All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 1

According to math, which teams are in the best shape heading into the 2015 NFL regular season?

Welcome to the first edition of this year’s All-32, a weekly space where we'll go over the numberFire NFL power rankings. 

Unlike many other rankings across the Internet, these aren't some subjective ones by a writer -- trust me, those would be way worse. Instead, we use nERD, which 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, for instance, they'd be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent on a neutral field. 

Throughout the analysis below, we’ll also be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. You can read more about it in our glossary.

Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of five different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured around three times during the course of the season.

For this week, the listed win totals are simply our projections. These are mean projections, so most of them will gravitate around 8-8 -- we know there’s going to be a team that wins fewer than six games, and that more than one team is going to win more than 10. That’s not something the projections are going to show. But for now, and in future editions, pay closer attention to the nERD score for the rankings.

The Race for the Top Pick

32. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -7.74, Projected Record: 6.3-9.7)
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -6.52, Projected Record: 6.7-9.3)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -6.44, Projected Record: -6.44)
29. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -5.99, Projected Record: 6.2-9.8)
28. Washington Redskins (nERD: -5.66, Projected Record: 6.6-9.4)
27. Chicago Bears (nERD: -4.90, Projected Record: 6.6-9.4)
26. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -3.02, Projected Record: 7.0-9.0)

Maybe There's Hope?

25. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -1.54, Projected Record: 7.4-8.6)

And we start with the first “what?” moment of the rankings. Our projections appear to be super low on a team many believe could take a step or two forward this season, present company included. But many of those reasons are mostly anecdotal, and there's enough statistical evidence for the algorithms to rank the Vikings this low.

Many will point to the impressive second half of the season from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as reason to be optimistic about the offense in 2015. Bridgewater did improve as the season went on, but we’ve seen in the past that second half improvements don't always carry over to the next season. Geno Smith improved over his final four games in 2013 for the Jets, for instance, and his career has gone splendidly [sarcasm alert] since. Bridgewater was the best of the rookie quarterbacks last season, but that wasn’t a high bar to clear -- his 0.05 Passing NEP per drop back was just 22nd among 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs last season.

The offense will also get Adrian Peterson back, and the last time he was on the field for a full season, he was pretty good. In 2013, Peterson ranked sixth among running backs with at least 200 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. But the Vikings were among the league’s most efficient teams running the ball without Peterson last season, ranking third in schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt behind Kansas City and Seattle. Maybe you believe the presence of Peterson will make opposing defenses load the box more, but it’s going to be hard for the Vikings to improve statistically on that front.

This will also be the second year for a young defense under Mike Zimmer. Again, anecdotally, there’s going to be plenty of reasons for optimism. Xavier Rhodes could breakout as a top tier corner this season, but the Vikings only ranked 18th against the pass last year on a per attempt basis, per our numbers. The same could be said about the defense as a whole that ranked just 21st by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Minnesota be the team that shoots up these rankings within the first few weeks of the season, but we’re going to have to have some hard proof of improvement before that happens.

24. New York Jets (nERD: -1.16, Projected Record: 7.8-8.2)
23. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -0.92, Projected Record: 7.2-8.8)
22. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: -0.81, Projected Record: 8.1-7.9)
21. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -0.03, Projected Record: 8.0-8.0)

Fringe Contenders

20. New York Giants (nERD: .20, Projected Record: 8.0-8.0)
19. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 0.24, Projected Record: 8.1-7.9)

The Carolina Panthers, a playoff team in 2014, will go into Jacksonville in Week 1 and have inferior units among receivers, the offensive line and arguably the secondary, depending on your views among specific players. Jacksonville, for one, will not be starting Roman Harper. Calling Carolina a “playoff team” is a little disingenuous, as the Panthers finished with a 7-8-1 record last season and didn’t rank above 17th in nERD after Week 4.

Still, this has been a long way to fall for the Carolina club.

The Panthers are still reeling from some of the decisions of the past era, and while there's talent on the roster, the depth behind it is shaky at best. With depth issues like that, the team can’t afford injuries, but injuries have the Panthers received. The biggest, of course, comes from the loss of Kelvin Benjamin at receiver. Benjamin was hit or miss last season -- tied for 58th among receivers with at least 30 targets in Reception NEP per target -- but he was what the Panthers had, and he was used often. 

Benjamin was the seventh most targeted player in the NFL at 145 targets. Carolina’s next most targeted wide receiver was Jerricho Cotchery at 78. With rookie Devin Funchess not ready to jump in as a starter, Philly Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. are listed as Carolina’s top receiving duo after a combined 62 targets last season (Ginn’s 26 came in Arizona).

Cam Newton has the ability to take over games on his own, but that shouldn’t be a strategy the Panthers intend to go into games with. Behind an offensive line featuring Michael Oher and Mike Remmers as the starting tackles, Newton might take enough hits to even make scrambling a scary option. Carolina is also going to have to hope the defense holds, because the team’s 24th ranking in Rushing NEP per attempt does not bode well for a run-controlled game plan either.

18. Detroit Lions (nERD: 0.68, Projected Record: 7.8-8.2)
17. St. Louis Rams (nERD: 0.84, Projected Record: 8.0-8.0)
16. New Orleans Saints (nERD: 1.05, Projected Record: 8.6-7.4)
15. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 1.18, Projected Record: 8.0-8.0)

14. Houston Texans (nERD: 1.23, Projected Record: 8.6-7.4)

Houston is going to enter the season hoping to rely on their defense to keep it close in games. In theory, that might not be a terrible plan. The Texans tied with the Bills last season for the best defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, and were alone at the top by total Adjusted Defensive NEP. They also have some game named J.J. Watt, who has only played less than 90 percent of the team’s defensive snaps once over the past three seasons.

The concern, though, is how much better can the defense get. It’s quite hard to be the top defense in the league two years in a row, and if the Texans aren’t among the elite defensive units, they may be in some trouble. The closest a defense has come recently to staying as the league’s best unit was the Jets, who ranked first in total and per play NEP in 2009 and 2011, but had an eighth place ranking in between. Eighth doesn’t sound bad, but it might not be something the Texans can afford.

Thanks in part to a shaky quarterback situation, the Texans were one of two teams last season to run more than they threw. Somehow they managed to take that situation and make it even worse heading into 2015. 

Brian Hoyer is now the starter after ranking 25th among qualified quarterbacks in efficiency and getting benched for Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. At least for the first few weeks of the season, the Texans won’t have their strong running game to rely on, either. With Arian Foster out, Alfred Blue is likely to be the starter, and he just wasn’t very good when he got on the field last season -- Blue ranked 65th out of 79 running backs with at least 30 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt a year ago. Behind the same line, Foster ranked 18th, which is a massive difference (Chris Polk, on his 46 carries in Philadelphia, ranked 17th).

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 1.69, Projected Record: 8.0-8.0)
12. Miami Dolphins (nERD: 1.79, Projected Record: 8.5-7.5)
11. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 1.80, Projected Record: 8.3-7.7)

The Top 10

10. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 2.01, Projected Record: 8.2-7.8)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 2.14, Projected Record: 8.3-7.7)

So maybe we should talk about the Chiefs a little more? 

This is a pretty high ranking for a club that doesn’t have many people talking entering the season. But that’s why we’re here, and why we’re talking about them now. 

Kansas City didn’t stand out in any one area last season, but they were solid just about everywhere. They only category the Chiefs ranked outside the top half of the league came against the run, where they ranked 24th.

And that’s what we’ve now known these Chiefs to be under Andy Reid: solid but unspectacular. But perhaps that’s not the worst place to be. When a team can be just outside the top-10 on both offense and defense, that team is going to be fine.

The Chiefs now -- more than any other season in the Reid era -- have taken some swings at not being in that slightly above-average tier. The signing of Jeremy Maclin gives Alex Smith his best receiving option since at least San Francisco and possibly his career, while Jamaal Charles is still going to be Jamaal Charles -- he led the league in Rushing NEP per attempt among running backs with at least 200 carries last season, and he's been the second most efficient high-volume back according to our numbers since 2000. There’s also the increased role for Travis Kelce looming after he finished fifth among tight ends in Reception NEP per target last season.

On defense, the squad isn’t very different from the one that ranked fourth on defense two seasons ago. The main players are still involved: Justin Houston, Tamba Hali (though coming off a down season), Derrick Johnson and potentially, hopefully, the return of Eric Berry.

There’s room for improvement all around, and even with a tough start to the season (at Houston, Denver, at Green Bay) the floor might be too high for the team to bottom out. The Chiefs might not blow anyone away, but seeing them stick around on the cusp of a playoff spot shouldn’t come as a surprise.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 2.93, Projected Record: 8.7-7.3)
7. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 3.00, Projected Record: 8.5-7.5)
6. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 3.78, Projected Record: 9.0-7.0)
5. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 3.80, Projected Record: 8.9-7.1)

The Top Tier

4. New England Patriots (nERD: 5.67, Projected Record: 9.2-6.8)
3. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 6.13, Projected Record: 9.3-6.7)
2. Denver Broncos (nERD: 7.31, Projected Record: 9.7-6.3)
1. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 8.34, Projected Record: 10.1-5.9)

Seattle is again at the top, the area where they spent most of last season. The Seahawks bottomed out at 12th in these rankings last season after Week 9, but were back up to number three within four weeks.

Are there concerns around the 2015 Seahawks? Sure there are, no team team is perfect. Earl Thomas didn’t play a preseason snap for physical reasons, Kam Chancellor didn’t play a preseason snap for monetary reasons, Cary Williams is a starting cornerback, Russell Wilson has gone from beloved to, at least to many, clinically insane, and the offensive line might play like they have a preference if he stays upright or not.

Still, even with all that, the Seahawks are the best team in the league. If there’s a team that’s going to get back with a shaky offensive line, it’s going to be Seattle, just like the team has done over the past few seasons. Behind last year’s sewn together line, Marshawn Lynch tied for sixth in Rushing NEP per attempt and led all backs in overall Rushing NEP. Wilson was also often on the move and had the highest Rushing NEP of any player last season.

They also upgraded at the tight end spot, trading for this guy named Jimmy Graham. Graham, though, will have to work on being more efficient with a lower volume of targets. He was fifth among tight ends in Reception NEP last year, but just 25th in Reception NEP per target among 44 tight ends who were targeted at least 30 times. Maybe it’s a problem, but it’s one the Seahawks are going to be ok with having.

The biggest concern right now should be the back end of the defense, which helped Seattle rank third against the pass last season and third in overall defensive efficiency. If Thomas can’t stay healthy and Chancellor never reports, then the Seahawks are probably going to be in trouble. Seattle can get away with just one of them back there, but not having either would change the entire scope of the defense. Signs from Thomas have been encouraging, and we’ll have to believe at some point Chancellor will be on the field for Seattle. If that doesn’t happen, then we panic. 

For now, we can easily project that the Seahawks are going to be pretty good once again in 2015.