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My name is Seth Burn and I am happy to bring you my 2009 NFL Preview.
This is an annual tradition for me and I pleased to be bringing it the Upper Deck Blog. Over the next few days we’ll be bringing you a division-by-division look at the upcoming NFL season. If you aren’t happy with my projection for your favorite team, well, my projections aren’t infallible and teams often surprise and confound prognosticators. I hope you enjoy the preview and the NFL season. Best of luck to all of your favorite players and teams.
Before I begin the preview I would like to define some terms:
Expected Wins: These are the implied wins set by the trading markets. If a team were given an over-under of eight wins such that a wager of 100 would return 220 total on the over (+120), and a wager of 140 would return 240 on the under (-140) the team would have an expected value of approximately 7.7 wins (8 – .3). Please note, I do not wish to condone gambling. I include these win totals because they are the de facto median expectation for the teams.
Scouting Wins: This is a formula based upon positional values. The offense gets four values: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers + tight ends, offensive line, with quarterbacks being by far the most important, and offensive line being more important than the running backs or wide receiving corps. The defense has three values: defensive line, linebacker corps, and the secondary, with the defensive line being the most important and the secondary being the least important. And last and least are the special teams rankings. The reason special teams are valued so low is because they are so fluid and unpredictable. A team can have a top 5 special teams value one year, and a bottom 5 special teams value the next without having made many changes. Once those 8 values are given their appropriate weight I then produced a team value. I then created a value for their schedule and solved for the expected wins against that strength of schedule.
DVOA Wins: These are taken from Football Outsiders 2009 Pro Football Prospectus. Their formula is fairly complicated and is based on the success rates of each play of the game (Defense adjusted Value Over Average, or, DVOA). It creates values for offense, defense, and special teams. The formula looks for anomalies like an over performance on third down that is unlikely to be repeated. When a team has effectively been “clutch” they generally expect a regression. Football Outsiders has been very good at predicting teams who are due for a rise or a fall, although to be fair they also had the Steelers winning 7.2 games last season. I highly recommend that you check out their website (www.footballoutsiders.com if you wish to learn more about their methodology.)
Kubiak: The head coach of the Houston Texans.
KUBIAK: The player projection system created by Football Outsiders. If you are a baseball fan you should think of PECOTA as the inspiration.
Alright, if other terms need defining I’ll do so at the time. Please enjoy my 2009 Football Preview, starting with the NFC West:
Expected Wins: 8.31
Scouting Wins: 9.82
DVOA Wins: 5.6
2008 Record: 9-7
Cardinals 26, Steelers 23. 2:20 left in the game. 1st and 20 for the Steelers from their 12 yard line.
That didn’t work out well for the Cardinals but in retrospect it really is astonishing how close the Cardinals came to winning the Super Bowl. There is no team in the NFL with as much disagreement between the scouts and the DVOA projections. I’ll outline the issues that cause this disagreement:
Kurt Warner: He’s 38 years old. He has a history of injury. Last year Warner passed for 30 TD’s and 4476 yards, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, and only threw 12 interceptions. KUBIAK suggests he will still be quite good (25 TD, 14 int, 6.2 YPA, 4000+ yards). However, given his injury history and the fact he is 38 years old, there is a significant chance he will be sidelined. Matt Leinart might not be a bust, but last year Kurt Warner was a superstar. There is a very good chance that in 2009 neither Leinart nor Warner will be able to match Warner’s 2008 level of production. Clean living might have kept Warner in better health than might otherwise be expected but he has taken a lot of hits over his career. The scouts think only one other NFC team has a better quarterback situation (New Orleans).
The offensive line: The scouts feel the Cardinals have an average offensive line, which is to say the best offensive line in their division. Last year the Cardinals’ starters on the offensive line missed zero games. That is exceedingly fortunate. Good luck is not a repeatable skill and the Cardinals’ offensive line depth will likely be tested. I am a little more impressed with the Cardinals offensive line depth than Football Outsiders is.
The loss of both coordinators: The scouts couldn’t care less. It isn’t something that is easy to measure and there are few coordinators whose value is obvious to an observer. However, FO suggests that teams that lose coordinators tend to regress in the following season.
Schedule: FO lists the Cardinals as having the 3rd-hardest schedule in the NFL. The scouts think quite differently and have the Cardinals gaining a quarter of a win due to the ease of their schedule.
Effort: After pretty much locking up the division the Cardinals relaxed. The scouts consider the last six games of the 2008 regular season an aberration. Instead, they consider the playoff run a more accurate prediction of the level of talent for the Cardinals. Whether or not the scouts are correct to write off the end of the regular season, it is not something that a machine or an algorithm can do. As far as DVOA knows the doglike effort put forth by the Cardinals in their 47-7 loss to the Patriots in the snow should be weighted like any other game. The Cardinals’ defense was absolutely awful when down a touchdown or more. Someone more poetic than I might say the Cardinals lacked fighting spirit. I’ll say that the Cardinals were frontrunners that rarely gave top effort in the face of defeat, particularly once they had little to gain from a victory.
Some other things that should be noted about the Cardinals:
The got absolutely destroyed by shotgun formations. They were about average on defense against non-shotgun formations. They had a Pythagorean record of 8-8. They went 6-0 vs. their division but 3-7 vs. the rest of the NFL in the regular season.
Alright, you now have a pretty good sense of what the scouts and DVOA thinks about the Cardinals, but what about me? Their offense is one-dimensional but it is unclear how much that matters. RB Tim Hightower ran for 10 touchdowns, but he was awful in pass protection and as a runner as well (touchdowns are not a great stat by which to judge a running back, I’ll cover this in a separate article). The Cardinals drafted Beanie Wells, a tremendously talented power runner out of Ohio State. He has had injury troubles and isn’t currently considered to be much of a threat in the passing game, although with some training should be reasonable in pass protection. Even with Wells the running game is not what teams will gameplan against. Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston each had over 1000 yards receiving last year. Fitzgerald in particular was a monster. His performance in the playoffs was absolutely dominant. Kurt Warner is not particularly mobile (I’m being kind, and also glossing over his fumbling problem).
The defensive line has injury concerns, particularly with DT Gabe Watson. He has played sparingly in the preseason so far. DT Darnell Dockett has become a very good player, as has weak side LB Karlos Dansby. I like 2nd round pick DE Cody Brown, although he probably will be used as a pass rush linebacker for now. The secondary is pretty talented. SS Adrian Wilson is still a star, although now on the wrong side of 30, he might start slipping. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is exceedingly talented, although not much of a tackler. If he continues to improve from his rookie season he will become a star. The Cardinals imported CB Bryant McFadden from the Steelers. McFadden was fine in pass coverage, but excellent against the run. I like safeties Antrel Rolle and rookie Rashad Johnson. The Cardinals drafted Johnson out of Alabama where he developed nicely under Nick Saban’s staff. Both he and Cody Brown should help the fairly awful special teams coverage units.
The Cardinals aren’t a great team but they do have great talent on offense and play in a very weak division. I don’t expect the Cardinals to run away with the division this year, but their last 4 games are @ San Francisco, @ Detroit, St. Louis, and Green Bay. A sweep of those games should get the Cardinals to 10 wins. I’m not that optimistic so I’ll pencil in the Cardinals for a 9-7 record. Oh, one odd note: In 20 games last season not once did the Cardinals play a game decided by 3 points or less. Perhaps they needed more fighting spirit?
San Francisco 49ers
Expected Wins: 7.22
Scouting Wins: 6.13
DVOA Wins: 5.7
2008 Record: 7-9
I am going to presume that they eventually sign Michael Crabtree. I think he’s a better player than Darrius Heyward-Bey, but he is going to earn significantly less. It is not the 49ers fault that the Raiders drafted Heyward-Bey three spots ahead of Crabtree. As a general rule only quarterbacks command a premium above slot. If Crabtree cannot come to terms with this fact things might turn ugly. Even with him the 49ers look to have an exceedingly weak offense. The 49ers tried to sign Kurt Warner but failed and now will have a quarterback battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. Right now Hill is the favorite for the job. The 49ers’ new offensive coordinator is Jimmy Raye and the expectation is that he will promote a ball control offense built around Frank Gore. Actually, let me digress a bit here:
The 49ers offensive line has a couple of very good players: center Eric Heitmann and left tackle Joe Staley. The 49ers signed ex-Steeler Marvel Smith to play right tackle. The rest of the offensive line is ok, but not great. Frank Gore has had much more success when Staley was on the right side of the line as Staley is a highly aggressive tackle and he prefers to attack the line of scrimmage and the player he is facing. As a left tackle his most important job is defending Shaun Hill’s (Alex Smith’s?) blind side. Marvel Smith has had back problems and his ability to attack the line of scrimmage is limited. Last year the 49ers’ offense was significantly more effective out of shotgun formations than standard formations. I like the idea of a ball control offense (I was raised on Bill Parcells’ NYG) but I wonder if the 49ers wouldn’t be better off switching the tackles and using more shotgun. Oh, one name to watch out for: offensive lineman Alex Boone. He’s an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State. He has some issues off the field, but he also has 2nd round talent. If he can get things under control he can become part of the 49ers future.
Apart from Crabtree I’m not sure who else can scare defenses. Tight end Vernon Davis has never lived up to his potential, although perhaps the Samurai (coach Mike Singletary) has kicked his ass into gear. After Singletary was given the job, discipline improved immensely as the 49ers committed almost three fewer penalties a game. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce is clearly declining, although his work ethic has kept him competitive. There are a few other receivers on the 49ers who might step up, specifically Josh Morgan and Brandon Jones. Morgan needs to recover from some nagging injuries that bothered him last year. Actually, upon further consideration the 49ers do have some decent talent at WR but none of it is proven (save Bruce, but that was long ago).
Defensively the 49ers have finally chosen a side in the 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate and will be going with a 3-4 base defense. DE Justin Smith and ILB Patrick Willis are both excellent players. Linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson are very athletic but neither has been consistently good. Manny has bulked up and is expected to provide a pass rush. Takeo Spikes is aging but still seems to be effective. Apart from Smith I am not a fan of anyone else on the defensive line. Cornerback Nate Clements has been good but not great for the 49ers. Walt Harris is out for the season and the 49ers’ secondary looks pretty vulnerable right now. On the plus side the 49ers have excellent special teams units.
As much as I like Samurai Mike I can’t see the 49ers being a consistently competitive football team. 6-10.
St. Louis Rams
Expected Wins: 5.83
Scouting Wins: 5.83
DVOA Wins: 8.2
2008 record: 2-14
One of those is not like the other. Over the last two years the Rams are 5-27. In fact, by some measures they were the worst team in football last year, a sad feat given the existence of the 0-16 Lions. So why are the DVOA projections so optimistic?
Offensive line improvement: The offensive line should be healthier this year, and the additions of OT Jason Smith (2nd pick of the draft) and free agent center Jason Brown should help as well. Signing Brown was a definite coup for the Rams. An improved offensive line makes everyone on your offense better, and to a certain degree helps your defense as well by keeping them off the field and rested. Of course a bad offensive line gets coaches fired.
Regression to the mean: It is hard to be as bad as the Rams were last season, particularly in the red zone. Unless there is a systemic problem in the Rams’ offense they should dramatically improve their red zone results, even if they remain below average.
I’m willing to accept both as true, but there are some problems with this optimistic worldview:
Marc Bulger/Kyle Boller: Plan A and Plan B. Bulger had a great year in 2006 but it has been a long time since he has been an above average quarterback. Actually Boller wasn’t bad in 2006 either, but it was in a much smaller sample size. Since then both have been either bad, injured, or both. Furthermore the Rams have no proven receivers, although Donnie Avery looks like he might develop into an excellent receiver if he can stay healthy. On the plus side Steven Jackson should benefit from the improved offensive line.
Defensively the Rams have some issues. Despite the presence of a decent amount of young talent in the form of DE Chris Long, DT Adam Carriker, and LB James Laurinaitis the front seven is still a weakness. DE Leonard Little isn’t the dominator he once was but he can still provide a bit of pressure. DE James Hall looks like he will be used as both a pass rush specialist and a defensive tackle from time to time. The Rams understand that their defensive line and linebacker corps need improvement and have taken steps to address that, but there is clearly more work to do. Free safety O.J. Otogwe is fantastic. Cornerback Ron Bartell is pretty good. After that there are a lot of question marks. The Rams drafted cornerback Bradley Fletcher in the 3rd round but right now he is more likely to help the Rams at special teams or as a safety than as a cornerback.
The Rams’ special teams are pretty good. Both punter Donnie Jones and kicker Josh Brown are well above average, although Jones might not be quite as good as he appears because he rarely was asked to kick a coffin corner. He also might not have the hang time to go with the distance of his punts, so his coverage team sometimes has a tougher job than most.
I think new coach Steve Spagnuolo has the Rams on the road to recovery but I’d be shocked in the Rams achieve mediocrity this season. Even if the offense benefits from the improved offensive line, the defense still has a lot of problems. I’ll be optimistic and give the Rams 1 more win than they had over the last two seasons, 6-10.
Expected Wins: 8.01
Scouting Wins: 8.06
DVOA Wins: 9.9
2008 Record: 4-12
OK, the Seahawks can take a mulligan on 2008. When you have to play the backups of the guys you signed off the street because everyone else got hurt, well, yeah I’ll cut you some slack. The general expectation for the Seahawks is for them to be slightly better than mediocre, but FO disagrees. Part of that disagreement is regression to the mean, but again, that seems to be covered. What then are the Seahawks’ strengths?
QB Matt Hasselbeck: He’s 34 years old so there have to be concerns about health and a general decline, but he had a great year two years ago and TJ Houshmandzadeh was added to his WR corps. KUBIAK is expecting a monster year from Hasselbeck, comparable to his 2007 season. I should note that as backups go, Senaca Wallace isn’t a bad choice, but he does not appear to be the quarterback of the future for the Seahawks.
The defensive front seven: A healthy DE Patrick Kearny will help the defense, as should the addition of rookie LB Aaron Curry. LB Lofa Tatupu had an off season last year but is still an elite defender and should be healthy this year after dealing with nagging thumb and groin injuries last season. The Seahawks traded for DT Corey Redding and signed DT Colin Cole to shore up the defensive line. Overall both the defensive line and LB corps grade out as above average, particularly the LB corps.
Last year was a fluke: The four years before last the Seahawks had 9, 13, 9, and 10 wins. As I said, the Seahawks get a mulligan on last year, but that doesn’t mean they get a guaranteed return to the playoffs.
The obvious weaknesses on the Seahawks are the running backs, the offensive line, and the secondary. The offensive line was ravaged by injuries last year, but even if they are healthy this season none are particularly strong at their position. LT Walter Jones used to be dominant but he’s 35 years old and has been worn down with injuries. The offensive line is moving to a zone blocking scheme but the personnel seems a bit oversized for the job. The Seahawks did draft center Max Unger in the second round and he should eventually strengthen the line, although it might not be this year. The Seahawks re-signed cornerback Ken Lucas so returning starter Marcus Trufant should benefit. If safety Deon Grant is healthy he is a tremendous player but he has been bothered by nagging leg injuries. The secondary might be a strength if all the players return to the peak form they displayed previously. Also, cornerback Josh Wilson is only 24 and he should show some improvement this year.
The Seahawks have kicker Olindo Mare and therefore are excellent on kickoffs. Punter Ryan Plackemeier was also well above average. In the division only San Franciscos’ special teams look to be better than Seattle’s, although it is pretty close between them.
The Seahawks appear to have the best defense in the NFC West, above average special teams, and an offense with a lot of players who have been good in the past. I understand DVOA’s love affair with the Seahawks and due to the exceedingly easy schedule I’ll be generous and suggest a 9-7 record.
Seth Burn has degrees in economics, accounting, and philosophy. His background is in statistical analysis and game theory. He can often be found covering his eyes at Jets games. If you have any questions or comments they can be directed to his cat Molly via sethburnatgmaildotcom.