Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-0)
I didn’t have the Vikings listed as one of my underrated teams in the league, but maybe I should have. They had incredibly bad luck during their 3-13 season last year, going 2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had the point differential of a team that should have won 5 or 6 games. A full season of Christian Ponder (who didn’t take over until a few weeks into the season and then got hurt) will also help. In the 9 games in which he led the team in passing attempts, the team scored 22.9 points per game, which would have been 16th in the league last season. He should be improved in his 2nd year in the league and also gets a new left tackle, Matt Kalil, which will really help him.
The Jaguars also have a 2nd year quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, but he looked like much more of a lost cause last year. He might have looked alright during stretches in the preseason, but that’s the preseason so it doesn’t mean a whole lot. If I had to pick one of these two 2nd year quarterbacks to improve this season, it’d be Ponder. Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson won’t help Gabbert as much as people seem to think. Blackmon is a mere rookie and rookie receivers tend to struggle, even 1st rounders.
Discounting Jones and Green, since the 2005 NFL Draft, 22 receivers have gone in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. In their rookie years, they have averaged 37 catches for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns. And this is not a group of busts. This group includes, among others, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Roddy White. The leader in rookie production among those 22, strangely Dwayne Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2007.
That just proves how special Julio Jones’ and AJ Green’s rookie years were, but I don’t see that happening for Blackmon. It’s too improbable. Jones and Green also had the luxury of facing SEC defenses in college, the closest thing you’ll get to NFL caliber defenses in college, while Blackmon shredded the Big 12, which isn’t nearly as close. Robinson meanwhile, really struggled this offseason and preseason, which makes sense since at this time last year he was a final cut of the Chargers. He was the prototypical one year wonder signing and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he didn’t do anything of note this year.
Any improvement Gabbert and the passing game makes will be nullified by a decline in their running game. Maurice Jones-Drew accounted for 47.7% of the team’s yards from scrimmage last season, the most since OJ Simpson was not only a free man, but still playing football. Simpson set the record in 1974. However, the combination of his holdout and his high level of usage over the past 3 years suggests, at least, a slightly down year from MJD this year and he could definitely do his best 2011 Chris Johnson impression. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll barely play in this one as he works his way back. Rashad Jennings is a nice back, but he won’t be able to replace everything MJD did for them last year in this game.
The Vikings are also missing a stud running back as Adrian Peterson looks like he’ll be a game time decision roughly 9 months roughly from a torn ACL. Even if he does play, it’ll be as a backup to Toby Gerhart. Gerhart, like Jennings, is a nice back, but he’s not Adrian Peterson. The positive thing for the Vikings is that AP isn’t as much of their offense as MJD was for the Jaguars last year. The Vikings figure to be an improved team this year, while the Jaguars could be even worse.
In the last 6 seasons (2006-2011), only one team, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and the 2009 Cleveland Browns, had fewer yards than the Jaguars did last year (2076). Even the Jimmy Clausen led Panthers in 2010 had more yards. Gabbert was that bad. In a passing league, that is not a recipe for winning games. Since 2006, 21 teams have averaged 6.0 YPA or worse. Of those 21 teams, 19 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 3.9 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. In order for the Jaguars to have averaged 6.1 YPA last year, on 469 attempts, they would have had to throw for 2861 yards, 682 more than they actually did. They may improve this year, but I don’t think they’ll improve that much.
And yet, this line essentially says these two are even (3 points is standard for home field advantage), which I don’t think is true. I also don’t like this matchup for the Jaguars. The Vikings’ back 7 is pretty bad in coverage, which is why they ranked 30th against the pass, allowing 8.1 YPA last year, despite 50 sacks. However, Blaine Gabbert really struggles with pressure in his face and the Vikings can pressure the quarterback as well as any team in the league.
Gabbert ranked 2nd worst in the NFL with a 52.9% accuracy percentage under pressure (discounts drops, throw aways, spikes, batted passes, and hit as throwns) and worst in the NFL taking a sack on 26.1% of his pressured drop backs. Unless he is a dramatically different quarterback in the face of pressure from last year to this year, he doesn’t figure to be able to take advantage of Minnesota’s poor back 7 in coverage. The Vikings 6th ranked run defense from 2011 should be able to stop Jennings and the Jaguars will have trouble moving the football. Ponder, meanwhile, won’t against a Jacksonville defense missing top cornerback Derek Cox and top linebacker Daryl Smith with injury.
Minnesota Vikings 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 10
Pick against spread: Minnesota -4 (-105) 2 units