My favorite over/under bets this year

DISCLAIMER: I may have been a professional gambler, and I may be a non-professional football writer, but those stellar qualifications do not mean you should take my recommendations.

Either way, I’m sure you’d like to read about them. Lines are taken from Bovada. Roughly in decreasing order of confidence.

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The Top 10: Edge Rushers

The defensive players that generally get the most glory are pass rushers and linebackers. Unfortunately this is because they are the only defensive positions that accumulate traditional counting stats; sacks and tackles. That said, edge rushers are among the most valuable defensive players on the field. In the case of 4-3 defenses, the edge rusher is labeled defensive end, while in a 3-4 they are termed outside linebackers. There are some differences in responsibilities between these two positions, but for the most part they represent the same asset; edge disruption. They will generally be matched up against opposing offensive tackles, needing to maintain their position against the run and beat their man when rushing the passer.

Tier 1: Robert Quinn, Von Miller

1. Quinn: I hate to put him this high, but that’s a reflection of just how dominant Quinn was last year against both the run and pass. He totaled 91 pass disruptions, leading the league in hurries (51) and QB hits (21) to go along with a paltry 19 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. Usually when a player is getting lucky, two or three of the above stat categories will be lacking. The fact that Quinn’s numbers are phenomenal across the board says quite a lot. He is a bit of a one year wonder, previously providing a speed rush and not much else. Additionally, he plays with one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. That said, he is only 24, and that talented defensive front just got even deeper; you can continue to expect only good things from Robert Quinn. While I expect the rest of the guys on this list to narrow the gap in 2014, 2013 is the reason he deserves the top spot.

2. Miller: Von had questions surrounding him last season after getting suspended for the first 6 games, but he got back to full speed pretty quickly once he was back on the field. He now has physical questions after tearing his ACL at the end of 2013, and has only played 9 snaps in the preseason thus far. That said, I expect him to return to form this season, which means unique quickness and acceleration for the position of an edge rusher. His burst off the snap and overall athleticism has been unmatched (till perhaps now with Jadeveon Clowney) by anyone in the NFL. He is a special player, and it was obvious from the first snap he played as a Bronco.

Tier 2: Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, Cameron Wake

3. Jordan: Another guy who was somewhat of an afterthought as a 1st round pick, Jordan was initially playing some interior defensive line. However 2013 saw new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan change up the whole defense, including moving Jordan to the position of an edge rusher. Jordan responded with a career year, notching 12.5 sacks to go along with a whopping 87 pass disruptions. Jordan has unique strength for an edge rusher, making him a daunting challenge for most pass protectors who are used to facing smaller speedier players. Throw in the fact that he’s only 25, and the future is very bright for Jordan.

4. Smith: Aldon Smith had a down 2013 due to off the field issues and a leave of absence. When he was on the field, he looked every bit the part of a budding star who can rush the passer at a high level while stuffing the run as well. His combination of size, strength, acceleration, and past performance make him seem extremely likely to keep improving his game. If he can clean up his life outside of football, the 49’ers should have a blue chip level edge rusher for many years to come.

5. Mathis: Mathis has always been a great two way defensive player, but before last season I doubt many people thought of him quickly when naming the league’s top defensive players. He had always held his own in a 4-3 defense, quietly performing well while his teammate Dwight Freeney soaked up most of the glory with his electric speed rushes. However last year, Chuch Pagano transitioned the Colts defense to a 3-4 alignment, moving Mathis to a stand up edge rushing position. At first I was skeptical of the change, Mathis has been great for a decade at 4-3 DE, why change a good thing? My concerns with Mathis were quickly alleviated in 2013, as he responded with the most dominant season of his career, recording 19.5 sacks and 75 QB disruptions. He is 33 and I am expecting some regression this year, but Mathis has never had a poor season in his career. Considering last season’s performance, I don’t expect that to change in 2014.

6. Wake: It’s hard to believe that Wake is 32 years old, as there is no one in the NFL who can match his speed off the edge. He is a scary opponent for the leagues slower footed offensive tackles, and easily beats the better ones for sacks often enough. He is nothing special against the run, but nobody can eliminate his pass rush, and we all know that is a more valuable asset. He is a unique case when considering his age and that he only came into the league at 27 years old, so it’s hard to project how many more years he can maintain this level of play. That said, he has not yet shown any signs of regression, so I expect him to remain in this tier for 2014.

Tier 3: Jared Allen, Demarcus Ware, Ryan Kerrigan, Tamba Hali, Clay Matthews

7. Allen

8. Ware

9. Hali

10. Matthews

This tier is mostly occupied by veteran players who experienced down years. Jared Allen did not light up the stat sheet as much as in years past, Demarcus Ware played on the worst defense of his career, and Matthews had an injury plagued year. That said, these players are all still far too talented to miss this list, and I think there are arguments to put all of them in the above tier; I expect all of them to bounce back with elite play this year. Allen and Ware have looked explosive in preseason and are in better team situations this year. Matthews is only 28 and has displayed enough toughness to expect a return to greatness. Considering they have all had top tier level performances as recent as 2012, I can’t leave them off this list. It’s a shame that Hali doesn’t get as much attention as his peers, as he is every bit as deserving of being on this list. Teammate Justin Houston may get more attention with splashier plays, but make no mistake, Hali is still the better player right now.

Just missed: Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson – I’m still kind of shocked that I left both these guys off the list, especially considering the season the Panthers defensive line just had. I felt that the 7th to 12th best edge rushers in the league were very close together, and I wouldn’t argue against switching up the order of any them. That said, I think the above guys are going to have slightly better seasons.

On the rise: Carlos Dunlap, Chandler Jones, Brian Robison

Hurt but could bounce back: Jason Pierre-Paul

On Devin Gardner and Pre-Snap Reads

Devin Gardner, with some improvement, is potentially a first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Where can he improve?  Well, Gardner himself identified an area a week ago in a radio interview:

“Before Coach Nuss got here, I never had to identify a MIKE … now I know where pressure’s coming from.”

The MIKE that Devin Gardner is referencing is the middle linebacker.  The MIKE is often the “captain” of the defense.  He puts everyone in the right place.  He’s defending the heart of the defense– the middle.  Reading where he is and what he’s doing will often tell you where pressure is coming from, if at all, and what type of coverage the defense is playing.  In 2013, Devin Gardner had a lot of  issues with making poor decisions when teams got pressure on him in passing situations.  Does making a pre-snap read on the MIKE linebacker matter that much?  Could it make those post-snap decisions easier?  Let’s take a look at a couple plays from the Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2013.

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The Top 10: Running Backs

Ah, the coveted prizes of fantasy football; running backs. There is a lot of glory in being the man who runs through eleven defenders, taking all the hits while dishing out punishment. However this combined with the following of general stats tends to overrate the importance of running backs relative to other positions. While I believe the top runners are indeed game-changing level players, many others at the position don’t have a complete game, offering one-dimensional skill sets. In my eyes, this devalues them relative to other positions who are playing more snaps while representing more than a decoy on every down.

NFL front offices seem to share this line of thinking, paying running backs less than most other positions, while spending fewer 1st round picks on them. Players such as the ones on this list are still coveted, but it can be very economical to find balancing skill sets in multiple players for less money. It’s also worth debating if scouting at the position is weaker than at other positions or if teams just realize they can get good prospects later in the draft; only three of the players on this list were taken in the 1st round, while the other seven were taken in the 2nd or 3rd round. Throw in the fact that the passing game is more valuable to an offense than the running game, and it’s not hard to see why teams are veering away from “bell cow” running backs towards tandems. As a result, this list is largely populated by great runners who also provide good value to the passing game.

Tier 1: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles

1. McCoy: Shady McCoy is easily my favorite runner in the league, as he just seems impossible to tackle. Most backs try to run through you, not many can make a defender miss like Shady. NFL players are supposed to take hits, yet I have never seen this guy take a big hit. Somehow he is always able to react faster than his opponent, dodging the brunt of a hit, if not entirely. I think this bodes very well for his longevity, as it’s the accumulation of hits that truly wears down a running back. McCoy is consistently near the top of the league in missed tackles forced, resulting in career yard per carry average of 4.8. In addition to his elite running ability, he has exceptional hands and is a formidable receiver out of the backfield. His overall complete game gives him the #1 RB in the league ranking.

2. ADP: What is there to say about “All Day” that isn’t already common knowledge? He very well might be the best pure runner of the last few decades, combining elite strength with elite speed and quickness. It routinely takes two or more defenders to bring him down, with very few defenders capable of bringing him down one on one. When he tore his MCL and ACL in 2011, many feared it might take him awhile to get back to full speed. Just 8 months later he returned to the field, put together an MVP season, and came 9 yards short of breaking the NFL’s single season rushing record. As incredible of a runner as he is (perhaps the greatest ever) one has to wonder why his freakish athleticism doesn’t really translate to the rest of his game. His blocking is average at best, and he doesn’t seem to have any feel for running basic routes out of the backfield; he has just 527 yards receiving over the last 3 seasons combined. Based on how scary he is running the ball, it’s surprising to have him lower than #1. However, when you look at complete skill sets, and value added on every play, McCoy is the better player to me.

3. Charles: Extremely dangerous as a rusher and receiver. At the moment, he might be the league’s best home run threat, with the ability to go the distance on any play. His career yards per rush average is a whopping 5.6, actually brought down by last seasons meager 5.0! The hiring of head coach Andy Reid last season may have benefited no one more than Charles, as he put up career bests in total yards (1980) and touchdowns (19). That said, I am slightly more scared of Charles’ injury history than I am when it comes to the above two players. Ability to stay healthy is a skill, and so I have him lower than the McCoy and Peterson. It is worth noting that the difference in value between these three players is quite small, although McCoy and Charles are definitely better fits in a passing offense.

Tier 2: Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch

4. Lacy: I originally had Lacy in the above tier, but felt it was a bit too early to throw him in such a class. While Lacy already boasts a well rounded skill set, he has not established fear in his opponents as a home run hitter yet, something all of the above three have done. Lacy is a more physical runner, unleashing a beating on defenders every time he carries the ball. His forced missed tackles were right on par (56) with McCoy (57) and Peterson (58), while also impressing as a receiver and blocker. He seems like the most complete player on this list, but I need to see one more season out of him before I can bump him up to the top tier.

5. Forte: Before last season I wouldn’t really have thought about putting Forte this high. It had always been easy to notice him as a receiver (he has averaged 57 catches per year), but I never thought he was a special runner.  However as soon as I started watching 2013 preseason games, it was clear; Forte was faster. Maybe he had just been unhealthy before, in a better scheme with a new coach, or was now gelling with a vastly superior offensive line. Whatever the reason was, Forte put up an incredible 2013 season and brought stability to an offense that experienced injuries to it’s starting QB.

6. Lynch: Lynch is a case similar to Peterson; very impressive runner, but not so impressive at his other jobs. While it may not seem like a big deal, a balanced game is very crucial to staying on the field as a running back. If opposing teams know that your running back is no threat to catch a pass or block efficiently, it gives their defenses a lot of unseen flexibility. Lynch is solid in pass protection, but is barely average as a receiver. This might seem like a nitpick, but I have him this low almost solely because of his poor receiving skills. The guy broke 75 tackles last year, wouldn’t you like to see him catch more passes and get into more 1 on 1 situations with defensive backs?

Tier 3: Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, Demarco Murray, Gio Bernard

7. Gore

8. Bush

9. Murray

10. Bernard

Gore, Bush, and Murray are all very good players, but are unlikely to get better at this point in their careers. I keep waiting for Gore to regress, but the 49’ers have done a nice job, of limiting his snaps and getting the best performance out of him; he is still a very physical runner with great pass blocking skills while also contributing as a receiver. Reggie Bush may never have lived up to the billing of “the next Gale Sayers,” but he has firmly established himself as a dangerous rushing/receiving combo with incredible speed and quickness. DeMarco Murray has never had questions about his talent, boasting a great combination of speed, strength, and receiving skills. However every hit he takes seems likely to scare Cowboys fans, as he has missed time due to injury all three years in the league. Gio Bernard is the only young gun with a chance to rise on this list, and I think he is very likely to do just that. He has great quickness and strength to go along with good hands, and is a lock to become one of the leagues better running backs over the next few years.

Missed time or injured, but could bounce back: Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, Shane Vereen

On the rise: Leveon Bell, Andre Ellington

The Top 10: Wide Receivers

Time to take a look at the offensive side of the ball. This was easily the toughest list to compile so far, as I believe the top 15 NFL receivers are extremely close together in both talent and value. I only have two tiers in the top 10, and I was tempted to scrap them altogether.

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My first set of 2014 predictions

Every year I put out at least a cursory projection of the NFL standings. Most of the time, I’m just guessing, but I’ve always wanted to add a little more rigor to my analysis.

This year, I went through each team’s schedule and did my best to estimate their win equity in each game, and projecting the results from each. After getting the totals, I had the league one game under .500, so I readjusted my totals on a few teams where I considered my initial predictions shaky to get to 256-256.

This isn’t a power ranking; this is a projection based on schedule as well as strength.

Six teams have half-wins; that doesn’t mean I’m predicting ties in certain games, just that that was the most clear and honest answer in my eyes and I couldn’t round it one way or the other for the sake of even numbers.

Anyway, here we go:

[table caption=”AFC” width=”640″ colwidth=”140|10|10|140|10|10|140|10|10|140|10|10″ colalign=”right|center|center|right|center|center|right|center|center|right|center|center”]
East,W,L,North,W,L,South,W,L,West,W,L
New England,11.5,4.5,Baltimore,9,7,Indianapolis,11,5,Denver,12,4
Miami,8,8,Cincinnati,8,8,Tennessee,7,9,San Diego,7.5,8.5
New York Jets,7,9,Pittsburgh,8,8,Houston,6,10,Kansas City,7.5,8.5
Buffalo,6,10,Cleveland,7,9,Jacksonville,6,10,Oakland,4,12
[/table]

[table caption=”NFC” width=”640″ colwidth=”140|10|10|140|10|10|140|10|10|140|10|10″ colalign=”right|center|center|right|center|center|right|center|center|right|center|center”]
East,W,L,North,W,L,South,W,L,West,W,L
Philadelphia,9,7,Green Bay,11,5,New Orleans,11,5,Seattle,11.5,4.5
Washington,8,8,Chicago,8,8,Carolina,8,8,San Francisco,11,5
Dallas,7,9,Detroit,6.5,9.5,Atlanta,7,9,Arizona,9,7
New York Giants,6.5,9.5,Minnesota,5,11,Tampa Bay,6,10,St. Louis,6,10
[/table]

Post any questions, comments, or curiosities you have. I’ll be the first to note that certain teams’ records vs. their perceived strength were distorted by strength of schedule: For example, Indianapolis’ is quite easy, while the AFC North’s is quite hard.

A Tale of Two Runners: Bishop Sankey and Jeremy Hill

In the 2005 NFL draft, three running backs were selected within the first five picks: Ronnie Brown (#2), Cedric Benson (#4), and Cadillac Williams (#5). Since then, we’ve seen Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, C.J. Spiller, and Trent Richardson all come off the board in the top 10. But we’ve seen a change in recent history: When the 2013 first round was completed, not a single running back had been picked, for the first time in the Super Bowl era. The Cincinnati Bengals made Giovani Bernard the first runner off the board with the 37th pick, the most selections in draft history before a running back was selected. That record lasted all of one year: The first running back off the board in 2014 didn’t come until the 54th pick, when the Titans chose Bishop Sankey out of the University of Washington. With the very next pick, the Bengals took another runner, Jeremy Hill out of LSU.  Aside from playing the same position, these two players have little in common. Sankey is a quick, diminutive back who can run off-tackle, and Hill is a bruising power back who excels between the tackles.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 54

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

Standing 5’9″ and weighing 209 lbs., Bishop Sankey is not very physically imposing. He’s the same size as Bengals 2013 second-round pick Giovani Bernard, but without Bernard’s dynamic speed or vision. On the other hand, unlike Bernard, Sankey carried a huge workload for the University of Washington. He ran the ball 327 times last season, and two seasons ago had 289 carries – with major production despite the heavy usage. His competition in Tennessee consists of Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle. While Greene is sitting atop the depth chart as of right now and has been getting the bulk of the first-team reps in camp, this is very likely to change as the regular season approaches. Sankey will almost certainly be the starting running back on week 1. Let’s see what he brings to the table.

One strike against Sankey is that he rarely picks up yards after contact. He can, mind you: See here as he powers over Oregon State’s safety for a monster gain on 3rd-and-1. More representative of his game are plays like this, where he tries to avoid contact at the second level in lieu of trying to slip around tacklers. I don’t think it is unfair to expect a play like this to be a broken tackle most of the time. If not that, then certainly this needs to be a big run. These specific plays are unimportant, but in my view they are representative of Sankey’s overall game. We’ll see later that second-level tacklers are almost hopeless against the much larger Jeremy Hill.

Where the lack of size hurts Sankey in the power department, it does allow him to slip through tight spots. A bigger back is stuffed for no gain on this play. There’s barely a hole, but Sankey makes himself skinny and slips through one. Again, here, there doesn’t appear to be a lane (at least from the sideline angle), yet he finds a way to pick up yards. He works well in these tight spaces. On this play, watch how quickly his feet can move. It’s well blocked by the offensive line, sure, but that flash of agility is what I like most about his game.

Nobody will mistake him for LeSean McCoy or the aforementioned Gio Bernard, but Sankey can make some silky smooth cuts. Check out this play against BYU where he slides away from tacklers with ease with some nimble cuts to the right. He can make this kind of move going left as well, as seen here and here on identical-looking jump cuts. On this play, he does it in both directions, and turns no gain into a big play to the back side. Just like the chess piece, Bishop is best when zigzagging past would-be tacklers.

The worst of any of his rushing attempts (that I saw) was this play, where the tight end plows the defensive end out of the play, the receiver has full control of the cornerback, and the guard is well positioned to blow up the linebacker. All Sankey needs to do is follow the pulling guard and it will be off to the races. Instead, he impatiently cuts inside of the guard and only gains a few yards.

Overall he shows good vision. Here he patiently follows the guard, slips through a tight window, and maintains his balance through contact on a nice touchdown run. And on this play, he presses the run to the right until the linebackers commit in that direction, then cuts back to the left and is off for a 59-yard touchdown.

His most creative run is against UCLA: Anthony Barr is coming unblocked off of the edge here, and Sankey makes a play right out of a video game. First, he evades Barr, then he sees a crowd of defenders out to his left and cuts inside where he’s immediately met by a linebacker. Spin move, no problem! From there he puts his head down and picks up a tough nine yards.

Sankey’s game tapes at Draft Breakdown are full of off-tackle runs if you want to watch any more.  I’ve shown you that Sankey can run inside a bit using his agility and that he’s much better running to the outside. I watched six games and only counted two major lapses in pass protection. He also has soft hands coming out of the backfield. While he’s not as spectacular as perhaps these plays I picked out demonstrate, I do expect him to immediately step in as the starter and be an upgrade for the Titans. His biggest problem is lack of power, and that’s one of the few positive attributes to Shonn Greene’s game. So, until Sankey proves otherwise, I don’t anticipate him getting too many carries in short yardage situations. I’m glad that I revisited Sankey before the season; he is a better player than I remembered when I first checked him out many months ago.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 55

Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU

The Bengals used second-round picks on running backs in back-to-back drafts, selecting Giovani Bernard in 2013 and Jeremy Hill in 2014. In stark contrast to Bernard (and Sankey), Hill is an imposing 6’2″, 236-lb. runner who thrives on smashing over and through second-level defenders. The days of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his 3.4 yards per carry will come to a end shortly, as it makes both football and financial sense (saves $2.3M against the cap) to cut him. In any event, let’s see what Hill can do for the Bengals.

While Hill rushed for an average of 6.9 yards per carry in his final season at LSU, the number is misleading in a couple of ways. Whereas Sankey, for instance, carried the entire workload, Hill only ran the ball 203 times. Also, if you check out his gamelog for 2013, he contributed little in games against Alabama, Texas A&M, and Georgia. To be fair, he saved his best for last, as he carried LSU to victory against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, carrying the ball 28 times at an elite 7.7 YPC against a good defensive squad.

Hill is a pure north-south and between the tackles runner. His footwork on cuts are nothing like we saw with Sankey. For example, on this play, the Red Sea is temporarily parted to the left side. He sees it and runs in that direction, but by the time he gets there the defenders are better positioned. There’s a lack of suddenness in his footwork; he doesn’t possess the kind of agility you see in the “quick-twitch” runners. Here is a pitch play where you can really see the stiffness of his lower body. There aren’t many yards to be gained, granted, but I’m talking about his biomechanics. And how about this play? A runner who can explode outside scores here. The difference between Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson, if you will.

There are three skills in which Hill excels: power, balance, and straight-line speed. These three traits can often all be seen in a single play. Arm tackles are hopeless. Here against Auburn he explodes straight ahead as if shot by a cannon. Those poor safeties have no chance to bring him down. Plays like this touchdown run against Iowa is where Bishop Sankey failed to make progress, but Hill is able to break on through (to the other side). All of this power at the second-level should translate immediately to the NFL.

Hue Jackson is taking over as offensive coordinator for the Bengals. In his very first press conference Jackson talked about being a more physical team with an emphasis on running, and that was before the team drafted Hill. According to wide receiver Marvin Jones, the new offense is “very up-tempo” with “a lot of aggression.” The Eagles offense last season combined a fast tempo with a lot of running; perhaps this is what we’ll see from the Bengals this year. The lightning-and-thunder (can we get a better nickname?) duo of Bernard and Hill along with the play action threat of A.J. Green is certain to keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night for years to come. The Bengals have a greatest-show-on-grass amount of talent at offensive skill positions… with Andy Dalton at the helm. Can you imagine Cam Newton with this group? Heh.