Posts by Justin Kelly

Does QB Performance Decline Over A Season?

On average, how does the most important player on the football field fare throughout the course of a season? There are innumerable ways to measure how quarterbacks perform in a single game, and an average of these will tell you how they did overall in a season. But how do quarterbacks' performances trend over the course of

On average, how does the most important player on the football field fare throughout the course of a season? There are innumerable ways to measure how quarterbacks perform in a single game, and an average of these will tell you how they did overall in a season. But how do quarterbacks’ performances trend over the course of sixteen games? 

Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) is a metric designed by ESPN to grade quarterback performance on a scale of 0-100. This stat is also structured to incorporate the different contexts in which quarterbacks make their passes. A high pressure drive in the fourth quarter impacts QBR differently than a short pass in garbage time. 

All things considered, QBR correlates with other metrics of quarterback performance pretty well and can be used to judge performances effectively. I will use it here to see how quarterback performance moves during a season. 

The plots below track the average QBR of all starting quarterbacks through seventeen weeks in 2014 and the first seven weeks of 2015:

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Overall QBR shows a slight downward trend in both years, with 2014’s being more reliable than 2015’s. The relevant question, of course, is why QBR trends downward throughout the course of a season. Statistically pinpointing the actual causal mechanism of this trend lies beyond the reaches of this article. However, let’s consider some possible explanations for decreasing QBR. 

1) Defenses make adjustments.

This explanation makes sense at first glance. Defensive coordinators and theirs staffs have more film to analyze over the course of a season. The defense can therefore make better adjustments, and quarterback play will get worse (i.e. QBR decreases). Unfortunately, the data don’t quite tell that story.

To measure defensive performance, I’ve used Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA, which is a measure of efficiency that adjusts for situational pressure (much like ESPN’s QBR). I’ve taken the average of every team’s Defensive DVOA for each week and plotted them below. Note that since DVOA is usually recorded with negative numbers (the lower the better), I used negative DVOA so that an upward trend means better performance:

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In 2014, defenses, like quarterbacks, played worse as the season went along. This trend troubles the defensive adjustment narrative posited above. Here’s the plot for 2015:

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The data for 2015 so far support the defensive adjustment narrative. Defenses have played better as quarterbacks have played worse. Or is it the other way around? Quarterbacks could be playing worse and so defenses look better. Perhaps the biggest problem with the defensive adjustment explanation, aside from the contradictory data in 2014, is that it could only establish correlation at best. We cannot say whether defenses cause quarterbacks to look worse or quarterbacks make defenses look better. As we continue, you’ll notice that this correlation/causality problem keeps coming up.

2) Everyone fatigued.

Admittedly, this explanation is somewhat lazy, as it is basically unfalsifiable with the data I’ve assembled. How exactly one would measure fatigue is uncertain, but it is clear that only a third variable could explain the trends in QBR and Defensive DVOA. Fatigue from the season’s games makes as much sense as any other possible cause. If Defensive DVOA for 2015 turns downward in the next couple of weeks, we may have found the culprit. 

3) Quarterback-Defense Equilibrium

This idea proposes that the relationship between quarterback and defense is a sort of arms race. Both sides are studying the other meticulously in hopes of gaining an edge. As one side makes progress (big week for quarterbacks), the other side evolves (big week for defenses). The general movements of a line connecting the points suggest this equilibrium, at least for 2014: 

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The mirroring effect noticed between these two lines could be attributable to the quarterback-defense equilibrium, which makes sense intuitively. In this scenario, both sides of the ball make adjustments throughout the season and pull each other towards the center of the plot (i.e. average play). As noted earlier, however, I do not have statistical causality for this idea. For now, it’s just a thought.

What does all of this mean for our teams? Our quarterbacks will play worse as the season goes on, but so will the opposing defenses. Why exactly this happens we cannot say for sure, but if your QB is playing poorly, I wouldn’t expect any miracle turnarounds in the second half of 2015.  

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Don’t Trust The Hype: Analyzing Hype And Performance

As fans of professional football, we are good for at least two things: money and hype. Money is what the League cares about most. It's also what the team owners, players, coaching staff, TV networks, advertisers, fantasy sports sites, and everyone else care about most. After money, we fans make another important contribution: hype. In a general

As fans of professional football, we are good for at least two things: money and hype. Money is what the League cares about most. It’s also what the team owners, players, coaching staff, TV networks, advertisers, fantasy sports sites, and everyone else care about most. After money, we fans make another important contribution: hype. In a general sense, hype encompasses our various means of support for our teams and the media’s analysis of those teams (after all, media members are glorified fans anyway). 

But does hype actually correlate to anything meaningful, like wins or individual performance? Using the most hyped position in sports, quarterback, let’s examine the significance of hype.

First, we have to establish how hype can be measured. Because there are no advanced metrics for hype, we’ll create one; let’s call it HAQ (hype about quarterback). Using a composite of several preseason power and fantasy rankings, we should arrive at something that approximates how much hype a quarterback has gotten before the season. 

Since rankings represent higher value with lower numbers (i.e. #1 is the best), the lower a quarterback’s HAQ, the more he is hyped. To adjust for the most powerful hype vectors (ESPN), rankings from top media outlets were weighted more than miscellaneous rankings. Obviously, this ad hoc metric paints in very broad strokes, but it should tell us something about relative hype levels. Here are the top 10 QBs by HAQ for 2015:

Aaron Rodgers 1.4
Andrew Luck 1.8
Russell Wilson 4.0
Peyton Manning 5.2
Ben Roethlisberger 5.6
Tom Brady 6.4
Drew Brees 6.4
Matt Ryan 6.8
Philip Rivers 11.8
Eli Manning 12.6

The most telling comparison will demonstrate how, if at all, HAQ correlates with wins and some other individual performance metric. The most comprehensive individual performance metric for quarterback’s is Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR). This gives the value of the quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent, and then translates it into yardage. Let’s also include winning percentage for 2015. Here’s the table and accompanying plots:

Aaron Rodgers 1.4 (HAQ) 385 (DYAR) 100% (Winning Percentage)
Andrew Luck 1.8 -18 33%
Russell Wilson 4 20 33%
Peyton Manning 5.2 -201 100%
Ben Roethlisberger 5.6 390 66%
Tom Brady 6.4 655 100%
Drew Brees 6.4 72 40%
Matt Ryan 6.8 343 83%
Philip Rivers 11.8 214 33%
Eli Manning 12.6 329 60%

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What does the data tell us? 

HAQ does not correlate with DYAR. As the first plot shows, there is not a strong correlation between hype as measured by HAQ and QB performance as measured by DYAR. Here’s an easy way to visualize this lack of correlation: try to imagine a trend line on plot #1. Unfortunately, this is close to impossible because there is no trend. 

Contrast plot #1 with plot #2, which shows us that DYAR and winning percentage are strongly correlated (with the obvious exception of Peyton Manning’s data point). The trend here is clear, and this correlation suggests that DYAR is not a bogus statistic. Therefore, the non-relationship between HAQ and DYAR indicates that hype doesn’t mean anything (not necessarily a surprise). 

There are a couple of specific points on these plots that merit extra attention. Luck and Wilson were adored by the hype machine (HAQs of 1.8 and 4), yet their seasons have been rough, according to DYAR. Other stats confirm their struggles: QBR’s of 30.9 and 59.8, winning percentages of 33%. They also have fallen far in the most current QB rankings, which demonstrates just how fickle hype is to begin with. 

As the final nails in hype’s coffin, note the performances of Dalton and Palmer. Their HAQs are 22 and 18, respectively. Despite this marked lack of hype, their DYARs are at the top of the League (556 and 553, respectively). Just as Luck and Wilson were drastically overhyped for 2015, Dalton and Palmer were under-hyped. 

The bottom line: enjoy the hype, but don’t trust it. 

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Tim Tebow Has A Bright Future…In TV

It was one minute to Tebow Time, but Chip Kelly had other plans. After the Philadelphia Eagles traded Matt Barkley to the Cardinals on Friday, it seemed very likely that Tim Tebow would be the Eagles' third-string quarterback. On Saturday, a very busy day for cuts around

It was one minute to Tebow Time, but Chip Kelly had other plans. After the Philadelphia Eagles traded Matt Barkley to the Cardinals on Friday, it seemed very likely that Tim Tebow would be the Eagles’ third-string quarterback. On Saturday, a very busy day for cuts around the NFL, Kelly announced the Eagles released Tebow. His reasoning was simple: “Tim’s really progressed, but we didn’t feel like he was good enough to be the three right now.” 

Tebow has bounced around the NFL since the Broncos drafted him 25th overall in 2010. During his time in the League, Tebow has caught the eyes of several winning football coaches. Josh McDaniels, John Fox, Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan, and Kelly all believed Tebow could be used effectively, if unconventionally. They all thought their teams would have the special formula to make the most of Tebow’s “versatility.” 

For whatever reason, even the best football minds sometimes forget that the quarterback needs to be able to throw accurately. Scramblers and pocket passers obviously have different tendencies/preferences, but without accuracy, both will perform poorly. Every other element of the quarterback’s game—rushing especially—revolves around this ability. Tebow never demonstrated that he could do this well. His successful moments in Denver were a combination of luck, athleticism, and maladjusted defenses. Once defenses studied Tebow, athleticism and luck were all he had left. But without an ability to throw from the pocket accurately, Tebow’s athleticism could only get him so far. Undoubtedly, the man is physically impressive, but his footwork is shaky, and he isn’t fast enough. 

Kelly never considered Tebow as a “quarterback” per se. Kelly looked at Tebow as an unconventional offensive weapon, something potentially valuable for two-point conversions or other special situations. Coaches and GMs already figured out that Tebow can’t throw reliably from the pocket. Kelly’s decision implies that Tebow doesn’t fit into a specialty role either.

Financially, the Eagles would be foolish to sign a potentially useful specialty player to a legitimate contract. If Tebow made the week-one roster, his four years of service in the NFL would guarantee him his salary for the year (via NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington). The Eagles could bring him back on a more flexible contract later in the season. This way, the team would essentially have him week-to-week and avoid a hit to the cap in guaranteed money. But the fact that they cut him once means he would only represent a minor addition to the team; he won’t see many snaps. 

So if Tebow’s quarterback dreams are dead, can he play another position? Probably not. The most significant point here is that other positions in the NFL are just as competitive as quarterback. This idea often goes overlooked during vapid analyst speculation. Each position has its own set of demands and necessary skills. Were Tebow to take up a new position, he would need to hone his physical attributes and learn entirely new functions on the field. 

Moreover, the positions most people think he could play present clear obstacles at the outset. With a 4.71 40-yard dash, he’s too slow to play wide receiver. He’d have to bulk up to play tight end, which might make him even slower and thus less useful. He’s not agile enough to play halfback and is not used to the physical toll of that position. He’s also 28, and you know what they say about old dogs.

What about playing football elsewhere? Tebow could easily find work in the AFL or CFL and attempt to continue to develop his game as a passer. The only issue here is whether or not Tebow would be willing to play in football’s minor leagues. This course of action represents Tebow’s best shot at becoming a serviceable QB, but even so, the chances of success are slim for someone who’s already taken considerable measures to improve

I want Tebow to succeed. During his glory days with Denver, no player was more entertaining. It’s just that right now, his best chance at success is his fat contract at the SEC Network. 

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Hands Off: NFL Should Not Regulate Gloves

NFL fans have been treated to some absolutely ridiculous catches in the past few seasons. If you want to relive the most mesmerizing grabs of the 2014 season, here you are:

These catches are why football fans tune in on Sundays. People follow sports to see men and women perform astonishing, physics-defying

NFL fans have been treated to some absolutely ridiculous catches in the past few seasons. If you want to relive the most mesmerizing grabs of the 2014 season, here you are:

These catches are why football fans tune in on Sundays. People follow sports to see men and women perform astonishing, physics-defying feats of athleticism. These sorts of plays are what the leagues sell. In the NFL, amazing catches are especially electrifying. Running plays, while important, can make games monotonous, and nothing quite draws the attention of fans like the forward pass. Moreover, the best catches often occur in pivotal situations or swing the momentum toward one team. Intuitively, we would think the more unbelievable catches the better.

But the league has cast a more skeptical gaze on all these acrobatic, one-handed snags. ProFootballTalk reports that the NFL will take a look at the gloves receivers wear to determine if an unfair advantage has been gained. Rich McKay, chairman of the Competition Committee, noted that this equipment hasn’t been examined in a long time though the technology has improved drastically. As an unnamed commentator at a league meeting in Indianapolis said, “Pretty soon, these gloves are going to be able to catch a ball without a hand in them.”

The NFL is correct in saying that the technology has improved radically. In the 1970s, players used stickum, a synthetic adhesive available as a spray, powder, and paste. Despite being somewhat messy and thus obvious, players consistently used the stuff until it was banned in 1981. Even after the ban, players still tried to smuggle the adhesive onto their uniforms, gloves, or hands. Jerry Rice admitted to using it during his career, claiming that many players around him also defied the ban. 

As fierce competitors, players sought an edge on the field. Receivers most obviously had something to gain from stickum, but so did anyone who might have to touch the ball. In fact, Lester Hayes, a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, used so much that the ban was nicknamed the “Lester Hayes rule.” In fairness, the rule also prohibits any kind of slippery substance (e.g. lubricant on jerseys of defensive linemen). Ever since the ban, players have searched for a replacement. 

Enter “gloves with tactified surfaces,” as the league officially calls them. So long as these gloves don’t adhere to the football, they’re allowed. But the NFL does not have strict or clear rules on what exactly that means. The newest technology, like Nike’s Magnigrip, basically sticks to the ball. Nike’s website publicizes as much about its gloves, which, by the way, Odell Beckham wore during his catch. The majority of players likely to handle the ball use sticky gloves because they work, plain and simple. Were he to “go commando,” as Peyton Manning put it, a player would be sacrificing an edge. 

Offense sells tickets, and it’s clear that gloves help in many aspects of offensive play. Receivers make great catches, but quarterbacks can make better throws. Manning wears gloves to improve his grip on the football. Harsh weather conditions used to be a quarterback’s worst nightmare but now are more of an inconvenience. Running backs also benefit from sticky gloves. BenJarvus Green-Ellis wears gloves and didn’t fumble for 589 carries to start his NFL career. Meanwhile, the defense can put the same equipment to use. For however many receptions a pair of gloves makes, there will be a corresponding number of interceptions those gloves make on the hands of CB or safety. These plays are exciting, and exciting is what fans want.

When NFL officials look into the rules concerning gloves, they should bear in mind one thing: fans want the most entertaining product on the field. A great catch could end up on Top 10 Plays, but a drop of a contested ball won’t draw any attention after the next snap. Odell Beckham’s catch, not Odell Beckham in a generic receiver stance, is on the cover of Madden 16. A touchdown reception will send a fantasy football player jumping off his couch in glee; a drop generates a few moments of disappointment. An interception sends a sports bar into pandemonium, but a deflection doesn’t. 

Former receiver and football analyst Chris Collinsworth sums up the matter best: “I think if they took the gloves completely away from the guys, including the quarterbacks at this point, it would have a major impact on what the game looked like on the field…and not for the better. Every Sunday we say, ‘Oh, my goodness! Look at that!’ That’s a good thing. It’s an entertainment business. Why not make it as entertaining as possible?”

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Sports Gambling Should Be Legal

Approximately how much money do you think is wagered on the Super Bowl each year? 100 Million? Would $1 billion surprise you? How about $5 billion? If you're like most football fans, you would not have guessed that bettors at casinos, illegal books, and office pools altogether wager over $8 billion per year on just one game.

Even if they

Approximately how much money do you think is wagered on the Super Bowl each year? 100 Million? Would $1 billion surprise you? How about $5 billion? If you’re like most football fans, you would not have guessed that bettors at casinos, illegal books, and office pools altogether wager over $8 billion per year on just one game.

Even if they don’t realize it, most sports fans come into contact with gambling information on a regular basis. When sportswriters for newspapers or other media outlets talk about favorites and projected point differences, they’ve obtained that information from Vegas’ oddsmakers. Many of the analysts’ picks on popular TV networks are based on what the oddsmakers say. Gambling is a crucial part of sports’ larger infrastructure, especially for football. 

Just how big is the sports gambling industry? The legal side of the industry is large, with about $4 billion bet in Las Vegas annually (almost half of that is on football). The illegal side, however, dwarfs its sanctioned counterpart: between $80 billion and $380 billion per year is wagered through offshore/online books, office pools, and local bookmakers, according to The Washington Post. Some estimates put the figure at closer to $500 billion. Sports betting accounts for 13% of the humongous global gambling market. The fastest growing segment of sports betting is online, where gross win (i.e. the amount the book wins in pure profit) has doubled in the past 3 years. 

These are the facts, the starting point for considering whether sports gambling should be legal. What these numbers make clear is that the industry will persist, and likely thrive, even under moralistic legislation. There is simply too much money to be made for sports gambling to disappear. 

The question then becomes, “What are the costs and benefits of legality and illegality?” Before I assess these, however, I’d like to briefly address the logic in the current legislation on sports gambling and fantasy sports. This logic has transmuted into the conventional wisdom for many sports fans.

Under the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), fantasy sports are exempt from the definition of a “bet” or “wager” because they require a certain level of skill. Fantasy promoters tout this exemption as the green light for their entire industry. They are wrong to do so, since state laws vary on the degree of chance necessary to render a fantasy game illegal. In other words, the UIGEA does not protect pay-to-play fantasy sports companies without qualification; their games must meet specific requirements. But the bigger issue here is the law’s implication that sports gambling does not call for skill in the same way fantasy does. 

Fantasy sports and sports gambling results are, in fact, commensurate with skill. The Department of Justice and NFL have argued as much. If I have skill as a fantasy player, I’ll know who to draft, when to draft him, and why. If I have skill as a sports bettor (a handicapper), I’ll be able to find betting lines with positive expected value. With enough wit and dedication, I could make money (or at least break even) over the long term. There are opportunities in sports gambling that appear more like trading stocks than picking winners. Identifying these opportunities and executing on them takes skill and, just like in fantasy football, will yield positive results.

Understanding the specious distinction between fantasy sports and sports gambling, let us turn to the costs and benefits of widespread legalization versus the status quo. Right now, there are only four states where sports betting is legal (Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, Montana); New Jersey is fighting a battle in court to win legality and help its sluggish economy and weakened casino industry.  Professional sports leagues spend millions of dollars every year lobbying against legalized betting. In November 2014, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported a federal framework to allow betting on pro sports. 

If legalized, sports betting immediately gives states an additional revenue stream. Reuters estimated that New Jersey could see $10 billion of the American gambling market. Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, proposed a bill to use legal sports betting to help her state. By boosting the economy, creating taxable revenues, and subsidizing the costs of expensive new stadiums, sports betting is a clear financial win for states. 

But the states aren’t the only ones who benefit. The fan experience improves with the legalization of sports betting. With little oversight, the financially powerful gambling industry can do a lot of harm to its patrons and the sports it covers. Offshore books are notorious for their fraud and terrible customer service. As California State Senator Roderick Wright summarizes nicely, “This process gives bettors assurances that they are on a fair playing field with proper legal recourse. It also allows the state to bring in millions—in the long run, billions—that would have otherwise gone to those engaged in criminal enterprise.” States win; consumers win. 

The most common counterargument involves the alleged social costs of additional gambling outlets. According to opponents of legalized sports gambling, problem gamblers (i.e. those gambling compulsively or otherwise to their own detriment) will jump on these opportunities immediately, hurting themselves, their families, and their communities. Yet common sense suggests that anyone with a gambling problem has already found their way onto one of the hundreds of online sportsbooks. Legalization will not exacerbate this problem; if anything, it will allow for more oversight and less stigma for those in need of help. 

With the football season fast approaching, you will see spreads, favorites, and propositions all over your favorite media. These are the shadows of a massive sports gambling industry that has gone untapped by the American government. It’s time for states to reap the benefits of enterprising sports fans and for fans to enjoy the comfort of legality and regulation. 

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2015 Division Preview Series: AFC West

This is part four of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team's 2015 record and final standing in the division. The other AFC previews can be found here: East,

This is part four of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing in the division. The other AFC previews can be found here: East, North, South. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!

Denver Broncos (12-4 in 2014, 1st in AFC West)

How will Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning manage each other?

The Broncos have performed incredibly well over the last four years, at least in the regular season. Head coach John Fox and his staff led Denver to a record of 46-18 and four division titles. But after disappointing playoff defeats (including a 35 point blowout in the Super Bowl), Fox et al. were shown the door. Gary Kubiak and a new staff look to bring the Mile-High City a championship. 

Kubiak is offensively-minded and likes to run the football. Manning calls plays at the line after reading the defense. There’s a chance that these two bump heads. With different ideas as to how the offense should be run, a coach-quarterback controversy wouldn’t be surprising. Kubiak prefers his quarterback under center, whereas Manning has lined up in the shotgun 73% of the time in the last two years. Hopefully, the savvy 39-year-old Manning will rise above such tension, but distraction could be especially costly.

I say especially costly because the protection from the offensive line is shaky at best. Manning needs to ensure his decisions aren’t telegraphed before the snap and that his blockers are set. One big hit and the veteran passer could find himself hurt again. 

Last year, Denver’s passing offense declined dramatically after Week 9. Some analysts have speculated that Manning got hurt mid-season and never fully recovered. This narrative does a lot to explain why the Broncos looked like the best team in the NFL through October, but then struggled and ultimately  rolled over at home against the Colts in the playoffs. 

If Kubiak implements his system judiciously and a healthy Manning retains the freedom he’s earned in 15+ years at quarterback, the Denver offense should be able to maintain its deadly form in 2015.

Can Wade Phillips improve the defense?

Kubiak brought in Phillips as defensive coordinator in January. Notably, Phillips succeeded in turning around the Texans’ defense from 2010 to 2011. The defense skyrocketed from 31st to 6th in the League. With this sort of expertise, the Denver defense appears to be in good hands.

Better yet, no major transformation is needed. In 2014, Denver’s defense ranked 4th in DVOA. Probability dictates that the Broncos will regress toward the mean. If Phillips can somehow keep Denver’s defense in the top five, he would earn every penny of whatever Pat Bowlen is paying him. 

Fortunately, the talent is plentiful. Blitz packages featuring Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and rookie Shane Ray should strike fear into the hearts of QBs and O-lines alike. The secondary includes three 2014 Pro Bowl selections and had the best pass defense DVOA on plays where the quarterback wasn’t pressured. The strong secondary and vicious rushers should force mistakes from opposing offenses. Phillips will have a tough time making this defensive unit better only because they are so good already. 

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC West

A new coaching staff, a revitalized Peyton Manning, and a rock solid defense will translate to wins for the Broncos. If Manning goes down, however, all bets are off. Assuming his health,  look for Denver to win the AFC West and make things difficult in the playoffs for other AFC contenders.  

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7 in 2014, 2nd in AFC West)

Will a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass?

Here’s an interesting stat: in 2014, all players listed at wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs combined for zero touchdown receptions. Any touchdown pass to a “receiver” was actually to a tight end or back lined up wide or in the slot. There were only six such receptions.

As odd as that may be, it tells us something important: QB Alex Smith has not produced. The Chiefs’ quarterback makes close to $1 million per game and has masqueraded as a legitimate talent in the general opinion of football fans. But numbers never lie: Smith’s WPA is 4.04, worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s, the second string QB for the Jets. His Total QBR has been below average every year, except for 2012, when Colin Kaepernick led the ‘Niners in the post-season anyway. 

Smith is not bad; he simply cannot be expected to produce a lot of points. When playing foil to a solid defense (like the Chiefs’, which allowed the second fewest points in the League), Smith is serviceable. But serviceable won’t get a team over the hump in a competitive conference and division. 

A wide receiver may finally catch a touchdown pass this year, but if it comes from Smith, the Chiefs will not beat out the Broncos in the AFC West. 

Will Justin Houston have to carry the Chiefs’ defense?

Linebacker Justin Houston signed during this offseason for $52.5 million guaranteed. In 2014, he was one sack shy of a new NFL record. He’s the poster boy for a mean Chiefs’ defense, which (as mentioned) allowed the second fewest points in the League last year. 

Undoubtedly, part of the Chiefs’ defensive success is owed to Houston, but not all of it. Several of Kansas City’s veterans had down years, but cumulatively, their production was significant. Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard solidified the front seven. In the 2015 draft, the Chiefs picked up some young talent to use in a rotation at linebacker. At safety, there also is some depth with a returning Eric Berry, Husain Abdullah, and Tyvon Branch

Cornerback is still a weakness for KC. Brandon Flowers left in 2014, and although Sean Smith performed well in his place, the corner has to serve a three game suspension for a DUI. The lack of depth at CB will be exploited early in 2015 during games against Denver and Green Bay. In these games, it looks like Houston will have to compensate up front. 

Ultimately, the Chiefs should still be good, but not great defensively. Age, injury, and regression to the mean will limit their ability to create points or big plays as a defensive unit. Houston will have to do as much of the heavy lifting as he can. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC West

Retaining Houston should go a long way toward preserving their defensive edge, but the Chiefs will not have enough offensive firepower to compete with the Broncos or Chargers. In the NFL, the passing threat is necessary for an effective ground game (not the other way around). Jamaal Charles has racked up the carries, and defenses won’t give him room to run anyway if Alex Smith is under center. 

Oakland Raiders (3-13 in 2014, 4th in AFC West)

Will Derek Carr improve?

The Raiders have been dysfunctional for so long that nobody expects anything worthwhile from the organization. But in order for the Raiders to break their streak of twelve losing seasons, they need to find a diamond in the rough. Playoffs and contention for the division are not even close to realistic, but a talented quarterback can turn any team around.

Derek Carr enters his second NFL season with young weapons around him. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are good enough for Carr to exercise different facets of his game. Trent Richardson and Latavius Murray will combine to give the offense viable options on the ground. Most importantly though, Jack Del Rio comes in as the new head coach.

While the Raiders have drafted poorly, their system stifled whatever talent they had stumbled upon. The overhaul with Del Rio should prevent the team from becoming the veritable black hole of the League. In fact, as one of the most aggressive coaches in the League (as measured by the Aggressiveness Index), Del Rio will give Carr and the Raiders’ other young offensive players plenty of opportunities to hone their skills. Under this system and with these teammates, Carr should make strides toward becoming a solid NFL quarterback. Unfortunately for Oakland, his sophomore year improvement will not yet translate to many wins. 

How will Ken Norton Jr. develop the defense? 

Del Rio hired a new defensive coordinator in Ken Norton Jr., with whom he played linebacker on the Cowboys in the early ’90s. Norton previously worked with Seattle and has experience developing linebackers. This skill will be crucial for the Raiders because their defensive anchor is Khalil Mack.

Mack was undoubtedly the best rusher on a weak defense in 2014. He always seemed to get to the quarterback, but actually racked up a mere 4 sacks. This discrepancy might suggest that Norton needs to coach his defense to finish plays. Additional conditioning work or schemes more protective against a loose runner might do the trick. 

If Norton properly nurtures Mack and makes the defense better at closing out plays, the Raiders’ pass protection will still be anemic. Heading into 2015, their secondary does not have the talent to keep the ball out of receivers’ hands. In fact, there is so little talent here that the focus should remain on the front seven; this way, the Raiders can solidify up front and then sign above-average corners and safeties in free agency. For now, look for them to get lit up. 

Prediction: 6-10, 4th in AFC West

The young talent on this team, if cultivated well, will pay dividends long-term. The improvements made this year, however, will not bring the offense to a competitive level in the division and will not compensate for the remaining holes on defense. 

San Diego Chargers (9-7 in 2014, 3rd in AFC West)

Will Philip Rivers stay with the Chargers?

Rivers is one of the best active quarterbacks without a Super Bowl appearance. He will be a Hall of Fame candidate when his career ends, and he will make over $20 million per year in his next deal (this is the final year of his extension in San Diego). He deserves that much, but is there any chance he can win big? After all, that’s what he really wants.

Given an aging roster and multi-year plateau (i.e. the Chargers have not won more than 9 games since 2009), Rivers will not be the one to hoist a trophy. Because of this stark reality, the Chargers need to retool. The rumors of a move to LA make sense in this context. The organization needs young blood and a change of scenery. If Rivers wants to win, he needs those two things as well.

The Chargers will not get over the hump as currently constituted. Trading Rivers before his age diminishes his value is smart. There were rumors of a deal involving Marcus Mariota around the time of the draft. Getting a new QB would be ideal, but it’s probably best to move Rivers sooner for as much as possible, whatever that may be. 

If he stays for the entirety of his last year, the Chargers won’t win in the playoffs, but they will grind out a winning season. After all, the thing Rivers has been good at is putting up strong numbers in the regular season.

Will Corey Liuget have a breakout season?

Assuming Rivers is around, the Chargers are a much better offensive team than defensive. The defense’s goal in 2015 is to avoid losing games for the offense. The person paid the most to accomplish this is DE Corey Liuget. San Diego signed him for five years and $51 million, despite underwhelming production. If he steps up, the defense might be able to preserve leads for the offense. 

The secondary is certainly talented enough to hold onto leads and will maybe even create points. Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are poised to be one of the best CB duos in the AFC. Eric Weddle may turn in another All-Pro year at safety. But unless Liuget comes through to anchor the front seven, quarterbacks will take their time to beat the secondary. Liuget is getting the money and so this burden falls on him. 

If Liuget rises to the challenge, the Chargers’ defense could finish better than average, but won’t be top five.  

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West

It won’t be pretty, but with Rivers and talented defense, the Chargers should manufacture a winning season. They probably will fight for a wild card spot in the season’s final weeks, but don’t expect them to put up much of struggle against the real powers of the AFC.



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