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The Shape of the NFL 2016

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A certain commenter from what is a swing state in presidential elections on involving Donald Trump and produces America’s best-named barleywine requested an NFL thread. As it happens, I’ve been enjoyment my August ritual of reading the Football Outsiders Almanac, which I assume you know is essential if you’re into that kind of thing. Not every writer can be Schatz or Tanier, but you’ll learn something from every chapter’s combination of careful statistical analysis and film review. Anyway, I won’t do a predictions post until September, but the projections are a good basis for discussion. The Seahawks have the highest mean win projection and playoff odds, closely followed by the Cardinals, Pats, Steelers, and Packers on the 10+ win level. Bascially, the teams that have excellent-to-great QBs and credible-to-excellent defenses. You will notice one obvious omission from this list — the defending Super Bowl champions. Their mean win projection is 8.2, tied with the Bills and Chargers. A couple of things should be noted about this. First, because of high variance and because injuries can lead to a catastrophic season like the Ravens and Cowboys had last year, the win projections are compressed: no team has a mean over 11 or under five, although there will almost certainly be multiple teams in both categories. So I would probably bet the Broncos over 8, and I’d also probably bet their win total over Buffalo or Los Angeles San Diego.

But are they a top contender? I agree with the projection and the analysis (Chief Justice Schatz assigned the chapter to himself) that they aren’t, and I would be surprised to see them in the conference finals. The case for the Broncos is straightforward: they won 12 games and the Super Bowl despite using a QB in the playoffs who shattered every previous minimum standard for QB play, and figure to have an easier schedule this year. But the case against them is equally straightforward. It starts with this: they didn’t really play at a 12 win level last year. They were a 9 or 10 win team that enjoyed an incredible run of luck (and, in the case of the Chiefs and Pats wins, massive opposition coaching blunders) in close games. To stay at an 11 or 12-win level they will need to improve substantially, and if they regress at all they’re headed towards .500. And while it’s tempting to think that their offense has to improve, it’s not true. Remember that “Manning” started only 9 games last year; their offense was weak (-8.7% DVOA) but not among the very worst in the league. There’s definitely room to fall. So should we expect the Bronocs to improve or regress overall?

Probably the latter. The first problem is that it would be unprecedented for the defense not to decline. Of the top 10 defenses since 1989, every single one declined the following year, and only the 2013 Seahawks remained the best defense in the league the following year. Basically, what happens to historic defenses is that 1)defense varies more year-to-year than offense and 2)in the cap era teams inevitably lose depth (as the Broncos have with Jackson and Trevathan.) It’s true that the Bronocs have kept their most crucial talent together and have an outstanding track record of evaluating and developing defensive talent under Elway, but you can say exactly the same thing about Seattle under Carroll and Schneider and they weren’t able to maintain their dominance of 2013. It’s more a question of how much Denver’s defense will decline than if.

Still, the defense is not the biggest reason the Broncos don’t project as a top-tier team. Both the projection formulas and Schatz’s subjective analysis sees the most likely outcome for the defense as being like the post-peak teams of Buddy Ryan’s Eagles and the Legion of Boom: not as great but still pretty great. And I agree. They still have formidable talent and one of the best defensive coordinators ever. Barring injury, it’s a terrific defense — probably not as good as last year, but really good.

The real problem for the Broncos is that the 2015 Broncos notwithstanding it’s nearly impossible to win in the NFL with weak QB play. As Schatz put it, while the question for the defense is where it will fall on the spectrum of good-to-great, on offense “the most likely outcomes range from bad to atrocious that is as low as the ceiling is high” and “the situation at quarter back is more well-defined; for example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word ‘horrendous’ as ‘very bad or unpleasant.” Here are your potential Broncos starters, comprising one of the vert worst set of QBs in the league:

  • The Sanchize. The definition of a replacement-level QB, he was bad every year he was a starter in New York and while his raw numbers picked up a bit in Chip’s system, he was distinctly worse than Nick Foles, whose current job is doing Alex Smith’s laundry and being Andy Reid’s point man to ensure that every play in the 2-minute drill takes 40 seconds to the snap.
  • Paxton Lynch, straight outta Memphis. He will probably end up with most of the starts, and should: he has the best chance of eventually being a viable NFL QB in the long-term, and it’s not like Sanchez has a high ceiling. But it will be hard for him to go from the cupcakes he was playing last year to the NFL. There is some precedent for QBs from programs like this being viablish NFL starters immediately, in Flacco and Dalton, but they’re the exception rather than the rule and you certainly wouldn’t want to be counting on it. (And as for his good pre-season start, I have two words: “Sam Bradford.”)
  • Trevor Siemian. He finished his career at Northwestern with a 58.9 comp% and a 27-24 TD-INT ratio. He is, in other words, a non-prospect. I’m not sure I would trade Christian Hackenberg for him straight-up. The fact that there’s any discussion of him playing this year illustrates how dire the situation is.

So the best bet the Broncos have, by far, is a 22-year old coming from the AAC with good tools but serious questions about his accuracy and ability to read progressions at an NFL level. Even if the Broncos only slip a little on defense, that’s not a team you should bet on to be in the conference finals.

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