Oakland Raiders 2014 Off-Season Report

2013 Recap

Before Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen came in, the Raiders were one of the most poorly run franchises in football, towards the end of the Al Davis era and ensuing Hue Jackson era, which saw him trade a 1st and 2nd round pick for Carson Palmer weeks after Davis’ death. As a result, the Raiders had over 56 million in dead money on their cap. Before they drafted DJ Hayden, the Raiders had just two of their first round picks on their roster, Darren McFadden and Sebastian Janikowski, a kicker and a running back who got benched mid-season. Of their top-10 cap numbers, only three of them were actually on the roster this season. Two of those would be McFadden and Janikowski and the other would be Tyvon Branch, who missed most of the season with injury.

Fortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel is near. The Raiders wisely kept both Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen despite back-to-back 4-12 seasons, recognizing there wasn’t much they could do. McKenzie and Allen did a good job and getting good seasons out of cheap free agents like Pat Sims, Tony Pashos, Vance Walker, Mike Jenkins, and Charles Woodson. It might sound crazy, but the Raiders overachieved by winning 4 games last season and McKenzie and Allen deserve credit for that. This team was literally working with half of the financial resources of most teams last year, but now they have about 66 million in cap space with all the dead money off their cap. They basically have to start from the ground floor with this roster this off-season, but they have the financial resources to build it up in a hurry.

They’ll have to go into this off-season by identifying building blocks. Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston are both building blocks and need to be re-signed this off-season, even if it means overpaying them on frontloaded deals. Defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker both showed promise this season and should be brought back on multi-year deals. They have a decent young receiver corps. Center Stefen Wisniewski is also very good and the Raiders might be wise to lock up the 2011 2nd round pick long-term this off-season on an extension. Tyvon Branch is their highest paid player for 2014 and he’s pretty solid as well when healthy. Sio Moore showed a lot as a 3rd round rookie and they definitely shouldn’t give up on 1st round rookie DJ Hayden. They’ll have to build around those guys if they want to get out of their recent drought of success. Since losing the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, they are 53-123, by far the worst in the NFL.

Positional Needs

Quarterback

The Raiders are basically starting from the ground floor this off-season, but there isn’t a quicker way to turn the team around than by adding a franchise quarterback. The first round pick they used on JaMarcus Russell, the first and second round picks they traded for Carson Palmer, the 4th round pick they traded for Jason Campbell, the 3rd round pick they used on Terrelle Pryor, and the 4th round pick they used on Tyler Wilson were all for naught as the Raiders had to resort to undrafted rookie Matt McGloin to end the season.

McGloin did some nice things, completing 55.9% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, but ultimately showed why no one used a draft pick on him a few months prior. He could be a nice backup going forward but nothing more. Terrelle Pryor, meanwhile, showed significant flaws as a passer and is not a real starting option going into his 4th season in the league. He completed 57.4% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback in terms of passing grade, and was ultimately benched for an undrafted rookie. The Raiders will be looking for quarterbacks early in the draft.

Defensive End

LaMarr Houston is one of the few building blocks the Raiders have. The converted defensive tackle has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th, 9th, and 11th ranked defensive end in the past 3 seasons respectively and has been well worth the 2nd round pick the Raiders used on him in 2010. The Raiders have literally unlimited cap space this off-season because their roster is so bare so there’s no excuse for not re-signing him, even if they have to overpay him on a front loaded deal with a significant cap number in the first season. Even if they do re-sign him, they have a huge need opposite him. Veteran journeyman Jason Hunter struggled mightily as the starter opposite him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end. Jadeveon Clowney is going to be awfully tempting for this team at #5 overall if he’s still there, in spite of the Raiders’ desperate need for a quarterback.

Defensive Tackle

The Raiders signed Vance Walker and Pat Sims to cheap one-year deals last off-season because they were so strapped for cap space. That worked out really well. Sims blossomed in his 6th year in the league as the 2008 3rd round pick out of Auburn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle. Walker, meanwhile, continued the solid play he displayed in Atlanta prior to coming to Oakland, grading out as above average. Unfortunately, both of them were on just one year deals so they’ll be free agents this off-season. If either isn’t re-signed, they’ll need to be replaced.

Guard

Tony Bergstrom was supposed to be a big part of the Raiders’ offensive line this year, but he missed the entire season with a foot injury and Lucas Nix had to step in for him. He might get another chance at a starting job in 2014, but he’s barely played in 2 years in the league and was only a 3rd round pick so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he never developed into a starter, especially as he’s already heading into his age 28 season. Lucas Nix was terrible in his absence, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard. Meanwhile, at the other guard position, Mike Brisiel is a poor fit for the blocking scheme and could be cut this off-season in an effort to save 1.15 million on next year’s cap and 11.55 in cash over the last 3 seasons. He’s going into his age 31 season.

Offensive Tackle

Jared Veldheer, Khalif Barnes, and Tony Pashos are the Raiders top-3 offensive tackles and all 3 are going to be free agents this off-season. Veldheer should be locked up long-term. Even though he missed most of the season with a torn triceps and struggled upon his return, he’s still a franchise left tackle at full strength. A 3rd round pick out of Hillsdale in 2010, Veldheer graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th and 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The Raiders are in no position to allow someone like that to leave.

Even if re-signed, they’ll need someone opposite him at right tackle. Tony Pashos was competent this season, after being out of the league in 2012, but he’s going into his age 34 season. Barnes, meanwhile, was awful this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 59th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible and he’s perennially among the worst ranked tackles in the NFL. 2013 2nd round pick Menelik Watson could be a long-term starting option, but the raw athlete struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie and might just be another Bruce Campbell.

Running Back

Darren McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 3 seasons since, he’s played a total of 29 games out of 48 and rushed for just 1700 yards and 11 touchdowns on 446 carries (3.8 yards per carry). This season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked running back.

Even with the big 2010 season, he’s never played more than 13 games in a season or had more than 223 carries or 270 touches and in his 2nd straight season of sub-3.5 yards per carry, he was benched for backup Rashad Jennings following an injury. Jennings was much better, rushing for 733 yards on 163 carries (4.5 yards per carry) with 6 touchdowns and 36 catches for 292 yards. Both are free agents and the Raiders are much more likely to bring back Jennings as a lead back than McFadden, who is probably going to be playing football elsewhere in 2014. Jennings, however, should not be considered a sure bet lead back, as he’s never had more than 163 carries in a season, he’s missed 27 of 80 games in his career, and he’s rushed for 4.3 yards per carry in his career, including 2.8 yards per carry in 2012. And if both are gone, then this is a significant position of need.

Cornerback

The Raiders drafted DJ Hayden in the first round in 2013. That hasn’t worked out so far as he played just 353 snaps because of injury and was unable to crack the starting lineup, grading out well below average on Pro Football Focus. He should still be considered a big part of their future obviously, but they’ll need cornerback help after him as well. Both Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter were on just one year deals and are now free agents again. Jenkins was actually pretty decent and could be brought back, but Porter showed why he had to settle for a one year deal as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked cornerback this season.

Safety

Charles Woodson played decent football this season at free safety, but he’s a free agent heading into his age 38 season in 2014 so he obviously can’t be counted on long-term. Usama Young was his backup and he was actually very solid in limited action, which shouldn’t be surprising because he was actually a solid starter in Cleveland the year prior. However, he too is a free agent. The Raiders have so many needs that it might be a good idea to settle for bringing back either Woodson or Young or someone else on a cheap one year deal.

Key Free Agents

DE Lamarr Houston

LaMarr Houston is one of the few building blocks the Raiders have. The converted defensive tackle has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th, 9th, and 11th ranked defensive end in the past 3 seasons respectively and has been well worth the 2nd round pick the Raiders used on him in 2010. The Raiders have literally unlimited cap space this off-season because their roster is so bare so there’s no excuse for not re-signing him, even if they have to overpay him on a front loaded deal with a significant cap number in the first season.

OT Jared Veldheer

Even though he missed most of the season with a torn triceps and struggled upon his return, Jared Veldheer is still a franchise left tackle at full strength. A 3rd round pick out of Hillsdale in 2010, Veldheer graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th and 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The Raiders are in no position to allow someone like that to leave.

DT Pat Sims

Pat Sims was a largely irrelevant backup in Cincinnati to start his career, but the 2008 3rd round pick out of Auburn blossomed in his 6th season in the league in Oakland, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle, excelling against the run. The Raiders should try to keep him around as a potential building block for the future, but they shouldn’t overpay for him based on one strong season.

DT Vance Walker

A 7th round pick out of Georgia Tech, Vance Walker has emerged as a solid starter at defensive tackle over the past 2 seasons, first in Atlanta in 2012 and then in Oakland in 2013, where he was on a one year deal. He’s graded out above average in both seasons and has earned the right to get a multi-year deal worth in the range of 4-5 million dollars yearly with a decent sized signing bonus. The Raiders have a lot of cap space and would be wise to keep him in the fold.

RB Rashad Jennings

Rashad Jennings was a talented backup for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville in 2009 and 2010 to start his career, after going in the 7th round in 2009. He rushed for 661 yards on 125 carries, an average of 5.3 yards per carry. However, in 2011, he missed the whole season with injury and only rushed for 2.8 yards per carry upon his return in 2012. The Jaguars let him go as a free agent and the Raiders snatched him out where he had, by far, his best season, rushing for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns on 163 carries, an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and adding 36 catches for 292 yards through the air, taking over for Darren McFadden mid-season. The Raiders could bring him back on a cheap deal to be their lead back, but they should be hesitant about putting too much faith in him, especially as he’s going into his age 29 season already.

RB Darren McFadden

Darren McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 3 seasons since, he’s played a total of 29 games out of 48 and rushed for just 1700 yards and 11 touchdowns on 446 carries (3.8 yards per carry). This season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked running back. Even with the big 2010 season, he’s never played more than 13 games in a season or had more than 223 carries or 270 touches and in his 2nd straight season of sub-3.5 yards per carry, he was benched for backup Rashad Jennings following an injury. Jennings is much more likely to be brought back as a lead back than McFadden, who is probably done in Oakland. Perhaps he can reunite with former Head Coach Hue Jackson in Cincinnati, under whom he had that 2010 season.

CB Mike Jenkins

Mike Jenkins was a 1st round pick by the Cowboys in 2008 and actually made the Pro-Bowl in 2009, deservingly so, but he eventually washed out in Dallas, struggling and losing his starting job. He got another chance with the Raiders this season and wasn’t terrible, grading out only slightly below average. They could bring him back as a starter, but he’s probably looking at short-term deals wherever he goes.

S Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson actually wasn’t that bad this season, grading out only slightly below average. However, he’s going into his age 38 season in 2014 so there’s a very good chance the former Defensive Player of the Year and Heisman winner just hangs them up and waits for the Hall of Fame to call, which it will. If he decides to continue playing, he’ll be looking at one-year deals with little to no guaranteed money.

OT Tony Pashos

Tony Pashos was out of the league completely in 2012, but he actually played very well in 12 games in 2011 with the Browns, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle. Given that, it shouldn’t be that surprising that he was pretty competent this season on the right side in Oakland, but he’s going into his age 34 season in 2014 so it’s tough to trust him going forward. He’s probably looking at one year deals with an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

S Usama Young

Usama Young was a cheap young talented starter in Cleveland in 2012, so naturally they cut him, despite the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked safety that season. The Raiders wisely snatched him up cheaply, but they didn’t play him enough. Brandian Ross played in Tyvon Branch’s absence this season and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked safety. Usama Young, meanwhile, played just 208 snaps for some reason. He graded out above average on those snaps though. I still believe he’s a starting caliber player if given a chance.

OT Khalif Barnes

Khalif Barnes was one of Pro Football Focus’ worst tackles in 2012, grading out 64th out of 80 eligible despite making just 9 starts at right tackle. In 2013, he was equally bad, grading out 59th out of 76 eligible in 11 starts on the blindside. When Jared Veldheer came back from injury, Barnes, not Tony Pashos, went to the bench. Barnes should be looking for swing tackle work this off-season.

CB Tracy Porter

Tracy Porter has fallen a long way from running back an interception for a touchdown to seal a victory over Peyton Manning and the Colts in February 2010. Porter struggled mightily in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible, allowing opponents to complete 71.2% of passes against him. He didn’t get a chance to redeem himself on a one year deal in Denver in 2012 because of an illness and he struggled mightily again in Oakland in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 104th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. He’ll have to wait a while for a team to call.

DE Jason Hunter

Jason Hunter was a veteran journeyman, but the Raiders gave him a chance to start because they were out of options and had very little cap space, in spite of the fact that didn’t play a snap in 2012 thanks to injury. He played exactly as he would have expected him to, generating just 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 12 hurries and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked 3-4 defensive end. He’ll be looking at situational role at the most this off-season.

Cap Casualty Candidates

G Mike Brisiel

Brisiel has been talked about as a cap casualty for about a year. They signed him to a 5-year deal to be one of the lynchpins of their zone blocking scheme, but the zone blocking scheme was implemented poorly and thrown out. Brisiel was Pro Football Focus’ 8th worst ranked guard in 2012 and would have been cut if cutting him hadn’t come with a cap hit. Now they can cut him and save over a million in cap space and 11.55 million in cash over the next 3 seasons, as he goes into his age 31 season. They could easily cut him, but they actually might not. They aren’t pressed for cap space at all and Brisiel had a much better season this year than last year, grading out just below average. With the struggles of Lucas Nix last season, Brisiel is their best guard and they might not want to part ways.

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Cleveland Browns 2014 Off-Season Report

2013 Recap

The Browns have been the picture of turmoil since returning to the NFL in the 1999 season. In that time period, they’ve had 7 different head coaches, 5 different general managers, 3 different principal owners, 20 different starting quarterbacks, and 0 playoff wins. They are about to get their 8th head coach and 21st starting quarterback in 2014. Obviously, the new starting quarterback is going to be necessary after they botched the Brandon Weeden pick, but I don’t understand why they felt the need to let 1st year head coach Rob Chudzinski go.

What exactly was he supposed to do with this team, especially after the Trent Richardson made Willis McGahee their starting running back? Chudzinski helped coax breakout years out of raw pass catchers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron and at some point they need to make up their mind and value stability. Also, Chudzinski’s untimely firing gives the Browns a bad rep around the NFL and makes them a very unattractive destination for head coach candidates. Josh McDaniels, their #1 target, already turned them down while Adam Gase, their reported next target, seems to be hesitant. That hurts their long-term development as a franchise.

This season wasn’t all bad. I already mentioned the breakout years of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, but they also had a league leading 5 All-Pro players, Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, and TJ Ward. Those five were all deserving, but the problem is that two of them are free agents this off-season. The Browns undoubtedly won the Trent Richardson trade as they got the 26th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft for a guy who averaged 2.9 yards per carry with the Colts and lost his starting job to Donald Brown.

I haven’t given up on Richardson’s long-term potential and he could be much better in 2014 once he gets in better shape and more familiar with the Colts system, but the Browns are almost definitely going to come out winners at the end of the day. In hindsight, taking a running back that high in 2012, 3rd overall, was a dumb move regardless of his long-term ability so credit the Browns’ new regime for cutting bait before it was too late. The Browns have two first round picks to build around their core and if they can get the quarterback position solved, this team could get a lot better in a hurry.

Positional Needs

Quarterback

Drafting Brandon Weeden didn’t work out. In 2 seasons, the 22nd overall pick has completed 55.9% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. At least he’s young and has time to develop. Oh wait, he’s going to be 31 next season. Great job. The regime that drafted him is long gone and the Browns will almost definitely be looking at quarterbacks early in the draft, with two first round picks. Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer both did some nice things this season, but probably project as backups long-term. The Browns front office is reportedly very high on Johnny Manziel, so he could be the Browns next quarterback, their 21st since 1999.

Running Back

As I mentioned, the Browns undoubtedly won the Richardson trade. However, the Browns desperately need a new starting running back. Trading Trent Richardson forced them to sign Willis McGahee off the streets to be the new starting running back and the 32-year-old averaged 2.7 yards per carry and busted just 4 carries of 10 yards or more. He’s highly unlikely to play in the NFL next season and he wouldn’t be a starting option for the Browns anyway. They need an entirely new offensive backfield. Fortunately, they can draft a running back in the mid rounds and he’d probably be significantly better than Richardson.

Wide Receiver

Rob Chudzinski’s firing was especially strange considering he coached up the once raw Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron into two of the premier players at their positions in the NFL. However, they need a 3rd option and another wide receiver opposite Gordon. Greg Little was Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked wide receiver by a wide margin, catching 46.6% of his targets, averaging 11.3 yards per catch, dropping 8 passes to 41 catches, and had a league worst 37.4 QB rating when thrown to. After 3 years in the league, it’s time to give up on him as a starting caliber player. Slot receiver Davone Bess also struggled this season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked wide receiver, catching 42 of 83 targets for an average of 8.6 yards per catch and dropping a whopping 14 passes. He could easily be cut.

Middle Linebacker

If the Browns want to go into a complete rebuild, they could cut D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is a veteran leader, but he has a history of injury problems and is on the decline heading into his age 31 season and owed 6.7 million in 2014. The Browns can save 3.9 million on the cap by cutting Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Even if they don’t, they need to find some sort of upgrade over Craig Robertson, who ranked 52nd, including dead last in coverage. He surrendered two separate 100 yard receiving games to running backs Reggie Bush and Shane Vereen.

Cornerback

The Browns desperately need help opposite Joe Haden. Buster Skrine was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked cornerback, allowing 9 touchdowns through the air and missing 20 tackles, both worst at the position. Chris Owens did a decent job in limited action, but the career backup is a free agent. Leon McFadden was a 3rd round pick in 2013, but he struggled as a rookie. They shouldn’t give up on him, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter considering where he was drafted so they shouldn’t count on him either.

Safety

Tashaun Gipson was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and he unsurprisingly struggled in his first year as a starter in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked safety out of 86 eligible. He’s not terrible, but he could definitely be upgraded. This position becomes a much bigger position of need if they lost All-Pro TJ Ward to free agency, but my guess if they’ll franchise tag him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety.

Guard

The Browns have a very solid offensive line, but their biggest hole, by far, is at right guard. Oniel Cousins and Shawn Lauvao split starts there this season and both were among the lowest ranked guards on Pro Football Focus despite their limited snaps. Grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st and 70th ranked guards out of 81 eligible. Lauvao is a free agent so they should take this opportunity to upgrade the position because Cousins is not a starting caliber player.

Center

Alex Mack is one of the top centers in the NFL, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season and making the All-Pro team. This is how you have to hope it works out when you draft a center in the first round. Unfortunately, he’s a free agent this off-season and they can’t really franchise tag him because they’d be paying him like a tackle if they did that, far more than any other center in the NFL. If they can’t retain him, he’d have to be replaced.

Kicker

Billy Cundiff decently redeemed himself on a one year deal in Cleveland this year, after missing a chip shot to tie the AFC Championship in 2011 and going 7 of 12 and getting benched in 2012. He’s a free agent this off-season and will need to be replaced if he’s not retained.

Key Free Agents

S TJ Ward

TJ Ward blossomed into one of the top safeties in the NFL this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety and being named an All-Pro. That was perfect timing as the 2010 2nd round pick will be a free agent this off-season. Chances are he’ll never hit the open market because the Browns will franchise tag him worst case scenario. He’ll get a good payday either way. He has some history of injury issues, but he’s clearly one of the game’s premier safeties and would be deserving of a contract worth around 7 million per year over 5 years. That would put him among the games top safeties.

C Alex Mack

The Browns drafted Alex Mack in the first round in 2009. It was a risky proposition, even though he was widely considered one of the top center prospects of the decade, because they would need him to emerge as a perennial Pro-Bowler. If he was just an average starter, he would have been a bust because center isn’t that valuable of a position. Unfortunately, the Browns can’t really franchise tag him because they’d be paying him like a tackle if they did that, far more than any other center in the NFL. He could be elsewhere next year if he wants.

CB Chris Owens

Chris Owens, a 3rd round pick in 2009, has been a depth cornerback for the entirety of his career. He’s been a very solid reserve in Atlanta and Cleveland over the past two years. He should get a decent amount of money on a one year or two year deal to be a nickel back somewhere. Cleveland should considering bringing him back considering their cornerback issues.

K Billy Cundiff

Billy Cundiff decently redeemed himself on a one year deal in Cleveland this year, after missing a chip shot to tie the AFC Championship in 2011 and going 7 of 12 and getting benched in 2012. He hit 21 of 26 field goals this season

Cap Casualty Candidates

OLB Quentin Groves

Having Quentin Groves, a capable reserve in Arizona in 2012, as their 4th outside linebacker was kind of overkill for the Browns. Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Paul Kruger make a very good trio so there’s no need for Groves. The Browns would save 1.1 million in cap space by releasing him, which makes a lot of sense considering he played just 53 snaps last season.

QB Jason Campbell

The Browns are likely going quarterback early in the draft and they won’t keep 4 quarterbacks on their roster. They can’t cut Brandon Weeden because there’s still guaranteed money on his contract so one of Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer is probably gone next season. Hoyer outplayed Campbell this season so Campbell is probably gone. Cutting him would save 2.25 million in cap space. Campbell turns 33 next season and completed 56.8% of his passes for an average of 6.36 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions this season. He’ll look to find backup work this off-season. He’s not a starting caliber quarterback at this point in his career.

MLB D’Qwell Jackson

If the Browns want to go into a complete rebuild, they could cut D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is a veteran leader, but he has a history of injury problems and is on the decline heading into his age 31 season and owed 6.7 million in 2014. The Browns can save 3.9 million on the cap by cutting Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He struggled against the run. He had just 26 stops (tackles within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards of the line of scrimmage on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) on 437 snaps, a rate of 5.9% that was the 4th worst in the NFL at his position.

DE Ahtyba Rubin

The Browns can save 6.8 million on the cap by cutting Ahtyba Rubin in his contract year this season. He’s a solid player, but he’s below average as a pass rusher and probably not worth his cap number. The Browns have an excess of defensive line depth with Billy Winn and John Hughes to go with Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant, fellow starters, so they can move on from him pretty easily. They could still keep him to maintain their depth.

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San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: 2013 NFC Championship Pick

San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)

I almost never go against the Seahawks at home and with good reason. Since 2007, the Seahawks are 39-19 ATS at home, including 23-11 ATS as home favorites. They have been especially good over the past two years, as they’ve broken out as an elite team, going 12-5 ATS since the start of the 2012 season. They are outscoring opponents by an average of 16.41 points per game at home since the start of last season and have a 16-1 record over that time span.

I went against the Seahawks at home last week because I thought the line was just too big and because teams tend to cover in the playoffs in same season, same site, non-divisional revenge games. Going against them at home didn’t end badly last week. I had my pick push because I got the Saints +8 and they lost by exactly 8, but if I had gotten it at +9.5, where it was right before the game, it would have been a win for me.

This week, the line isn’t nearly big enough. This line, at 3.5, essentially suggests that these two teams are even and that the Seahawks don’t have a significant home field advantage. You can argue the first one, but you can’t deny their home field advantage. The only way this line makes sense given the Seahawks’ home dominance is if the 49ers are 2-3 points better than the Seahawks on a neutral field.

Not only do I think that’s wrong, I think the Seahawks are the better team on a neutral field. The Seahawks move the chains at a 71.88% rate, as opposed to 66.87% for their opponents, a differential of 5.01%. The 49ers, meanwhile, move the chains at a 71.26% rate, as opposed to 68.02% for their opponents, a differential of 3.25%. That suggests that the Seahawks should be about 5 point favorites even before we factor in their crazy home field advantage. Home field advantage taken into account, the Seahawks should really be favored by 7.5 or 8 points, not 3.5. We’re getting significant line value with them.

The 49ers do have one trend working for them. Teams with 12+ wins are 39-11 ATS in the playoffs against teams with better record than them. However, there are definitely plenty of other things working against them. It’s also worth noting that no team since the 1992-1993 Bills have made the Super Bowl the year after losing the Super Bowl and they did it in an AFC that was much weaker than today’s NFC.

Finally, in spite of last week’s win in Carolina, the 49ers have had a lot of issues with top level teams this year. They’ve gone 2-4 in games against teams that finished with 11 or more wins. The other 3 remaining playoff teams are a combined 9-6 (Seattle 4-2, New England 3-2, Denver 2-2). It’s been worse than that as Colin Kaepernick has really struggled in those 6 games.

The Carolina game was his best performance in that type of game this season, but he still just completed 53.3% of his passes. His highest completion percentage in those 6 games is still just 54.8%. In those 6 games total, he is 84 of 165 (50.9%) for 866 yards (5.24 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing for 194 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries. In his other 12 games, he’s 190 of 309 (61.5%) for 2745 yards (8.88 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns on 67 carries. He’s already been destroyed twice in his young career in Seattle by scores of 42-13 and 29-3. This one might be a little closer, but I love getting Seattle at just -3.5.

Seattle Seahawks 20 San Francisco 49ers 10

Pick against spread: Seattle -3.5

Confidence: High

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New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: 2013 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)

One of the keys to successful handicapping of NFL games is to figure out which situations certain teams tend to do well in. This is easier when the team has had the same quarterback and/or head coach for a long time. Well we’re in year 13 of Tom Brady and this is exactly the type of situation in which the Patriots have dominated in the Tom Brady era. In his career, Tom Brady is 28-11 straight up against opponents with a better record than his, including 6-1 in the post-season.

Just think about that. Teams usually win 38.5% against teams with a better record than the other one. Tom Brady has won 71.8% of such games. Against the spread, he’s even better, going 29-9-1 ATS, including 18-5 ATS as underdogs. Brady and Belichick always bring their best for the best opponents and they’ll do the same this week. He’s already won straight up against Denver and New Orleans this year in this situation. This game will be tougher to win because it’s on the road, but we have 6 points to play with so they won’t need to win to cover.

The Patriots also dominate as an underdog in general with Tom Brady, going 30-15 ATS. That record gets even better when you add in games when the Patriots are favored by fewer than 3 points. Tom Brady is 42-17 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of fewer than 3 points in his career. Basically, in situations when Tom Brady just needs to win to cover, he’s almost automatic, which makes sense considering his absurd 166-50 career straight up record. And again, the Patriots won’t need to win to cover as they are 6 point underdogs. This is just the 10th time the Patriots have underdogs of 6 or more points with Tom Brady under center and the 2nd since 2003. They are 7-2 ATS in those previous 9 games.

I also have to bring up the Brady/Manning history as we go into Brady/Manning XV. Tom Brady has won 10 of the previous 14 matchups. That alone isn’t enough to prove that Tom Brady is the better quarterback (and can we stop the debate and just enjoy, they’re both 1st ballot Hall of Famers and you can’t prove definitively either one is better), but it’s worth noting. Having Bill Belichick on his side definitely helps. Belichick himself is 11-6 ATS and SU against Peyton Manning since taking over as the Patriots head coach in 2000, including 8-2 ATS as underdogs.

It’s also worth noting that Belichick has only once lost to Manning by more than 8 points, including 3 games without Brady. The Patriots in general have just 1 loss by more than 8 points since week 10 of the 2010 season, over 3 years ago. Considering this line is at 6, that’s pretty relevant. I obviously wish we were getting even more points, but I expect this to be a close game either way so getting 6 points is very valuable. Another weird trend that benefits the Patriots: teams with 12+ wins are 39-11 ATS in the playoffs against teams with better record than them.

There are some reasons to doubt the Patriots. In general, teams tend to struggle off of games in which they score 40+ points in the playoffs, going 3-14 ATS in that situation since 2002. The Patriots could be caught overconfident after running over Indianapolis last week. The Broncos have also won 7 of 9 games at home by double digits this year and are 12-5 ATS as home favorites over the past 2 seasons. Sure, the Chargers played within 7 points last week, but they didn’t really deserve to. Playing the Broncos close in Denver might be too big of a task, even for the Patriots.

Denver, of course, is also a very dominant football team. In fact, there’s still plenty of reason to believe they are the best in the NFL.  They move the chains at an 81.43% rate, as opposed to 71.84% for their opponents, a differential of 9.59% that not only ranks the best in the NFL out of the remaining 4 playoff teams, but also is better than any team that has been eliminated as well. I still think the Patriots are up to the challenge though and they have plenty supporting them, given their history in these types of situations. I’m very confident in the Patriots and grab them at +6 before you can’t. A heavy early public lean on New England is going to push the line down fast and already has started to in some places.

New England Patriots 31 Denver Broncos 30 Upset Pick +195

Pick against spread: New England +6

Confidence: High

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2013 Divisional Round Pick Results

Wild Card

Straight Up: 3-1

Against the Spread: 1-2-1

Pick of the Week: 0-0

High Confidence: 0-1

Medium Confidence: 0-0

Low Confidence: 0-0-1

No Confidence: 1-1

Upset Picks: 0-1

2013

Straight Up: 177-86-1 (.673)

Against the Spread: 147-108-9 (.576)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1

High Confidence: 24-9-1

Medium Confidence: 32-26

Low Confidence: 39-27-3

No Confidence: 42-40-4

Upset Picks: 27-30

Pre-season Prop Bets: 8-3

Rate of Moving the Chains – Conference Championship

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. These are the remaining playoff teams and how they stack up.

Offense

Team First downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Denver 461 74 65 28 1 28 81.43%
2 New England 401 50 83 20 9 41 74.67%
3 Seattle 320 43 80 19 5 38 71.88%
4 San Francisco 329 43 84 19 5 42 71.26%

 

Defense

Team First Downs Touchdowns Punts Turnovers Failed 4th downs Field goal attempts
1 Seattle 307 22 85 40 9 29 66.87%
2 San Francisco 320 33 92 32 14 28 68.02%
3 New England 354 38 85 33 17 29 70.50%
4 Denver 352 46 91 26 11 28 71.84%

 

Differential

Team
1 Denver 9.59%
2 Seattle 5.01%
3 New England 4.17%
4 San Francisco 3.25%

 

Projected Lines

DEN/NE 8.42
SEA/SF 4.76

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 Off-season Report

2013 Recap

When the Jaguars started 0-8 with all 8 losses coming by double digits, it looked like they were on their way to all-time bad status and maybe a 0-16 season. They didn’t finish quite that bad, as they went 4-4 after the bye to finish 4-12, but I still think this was the worst team in the NFL. They finished dead last in DVOA and point differential, with 10 of their 12 losses coming by double digits and their 4-12 record was buoyed by a 4-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their 4 wins came against teams that finished a combined 15-49.

All those wins really did was play them out of the #1 pick when they’re the team that probably needed it the most because of their desperate need for a franchise quarterback. They’ll still be able to get a top level quarterback prospect at #3, but you obviously prefer to have the #1 pick. If they were to hit a homerun on a quarterback at 3 and get a young franchise quarterback, it would obviously go a long way towards repairing this franchise, as that’s the quickest way to turn around a team.

However, that’s far from their only problem. They need help on the offensive line and on defense. Gus Bradley did a solid job in his first year on the job coaching up some replacement level starters on defense like Sen’Derrick Marks, Alan Ball, and Will Blackmon, but he wasn’t working with much as this cupboard was left pretty bare by ex-GM Gene Smith. The good news is they’ll have among the most cap space in the league and can have even more if they cut a few underperforming veterans. The problem is that Jacksonville has never been a prime destination for free agents and with the team in shambles, that won’t change.

Positional Needs

Quarterback

Blaine Gabbert was a JaMarcus Russell/Ryan Leaf level bust as the 10th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s made 27 starts in 3 years, won 5 of them, while completing 53.3% of his passes for 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 66.4. He doesn’t even resemble an NFL backup at this point. Chad Henne was the starter for the majority of the 2013 season, leading one of the NFL’s worst offenses and completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He could be a solid backup somewhere, but he has more career interceptions (62) than touchdowns (55). The Jaguars have reportedly been scouting quarterbacks all season and that’s almost certainly where they’re going at the top of the draft. There might not be a team that needs one more.

Defensive End

The Jaguars had a league worst 31 sacks this season and sack leader Jason Babin is unlikely to be back next season, owed 6 million in his age 34 season. That would leave Andre Branch and Tyson Alualu on the outside, both of whom are solid run stoppers that can’t do anything as pass rushers. They need a dominant edge rusher.

Running Back

Maurice Jones-Drew is a free agent heading into his age 29 season. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be back. The Jaguars want to get younger at the position and MJD will want to go to a contender and somewhere where he’ll have more help. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in 2013 and has scored just 6 times in the last 2 seasons as a result of the lack of talent around him.

Guard

Will Rackley at left guard is a disgrace. The 2011 3rd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard in 2011, missed the entire 2012 season, and was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked guard in 2013. Mike Brewster filled in for him from time to time this season and wasn’t terrible, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst guard in more significant action in 2012, so I don’t know how much you can trust him.

Offensive Tackle

The Jaguars drafted Luke Joeckel 2nd overall in 2013 to build around the quarterback position. He and Eugene Monroe appeared to make offensive tackle the strength of the team. However, Monroe was traded mid-season in his contract year, while Joeckel struggled before breaking his ankle and going on injured reserve. Joeckel will be back at left tackle next season, but they need someone to bookend him. Cameron Bradfield, who played both right and left tackle this season, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked offensive tackle. He’s a free agent anyway. Austin Pasztor filled in at right tackle and he wasn’t much better. It’s part of the reason why they allowed 50 sacks, 2nd worst in the NFL.

Center

Brad Meester has retired so the Jaguars will need a new center. Mike Brewster and Will Rackley are both internal options, but they’ve both struggled mightily thus far in their career. Either one of them could be better at center, but they should probably bring someone else in this off-season.

Defensive Tackle

Gus Bradley did a good job of coaching up Sen’Derrick Marks this season and the Jaguars extended him. They need help next to him at defensive tackle though. Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick both struggled mightily and the latter is a free agent. The former could be a cap casualty if they’re unhappy with his performance and either way they need another defensive tackle in the mix.

Cornerback

The Jaguars cornerback trio of Alan Ball, Will Blackmon, and Dwayne Gratz actually impressed this season. All three of them graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. However, Blackmon is a free agent, while Alan Ball has been very inconsistent in the past so I don’t know how much you can trust him going forward. They could add another cornerback in the later rounds.

Middle Linebacker

Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but don’t let that mislead you. Almost every play ends in a tackle so somehow had to have a bunch of tackles on the Jaguars. That doesn’t mean he’s good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He’s owed 7.45 million in 2014, which will make him one of the highest paid middle linebackers in the NFL and the Jaguars can save 5.5 million in the cap by letting him go. In normal circumstances, they let him go. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly pressed for cap space so they might shy away from cutting a veteran leader. If they do cut him, they’ll need a replacement.

Tight End

Marcedes Lewis is one of the highest paid tight ends in the NFL. He’ll make 6.7 million in 2014 and the Jaguars can save on the cap 5.45 million by cutting him. He hasn’t lived up to his 58/700/10 season in 2010, which got him the contract. In the last 3 seasons, he’s averaged 39 catches for 453 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a solid blocker and his receiving numbers are affected by the quarterback situation. Like with Posluszny, in normal circumstances, he’s probably gets cut, but the Jaguars aren’t pressed for cap space and might not want to cut one of the few solid starters they have. If they do, they’ll need to replace him.

Safety

The Jaguars had a pair of rookie safeties in 2013, John Cyprien and Josh Evans. Both of them graded out as among Pro Football Focus’ worst safeties, ranking 84th and 78th respectively out of 86 eligible. The Jaguars like both of them and they’ll probably return in 2014 as starters, especially Cyprien, a 2nd round pick who played much better in the 2nd half of the season, but Evans was just a 6th round pick and the Jaguars could add some competition.

Outside Linebacker

Geno Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible and the Jaguars can save a little bit of cap space by cutting him, but the Jaguars have other needs so this one might go unaddressed. If they do cut Hayes, he probably wouldn’t be hard to upgrade though.

Key Free Agents

RB Maurice Jones-Drew

Maurice Jones-Drew has seen a sharp fall from the 2011 season in which he led the NFL in rushing, with 1606 yards and 8 touchdowns on 343 carries. He missed 10 games in 2012 and only had 86 carries, which he took for 484 yards and a touchdown. This past year was even worse, as he rushed for 803 yards and 5 touchdowns on 234 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per carry. He could be better with more talent around him, but he’s also going into his age 29 season with 1804 career carries and a recent history of significant injury so it’s not like he’ll be a hot commodity on the open market. He’ll probably be looking to sign with a contender and could get a one or two year deal. There’s almost no chance he returns to Jacksonville at this point in his career.

CB Will Blackmon

Will Blackmon played a total of 31 snaps from 2009-2012 and didn’t play at all in 2012. There’s a reason the Jaguars were able to sign him right before the season started for the veteran’s minimum. However, he somehow played pretty solid this season, a testament to Gus Bradley’s ability to coach up defensive backs. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback and played 682 snaps. Much of that was run grade as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked run stopping cornerback, but he also had an average grade in coverage. The Jaguars should be able to bring him back cheap.

QB Chad Henne

A 2nd round pick in 2008, Chad Henne has never been able to establish himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.63 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 62 interceptions, a 75.3 QB rating. He’s a solid backup though so he could get a decent amount of money somewhere. He should be looking for contracts in the 2-3 million dollar range this off-season.

OT Cameron Bradfield

A swing tackle pressed into action this season, first at right tackle and then at the blindside, Cameron Bradfield was one of the worst offensive tackles in the league this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked player at his position. He was a little bit better in 2012 as the starting right tackle, but the Jaguars still drafted Luke Joeckel to replace him. It’s clear they don’t view him as a starting caliber player and that’s probably an accurate assessment. He should try to find swing tackle work somewhere.

RB Jordan Todman

Jordan Todman was given an opportunity to establish himself as a lead back type player when Maurice Jones-Drew missed time with injury down the stretch, rushing for 109 yards on 25 carries in one game. The 2011 6th round pick only averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the season though. Part of that was the lack of talent around him, but the Jaguars shouldn’t feel comfortable bringing him back as the lead back.

C Brad Meester

A 2000 2nd round pick, Brad Meester played 14 seasons and made 209 starts at center for the Jaguars. However, he’s expected to retire this off-season. It’s coming at a good time. He’ll be 37 in March and struggled in each of the last two seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd and 6th worst ranked center in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE Jason Babin

The Jaguars can save 6.175 million by cutting Jason Babin and there would be no cap hit. They shouldn’t hesitate. He did have 8 sacks last season and graded out above average as a pass rusher, but he struggled mightily against the run and also committed 11 penalties. He’s also going into his age 34 season. Babin also has the option to make himself a free agent so the Jaguars might not even have to do anything to get him and his cap number off the books.

RB Justin Forsett

The Jaguars will only save 1.15 million on the cap by cutting Justin Forsett, but considering the 3rd string running back played just 100 snaps and had 6 carries this year, there’s not much use in keeping him when they can get some savings by letting him go. Reports already say he’s as good as gone.

TE Marcedes Lewis

I already mentioned Marcedes Lewis. He’ll make 6.7 million in 2014 and the Jaguars can cap 5.45 million by cutting him. He hasn’t lived up to his 58/700/10 season in 2010, which got him the contract. In the last 3 seasons, he’s averaged 39 catches for 453 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a solid blocker and his receiving numbers are affected by the quarterback situation. In normal circumstances, he’s probably gets cut, but the Jaguars aren’t pressed for cap space and might not want to cut one of the few solid starters they have.

MLB Paul Posluszny

I already mentioned Paul Posluszny. Paul Posluszny had a bunch of tackles last season, but don’t let that mislead you. Almost every play ends in a tackle so somehow had to have a bunch of tackles on the Jaguars. That doesn’t mean he’s good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He’s owed 7.45 million in 2014, which will make him one of the highest paid middle linebackers in the NFL and the Jaguars can save 5.5 million in the cap by letting him go. In normal circumstances, they let him go. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly pressed for cap space so they might shy away from cutting a veteran leader.

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