Jacksonville Jaguars 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Needs

Defensive End

The Chris Clemons signing didn’t really work out for the Jaguars. Clemons was dominant in Seattle when Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was the defensive coordinator, but he’s over the hill. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 defensive end last season and isn’t going to get any better, going into his age 34 season in 2015. With all of his guaranteed money already paid out, Clemons could easily be cut this off-season, owed 4.5 million in salary and bonuses next season. The Jaguars really need to find a long-term edge rusher who can be what Clemons was in his prime in Seattle. Nebraska’s Randy Gregory could be very intriguing at #3 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Offensive Tackle

Luke Joeckel has been a disappointment as the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. He struggled at right tackle as a rookie before going down with an ankle injury. In 2014, his first season at left tackle, he was even worse, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible. He could still pan out and it’s too early to write him off as a bust, but he might be better off moving to right tackle. The Jaguars could target a blindside protector in free agency or in the draft and move Joeckel to the right side. Even if they don’t do that, they’ll need a new right tackle as Austin Pasztor, Sam Young, and Cameron Bradfield all struggled there this season.

Middle Linebacker

5th round rookie Telvin Smith was a surprise this year, playing 723 snaps, grading out right around average, and looking like a long-term starter. He also showed some versatility, playing both inside and outside linebacker. However, both Geno Hayes and JT Thomas are free agents this off-season (the latter was horrible this season anyway), while Paul Posluszny could be a cap casualty this off-season, after missing 9 games with injury last season. If all three aren’t brought back, the Jaguars will need someone to play every down linebacker inside if they keep Smith outside or someone to play every down outside if they move Smith inside. If they bring some of them back, linebacker is still a need because Smith is the only one who projects as a long-term every down starter.

Tight End

Marcedes Lewis was limited to 8 games and 443 snaps last year by injury. Coming off the worst season of his career, he could easily be cut, going into his age 31 season. He’s owed 6.8 million in salary and bonuses in 2015 and the Jaguars can save that amount on the cap immediately by cutting him. If they do that, they’ll need another tight end because Clay Harbor wasn’t very good in his absence.

Safety

John Cyprien and Josh Evans have been their starters at safety over the past two seasons. Both struggled as rookies in 2013, but Cyprien improved in 2014. Evans, however, did not, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014 and their 78th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013. This should not be a surprise because, unlike Cyprien, a 2nd round pick, Evans was available in the 6th round. They should find an upgrade on him this off-season.

Center

The Jaguars were forced to start 6th round rookie Luke Bowanko at center this season and he predictably struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked center out of 41 eligible. As is the case with Evans, if you’re starting a 6th round rookie, it’s generally a bad sign. 6th round picks rarely become starters in the NFL (hence why they fall to the 6th round). The Jaguars should bring in some competition for him this off-season.

Running Back

Denard Robinson flashed in his first season of significant action, making 9 starts and rushing for 582 yards and 4 touchdowns on 135 carries (4.31 YPC). However, he’s still unproven, with just 155 career carries and it’s still unclear if the 6-0 197 pound former quarterback can handle the load long-term. There’s a reason he fell to the 5th round in 2013 and he didn’t do anything to quell durability concerns by ending the season on injured reserve with a significant foot injury. They should add another running back this off-season because they have absolutely nothing behind him and would be in trouble if he got hurt again.

Notable Unrestricted Free Agents

WR Cecil Shorts

Cecil Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback. However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others. He’s talented and could post solid numbers somewhere with a better quarterback, but durability is a big concern.

OLB Geno Hayes

Geno Hayes was once one of the better young linebackers in the NFL, as the 2008 6th round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th and 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and 2010 respectively. However, he struggled in his contract year in 2011, grading out 40th among 45 at his position. He was forced to take a one year deal with the Bears in free agency and ended up playing just 141 snaps with them in 2012, but he’s had somewhat of a career revival in Jacksonville over the past two seasons, making 25 starts. He graded out slightly below average in 2013, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he deserves to be a starter in 2015.

CB Alan Ball

Ball came to the Jaguars as a 6-year veteran two off-seasons ago. The hybrid cornerback/safety had graded out below average in 5 of those 6 seasons. The only season he had graded out above average prior to 2013 was 2009, when he played just 303 snaps and he played a combined 598 snaps in 2011-2012. The only season he was ever a starter during that time span was 2010, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked safety out of 85 eligible. However, his tenure in Jacksonville was pretty solid, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2013, making all 16 starts. He wasn’t quite as good in 2014, but he still graded out about average on 508 snaps as the #3 cornerback. He’d be a solid depth signing for a team.

OLB JT Thomas

Thomas, a 2011 5th round pick, played 202 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before being forced to make 10 starts in 2014 because Paul Posluszny missed significant time with a torn pectoral. He predictably struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps at the position and grading out worse. He shouldn’t be anything more than a reserve.

DE Tyson Alualu

Alualu was a surprise pick as the 10th overall pick in 2010 and he was a massive bust, with the likes of Anthony Davis, Ryan Matthews, Brandon Graham, Earl Thomas, and Jason Pierre-Paul going 11-15 after him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, 88th ranked out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 84th ranked out of 85 eligible in 2012. The Jaguars then converted him to 4-3 defensive end, but he wasn’t any better there, grading out 48th out of 52 eligible at the position in 2013 and 50th out of 59 eligible in 2014. Few players have seen regular snaps and been worse than him over the past 5 years at any position. He shouldn’t be considered a lock to make anyone’s 53 man roster in 2015.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE Chris Clemons

Chris Clemons had a strong stretch in Seattle from 2010-2012, grading out as a top-12 4-3 defensive end in all 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus, excelling at getting to the quarterback. However, he tore his ACL in the post-season in 2012 and hasn’t been the same since. He was Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible in 2013 and he was even worse in 2014 as even former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley couldn’t get it back out of him. He was the 2nd worst ranked player at his position this year. The Jaguars can save 4.5 million in cash and immediate cap space by cutting him this off-season.

TE Marcedes Lewis

Lewis, a 2006 1st round pick, has been one of the most underrated and underappreciated players of the last decade or so. Lewis hasn’t put him big numbers in the passing game, catching 315 passes for 3789 yards and 27 touchdowns in 128 career games, maxing out with a 58/700/10 line in 2010. However, that’s largely because he’s been stuck with terrible quarterbacks and been asked to stay in to pass protect more than any tight end in the league over that time period, something he excels at. He doesn’t excel as a pass catcher, but he’s been decent and he’s a dominant blocker both in the run game and the pass game. However, he’s coming off of the worst season of his career, grading out below average for the first time since 2008 and missing 8 games with injury. He’s missed a combined 13 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player on the field. Going into his age 31 season, owed 6.8 million, the Jaguars could easily cut him loose. They’d save that amount on the salary cap immediately by cutting him.

MLB Paul Posluszny

Paul Posluszny is the Jaguars’ highest paid player, making 7.5 million next season, and he’s not worth it as he’s largely been an average starter overall in Jacksonville over the past 5 seasons. He had a good start to his tenure in Jacksonvillle, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, including 7th in 2011, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s a team leader and the Jaguars aren’t strapped for cap space so they could keep him, but he’s going into his age 31 season, he missed 9 games with a torn pectoral last season, his best years are behind him, and the Jaguars can save all 7.5 million of that immediately in cap space so they could pull the trigger.

RB Toby Gerhart

The Jaguars signed Gerhart to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping that the 2010 2nd round pick could emerge as a starter, out of Adrian Peterson’s shadow. Instead, he flopped, rushing for 326 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries (3.23 YPC). Part of that had to do with the offensive line’s ineffectiveness, as well Gerhart’s nagging injuries, but he’s been passed by Denard Robinson on the depth chart and the Jaguars can avoid paying him 3 million in non-guaranteed money if they cut him this off-season.

DE Red Bryant

Red Bryant didn’t flop nearly as badly as fellow ex-Seahawk Chris Clemons did in his first season in Jacksonville. He did what he was brought in to do, stop the run, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd best at his position in that aspect. However, he once again got no pass rush and the Jaguars might not want to pay 4.25 million non-guaranteed to an aging two-down player. He’ll turn 31 in 2015.

WR Justin Blackmon

It’s easy to forget that Justin Blackmon is still on the Jaguars’ roster as he hasn’t been on the field since week 8 of 2013. Blackmon has missed 28 games combined over the past 2 seasons with drug abuse related suspensions. Though he’s tentatively expected to be reinstated for the 2015 season, his 2.9 million dollar salary for 2015 is non-guaranteed as a result of the suspension so he could be let go. However, his natural talent should get him a 2nd chance (or 3rd or 4th at this point). The 5th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Blackmon had a solid rookie season, catching 64 passes for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns and then excelled in 4 games as a sophomore in 2013 before getting suspended. His 2.58 yards per route run was 4th best in the NFL among eligible receivers as he caught 29 passes for 415 yards and 1 touchdown on 161 routes run in those 4 games.

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Tennessee Titans 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Needs

Quarterback

Arguably the most intriguing spot in the first round of the draft is #2 where the Titans are picking. Ken Whisenhunt drafted Zach Mettenberger in the 6th round last year and he showed some promise as a rookie, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Whisenhunt has praise for Mettenberger in the end of season press conference, but stopped short of naming him the starter for 2015. Quarterbacks who fall as far in the draft as Mettenberger did rarely work out as long-term starters. There’s a decent chance that the Titans fall in love with Jameis Winston’s upside at #2, in spite of the off the field issues and some developing that still needs to happen on the field, or the Titans could go into 2015 with Mettenberger as their guy and hope he develops into a functional starter. Either way, it’ll be a franchise defining decision for the Titans.

Rush Linebacker

The Titans really struggled for edge rush last season outside of Derrick Morgan. Other than Morgan, no rush linebacker had more than 3 sacks. Morgan is a free agent, unfortunately for the Titans, and easily could not be back next season. Kamerion Wimbley was the starter opposite him and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked rush linebacker out of 46 eligible and could easily be a cap casualty this off-season. Quentin Groves was the #3 guy and he would have ranked 4th worst at his position (just ahead of Wimbley) if he had been eligible, despite playing just 246 snaps. He’s a free agent this off-season anyway. If the Titans pass on Winston at #2, Nebraska edge rusher Randy Gregory is going to look awfully attractive.

Offensive Tackle

Michael Oher predictably struggled in his first season in Tennessee, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible. Considering he struggled in 2013 as well, grading out as 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible and that all of his 9 million dollars in guaranteed money has already been paid out, the Titans could easily cut him this off-season, that would save them 4 million in cash, immediately free up 2 million in cap space, and put a swift end to a poorly thought out free agent signing. They’d need a replacement though, opposite Taylor Lewan, who will continue to man the blindside.

Safety

Bernard Pollard should be back in 2015, after missing most of 2014 with a torn Achilles, even though he’ll be in his age 31 season, coming off of a significant injury, and owed 3.1 million dollars in cash. When healthy, he’s a solid starter. However, Michael Griffin opposite him, could easily not be back. The inconsistent former first round pick will be owed 6.3 million in non-guaranteed salary in 2015, his age 30 season, and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst safety last season. The Titans will need to replace him as George Wilson, who filled in for Pollard last year, was the 6th worst safety and will be a free agent going into his age 34 season this off-season.

Running Back

2014 2nd round pick Bishop Sankey struggled in his first year as a starter in 2014, rushing for 569 yards and 2 touchdowns on 152 carries (3.74 YPC), but he’ll be the starter in 2015 again. They need another running back to provide competition though. Veteran backup Shonn Greene is highly unlikely to be back in 2015, owed 3.35 million in an age 30 season.

Cornerback

The Titans really missed Alterraun Verner this season, as Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson both struggled mightily opposite Jason McCourty this season. They graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th and 104th ranked cornerbacks out of 108 eligible last season. Some competition should be added this off-season.

Center

2013 4th round pick Brian Schwenke has struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league. He’s made 20 starts, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked center out of 36 eligible in 2013 and 32nd ranked center out of 41 eligible in 2014. The Titans should add competition this off-season.

Notable Unrestricted Free Agents

OLB Derrick Morgan

A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability will make him a hot commodity on the open market.

LT Michael Roos

Michael Roos missed 11 games with a knee injury in 2014 and the Titans really missed him. Prior to 2004, he was as dependable as a left tackle could be, missing just one start from 2007-2013. Even including last season, he’s graded out above average in every season dating back in 2007. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a serious concern as he comes off that injury. He’s reportedly considering retirement, but if he doesn’t end up retiring, he could be a nice cheap option on the open market.

QB Jake Locker

Jake Locker didn’t live up to the Titans’ expectations, after they took him 8th overall in 2011. Locker sat behind Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie and only played in 29 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons. His numbers weren’t terrible, as he completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, while rushing for 644 yards and 5 touchdowns on 95 carries. but they don’t offset the variety of injuries he’s had. The Titans sat him behind Zach Mettenberger at times last season even when Locker was healthy, opting to see what the rookie had in Locker’s contract year. That suggests they’re very likely to move on from him this off-season, in favor of Mettenberger or a quarterback they take early in the draft. However, in a league where the quarterback position is so valuable and good quarterbacks are so scarce, Locker will draw interest on the open market as a buy low quarterback and be given a chance to compete for a starting job. He’s only going into his age 27 season and he still has natural talent if he can ever stay on the field long enough to develop it.

WR Nate Washington

Nate Washington has been around for a while, playing in every game in each of the last 9 seasons, catching 411 passes for an average of 6296 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Steelers and Titans. He’s never been great, with only one season of 1000+ yards, but he’s always been decent and dependable. However, now he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of an underwhelming season in which he caught 40 passes for 647 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade. He’ll be seen as a depth receiver and nothing more on the open market this off-season.

S George Wilson

A long-time Bill, George Wilson graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 3 seasons as a starter (2009, 2011, and 2012). His best seasons were 2009 and 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th and 8th ranked safety respectively. As a free agent in 2013, Wilson, then going into his age 32 season, was forced to settle for a short-term deal and only played 420 snaps as a reserve in 2013, though he did play well. Wilson moved into the starting lineup when Bernard Pollard got hurt in 2014, but he struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 83rd ranked safety out of 88 eligible. Now going into his age 34 season, he won’t draw much interest on the open market.

DT Karl Klug

Karl Klug, a 2011 5th round pick, has never played more than 520 snaps in a season and has only once played more than 338 snaps. However, he’s graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 despite playing just 330 snaps. The 6-3 275 pounder is only a situational player, but can provide valuable interior pass rush in sub packages and would be a nice pickup for anyone who signs him this off-season.

Potential Cap Casualties

OT Michael Oher

In one of the NFL’s most head-scratching moves last off-season, the Titans gave Michael Oher a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal, even though he was coming off of an awful season to end a generally inconsistent and disappointing 5-year tenure in Baltimore, after going in the first round in 2009. In 2013, his final year in Baltimore, he was Pro Football Focus 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. In 2014, his first year in Tennessee, Oher predictably struggled once again, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible in 11 games, before going down for the season with an injury. The 9 million dollars they guaranteed him was absurd, but it’s already been paid so it’s a sunk cost. The Titans could easily cut him this off-season, a move that would save them 4 million in cash and immediately free up 2 million in cap space.

RB Shonn Greene

Another weird free agent signing by the Titans, Shonn Greene was a backup caliber running back masquerading as a starter in New York with the Jets for 4 years to start his career, but, even in a league where the position is becoming devalued, the Titans gave him a 3-year deal worth 10 million dollars with 4.5 million guaranteed 2 off-seasons ago. Greene rewarded them with 171 carries for 687 yards (4.02 YPC) and 6 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons, while catching 7 passes for 52 yards. Owed 3.35 million between salary and bonuses in the final year of his contract, the Titans should cut him to save that amount in cash and on the cap. He’s going into his age 30 season, got arrested this year, and shouldn’t be making anything more than the league minimum.

TE Craig Stevens

Purely a blocking tight end, the Titans still signed Stevens to a 4-year, 14.4 million dollar deal before the 2012 season. Stevens was a good blocker in his first 2 years in 2012 and 2013, but only caught a combined 25 passes. In 2014, he played just 70 snaps before going down with an injury. Considering the Titans forced him to take a significant pay cut last off-season to stay on the team, there’s little to no chance he sees his scheduled non-guaranteed 3.5 million dollar salary in 2015, which will be his age 31 season.

OLB Kamerion Wimbley

Kamerion Wimbley struggled mightily opposite Derrick Morgan last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible. Owed 2.75 million in cash going into his age 32 season in 2015, Wimbley is unlikely to be back. The Titans would save only 950K on the cap by doing so, but it would get them out of 6 million dollars owed over the next two seasons and he’d be off of their cap completely in 2016, when his cap number would otherwise be 5.15 million (1.8 million if they cut him next off-season.

DT Sammie Lee Hill

Sammie Lee Hill signed a 3-year, 11.4 million dollar deal with the Titans 2 off-seasons ago. In 2013, he graded out about average on 389 snaps and in 2014, he struggle on 597 snaps. He’s owed a non-guaranteed 4 million dollars in 2015 between salary and bonuses and the Titans would save that amount in cash and cap space by cutting him this off-season. Given that he’s a marginal player and that he was investigated for sexual assault this season, they could easily do that.

S Michael Griffin

Griffin has been the picture of inconsistency throughout his career in Tennessee since they drafted him in the first round in 2007. He has had slightly above average years in 2007, 2010, well above average years in 2008 (9th), 2011 (10th), and 2013 (14th), and below average years in 2009 (87th out of 88), 2012 (87th out of 88), and 2014 (84th out of 88). The Titans gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal with 15 million guaranteed three off-seasons ago. All that guaranteed money is expired and, given how horrible he was last season, he could easily be let go ahead of his age 30 season in 2015. The Titans would avoid 6.3 million in salary and 6.5 million in salary in 2015 and 2016 respectively and save 4.5 million immediately on the salary cap by doing so.

G Andy Levitre

This is one that I’ve heard rumored, but it’s not likely. Levitre signed a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal 2 off-seasons ago and all the guaranteed money has already been paid out. Levitre was very solid in 4 years in Buffalo to start his career, making all 64 starts over that period, including 5 at left tackle and 1 at center. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard in 2011 and their 8th ranked guard in 2012. He was once again solid in the first season of his contract in Tennessee in 2013, making all 16 starts and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard. However, last season, he graded out below average, though he did once again play all 16 games. He’s owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million in 2015 and the Titans can save 2.3 million on the cap immediately by cutting him this off-season. However, I think it’s more likely they keep him around. They’re not that pressed for cap space and, when he’s right, he’s the kind of top level player that the Titans have a severe shortage of.

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Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at Green Bay Packers (12-4)

This is the first time in NFL history that an 8-0 home team has met an 8-0 road team in the playoffs and both teams are in the location where they’ve had the most success this season, the Packers in Lambeau and the Cowboys, well, anywhere other than AT&T Stadium. This season, the Cowboys were 7-1 ATS on the road, while the Packers were 6-2 ATS at home. Dallas’ lone non-cover came as 3.5 point favorites in New York against the Giants in an eventual 3 point Cowboys win. The Packers also had a close non-cover, winning by 7 points week 2 as 7.5 point favorites over the Jets. Their other non-cover was by a few more points, in a 6 point home win as 12.5 point favorites over the Falcons, but it was a game that the Packers led 31-7 at halftime before letting the Falcons get back into it, though they were never really in danger of losing, unless Atlanta managed to improbably recover a late onside kick.

For both of these two teams, this isn’t just a one year thing. Though this has happened for them to a greater extent this season, there is more of a sample size than just one season for both teams. As long as Aaron Rodgers starts (minus any games he’s been knocked out very early with injuries), the Packers are 27-10-1 ATS at home since 2010 and 34-4 straight up, with an absurd +564 point differential, meaning they outscore opponents, on average, by 14.84 points per game. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 21-20 at home since 2010, outscoring opponents by an average of 2.24 points per game, as opposed to 22-18 on the road, getting outscored by an average of 0.25 points per game, a mere 2.5 point difference that’s one of the league’s smallest over that time period. As a result, they are 14-27 ATS at home, as opposed to 23-16 ATS on the road, a road ATS record that improves to 16-8 ATS when they are underdogs.

Re-focusing on this past regular season, the Packers moved the chains at an 81.27% rate at home, as opposed to 73.48% for their opponents, a differential of 7.79%, while the Cowboys moved the chains at a 77.73% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.84% for their opponents, a differential of 4.89%. The Packers have been better at home than the Cowboys have been on the road, but this line is at 6 so it gives us some wiggle room with the Cowboys. The Cowboys have two valuable defensive players, Jeremy Mincey and Rolando McClain, questionable with concussions, but Aaron Rodgers is playing at less than 100% for the Packers and could be knocked out of the game at any moment so that cancels out. The sharps seem to agree as this line has dropped from 7 to 6.5 and now down to 6 and even 5.5 in some places, despite the public being on Green Bay. It’s not a game I’d put money on because I hate wagering against Rodgers at home, but the Cowboys look like the right side.

Green Bay Packers 34 Dallas Cowboys 31

Pick against the spread: Dallas +6

Confidence: Low

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Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Last week was an overall successful weekend. I hit 3 out of 4 plays, including both of my big plays (Baltimore +3 and Carolina -6). The one I missed was the Indianapolis/Cincinnati game, as I made a low confidence pick on Cincinnati. I understood the AJ Green absence would be huge and that Indianapolis was a good home team and overall the better team on the season, but Cincinnati was the better of the two teams in the 2nd half of the season by a significant margin as their defense got it together as the season went on.

The Colts came into the playoffs as the 2nd worst team in the 2nd half of the season in rate of moving the chains differential when adjusted for schedule at -0.21, only ahead of Detroit at -1.18%. The Colts went 6-2 in their final 8 games, but their 6 wins came against the likes of Jacksonville, Washington, Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland and the New York Giants and they didn’t beat them by enough to offset the fact that they were crushed by the only two playoff teams they faced over that time period, Dallas and New England. Their offense was the unit that declined the most significantly and it’s easy to understand why given that Andrew Luck’s play slipped and players got hurt, most importantly Ahmad Bradshaw, who was playing fantastic football before going down.

The Colts beat the Bengals last week, but I still am not convinced they’re quite able to match up with top level competition. The Bengals were a solid team this season, but ranked 12th, 8th, and 6th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams on the season, in their final 8 games, and in their final 4 games respectively, and they were missing AJ Green. Besides, that game was at home, where they’ve been significantly better this season than on the road.

At home, they’ve moved the chains at a 75.89% rate this season, as opposed to 66.39% for their opponents (a differential of 9.50%), and on the road, they’ve moved the chains at a 74.02% rate, as opposed to 73.93% for their opponents (a differential of 0.09%). This is nothing new, as the Colts are 21-5 straight up at home in the Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.23 points per game, while they are 14-12 straight up on the road over that same time period (since 2012), getting outscored by an average of 2.58 points per game, a swing of almost 9 points.

They’re just 2-9 ATS on the road over that time period against teams with winning records. Of their 8 straight up losses against winning teams on the road over that time period, all 14 of them have come by two touchdowns or more. This season, they were 0-3 against playoff teams on the road, losing those 3 games by margins of 7, 17, and 35. Their closest game was a 24-17 loss in Denver week 1. They did cover the spread (it doesn’t factor in to that 2-9 ATS record because Denver was 0-0 at the time), but only by half a point, as the line was 7.5 points. However, they moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in that game, as opposed to 82.35% for Denver (a differential of -7.35%), so it wasn’t quite as close as the final score suggested (Denver led 24-0 at one point) and their history against good teams on the road suggests this game won’t be quite as close.

The reason this isn’t a bigger play is because Denver kind of limps into the playoffs. They finished the regular season #1 in both rate of moving the chains differential and rate of moving the chains differential adjusted for schedule at 6.77% and 6.92% respectively, but just 9th among playoff teams in schedule adjusted in their final 4 games at 3.00%, as their offense slipped to end the season and Peyton Manning didn’t look quite as good. Still, I think they have a good chance to hand the Colts another big disappointing road loss to a tough opponent (having Julius Thomas and Brandon Marshall back and healthy after the bye could be key), and, as long as this line is a touchdown or lower, I’m going to make a significant play on them.

Denver Broncos 34 Indianapolis Colts 20

Pick against the spread: Denver -7

Confidence: Medium

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Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4)

I was ready to make a big play on the Patriots this week. They haven’t looked good in a while. With most teams, that’s a concern, but that’s never been a concern with the Patriots in the Brady/Belichick era. In fact, short periods of struggles tend to wake up this team. The Patriots are 19-12 ATS with a healthy Tom Brady in his career off of 2 straight non-covers, 33-15 ATS off of a loss, and 12-6 ATS off of a loss when they also failed to cover in the previous game. Their last two games should motivate them more than anything and Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL at adjustments. Besides, you have to remember that those rough two games to end of the season were a road game in New York against the Jets, who always play them tough (4 straight matchups within 3 points, including a 27-25 Patriots win in New England earlier this season), and a meaningless game against a decent Bills team in which Tom Brady only played a half and a lot of starters didn’t even play.

Despite those two games, the Patriots come in ranked 5th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 4 games at 6.82% and 2nd in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the past 8 games at 11.27% (only behind Seattle at 11.68%). In their last 11 games that actually mattered, they move the chains at an 80.87% rate, as opposed to 71.51% for their opponents. The difference isn’t really on defense, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a similar 72.00% rate in their first 4 games of the season. The difference is on offense, as they moved the chains at a 66.38% rate in their first 4 games.

What’s changed? Well, the offensive line eventually settled in and Tom Brady’s play improved and Bill Belichick coached teams always make the right mid-season adjustments and improve as the season goes on, but the biggest difference is Rob Gronkowski. After struggling in his first 4 games back from that torn ACL, Rob Gronkowski played some of the best football of his life over that 11 game stretch, catching 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns and that made a huge difference. He was once again one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL this season, which is what he always has been when healthy. He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. As a result of the final 2 games of the season (one of which Gronk didn’t even play), I think people are forgetting exactly how good this team was during that 11 week stretch and they have a very good chance of reminding everyone this week.

On top of that, they are incredible at home, winning 16 straight home games that actually matter over the past 2 seasons, going 11-5 ATS in those 16 games. This season, excluding week 17, they move the chains at a 80.00% rate at home, as opposed to 71.37% for their opponents (a differential of 8.63%), while they move the chains at a 75.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 71.90% for their opponents (a differential of 3.20%). Part of why they struggled to start the season was because 3 of their first 4 games were on the road and that’s also part of why they struggled in New York against the Jets. Now back at home, they could easily be very, very tough to beat.

However, I’m not making a big play on the Patriots this week, despite all that, because of their opponent. I’m not worried about the Patriots playing the Ravens for the same reasons that everyone else seems to be worried about them playing the Ravens, which is that they are only 1-2 against the Ravens in the playoffs in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era (0-3 ATS). I don’t put too much stock into that number. For one, it’s way too small of a sample size to prove anything. Two, teams change on a year-to-year basis anyway. Baltimore having former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees running their defense is a concern and the Ravens do match up well with the Patriots (more on that later), but acting like that record proves anything about these two teams is short-sighted.

Three, the Patriots have covered against the Ravens all 4 times they’ve faced them in the regular season over that time period and their only loss came by a point in Baltimore. I don’t put any more stock into playoff statistics than I do into regular season statistics because I don’t buy into the notion that the game significantly changes in the post-season and that certain players do better or worse against certain teams in certain situations in the post-season. Once again, I believe that’s short-sighted. The Patriots’ 41-7 win in Baltimore last year should carry as much weight when evaluating this game as the Patriots’ 28-13 home loss to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship, if not more because it’s more recent. If anything, all this talk that Brady and Belichick can’t beat the Ravens in the post-season might just add to their motivation, which should already be very high considering this is the playoffs and considering their rocky finish to the season.

The reason I worry about the Patriots’ opponent here is because I thought going into the playoffs that the Ravens were the best team in the post-season outside of the four teams with first round byes. The Ravens went 10-6 despite a 2-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were a rare 10+ win team that was actually better than their record. They finished 5th in DVOA, and their +107 point differential was 6th among playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains, they moved them at a 75.93% rate, as opposed to 70.31% for their opponents, a differential of 5.62% that ranked 3rd in the NFL this season, behind only Denver and Seattle and actually ahead of New England.

Baltimore had a weak schedule, but even when you take schedule into account, the Ravens only fall to 4th in differential at 4.94%, trading spots with New England, who is at 5.40%. The Ravens also came into the playoffs as the 4th hottest team, ranking 4th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential among playoff teams over the final 4 games of the season at 10.56%, only behind Seattle, Carolina, and Dallas. That’s a little skewed because the Ravens faced back-to-back 3rd string quarterbacks against Houston and Cleveland and even schedule adjusted differential doesn’t take injuries into account, but it’s still very impressive.

The Ravens certainly didn’t do anything to disprove my theory that they were the best team to play during wild card weekend last week, as they beat the Steelers 30-17 in Pittsburgh, moving the chains at a 78.57% rate, as opposed to 69.70% for their opponents, a differential of -8.87%. That’s impressive, even if Pittsburgh was playing without Le’Veon Bell. This week, they get left tackle Eugene Monroe back from injury, after he’s missed the past two games with injury. He’ll be a significant upgrade over undrafted rookie James Hurst, who has struggled mightily when called on to play this year, though they’ll still miss right tackle Ricky Wagner, who has also missed the past two games and who was actually the better of the two tackles this season. 5th round rookie John Urschel, his replacement, has been solid so far though.

Defensively, they got Haloti Ngata back from suspension last week and that proved to be a huge addition. Ngata didn’t play at all during their final 4 games and the Ravens still allowed opponents to move the chains at a 58.41% rate over those 4 games, 11.06% less than average given their schedule (still very impressive even considering they faced 3rd stringers Connor Shaw and Case Keenum in two of those games). With Ngata back, their defense is very solid, despite issues at cornerback. Teams have proven in the past that secondary play is, well, secondary to good front 7 play and the Ravens are once again doing so of late.

If you can stop the run, you can make the other team one dimensional and force them to pass and if you can do that, it will allow you to unleash your pass rushers, who will mask your secondary. That’s how the Ravens have been getting it done and, as I mentioned earlier, they’re a tough matchup for the Patriots because of that. The Patriots’ weakness is still their offensive line, especially the interior of their offense line, a serious concern considering Tom Brady has always struggled under pressure. Over the past 6 seasons, he only has completed 541 of 1134 passes (47.7%) for 7056 yards (6.22 YPA), 47 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2354 for 3359 (70.1%) for 27302 yards (8.13 YPA), 216 touchdowns, and 45 interceptions while not under pressure.

The Ravens haven’t been as good on the road this season. In the regular season at home, they moved the chains at a 77.91% rate, as opposed to 67.26% for their opponents (a differential of 10.65%), while they’ve moved the chains at a 73.91% rate on the road, as opposed to 72.97% for their opponents (a differential of 0.94%). This home/road disparity is nothing new as since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh came in before the 2008 season, the Ravens are 47-11 straight up, outscoring opponents by an average of 10.33 points per game, at home, as opposed to 35-33, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.22 points per game on the road, a swing of about 9 points. In fact, their win in Pittsburgh last week was their first road victory of the season over a team who finished the season with a winning record. Ultimately, I’m going with the Patriots, but because they’re playing a team like the Ravens, I can’t put any money on them as touchdown favorites.

New England Patriots 27 Baltimore Ravens 17

Pick against the spread: New England -7

Confidence: Low

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Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks: 2014 Divisional Round NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

I had the Panthers as the 2nd hottest team coming into the playoffs. They won their final 4 straight games just to make the playoffs and, in their final 5 games, they moved the chains at a 77.38% rate, as opposed to 61.98% for their opponents, a differential of 15.40%, since their week 12 bye. Over that time period, their only loss was on the road in Minnesota, who returned two blocked punts for touchdowns, the definition of a fluke and the first time that had happened in a game in 40 years. Their schedule over that time period wasn’t very good, as they didn’t play a single playoff team, but even when strength of schedule is taken into account, they still ranked 2nd over the final 4 games of the season in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential at 15.06%.

It wasn’t just those final 4 or 5 games either as they ranked 7th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 8 games of the season among playoff teams. For the 4th straight year under Ron Rivera’s coaching, they’ve gotten significantly better down the stretch. In 2011, they started 2-8 and finished 6-10, winning 4 of their last 6 games. In 2012, they started 2-8 and finished 7-9, winning 5 of their last 6 games. Last year, they started 1-3 and finished 12-4, winning 11 of their last 12 games. And this year, they finished 7-8-1 after starting the season 3-8-1, winning their final 4 games.

The Panthers didn’t continue that into the playoffs last season, losing at home to the 49ers in the divisional round after sitting out the first round with a bye, but they did this season, beating the Cardinals 27-16. The Ryan Lindley led Cardinals are obviously not nearly as good as the 2013 49ers were, but the Panthers dominated that game more than the final score suggested, as they had 386 yards and 25 first downs to Arizona’s 78 yards and 8 first downs. They moved the chains at a 68.29% rate, as opposed to 45.45% for the Cardinals, which is impressive no matter who the opponent is. The Cardinals definitely didn’t have a playoff caliber offense, but they had a playoff caliber defense and then some, finishing the regular season 3rd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.83% rate.

The problem for the Panthers is that they are running into the only team in the playoffs that came into them hotter, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks ranked 1st in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 4 games of the season, at 16.11%. They also ranked 1st in that aspect over the final 8 games of the season at 11.68% and just barely 2nd over the entire season at 6.78% (only Denver at 6.92% was better). Unlike the Panthers, an overall average team that got better as the season went on, the Seahawks are a dominant football team that played it’s best football over the final few weeks of the season, as they got healthier.

The Seahawks also have arguably the best homefield advantage in football. It wasn’t as pronounced this season as the Seahawks were good everywhere they went, moving the chains at a 74.06% rate at home, as opposed to 66.96% for their opponents (a differential of 7.10%), while moving the chains at a 76.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 70.42% for their opponents (a differential of 5.67%). However, since 2007, the Seahawks are 48-20 at home, including playoffs and they aren’t just having success straight up as they are 46-21-1 ATS (6-2 ATS this season). They outscore opponents on average by 7.93 points per game at home. This is opposed to a 27-42 record away from home (31-37-1 ATS), getting outscored by 2.80 points per game, a roughly 10.5 point swing.

Injuries are also a factor in this game. While Carolina is hot right now, they could be cooled off by the injury to Star Lotulelei, who is expected to be out for the rest of the playoffs with a foot injury. Lotulelei isn’t a star player (pun intended), but he was Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked defensive tackle this season and the Panthers really missed him when he missed 2 games earlier this season. Colin Cole, who drew the starts earlier this season and should start again, isn’t very good. On top of that, Cam Newton’s health is up in the air as now he adds an ankle injury (suffered last week) to his list of injuries. He’ll play this week and he’s been able to play some of the best football of his season down the stretch despite all the injuries, but he looked limited by the injury once he suffered it last week and it’s tough to know how close to 100% he’ll be this week.

On the flip side, Seattle is even hotter right now and they add star center Max Unger back into the starting lineup. Unger missed 10 games this season with injury, but he’s one of the best centers in the game when healthy. He was only average in 2013, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 and this season he ranked 4th despite all the missed time with injuries, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He’ll be a huge boost to this team and ironically he’ll match up often with Colin Cole. I mentioned earlier that the Seahawks got better as the season when on because they got healthier, with guys like Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor getting back to full strength. Unger’s return might be even bigger than those guys’ returns.

On top of that, Seattle has a huge advantage as a West Coast team in a night game against an East Coast team. Teams cover at about a 2/3rds rate in that spot historically because, while the Panthers will be shutting down for the night in the 2nd half of this game, the Seahawks will not have that issue. As much as I love the run that Carolina put up to end the season, I think it comes to a screeching halt this week as they face arguably the best team in football getting healthy and playing their best football of the season right now in arguably the toughest spot in football to win, without one of their top defensive players and with their quarterback banged up as an East Coast team in a West Coast night game. I have a good amount of confidence in Seattle to cover the 10.5.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Carolina Panthers 10

Pick against the spread: Seattle -10.5

Confidence: Medium

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Needs

Quarterback

Josh McCown struggled mightily in 11 starts for the Buccaneers this season, completing 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, winning just once. He’s obviously not a long-term solution, going into his age 36 season and might not even be back at his scheduled 5.25 million dollar salary, which is non-guaranteed. Mike Glennon is younger, but he wasn’t much better, completing 57.6% for his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. Lovie Smith doesn’t seem to be a big fan of him, bringing in McCown and naming him the starter ahead of Glennon instantly and stubbornly sticking with McCown even when McCown was struggling and the team wasn’t going anywhere, only playing Glennon when McCown was hurt. With the first overall pick in the draft at their disposal, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota looks like as much of a lock as you can get at this point. If it’s not him, it’ll be former Heisman winner Jameis Winston.

Guard

The Buccaneers were so desperate for guard help before the season started that they traded a 4th round pick and promising young tight end Tim Wright to the Patriots for Logan Mankins, even though he was aging, declining, and had a large salary and even though he barely had any time to learn the offense before the start of the season. Mankins was solid, but he’s going into his age 33 season and they have a huge hole opposite him anyway. Patrick Omameh struggled on the other side of the line.

Defensive End

Michael Johnson struggled mightily in the first season of his big contract, but he was hurt and he could easily bounce back next season. The Buccaneers do need another edge rusher opposite him though. Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers were their 1st and 2nd round picks in 2011, but neither panned out and both are free agents. William Gholston, who started opposite Johnson last season, was underwhelming.

Safety

The Buccaneers used the 7th overall pick on Mark Barron in 2012 and then gave Dashon Goldson a massive contract the following off-season. Those were supposed to be their starting safeties for the future, but neither of them worked out. Barron was traded to Tampa Bay mid-season in 2014, while Goldson could be cut this off-season, with no guaranteed money left on his contract and after two awful seasons. Major Wright, who took over as the starter after Barron was traded, is a free agent. If he’s not re-signed, they’ll need to add two new safeties and I think they need to add at least one either way.

Middle Linebacker

Mason Foster was their starter at middle linebacker for 4 years after they took him in the 3rd round in 2011, but he was underwhelming and this off-season he’s a free agent. Lovie Smith spoke about upgrading that spot last off-season and finding someone who was a better fit for the Tampa 2 scheme. The Buccaneers were only able to bring in Dane Fletcher, who lost the position battle in the off-season and stayed a reserve. It’ll be tough, but Smith will try to find another Brian Urlacher.

Cornerback

Alterraun Verner did a solid job in his first season in Tampa Bay, but they struggled at the opposite cornerback spot. Both Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson struggled as the #2 and #3 cornerbacks respectively. They could add some competition this off-season. Banks, a 2013 2nd round pick, has struggled in his first 2 years in the league and should be pushed for his starting job.

Wide Receiver

Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were a great wide receiver duo this season, both going over 1000 yards despite poor quarterback play on a 2-14 team. However, they don’t really have much depth behind them at wide receiver. Jackson is going into his age 32 season anyway and he has a large salary and cap number in each of the final two years of his deal in 2015 and 2016. They probably won’t outright cut him this off-season, but there were reports that they were interested in trading him at the deadline mid-season and either way he’s not going to be around too much longer and they don’t have a successor.

Notable Unrestricted Free Agents

DE Adrian Clayborn

Adrian Clayborn was a first round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011 and he had a decent rookie year, struggling mightily against the run, but getting good pass rush and overall grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. The story of his career from there was injuries though, as he’s played just 20 games over the past 3 seasons. He missed all but 3 games in 2012 with a torn ACL, struggled mightily in his first year back in 2013, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, and, just when there was optimism for his future again in 2014, he tore his biceps and missed all but 1 game. There’s still upside here and he’s a decent flier for a pass rush needy team, but he hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy and after 4 years in the league he’s still unproven.

S Major Wright

A 2010 3rd round pick, Major Wright started 42 games in 4 seasons in Chicago. His best season was 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked safety, but he had his worst year at the worst time, grading out dead last at his position in 2013, a contract year. He was limited to one-year deals in free agency and ended up with Smith again in Tampa Bay, starting the year as a backup, but moving into the lineup when Mark Barron was traded to St. Louis mid-season. Wright made 7 starts graded out about average on 520 snaps and should be given an opportunity to at least compete for a starting job wherever he ends up this off-season. Tampa Bay keeping him would make sense. He played 3 years for Lovie Smith in Chicago and he’s played his best football in Smith’s defense in his career.

MLB Mason Foster

Foster was a starter from the word go in Tampa Bay, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2011. In 4 years with the team, Foster played 57 of 64 games (though he missed 6 this season), starting all but 3 of them. However, he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, including 43rd out of 60 eligible this season. He’ll draw interest as a starter on the open market because of his experience and he could end up back in Tampa Bay, but whichever team signs him shouldn’t expect much.

Cap Casualty Candidates

S Dashon Goldson

One of ex-GM Mark Dominik’s patented free agency whiffs, the Buccaneers signed Goldson to a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar contract 2 off-seasons ago and he proceeded to be one of the worst safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. Goldson was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 and their 87th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014. With no ties to the current regime and a non-guaranteed 7.5 million dollar salary scheduled for 2015, Goldson will almost definitely be cut this off-season, a move which would clear 4 million in cap space immediately.

QB Josh McCown

This one you can’t blame Mark Dominik for. The Buccaneers new regime signed Josh McCown to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season, a reasonable value considering what guys like Chad Henne and Michael Vick got last off-season, but Lovie Smith named him the starter as soon as he arrived in town, even though Mike Glennon had shown flashes as a 3rd round rookie in 2013. McCown, who randomly had 5 good starts in Chicago in 2013, was going into his age 35 season and hadn’t had a season with a QB rating over 70 since 2005, so it was a weird move. McCown predictably regressed in 2014, completing just 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and went 1-10 in his 11 starts. Smith stubbornly stuck with him even as he was struggling and refused to give Glennon a look, even with nothing to play for. Going into his age 36 season, with the Buccaneers likely taking Marcus Mariota #1 overall, McCown probably won’t be kept at a non-guaranteed 5.25 million dollar salary for 2015, though he could be retained at a cheaper rate as a veteran backup.

G Logan Mankins

It just seems like whenever the Buccaneers make a big splash, whether it be a high draft pick, a big free agent signing, or a prominent trade, it backfires. The Buccaneers sent a mid-round pick and promising young tight end Tim Wright to the New England Patriots for Logan Mankins right before the start of the season, a move many saw as a complete steal. The issue is Mankins is aging, now going into his age 33 season. Mankins was solid in 2014, but he wasn’t as good as he’s been in the past and the rebuilding Buccaneers might not want to give a declining player a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2015. Because they acquired him through a trade, there will be no cap penalty for the Buccaneers releasing him.

WR Vincent Jackson

This one is unlikely, but if the Buccaneers want to go into a complete rebuild, they could try to trade or cut the aging Jackson. Jackson played well in 2014, catching 70 passes for 1002 yards and 2 touchdowns, while grading out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, but he’s owed 9.78 million non-guaranteed in 2015 and the Buccaneers could save 7.78 million of that on the cap immediately by letting him go. He’ll be in his age 32 season in 2015. They were known to be interested in trading him at the trade deadline, but couldn’t find any takers.

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2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Pick: Khalil Mack

Odell Beckham Jr. had a season for the ages on the offensive side of the football this year and looks like an easy choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but two defensive rookies had rookie years that were equally as dominant. Oakland’s Khalil Mack and St. Louis’ Aaron Donald each ranked #1 at their respective positions, 4-3 outside linebacker and defensive tackle, on Pro Football Focus, the first defensive rookies to do so since Denver’s Von Miller did so at 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011. Other rookies had strong rookie campaigns in 2014, San Francisco’s Chris Borland, Baltimore’s CJ Mosley, and Minnesota’s Anthony Barr are names that come to mind, but to me, this award is between Mack and Donald as none of the other 3 even ranked in the top-3 at their respective positons.

Once you get down to Mack and Donald, it becomes a very tough choice. Both led their respective positions over some established All-Pro caliber veterans. Mack finished #1 right ahead of the aforementioned Von Miller, the first time Miller hasn’t been #1 at that position since he broke into the league in 2011, while Donald finished right ahead of Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, both of whom have been top-4 defensive tackles in each of the past 3 seasons.

Mack played a role very similar to the one that Von Miller has played in Denver for 4 years, playing 4-3 outside linebacker in base packages and becoming an edge rusher in sub packages. Mack only managed 4 sacks on the season on a 3-13 Raiders team, which ultimately might be the reason he doesn’t win this award, but his pass rush numbers were better than his sack totals as he also managed 10 hits and 40 hurries. That still means his pass rush productivity was significantly worse than Miller’s, as Miller had 15 sacks, 11 hits, and 47 hurries, giving him a pass rush productivity of 11.8, while Mack was at 9.1.

However, Miller had the luxury of playing with a lot of leads on a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team, giving him more easy pass rush situations, while Mack played on an Oakland team whose offense led by Derek Carr was the worst in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential by a wide margin at 62.27%. Jacksonville was next worst at 64.55%. Oakland’s defense was actually competent this season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 72.33% rate that was a middle of the pack 16th in the NFL, largely due to the play of Mack. That was despite the fact that of 13 Oakland defenders to play more than 400 snaps this season, only two of them graded out positively, Mack and veteran Justin Tuck, who was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 defensive end. If that’s your best defensive teammate and your defense is still capable, you played pretty well, regardless of what the sack numbers say. Mack also was significantly better than Miller as a run stopper.

Donald had a different rookie year. He had more than double Mack’s sacks with 9, very impressive for an interior player. When you add in his 6 hits and 29 hurries, you get a pass rush productivity of 8.3, worse than Mack’s, but 8th best among defensive tackles. And Donald wasn’t playing with a bunch of leads either. The Rams finished better than the Raiders did at 6-10, but their offense finished 25th in the NFL, moving the chains at a 68.90%. The Rams’ defense was why they were able to win 6 games, as they finished 5th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.28% rate.

Donald was a big part of that, not just rushing the passer, but also stopping the run surprisingly well for a player listed at 6-1 288 coming out of college. Along with ranking #1 at his position, he was the only defensive tackle to rank in the top-5 as both a pass rusher and against the run. However, unlike Mack, he had a lot more help around him. While just 2 of 13 Oakland defenders who played more than 400 snaps graded out positively this season, 8 of 14 St. Louis defenders did so, including Donald’s defensive line-mate Robert Quinn, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Ultimately, it’s a borderline toss-up between these two. I won’t complain if either of them wins it, but since I have to pick one I’m going with Mack for doing what he did with almost no help around him. This is easily the closest award race though.

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Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts: 2014 Wild Card Round NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

In addition to adjusting playoff teams’ rate of moving the chains differentials for strength of schedule, another thing I did differently this week was breaking out schedule adjusted differential into a team’s last 4 games and into a team’s last 8 weeks instead of just the whole season. The motivation for this is because I started the season 100-60 against the spread in the first 11 weeks of the season, but just 43-49 in the final 6 weeks. A similar thing happened in 2012 and 2013 as well and I think part of it is because I put too much stock into old data late in the season. Breaking out the data into the last 4 games and the last 8 games allows me to find out which teams are “hot” at the moment, something that might be masked by the season long data.

Two things this data revealed for me this week are relevant to this game. Before I did this, I was ready to make a big play on Indianapolis. The Colts rank 5th in rate of moving the chains differential on the season, moving the chains at a 74.96% rate, as opposed to 70.28% for their opponents, a differential of 4.67%. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank all the way down at 16th, 2nd worst among playoff teams, moving the chains at a 71.84% rate, as opposed to 71.90% for their opponents, a differential of -0.06%. On top of that, the Bengals are without AJ Green this week.

However, the data from the past 4 games and the past 8 games revealed that the Bengals have gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. On the season, the Bengals rank last among playoff teams in schedule adjusted differential at 0.48%, but over the past 8 games they rank 8th at 3.12% and over the past 4 games they rank 6th at 6.77%. You might think that AJ Green’s return from an earlier injury, which essentially cost him 4 games this season, is the reason behind that. However, their offense has remained below average in all 3 timeframes, season long, last 8 games, and last 4 games.

The unit that has gotten so much better over the course of the season is their defense, in Paul Guenther’s first season as defensive coordinator. They really missed Mike Zimmer to start the season, as their ex-defensive coordinator is now the head coach in Minnesota, but they’ve missed him less and less as the season has gone on, as Guenther’s defense has come into its own. Besides, in the 4 games they’ve been without Green this season, they haven’t been significantly worse offensively, moving the chains at a 69.83% rate in those games, as opposed to 72.46% in their other 12 games. They will struggle to move the chains without him, but their defense should play well once again.

One of the games that Green missed was the Bengals’ earlier trip to Indianapolis, a 27-0 blowout loss by the Bengals that was even worse than the final score suggested. The Bengals went three and out in their first 8 drives and ended up moving the chains at a mere 40.00% rate, as opposed to 75.00% for the Colts, a differential of -35.00%. It was easily the Bengals’ worst performance of the season. The good news for the Bengals is teams are 13-25 ATS in the playoffs in same site, non-divisional revenge games since 2002.

On top of that, teams are 7-2 ATS in the playoffs as underdogs over that same time period against non-divisional opponents that previously beat them by 21 or more in the regular season. It might seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you think about it as teams are often overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed in that spot. The Bengals were also in a terrible spot in the first matchup, exhausted off of a tie with the Panthers the previous week. Teams are 5-11 ATS off of a tie since 1989, including 0-7 ATS on a bye. This week, they’re on normal rest.

Meanwhile, the Colts have gotten noticeably worse as the season has gone on, the other revelation that surfaced as a result of breaking up season long data into the past 4 weeks and the past 8 weeks. While the Colts rank 6th in schedule adjusted differential among playoff teams at 3.87% on the season, they rank 10th over the past 4 weeks at 1.55% and 11th over the past 8 weeks at -0.21%. The unit that has been largely responsible for this decline has been the offense, which has struggled with a season ending injury to Ahmad Bradshaw, a severely limiting injury to Reggie Wayne, and minor injuries to TY Hilton and Dwayne Allen. Hilton and Allen should be good for this game, but now Gosder Cherilus is hurt.

Luck’s numbers have gone down significantly over the 2nd half of the season, completing 57.6% of his passes for an average of 7.55 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions over the past 8 games as opposed to 64.8% completion, 7.87 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions over the first 8 games of the season. This is not the same Colts team that destroyed the Bengals earlier this year during week 7, nor is it the same Bengals team. The Bengals are in a good revenge spot and the sharps are on them, as the line has moved from 4 or 4.5 early in the week down to 3.5 now, despite the public being on Indianapolis. I love fading the public and going with the sharps whenever it makes sense and it does here. I’m not that confident though with Green expected to be ruled out.

Indianapolis Colts 20 Cincinnati Bengals 19

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Low

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2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Pick: JJ Watt

In my Most Valuable Player article, I laid out why JJ Watt should not win MVP over Aaron Rodgers, as the Packers would undoubtedly be a worse team if they switched Rodgers for Watt and the Texans would undoubtedly be better if they switched Watt for Rodgers.  However, Watt not winning Defensive Player of the Year would be an equally big travesty as Watt winning MVP. It’s hard for a single defensive player to fit the definition of valuable as well as a quarterback, but Watt has still been the best player in football in each of the past 3 seasons.

He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at best. This season was arguably the best of the bunch for Watt, and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston gets some mention for this award and he actually led the NFL with 23 sacks, while Watt “only” had 21. Houston was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, but he didn’t dominate the position anywhere near as much as Watt dominated the 3-4 defensive end position. Houston’s sack total is very impressive, but Watt’s 21 are even more impressive considering he plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position.

Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position to get to the quarterback from. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity.

At 3-4 outside linebacker, Houston wasn’t even the best at his position as Brandon Graham led the way among eligible players, posting a 17.7 on more limited snaps. Twenty 3-4 outside linebackers were more productive pass rushers than the 2nd best 3-4 defensive end. Watt also had a league leading 10 pass deflections, which pass rush productivity doesn’t even take into account. Houston only had 5 and the 2nd best player in that aspect (Clay Matthews) only had 6.

Also, while Watt’s rating on Pro Football Focus was more than 2.5 times better than the 2nd best 3-4 defensive end (Sheldon Richardson, who had a great season in his own right), Houston didn’t even double the next best 3-4 outside linebacker. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston. Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season.

The Texans’ defense finished 10th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 70.62%, despite not having a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at his position. Only Kareem Jackson finished in the top-15 at his position on the Texans’ defense other than Watt. Kansas City’s defense was a little better, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.29% rate, 7th in the NFL, but Houston had Tamba Hali opposite him (13th among 3-4 outside linebackers) and Sean Smith at cornerback (5th among cornerbacks. Both players had a fantastic season, but this is Watt’s award.

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