All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 8
Another week, another new team is atop the rankings. While the new No. 1 isn't on top for the first time this season, it is a change from last week. And while there were some changes in the top 10, all teams inside the top 10 last week remain there this week. At this point in the season, we have a decent idea of who the top teams are, though their place amongst each other is not as clear. Sometimes there's even ties, oh yes, there are ties. There are, however, no ties in this week's rankings.
A weekly reminder, our power rankings aren’t subjective, they’re based off our nERD scores put together by people much smarter than me. For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent. All individually noted rankings are based off our Net Expected Points metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of four different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured two to three times during the course of the season.
32. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -8.06, Record: 0-7, Last Week: 30)
It’s been an exciting week in Cleveland. The Indians won Game 1 of the World Series, the Cavaliers got their championship rings, and the Browns moved onto their fifth quarterback of the season -- rookie Kevin Hogan. Hogan came on after fellow rookie Cody Kessler was knocked out of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a concussion. While Hogan came in and rushed for 100 yards, which included some read option plays and a 28-yard scramble for a touchdown, the offense was -- and has been -- much better under Kessler.
Kessler, the fourth-round pick out of USC, has been unexpectedly competent as the quarterbacks for the Browns this season. He has the second-best Passing NEP per drop-back of the five quarterbacks who have taken the field -- six if you want to count Terrelle Pryor -- and he’s been able to sustain that for multiple games. Below is a breakdown of each quarterback’s performance for Cleveland this season, and for fun we'll add Pryor.
|Drop Backs||Passing NEP||Passing NEP/Drop Back||Success Rate|
|Robert Griffin III||29||-9.47||-0.33||24.14%|
Josh McCown has the highest Passing NEP per drop back, but that came on just 36 plays and Kessler leads in all other categories, including Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP. Kessler might not be a star, or even a long-term starter, but he’s been able to keep the Browns' offense afloat and looking promising under head coach Hue Jackson. The Browns are only 23rd in Adjusted NEP per play, but there’s a few things to like on the unit.
Much of that comes from the emergence of a few skill position players. Isaiah Crowell currently ranks 6th in Rushing NEP per attempt among 35 running backs with 50 or more carries on the season. He’s been able to find and hit holes behind a developing offensive line -- outside of established stud Joe Thomas. While Pryor is still taking some snaps at quarterback, he’s turned himself into quite a wide receiver. He looks fluid in his movement at the position, and he’s already made some spectacular catches this season. Right now, he ranks 34th in Reception NEP per target among 95 receivers with at least 20 targets on the year.
Cleveland, though, is still winless and at the bottom of these rankings -- albeit for the first time this season. Per our numbers, the Browns won’t be favored in any of their remaining games, though they have a win probability over 30% in five of those games. This year won’t be a success in the standings, but through coaching and the front office, the Browns appear to be in a better set up than in the past to take on this rebuilding effort.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -7.94, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 32)
30. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -7.00, Record: 1-6, Last Week: 26)
29. Chicago Bears (nERD: -6.70, Record: 1-6, Last Week: 28)
28. Los Angeles Rams (nERD: -6.13, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 27)
27. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -5.01, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 31)
26. Detroit Lions (nERD: -3.71, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 25)
Is Matthew Stafford an MVP candidate? That seems to be the big question getting thrown around this week. Stafford, perhaps, has as much claim to anyone as an MVP favorite after seven weeks of the season, which is to say probably not much. But that shouldn’t take away how well Stafford has played so far this season.
At the start of the year, we talked about the philosophical switch the Lions made at the midway point last season when the move was made to replace Joe Lombardi with Jim Bob Cooter at offensive coordinator. There was a shift from a more vertical offense to a more efficient West Coast system that utilized shorter, safer, and smarter throws. Stafford has success with that to end 2015 and it’s carried over to 2016.
In all, 32 quarterbacks have dropped back at least 100 times this season and among them, Stafford ranks 4th in Passing NEP per drop back. The Lions have continued with an emphasis on shorter passes, and it has led Detroit to the third-best overall offense by Adjusted NEP per play. Everything in the offense is starting to click. Marvin Jones no longer leads the league in receiving yards, but he is still seventh in Reception NEP per target. After a rough start, Golden Tate has been getting more action in the passing game with screens and shovel passes. Anquan Boldin is playing a scaled down version of Larry Fitzgerald’s big slot receiver role, and he’s now 22nd among the 20-plus target receivers in Reception NEP per target. Even the running game started to get going on Sunday against Washington with newly signed Justin Forsett in the backfield.
So with so much success on offense, why is Detroit all the way down here in the rankings? That would be the league-worst defense, per Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. It wasn’t long ago Teryl Austin was a hot head coaching candidate, but now he oversees a defensive unit that’s been worse than the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.
The Lions sport the worst pass defense by our metrics, and there’s a bigger gap between the Lions and the No. 31 Colts than between the Colts and No. 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was the defense that gave up a late lead to Washington, which forced Stafford into a one-minute drill for the win. If the defense can improve, the Lions could have a shot at a Wild Card berth -- they currently have a 9.9% chance of making the playoffs -- but if not, this offense and one of the best quarterbacking performances of the year will go to waste.
25. New York Jets (nERD: -3.62, Record: 2-5, Last Week: 29)
24. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -3.61, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 18)
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -3.38, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 24)
22. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -2.41, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 19)
21. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -2.34, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 22)
20. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -2.09, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 20)
It’s the same old story for the New Orleans Saints. The Saints rank 4th on offense by Adjusted NEP per play and 31st on defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. In a year when any defensive improvement could have positioned New Orleans as a playoff contender, the unit again has performed as one of the worst in the league. It’s not the historically bad defense of last season -- so that could be considered a step forward -- but it’s still not good. Alex Smith put up the best quarterback game of Week 7, per Passing NEP per drop back, by getting to play the Saints.
The Saints have the second-worst interception rate in the league at 0.9% -- along with the Colts, New Orleans is the only teams below one percent in that metric. New Orleans also has the seventh-lowest sack rate in the league on top of the fifth-worst defensive pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Saints are still the Saints, and Drew Brees is still Drew Brees. Brees is fifth among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back and has the second-highest Success Rate behind only Tom Brady, and Brees has dropped back almost three times the amount of Brady.
The Saints have a trio of young wide receivers who are fairly equally involved in the offense and have all been productive. Willie Snead ranks 2nd in Reception NEP per target for wide receivers with over 30 targets, rookie Michael Thomas is 29th and Brandin Cooks is 33rd. That makes them the second-best trio of wide receivers by Reception NEP per target behind Minnesota’s surprising group of Adam Thielen (9th), Stefon Diggs (16th), and Cordarrelle Patterson (28th).
New Orleans is using each in creative ways, like the touchdown to Cooks against the Kansas City Chiefs, which saw him run a wheel route from the backfield and bring in a beautiful touch pass from Brees.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: -1.94, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 15)
18. New York Giants (nERD: -1.76, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 21)
17. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -1.47, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 23)
16. Houston Texans (nERD: -1.29, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 14)
15. Carolina Panthers (nERD: -0.57, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 17)
14. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 0.65, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 16)
13. Washington Redskins (nERD: 1.13, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 11)
12. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 1.63, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 13)
Through seven weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs might be the most underrated good team in the league. They only have the third-best record in the league’s toughest division -- the only division with all four teams sporting a positive point differential -- and they’ve performed about as well as one would expect. Kansas City sits at 4-2 with a 3.6-2.4 Pythagorean expected record. They’re not a sneaky good team with a bad record like the San Diego Chargers or the sneaky bad team with a good record like the Oakland Raiders. They are what they should be and that, to some extent, is kind of boring.
But the Chiefs’ play this season really has been remarkable, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Without Justin Houston playing a snap, Kansas City still has the sixth-best defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Much of that comes from the sixth-ranked pass defense by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, which has been aided mostly by the ability to create turnovers. The Chiefs have the best interception rate in the league at 4.5% and no other team is at 4.0% or above. Kansas City overall has the second-best turnover rate in the league, with 18.8% of opposing drives ending in a turnover.
Kansas City has done much of this without a pass rush this season. The Chiefs have the fourth-lowest sack rate in the league and are creating defensive pressure at the second-lowest rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting. This could improve once Houston returns, though Andy Reid does not expect that to be Week 8 against the Colts.
On offense, the Chiefs are doing what the Chiefs usually do. They’re 20th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play but surprisingly 31st in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. However, taking a closer look, that rushing efficiency is brought down by some catastrophic fumbles from Spencer Ware. Ware has fumbled three times and lost all three, which all turned into big plays for the defense. Ware is 29th in Rushing NEP per attempt among the 35 backs with 50 or more carries, but without counting the negative NEP from the fumbles, Ware is a borderline top-five back with 0.08 Rushing NEP per attempt on his other runs.
Ware’s newfound ability as a pass catcher has also allowed the Chiefs to be slower integrating Jamaal Charles back into the offense. Among 30 running backs with 20 or more targets, Ware is second in Reception NEP per target behind only Tevin Coleman. Ware even had a Charles-like screen for a touchdown against the Saints this past Sunday that came from an empty set.
11. San Diego Chargers (nERD: 2.94, Record: 3-4, Last Week: 12)
10. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 3.22, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 4)
9. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 3.97, Record: 4-3, Last Week: 8)
8. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 4.60, Record: 4-1-1, Last Week: 6)
7. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 4.88, Record: 5-1, Last Week: 7)
6. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 5.10, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 10)
5. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 5.34, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 9)
4. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 6.38, Record: 3-3-1, Last Week: 5)
The Arizona Cardinals have struggled this season, but our numbers have stayed rather bullish on them throughout the start of 2016. The farthest Arizona has fallen by nERD was No. 7 overall following Week 5, and they were No. 1 following Week 2. They still sit in the top-five despite having just a 40.9% chance of making the playoffs. There are some good reasons for this, so let’s go through a few of them.
First, nERD loves blowouts, and that’s completely understandable. There are few better ways to recognize a good team than by blowouts of a bad team, and the Cardinals have done that twice. In Week 2, they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 40-7 and in Week 6, they beat the New York Jets 28-3. The Cardinals are one of few teams with multiple convincing wins of that nature.
Second, two of Arizona’s losses have come by a combined six points. One of those losses came to our second-ranked team, the New England Patriots. The other came against a divisional opponent on the road. Arizona’s third loss came against a Buffalo Bills team that is much better now than was perceived at the time. The Bills ranked No. 4 last week and are still a top-10 team by this week’s numbers.
Next, the Cardinals still have a dominant defense. The unit ranks fifth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. A year after having little to no pass rush, the Cardinals are seventh in sack rate and fourth in defensive pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions. Arizona now has two stud pass rushers in Chandler Jones (five sacks) and 2015 second-round pick Markus Golden (six sacks). Patrick Peterson is again playing like one of the best cornerbacks in the league with the third highest Success Rate among corners targeted 20 or more times, per Sports Info Solutions.
There’s clearly still a concern about the offense, mostly in the passing game. After Carson Palmer was one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season and a legitimate MVP candidate, he has struggled this season. He’s 16th in Passing NEP per drop back, though much of that comes from his games against Tampa Bay and the Jets. Maybe time has taken its toll on the 37-year-old quarterback, which would not be surprising, historically. But there’s also a chance once everyone gets healthy -- Palmer possibly included -- the offense can go back to being one of the better units in the league.
But with an offense that’s currently 16th by Adjusted NEP per play, a lot more is going to have to go right for the rest of the team in order for the Cardinals to stay this high in the rankings for the coming weeks.
3. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 6.63, Record: 5-1, Last Week: 2)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 6.89, Record: 6-1, Last Week: 1)
1. Denver Broncos (nERD: 7.41, Record: 5-2, Last Week: 3)