Monday Night Football Preview: An Answer to Our Offseason's Biggest Questions
Can we all just come to the consensus that this is the best Monday of the year every year? The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can embrace it and just love today. Life is beautiful.
I've never fully understood why we are blessed with two games the first weekend of the season, but I sure as shooting am not going to complain. And when you see the storylines on tap, you can allow the bloodstreams to pump a bit more steadily.
First, you get the offense that everyone adores as the Philadelphia Eagles face the Atlanta Falcons. Then you get the return of one of the game's great rushers against a franchise that had about as much turnover as one could imagine as the Minnesota Vikings face the San Francisco 49ers.
What can we expect tonight from each game? Let's go through some of the top questions heading in with the assistance of numberFire's Game Projections, which are available to all premium subscribers.
How Will Sam Bradford Fare With the Eagles?
Y'all remember that Sam Bradford cat? The former first overall pick who used to play for the St. Louis Rams? Yeah. He's back tonight, apparently. It's been a minute.
Although Bradford's time with the Rams didn't quite reach nightmare status, it flirted with it. To illustrate this, let's look at numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. In every situation, there is an expected number of points that a team will score on a drive. A positive play (a 17-yard completion on 3rd-and-5) will increase that number, thus leading to positive NEP. A negative play (an interception, incompletion, etc.) will decrease that number, thus leading to a negative NEP. Our NEP numbers just track the expected points added (or subtracted) over the course of a season to spit out one number that shows the value a player added to his team that season.
Bradford didn't add a whole lot of positivity in his days with the Rams. He finished his rookie season with -0.05 Passing NEP per play. In 2011, that number plummeted to -0.18. He improved in 2012 but was still below the average output of a quality starting quarterback at 0.02. Finally, in 2013, he was at 0.00 through 277 drop backs before injuring his knee. Basically, he was a good chunk below average his entire time in St. Louis.
Now, however, he has been summoned to quarterback heaven in Philadelphia. Last year, Chip Kelly turned career-NEP-demon Mark Sanchez into a quarterback who finished the year with 0.15 Passing NEP per play. If he can do it with the Sanchize, can he do it with Bradford?
Week 1 looks promising for the relationship. Our projections see Bradford tossing for 253.08 yards on 34.82 attempts (7.27 yards per attempt) with 1.76 touchdowns and 0.66 interceptions. Sure, it's against an Atlanta team that ranked 28th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play (which adjusts based on strength of the opponent) in 2014, but I believe the Eagles would take that from Bradford in the maiden voyage.
Beyond that, we'll just have to wait and see.
Can the Falcons Escape Mediocrity?
If yesterday taught us anything, it's that the NFC South is still very winnable for a team that is even just above average. The same was true last year, but the Falcons decided playing in January was for the plebes. How about 2015?
A good way to get a gauge of this is by looking at the similar historic matchups in the game's profile. The most similar game (at a 92.21 percent match) was last year between these Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals.
In that game, the Cardinals came to the Georgia Dome as 1.5-point favorites, similar to the Eagles, who are favored by 2.5. Now, facing a Chip-Kelly-led offense is a bit different than facing the mighty Drew Stanton, but there are still a few things we can take away from the win.
The Falcons were able to dictate a majority of that game by jumping out to an early 17-0 lead. This put game flow in their favor and allowed them to run like crazy. The team posted its second largest rushing yardage output of the season in that game and held the ball for 37:03. Part of this was because the Arizona offense was a touch short of incompetent, but the lesson here? Limit the sample size that the horrendous Atlanta defense is on the field.
As already noted, the Falcons finished 28th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. They were also 31st in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. You think DeMarco Murray isn't licking his chops about seeing that?
If the Falcons can slow things down and keep the clock moving, they may have a chance. Their offense is good enough to operate in a high-tempo game (they were 10th in Adjusted NEP per play), but the defense is not. If they try to match the Eagles' pace on offense, things could go downhill in a hurry.
Can Adrian Peterson Be Adrian Peterson?
Heading into last season I was not a fan of Adrian Peterson in fantasy football. Running backs start their decline in their age-26 season, and Peterson was entering his age-29 season. To me, that was enough to scare me away from taking him early in redraft or paying up big time in DFS.
Turns out that I never got to see how dumb I was, as Peterson probably would have just destroyed my predictions of his demise. Now, though, he's entering his age-30 season, and we get to add a new caveat to the discussion: can a year off counteract the ills of aging?
If the Vikings want to make the leap this year that many are projecting, they'll probably need that to happen. With center John Sullivan missing the first half of the season due to injury and right tackle Phil Loadholt done for 2015, it would appear to be an uphill battle. But let's look at what numberFire's projections say.
Heading into the week, Peterson was projected to rack up 82.94 rushing yards and 0.50 touchdowns, with the yardage being the fifth highest projected mark of the week. The 49ers finished last year 12th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, but pretty much everyone from that roster is gone. It does appear as though the computers are more optimistic for old man Peterson's prospects than I am, though his projected output seems more than reasonable.
Is Colin Kaepernick Primed for a Bounce-Back Season?
Assumptions are generally bad for you, especially when it comes to things such as fantasy sports. I think we're okay, though, in assuming that Colin Kaepernick was all right with the 2014 season ending.
Kaepernick finished last year ranked 26th in Passing NEP per play among the 48 quarterbacks who recorded at least 100 drop backs. People ahead of him included Brian Hoyer, Nick Foles, Colt McCoy, and Kirk Cousins. The true cream of the crop when it comes to quarterback play.
If we look instead at Total NEP (which includes the expected points added on rushing plays), things only improve slightly. There, Kaepernick ranked 23rd among the same group of 48 quarterbacks, even though this would give him an advantage over the lower-volume quarterbacks in that sample as this is an aggregate total as opposed to a rate. Basically, things just weren't great for ol' Kap.
So now the question becomes whether or not Kaepernick can regain the form he showed in 2013, when he finished eighth in Total NEP. We can start to get an answer to that tonight against a Vikings defense that ranked 18th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play last season.
Our projections aren't overly optimistic. They have him passing for 212.96 yards on 31.30 attempts (6.80 yards per attempt) with 1.21 touchdowns and 0.86 interceptions. They also only see him adding 28.53 yards on the ground. These are really just plain numbers that don't necessarily inject a high degree of confidence, especially when you consider they're playing a middle-of-the-road opponent at home.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Kaepernick won't be able to kick things in gear this season. The addition of Torrey Smith should at least provide some sort of boost, though the losses on the offensive line provide a good counter to that. The 49ers will have to lean on this pup if they want to exceed their bottom-feeding expectations for 2015.
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