All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 6
It's all starting to become clear. At least we hope.
The good teams are beginning to prove why we should believe, and the bad ones are giving us a little less reason to pay attention on Sunday afternoons.
Of course, there are some surprises in there, like the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs, who have been the latter while perceived as the former early on. There still remains this vast middle ground in the league of teams that could go either way. Over the next few weeks, those teams in the 10-20 range of these rankings may be the most interesting ones as the season nears the midway point.
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. 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: -10.00, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 32)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -8.86, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 29)
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -8.19, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 30)
29. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -6.85, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 28)
28. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -6.68, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 30)
The Oakland Raiders have been a fixture at the bottom of these rankings for some time, but while they’re still here, there are a few bright spots on the roster that lead to some optimism that hasn't been around this franchise in quite some time.
Clearly, it starts with the development of the quarterback. Derek Carr has become Oakland’s most talented quarterback since Carson Palmer, and Palmer was never really able to showcase himself because of the talent around him. Carr, on the other hand, is now surrounded by other young building blocks.
Carr currently ranks 13th in Passing NEP, a far shot above where he was last season as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Carr has definitely improved aspects of his game, but he’s also been helped out by the players around him. The offensive line has surprisingly become one of the team’s strengths and -- along with Carr occasionally taking deep drop backs from shotgun -- has allowed Carr to stay relatively unscathed in the pocket. That’s given him an opportunity to take advantage of the other weapons on the offense.
Amari Cooper is 18th in Reception NEP through five weeks, and it would be higher had he not had the misfortune of playing against the Denver secondary in Week 5. Cooper is clearly the most talented receiver Carr has been able to work with in his brief career, though Michael Crabtree has been the quarterback’s most targeted pass-catcher through the first five weeks of the season.
It’s worked out, though, since the Raiders are the 15th best offense by Adjusted NEP per play. League average isn’t always something to brag about, but for the Raiders, it’s progress. Now Oakland needs to fill the talent around Khalil Mack on the defensive side of the ball and help the unit ranked 30th by Adjusted NEP per play.
27. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -4.40, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 26)
26. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -4.27, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 21)
25. Detroit Lions (nERD: -3.87, Record: 0-5, Last Week: 25)
24. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -3.58, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 24)
23. Houston Texans (nERD: -3.58, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 23)
22. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -2.80, Record: 3-2, Last Week: 22)
21. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -1.92, Record: 1-3, Last Week: 24)
20. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -1.57, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 17)
It’s the end of an era. Brandon Weeden was given to us by the football gods, but he was just taken away. After a blowout loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday, the Cowboys have decided to move onto Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback in the absence of Tony Romo. It appears to be a logical move for those who forget Cassel didn't excel at football the last time he saw extended time.
In his three games last season for the Minnesota Vikings, Cassel had a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.09, which tied him with Josh McCown on a per drop back basis. McCown was the fifth worst quarterback among 43 with at least 100 drop backs in 2014. The last time Cassel saw extended time as a starter was in 2013, when he had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.01, which placed him 26th among 45 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs that season.
Weeden’s Passing NEP per drop back this season? 0.01.
Weeden very clearly isn’t the answer, but pretending Cassel is an improvement isn't going to serve anyone any good. This may have been a different story with Dez Bryant on the field, but without him, the Cowboys are not much more than the type of Browns teams Weeden was a part of during the first few years of his career.
A potentially bigger problem for the Cowboys has been the run game, which isn't nearly as effective as it was last season. The Cowboys rank 16th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt, which isn’t going to help a struggling passing game as much as it was expected. Dallas is reportedly mulling over giving more snaps to Christine Michael in the backfield after the bye, since both Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden have a Rushing NEP of -0.05, which is well below the current average among running backs with at least 20 carries this season of 0.00.
19. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: -1.55, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 16)
18. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -0.98, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 19)
17. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -0.69, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 13)
16. Washington Redskins (nERD: -0.40, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 20)
It’s fitting Washington finds themselves as the 16th best team on the list, because there might not be a more enigmatic team this season. Washington has lost close, won close, won big and lost big so far this season, and those results haven't been very logical when you look at their opponents. There’s really no knowing which team is going to be on the field for a given Sunday.
The most frequent is the passable defense, bad offense version that showed up in Week 5 against Atlanta. Through the fifth week of the season, Washington’s defense ranks 10th in Adjusted NEP per play and only against the Giants in Week 3 has the defense given up more than 20 points in a game. The team has been among the best in the league against the run (9th) and held up enough against the pass (14th). Despite what many see as deficiencies in personnel, the ability to at least hold up against the pass has been a welcome surprise. Bashaud Breeland has played better than his perceived reputation, and the veteran duo of Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall have not been catastrophic in coverage, which is always nice -- though Hall hasn't played since a Week 3 injury.
It’s also impressive this offense ranks 13th in Adjusted NEP per play on offense, given the mistakes that have been made on the field. Kirk Cousins ranks 10th in Passing NEP this season, but he, along with Josh McCown, are the only quarterbacks in the top-10 with a Success Rate below 50 percent (Success Rate is the amount of plays that have a positive impact on NEP). Cousins has been able to occasionally make some big plays, thanks to open receivers and YAC, but he’s just as often thrown bad passes that get or should get intercepted. That’s not going to be a consistent way for this team to win, and it shows with how inconsistent this team has been through the first five weeks.
15. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -0.12, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 18)
14. New York Giants (nERD: 0.45, Record: 3-2, Last Week: 12)
13. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 1.35, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 15)
12. St. Louis Rams (nERD: 1.54, Record: 2-2, Last Week: 14)
11. New York Jets (nERD: 2.91, Record: 3-1, Last Week: 11)
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 3.86, Record: 3-2, Last Week: 10)
9. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 3.93, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 8)
8. Denver Broncos (nERD: 4.70, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 3)
7. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 5.30, Record: 3-2, Last Week: 6)
6. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 5.32, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 9)
The Falcons have gotten off to their undefeated start thanks to one of the top offenses in the league. Atlanta ranks third in Adjusted NEP per play on offense, with the fourth best passing offense and the top ranked run game in the league. The ground game, of course, is led by Devonta Freeman, who leads all players in Rushing NEP this season at 19.39, more than double the next best running back. The closest is Arizona’s Chris Johnson at 9.67.
With the help of the run game, the passing game has been among the league’s best thanks to Julio Jones. Jones is second in Reception NEP behind DeAndre Hopkins, but has been targeted 12 fewer times than the Houston receiver. That’s also with Jones clearly playing at less than 100 percent in Week 5. Before suffering a hamstring injury, Jones was uncoverable, which was helping out quarterback Matt Ryan.
Where Atlanta has made another big improvement under new head coach Dan Quinn is on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, the Falcons were the second worst defense by Adjusted NEP per play, but that has improved up to 16th so far this season. That presents an opportunity to win games the Falcons haven’t had over the past few seasons, and it’s already paid off.
5. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 5.50, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 7)
4. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 5.64, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 4)
3. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 5.98, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 5)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 8.62, Record: 4-0, Last Week: 2)
The New England Patriots could have a real shot of going 16-0. They rank as our second best team through five weeks, but there’s not a tough slate of opponents on New England’s schedule for the rest of the season. The Colts, who the Patriots play this week, are nowhere near the top contender many believed they would be entering the season. The Jets in Week 7 could potentially be a tough draw due to their second-ranked defense by Adjusted NEP per play, but it’s possible the Patriots don’t see a real test until a game in Denver in Week 12.
Even New England’s weaknesses aren’t really weaknesses that can be exploited. The defense currently ranks 20th in Adjusted NEP per play, which isn’t great, but that mostly comes from a 29th ranked run defense. The problem there is teams would have to be in the game long enough for the run game to be an option to take advantage of that part of the defense, but that hasn’t really been the case yet this year. New England has the second best point differential in the league, which has caused many opposing offenses in the league to turn to the passing game to catch up. New England, of course, has the 10th best pass defense.
We tend to not buy into narratives here when analyzing the numbers, but whether Tom Brady and the Patriots offense are hitting some extra gear to get back at the league or not, it doesn’t really matter because we can quantify the offense has been excellent. The Patriots have the second ranked offense overall by Adjusted NEP per play, and individually rank third through the air and on the ground. Brady is second in Passing NEP despite already serving a bye, and with weapons like Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis, he might not be slowing down any time soon.
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 12.53, Record: 4-1, Last Week: 1)