All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 4
Three games through the NFL season, we don’t have enough to know a lot, but we have enough to maybe know some things. A few conclusions can be made about the most extreme teams like Bears and Patriots, but there’s still so much middle ground in the league that will remain a mystery through the coming weeks. We’re getting to the point, though, where we can base how we view these teams based on their play this year and not holding out for what we expected these teams to be, which could shake up these rankings over the next few weeks.
Unlike many other rankings across the internet, these are not some subjective rankings 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, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent. For the early part of the season, the nERD score still incorporates some data from last season and our preseason projections. As the season progresses and a larger sample of games play out, the nERD scores will be a closer representation to a team’s play this season.
Throughout the rankings we’ll also be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is used as part of the nERD score. 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.
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.
Getting Late Early
32. Chicago Bears (nERD: -10.42, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 31)
Impressively through three weeks of the season, the Arizona Cardinals rank first in nERD, Adjusted NEP per play on offense and Adjusted NEP per play on defense. Just as impressively, the Chicago Bears have accomplished a similar feat, but much worse. Heading into Week 4, the Bears rank last in nERD, Adjusted NEP per play on offense and Adjusted NEP per play on defense.
There was little suspense in how this Bears season was going to go in 2015, though. It was likely going to be a rebuilding year with everyone healthy, but when Jay Cutler went down with a hamstring injury and Jimmy Clausen was forced into starting duty, it somehow got worse. There have been injuries -- Cutler, Alshon Jeffery has played just one game, rookie Kevin White has yet to suit up -- but there have been problems that go beyond just missing a few players.
With the offseason switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, there were a few players that did not appear to be natural fits in the new system. Jared Allen topped that list after spending his career as a 4-3 defensive end and was traded to Carolina this week in what could be the first of many moves over the next few weeks. “Fire sale” might not yet describe what Chicago is doing, though. The other moves made so far were a trade of Jon Bostic, who also didn’t fit in the new 3-4 scheme, but didn’t fit very well in the old 4-3 scheme either and the release of Brock Vereen, who only played three defensive snaps against the Seahawks in Week 3.
Trading someone like Jeffery makes little sense for a rebuilding team. Even though he’s going to a free agent at season’s end, he’ll also only be 25 years old, something that should help the next non-Cutler quarterback. A logical trade, though, would be to move the 30-year-old pending free agent Matt Forte. Forte is currently 11th among running backs in Rushing NEP, serves little purpose on a team that isn’t likely to hold many leads, and should return more than the sixth-round pick acquired for Allen.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -9.86, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 32)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -8.61,Record: 1-2, Last Week: 29)
29. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -6.29, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 20)
28. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -6.10, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 30)
Making a Case for the Fringe
27. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -3.71, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 27)
26. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -3.37, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 28)
This might be the lowest Tennessee gets ranked for the remainder of the season. Because we’re still so early into the year, some preseason projections are still factored into the nERD scores for each team and most indications before the season hinted the Titans would not be all that good. But so far this season that hasn’t been the case. Tennessee currently ranks 12th in Adjusted NEP per play on offense and 8th in Adjusted NEP per play on defense. For three and a half quarters of their Week 3 game, one they eventually lost, they looked like the better team against the Colts, a perceived Super Bowl contender.
We’ll get to how the Colts played later, so we’ll focus on the Titans for now and how they’ve exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic backers. Let’s quickly give some credit to head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has not always done much to deserve that as a head coach. What he has always done mostly well in his career is coordinate an offense for talented quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota is thriving in the system Whisenhunt has helped put in place that mixes spread elements from Mariota’s college days with more “professional” ideas. Mariota ranks 10th in Passing NEP through three weeks and has blown past any extended learning curve he was supposed to have in his rookie year.
Mariota so far has been poised in the pocket, and that’s helped everything else on the offense. For all that was made of his tendency to scramble, Mariota has five rushing attempts through three games. When he scrambles, he’s been able to keep his eyes down the field and find receivers, most notably Kendall Wright. Among wide receivers with at least 20 targets this season, Wright has the fifth highest Reception NEP per target, and he has been Mariota’s go-to receiver this season.
With all the potential in Tennessee being realized, and much earlier than most expected, the Titans now have a chance to be the surprise team of 2015. It may not seem like the case with our initial expectations, but they’ve been playing like it through the early part of the season.
25. Detroit Lions (nERD: -3.33, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 24)
24. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -3.08, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 15)
23. Washington Redskins (nERD: -2.67, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 25)
22. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -2.27, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 19)
21. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -2.01, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 21)
20. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -1.32, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 16)
Where the Fringe Is
19. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -0.98, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 26)
18. New York Giants (nERD: -0.66, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 22)
17. Houston Texans (nERD: -0.19, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 23)
16. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 0.42, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 17)
Three weeks ago the Colts were a Super Bowl contender, and Andrew Luck was a good bet to win league MVP. It’s still early, but both the numbers and public opinion have shifted on those two ideas. It started with the Bills blitzing Luck for what appeared to be an upset at the time, and it was written off as just that. But neither side of the ball has made many strides since that Week 1 game, and the holes on the roster a talented quarterback like Luck was able to cover up for the past three seasons -- like the offensive line and much of the defense -- have become more glaring.
We shouldn’t make this out like the Colts are one of the worst teams in the league, though. It can just feel like that at times because the expectations were so high and the results thus far have been so mediocre, and mediocre is exactly what this team has been -- 16th in nERD, 22nd in Adjusted NEP per play on offense and 17th on defense.
Like more than a few Ryan Grigson moves during his tenure, the free agents brought in for support have been underwhelming. Free agent guard Todd Herremans was already moved to the bench on an offensive line that didn’t have much depth to start the season. Behind that line, Frank Gore had his best game against the Titans in Week 3 and ranks 14th among running backs in Rushing NEP, but he did not start the season off impressively. More concerning is Andre Johnson, who was expected to thrive playing with the best quarterback of his career, but has been targeted just nine times. 106 players who have caught a pass this season have a higher Reception NEP than Johnson through the first three games.
15. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 0.99, Record: 0-3, Last Week: 13)
14. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 1.18, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 12)
13. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: 1.56, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 7)
12. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 1.66, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 14)
Enough to Contend
11. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 1.83, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 18)
10. New York Jets (nERD: 2.15, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 11)
After Geno Smith was lost with an injury, many made the case the Jets were better off with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. There was certainly a case to be made -- Fitzpatrick was 19th in Passing NEP per drop back last season with the Texans while Smith was 30th with the Jets. But throughout his career Fitzpatrick can have those games that make many wonder what he’s doing out on the field, and the Week 3 game against the Eagles was one of them.
Through three games, Fitzpatrick is one of 11 quarterbacks with negative Passing NEP. Only Ryan Mallett and Matthew Stafford among that group have also dropped back at least 100 times. Fitzpatrick’s problems haven’t just been the interceptions he’s been prone to -- one in each of the first two weeks and three in Week 3 -- but he’s also missing throws that should be completed by capable starting quarterbacks. That includes a few deep passes to rookie Devin Smith against the Eagles that could have gone for long gains, one for a touchdown.
We throw around the term “game manager” for mediocre quarterbacks, but the process of managing the game shouldn’t result in bringing negative value. Geno Smith was active for the Week 3 game as the backup, and it might not be long before he takes back the starter role, because with this defense a quarterback that can take what’s given is all that’s needed.
The defense for the Jets under Todd Bowles was expected to be one of the top units in the league, and it hasn’t disappointed. The Jets rank third in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, fifth against the pass and first against the run. With the opposing offenses on the upcoming schedule, which starts with Miami in London this week, the Jets aren’t going to need a lot of points to win games. Having Fitzpatrick throw the ball 58 times in a game probably isn’t the best way of attempting to get those points.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 3.98, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 8)
8. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 4.43, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 6)
7. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 4.58, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 10)
6. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 6.03, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 4)
5. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 6.51, Record: 2-1, Last Week: 9)
If nothing else, Rex Ryan brings entertainment to whatever team he’s coaching, but for the first time in a while that entertainment coincides with a good football team. Even more rare for a Ryan-led squad, it’s a good team on both sides of the ball.
Just about every move the Bills have made to construct this roster has worked out. Tyrod Taylor was the clear favorite during the preseason to take the starting quarterback job, and he’s been more than the Bills could have hope for so far this year. Aided by a good defense and run game, Taylor has not yet needed to go outside of his comfort zone often, and it’s resulted in efficient play. Taylor is seventh among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop backs among quarterbacks who have done so at least 10 times. Like mentioned with Mariota earlier, Taylor is using his mobility and using it as a positive in the passing game, keeping his eyes downfield when escaping the pocket and finding open receivers.
Taylor’s offensive load has been lessened by a running game that is second in the league by Adjusted NEP on a per play basis. The star so far has been rookie Karlos Williams, who leads the league in Rushing NEP this season. With LeSean McCoy likely to sit out against the Giants, Williams should get his first start to show off his talent. That leads to the one questionable move the Bills made in the offseason: signing McCoy to a contract extension that was questionable at the time. McCoy is under contract through the 2019 season with $26.5 million in guarantees and might already be the second best back on the roster. But that’s not a problem that needs to be worried about at this exact moment.
So far this season, the offense has outplayed the defense, which ranks ninth by Adjusted NEP per play. They only rank that low because of the scoring barrage Tom Brady and the Patriots went on in Week 2, something not just contained to Buffalo. Still with two top-10 units, the Bills have have the potential to hang around throughout the remainder of the season and be a serious playoff contender. They have become one of the most interesting teams in the league to watch so far.
Best of the Best
4. Denver Broncos (nERD: 7.06, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 3)
3. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 7.08, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 2)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 7.23, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 5)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 12.46, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 1)