Hastily Assembled 2016 NFL Predictions

First, some good news: We should returning to zonereads.com shortly; I’ve been a little delayed by this whole “attempting to make a living” thing, but I should be importing the site back over soon.

I’m also planning to get back to more regular content; it’s certainly not like I lack for thoughts about the NFL, but I have lacked motivation to take the time to articulate them at column length. I already have a few ideas for upcoming columns, and I hope to crank those out in the next couple of weeks, although I have other projects that are labors of love or labors of money that could squeeze my time.

I’d like to get a weekly column going for either fantasy or gambling purposes. We’ll see if I succeed.

On to the purposes of this column: A quickly assembled guess at this year’s NFL standings, which of course is both too similar to last year’s to be interesting and too similar to be correct, given the variances and deviations that happen every year.

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Draft Thoughts Part 1 of 4: A Handful of Team Observations

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

So it turns out I have a lot more to say about this year’s NFL Draft than I thought I did. In my first draft of this article, this was my opening paragraph:

When enough is said before the draft– and I’ve been saying a lot, at least on Twitter if not on the blog– there’s not much to say afterward. Just a collection of observations from me, some about certain teams or their executives, others about general trends:

Well, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. By the time I got somewhere north of six thousand words, I decided I was going to need to break up my draft posting into multiple entries, to cover the several major topics I intended to cover.

Part 2 will be a deeper look at the Cleveland Browns draft and the idea of analytics in football. Part 3 will be some thoughts on the NFL’s processes as a whole. For part 1, here are some observations I made about a handful of teams’ drafts.

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The worst owner in the NFL

Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.

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Draft Review of the New Orleans Saints in the Payton-Loomis era, 2006-2014

With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).

I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.

The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).

In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.

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The Third Coast Sainted Texans

Earlier this week, I posited the question on Twitter for two nearby teams that were having poor years: What if the Saints and Texans merged rosters?

They seemed to have rosters that would fit together well, with each team having a strength where the other hand a hole, and vice versa. To make it more interesting (and also realistic), I decided to look up the 2015 cap hits for every player and build the team under the salary cap (listed on spotrac.com as $146,025,476). My goal here was to create the best 53-man roster possible while remaining under the salary cap.

I’m only considering players who were on the team as of this week, when I wrote this– not players who were on the team earlier in the year (like, say, Akiem Hicks or Kenny Phillips for the Saints).

And here we go. Texans fans are likely to be unhappy for a little while.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

  • Drew Brees (age: 36, 2015 cap hit: $23,800,000)
  • Luke McCown (34, $665,000)
  • Garrett Grayson (24, $618,291)
  • Total: $25,083,291

This one is fairly straightforward. Brees is the only NFL-caliber starting quarterback on either roster, so he has to make the team, even at his age and cap hit. McCown is by far the cheapest of the next three options (Brian Hoyer’s cap hit starts with a 5, which would be fine if it were one digit fewer). And Garrett Grayson is the best prospect for the future. (Tom Savage is on injured reserve; we’ll get to IR at the end of the roster, but frankly, Grayson is the best prospect irrespective of Savage’s presence.)

RUNNING BACK

  • Mark Ingram (25, $2,000,000)
  • C.J. Spiller (28, $2,000,000)
  • Khiry Robinson (25, $585,334)
  • Marcus Murphy (24, $452,322)
  • Austin Johnson (FB) (26, $510,000)
  • Total: $5,547,656

know this one will make Texans fans unhappy. It’s pretty straight-forward: Arian Foster is a 29-year-old running back with a significant injury history and a cap hit of over $8.7M. You might be able to justify paying Foster and carrying one fewer running back if he could still reliably perform at his peak level, but at his age, you can’t count on that.

With Foster too expensive to risk, I think the rest of the Texans running backs are pretty bad, so this was fairly easy. No one besides Foster on Houston’s roster is even as good as Khiry Robinson, let alone Ingram and Spiller. Marcus Murphy adds value as a kick and punt returner. I went with Austin Johnson over Jay Prosch, knowing little about fullbacks, because he’s cheaper (and I don’t know how much Prosch plays, if at all).

WIDE RECEIVER

  • DeAndre Hopkins (23, $2,080,010)
  • Brandin Cooks (22, $1,905,330)
  • Willie Snead (22, $435,000)
  • Jaelen Strong (21, $627,995)
  • Nate Washington (32, $615,000)
  • Total: $5,663,335

DeAndre Hopkins is a budding superstar, an obvious choice for our #1 receiver and a must-have even at five times the cost. Brandin Cooks hasn’t turned into the star the Saints envisioned, but at his current age and cap number, he’s still a bargain– and he’s more suited to this role, the #2 to Hopkins’ #1. Willie Snead has come on strong as arguably the Saints’ most reliable receiver. Jaelen Strong is very young and a fine prospect to ease along in a fourth or fifth wide receiver role. I chose Nate Washington as the “cagey veteran mentor” to round out the bunch. Marques Colston is too expensive and has seemingly lost it. You could argue for Cecil Shorts, but Washington is on a one-year minimum deal and Shorts is being paid $6 million for two years. Even though he’s younger, I’m not sure he adds much value to the team at all, let alone over Washington. Cooks, Snead, and Strong can contribute on special teams, so I wasn’t worried about finding a player to fit that type.

TIGHT END

  • Ben Watson (34, $1,900,000)
  • Josh Hill (25, $586,668)
  • C.J. Fiedorowicz (23, $730,826)
  • Total: $3,217,494

It was a lot easier to justify Watson for the top spot after the game he had Thursday night against Atlanta. He’s the best do-it-all guy on either roster. Hill has the most athleticism; Fiedorowicz is a guy I don’t think is all that special, but is young, cheap, and has a relatively high draft pedigree (then again, I’m not sure if the Texans understand the draft).

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

  • Duane Brown (30, $9,500,000)
  • Terron Armstead (24, $769,359)
  • Andrus Peat (21, $2,071,544)
  • Total: $12,340,903

A no-brainer. This might be the best trio of tackles in the league.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

  • Jahri Evans (32, $7,000,000)
  • Brandon Brooks (26, $1,696,359)
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo (24, $1,261,727)
  • Total: $9,958,086

Evans is on the decline at 32, but he’s still the best guard on either team. Brooks is not someone I know much about, but I’ve generally seen his play well-graded and spoken fairly well of– or at least well enough to be the team’s other starter. Su’a-Filo is on this team for roughly the same reason C.J. Fiedorowicz is.

CENTER

  • Max Unger (29, $3,000,000)
  • Ben Jones (26, $1,662,362)
  • Total: $4,662,362

It’s easy to pick both starting centers when they come this cheaply.

TOTAL OFFENSE: 24 players, $66,473,127

DEFENSE

I’ve listed the team in a base 3-4, which made the most sense to me with the personnel I had to work with.

ENDS

  • J.J. Watt (26, $13,969,000)
  • Cameron Jordan (26, $4,169,000)
  • Bobby Richardson (22, $436,666)
  • Jared Crick (26, $1,639,875)
  • Total: $20,214,541

Watt and Jordan are a fantastic duo to have here and well worth the money. Bobby Richardson has played well so far his rookie season, particularly against the run. I don’t know much about Crick, but he’s cheap and he plays a lot of snaps for Houston, so he makes the team.

TACKLES

  • John Jenkins (26, $746,890)
  • Tyeler Davison (23, $489,306)
  • Christian Covington (21, $457,621)
  • Kaleb Eulls (24, $438,333)
  • Total: $2,132,150

One of the weakest groups on the team, but a very young one with lots of chance to improve playing between Jordan and Watt. Jenkins has the size to be a true nose tackle, so he’s the starter in the run-stuffing role. The word is that Vince Wilfork has looked ordinary, and even if he hasn’t, 2 years and $9 million is a lot for a 33-year-old nose tackle. (Though it’s not out of line with the kind of deals the Texans like to hand out– see “Reed, Ed.”) The other three are all rookies with varying talent level and skill sets; Davison is the most explosive of the bunch.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Jadeveon Clowney (22, $5,062,045)
  • Hau’oli Kikaha (23, $957,511)
  • Whitney Mercilus (25, $2,979,030)
  • Kasim Edebali (26, $512,000)
  • Total: $9,510,586

Clowney hasn’t produced the big numbers yet, but he’s shown the flashes of greatness that made him the top pick in the draft. Kikaha now leads all rookies with four sacks (in six games); he’s been less flashy but steadily productive. Mercilus is a fine player, although nothing special, and Edebali has shown some signs of life as a rotational pass-rusher.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Stephone Anthony (23, $1,404,766)
  • Dannell Ellerbe (29, $1,900,000)
  • Bernardrick McKinney (22, $971,840)
  • Justin Tuggle (25, $585,834)
  • Michael Mauti (25, $585,000)
  • Total: $5,448,440

I hate to say it, but Brian Cushing might be done. He looks like a shell of his former self out there– and to make matters worse, he’s on the second year of a six-year deal, one where his cap hit each year is higher than the entire ILB crew I’ve assembled here.

Anthony is the star of the bunch, but Ellerbe has been surprisingly good, surpassing my expectations. McKinney is a long-term player there, though he’s more of a run-stopper. I had no idea whom to go with for the fourth ILB spot; Tuggle beat out Akeem Dent based on age, salary, and slightly higher PFF grade. Feel free to replace him if you like someone better. Mauti won the special teams roster spot with his blocked punt Thursday night.

CORNERBACK

  • Keenan Lewis (29, $4,500,000)
  • Johnathan Joseph (31, $11,750,000)
  • Kevin Johnson (23, $1,827,166)
  • Delvin Breaux (25, $439,000)
  • Damian Swann (22, $481,807)
  • Total: $18,997,973

Another difficult decision I had to make was Joseph vs. Kareem Jackson. I was initially on Jackson because he’s younger and had a lower cap hit, but upon further research, I discovered he’s graded out really poorly this year, and he’s in the first year of a four-year contract extension; he’ll be 31 when it ends. Joseph is 31 now, but his cap hit is lower for the next two years than it is now, and the team can cut bait after 2016 with no further penalty. With the play so far of youngsters Johnson and Breaux, that is likely to happen. Also, Lewis has proven himself a fine #1 corner, even if he is exiting his prime, and Swann has performed solidly so far after winning the Saints’ nickel job as a rookie.

SAFETY

  • Jairus Byrd (29, $5,500,000)
  • Kenny Vaccaro (24, $2,570,376)
  • Rahim Moore (26, $3,000,000)
  • Andre Hal (23, $527, 281)
  • Total: $11,597,657

The Saints structured Byrd’s contract such that his cap hit makes him an affordable risk here– and even allows us to spend $3 million on Moore for when Byrd is inevitably injured. Vaccaro seems like an obvious choice, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Hal so far.

TOTAL DEFENSE: 26 players, $67,901,347

SPECIAL TEAMS

  • Kicker: Zach Hocker (24, $435,000)
  • Punter: Thomas Morstead (29, $3,400,000)
  • Long Snapper: Justin Drescher (27, $875,000)

I chose Hocker before Thursday night, but he’ll probably be fired after that game. Well, the Texans already fired Randy Bullock this year, so I decided to go with the guy who stuck around the longest.

Morstead is more expensive than Shane Lechler, but he’s also twelve years younger and has a lifetime pass for hitting the greatest onside kick in NFL history.

Drescher is cheaper and younger than Jon Weeks.

TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 players, $4,710,000

TOTAL 53-MAN ROSTER: $139,084,474

We’re still nearly $7 million under the cap, so I decided to add some players to our Injured Reserve list (who do not count against the 53-man roster, but do count against the salary cap):

  • CB P.J. Williams (22, $494,651)
  • SS Vinnie Suneri (22, $377,125)
  • OLB Davis Tull (23, $373,433)
  • TE Ryan Griffin (designated for return) (25, $381,611)
  • OL David Quessenberry (25, $613,363)
  • OLB Reshard Cliett (23, $340,621)
  • QB Tom Savage (25, $408,146)
  • OLB Anthony Spencer (31, $665,000)
  • FS Rafael Bush (28, $1,900,000)
  • Total Injured Reserve: $5,553,950

That brings the entire roster, 53-man and injured reserve, to a GRAND TOTAL of $144,638,424Still close to $1.5 million and change to work with; if you’re not comfortable cutting it that close, I totally understand removing Bush from IR. The team’s only contracts that are both long and expensive going to legitimate stars like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, leaving money to extend key players currently on their rookie deals, such as DeAndre Hopkins and Terron Armstead, when the time comes. Not a bad spot to be in. Of course, it’s easy when you get to pick and choose from two rosters.

 

Is the Drew Brees era over?

I started writing this after the Saints fell to 0-2 and it was revealed that Drew Brees injured his shoulder against Tampa Bay. With Brees missing the first game in his career due to injury in week 3 (the Saints are now 0-3), and with the team trading Akiem Hicks today for a blocking tight end, it seems clear that the season is a lost cause and the team is looking to clear cap space– yes, even their minor restructuring of Brees’ contract to create space this year was because they pretty much had to. (That said, if they let Hicks leave as a free agent, New Orleans might get a compensatory pick for him– but they’ve never valued compensatory picks, as we’ll cover below.)

What’s wrong?

I wrote some things about the Saints last year when they fell apart, and I don’t want to repeat them too much. Many of the problems (unreliable receivers, Tim Lelito, overall lack of defensive talent, Jairus Byrd’s contract) remain, and between the sheer lack of overall roster talent and the cap situation, it’s going to take time to fix those things.

I do want to mention that with the trade of Hicks, nobody from the team’s 2012 draft remains on the roster. The team fired the director of college scouting and cleaned out the department this offseason, and after the disastrous 2014 draft has left exactly one player from it on the active roster one year later, it’s understandable. But these kinds of draft misses– compounded by frequent trades up– have been part of the problem for years. For the handful of late-round gems the team found, they had many more late-round whiffs and early picks who disappointed or outright busted; Stanley Jean-Baptiste was simultaneously the apex of this trend and the straw that broke the camel’s back. The 2015 draft, with the new team headed presumably by Jeff Ireland (although his title is Assistant General Manager, not Director of College Scouting) is looking better, but the roster is threadbare and the cap is spent.

And with the roster threadbare and the cap spent, Drew Brees can only take them so far. If the Saints suck even with Brees, which is looking like the case, then the road to rebuilding could be long. 2016 is probably lost as well.

That leads into our next question:

Is Brees done?

I don’t think so. The murmurs about his deep ball and failing accuracy started last year (even though Football Outsiders disagreed), and increased in intensity after he put two deep balls to Brandin Cooks far too short in the Tampa Bay game. However, those both happened after Brees took the hit that injured his shoulder to the degree he missed the Carolina game. Before, I think he was fine. The problem is that his receivers just aren’t reliable– Marques Colston isn’t getting enough separation and is dropping too many passes, and no one else has the ability to reliably make difficult or contested catches. The team lost Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills and tried to replace their production with undrafted free agents; it isn’t working because those guys aren’t as good.

Unfortunately, what can the team do in the meantime? They won’t have cap room to sign free agents. If they draft receivers highly, they may take a while to develop. Brees may be too old to benefit by then. He may not even be on the team anymore.

Brees’ contract expires after 2016 and they may just be better served playing it out. With the new figures from Wednesday’s adjustment (via Spotrac), Brees sits at a $23.8m cap hit for this year, and with an extra $10m in dead money on top of that if they trade or release him, they have to stick it out. (That’s right: Brees would leave $33.8 million dollars in dead money on the Saints’ 2015 cap.) His cap hit in 2016 soars to $30 million, but would only leave $10 million in dead money if they released him. Even considering those $20 million in savings, it may still be best to just let him play out the year and re-assess. No point in eating cap room to stink and throw a guy into the fire.  (If they really think Garrett Grayson is The Guy, another year on the bench can only help. As could drafting some more reliable receivers.)

What can be done?

It’s going to take a serious and strong drafting effort over the next two years. The cap should look better in 2017. The team would do well to mostly stay out of the free-agent market this year; they don’t have a ton of free agents (Hicks would have been the better ones), but by letting them walk, and not spending on more free agents, they might garner some compensatory picks. The Saints’ approach has not involved much of this strategy, with the team needing to rebuild to become competitive again, they should be looking to stock pile as many draft picks as possible. (The Baltimore Ravens use this strategy to great effect.)

The 2015 rookie class already has shown promising returns. Stephone Anthony still makes some rookie mistakes, but he’s been outstanding in several facets of the game. Delvin Breaux (GIF-able moments aside) and Damian Swann seem to be legit additions to the secondary. (Keenan Lewis is scheduled to come back this week; this may be the first chance for us to see the Saints’ cornerback crew at anything close to full strength.) Hau’oli Kikaha has been positive, as have some of the rookie defensive linemen, particularly Bobby Richardson. The defense is not good yet, but they have some solid young parts and a couple of guys who could be franchise cornerstones. Another draft this good on the defensive end, and the team could have the foundation they’re looking for in place.

On offense, the two biggest weak spots seem to be Tim Lelito and the receivers. If Lelito doesn’t improve, the team should try to find a guard at some point in the 2016 draft. As I’ve said many times, the team needs a true #1 receiver, someone who can make the difficult catches as well as the big plays, someone you turn to in critical situations, someone you can count on when you need a catch.

Finding a Drew Brees replacement is critical, of course. Garrett Grayson may or may not be it. But I don’t think the team should pin all its hopes on a third-round quarterback (but then again, I wasn’t that high on him to begin with).

I also want the team to lock up Terron Armstead. Yes, I think Andrus Peat can play left tackle, but I’d rather have both. They have few proven players who are young and talented enough that they could be considered foundational pieces; Armstead is one.

2016 Mock Draft

I rolled over to Fanspeak’s On the Clock Mock Draft (while they’re running a trial period where the “premium” feature, with custom boards and trades, is free). I haven’t done enough draft work for 2016 to have my own board, so I just used Fanspeak’s. (Which also means I don’t necessarily know who’s good, but the exercise was still fun nonetheless.)

I did not set the draft order. Fanspeak decided of their own accord that New Orleans deserved the #1 pick.

Here are my selections and reasoning:

http://fanspeak.com/ontheclock/sharedraft.php?d=yshmhs (NOTE: As of publishing this link was down. Picks are still written and explained below.)

YOUR PICKS

1: R1P1
JOEY BOSA
OHIO STATE
Immediate substantial upgrade to the pass-rush. Talent jumps off the screen, even in a draft full of pass rushers. Saints have been running a 4-3 a substantial amount of the time and Bosa would be perfect opposite Cam Jordan. (There’s a strong argument to take a QB here; Jared Goff is my favorite at this time. I did exploit Fanspeak’s rankings to target a different guy, as you’ll see below.)

2: R2P7
WR MICHAEL THOMAS
OHIO STATE
I then traded down with Jacksonville, acquiring the 2.07 and 4.07 for the 2.01. Thomas I don’t know much about yet, but he was Fanspeak’s highest rated receiver at the spot, and I liked what I did see of him against Virginia Tech. I’ve made it clear I think the team needs more receivers who can make difficult and contested catches, and Thomas fits the bill with his size and strength, and adds nice ability after the catch to boot.

3: R3P1
OLB DADI LHOMME NICOLAS
VIRGINIA TECH
Probably won’t be available here in reality, but again, another guy whose athleticism is evident from tape (and will likely measure out that way in the Combine as well). Jumps off the screen with a fantastic first step and very good bend, too. If they stay in the 4-3, they now have one of the best young trio of linebackers in the league in Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, and Nicolas– add the outside ‘backers to Bosa and Jordan, and you have four young, fearsome pass rushers. This could be a return to the glory days of the Dome Patrol. (I’m not sure if Jordan or Bosa is Wayne Martin.)

4: R4P1
WR STERLING SHEPARD
OKLAHOMA
Another guy at the top of the board who I liked when I saw. Adds more speed and quickness to the mix. I like Shepard and Thomas to make tougher catches and also draw coverage away from Cooks to let him maximize his speed.

5: R4P7
ROBERTO AGUAYO
FLORIDA STATE
He was near the top of Fanspeak’s board, and I’ve really had enough of the kicking problems that continually plague this team.

6: R5P1
QB JACOBY BRISSETT
NC STATE
Likely won’t be here in real life, but he shows some really high-level deep accuracy and ability to read progressions on film. May need some work, but truthfully could be better than Garrett Grayson. The team really should do whatever it takes to find and develop their next starter.

7: R7P1
WR BRAXTON MILLER
OHIO STATE
Okay, fine, I don’t know what to do with him, I just took him because of the name and the idea of using him in a bunch of gadget stuff. In reality, they probably take a special-teams player or a developmental offensive lineman.

I like this draft (especially if Brissett pans out, obviously). It fills in two of the most obvious weak spots on the defensive front seven, and greatly upgrades the pass rush in the process. The team keeps searching for the QB for Year One A.B. (After Brees), and adds two receivers who should substantially strengthen the group for whoever that guy is.

2016 outlook

Even assuming a draft like this and Brees back to health, this is probably still a middling team. The young talent won’t be fully developed yet. They’ll bounce back a little bit, perhaps to .500. There’s even hope they could make the playoffs in 2016, if the rookies contribute right away, Andrus Peat takes over for Zach Strief (and becomes the dominant tackle he showed the potential to be), and everyone stays healthy.

Decisions will have to be made on Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd in the 2017 offseason. (My guess will be that Vaccaro regains form and earns a second deal, but Byrd, whether because of injuries or age or both, will be let go.) The team will have to fill in for those guys, as well as anyone else dropping off due to injury or age. With this 2016 mock and presuming things go roughly as I expected, the biggest needs in 2017 will probably be at safety, interior offensive lineman (and perhaps defensive, too), and running back.

And, of course, whether or not the single most important question of the franchise’s future has been answered: Who will be the next quarterback after Drew Brees?

Podcast with Inside the Pylon: Saints Talk

Once again doing a little crossover work with our friends at Inside the Pylon, I appeared on their Thursday podcast to talk about the Saints’ struggles. You can listen here.

(I apologize in advance for the excess of “Ummmmm”s. Even being prepared doesn’t help me in the morning.)

I didn’t get to cover everything I think about the Saints’ prospects for this season and beyond, so I’m hoping to do so in a future column.