All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 5
Most teams -- save for two -- are a quarter of the way through the amount of games they'll play during the 2015 regular season. While it seems like the season just started, we're somewhat close to knowing who most of these teams are on the field. What we'll see in the coming weeks are rankings completely reflecting the play of teams from this season alone, as continuous play can be explained away less as a small sample. Still, for now, we're in a feeling out process, and for a few teams, that process is going slightly better than for others.
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.
32. Chicago Bears (nERD: -9.69, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 32)
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -8.84, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 31)
30. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -8.23, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 28)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -7.75, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 30)
28. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -6.62, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 29)
It was always going to be a long season for the 49ers. A surprise win during the late Monday night game in Week 1 delayed that feeling for a week, but the team has played just about as expected in the weeks since. It can be hard to field a successful team with the personnel losses the 49ers had in the offseason, but even much of the remaining talent is performing below expectations.
All of that really starts with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick excelled in the run heavy/read-option system under Jim Harbaugh, and was able to make a lot of the throws needed, but with the defense during those years, those throws weren’t necessary at a high volume.
That’s not the case now as the defense -- ranked 28th in Adjusted NEP per play -- has struggled to keep games within reach. That places more on Kaepernick, who has seemingly regressed as a pocket passer, making reads and delivering accurate throws. But that’s just for more late-game scenarios when the team has been forced to pass an catch up, because this offense hasn’t been good at the beginning of games either, and that starts with the quarterback. Only three quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this season have a worse Passing NEP than Kaepernick.
The 49ers offense ranks 30th in Adjusted NEP per play so far this season, and they’ve scored the least amount of points per game (averaging 12) and have the league’s worst point differential at minus-62. Not much is going right for the offense, though the one bright spot has been Carlos Hyde, who has the 14th highest Rushing NEP among backs with at least 20 carries. Despite not being in favorable game situations often this season, Hyde still has the 11th most carries in the league, which might be the best way for the Niners to move the ball this year.
27. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -4.50, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 27)
26. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -4.40, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 24)
25. Detroit Lions (nERD: -3.59, Record: 0-4, Last Week: 25)
24. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -3.37, Record: 1-2, Last Week: 26)
23. Houston Texans (nERD: -2.18, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 17)
J.J. Watt can only do so much.
That’s been the story for a few seasons in Houston, but usually it was a shot at the offense not holding up while the defense was one of the best units in the league. That’s not the case this season, as the defense around Watt has been surprisingly disappointing. Last season, the Texans had the best defense in the league by Adjusted NEP, but through four weeks, they rank 13th. A middle-of-the-road defense might not be a bad thing for many teams, but a dominant defense is how Houston found most of its success over the past few seasons.
Watt, of course, is still doing his part and a destroyer of opposing offenses and worlds in general. He has four sacks through four games -- a slow pace for him -- along with four passes defended. No Houston defender has more than one sack, and only cornerback Johnathan Joseph has deflected more passes.
Another lacking part of Houston’s defense is the amount of fumbles forced. Recovering fumbles tends to be a lot of luck after the ball hits the ground, but causing the ball to hit the ground is a skill for the defense -- think Kam Chancellor on Monday. Last season, the Texans forced 17 fumbles on defense, more than one per game. So far this year, they’ve forced zero. Even when considering a fumble recovery as a 50-50 proposition, the Texans are missing out on the opportunity for half a turnover per game from last year. Houston is also below 2014’s pace in interceptions after they had the third most as a team with 20; they currently only have two.
With the fourth worst offense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play, it’s going to need to come down to the once mighty defense to help out the other side of the ball as much as it can. Without creating turnovers, that’s going to be a tough feat to accomplish.
22. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -2.01, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 16)
21. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -1.90, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 22)
20. Washington Redskins (nERD: -1.29, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 23)
19. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -1.15, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 20)
The song remains the same for the San Diego Chargers. They sit in the middle of our rankings with a decent offense and a pretty bad defense, and seem destined for the 8-8 or 9-7 season we’ve been so accustomed to seeing from them. The Chargers rank 13th in Adjusted NEP on offense and 25th on defense, a similar position the team has seen during the Mike McCoy era, give or take a few spots in rank.
Philip Rivers is again helping lead an offensive unit to be more than the sum of its parts. Rivers -- 10th in Passing NEP -- is excelling behind and offensive line that has already seen seven different players on the field for at least 100 offensive snaps and an eighth lineman has played 99. Free agent acquisition Joe Barksdale is the only lineman to play more than 71 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
A lack of continuity on the offensive line has played its hand in slowing down the run game, though, as the Chargers rank just 27th in Rushing NEP per play. The line isn’t all to blame for the running game, since lead back Melvin Gordon has been compounded those problems with issues of his own -- only one running back with at least 10 carries has a lower Rushing NEP than Gordon. Behind the same line -- albeit in slightly different situations -- Danny Woodhead has not seen nearly as many issues, as Woodhead is 12th among running backs with at least 10 carries in Rushing NEP.
There’s hope a healthy line and lessened growing pains from Gordon can lead to a more effective running game and a better offense. In a division that boasts the defenses of the Broncos and Chiefs, the Chargers will need that improvement to compete.
18. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -0.12, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 18)
17. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -.01, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 13)
16. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 0.03, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 14)
15. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 0.85, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 12)
14. St. Louis Rams (nERD: 1.11, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 21)
13. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 1.16, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 15)
Baltimore just edges out Philadelphia as our best 1-3 team through the first four weeks of the season. While that’s great from an analytical perspective, those three losses really hurt Baltimore’s prospects of making the playoffs. Before the season started, and most of last, we had the Ravens as the best team in the AFC North. But the Bengals have clearly taken that spot and, at 4-0 and with a head-to-head victory, have a commanding division lead over the Ravens. The Ravens have just a 16.5 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 6.5 percent chance of winning the division now.
A big part of the disappointment has been an underwhelming offense. With the addition of Marc Trestman as offensive coordinator, expectations were high for where this unit could go in 2015. Trestman was going to keep the zone-blocking schemes put in place by former coordinator Gary Kubiak, which was intended to help both the offensive line and Justin Forsett. Trestman was also expected to bring in some of his passing concepts, which were to help Joe Flacco, but neither aspect of the transition has clicked quickly. The Ravens have the 25th best offensive by Adjusted NEP per play, 27th for the pass, though 16th for the run.
Flacco is currently one of seven quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs on the season and a negative Passing NEP. The offensive strategy so far this season has been 1) find Steve Smith and 2) throw to Steve Smith. Smith has 47 targets on the season and no other Ravens player has 20, but the ageless receiver will be sidelined for at least a week -- never doubt Steve Smith’s recovery time -- and Flacco will have to look elsewhere to throw the ball. That group currently looks like Kamar Aiken, Chris Givens, Marlon Brown, and not much of a chance for the Ravens passing offense to improve quickly.
12. New York Giants (nERD: 2.18, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 18)
11. New York Jets (nERD: 2.91, Record: 3-1, Last Week: 10)
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 3.53, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 9)
9. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 3.93, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 11)
8. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 3.93, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 7)
7. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 4.71, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 6)
6. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 5.00, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 5)
5. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 5.77, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 8)
4. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 6.18, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 3)
One thing we like to see from great teams is blowing out bad ones. It’s something that’s been repeated in this space a few times this season, and a reason why the team on top of these rankings is still there. It would have been nice to see the Packers score a little more on the 49ers on Sunday, but they didn’t really need to.
If there was a concerning thing about Green Bay’s performance against San Francisco, it was the inefficiency on third downs. The Packers were only 5-15 during the game, which isn’t a promising sign, especially in short yardage situations -- Green Bay was just 3-7 on third downs with three yards or less to go. Two of those were immediately rectified by a conversion on fourth down, but the inability to convert could hurt in the future. This is the third straight game the Packers have failed to convert more than 40 percent of their third down attempts, with just a 6-10 effort against the Bears in Week 1 holding up a league average figure for the team.
Luckily for the Packers, the offense is good enough to score on any other down at just about any time. Even after just putting up 17 points against one of the worst defenses in the league, Green Bay ranks fifth in Adjusted NEP per play. That’s going to continue as long as Aaron Rodgers in under center at quarterback, as he’s currently sixth in Passing NEP without Jordy Nelson.
If the defense can even stay at league average -- currently 17th in Adjusted NEP per play -- this is going to be a hard team to beat. Focusing on third downs conversion rate may seem like nitpicking, but for a team that can be this good, there’s only so many clear holes that can be fixed.
3. Denver Broncos (nERD: 6.27, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 4)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 7.23, Record: 3-0, Last Week: 2)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 11.32, Record: 3-1, Last Week: 1)