Managing NFL Expectations: 3 Trends to Turn Up and Tone Down
The NFL regular season is almost here.
The opening game between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers is now just days away. It feels like forever since the last meaningful game of football took place -- when those same two teams squared off in Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50 -- but that didn’t stop any of us from talking about the sport in the time between.
There really is no offseason in the NFL these days, and because of that, we’ve been driving stories and expectations for what’s going to happen when the season finally kicks off Thursday night. With that comes a little bit of a problem. Since we’ve been talking about football so much, there are some topics that have gotten a little out of control in our Stockholm Syndrome-like need for anything related to the game.
Yet still, somehow, in that over-saturation of stories, there are some others we as a football community have glossed over. So before the regular season officially kicks off, here are some things we should all tone down our expectations for and some others we should talk about a little more.
Tone Down: Antonio Brown’s Reception Total
The Pittsburgh Steelers have an excellent passing offense, and at the core of that is receiver Antonio Brown. Brown is arguably the best receiver in the league and cannot really be anywhere lower than top-three for your argument to be valid. Brown has made his case in various ways over the past few seasons, but one of them has been by being a ball magnet. Of the four highest all-time reception totals in a season, Brown owns two of them -- his 129-catch 2014 season ranks fourth and his 136-catch season last year ties with Julio Jones’ 2015 for second.
With those back-to-back seasons and other passing game weapons like Martavis Bryant and Ladarius Green suspended or injured, the expectation for Brown’s reception total is remarkably high, and at this point, if he doesn’t top Marvin Harrison’s 143-catch season, it might be viewed as a disappointment. We project Brown to have 131 receptions, which would still be historically great and fourth all-time, but maybe we shouldn’t expect a record to be broken.
Turn Up: Keenan Allen’s Reception Total
Keenan Allen isn’t going to be setting any receptions records, but it’s easy to forget how big of a part he is in the San Diego Chargers' offense. Before his injury last year, Allen was the go-to option for Philip Rivers and the Chargers. He had at least 14 receptions in two separate games last season, just the eighth time that happened in a single season. That happened because Allen was one of the best receivers in turning targets into receptions last season. Of the 46 wide receivers with at least 85 targets last season, only three had a catch rate of 75 percent or higher. Allen ranked second of the three behind Doug Baldwin and ahead of Larry Fitzgerald with 67 receptions on 89 targets.
Those 89 targets also came in just eight games due to the injury. His 67 receptions in that time averaged out to 8.4 receptions per game, which was barely below Antonio Brown’s 8.5 receptions per game. We project Allen to have 104 receptions, which is our third-highest total for a wide receiver. But with injuries to already to the likes of Steve Johnson, Allen might again be the constant target of passes in San Diego, which could blow that projection away for a full healthy season.
Tone Down: Dak Prescott-led Cowboys Offense
There was perhaps nothing more fun to watch during the preseason than rookie Dak Prescott tearing up opponents while playing quarterback. Prescott wasn’t just playing well, but also the Dallas Cowboys were putting him in a position to succeed by tinkering with the offense while he was in the game.
There were packaged play elements in the passing game, and even read option plays on the ground.
While there’s a chance the success seen could continue, this is again a place where expectations have gotten a little too high. Without Tony Romo last season, Dallas had the 30th best offense by our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric. NEP, for those new to the metric, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform according to historical data. That ranking was also with the ninth-most efficient running game by the same metric.
While Prescott appears to be better than the assembly line of bad quarterbacks run out at AT&T Stadium last season, we also shouldn’t expect the Cowboys to be a top-five offense without Romo this season.
Turn Up: Jim Bob Cooter-coordinated Lions Offense
Last season, the Detroit Lions finished with a passing offense right around league average, ranked 14th in Adjusted NEP per play. But the Lions did not play like an average team all season to get to that final ranking. Instead, the Lions made an uphill climb to get there through the second half of the season, which started from with the firing of Joe Lombardi as the offensive coordinator and the promotion of Jim Bob Cooter.
Cooter took over in Week 8, one week before Detroit’s bye week. For the purposes of the split, we’ll ignore the Week 8 game since it’s fair to say there would not have been enough time to make significant changes to the game plan in just a few days. There was with the bye, though, and when the Lions resumed play in Week 10, Matthew Stafford was a different player.
From a NEP perspective, Stafford went from the equivalent of 2015 Tony Romo (-0.04) under Lombardi to 2015 Tom Brady (0.25) under Cooter. A main takeaway from Cooter’s offense was the turn to shorter and more efficient passes. With Stafford now targeting Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Anquan Boldin, the skill players could help to make that a sustainable way to run the offense in 2016.
Tone Down: Oakland Raiders
This year’s darling of the offseason has been the Oakland Raiders, and it’s easy to see why. The team has young players in the core positions -- quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper, and destroyer of quarterbacks Khalil Mack. They were also one of the teams to go on a shopping spree in free agency to improve the roster as the brought in guard Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, and cornerback Sean Smith. In a division that has the reigning champ starting Trevor Siemian at quarterback, the Raiders are a popular pick to make the playoffs.
There are some problems with that, though. Last season, the Raiders finished the season 7-9 and in the process played exactly like a 7-9 team. Oakland’s Pythagorean Expectation based on point differential placed them at exactly seven wins, one of two teams to match their expected win total perfectly. In many cases, teams don’t exponentially improve the following season when playing to their point differential. The new additions will help, but it’s not fair to expect a three- to four-win shift. We have the Raiders ranked 20th by nERD heading into the season, with just a 25.8 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Turn Up: Seattle Seahawks
At this point, one would imagine it’s hard to underrate the Seattle Seahawks, but that’s kind of where we are with Seattle heading into the 2016 season. The Seahawks have been so good in the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era that it’s become less exciting to talk about how good they’ve been. Even other teams that have been great over a similar period of time have new angles to talk about. The New England Patriots will be without Tom Brady for the first four games, and the Green Bay Packers will try to correct the flaws that stopped them from being truly great last season.
It’s reasons such as those that the Patriots and Packers are the two Super Bowl favorites by the oddsmakers at many sports books. Bovada has the Packers (+600) and Patriots (+650) as the clear favorites to win Super Bowl LI, ahead of the third-ranked Seahawks (+900).
However, our numbers place Seattle as the best team in the league by nERD with the best chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. The Seahawks are the only team we have with a greater than 10 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, and we also have them with the highest win total and with the best chance to make the playoffs in 2016.