jackson combo.  Losing Rice hurt, but they still have enough weapons to keep defenses honest.  Don't be surprised if books see a lot of action on the over.

NFC WEST
San Francisco 8
Seattle 7
St. Louis 7
Arizona 6

The wild and whacky NFC West is easily the worst division in football so it shouldn't be a shock that they also have the easiest schedule in the NFC.  I was a little surprised that SF was the favorite, but when you look at the 1st 8 games that STL play I can understand the move.  The problem for SF is they have a new set of coaches across the board and Alex Smith is still....Alex Smith.  SEA have a 2nd straight year of significant roster turnover and no QB to speak of.  STL will be lucky if they win 2 of their games in the 1st half of the year, but things get much easier after that (look for some favorable point spreads in the 2nd half).  Bradford should make a big leap this year and adding Mikell was a nice move, but tread carefully with them--last season's success was a bit deceiving.   ARI added Kolb and a lot of people will instinctively bet the over, but keep this in mind-they were just as bad, if not worse than CAR last season.

AFC Teams

I'll have my official season win totals/division winner predictions soon as well as my 2011 strength of schedule for all 32 teams.

UPDATE: NFC Predictions

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NFL Custom Power Rankings/Strength of Schedule Breakdown

While the newswires are in overdrive with head-spinning roster moves, one of the biggest questions we have heading into the 2011 NFL season is--where do teams rank and who has the toughest schedule?

However, before we get to that, the more important question that should be asked is how do we arrive at our rankings?


#1 - 2010 Power rankings

The first phase is made up of four key components.  Team power ratings, strength of schedule (SoS), how they performed relative to that schedule, and variance. 

I use my own system for my team power ratings, but everyone will have different criteria and weigh factors differently.  Ultimately, the results at the end of the day will determine how good or bad a system is and it's vital to constantly adapt to what's working and what isn't.

However, a power rating or SoS is never indicative of anything by itself.  It's key to evaluate how teams did with the schedule they had.  This will tease out which teams over/underperformed, who had padded/dampened stats, and where future value lies.

It's also important to determine how much variance accounted for the results.  The teams that are supposed to win don't also do so.   How much of their success/failure had to do with luck, injuries, coaching, etc?  

#2 - Adjusted Power Rankings for 2011.

Once you've got a good grip on where teams stand heading into free agency and training camp, it won't be very difficult to tweak the rankings for the coming season.  There are many factors that would cause a change in rankings.  Significant roster moves.  Coaching changes (especially those that bring a new scheme).   Players returning from injury.  Declining/ascending players.  Draft picks.  Etc etc.

#3 - 2011 Strength of Schedule (SoS)

The SoS is perhaps the most deceiving set of rankings in all of football.  Even respected stat guys like Jeff Sagarin seem to take the easy way out.  The truth is, you can completely ignore these types of rankings due in large part to their inaccuracies.

Websites like ESPN blatantly state that their SoS is based on the previous season records, but you cannot simply look at team records and use that as your base of reference.  This approach puts you 5 steps behind before things even start.

True SoS rankings involve going back and rating the strength of each opponent a team plays for that week they are playing.  Injuries, trends, luck, etc must be accounted for due to the large variability within a season/week/game.  You should be asking yourself, did team A play the Cowboys in the first half of the season, or the last?  Are you giving the Bucs full credit for their final two wins when they played teams that pulled their starters?   How impressive was the Lions win over the Packers when Rodgers left the game early with an injury?

By the time you account for this variance, custom SoS from 2010 looks drastically different than the one you see on ESPN or USAToday and custom power rankings will completely alter a SoS for 2011.

My power rankings and SoS from 2010.

SoS for 2011.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2011 NFL Preview: NFC Overviews

In the NFC we have the reigning Super Bowl champs, but do they have enough to come out of the conference again?  Which teams will rise and which will fall?  We are a long way from finding out the answers to these questions, but let's take a look at how these teams shake out before they hit the free agent frenzy. 





NFC East Overview


Philadelphia Eagles

PHI is a team that seems to fight themselves as much, if not more, than any other team in the league each season.  High profile storylines and controversies have come to define them in the Reid era.  Last year it was the Vick/Kolb saga.  In the end Vick regained most of his form, developed as a quarterback, and becomes the main man going into 2011.

They owned their division once again and played real well on the road.   McCoy gave them a legitimate threat to replace Westbrook, they scored well in all drive categories, took care of the football, and terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, they stunk at home, couldn't protect Vick whatsoever, took far too many penalties, and couldn't stop a high school team in the red zone.  In the draft they took the crowd favorite Watkins to improve the O-line and a safety in round two - presumably to replace Mikell.

To-do list:solidify O-line, resign Bradley, fill needs at CB, S, DE, and P.

Biggest post-lockout question: Can Juan Castillo really coach a defense?


New York Giants

The G-men were their typical up and downs selves in 2010.  They beat everyone they were supposed to, but failed under the bright lights.  Special teams also really let them down, but other than that they had a lot going for them last year.

Coughlin's smash-mouth run game put up great numbers, the O-line did a great job in protection, and they had good ball control and drive stats.  On defense, they gave opposing quarterbacks a lot of sleepless nights, and they knew how to get off the field on 3rd down.   Overall they were solid in most critical areas. 

Yet, 'solid' isn't good enough when it comes to making noise come January.   I expect Nicks to make people in NY dismiss any notion that Plaxico is coming back, and their main area of focus in the draft was on defense (they drafted a CB and DT).  Fewell had an underrated year as defensive coordinator.

To-do list: re-sign Bradshaw, keep Boss, fill needs at LT and G. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Will Umenyiora stay in NY with the team 11 million over the cap?


Dallas Cowboys

How the mighty have fallen.  What should be made of America's team?  The team completely tanked it last year almost in protest to Wade Phillips.  Once Jason Garrett took over the players decided to come in and earn their paychecks.  Not exactly the sign of a well-oiled machine.

Garrett will have challenges heading into 2011.  His pass defense completely sucked, couldn't stop anybody in the red zone, get off the field on 3rd down, or give any top team any type of challenge.

So where does he start?  Well he does have good lines on both sides of the ball to work with and they went out and drafted a LB, S, and G in the top couple of rounds.  Romo will return healthy and Bryant could breakout in 2011.  We'll see what they do in free agency, but it looks like all signs are pointing up in Texas.

To-do list:fill big needs at S, resign Free, solidify O-line, upgrade at G, DE, CB.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is Romo really the right guy for this team, and if he can't be a leader--who will?


Washington Redskins

At the other end of the spectrum is the 'Skins.  Does anybody in the league have any respect for this organization anymore?  It continues to be a place where guys just come to get paid.  Shanahan was supposed to come in and provide them with stability, but he was the source of more dissension than anybody else last season.

In his defense, WSH is the kind of place that needs to be blown up before it can be set right.  Despite their record, they did step up and play good vs tough opponents last year.  At the same time, there are weaknesses up and down the roster still.  They were terrible on the ground on both sides of the ball.   Stopping the pass was even worse thanks in large part to their inability to rush the quarterback.  On offense they couldn't sustain drives worth a lick.

This all leaves WSH with far more questions going into free agency than all other teams in the division combined.  They did address the defensive line in the draft, but what will be their strategy when the market opens up?

To-do list: figure out QB, upgrade O-line/RB, fill needs at CB, LB, DE, WR, RT.  Put an end to the Haynesworth chapter one way or another.

Biggest post-lockout question: Has Shanahan really changed anything in WSH or this is a case of same old, same old in Snyder-Land? 



NFC West Overiew


Seattle Seahawks

Ok put up your hand if you thought SEA was going to win the division last year.  If you did, you're either lying or a fan of the team.  They had the most roster turnover of any team and brought in a new head coach from the college ranks.  A win over the Saints in the playoffs was impressive, but overall the franchise had a garbage season like the rest of this sadsack division.

The only thing this club could hang their hat on was their home field advantage and their special teams play.  They sucked in every other meaningful statistical category.   They were dreadful running the ball, scoring in the red zone, ball control, turnover differential and almost everything on defense.  The fact that Hasselback is a talked about commodity this offseason just proves how desperate teams are at the QB position.  Drafting a guard at the top of the draft was worthwhile, but it's nothing to get excited about either.  Carpenter and Okung are good building blocks, but it could get worse before it gets better in the Pacific Northwest.

To-do list:better play from RB/WR, keep Brock/Mebane, find a QB, compliment Thomas/Trufant with more help, and fill holes on the D-line, G, LB, WR depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: Hello Whitehurst, goodbye playoffs?


St Louis Rams

Like most people, I fully expected STL to win this division after SF crashed and burned, but they laid a serious egg on the road in SEA in week 17.  A good learning experience after what was a positive turnaround season for this once-great franchise.  Bradford showed that he's studly in the kind of profit-winning way we like, coach Spags is proving that the Reid coaching tree is the real deal, and it all paid off for us with a 10-6 against the spread record in 2010.

They are pretty good on both the offensive/defensive lines, know how to get off the field, maintain good ball control, and were solid in the turnover category.  Things they need to address in 2011 is their record on the road, a more consistent running game, scoring in the red zone, and reducing the number of 3 and outs.   Quinn and Kendricks were solid pickups in the draft and they are bound to get one of the higher profile WR free agents in the coming weeks.  Long, Laurinitis, and Bartell are nice pieces on defense.

To-do list:get a WR and once they do that, go out and get another one.  Fill needs at DT, LB, and S. 

Biggest post-lockout question: How will Bradford and company respond now that they are expected to produce?


San Francisco 49ers

Can someone please explain to me what happened in this train wreck last year?   This was one of the more baffling cases in the league in 2010.  Yes there were legitimate questions at QB and coaching, but this was a defensive unit that was together for a full 4 seasons and performed well below expectations in the first half of the season.  The defense eventually rebounded later in the year, but it came against sub-par opponents and at a time when the division was already out of reach.

Problems on the O-line, 3rd down offense, points from long drives, ball control, and penalties sank the ship before it ever left the port.  It didn't matter which Smith was at QB, this parade wasn't going to work from the get-go.  Singletary found out the hard way that his rah-rah antics from 1853 don't work as well with the modern day millionaires and he never adjusted.  Whether he was stubborn, stupid, or both we'll never know, but now the reigns go to Jim Harbaugh.  Despite his college background at Standford, he was a QB coach for OAK before that and played in the league for 15 years.  It's doubtful that he'll be as blind as Singletary was.

To-do list:  Fill needs at NT, LB, WR, OT, DE.  Determine what's going on at C and QB.  Keep Gore healthy.

Biggest post-lockout question: Kaepernick, good luck kid.


Arizona Cardinals

Speaking of luck, ARI is going to need every ounce it can get in 2011.  This place has been a total mess since Warner sailed off into the sunset and there isn't really a lot of positive to point to.  Sure they were surprisingly good in red zone defense, but given their schedule it's hard to take any positive statistical category seriously.

Things were over before they started when they went into the season with a QB battle that consisted of Anderson vs Leinart.  Once Max Hall came in it was like watching the lame ass ending to a bad movie you couldn't turn off.  I'm not going to run down all their weakness because much like DEN, it would take up too much space.  They targeted two skill positions in the draft by taking CB Peterson and RB Williams, and by all accounts are a shoe-in to get Kolb from PHI.  There's nothing else to do but wipe the slate clean and hope for the best in the desert.

To-do list:revamp the O-line for whoever comes in at QB.  Fill needs at QB, LB, CB, WR, DE, and P.  Find someone in the league who can stop the run.

Biggest post-lockout question: Kolb for what exactly?

NFC North Overview

Chicago Bears

CHI was one of the great unknown teams heading into 2010.  Was Peppers really going to earn his contract?  How would Cutler work out in a Martz style offense?  Can the defense regain its old form?  They answered most of those questions with authority.  The O-line took a while to gel and Martz didn't bother to adjust for the longest time.  But while they were figuring it out the defense carried them to a division crown thanks in large part to a great record on the road and within the division.  Teams had a hard time running on them or sustaining drives for points.  Special teams was once again a big weapon and it was an overall great season for Da Bears.

That doesn't mean they don't have areas to improve.  Cutler needs more weapons and the O-line is far from solidified.  Ball control continues to be a problem and Cutler himself will need to answer his critics in 2011.   They bolstered each side of the line with Carimi and Paea in the draft, but they have a big hill to climb if they hope to remain at the top of a division that includes the Super Bowl champs and an up and coming DET team.

To-do list: Fill needs at C (O-line depth), G, LB (depth), DT (depth), WR (#1/depth/size), and DE (depth).  Resign Adams. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Can they fill enough needs on offense to compliment the D?


Green Bay Packers

There isn't much bad to say about the Super Bowl champs.  I picked them to make it to the Super Bowl last year and they went one step further and won the whole damn thing.  They overcame a ridiculous amount of significant injuries, too.  Most of their success came from their ability to dominate the air on both sides of the ball.  They ranked at or near the top in red zone offense, net yards per drive, pass defense, sacks, turnover differential and least amount of penalties.   Despite dominating at home, they won all their playoff games on the road.  All this and I haven't even mentioned Rodgers.

The few things they can improve on is their running game, pass protection, and special teams.  Having said that, most of those areas will be shored up just by getting healthy bodies back for 2011.  In the draft they gave Rodgers two more pieces on offense to work with when they took an OT and WR in the first couple rounds.  Starks now gives Grant a run for his money at RB and they would be wise to keep Kuhn in the mix too.

To-do list: Add a DE and some depth at G.  Resign Jenkins.

Biggest post-lockout question: Who can stand in their way if they can stay relatively healthy in 2011?


Detroit Lions

If we were handing out awards for 2010, DET would be given home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  They had the best ATS (against the spread) record of any team in the league last year.  People continued to under-value them throughout the year and it's not hard to blame them.  DET had an ugly record on the road and against good teams, a crazy pass-happy offense, a high amount of penalties, and bad defensive play from the back 7 and in the red zone.

Despite all this, they continued to cover almost every week.  Most of this success came from their offensive/defensive lines, red zone offense, ball control, and new team attitude.  Gone are the lowly days of an 0-16 season and things are on the up and up in motor-city.  They continued to bolster their strengths by adding a DT, WR, and RB at the top of the draft and you can expect more good things from recent draftees such as Suh, Best, Pettigrew, and Delmas.  

To-do list: Keep Stafford/Best healthy, fill needs at CB, LB, and G.  Try to compliment Delmas at S.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is Stafford headed for the dreaded "injury-prone" label or can he finally put it all together and lead them to the promised-land?


Minnesota Vikings

Anyone who thought Favre was going to lead MIN to another great season in 2010 deserves a slap upside the head.  I'm not saying it was impossible, but the writing was on the wall.  Did I expect the rest of the team to implode the way they did?  Absolutely not--which makes their fall from grace even more significant.  The only strengths the team had last year was Peterson and a bit better than average defense.

Almost everything else was a complete disaster.  From the coaches to the QB play to the divisional record and on an on.  They couldn't compete with the top teams, pass the ball at all, pressure the QB, get off the field on 3rd down, or take care of the football.  In order words it was a total mess.

Management took a chance with Ponder in the draft and followed it up with TE Rudolph in round two.  Out is Brad "Chilly" Childress.  In is defensive-minded Leslie Frazier.  He's had great success coaching top 10 defenses almost every year he's been at the helm.  It would be an understatement to say they are welcoming the change at head coach. 

To-do list: figure out what's going on at QB, solidify the O-line, determine what Rice will do, fill needs at DT, WR, LB, DE, C, G, S, and K.

Biggest post-lockout question: Will Ponder be the guy in week 1 or will they buffer him with a veteran?

NFC South Overview

Atlanta Falcons

ATL was one of my favorite teams last season.  A look at the non-sexy stats told the story as they continued to win week in and week out.  They cleaned out on every team they were supposed to beat, dominated within the division, and finally won some of the tough games on the schedule.  GB exposed them in the playoffs, but they shouldn't look at it as a failure or down year.

ATL got great play from the O-line, special teams, red zone offense, 3rd down offense, points from long drives, ball control, and turnover differential.  Their disciplined play kept them near the bottom of the league in penalties per game, too.

The only areas that broke their season was their pass defense and ability to get off the field on 3rd down.  These are not weaknesses you want to have when Rodgers comes to town though and they paid the price.

However, in the draft they sold the farm to become more explosive on offense by trading for and drafting WR Jones.  I think they gave up far too much, but if he's as great as they think he is, we'll see how it shakes out.  They came back to reality in round two and took a LB, but the real holes on this club will need to be filled via free agency or trade.

To-do list: improve the pass rush, address the kicking/punting situation, and solidify the O-line.  Fill needs at G, CB, and LB.   Have a backup plan for Turner decline/injury. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Do they really believe they can outscore people and stick with the status quo in the secondary/pass rush?

New Orleans Saints

The Saints were one of the trickier teams to figure out last year.  They came out of the gates as overpriced defending champs and things didn't really change too much as the year went along.  At the same time, they had one of the easiest schedules in the league.  After all the ups and downs, they got it together down the stretch, but fell flat on their faces in SEA.  Go figure.

After the dust settled, they could hang their hats on their play in the air--on both offense and defense.  Like true Brees fashion, the team shines in points from long drives, net yards per drive, and 3rd down offense. Things weren't as pretty on defense, but they were surprisingly stout in their red zone.

In the bad category was their record vs top teams, their running game, defensive line, red zone offense, special teams play, and turnover differential.  In retrospect, a "who knows what you're going to get playoff performance" doesn't look so surprising anymore.

They addressed two key areas in the draft by taking a DE and RB at the top.

To-do list: upgrade the LBs, resign Harper, improve the O-line (C), fill needs across the D-line, and add TE depth.  


Biggest post-lockout question: Can this defense figure out how to play balanced ball?  Near the top in takeaways in 2009, near the bottom in 2010.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I'll be the first to admit I didn't see this resurgence coming.  Even after they started strong I had my doubts about this team.  However, in the face of criticism they played some of their best ball on the road and took out almost every bottom-half team on the schedule.  Their pass defense was a bright spot, as well as their ability to sustain drives and take care of the football.

The areas of weakness are mostly on the defensive side of the ball.  Teams didn't have much trouble running on them, sustaining drives in key spots, punching it into the end zone, or dominating ball control.  As a result TB had trouble winning games against the top teams.

No one is about to assign any blame though.  This team appears on the upswing and they drafted two DE's at the top of the draft to help bolster that side of the ball.  Freeman, Blount, and M Williams are a nice trio to build around on offense.  This is one of the youngest teams in the NFL. 


To-do list: resign free agents, bring in a RB, and fill needs at CB, DE, WR, S, LB, G, and K.  

Biggest post-lockout question: Can they keep Talib's head on straight or will they be making other plans?

Carolina Panthers

Last, and most definitely least, is the Carolina Panthers.   Let's start with the positive.  Their pass defense was ok and their running game gave them a small glimmer of hope last year.  Unfortunately, that glimmer could only be seen with a telescope from hundreds of miles away.


The team needs a complete overhaul and John Fox coached with one foot out the door all year long.  In comes Ron Rivera and I have my doubts about his ability to turn around this ship.  He's a good defensive coach, but can he build up a team from scratch?


His first order of business will be to improve the offense.  Newton comes in as Mr Sunshine QB, but he comes into an offense that ranked near the bottom in pass protection, red zone play, 3rd down conversions, points from long drives, ball control, net yards per drive, and turnover differential.  In fact, the offense finished last a dozen+ categories.  The silver lining is that he has Kalil at center to figure things out.  The black cloud is whether or not Smith will even be around to pass to.  Adding insult to injury is the possibility of Williams going elsewhere. 



To-do list: Fill needs at CB, DE, LB, and TE.  Resign Johnson and give Newton a veteran QB counterpart. 


Biggest post-lockout question: How big a slice of humble pie will Cam Newton eat in 2011?

2011 NFL Preview: AFC Overviews

Friday, July 15, 2011

2011 NFL Preview: AFC Overviews





Now that we have football on the horizon, the attention now turns to where teams stand.  Before we can make any 2011 predictions, we need to look at some of the following key topics:
  • strengths/weaknesses
  • team needs
  • draft choices
  • coaching changes
  • breakout players
Remember that early lines (week 1, season win totals, division winners, props, etc) will be heavily influenced by what people remember from last season.  The draft, free agency, trades, player development/decline, and injuries/health dramatically alter that landscape.

With that in mind, it's been a long time since we saw teams in action so let's take a quick look at some of the focal points heading into 2011.

AFC East Overview


New England Patriots

In no unsimple terms, the NE Patriots kicked a lot of ass last year.  Their record against the division, at home, and vs tough opponents was out of this world.  So what do they have for an encore?  It always seems like it will be hard for them to repeat past successes, but they continue to pump out dominance on a yearly basis.

Their O-line had a great season and the offense ranked near the top on 3rd down completion %, points from long drives, turnover differential, and least amount of penalties.  It's no surprise that these stats have the markings of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick written all over them.

The two glaring weaknesses that they need to improve in is their pass defense and getting their defense off the field on 3rd down.  NE did take CB Dowling in the draft this Summer and its the 3rd year in a row they've taken a defensive back in the top two rounds.  Clearly they are trying to upgrade this area of the field.   Yet with Mayo on the rise and free agency around the corner, you can bet they aren't done yet.

To-do list:  Find some pass rushers, big-play WR, and answer at RB.  Resign Mankins.  Fill needs at LB, OT, G, and DE.

Biggest post-lockout question: It's not whether or not they can fill their needs, but if they can maintain their current level of excellence.


New York Jets

Last year I agreed with the hype machine and thought the J-E-T-S would overtake NE, but they got thumped in their final meeting and lost the division.  They did exact revenge and shift the axis of power in the playoffs though.

Yet despite this, it was a very up and down year for NY.  They dominated the bottom half of the league, but struggled against the tougher opponents.  The run game was stellar, but Sanchez didn't breakout.  They were excellent stopping the run and the pass, but were horrible in the red zone.  Special teams and net yards per drive were great, but they took too many penalties.

It was this up and down nature that plagued the Jets in what was supposed to be a rise to the top type of season.  They did draft DE Wilkerson in round 1 and Revis should be good to go from the start in 2011, but questions linger.

To-do list: improve pass rush from the D-line, make decisions on Holmes/Edwards/Smith/Cromartie. Fill needs at S, OT, G. 

Biggest post-lockout question: Is their inconsistency part of their identity or is it just part of the growing process?


Miami Dolphins

I didn't expect MIA to go anywhere last year thanks in large part to their questions at QB.  I understand Henne finished 2009 strong, but I was in no way shape or form a believer.  Things might not be much better heading into 2011 either.  Last year they couldn't drive down the field and score points if their lives depended on it. They were pathetic at home and came up short against the tough opponents.  Special teams was a disaster and they turned the ball over too much.

On the bright side the pass/rush defense was solid and they were pretty disciplined for the most part.   But clearly the needs remain on the offensive side of the ball and this is why they drafted a center (Pouncey) and running back (Thomas) at the top of the draft.  Long should take another step at left tackle, but who is he going to protect?  Odrick, Misi, and Bess are pieces to build around.

To-do list: Urgently find answers at QB. Prepare for a new look at RB.  Fill needs at G, LB, and depth at skill positions.

Biggest post-lockout question: is Dan Marino still the best option at quarterback?


Buffalo Bills

Where O where do we start with the lowly Bills?  Should we start with the positives?  How exciting is Spiller?  Will Dareus make an instant impact on the defensive line?  Did anyone realize just how good their pass defense was last season?  Can someone please acknowledge how hard these players played despite living in the dungeons of the NFL?

Unfortunately, that is the best spin-doctoring I can do.  In reality, the Buffalo Bills have glaring holes and weaknesses all over the place.  The QB position is a total unknown.  They can't sack anybody or get off the field on 3rd down.  They get run down and worn out due to lack of possession and consistently lose the turnover battle.

Other than that things are peachy in Bills-town.  The glass if eternally half full as long as that glass is filled with moonshine.

To-do list:improve the #1 priority - the O-line.  Resign Posluszny/Florence.  Fill needs at LB, RT, DE, and QB.  Wouldn't hurt to upgrade at TE either.

Biggest post-lockout question: When will they move to Toronto?


AFC West Overview

Kansas City Chiefs

When we last saw the KC Chiefs they were fading out of the 2010 season with disappointing loss to the BAL Ravens at home.  There were a number of bad coaching decisions on key plays during the 1st half that let a promising season come to an end.   Having said that, they did restore a tough home field advantage that they enjoyed in the 1990's.   KC also played all the top teams very good thanks in large part to an oustanding running game.  This allowed them to dominate time of possession in most of their games and Matt Cassel became a responsible QB rather than a projected turnover machine.

Going into free agency/training camp they will look to improve in a few important categories.  To start with is their record on the road and against the division.  You just can't expect to be a top team when you struggle in these areas.  Cassel will need to prove he's more than a game manager, but that might be hard to do given how much they rely on the run game.  Their offense is in a very similar situation as the NY Jets in that sense.  Lastly, they'll need to become more stout in their red zone defense.   KC just doesn't have enough offensive firepower to overcome these deficiencies.  In the draft they did take a WR and C in the top two rounds, so that's a good first step.  Guys like Berry, McCluster, and Arenas should also make considerable leaps in their sophomore seasons. 

To-do list: improve the D-line anyway they can.  Fill needs at NT, DE, RT, WR, CB, S.

Biggest post-lockout question: Was 2010 a fluke or a sign of things to come?


San Diego Chargers

For SD it was a much different 2010 season.  I don't think I've ever seen a team so dominant on offense and defense lose so many games to sub-par teams.  Special teams was far and away their biggest weakness and it should serve as a cautionary tale to other teams who are thinking about neglecting this aspect of the team.

Yet, there is little reason to believe that the Chargers won't rise to prominence once again.  You can close your eyes and throw a dart at almost any statistical category and find them at the top.  Passing offense/defense, rushing defense, sacks, play on 3rd down, points from long drives, ball control, and net yards per drive.  They did all this without a legitimate running game to speak of.  If Mathews stays healthy the sky is the limit in 2011.

So where does a team with so many strengths focus on in the draft?  This year it was defense as they took a CB, DT, and LB in the top two rounds.  This should make new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky happy as he begins his first full season on the job.

To-do list: deal with V Jackson. Pray that special teams coach Bisaccia can fix the problems.  Resign Burnett/Weddle.  Fill needs at LB, WR depth, RT.

Biggest post-lockout question: Can SD finally defeat their #1 rival...themselves?


Oakland Raiders

Anytime you come to OAK on the merry-go round it's kinda like watching a bad reality show play out in real time.  If I wrote "fanbase" as their strength and "Al Davis" as their weakness, I think the analysis would be complete.  Until the old man croaks, it will be the same old story in Raider-land.  Head-scratching coaching choices along with even stranger personnel decisions continue to derail any hopes of glory for this once-proud franchise.

OAK did manage to do something never done in NFL history last year--swept SD, KC, and DEN, but lost the division crown.  Their success was due to their smash-mouth running game and play on defense.  For most of the year they gave opposing QB's fits.  As a result they were near the top in sacks and pass defense.  Yet the most impressive component of their defensive play was the ability to get off the field on 3rd down.

On the flip side, they once again took far too many penalties, couldn't pass the ball worth a damn, stop the run, protect the QB, or sustain drives.   In the offseason they've drafted a center and brought in Hue Jackson to lead the troops.  Not exactly moves that inspire confidence.  Jackson helped mentor Joe Flacco, but what does he have to work with in OAK?

To-do list:  resign Miller, develop a new QB.  Upgrade WR corps and O-line. Fill needs at CB, S, RT, G, DE, LB.

Biggest post-lockout question: How much longer does Al Davis have left?


Denver Broncos

Many sharps jumped on the under for the 2010 season win totals the second that Dumervil went down with a season ending injury last year.  To say that his loss had a devastating impact on their defense is an understatement.  To make matters worse DEN was trying to replace Marshall and Cutler and led by an immature head coach.  Disaster was inevitable.

They finished the season as one of the only teams without a single team strength.  Think about this, when you pass more than most teams and Orton is your quarterback, you know you have serious problems.  The entire defense needs an overhaul.  They couldn't do anything right on that side of the ball.  Teams ran over them with ease and scored in the red zone without getting their jerseys dirty.  In fact DEN were near the bottom in so many critical areas that it's not even worth the space to list them all.  Drafting a LB and S in the top two rounds was a decent first step in what will be a long and painful rebuilding process.  There is very little question where the priority will be going forward with new head coach John Fox at the helm.

To-do list:  keep Dumervil healthy, coach up the rookies on D, trade Orton, make a decision on Moreno.  Fill needs at DT, DE, CB, RB.

Biggest post-lockout question: Tebow might be the chosen one, but does Elway believe that?


AFC North Overview

Pittsburgh Steelers

Considering that PIT made it to the Super Bowl, it's unlikely I need to spend a lot of time recapping their season.   It's pretty clear that PIT needed to shut people down with their defense in order to give that offense a chance.  Their O-line was atrocious (losing Pouncey hurt a LOT) and they couldn't sustain drives.  When you play a team like GB, deficiencies like those will kill you every time.     

What did get them to the Super Bowl was their dominance on the road and against their division.  Teams had a tough time rushing, passing, scoring, and sustaining drives on them all year long.  Also, PIT consistently won the net yards per drive, turnover and sack battles.  They added to that arsenal by drafting another DE in the 1st round and addressed the O-line with a tackle in the 2nd.

To-do list: get younger on defense.  Fill needs at RB depth, S depth, RG and OT.

Biggest post-lockout question: Can they figure out a way to protect Big Ben?


Baltimore Ravens

BAL was a team that exceeded my expectations in 2010.  I'm not particularly high on Flacco and I thought age and their secondary were going to be bigger liabilities than they turned out to be.  To their credit, they had a great year stopping the run once again and kept people out of the end zone.  Special teams was a big factor in their success and they scored a lot more points from long drives than anyone could have predicted.  BAL also plastered anyone who came into their backyard and took care of all the teams they were supposed to.

In the end though, they relied far too much on Rice to win them games, turned the ball over too much, and got sub-par play from both of their lines.  This isn't a good formula when you need to go through PIT each season.   In response, they went out and drafted a CB and WR to expand their play outside the numbers.  I expect them to address the lines during free agency, but my main concern remains at QB.

To-do list:  Find a deep threat WR.  Solidify O-line.  Resign Landry/Yanda.  Fill needs on D-line, G, OT, LB, S, CB depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is Flacco really the answer?


Cleveland Browns

You won't find a more mediocre team in the NFL than the Cleveland Browns.  The only bright spot they had last year was their discipline.  'Average' defined almost every other meaningful category.   The lone exception might be Haden at CB.  One could make the argument that another positive was Colt McCoy, but was he?  Huge question marks remain at the QB position and who knows what to expect going into training camp.

What is certain is that they need to upgrade their passing game in one way or another.  Stopping the run isn't fair behind either.  When you rank near the bottom in time of possession, plays per game, and net yard per drive, wins will be few and far between.  New head coach Pat Shurmer earned his wings in PHI as a LB coach and helped Sam Bradford develop in STL after that.  To say that he has his work cut out for him in CLE is an understatement.   The new era officially began as they took two defensive linemen in the top of the draft.

To-do list: upgrade WR, find a compliment for Haden, fill needs at DE, DT depth, G/OT depth, LB/S depth, DE.

Biggest post-lockout question: Does CLE finally have a foundation to build on or is this just another run around the hamster wheel?


Cincinnati Bengals

Things weren't pretty in 2010 for CIN and they only got worse during the lockout.  Palmer, Ocho, and T.O. appear on their way out and no one has any idea who's coming in.  Personally, this was the biggest let-down team last year.  The defense was supposed to be solid and the added offensive weapons should have legitimized them as a real threat.  Instead they imploded like a grenade and it's a miracle that Lewis is still employed.

The only good thing going for them is the play of their O-line.  Outside of that, the entire roster is a work in progress.  Benson didn't follow up on a good season and he just got arrested.  Opposing teams had all day and night in the pocket to pick them apart.   Nothing positive happened on special teams and Palmer turned the ball over more than Tiki Barber in his early days.

The painful rebuild began as they took WR and QB one-two in the draft.  I believe Green might be a star in the not too distant future, but Dalton?   Don't hold your breath CIN fans. At least he has Gresham and Shipley to throw to.

To-do list:  trade Palmer, move on from Ocho. Find pass-rushers.  Resign Joseph. Make decision on Benson.  Fill needs at RB, G, C, S, CB, DE depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: What will happen with Carson Palmer, but more importantly, does anyone care?


AFC South Overview

Indianapolis Colts

Another up and down year for the Colts ended in a loud thud as they were bounced at home vs the scrappy Jets.   The writing might have been on the wall in week 1 vs HOU when their defense once again proved soft in the critical spots.  During the course of the year they couldn't do a lick in the running game on offense or defense. Their ability to sack the QB was putrid as questions now linger about Mathis/Freeney.  Things were just as bad on special teams, too.  Yet, the most concerning stat column for IND was their record vs tough teams.  With Peyton's health now a concern, you have to wonder what to expect from them heading into 2011.

If he's good to go they'll continue to light things up in the air.  They were near the top in passing, red zone, 3rd down %, net yards per drive, ball control, and points from long drives.  Peyton and company didn't give up a lot of sacks and the team was disciplined like usual.   To ensure their prized possession stays off the turf they drafted two offensive tackles at the top of the draft, but don't expect that kind of focus heading into free agency.   This team has a lot of holes and once again they'll try to scotch tape another roster together to supplement the passing game.

To-do list:  upgrade their back 7 on defense.  Find a way to limit big plays.  Fill needs up the middle of the D.  Bring Barry Sanders out of retirement to run the ball.

Biggest post-lockout question: Is this the beginning of the end for Peyton's dominance?


Jacksonville Jaguars

I'm pretty certain that we could write the same preview for JAX every season and not much will change.  They were decent against the top and bottom teams, but struggled with the middle of the pack.  Inconsistency has been the main identity of this squad for quite some time.  MJD leads a potent rushing game, they can score in the red zone, and don't take a lot of penalties.

However, problems up and down the roster continue to drive their fair-weather fan base crazy day in and day out.  What is going on at QB?  What happened to their defense?   This team was terrible in the passing game, run/pass ratio, passing/3rd down defense, net yards per drive, and turnover differential.  I'm not sure about you, but that is far too many categories to be at the bottom of.   Is Gabbert the answer to their woes?  Not anytime soon it's not.  JAX have a nice building block in Knighton, but it doesn't get much more exciting after that.  What we do know is they will be priced in the middle of the road like usual, but we'll have to wait another month until we know if there's value there or not.

To-do list:  find replacement for Sims-Walker.  Limit the big play on D.  Fill needs at LB, S, DE, RB depth, CB depth, DT depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: Has the clock run out on Jack Del Rio?


Houston Texans

HOU was a little bit like the Titanic last year.  Everyone wanted to jump aboard the new shiny ship once it took off, but just as many fans jumped off as it crashed and drowned midway through the season.  They can hang their hat on a pretty good offense.  Foster won the rushing title, they dominated in the red zone, and scored a lot of points from long drives.

But when they took their talents to the road and against tough teams, they balked.  It's no surprise that they are very interested in Asomugha because they were atrocious in pass defense. That's not a category you want to toil in if Peyton Manning is in your division. Yet, letting teams drive down the field wasn't the worst issue they had.  Once teams got in the red zone, it was not much more than a cakewalk into the end zone.   As a result HOU drafted two defensive ends and a cornerback at the top of the draft.   If Reed and Cushing can stabilize the linebacker crew, it might not take too long to save the ship and once again challenge for the division lead.

To-do list: still trying to find a replacement for D Robinson. Find 3-4 DE's.  Fill needs at LB depth, S, FB, G/OT depth, WR depth, P.

Biggest post-lockout question: Are they willing to break the bank for Asomugha or is it another case of wishful thinking?


Tennessee Titans

When it comes to the bottom-feeders of the AFC South it's a case of out with the old and in with the new.  Jeff Fisher finally moves on and makes room for Mike Munchak.  No one is quite sure how this will work out after he coached offensive line for 14 seasons, but what is sure is that he has his work cut out for him.

Once again they sucked within the division and didn't even come close to challenging the top teams.  They got completely owned in the air on both offense and defense.  They couldn't get stops or sustain drives which meant teams dominated ball control and net yards per drive.  And adding insult to injury is their ranking in the discipline department.

Somehow this needs to turn around.  But who is the man at QB?  Is a good special teams unit something to be proud about?  Not when that's one of the only bright spots of your team it's not.  Morgan is a shining light on the defensive line, but he won't be getting outstanding coaching from Jim Washburn anymore as he set sail for Philadelphia.

To-do list:  find a stop-gap QB for Locker.  Make CJ happy.  Screw Britt's head on straight.  Fill needs at DE and TE depth.

Biggest post-lockout question: Two steps backs before one step forward in Tennessee?

2011 NFL Preview: NFC Overviews

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Handicapping Resources

I've added some handicapping links to the resources page that might come in handy during the season.

Weekly Matchup Breakdown: a nice site that compares each team in various statistical categories for each upcoming week.  They update their stats very quickly after Sunday.

NFL Weather: self-explanatory. 

CBS Rapid Reports: quick hits on team news/transactions as they happen.

Chad Millmen Podcasts: Chad covers all things betting on ESPN Insider, but his weekly podcasts are free to download.  He has some great guests on to cover the NFL.

Pregame.com: one of the better all-around sites you'll find for info. They offer a myriad of goodies.

Sagarin Ratings: controversial statistical "power rankings" of teams.  Personally, I don't use them, but I do check them out to see how he's doing.  Some find them more useful than others.

SBR Betting Tools: a great place to find everything from free spreadsheets to odds converters.

Statistician Modeling: this is a blog with a different approach to handicapping.  He relies mainly on statistics to make his picks and waits a few weeks until enough data has been compiled before he utilizes his system (not a bad idea at all).  Every handicapper has their own method and this is one example worth checking out.

Football Outsiders: these guys take statistical analysis to a whole other level.  They have a lot of useful information, but use your own discretion about what is valuable and what is not.

SBRforum: not just a site I write for, but a good place that offers a wide range of services.  They have free picks, previews, an active forum, free contests/prizes, and all the latest info on sportsbooks and the industry.

Free Risk Intelligence Test: ever wondered just how well you assess and manage risk?  This free test will give you an idea and should shed some light on your strengths/weaknesses/patterns.

Pinnacle Pulse Articles: some of these articles go back a few years, but you will find some great information here regarding all things handicapping.

Wunderdog Articles: there are some valuable articles here regarding the 101's of handicapping including critical advice about money management.  Well worth the time.

Hilton Contest: this link is currently dead because it's the offseason, but once the season starts up you can track how the Sharps are doing in the yearly Vegas showdown.

Public Betting Tracker: this is just one example of public tracking, but if you're wondering what most people are doing week in and week out, find one of these trackers to follow.  They have them at Pregame.com, SBRforum. com, and various other sites.

This isn't an exhaustive list of useful links, but they are all free and cover a bit of everything.  I'll continue to add to it during the year.