Houston Texans 2014 Off-Season Report

2013 Recap

When the Texans went 12-4 in 2012, they did it on the strength of a 5-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, an easy schedule, and a +12 turnover margin, powered by a 64.10% fumble recovery rate, so it was predictable that the Texans would regress, even with Brian Cushing coming back from injury. That being said, I don’t think anyone saw this coming as the Texans lost their last 14 games to finish 2-14 and will have the 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Fortunately for the Texans, they’re in a much better position than most teams that get the #1 pick. They were competitive in almost every game this season, up until Gary Kubiak was fired after week 14, as the Texans had a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. That includes losses by 3 points or fewer against eventual playoff teams in Indianapolis, New England, Kansas City and an eventual 10-win Arizona team. That was in spite of a -20 turnover margin, in part because of a 44.44% fumble recovery margin.

The Texans’ defense actually played very well this season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a mere 69.40% rate, despite losing two starters (Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning) for the season fairly early in the year. The offense’s ineptitude and tendency to turn the ball over and allow defensive touchdowns made them look worse than they were. The Texans have a golden opportunity to take a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft, which will go a long way towards helping the offense, clearly their weaker side of the ball. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they followed in the footsteps of the Colts and Chiefs and became the 3rd straight team to make the playoffs the year after getting the #1 pick. The Texans are in talks as we speak to hire hot head coaching candidate Bill O’Brien.

Positional Needs

Quarterback

This one is pretty straight forward. The Texans can save 4 million in cap space (not to mention a ton of cash) by cutting Matt Schaub ahead of his 1 million dollar roster bonus in March, while Case Keenum as the look of a decent backup long-term at best. He did some nice things in his first few starts, but eventually proved why he went undrafted in the first place. TJ Yates, meanwhile, had a small cameo in mop-up duty for Schaub, completing 15 of 22 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions, and was never seen again, despite the team having nothing to lose by playing him. That doesn’t bode well for the future of one of the most unlikely men in NFL history to have won a playoff game. Teams that feel they need a quarterback picking #1 almost always take one so expect Teddy Bridgewater, or whoever is the top quarterback come draft time, to be a Texan in 2013.

Outside Linebacker

This somewhat depends on what scheme they run in 2014, but if they stick with a 3-4 they need more rush linebacker help and either way they desperately need edge rusher help. Despite having JJ Watt in front of them tying up blockers, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus graded out dead last among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Mercilus looks like a bust of a 2012 1st round pick (though it’s too early to make that claim definitely), while Reed would probably be best in a non-rush linebacker position, either playing outside linebacker in a 4-3 or inside linebacker in a 3-4, which are both also needs. In a 4-3, Mercilus will probably still be a starter and given another chance at his natural position of 4-3 end and Watt would probably line up outside in base sets, but they’d need someone to rush the passer from the edge on passing downs, as Watt would almost definitely move inside.

Middle Linebacker

You can change this to middle linebacker/outside linebacker if the Texans go to a 4-3. Brian Cushing is their only proven non-rush linebacker and he’s suffered serious leg injuries in back-to-back seasons. Brooks Reed is another option if they bring in a strong edge rusher, but he’s unproven and might only be a two-down player as he’s kind of shaky in coverage. Daryl Sharpton and Joe Mays manned middle linebacker for the most part this season with Cushing gone and both were mediocre at best. They’re free agents anyway this off-season.

Guard

One of the positives of this season for the Texans has been the emergence of Brandon Brooks at right guard, as the 2012 3rd round pick had a very strong season. They need help at left guard though. Wade Smith is a free agent this off-season and he’s a declining player heading into his age 33 season. With Bill O’Brien likely to implement a power blocking scheme, Smith is highly unlikely to be back.

Offensive Tackle

Along with left guard, right tackle was a big problem position for the Texans. Derek Newton was one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league, as only 5 eligible offensive tackle graded out worse than him this season on Pro Football Focus. It’s time to give up on the 2011 7th round pick as a legitimate starter. 2013 3rd round pick Brennan Williams is an option, but he missed the entirety of his rookie year with injury and has a history of leg problems dating back to his time in college. The new coaching staff will probably want their own guy there.

Defensive End

Antonio Smith has been one of the best pass rushing 5-technique defensive ends over the past 3 years under Wade Phillips, but his future is up in the air going into free agency with the Texans’ coaching staff for 2014 yet to be decided. It doesn’t help that Smith will be in his age 33 season in 2014. If Smith isn’t back with the Texans, they’ll need to replace him. 2012 4th round pick Jared Crick has been decent in limited action thus far in his career and could be an option, but I doubt they’d want him to be their only starting option going in 2014.

Tight End

Owen Daniels will be owed 4.5 million in an age 32 contract year coming off of a broken leg so he could easily be cut. The duo of Garrett Graham and rookie Ryan Griffin was fine at tight end this season, but Graham too is a free agent and the new coaching staff might want to add a tight end who is more of a power blocker than the finesse tight ends Kubiak liked.

Cornerback

Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are fine as the starting cornerbacks, but they really need to add a better 3rd cornerback. They can’t keep trotting out Brice McCain to play half the snaps after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked cornerback in 2013, despite his part-time role. He allowed opponents to have a 105.1 QB rating when throwing on him and was by far dead last in coverage grade by a cornerback.

Nose Tackle

If the Texans stick with a 3-4, they might want a more traditional nose tackle with Earl Mitchell set to hit free agency. If they move to a 4-3, defensive tackle becomes a bigger need. JJ Watt would probably play outside in base packages and move inside on passing downs so they’d need to find two new base defensive tackles. Mitchell could be one of them, if brought back, and Jared Crick could be another, but it’s still an area they could try to add more talent.

Key Free Agents

DE Antonio Smith

Antonio Smith really emerged as a great pass rushing 5-technique for the Texans under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Undersized at 6-3 277, Smith never really found a niche in the NFL before Phillips, but in the past 3 seasons he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked pass rushing 3-4 defensive end twice (2011 and 2012) and 5th ranked once (2013). He may just be a system guy though and who knows where Phillips is going to be in 2014. He’s also heading into his age 33 season. He could be back with the Texans, but that would depends heavily on what scheme they implement and wherever he signs, he’s not getting a long-term deal or a lot of money.

RB Ben Tate

Ben Tate was drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 by the Texans to be the starting running back, but broke his ankle in the pre-season, which opened the door for Arian Foster to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Ben Tate impressed as his backup, averaging 5.09 YPC on 240 carries in 2011 and 2012 and got his shot to be the starter in 2013 when Arian Foster went down with a season ending back injury.

Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its head for Tate again as he broke several ribs. He only missed 2 games, the final two of the season, but was definitely hampered by the injury as he averaged just 4.3 yards per carry on 181 carries. Tate clearly has the talent and toughness to be a lead back in the NFL, but he’s also missed 24 of 64 possible regular season games in his career thus far and is coming off of an injury plagued season. The running back position is becoming devalued because of their short career spans and injury proneness, so Tate could have a hard time finding a ton of guaranteed money on the open market on a deal that will take him into his late 20s. He’ll already be in his age 26 season in 2014.

G Wade Smith

There was a time when Wade Smith was one of the best guards in the NFL, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard for the 2010 season, but it’s been downhill since there, culminating in arguably the worst season of his Houston tenure in 2013, as he ranked 60th out of 81 eligible guards. Age is likely the culprit and going into his age 33 season, with Gary Kubiak and his zone blocking scheme gone, Smith is highly unlikely to be back as a starter in Houston this off-season and he may have a hard time finding starting work anywhere. He’ll likely be looking at one year deals.

DT Earl Mitchell

Undersized for the nose tackle position at 6-2 296, Mitchell, a 2010 3rd round pick, has been a favorite of Wade Phillips since he arrived as the defensive coordinator before the 2011 season. That makes sense as Phillips prefers smaller than traditional nose tackles, having success with Jay Ratliff in Dallas in his previous stop. Mitchell has been a starter ever since, playing about half the snaps, but he’s been pretty mediocre. I’d like to see him get a shot at his natural position in a 4-3 this season. He’ll probably be looking at heavy rotational work and a short-term deal worth a couple of million dollars.

FB Greg Jones

Greg Jones was one of the top fullbacks in the game in Jacksonville, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked fullback in 2010 and 3rd ranked in 2011, but he’s not quite the same player he once was. Still, he had a solid year and was a welcome addition to Houston’s running game, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked fullback and proving to be a significant upgrade as a point of attack blocker over his predecessor James Casey. That being said, the market for soon-to-be 33 year old fullbacks is not very big so he’ll probably be looking at one year deals again this off-season.

TE Garrett Graham

Former head coach Gary Kubiak loved his tight ends and took Garrett Graham in the 4th round in 2010. Graham had to work his way up with a bunch of tight ends above him, but managed to get all the way up to the 1st string in 2013 after starter Owen Daniels went on injured reserve. He didn’t do a ton with the opportunity, catching 49 passes for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games, including 11 starts, averaging 1.30 yards per route run, in the bottom third of the league. He’s a decent blocker even at 6-3 243 so he’ll probably be at the top of lists for teams who need #2 tight ends this off-season and it wouldn’t shock me at all if he was back in Houston.

Cap Casualty Candidates

QB Matt Schaub

Matt Schaub did his best Jake Delhomme impression this season, completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.45 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, getting benched on several occasions for 2012 undrafted free agent Case Keenum. Fortunately, the Texans structured the 4-year extension they gave him at the start of the 2012 season well and can cut him this off-season, save 4 million on the cap, and have his contract completely off the books for the future. He’s as good as gone.

TE Owen Daniels

Owen Daniels was a favorite of Gary Kubiak, but Kubiak is gone now. Daniels is heading into an age 32 contract year coming off of a broken leg and the Texans can save 4.5 million in cash and off the cap by cutting him.

S Danieal Manning

Manning is in almost the exact same situation as Daniels. He’ll be in an age 32 contract year in 2014, coming off of a broken leg and the Texans can save 4.5 million in cash off the cap by cutting him. He’s been a solid starter in the past, but the Texans seem to be going into a complete rebuild so he could be gone. Shiloh Keo and DJ Swearinger are youngsters who were decent this season.

CB Brice McCain

The Texans would only save 850K in cap space by cutting McCain, but they’d save 3 million in cash over the next 2 seasons and it’s more about getting him off their roster. He was atrocious in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked cornerback despite a part-time role.

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Jacksonville Jaguars re-sign DT Sen’Derrick Marks

Jacksonville Jaguars re-sign DT Sen’Derrick Marks

Sen’Derrick Marks has had a solid season this year. New Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley seems to have coached up the former 2nd round pick, much like he did with many players when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle. Marks excelled as a pass rusher, generating 4 sacks, 12 hits, and 24 hurried throws on 525 pass rush snaps, while batting 7 passes at the line of scrimmage. That was good enough for him to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked pass rushing defensive tackle and even though he got noticeably washed against the run, he still graded out above average on the season.

However, this kind of money, 4 years, 22 million with 8 million of that guaranteed, is an overpay. His play this year wasn’t worth a 5.5 million dollar a year salary and that’s before you take into account that he was one of the worst defensive tackles in the league who had a consistent role from 2010-2012. He was a bottom-15 defensive tackle in 2012 and bottom-10 in 2010 and 2011. There’s a reason all he could get was a one year deal worth 1.5 million last off-season. He’s the definition of a one year wonder and the Jaguars are definitely buying high. I think this is just a case of a team overpaying for their own talent. I don’t know who on the open market was going to pay Marks this kind of money. I don’t doubt he could continue being a solid contributor under Bradley’s tutelage, but he’s not worth this money and they probably could have gotten him cheaper.

Grade: C+

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2013 Week 17 NFL Pick Results

Week 17

Straight Up: 12-4

Against the Spread: 7-9

Pick of the Week: 1-0

High Confidence: 2-0

Medium Confidence: 1-2

Low Confidence: 1-2

No Confidence: 2-5

Upset Picks: 0-3

2013

Straight Up: 173-82-1 (.678)

Against the Spread: 146-103-7 (.586)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1

High Confidence: 24-8

Medium Confidence: 32-25

Low Confidence: 39-26-2

No Confidence: 41-38-4

Upset Picks: 27-28

Pre-season Prop Bets: 8-3

Rate of Moving the Chains – Wild Card Round

What is this? This is rate of moving the chains, which is my primary statistic for handicapping games. It holds the assumption that the goal of any team on any given 1st and 10 (or 1st and goal) is to move the chains (or score). In order to figure out how often teams meet that goal, I take first downs plus touchdowns and divide it by first downs plus touchdowns plus failures to move the chains (successes divided by attempts). Failures to move the chains include punts, turnovers, failed 4th downs, and field goal attempts (being forced to kick a field goal is a failure). I have this sorted by percent for (to evaluate offenses), percent against (to evaluate defenses), and differentials (to evaluate teams). Below that, I use this to calculate spreads for this week’s games (by taking the differences between the differentials of the two teams and adding 3 points either way for homefield). It’s not a perfect formula, but it does a good job of lessening the value of inconsistent things like turnovers and return touchdowns.

Offense

Team First downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Denver 435 71 65 26 1 26 81.09%
2 San Diego 373 41 56 21 1 37 78.26%
3 New Orleans 359 49 61 19 10 32 76.98%
4 Chicago 344 45 68 23 5 29 75.68%
5 Green Bay 351 42 64 25 4 37 75.14%
6 Carolina 319 38 70 19 3 27 75.00%
7 Philadelphia 355 51 82 19 7 28 74.91%
8 New England 378 44 77 20 8 41 74.30%
9 Dallas 325 45 77 20 2 30 74.15%
10 Detroit 350 44 72 34 9 24 73.92%
11 Atlanta 330 37 68 28 8 27 73.69%
12 Cincinnati 330 47 75 30 9 22 73.49%
13 Seattle 307 41 74 19 5 35 72.35%
14 Indianapolis 318 38 76 14 7 40 72.21%
15 Kansas City 323 41 88 18 7 28 72.08%
16 Pittsburgh 312 37 75 24 6 32 71.81%
17 Tennessee 311 38 78 25 6 29 71.66%
18 Arizona 329 36 78 31 4 36 71.01%
19 Minnesota 309 41 75 32 9 30 70.56%
20 San Francisco 286 39 79 18 4 36 70.35%
21 Washington 329 34 84 34 14 26 69.67%
22 St. Louis 282 32 78 29 12 28 68.11%
23 Cleveland 301 30 85 29 17 26 67.83%
24 Oakland 275 33 84 31 5 30 67.25%
25 Houston 307 26 88 31 11 35 66.87%
26 Miami 278 32 85 26 9 34 66.81%
27 Tampa Bay 269 28 87 21 14 29 66.29%
28 Buffalo 301 31 96 27 10 36 66.27%
29 NY Jets 280 25 88 29 7 36 65.59%
30 Baltimore 295 26 90 29 10 41 65.38%
31 NY Giants 280 29 91 44 6 26 64.92%
32 Jacksonville 271 23 95 27 17 25 64.19%

 

Defense

Team First Downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Cincinnati 282 28 89 31 11 31 65.68%
2 Baltimore 284 32 98 24 6 35 65.97%
3 Seattle 282 20 81 39 7 27 66.23%
4 San Francisco 284 30 85 30 13 25 67.24%
5 Carolina 278 21 72 30 8 34 67.49%
6 Buffalo 308 38 94 30 6 36 67.58%
7 Kansas City 303 34 87 36 9 28 67.81%
8 Arizona 309 34 88 30 10 32 68.19%
9 Detroit 290 34 84 22 3 40 68.50%
10 New Orleans 274 31 83 19 8 28 68.85%
11 Houston 282 40 91 11 5 35 69.40%
12 NY Jets 293 35 80 15 11 37 69.64%
13 NY Giants 327 33 86 29 11 30 69.77%
14 Miami 327 31 77 24 7 40 70.75%
15 Pittsburgh 303 39 79 20 11 31 70.81%
16 New England 338 36 80 29 17 27 70.97%
17 Indianapolis 319 35 75 27 9 30 71.52%
18 Cleveland 328 42 88 21 5 32 71.71%
19 Tennessee 329 36 76 25 4 39 71.71%
20 Denver 339 44 87 26 11 26 71.86%
21 Tampa Bay 324 40 66 31 6 32 72.95%
22 Philadelphia 368 37 74 31 12 32 73.10%
23 St. Louis 337 39 74 29 7 26 73.44%
24 Washington 329 52 74 26 5 25 74.56%
25 Green Bay 330 46 69 22 7 30 74.60%
26 Oakland 330 48 74 22 4 28 74.70%
27 Atlanta 326 45 62 21 4 35 75.25%
28 San Diego 327 37 65 17 7 30 75.36%
29 Jacksonville 353 49 75 21 3 29 75.85%
30 Minnesota 368 51 77 20 7 29 75.91%
31 Chicago 353 47 58 28 4 30 76.92%
32 Dallas 388 50 61 27 9 29 77.66%

 

Differential

Team
1 Denver 9.23%
2 New Orleans 8.13%
3 Cincinnati 7.81%
4 Carolina 7.51%
5 Seattle 6.12%
6 Detroit 5.42%
7 Kansas City 4.27%
8 New England 3.33%
9 San Francisco 3.11%
10 San Diego 2.90%
11 Arizona 2.82%
12 Philadelphia 1.80%
13 Pittsburgh 1.00%
14 Indianapolis 0.70%
15 Green Bay 0.54%
16 Tennessee -0.05%
17 Baltimore -0.59%
18 Chicago -1.24%
19 Buffalo -1.31%
20 Atlanta -1.56%
21 Houston -2.53%
22 Dallas -3.51%
23 Cleveland -3.88%
24 Miami -3.94%
25 NY Jets -4.05%
26 NY Giants -4.85%
27 Washington -4.89%
28 St. Louis -5.32%
29 Minnesota -5.34%
30 Tampa Bay -6.65%
31 Oakland -7.45%
32 Jacksonville -11.66%

 

Projected Wild Card Lines

CIN/SD 7.91
GB/SF 0.43
NO/PHI 3.33
KC/IND 0.58

 

Two playoff teams, Green Bay and Philadelphia, haven’t had their current starting quarterback for all 16 games, for different reasons. For handicapping purposes, I’ve calculated their offensive rate of moving the chains in games in which Aaron Rodgers and Nick Foles respectively started and finished the game. The results are, unsurprisingly, a significant difference. In fact, those rate of moving the chains would be 4th (Green Bay) and 2nd (Philadelphia) over the course of a full season. I could have done the same thing for Kansas City, subtracting out their week 17 results, but they actually played so well even with their backups that it didn’t change much. Before week 17, they are at 4.37% in terms of rate of moving the chains differential. Now they are at 4.27%.

Green Bay 186 24 26 11 2 21 77.78%
Philadelphia 203 37 44 6 4 11 78.69%

 

If we subtract their rate of moving the chains allowed from those, Green Bay would be at 3.17%, which would be good for 10th in the NFL, and Philadelphia would be at 5.58%, good for 6th in the NFL. If we have these adjusted differentials, all 12 playoff teams would be in the top-15 with positive differential, which is great because it means there aren’t any truly undeserving playoff teams (Chicago, Dallas, and Miami all had a chance to be). Below are the 2013 playoff teams in order of rate of moving the chains differential, with Green Bay’s, Philadelphia’s, and Kansas City’s adjusted differentials.

Team
1 Denver 9.23%
2 New Orleans 8.13%
3 Cincinnati 7.81%
4 Carolina 7.51%
5 Seattle 6.12%
6 Philadelphia 5.58%
7 Kansas City 4.37%
8 New England 3.33%
9 Green Bay 3.17%
10 San Francisco 3.11%
11 San Diego 2.90%
12 Indianapolis 0.70%

 

The other 3 non-playoff teams in the top-15 are Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, who all have a good chance to make the playoffs in 2014. Below are the projected wild card round line adjusted for these new adjusted rate of moving the chains differentials. I’ve also adjusted it for Kansas City’s pre-week 17 differential, but it didn’t make much of a difference.

CIN/SD 7.91
GB/SF 3.07
PHI/NO 0.45
KC/IND 0.67

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2013 NFL Prop Bets

Kansas City Chiefs to make the playoffs +250

I didn’t really see any value with over 7.5 (-175) on the Chiefs, but I thought it was a little strange their odds to make the playoffs were this high. The odds makers seen fairly certain they’ll win 7 and probably 8 games, but the AFC sucks. 9 wins can get you into the playoffs. The Chiefs have legitimate talent around the quarterback and the Alex Smith/Andy Reid combination should stabilize their Head Coaching situation, their quarterback situation, and their league worst turnover margin. Add in a last place schedule in arguably the easiest division in football in by far the easier of the two conferences and I think this is a playoff team. One team goes from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs every year.

12/30/13: The Chiefs rode one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and a turnover margin that not only stabilized, but went all the way up to +18, one of the best in the NFL. They won 11 games and got the AFC’s 5th seed.

Minnesota Vikings under 7 wins -125

One team also does the opposite and I think the Vikings are the team to do it this year. They weren’t actually far from being one of the 3 worst teams in the NFC last year according to DVOA. DVOA had them as the 9th best team in the NFC, making the playoffs because of a 5-1 record in close games, and there wasn’t much distance between them and the 14th ranked team in the NFC. Give them a tougher schedule, an even more improved conference, more injuries (2nd fewest in the league last year), and a more human season from Adrian Peterson and I think they’re below than 5 wins threshold. This bet gives me 2 games of buffer.

12/30/13: The Vikings did go from in the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer. Adrian Peterson had a very good year, but he didn’t come close to setting any records and the rotating carousel of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman at quarterback couldn’t find stability. Their aging defense saw more injuries and was one of the worst in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers to win NFC South +350, to make playoffs +220, and over 7.5 wins -140

There’s also a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye every year. I think that’s the Panthers, who finished last year 6-3 with wins over Washington, Atlanta, and in New Orleans. Their defense surrendered just 21.2 points per game in the final 12 games of last season, after they moved Luke Kuechly to middle linebacker, despite playing 8 top-16 scoring offenses in that stretch. Now they add Star Lotulelei, Kawaan Short, and return Jon Beason. Offensively, they scored 26.0 points per game in the final 8 games of the season as Cam Newton shook off his early season sophomore slump. That’s no fluke as they scored 25.4 points per game in 2011. Going into his 3rd year in the league, I expect the best season of his career from Newton. They could possibly have a top-10 offense and defense.

12/30/13: Had this one perfectly, as the Panthers went 12-4, won the NFC South, and got the 2nd seed in the NFC, as I projected them to before the season. After Cam Newton started 2-12 in his career in games decided by a touchdown or less, he went 5-2 in such games this year. In the beginning of his career, he “didn’t know how to win.” Now he “wills his team to victory.” It’s an insufferable narrative 180. Defensively, Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy were among the best in the NFL at their positions, Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short had strong rookie years, and Thomas Davis’ return (not Jon Beason’s) helped their linebacking corps tremendously. Their makeshift secondary also held up very well, thanks to the performances of Melvin White, Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Mike Mitchell, and Quintin Mikell, on one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens to make playoffs +130, over 8.5 wins -125

Their demise has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, they didn’t look good week 1, but I don’t think there were many teams that could beat Peyton Manning when he was playing like that. It’s important not to over-react, which naturally everyone is doing with the 3 day layover. For that reason, I wish I made these bets after week 1, but I still like both of these bets.

12/30/13: Came close on the 8.5 win one, but lost both of these. The defense actually ended up being much better than I thought, shaking off that 49 point performance week 1 (not the first time Manning would torch a defense), but the offense was close to the worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco’s regressed big time statistically, but it wasn’t all his fault. Torrey Smith was their only receiver to provide Flacco with a consistent target, Ray Rice struggled mightily through a hip injury, and the offensive line fell apart as Michael Oher flopped in his contract year, Kelechi Osemele got hurt, and first time starter Gino Gradkowski was horrible.

Atlanta Falcons to miss playoffs +160

A lot of good teams for not a lot of playoff spots in the NFC. One team always goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs and the Falcons are by far the most likely to do so this season. 10 wins might not be enough for a playoff spot in the NFC. The average 13 win team wins 9.5 games the following season and, in 2012, the Falcons benefitted from a 7-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, an unsustainably high fumble recovery rate and turnover margin, and a schedule that featured just 2 eventual playoff teams. They also return just 2 starters in their original spot on an offensive line whose biggest strength is continuity and they lost their top pass rusher John Abraham.

12/30/13: They did this and then some, finishing 4-12. Two things that had been historically friendly to the Falcons in the Mike Smith era, close games and turnovers, did not go in their favor this season and they also had a ton of injuries, particularly on an aging defense that saw veterans Asante Samuel and Osi Umenyiora both get benched by the end of the season.

New England Patriots over 11 wins +130

The AFC East should give them 5 wins at the very least. They’d only need to go 6-4 in their only 10 games to at least push this bet and I think they have a much better chance at 12 wins than 10. A lot has been made about what they’ve lost in the receiving corps, but before 2007, they had 5 different leading receivers in 7 years and only Moss, who came over from a 4th round pick, ever did anything before or after leaving New England. Aaron Hernandez is also gone, but Brady somehow played better without him last season, which just solidifies my point that receivers don’t really matter to him. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league and they’ll still be able to run the ball. Defensively, their young squad played well to end last season and may have finally matured.

12/30/13: This wasn’t as automatic as I thought, but the Patriots pulled out their 8th 12 win season in the past 13 seasons, a remarkable feat. They had a lot of luck in close games, but lucky is not a good way to describe the 2013 Patriots given how many injuries they suffered.

Oakland Raiders under 5 wins -165

I hate taking publicly bet sides and paying huge juice, but the Raiders are terrible. They’re going to have a hard time winning the 4 games they won last year, let alone winning the 6 that would lose this bet for me. They have 50+ million in dead money on their cap and of their top-10 cap numbers, 6 are dead money guys, 1 is a kicker, and one is a backup quarterback. They lost arguably their top best defensive players in Philip Wheeler and Desmond Bryant, as well as starting defensive back Michael Huff, and leading receiver Brandon Myers, while top offensive player, left tackle Jared Veldheer, is expected to miss 10-12 games with a torn triceps.

12/30/13: This was another one I had to sweat out as the scrappy Raiders started 4-5, but they eventually fell back down to earth and lost their final 7 games.

Indianapolis Colts under 8.5 wins -110

They won just 2 came by more than double digits last season and beat just 3 teams that finished with 8 or more wins. If they want to come close to 11 wins again, they’ll have to play much, much better than they did last season. A few solid off-season additions and a 2nd year Andrew Luck could do that, but this number is high enough that I’m comfortable making this play.

12/30/13: This is the other one I missed on. There were times that the Colts looked like their 2012 selves, barely beating Oakland, Houston (once), Tennessee (twice), losing to Miami and St. Louis, getting blown out by Cincinnati and Arizona, but they also beat Denver, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Seattle, blew out Jacksonville (twice), and Houston (once). They were probably the most unpredictable team in the NFL this season and they probably, overall, weren’t as good as their 11-5 record as they were helped out by a good record in close games again, but they were noticeably better than 2012 and could be very dangerous in the post-season if they get hot. Overall, I’m fine with going 8-3 on these 11 prop bets, especially since a lot of them had strong juices.

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2014 Pro-Bowl Thoughts

Quarterback: Tom Brady, Patriots; Drew Brees, Saints; Peyton Manning, Broncos; Cam Newton, Panthers; Philip Rivers, Chargers; Russell Wilson, Seahawks

Brady, Brees, Manning, Rivers, and Wilson will get no arguments from me. I voted for all 5 of them. I had Nick Foles over Cam Newton. I like Cam Newton. I thought the criticism he took early in his career was baseless, but there’s no way he had a better year than Nick Foles. I don’t think Newton has significantly improved from last year to this year. He was underrated last year. Now he might be overrated. Of course, Foles didn’t make it onto the ballot until late November because he wasn’t a week 1 starter, so you can’t blame the public for not voting him in.

Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Steelers; Dez Bryant, Cowboys; Josh Gordon, Browns; A.J. Green, Bengals; Andre Johnson, Texans; Calvin Johnson, Lions; Brandon Marshall, Bears; Demaryius Thomas, Broncos

Wide receiver might have been the toughest position for me to pick as there were at least 12 guys I thought were deserving for 8 spots. Actually 6 of the guys I voted for made it, with only Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson getting left out. I didn’t vote for Demaryius Thomas, but you can’t argue he doesn’t deserve this. The only one I have a slight issue with is Dez Bryant. He wasn’t one of the 12 or so guys I was choosing from. He definitely had a good year, but Jackson and Jeffery would have been better options.

Tackle: Branden Albert, Chiefs; Jason Peters, Eagles; Tyron Smith, Cowboys; Joe Staley, 49ers; Joe Thomas, Browns; Trent Williams, Redskins

Staley, Thomas, and Williams were guys I voted for. Jason Peters and Tyron Smith definitely got strong consideration from me. The only one that’s kind of weird is Branden Albert. He’s not having a bad year or anything, but I think Jordan Gross and Andrew Whitworth have definitely been better players this season.

Guard: Jahri Evans, Saints; Ben Grubbs, Saints; Mike Iupati, 49ers; Logan Mankins, Patriots; Louis Vasquez, Broncos; Marshal Yanda, Ravens

Louis Vasquez and Ben Grubbs were guys I voted for. The rest is a little off, but it consists mostly of guys who have been really good in the past, but just aren’t having as good of seasons this year. The only one that’s glaringly bad is Mike Iupati, who is having a very average season, struggling through injuries. Josh Sitton and Evan Mathis are easily the best guards in the NFL this season, in my opinion. They’re major snubs. Larry Warford is a big omission as well.

Center: Ryan Kalil, Panthers; Alex Mack, Browns; Mike Pouncey, Dolphins; Max Unger, Seahawks

Max Unger is another player who has been very average in an injury plagued season. He’s been better in the past through. Alex Mack and Mike Pouncey are both guys I voted for and Ryan Kalil gets no argument from me. Chris Myers should have been in this group, but it’s not a huge deal.

Tight end: Jordan Cameron, Browns; Vernon Davis, 49ers; Jimmy Graham, Saints; Julius Thomas, Broncos

He’s not definitely a top-4 tight end or anything, but how did Tony Gonzalez not get voted in? He played well enough and it’s weird to have the Pro-Bowl without him in his final season. I would have voted him over Jordan Cameron for that reason, but Cameron is hardly a bad choice. The other 3 are guys I voted for.

Running back: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs; Matt Forte, Bears; Frank Gore, 49ers; Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks; LeSean McCoy, Eagles; Adrian Peterson, Vikings

Charles, Lynch, McCoy, and Peterson all got my vote. Matt Forte was right on the border, so I’m not going to argue that. Frank Gore is a pretty weird choice, as he ranks close to last in elusive rating and only averages 2.1 yards per carry after contact. Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray were both better runners this season.

Fullback: Marcel Reece, Raiders; Mike Tolbert, Panthers

I had Anthony Sherman instead of Marcel Reece, but I’m not going to argue fullbacks. Reece has had a very good season once again.

Defensive end: Greg Hardy, Panthers; Cameron Jordan, Saints; Robert Quinn, Rams; Cameron Wake, Dolphins; J.J. Watt, Texans; Mario Williams, Bills

Jordan, Quinn, Wake, and Watt all got my vote. Greg Hardy was right on the border. Mario Williams has had a very solid season, but I just think there were better choices. Calais Campbell is the best player on one of the best defenses in the NFL in Arizona and has 10 sacks and 17 quarterback hits from the 5-technique defensive end spot. Mario Williams has 14 sacks and 7 hits, but he’s not nearly the run player Campbell is and he plays from an easier spot to get to the quarterback

Interior lineman: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers; Haloti Ngata, Ravens; Dontari Poe, Chiefs; Justin Smith, 49ers; Ndamukong Suh, Lions; Kyle Williams, Bills

Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, and Kyle Williams were all very well deserved and got my vote. Dontari Poe didn’t have a bad year at all, but I feel like there were better choices. Damon Harrison from the Jets is the best nose tackle in the NFL this season. Justin Smith and Haloti Ngata get in on name value. Jurrell Casey is the biggest snub among defensive tackles. Also, I voted in all 3 of the Jets’ defensive lineman, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Damon Harrison and not one made it. I don’t get it. Why do people think the Jets are by far the best run stopping team in the NFL, allowing 3.3 YPC?

Outside linebacker: John Abraham, Cardinals; Ahmad Brooks, 49ers; Tamba Hali, Chiefs; Justin Houston, Chiefs; Robert Mathis, Colts; Terrell Suggs, Ravens

Jurrell Casey was a big snub, but Lavonte David was the biggest. He’s probably a top-5 DPOY candidate in my book and I’d argue he’s the best linebacker in the entire NFL, even over media darling Luke Kuechly. John Abraham and Terrell Suggs have had good seasons, but you can’t tell me they are better football players than Lavonte David. Ahmad Brooks is probably the weirdest pick. The San Francisco Bay Area is known for stuffing the ballots for all-star games and that’s really the only reason he’s going to Hawaii. The only one of these 6 I actually voted for was Robert Mathis, though I’m not going to argue Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Hali almost got my vote and Houston only didn’t get my vote because he was hurt. However, he would probably be a top-3 defensive player of the year candidate if he hadn’t gotten hurt and he’s still PFF’s #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite missing significant time. Thomas Davis, Brian Orakpo, and Elvis Dumervil are other big omissions.

Inside/middle linebacker: NaVorro Bowman, 49ers; Vontaze Burfict, Bengals; Luke Kuechly, Panthers; Patrick Willis, 49ers

I’m not going to argue anything here except how Vontaze Burfict got voted in as a middle linebacker when he was on the ballot as an outside linebacker and has played outside linebacker all season. All 4 of these guys got my vote, though Burfict did at outside linebacker. My middle 4th middle linebacker was Derrick Johnson, who is having a very good season. Stephen Tulloch and Karlos Dansby are also having very good seasons at a loaded middle linebacker position this year.

Cornerback: Brandon Flowers, Chiefs; Brent Grimes, Dolphins; Joe Haden, Browns; Patrick Peterson, Cardinals; Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers; Richard Sherman, Seahawks; Aqib Talib, Patriots; Alterraun Verner, Titans

Grimes, Peterson, Revis, Sherman, and Verner all got my vote. Joe Haden got strong consideration. Aqib Talib has been in and out of the lineup too much for my taste and I feel like he got voted in based on a strong start to the season. Brandon Flowers is having by far the worst season of this bunch. Oddly enough, he was a big snub last season, so I guess this balances out, but he’s one of PFF’s lowest ranked cornerbacks this season, allowing 66.7% completion and a 103.9 QB rating. Vontae Davis (50.6% completion and PFF’s highest coverage grade) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NFL best 44.1% completion) were big omissions.

Free safety: Jairus Byrd, Bills; Earl Thomas, Seahawks; Eric Weddle, Chargers

I don’t understand why 3 free safeties and 3 strong safeties are going when we were only able to vote for 2, but okay. Thomas and Weddle both got my vote and Byrd only didn’t because he missed significant time. No arguments here, just confusion.

Strong safety: Eric Berry, Chiefs; Kam Chancellor, Seahawks; Troy Polamalu, Steelers

Devin McCourty, for my money, is the best safety in the game. PFF agrees. He was on the Pro-Bowl ballot as a strong safety even though he’s played the vast majority of the season at free safety, playing within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on a league low 9.1% of snaps. He’s a big omission. Eric Berry got my vote and TJ Ward would have gotten my vote if I were allowed to vote for 3 or if I were allowed to vote McCourty at free safety, so he’s a snub. Kam Chancellor and Troy Polamalu are both having very good seasons though.

Top-15 snubs

1. Lavonte David (Tampa Bay)

2. Jurrell Casey (Tennessee)

3. Devin McCourty (New England)

4. Evan Mathis (Philadelphia)

5. Calais Campbell (Arizona)

6. Vontae Davis (Indianapolis)

7. Josh Sitton (Green Bay)

8. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Denver)

9. Jordan Gross (Carolina)

10. Damon Harrison (NY Jets)

11. Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati)

12. TJ Ward (Cleveland)

13. Brian Orakpo (Washington)

14. Larry Warford (Detroit)

15. Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore)

One note: I thought it was very interesting my top-15 snubs all play for different teams. No real pattern.

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2013 Pro Bowl Picks

QB: Peyton Manning (Denver), Philip Rivers (San Diego), Drew Brees (New Orleans), Russell Wilson (Seattle), Tom Brady (New England), Nick Foles (Philadelphia)

RB: LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia), Jamaal Charles (Kansas City), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), Eddie Lacy (Green Bay), DeMarco Murray (Dallas)

WR: Calvin Johnson (Detroit), Andre Johnson (Houston), Josh Gordon (Cleveland), Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), Brandon Marshall (Chicago), DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia), Alshon Jeffery (Chicago), AJ Green (Cincinnati)

FB: Anthony Sherman (Kansas City), Mike Tolbert (Carolina)

TE: Jimmy Graham (New Orleans), Vernon Davis (San Francisco), Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta), Julius Thomas (Denver)

OT: Joe Thomas (Cleveland), Trent Williams (Washington), Jordan Gross (Carolina), Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati), Joe Staley (San Francisco), Zach Strief (New Orleans)

G: Evan Mathis (Philadelphia), Josh Sitton (Green Bay), Louis Vasquez (Denver), Larry Warford (Detroit), Ben Grubbs (New Orleans), Matt Slauson (Chicago)

C: Alex Mack (Cleveland), Chris Myers (Houston), Manny Ramirez (Denver), Mike Pouncey (Miami)

DE: JJ Watt (Houston), Robert Quinn (St. Louis), Cameron Jordan (New Orleans), Calais Campbell (Arizona), Cameron Wake (Miami), Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets)

DT: Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), Ndamukong Suh (Detroit), Jurrell Casey (Tennessee), Kyle Williams (Buffalo), Sheldon Richardson (NY Jets), Damon Harrison (NY Jets)

MLB: Patrick Willis (San Francisco), NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco), Luke Kueckly (Carolina), Derrick Johnson (Kansas City)

OLB: Lavonte David (Tampa Bay), Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore), Robert Mathis (Indianapolis), Vontaze Burfict (Cincinnati), Brian Orakpo (Washington), Thomas Davis (Carolina)

CB: Darrelle Revis (Tampa Bay), Richard Sherman (Seattle), Vontae Davis (Indianapolis), Brent Grimes (Miami), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Denver), Alterraun Verner (Tennessee), Patrick Peterson (Arizona), Leodis McKelvin (Buffalo)

SS: Devin McCourty (New England), Eric Berry (Kansas City)

FS: Eric Weddle (San Diego), Earl Thomas (Seattle)

K: Nick Folk (NY Jets), Justin Tucker (Baltimore)

P: Justin Hekker (St. Louis), Shane Lechler (Oakland)

KR: Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota), Dexter McCluster (Kansas City)

ST: Justin Bethel (Arizona), David Bruton (Denver)

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