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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Quick and Dirty 2015 Season Predictions

Sad to say, Zone Reads has been through some lean times this year. We’ve lost some contributors and those that remain have careers that are increasingly demanding of our time. We’ll still try to keep churning out content as much as we can, though, especially once draft season begins. That said, if you need a place to contribute your football knowledge and writing, we’re happy to listen to submissions for new contributors.

In the meantime, I pulled a season-standings prediction out of my ass sometime last week, and with the season upon us, I thought I’d generate some content by writing a quick sentence or three about each team:

 

The AFC

 

EAST

  1. New England Patriots – 11-5. Brady is free (as he should be), and though the team lost a lot of defensive talent in the offseason, it’s more or less business as usual.
  2. Miami Dolphins – 11-5. They have the talent that they should take a substantial leap forward. In my heart of hearts, I still can’t justify picking them to win the division, and it’s because I think Joe Philbin is by all evidence a bad coach who is holding the team back.
  3. Buffalo Bills – 8-8. It’s a Rex Ryan team with a lot of defensive talent. They’ll mostly be competitive. They have a fair amount of offensive talent, too, and while I’m relatively optimistic about Tyrod Taylor, any Rex offense automatically brings certain assumptions of low-quality play.
  4. New York Jets – 7-9. Mike Maccagnan decided it was time to stop bullshitting around in the secondary. I like Todd Bowles’ prospects as head coach. Still not optimistic about the QB situation.

NORTH

  1. Baltimore Ravens – 10-6. I didn’t care much for the Breshad Perriman pick (give me Devin Smith catching deep balls from Flacco all day, good lord), but this team always manages to stay freshly-stocked with talent, and has no major holes.
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers – 9-7. This was a team that had major defensive holes and was going to have to rely on offense, and now several major offensive contributors are going to miss significant parts of the season. I think they’ll struggle in stretches and may not win enough games to make the playoffs.
  3. Cincinnati Bengals – 6-10. Speaking of holes: I don’t know how a team with weak QB play and no pass rush won ten games. They didn’t try to upgrade either. I think it’s going to get worse for them.
  4. Cleveland Browns – 6-10. No QB. Their best receiver is probably Duke Johnson. Mike Pettine might be a wizard for getting them to 7-9 lats year, but even a wizard can’t overcome the talent level and organizational dysfunction this franchise consistently shows. Fun note: They’ve drafted one receiver in the last two years, and they cut him this preseason before he ever played a game for them. They’ve had seven first-round picks since 2012, and they’ve yet to find an impact player (though Danny Shelton might finally fit the bill. Might).

SOUTH

  1. Indianapolis Colts – 12-4. My pick for home field advantage in the AFC because they have a soft schedule and a juggernaut passing offense. Who needs defense when you have Andrew Luck?
  2. Houston Texans – 7-9. A replacement-level offense without Arian Foster. I just don’t know how this team will score enough points to keep competitive. Damn Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith (who is apparently untouchable no matter how many bad drafts he has) for denying us a Luck-Teddy rivalry.
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars – 6-10. I’m betting on a step forward for this team; I think they finally have enough talent to overcome the mistakes of the Gene Smith era. Mind you, they’re still on a shaky footing in a number of areas, and they have to count on guys actually taking their projected steps forward, but at least they’re finally trending in the right direction.
  4. Tennessee Titans – 5-11. Marcus Mariota will, I think, end up being a fine choice at QB. But this year, that still won’t be enough for the team to really bounce back. It may not even be enough to save jobs. Eventually, though, a Mariota – Dorial Green-Beckham connection could prove very scary.

WEST

  1. Denver Broncos – 11-5. I’ve made my thoughts on Gary Kubiak well-known. I even have worries about Peyton Manning finally hitting the physical wall that his brilliance can’t overcome. In the end, though, this is an extraordinarily talented squad all around.
  2. Kansas City Chiefs – 10-6. I don’t know if I buy all the preseason hype that Alex Smith is finally, in his 11th year in the league, willing to throw downfield, but I do buy that 2015 Jeremy Maclin is substantially better than 2014 Dwayne Bowe, I buy the emergence of Travis Kelce, I buy Andy Reid’s offensive gameplanning (if not always his playcalling or clock management), and I buy a strong pass rush and two of my favorite young CBs in the game, Phillip Gaines and Marcus Peters.
  3. San Diego Chargers – 8-8. I’m a believer in Philip Rivers, it’s just… what else do they have? Eric Weddle? Jeremiah Attaochu? I don’t think the line is strong enough to spring Melvin Gordon to the kinds of big plays he needs to justify his draft position. Rivers will keep them competitive, but do they have the talent to go further than that?
  4. Oakland Raiders – 5-11. I think Amari Cooper is overrated (though he’s proving me wrong so far). I think Derek Carr is significantly overrated. I think Reggie McKenzie has made mostly bad moves since taking over as GM. I don’t rate Jack Del Rio. Even if Cooper is the offensive equivalent of Khalil Mack vis-a-vis studliness… what else does the team really have, outside of them?

The NFC

 

EAST

  1. Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6. Under-reported part of Chip Kelly’s roster remake: He’s targeted quite a few guys with worlds of talent but a substantial injury history– significantly, his top three additions to the backfield this year. Kelly is betting his commitment to advanced sports science and sports medicine will mitigate those injuries. (For you NBA fans, he’s trying to bring that Phoenix Suns Training Staff magic to the NFL.) I haven’t found a reason to bet against Chip Kelly yet.
  2. Dallas Cowboys – 10-6. Still think their run game struggles. They picked up an absurd haul of talent in the draft, though, and if their pass rush trio of Greg Hardy / DeMarcus Lawrence / Randy Gregory comes on strong, they could be a top team overall. They have a tough out-of-division schedule, though (NE, SEA, @GB), and Jason Garrett is a guy I always count on to come up short when the game is on the line.
  3. New York Giants – 6-10. The opposite of the Eagles in terms of sports medicine– they draft injury-prone or previously injured guys, their guys get injured all the time, and they don’t seem to give a damn about changing their processes. I don’t see a lot to like here. Please, Tom Coughlin, please, please, please, don’t let your retrograde opinions of sports medicine and injury treatment ruin Odell Beckham’s career.
  4. Washington Potatoes, 3-13. I see even less to like here. DeSean Jackson. Trent Williams. The running backs. A handful of good pass rushers. Bashaud Breeland, eventually. That’s about it. I think Jay Gruden is an embarrassment who should never have a head coaching job again solely based on his willingness to publicly undermine players and deflect responsibility onto everyone but himself– a total lack of leadership. At least they can look forward to taking the wrong quarterback #1 overall in 2016.

NORTH

  1. Green Bay Packers – 11-5. Even without Jordy Nelson, the team is still led by possibly the best quarterback who ever lived. Aaron Rodgers’ career record (including a 6-10 first season as starter) is 70-33; pro-rated to 16 games, that’s good for 10.87 wins. I’m comfortable with predicting 11 wins in perpetuity for Mr. Rodgers until he is no longer possibly the best quarterback who ever lived.
  2. Minnesota Vikings – 10-6. A now-popular dark horse for a team to emerge into the playoffs, the Vikings have all the good signs: a head coach I like, a quarterback I love who is primed to take a big step forward, and a lot of other young and improving talent. I particularly like Mike Zimmer’s chances of getting the most out of a very talented pass-rushing squadron. Add it all up, mix in the return of Adrian Peterson and a third-place schedule, and a playoff trip seems well within the range of possibilities.
  3. Detroit Lions – 8-8. No way to get around how much losing Ndamukong Suh hurts. I think they won more games last year than their talent should have indicated, and this seems like about the right spot for them (particularly since I don’t see Jim Caldwell as coaxing more out of the talent at hand; his strength seems to be “not a screaming maniac who constantly has everyone on edge”).
  4. Chicago Bears – 5-11. Hey, it’s almost the same team as last year’s Bears, but less good at offense!

SOUTH

  1. New Orleans Saints – 9-7. The demise of Drew Brees has been greatly overstated. Yes, you can worry about the lack of receiving talent, but the Super Bowl team didn’t have much outside of Marques Colston at receiver, either (despite the high draft status of guys like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson). The offense will go horizontal, the defense will benefit from a substantial injection of talent (once everyone finally gets healthy), and that combined with a weak schedule should be just enough to put them back on top of the division.
  2. Atlanta Falcons – 8-8. It’ll be neck-and-neck with these two teams all year. The Assassination of Julio Jones’ Prime by the Coward Mike Smith has mercifully come to an end. I like Dan Quinn, I cried a little when they drafted Vic Beasley, and Kyle Shanahan has proven to be a true offensive mind, not a hire based out of nepotism. Still, though, I think the Saints will be a little better, at least this year.
  3. Carolina Panthers – 7-9. The records may be close, but I think Carolina substantially lags behind the other two. The Panthers’ offensive line and receiver crew seems to be the product of an approach that says “How little can we give Cam Newton and still field a competitive offense?” With Kelvin Benjamin out, the situation goes from bad to worse. The front seven is good, but there’s no dominant pass rusher. I just see a lot of places the team has subpar talent, and a lot of ways that can come back to bite them.
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 6-10. I think Jameis Winston is the real deal and I love that they gave him offensive line support to boot. They’ll be better than last year, although they still have no pass rush outside of Gerald McCoy, and I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the back seven outside of Lavonte David (although they apparently love Kwon Alexander and will name him the starter at MLB). Trending up, but not there yet.

WEST

  1. Seattle Seahawks – 10-6. The win total is a little light, because I think they’ll not be quite as good as last year. As long as Kam Chancellor is out, the defense is that much weaker. The offensive line is extremely unproven and could turn out to be really, really bad. Obviously they’re too good all around to slip much, but they will not seem nearly as invincible this year as they have in the past.
  2. Arizona Cardinals – 10-6. Didn’t have the guts to pick them for the division, either, but I’m not betting against Bruce Arians at this point. Could be a juggernaut on offense if Carson Palmer stays healthy and lives up to what Arians thinks he can do. Still some question marks on the line and on defense, but I’m going to assume Arians finds a way to pull it all together.
  3. St. Louis Rams – 6-10. Football Outsiders picked them to finish 5th in DVOA this year, and I don’t understand that at all. I don’t understand why people love Jeff Fisher, but again, I’ve written on that extensively. If you believe drafting a bunch of rookies automatically makes a great offensive line, and if you believe that, for some reason, Nick Foles can replicate his 27:2 TD:INT ratio from 2013 in a Jeff Fisher offense, and you believe Todd Gurley comes back healthy, faces no more problems, and is a juggernaut (by far the most likely part, IMO), then sure, they could make the playoffs. Me, I see them losing a lot of games 13-9 because they can’t move the damn ball unless Gurley breaks a big play or someone bites on a play-action deep ball to Brian Quick. (That involves both Quick, coming off an ACL tear, beating his man deep, and Foles hitting him in stride, so, good luck.) Also, for as much buzz as their front four gets, the back four isn’t nearly as good.
  4. San Francisco – 5-11. I’m willing to be open-minded about Jim Tomsula. But this team has faced such a massive talent drain– with an incredible amount of unexpected losses; maybe you expect Justin Smith to retire and Mike Iupati to take a big free-agent deal, but nobody could have planned to lose Chris Borland, Anthony Davis, AND Aldon Smith on top of that. I don’t know if any coach could overcome that degree of talent drain.

PLAYOFFS

AFC WILD CARD

3)Denver over 6)Kansas City

4)Baltimore over 5)Miami

NFC WILD CARD

3)Philadelphia over 6)Arizona

4)New Orleans over 5)Minnesota

AFC DIVISIONAL

1)Indianapolis over 4)Baltimore

2)New England over 3)Denver

NFC DIVISIONAL

1)Green Bay over 4)New Orleans

3)Philadelphia over 2)Seattle

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

1)Indianapolis over 2)New England

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

1)Green Bay over 3)Philadelphia

SUPER BOWL

Packers 34, Colts 31– Two of the league’s best at the top of their game produce an all-time classic with multiple lead changes in the fourth, before Aaron Rodgers leads the final comeback drive without leaving Andrew Luck time to answer.

Crossover Post Part 2: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

Following up on my answers to the Saints questions that were posted yesterday and ran on Inside the Pylon, we had some questions for Dave Archibald and Mark Schofield from ITP about the Patriots’ outlook for this preseason.

1. The Patriots had significant turnover in the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks from last year are gone, and aside from Devin McCourty, the secondary is full of unproven young players or veterans who weren’t cutting it with other teams. What’s the outlook here? What are your thoughts on the actual players, and who do you expect to end up being the key guys there?

Dave Archibald: Good question; this seems to be the biggest question mark with the defending champs. By all reports, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is having a terrific camp and has all but locked down one of the starting spots. Opposite him will likely be one of the veterans: ex-Raider Tarell Brown, who is returning from injury, or ex-Eagle Bradley Fletcher, who was toasted in 2014 by a challenging group of wideouts . In the slot will be former Falcon Robert McClain or versatile vet Logan Ryan. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts of Marshall, who started and played effectively in the preseason opener before leaving with injury. They have enough bodies that they’ll be fine most weeks, but they’re lacking an obvious physical match for bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas, so they’ll have to be creative at times.

McCourty’s as solid as they come on the back end, and they have no shortage of options next to him at safety. Veteran Patrick Chung had a bounce-back year in 2014 and was especially effective in man-to-man coverage on tight ends, arguably a strong safety’s most important job in the modern NFL. Duron Harmon is a capable backup to McCourty and plays alongside him in passing situations, though he’s not much of a run defender. Second-round rookie Jordan Richards out of Stanford is apparently hitting the ground running in camp and might play a role, too.

New England played a ton of man-to-man coverage last season and it seems unlikely that will continue with this group. They might want to be able to use more zone against teams with effective running games, and that mentality shift was part of investing less in the cornerback group, letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason.

Browner will be an interesting fit in New Orleans. He was up-and-down last year; he locked down everyone he covered in the Super Bowl but was benched in the second half against Indianapolis in the AFCCG. He’s physical, has tremendous wingspan to knock away passes, and he’s faster in a straight line than people think, but he really struggles with change-of-direction and quick guys. He’ll frustrate Mike Evans types but there will be other weeks you won’t want him on the field. I see him more as a unique role player who can be brilliant in the right matchups rather than a solid starter.

2. Related: What are your thoughts on the pass rush? Jabaal Sheard was one of my favorite low-profile signings this offseason, a productive complementary rusher who was forgotten playing out of position behind a $40 million contract and a #6 overall pick. What will his role be? Do you think Dominique Easley can come back healthy? Will the pass rush mitigate the secondary inexperience?

DA: When healthy, starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich rarely came off the field in 2014, so Sheard will let them get some rest if nothing else. Jones has been somewhat injury-prone so far in his career, so Sheard provides depth. I’m curious as to whether they can get all three in the lineup on a consistent basis. They tried Jones at 3-4 end early in the season and ultimately had to abandon it, partly due to injuries and partly because it wasn’t a strong fit for Jones.

Easley is one of the swing guys for this season – if he can stay healthy, he can be the disruptive inside rusher that the Patriots haven’t had since Richard Seymour’s heyday. Whether he can stay healthy is anyone’s guess, though.

Rookie fourth-rounder Trey Flowers out of Arkansas was a favorite of the draft Twitter community and had an impressive sack in the preseason opener, and they also drafted Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma late in the third round. The pass rush should be quite a bit deeper than last year, when they had to get Akeem Ayers out of purgatory (or the Tennessee Titans) after Jones got hurt.

3. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are gone. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are back to compete for the power-back carries. Who wins, and what’s the rest of the running back rotation going to look like? Will James White or Travaris Cadet play a major role? I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Bolden or James Develin.

DA: This came up in a recent mailbag. They seemed to draft White expecting him to replace Vereen, and he had a fine preseason opener in the passing game, racking up yards after catch. The question is: can he pass protect well enough to keep Brady upright? That’s also a concern with Cadet, who wasn’t asked to block much with the Saints. Bolden is probably the best pass blocker in the group but was lacking as a receiving back when Vereen was hurt in 2013. If they can run the football more consistently, there might be more work for the power backs and less for the scatbacks.

4. What’s going on at receiver behind Edelman and LaFell? Is Aaron Dobson ready to assume a significant role? Are the rumors of Josh Boyce looking good in camp meaningful? Does it matter, as long as you have Tom Brady?

DA: Danny Amendola is the third guy; he was invisible most of the year but came on the playoffs. The fourth guy, whether it’s Dobson, Boyce, deep threat Bryan Tyms, or ex-Dolphin Brandon Gibson, isn’t going to play much barring injury. If anything, we’ll see more two wide receiver sets with the addition of tight end Scott Chandler, and even Amendola’s role will be reduced. Chandler won’t make anyone forget Aaron Hernandez, but paired with Rob Gronkowski he gives opponents twin tower tight ends to account for and try to match up against.

5. Speaking of, time to address the elephant in the room: We both know Deflategate is trumped-up nonsense, and this question may not even be relevant by press time, but: Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to play if he has to? What are your thoughts on his development so far and do you think he’s the guy for the future?

Mark Schofield: New England’s front office saw enough from him to make Garoppolo their second round pick in the 2014 draft. Looking at his film from college and his limited playing time in the NFL there is a lot to like. He has solid arm talent, with the ability to work the football into narrow throwing lanes and drive the football downfield when he needs to with velocity. He is also an athletic quarterback, able to extend plays with his feet and pick up yardage on the ground. He also throws a tremendous deep ball with upper-level touch and accuracy.

But is he ready to play if pressed into action? Not entirely. He’s close, but there is still one issue that he needs to improve, and that is his response to pressure.

One of the major concerns about him coming out of college was his presence in the pocket. When pressured, he tended to get happy feet, take his eyes down and focus on the rush. We saw that in bunches last Friday night. In the face of pressure Garoppolo struggled to continue with plays and make his reads from the pocket. From a clean pocket he is ready, but you do not see clean pockets all the time in the NFL.

Lost in all of the Deflategate discussion is the effect this is having on Garoppolo’s development and preparation for the season. The longer this drags on – and the longer Tom Brady continues to take the majority of snaps in practice – the less time Garoppolo has to prepare for the season opener. Should Judge Berman uphold Brady’s suspension on the cusp of the season-opener, New England might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to having their back-up ready to go.

As far as his long-term prospects, I think Garoppolo is – like Brett Hundley in Green Bay and Garrett Grayson in New Orleans – in a perfect position to develop, caddy and get ready for the day he takes over. Garoppolo has enough talent that I believe he is the QB of the future in New England, he just needs to continue improving in the pocket.

6. Aside from anyone I haven’t mentioned, who are you interested in watching on Saturday? Which young players and sleepers do you think could end up contributing significantly this season? Which position battles?

DA: The offensive line was the biggest weakness on the team for most of 2014, but it mostly fell into place once then-rookie Bryan Stork took over at center, with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell in the guard spots. Connolly retired in the offseason, and most are assuming that fourth-round pick Tre’ Jackson – like Stork, a product of Florida State’s legendary offensive line coach Rick Trickett – will start at right guard on day one. Wendell is battling for the left guard spot with another fourth-round pick in Shaq Mason, who was a terrific run blocker at Georgia Tech but barely ever pass blocked in their option offense. Sebastian Vollmer is one of the NFL’s best right tackles, and left tackle Nate Solder was solid down the stretch after a poor start to the year. Depth tackles Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming are also players to watch; both got some work at guard last season, and Fleming mauled defenses as a sixth lineman in some run-heavy sets. I think the downside is the kind of up-and-down performance we saw in 2014, but there’s a chance if all the pieces come together that this could be one of the NFL’s better groups, taking pressure off Brady (/ Garoppolo) and a defense that figures to slip a bit. Of the projected starters, only Jackson played in the first preseason game, and Garoppolo took seven sacks behind a makeshift line. I’ll be looking for improved protection Saturday.

Interior line play on the other side of the ball also bears watching, as anchor Vince Wilfork is gone. Sealver Siliga filled in effectively when Wilfork was hurt in 2013, but can he shoulder the load for a full season? Will first-round pick Malcom Brown from Texas start on day one? Do they get contributions from veterans Alan Branch or Antonio Johnson, or do they not even make the team? Easley factors in here, too.

Looking forward to Saturday’s matchup!

Crossover Post: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

The New England Patriots play the New Orleans Saints on Saturday for preseason week 2. My old college friend and roommate, Dave Archibald, a lifelong Pats fan who contributes to Inside the Pylon, reached out to me, a lifelong Saints fan, for a Q&A session about the teams and what to watch for beforehand.

My answers on the Saints have gone live on ITP. Dave’s answers on the Patriots will run on our site tomorrow.

Our top 20 day-three draft values

I wanted to wait to write this column until the 53-man roster deadline had passed, until teams had used the waiver wire to stock the bottom of their rosters from other team’s castoffs. Now that the dust has settled, we’ll look at some day-three picks we really like. These players represent a combination of value at their selection, contribution right away, and potential down the line. I’ve ranked them by order in which we had them ranked.

20. Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami-FL
Buffalo Bills, Round 7, Pick 237
#123 overall, #14 OT

Henderson was an unusual prospect to grade, with worlds of physical talent dragged down by off-field problems and laziness in developing his technique. It was never clear at Miami whether he just needed good coaching or didn’t have the mental attitude, but all indicators are that he’ll start at right tackle for the Bills over second-round pick Cyrus Kouandijo.

19. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
St. Louis Rams, Round 6, Pick 188
#112 overall, #13 CB

Gaines is currently penciled in as one of the Rams’ starting cornerbacks opposite Janoris Jenkins. He had some strong games in the preseason, and while we believed in his abilities as a solid cover corner in various coverages, even we didn’t project a week-one starter.

18. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida
New Orleans Saints, Round 5, Pick 169
#105 overall, #7 LB

It should be no surprise that Powell ended up on Rob Ryan’s Saints defense, as his versatility was a highlight on film. Let vix tell you more.

17. Jonathan Newsome, OLB, Ball State
Indianapolis Colts, Round 5, Pick 166
#104 overall, #15 ER

He popped on film, showing occasional flashes of high-level athleticism, but he also played at Ball State. Developmental, but loads of potential here.

16. David Fales, QB, San Jose State
Chicago Bears, Round 6, Pick 183
#103 overall, #7 QB

Fales has a subpar arm, but showed some good skills in read progressions and decision-making. He didn’t post another 70%+ completion percentage in his senior year, but he was accurate enough. If he can develop his arm strength and refine his skills, he could have a solid career in the league.

15. Corey Linsley, C, Ohio State
Green Bay Packers, Round 5, Pick 161
#101 overall, #2 C

Linsley was a late riser on our board, someone whose film turned out to be significantly better than expected. Conveniently enough for us, we’re going to see just how well that translates to the field very soon, thanks to J.C. Tretter’s injury.

14. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky
Tennessee Titans, Round 5, Pick 151
#92 overall, #6 LB

Williamson was a star on the field for the Wildcats, a legitimate three-down linebacker who is strong at shedding blocks and making tackles while also being strong in pass coverage. He held his own for an overmatched Kentucky team, and don’t be surprised if he’s starting in the middle for the Titans soon.

13. Tre Boston, S, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers, Round 4, Pick 128
#87 overall,  #6 S

Safety may be one of the more difficult positions for us to evaluate, as reliable all-22 film that includes full footage of the back end is tough to find. That said, Boston graded out well for us as a versatile safety who can tackle and hit. Given Carolina’s losses at safety in free agency (and the past-their-prime veterans they signed to fill the gaps), Boston could be starting sooner rather than later. At least he’ll have a front seven capable of making his job easy. Let vix take you into more detail.

12. Carl Bradford, OLB, Arizona State
Green Bay Packers, Round 4, Pick 121
#85 overall, #13 ER

Bradford needs some development to reach his potential but he showed high levels of athleticism, mostly as an edge rusher but occasionally in coverage too. He won’t be rushed into action in Green Bay; if he works on his craft and develops his technique and strength, he could be a solid all-around player.

11. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama
Seattle Seahawks, Round 4, Pick 123
#81 overall, #14 WR

Norwood was mostly regarded as a deep threat at Alabama, which is a little unfair, as he possesses quite a wide range of receiver skills, as well as good size and speed for the position. He had a camp injury that’s kept him buried on Seattle’s depth chart, but long-term he should be part of their rotation, perhaps even one day starting opposite Paul Richardson on the outside.

10. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
San Francisco 49ers, Round 4, Pick 106
#77 overall,#13 WR

Ellington is a unique player, a speedy little slot receiver with moves, maneuvers, and vision like a running back. He’ll never be a traditional #1, but he’s the kind of guy who can have a role right away, and I hope the 49ers make the most of his skills. Vix can’t say enough good things about him.

9. Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood
Cleveland Browns, Round 4, Pick 127
#75 overall, #10 CB

I had to look up where Lindenwood is, too. Small-school prospects with little to no film against comparable competition are always a gamble, but Desir’s size-speed combo makes him worth it. (Supposedly there’s a tape out there where Desir goes up against John Brown of Pittsburgh St. (KS), Arizona’s third-round selection, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.)

8. DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
Tennessee Titans, Round 4, Pick 112
#67 overall,#8 DL

We may have been overrating the very large men who tend to leave the field during passing downs, as we put a number of defensive tackles higher on our board than where they actually were drafted. That said: Jones stands out a consistent, explosive force up the middle who if nothing else will force teams to keep blockers on him if they don’t want him in their backfields.

7. Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
Detroit Lions, Round 5, Pick 158
#59 overall, #6 DL

Another guy whose level of college competition surely caused NFL teams to be more bearish on him than we were. We saw a guy who, when he wasn’t getting double-teamed, showed great quickness and pad level for his size and ability to rush the passer from a 3-technique. Perhaps Akiem Hicks is a good comparison for possible upside.

6. Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
Buffalo Bills, Round 4, Pick 109
#56 overall, #8 CB

Not a prospect with outstanding measurables, but man, can he play. Watch his tape from the Chick-Fil-A bowl against Texas A&M: In a game the Blue Devils eventually lost 52-48 (!), Cockrell was largely left in man coverage against Mike Evans and held him to four catches and no scores.

5. Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
Pittsburgh Steelers, Round 4, Pick 118
#53 overall,#9 WR

Bryant is a very raw prospect, but he’s a physical specimen. Considering guys with his kind of measurables who are even less developed as prospects go in the second round (Why hello there, latest member of the Carolina Panthers practice squad). It’s always a risk whether or not a guy like this develops, but he has admitted that he didn’t take his game as seriously in the past as he does now, which is a great sign of maturity especially for a young prospect. Even though he was inconsistent in college, he wasn’t so much so that you couldn’t reliably throw to him.

4. David Yankey, G, Stanford
Minnesota Vikings, Round 5, Pick 145
#47 overall,#5 OG

Yankey was a prospect much more highly rated in the public eye until he started sliding close to the draft, winding up in the fifth round. We still liked what we saw: a guard with terrific athleticism and great ability to pull, whose blocking needed some refinement but who should still be a solidly capable starter sooner rather than later. Maybe teams didn’t like that he slid inside in 2013 to make room for top offensive tackle prospect Andrus Peat.

More on David Yankey.

3. Dakota Dozier, G/T, Furman
New York Jets, Round 4, Pick 137
#42 overall,#3 OG / #7 OT

What we liked about Dozier that elevated him over your typical small-school lineman prospect was what we saw in his footwork. He’s still developmental to a degree, naturally, but he has the feet to make us think he could play tackle someday (and has a non-zero chance to become a positive left tackle).

2. Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
Jacksonville Jaguars, Round 5, Pick 144
#34 overall, #1 LB

Smith fell in part because of a positive marijuana test at the Combine. He may have fallen in part because of his size. But for a linebacker prospect, his game speed is incredible, his coverage skills are excellent, and he’s still pretty solid at tackling and run support. C.J. Mosley is the better prospect as a classic every-down middle linebacker, but in a game that’s becoming less about big hits and more about speed and the aerial attack, Smith could be the kind of valuable coverage linebacker that doesn’t come along too often.

Our mystery mountain man of tape, vixticator, breaks him down further.

1. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
Tennessee Titans, Round 6, Pick 178
#30 overall, #4 QB

vix’s breakdown

For perspective, we had Mettenberger ranked higher than Derek Carr. That was an outlier stance- Carr has much more physical talent overall, and comparing their athleticism would be unfair and mean– but Mettenberger combined a cannon arm with good decision-making and the willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit. He played QB at a high level for LSU last year, and in the preseason showed some flashes he could develop into a throwback QB, a cannon-armed statue. Sadly for Jake Locker fans, I think that development may need to show as soon as next year.

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.

Is this the year the AFC East becomes competitive?

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines suggests the answer is “No,” of course. But I have reason to believe, even if the division race ends up becoming another laugher the Patriots have locked up by December, that the other three teams are at least taking the right approach to building a contender. After a decade-plus of Patriots dominance, only occasionally interrupted by fluke ACL tears and standings tiebreakers, the other three teams have realized something New England has known since installing Tom Brady in the driver’s seat: the offensive passing game is the key to consistent long-term success.

Let’s look at what each of those other teams has done to upgrade their passing game this offseason.

Continue reading