The NFL's Cellar Dwellers
I'm done with the preamble. It's time to actually sift through the 32 NFL teams and commit to some beliefs on who is going to finish where in 2013. If you've listened to any of the Grantland NFL Preview podcasts, you'll know that I'm not particularly interested in the traditional position-by-position preview because it doesn't serve any master well; it's too bland for fans of a team and too generic for the casual fan of another organization. My hope is that you'll find some interesting insights or compelling questions about each team that you'll be able to talk about at the bar or remember when your favorite team suits up against the one you're reading about.
As I've done for each of the past two seasons, I'm sorting the league into four buckets of teams, each of which I'll cover over the next four days. Today, I'll talk about the bottom eight teams in the league, the ones I expect to compete for the first overall pick in next year's draft. Tomorrow, I'll discuss the eight teams who are likely to be falling off from a year ago; Wednesday, I'll continue with the eight I expect to improve; and I'll finish up on Thursday with the eight I think have the best shot at competing for the Lombardi Trophy in 2013.
Well, I only sorta did this last year. My attempt to finish up the gargantuan summer NFL preview was interrupted by a robbery, so I wasn't able to finish up last year's work. I stopped after this very section last year. Of the eight teams I identified as the worst in football, seven were pretty bad. Those seven teams played .276 football, roughly producing a 4-12 team. The eighth team was the Washington Redskins, who ducked those bad vibes and won the NFC East. Hmm. The Redskins aren't back in this group again in 2013, of course, but five of the other seven teams will be making repeat appearances this time around. Will one of them be this year's Redskins? Probably not.
Of course, things are also a little different this year because Mr. Robert Mays and I have been doing a daily podcast series breaking down every NFL team as they head into 2013. If you've listened to those, you may notice some similar themes, but you might also see some changes between my general outlook on the podcast and my thoughts here. Nothing is too drastic — I'm not picking the Raiders to win the Super Bowl or anything — but there are some minor shifts here and there. Those have occurred for a variety of reasons: injuries, changes in personnel, adjustments in the teams around them, and just some flat-out cases of changing my mind a little bit on a team. So, for your sake and mine, chill. And if you haven't listened to the podcasts, you can catch up this week by listening to our archived podcasts on iTunes or in the Grantland Podcenter, or start anew with our player/team prediction, mailbag, and Week 1 preview shows, which will all go up later this week.
2012 Record: 5-11
Pythagorean Wins: 4.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins, 13th-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided By Seven Points or Fewer: 3-4 (0.429, 20th-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.540 (second-toughest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-1 (tied for 17th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Lions, at Eagles
Taken on the whole, the 2012 Cardinals were a totally unremarkable team, a 5-11 unit that never had a prayer of competing in the league's toughest division. Once you start splitting them up a little bit, that team was fascinating. They started 4-0 before finishing 1-11, which turned Ken Whisenhunt from a Coach of the Year candidate into an offensive coordinator for the Chargers. They had the league's sixth-best defense per DVOA — including the league's second-best pass defense — but had an offense that was historically bad.
How bad is historically bad? Oh, it's pretty bad. Arizona scored a mere 15.6 points per game last season, and that was with the defense chipping in three touchdowns. The three quarterbacks who weren't Kevin Kolb were particularly gruesome; despite spending a good chunk of their collective time at quarterback mopping up in garbage time, the trio of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer completed 53.6 percent of their passes, averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, and threw just three touchdowns against 18 interceptions. If you could bottle that up and use those numbers as a defense, it would be the greatest pass defense in NFL history. No, really — the Cardinals are actually taking some sweaty towels from last year's quarterbacks room and using them to make a cologne that they'll spray onto the defense before games. Eau de Whisenhunt. Carson Palmer can't help but be an upgrade on those guys.
The problem is that the stuff that was really impressive about Arizona last year might not be sticking around in 2013. Sure, the Cardinals still have All-World cornerback Patrick Peterson on one side of the field, but three of the four other starters in the secondary have moved on to assorted pastures. The uninspiring trio of Jerraud Powers, Antoine Cason, and Javier Arenas — all relatively high NFL draft picks who washed out of their first organizations as failures — are competing for time at corner, while Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson take over for Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson at safety. Blech. Everybody is more appropriately excited about Tyrann Mathieu, who will probably spend his rookie year in the slot as a nickelback corner–cum–safety and return man. Of course, it would be cool if the same calming forces that are getting the best out of the Honey Badger could have smoothed things out for star inside linebacker Daryl Washington, but Arizona's sack leader from a year ago will miss the first four games of the season after being suspended this past offseason.
And if the defense declines, it's going to take a career year out of Palmer to keep the Cardinals afloat. He'll be happy to play with Larry Fitzgerald (and Fitzgerald should probably hug Palmer on a regular basis after having to endure the Ryan Lindley era), but after guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall draft pick, suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason, Palmer might be running for his life just as much as the Arizona quarterbacks were a year ago. Tight end Rob Housler also suffered a high ankle sprain, which can't help things. Expect a better offense to go with a worse defense, and don't count on things being quite as streaky as they were a year ago. In other words: not just bad, but boring too.
Best-Case Scenario: The defense stays among the league's elite, with the front seven hurrying the quarterback into throws that the LSU combination of Peterson and Mathieu can jump on for takeaways. Palmer and new head coach Bruce Arians breathe life into Fitzgerald after a shockingly irrelevant season, which is enough to get the Cardinals to 8-8 with hope for the future.
Worst-Case Scenario: The defense falls apart without the veterans in the secondary and Washington gone for the first four games, never recovering. Palmer gets hurt, the Cardinals turn the ball over to Lindley again, and Lindley proceeds to give it to the opposing defense like he's a double agent. Arians lasts one year.
2012 Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 5.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins, 14th-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-4 (0.333, 26th-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.451 (second-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-13 (tied for 27th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Chiefs, at Jaguars
You will notice a theme among the teams in this group: They don't have much of an answer at quarterback. Of these eight teams, the Bills probably have the most to hope for with their current quarterback situation. There are teams in the group who likely have better quarterbacks right now, but it's easier to hope upon EJ Manuel, who hasn't proven anything one way or another about his ability to succeed at the professional level. That, in itself, makes the Bills a relatively high-variance team, especially considering that the only two quarterbacks on their roster are two rookies, Manuel and Jeff Tuel. In fact, if the Bills don't promote Thaddeus Lewis to the active roster or acquire another quarterback during the season, they would be the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to carry only rookie quarterbacks on their roster. That seems like a safe plan, right?
In a way, you can't really blame the Bills for taking the high-risk, high-reward route. If Manuel is awful and the Bills go 3-13, Buffalo likely ends up with an extremely high draft pick in what's shaping up to be an excellent NFL draft next year; you can certainly imagine how nice Jadeveon Clowney would look on the Buffalo defensive line next to Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams. Or maybe they end up with Teddy Bridgewater, who profiles as much more of a can't-miss prospect than Manuel. Or, hey, maybe Manuel is good and the Bills find themselves a starting quarterback who will last for four full years as the starter for the first time since Jim Kelly.
Regardless of what Manuel does, the Bills already seem sunk by injuries. The team may already be down to Tuel as its starting quarterback in Week 1 after Kevin Kolb suffered a possibly career-ending concussion and Manuel underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee during camp. Manuel will be back soon, but I can't recall a great season that started with knee surgery. The secondary also lost its only above-average cornerback for the first few weeks of the season when Stephon Gilmore went down with a broken wrist in August. Then, on top of that, Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd is struggling with plantar fasciitis, a condition that will only continue to aggravate him as the season goes along. Even if Buffalo gets a better campaign from Mario Williams in his second year with the team, the promise of a playoff run still seems years away.
Best-Case Scenario: Manuel and C.J. Spiller do their best Robert Griffin–and–Alfred Morris impression, and the big names on the Buffalo defense do their best impression of the impact they were supposed to have. The Bills sneak into the playoffs at 10-6.
Worst-Case Scenario: This.
2012 Record: 2-14
Pythagorean Wins: 3.4 (underperformed by 1.4 wins, second-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-5 (0.286, fourth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.464 (sixth-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-3 (21st in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC West, at Browns, vs. Bills
Jacksonville had its best offseason in years, very simply, by keeping to the simplest plan possible. After firing general manager Gene Smith and head coach Mike Mularkey, the Jaguars hired the sort of people you would expect to lead a turnaround — a personnel guy from a successful front office (Dave Caldwell, formerly of the Falcons) and a coordinator from a successful team (Gus Bradley, previously the Seahawks' defensive coordinator). They went to work on erasing some of the inanity of the previous administration, releasing the likes of Laurent Robinson, Aaron Ross, and Dawan Landry, veterans who had no hope of contributing to the next great Jaguars team. Jacksonville will eat $26 million in dead money on this year's cap, and the likes of Paul Posluszny, Jeremy Mincey, Jason Babin, and Uche Nwaneri will probably be on the chopping block this time next year. They made no stupid signings in free agency, used their second overall pick on the best available player (right tackle Luke Joeckel), and have devoted this season to the process of finding young players who will be contributors in the future. With no obvious solution available at quarterback, the team didn't reach for a passer in the draft or pay over the odds for one who wouldn't be an answer. That's all progress!
That's the right process in the long term. In the short term, chances are that it will produce a pretty gruesome output. Jacksonville is saved by virtue of playing in the league's worst division, and they'll get star running back Maurice Jones-Drew back after MJD missed 10 games a year ago, but they're still stuck with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. Gabbert will have his best chance to succeed this year with the addition of Joeckel, but he's already down his best wideout — 2012 first-rounder Justin Blackmon — for the first four games of 2013, thanks to a substance-abuse suspension. Furthermore, both MJD and starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, arguably the two best players the Jaguars have developed on offense over the past five years, are free agents after this season. The front office will have to decide whether they want to tie up cap space for years to come on players who might not really represent the difference between winning and losing.
In a way, the worst thing that could happen to the Jaguars this year would be competency. If they can get Gabbert to vaguely resemble an NFL quarterback in 2013, they might actually be stuck using him in 2014 in the hopes that he takes some enormous leap forward, one that would be virtually unprecedented for a player this bad. A terrible season from Gabbert would close the door on his run in Jacksonville and allow the franchise to look for the quarterback of that next great Jaguars team.
One other thing that will hurt Jacksonville's chances of competing over the next several years: They play only seven home games per year. Their eighth "home" game comes in London each year as part of the NFL's International Series, which is really a neutral-site game with fans who aren't often Jaguars supporters.
Best-Case Scenario: Gabbert is terrible, but MJD gets off to a hot-enough start that some foolish team gives the Jaguars a second-round pick for him at the trade deadline. Jacksonville gets flashes of brilliance from young building blocks like Joeckel, Blackmon, and Jonathan Cyprien, but they're still bad enough that they end up getting one of the top two picks in the 2014 draft and end up with Bridgewater or Clowney.
Worst-Case Scenario: "Well, you know, [D-team play-by-play guy name], Blaine Gabbert has really shown a lot of poise for this football team over the past few weeks. He's really begun to look like the guy that they expected to see when they took him out of Missouri in the first round a few years back. I think he's earned the right to be the starting quarterback for this team next year. And sure, I know he's thrown 26 interceptions this season, but that shows me a player who is willing to try to make plays happen. He could play on my team any day."
2012 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 8.8 (overperformed by 1.2 wins, fourth-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-1 (0.833, third-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.525 (eighth-toughest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-1 (tied for 17th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Panthers, at Seahawks, note the "home" game in England
I've already written about the Vikings at length in breaking down why they're exceedingly unlikely to repeat their 2012 success in 2013, so I won't rehash that again.
It's probably a bit of a surprise that they ended up in this section as opposed to tomorrow's declining group, but it's not all that difficult to envision a scenario in which things fall apart. The simple act of their luck returning to league-average would place them in the middle of the pack, but then, what about Adrian Peterson returning to merely excellent levels of running back play? If other teams don't feel the need to push eight men into the box and sneak a ninth toward the line at the snap, can Christian Ponder respond while throwing to a pair of new starting wideouts in Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson? Can one of the league's oldest defensive lines hold up one of its youngest secondaries? What if Blair Walsh isn't the best kicker in football again? What if their rookies take time to develop? What if the likes of Peterson or Jennings get hurt and miss notable time? If that happens, the Vikings go from merely taking a step backward to sprinting in the wrong direction.
By the way, Minnesota is the other team sacrificing a "home" game for the right to host a contest, as the Vikings will give up a game in Minnesota for one in London against the Steelers.
Best-Case Scenario: Peterson becomes the first back to record multiple 2,000-yard seasons, Leslie Frazier coaches up the secondary into an above-average unit, and Ponder develops impressive chemistry with Jennings, leading to a 10-6 season and another wild-card berth.
Worst-Case Scenario: Peterson gets hurt, everything falls apart, and a lot of players who seemed like answers are question marks heading into 2014.
New York Jets
2012 Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 5.4 (overperformed by 0.6 wins, ninth-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-3 (0.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.487 (13th-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-14 (fourth-worst in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC South, vs. Raiders, at Titans
Rex Ryan took Mark Sanchez to two AFC Championship Games. You know this in your head, of course, but when you read about Ryan now, you hear about a guy who is seemingly befuddled and in over his head, a coach who seems to exist solely to prop up the back pages of the New York Post. He's the guy who stuck with Sanchez too long, as if the same writers (and many of the same fans, truthfully) who see all the flaws in Sanchez now weren't the ones fawning over his clutch performances and poise two years ago. As if there were better options then or now; from the moment the Jets drafted Sanchez in the first round until the moment they drafted Geno Smith this past year, there was never a quarterback on the Jets' roster who had a shot at being better than Sanchez, as subpar as Sanchez can be.
In a few years, we'll all realize just how impressive that actually was. Ryan coached up a defense with a few young stars and a lot of spare parts into a top-five unit, and then he took a guy who most of us wouldn't trust to change a lightbulb and produced Mark Sanchez, destroyer of Patriot worlds. Sanchez beat Tom Brady in a playoff game. He beat Peyton Manning in one and nearly got him in another. This all actually happened.
Which is to say: Cut Ryan some slack. Sure, it's probably his final year in town, even if he makes it through to Week 17. Throughout his time in New York, he has repeatedly taken the pressure off his players by absorbing the media's attention, although that used to occur in the playoffs as opposed to the preseason. He's like the biggest rodeo clown ever. It's not the first time the media or an organization has turned on a great head coach fast; remember that the Browns fired Bill Belichick just one year after his team went 11-5 with the league's best defense, producing a playoff spot despite the presence of Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. I don't know that Ryan is the next Belichick or anything, but he deserves our applause, not our scorn. Outside of Bill Parcells, Rex might be the best coach the Jets have had since Weeb Ewbank. Ryan leaving is part of the problem, not the solution.
Best-Case Scenario: The Jets get off to a hot start before fizzling out, but Ryan's reputation is restored to the point where he gets a contract extension. The Jets actually use the ashes of the Sanchez deal as the recycled paper for Ryan's extension. They cut Sanchez after the season and have a ceremony so that the door can literally hit him on the ass on the way out.
Worst-Case Scenario: Ryan quits or gets fired early, and Smith does just enough on offense to win the Jets seven games and prevent them from continuing to rebuild with a top-five pick. The infamous snowball game makes its return, but instead of pegging the other team, everybody tries to throw at Sanchez.
2012 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.3 (underperformed by 0.3 wins, 15th-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-3 (0.400, 11th-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.470 (ninth-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-7 (10th-worst in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC East, vs. Steelers, at Jets
According to Spotrac, the Raiders have just more than $50 million in dead money on their cap this year. That's nearly half their cap committed to players who will not suit up and play a down for them this season. The 51 largest contracts on their active roster that occupy the remainder of their salary cap space use only a combined $66.5 million; remove Darren McFadden, Sebastian Janikowski, and Matt Flynn from the equation, and the ghosts of players who were released from the Oakland roster will tie up more cap space on Oakland's ledger in 2013 than the players who are actually left suiting up in silver and black.
Take a look at the list of those guys and you get an idea of what went wrong in Oakland. First, there are the misguided trades of high draft picks for veterans, deals that yielded the now-departed Carson Palmer and Richard Seymour. The picks the Raiders traded away eventually produced Nate Solder, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Gio Bernard for the Patriots and Bengals. After them are the first-round busts, with the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey and Rolando McClain tying up millions of dollars each, even after their departure. Heyward-Bey was the first wideout taken in a round that yielded Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt. McClain was taken ahead of Sean Weatherspoon, Sean Lee, and Daryl Washington, all excellent linebackers who aren't, you know, retired from football. There are the overcommitments to long-time Raiders like Tommy Kelly and Michael Huff, the obsession with ex–Super Bowl winners like Dave Tollefson and Kevin Boss, and the reclamation project du jour, Aaron Curry. That list is the last 10 years of Raiders football in a nutshell.
Best-Case Scenario: The Raiders are the worst team in the league and end up with the tough choice of picking between a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher, a franchise quarterback, or a mountain of draft picks.
Worst-Case Scenario: Darren McFadden has a career year and carries the Raiders out of the bottom two. Mark Davis fires GM Reggie McKenzie after the season and turns things over to somebody who starts making all the same mistakes the Raiders used to make under Davis's dad. This hair summit never occurs again.
St. Louis Rams
2012 Record: 7-8-1
Pythagorean Wins: 6.6 (overperformed by 0.4 wins, 12th-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-3-1 (0.571, ninth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.555 (toughest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-1 (tied for 17th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC South, vs. Bears, at Cowboys
The difference between Sam Bradford throwing to Danny Amendola and Sam Bradford throwing to anybody else has been very stark during Bradford's brief NFL career. He gets about as much on each throw regardless — 6.1 yards per attempt to Amendola, 6.3 yards per attempt to all the others. Where he's differed has been in completion percentage. Bradford has completed 66.5 percent of his passes to Amendola, which has helped make his numbers look better and left him with a safety valve during those times when Amendola and Bradford were both healthy. When throwing to other receivers, Bradford has completed just 56.8 percent of his passes. In other words, he turns from an efficient-if-conservative checkdown artist with Amendola into the 2012 version of Blaine Gabbert without him.
At this point, Bradford is basically a ruthless checkdown artist; the Rams are the ones paying millions of dollars to put something they don't really understand or have any use for up on their wall right now, and since they've already done it once, they keep doing it. Bradford routinely doesn't see open receivers downfield or doesn't see them until the window is already closing. Just 6.8 percent of his passes since joining the league have gone for 20 yards or more, which is the lowest rate in the league for passers with 1,000 attempts or more over that time frame. The average rate for those quarterbacks is 9.3 percent, which tells you just how little of an impact Bradford has had. You can be a good quarterback in this league by checking down a lot — Matt Ryan is at only 7.6 percent, and Peyton Manning is barely ahead of him at 8.4 percent — but you need to complete 65 percent of your passes in doing so to repeatedly move the chains. Bradford is at 58 percent. If you want to succeed while completing 58 percent of your passes, you have to be like Cam Newton, who leads the league in this stat by turning 12.2 percent of his pass attempts into 20-plus-yard gains. If you're not completing a lot of passes and those passes aren't going very far, you're not pushing your team in the right direction.
The Rams can make a case that Bradford has his best supporting cast ever. He has Jake Long in at left tackle and should hopefully get a full year out of Scott Wells at center. Amendola left for New England, but there are a variety of options available to replace him, including big-money free agents (Jared Cook) and top-10 draft picks (Tavon Austin) and their college buddies (Stedman Bailey). Of course, they've given Bradford a variety of wideouts and some expected line improvements in the past, and they haven't been of much use.
The one thing from their statistical profile you would expect to see make their life easier would be that top-ranked schedule above, but the Rams still have to play the Seahawks and 49ers and line up, at least, against the Cardinals. That's not enough alone to make St. Louis's schedule the toughest in football for another season, but they should still be in the top five or so.
Best-Case Scenario: Ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn each finish with a dozen sacks, Bradford becomes fast friends with Austin and Cook out of the slot, and when one of the NFC West teams disappoints, the Rams win 10 games and sneak into the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: Bradford blows and the Rams waste their season trying to get to 2014 and acquire their quarterback of the future.
2012 Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 4.8 (overperformed by 1.2 wins, fifth-luckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-3 (0.571, ninth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.469 (eight-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-4 (22nd in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC West, vs. Jets, at Steelers
The Titans were pot-committed by the Jake Locker and Chris Johnson situations and were forced to go all-in to try to save both those contracts and players heading into 2013. In many cases, that meant spending lots of money. In on the offense this year are two new guards: Andy Levitre, who signed a massive deal to come over from Buffalo, and first-round pick Chance Warmack, who remains the last man standing so far. They also imported blocking wiz Delanie Walker at tight end to help clear lanes out for Johnson, who is still desperately trying to match his 2,000-yard campaign from 2009. For all the moves they made, they're still stuck building around two players (if not more) who aren't up to their financial recompense.
Tennessee was guilty of signing Johnson at his peak, expecting him to be a perennial rushing title candidate and getting an average running back in return. Locker seems more hopeless, because he hasn't even really achieved inadequacy yet. He remains incredibly inconsistent, with a subpar completion percentage (which stretches back to his college days) and plenty of missed throws. The hope is that securing the interior of the offensive line will keep pressure out of Locker's face and allow him to go through reads in the pocket. We'll see if it actually works.
This does little for the defense, which allowed a league-high 29.4 points per game last year. They brought in safety Bernard Pollard and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, but that's just not going to be enough to justify spending so much money on offense and so little on defense this offseason. For whatever offensive improvements they make this offseason, the Titans simply aren't heavily invested in their own defense. Maybe they'll turn it around themselves.
Best-Case Scenario: CJ2K runs for 2,000-plus yards behind the best offensive line of his career, becoming the first back with multiple 2,000-yard seasons. Locker is good enough on deep throws to get by, and the Titans take advantage of a disappointing Texans team to go 10-6 and win the division.
Worst-Case Scenario: CJ2K keeps plodding along, Locker loses the job to new backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, and everybody gets fired after the season is over.