The Question I Need To Answer for Each NFC Team Before Week 1

Last week I covered a key question I had for each of the 16 AFC teams, and if you missed that write-up I’d highly recommend checking that out. This week, ahead of the first full slate of preseason games, we shift our focus to the NFC where there are just as many pivotal and juicy questions to be answered before the real action kicks off in Week 1. These two write-ups hopefully can serve as a viewing guide for the preseason and the rest of camp, and give you an idea of what to look for.

And for those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here if you didn’t follow along last year.

NFC North

Despite improvement over the previous year, the Bears’ offense left a lot to be desired in 2018. Combining a second-year quarterback selected second overall the previous year with a new head coach coming directly from the Andy Reid coaching tree sounds like the perfect recipe for marked improvement. However, the Bears only went from 29th in passing DVOA in 2017 to 20th in 2018. To me, that sounds like a lot of the improvement came from new head coach Matt Nagy, and not so much from development on Mitch Trubisky’s end. Can Trubisky take that “next step” in his development and further improve this offense? Given that elite defensive performance is less likely to be repeatable year-over-year compared to offense and with Chuck Pagano replacing Vic Fangio as the defensive coordinator, improvement on offense will be necessary for this team to remain a contender.

When Kevan Stefanski took over as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator late last season, there was one very notable change: a much higher reliance on two tight end sets. The results for the Vikings followed a trend that is permeating the rest of the league: higher passing efficiency. As a testament to this, the five teams that attempted the most passes with 12 personnel all made the playoffs last year:

Most passing attempts with multiple TE on the field in 2018:
1. Eagles: 255
2. Texans: 208
3. Chiefs: 181
4. Ravens: 164
5. Colts: 159

— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 7, 2019

In this year’s draft, the Vikings spent a second round pick on stud tight end prospect Irv Smith Jr. Will Mike Zimmer give Stefanski and the Vikings the opportunity to continue with their two-tight end experiment? Zimmer’s meddling with the offensive playcalling in the past has been troublesome to say the least.

Matt LeFleur is the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and has quite a mixed bag of recent experience. He excelled in 2015 and 2016 as Kyle Shanahan’s QB coach (Matt Ryan’s MVP win, SuperBowl appearance) and in 2017 as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator (5th in offensive DVOA), but struggled in 2018 as the Titan’s offensive coordinator  (27th in points scored, league average in offensive DVOA). Which version of Matt LeFleur are the Packers going to get as their head coach? Offensive dynamism and creativity isn’t something this offense has had in quite some time but if LeFleur can inject that into this offense, it could go a long way in making up for their relative lack of experience and talent on that side of the ball.

The Lions’ 2018 campaign consisted of Matthew Stafford playing through a fractured back, Marvin Jones missing seven games, Kerryon Johnson missing nine games, and Golden Tate getting traded halfway through the season. When you get your $135 million quarterback, your electric running back, and your go-to outside-the-numbers wide receiver all back to full health while adding eighth-overall pick TE T.J. Hockenson and veteran WR Danny Amendola, you should have all the potential in the world to put together an explosive offense. However, if Matt Patricia continues forward with the run-centric mindset he has introduced in Detroit, all of that potential might be left untapped. Will Patricia pledge his allegiance to the “establish the run” coaching community or take advantage of the slue of weapons he has on offense?

NFC East

The addition of Amari Cooper in the middle of last season may just be the beginning of a new-look Cowboys’ offense for the first time in a very long time. Scott Linehan was finally shown the door and Kellen Moore takes over as the offensive coordinator. Moore lacks any significant experience to draw conclusions from, but it’d be hard for Moore to be less creative and mundane than Linehan was during his five year tenure. With a new offensive coordinator, a full season of Cooper, and an offense that ranked 24th in wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line health last year, is there anywhere for the Cowboys’ offense to go but up?

The Philadelphia Eagles arguably head into the 2019 season without a single below average starter on either side of the ball. However it’s not what you start with, but what you finish with. In 2017, the Eagles finished the 13th healthiest team and, despite losing their starting quarterback, had enough talent left on the field to bring home the Lombardi trophy. Last year, the Eagles ranked dead last in Adjusted Games Lost and still managed to make the playoffs. Can the Eagles stay healthy in 2019? This is an especially important question for the WR corps, who ranked 25th in health last year and have an appreciable history of injuries amongst them. In fact between Alshon Jeffery, Desean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor, the average chance of injury is just under 50% (according to Sports Injury Predictor).

No NFC team lacks a silver lining more heading into the 2019 season than the New York Giants. Replacing Odell Beckham Jr. with Golden Tate has already proven to be worse than anticipated with Tate’s four game PED suspension to start the season. But the significant losses in talent don’t just stop on offense. The Giants lost OLB Olivier Vernon (PFF grade: 86.3), FS Landon Collins (70.4), DT Mario Edwards (70.1), DT Josh Mauro (66.8), DT Kerry Wynn (66.2), and CB B.W Webb (62.6). Adding safeties Jabrill Peppers (OBJ trade) and Antoine Bethea (free agency) as well as DT Dexter Lawrence and CB Deandre Baker through the draft is hardly going to be close to enough to fill the voids of the aforementioned losses, and has me asking “Who can this Giants defense realistically stop?“. 

The Redskins have a lot of questions to answer during camp and preseason, but none as big as “Who is going to play quarterback?“. The first unofficial depth chart has Colt McCoy listed as the starter, with newly acquired Case Keenum as the backup,  and fifteenth overall pick Dwayne Haskins as the third stringer. My evaluation of each varies enough from each other that the results of this quarterback competition (as well as any changes at the position throughout the season) has a significant impact on the team’s value.

NFC South

Something that flew under the radar for the Saints last season was Drew Brees’ struggles with the deep ball later in the season. Prior to Week 12, Brees completed 63% of his deep passes for 6 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 144 passer rating. Week 13 onwards, his completion percentage on those throws dipped to 41% and he threw 1 TD and 2 INTs and had a passer rating of just 63 (via Warren Sharp’s “2019 Football Preview”). Whether it was an undisclosed injury, league-wide defensive adjustments, or just poor play, we’ll never know. But the question obviously stands heading into 2019: Will Brees’ struggles with the deep ball late last season continue into 2019?

There seems to be some optimism amongst football fans that the Atlanta Falcons can get back to the playoffs. After keeping a close watch over them in the offseason, I’m not so sure I agree. The Falcons have struggled with offensive playcalling ever since the departure of Mike Shanahan. Steve Sarkisian’s two year tenure resulted in a points per game average drop of nearly a full touchdown, and he was unsurprisingly let go. Is former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter the answer for this offense? This is somewhat a sarcastic question as I firmly have my feet planted in the “no” camp, but I am keeping an eye on anything I can draw from their preseason affairs. If Koetter and the Falcons can surprise me, then the landscape of the NFC South could look quite a bit different than I currently anticipate.

There really isn’t a more pressing question for the Panthers (and arguably for the entire NFC South) than “What lasting effects will Cam Newton’s shoulder injury have?“. Following a 6-2 start last year during which Newton was arguably an early MVP candidate, Newton sustained a shoulder injury that severely affected his throwing motion and ability. His play was visibly very limited, and it came to no surprise that he underwent offseason surgery to repair the issue. Whether it be a result of the injury, the surgery, or the recovery, Cam Newton has changed his throwing motion ahead of the 2019 season and it has been described as a work-in-progress as recently as of last week. Any early indications or analysis of the effect during preseason will be telling, just like it was for Andrew Luck and his recovery process last season.

Although much focus of the focus with the Buccaneers has been on new head coach Bruce Arians and what transformations the offense will undergo, I think the defense deserves an equal amount of attention. The losses of DT Gerald McCoy and CB Javien Elliott were aptly dealt with by the additions of DT Ndamukong Suh and OLB Shaquil Barrett in free agency and with the additions of LB Devin White, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, and CB Jamal Dean through the draft. Add new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the mix as well as the fact that this defense ranked dead last in total Adjustes Games Lost on the defensive side of the ball and you have the formula for a big jump. Can the Buccaneers defense turn it around a year after ranking bottom three in both pass and rush defense in my model?

NFC West

The Los Angeles Rams are looking to get back to the SuperBowl and will have breakout wide receiver Cooper Kupp back on the field. Goff with Kupp on the field had a 69.6% completion percentage, 2.8 TD:INT ratio, 9.7 YPA, and 111.9 passer rating. Without Kupp, Goff had a 60.1% completion percentage, 2.3 TD:INT ratio, 7.1 YPA, and a 88.6 passer rating. It’s easy to point at those splits and just attribute them to Kupp’s absence and not consider that maybe the league just figured out McVay’s offense. This is an offense that ran 95% of their plays from the same formation and ran a league-high 77% of their plays from 11 personnel. Furthermore, they played the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses Week 7 onward last year but cooled off incredibly quickly in the latter half of the season. This is also the same offense that only beat the Cowboys by one score in the Divisional Round despite knowing 90% or more of the Cowboys’ defensive plays. So did the Rams’ offense cool off last year because of Cooper Kupp’s absence or did the rest of the league just figure out the Rams’ offense?

The Seahawks, much like the Lions and Texans, are prisoners to their own offensive playcallers. Brian Schottenheimer implemented a run-heavy offense last year that really reduced the potential impact Russell Wilson, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, could have on a game-to-game basis. But it’s hard not to ask “Will Schottenheimer call plays any differently this year?” following a year in which passes to Tyler Lockett yielded a perfect passer rating and a draft in which they took DK Metcalf in the second round. One encouraging sign is that starting running back Chris Carson has discussed how Schottenheimer has given him and Rashaad Penny more reps in the passing game, including splitting them out wide.

For the second offseason in a row, I find myself looking at the San Francisco 49ers’ place in the market and asking myself “Is Jimmy Garoppolo really that good?“. Sure, losing your starting quarterback in Week 3 AND ranking dead last in turnover margin (-25) AND ranking 29th in overall team health AND going 3-6 in one-score games all point towards an incredibly unlucky season that should signal positive regression for the next, but I still remain a firm skeptic that a significant turnaround for the Niners would come from the arm of Jimmy G, especially coming off of an ACL tear. 

For the Arizona Cardinals, much of the focus this offseason has been on what new head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be able to do with his air raid offense. There is bound to be a learning curve for both coaches and players when it comes to deploying that offense at the pro level, so a lot of Arizona’s early hopes for wins may come down to how much the defense can hold up in the meantime. Vance Joseph might find coordinating the defense a much more manageable task than his head coaching ventures with Denver, and Terrell Suggs and Jordan Hicks are great additions to the front seven for Joseph to utilize. But can cornerbacks Robert Alford and Byron Murphy hold the secondary together while Patrick Paterson serves his six game PED suspension? Alford saw a massive decline in his play last year compared to the previous year and Murphy is a rookie who has obviously not yet played a snap at the professional level. It’s a big task for the two, to say the least.

And that wraps it up for this week’s write-up! In the coming weeks, I’ll likely shift my focus to some free model-recommended futures or win totals. If you have something you’d like covered before the season begins, make sure to give me a shout on Twitter – I’m more than open to any suggestions you guys may have!

The Question I Need To Answer for Each AFC Team Before Week 1

For any NFL modeler or handicapper, one of the biggest parts of the offseason is answering the key questions surrounding each team. Figuring out the range of outcomes that can come from coaching changes, player development trajectories, scheme changes, offseason additions, etc. is a pivotal task in offseason preparation and many times there are questions yet to be answered by the time camp begins. To help illustrate this process and provide insight into my own progress, I’ve highlighted a question for each of the sixteen AFC teams that I am looking to answer before Week 1.

For those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here.

AFC North

The Baltimore Ravens’ defense suffered losses of FS Eric Weddle, OLB Terrell Suggs, OLB Za’Darius Smith, and ILB CJ Mosley in free agency. In fact, the loss is the second-largest offseason net loss by a defense according to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric (AV). To what extent will the additions of FS Earl Thomas, OLB Pernell McPhee, and Shane Ray help mitigate those losses? The answer to that question will likely determine how far the reigning AFC North champions will go this year.

On the other hand, the Browns made two incredibly exciting additions to their offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. However, it’s not these additions that I have my eye on – my sights are set on third-year tight end David Njoku. He has been a slight disappointment thus far, but tight ends typically take 3-4 years to begin producing at the pro level. Can Njoku put together that typical leap and finally become the contributor he was promised to be? 

In the last 20 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had incredible success drafting and developing wide receivers. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Juju Smith-Schuster are incredible yields across just 24 picks at the position. Who will be the next wide receiver success story for the Steelers? With Antonio Brown donning black for a team on the opposite coast now, eyes are now on 2018 second-round pick James Washington and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson to see who can add their name to that illustrious group. Inability from either receiver to produce on a significant level this year will likely leave the passing offense a bit bare.

With A.J. Green already out for 6-8 weeks and with the expectations for the Bengals so incredibly low, new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor has the perfect opportunity to run the offense he envisions without much pressure. Eyes are certainly on the young and emerging Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd, but the future of this team needs more building blocks to work with. What can Zac Taylor do with the third-year, former ninth-overall pick John Ross? If it’s anything of significance, this offense might be a sleeping giant in future seasons and may even be sneaky enough to cause a little trouble this year along the way.

AFC East

The Patriots will start their annual SuperBowl hunt without Rob Gronkowski for the first time since 2009. They also lost wide receivers Chris Hogan and Cordell Patterson in free agency, and Demaryius Thomas is currently on the PUP list. Who is going to step up and be the weapons necessary for this team to make another serious run? First-round selection N’Keal Harry might be too young and raw, Phillip Dorsett has been disappointing with New England thus far, and Josh Gordon’s likelihood of seeing and staying on the field is always up in the air. My pick is former Redskin Maurice Harris, who seems to already be turning heads in camp.

By the end of the 2018 season, the Buffalo Bills were regularly running out players like Deonte Thompson, Jason Croom, Marcus Murphy, Ray-Andre Holmes, and Isaiah McKenzie. To breathe some new life into the offense, the Bills added 15 free agents worth over $170 million in contract value to the offense this offseason. How much is the massive spending on offense going to help Josh Allen? Some of that spending included adding WR Cole Beasley (fourth in receiver catch percentage) as well as pairing John Brown with Robert Foster, who ranked sixth and first in average targeted air yards (TAY), respectively. Being able to layer the underneath with reliability while threatening big play potential over the top could do wonders for Josh Allen, especially when paired with his lethal abilities on the ground.

According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL), the Jets last year ranked 29th in combined wide receiver and running back health. Getting Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa on the field along with the newly added Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder should do wonders for Sam Darnold’s sophomore campaign. But will the Jets’ offensive line completely offset the potential of the skill position players? This unit ranked dead last according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and stuffed rate, and ProFootballFocus ranks this unit 28th heading into 2019. That could spell disaster for Darnold as only Josh Rosen ranked worse in passer rating when pressured last year.

Even when a team is expected to be bad (the Dolphins have the lowest regular season win total), it is still important to be thorough in your evaluation. After all, any team can provide value in the market as long as your evaluation of them is correct. My focus is on one particular position group: wide receiver. Will Kenny Stills and/or DeVante Parker finally be able to deliver on the seemingly annual offseason tradition of having potential? If either (and especially if both) can return significant production, the effect could be enough for the Dolphins to show some value against the spread throughout the season.

AFC South

One of the most pivotal questions I need an answer to is “Will Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien continue to be one of the worst playcallers in the NFL?“. In 2018, the Texans benefited from the easiest schedule and were able to circumvent the damages done by O’Brien’s playcalling (e.g. he ranked first in first down run rate). This year, they are set to face one of the toughest schedules according to win totals. Ultimately, the likely answer to the question is “no”, but it is something I will keep an eye on because any surprises on that front could lead to heavy upgrades to the Texans’ offensive efficiency.

The Colts exceeded expectations in 2018 despite ranking 30th in total Adjusted Games Lost. Why does this matter? In 2017, the average improvement of the ten teams who ranked highest is AGL was three wins, and five of those teams made the playoffs despite only one team having made it the year prior. Despite what you may think, health can be determined by more than luck. Consistent fortune or misfortune in the health department can signal the quality of a team’s strength and conditioning staff, how the team handles travel, etc. The Colts in particular have been consistently near the bottom in the last five years, ranking 30th, 17th, 20th, 26th, 30th. So the question is “Can the Colts stay healthy in 2019?“.

The Tennessee Titans stumbled through 2018 with Marcus Mariota  playing through seven injuries and Delanie Walker going down for the year in Week 1. With those two presumably healthy going into 2019, the focus is on an offensive line that ranked fourth worst in sack ratelargely in part due to the new and difficult-to-learn zone-blocking scheme that was implemented last year. Will the Titans offensive line have a better grasp of the zone-blocking scheme this year? Some improvement on that end as well as the addition of Adam Humphries can really help the offense put together more dynamic and sustainable drives in 2019.

Will Nick Foles find success with the Jaguars without the plethora of offensive weapons he had on the Eagles? It’s going to be a jarring experience going from Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Dallas Goedert, Darren Sproles, Nelson Agholor, Golden Tate, and a stout offensive line to this:

I’m not sure why Alfred Blue is listed as the starting running back ahead of Leonard Fournette on ProFootballFocus, but given Fournette’s injury history, this might be an accurate representation of the Jaguars’ offense for a good portion of the season. 

AFC West

For the Kansas City Chiefs, there is really only one questions to answer: “How much regression is too much regression for Patrick Mahomes?“. Regression is essentially inevitable for the third-year quarterback, but even with that regression the Chiefs are still clear-cut SuperBowl contenders. But any fall too far from last year’s results could spell doom for a team that plays in a tough and improving division and fills out the rest of their schedule against teams like the Ravens, Colts, Texans, Packers, Vikings, Patriots, and Bears.

There isn’t much to say about the Los Angeles Chargers‘ offense as not much has changed. They lost Tyrell Williams in free agency but get tight end Hunter Henry back from injury, and whether Melvin Gordon sticks to his holdout or not likely won’t matter as Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are more than capable of filling Gordon’s hypothetical void. The defense, however, is much more intriguing. The Chargers ranked 28th in health on defense last year, which included missing Joey Bosa for ten games last year. They also added LB Thomas Davis in free agency and DT Jerry Tillery through the draft to a defense that already features studs like DT Melvin Ingram, DE Uchenna Nwosu, SS Derwin James, CB Desmond King, and CB Casey Hayward Jr. One area where the Chargers are lacking and may be left exposed is at safety, especially in dime packages when facing 11 personnel. The Chargers are left to depend on Jaylen Watkins (PFF grade 57.2) and rookie Nasir Adderly, coming off a year where they already ranked second-worst in DVOA against deep passes. Can the rest of the Chargers defense make up for their tendency to give up the deep ball?

The Broncos’ offense will look a lot different to start this year than the way it finished 2018. Joe Flacco is the new quarterback in Denver and will play behind an offensive line that loses star center Matt Paradis but gains RG Dalton Risner and RT Ja’Wuan James, as well as one of the league’s premier offensive line coaches in Mike Munchak (formerly of the Steelers). On top of that Emmanuel Sanders will return from injury after putting up a blistering first half in 2018, second-year wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are primed to take a next step, and stud tight end prospect Noah Fant joins the fray. I’m more than confident that this Broncos offense can’t be any worse than last year’s iteration, so my main focus is actually on the other side of the ball. In a division featuring two elite offenses (the Chiefs and Chargers) and another that is trying to get there (the Raiders added Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, etc.), the Broncos seemingly have the best defense to counter the offensive firepower of the AFC West. With former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now at the helm, can the already prolific Broncos defense take a big enough step forward to push this team to the next level? Combining an average / above average offense with a dominant defense seemed to do wonders for Fangio and the Bears last year, who knows what it can do for the Broncos in 2019?

The Raiders took a lot of risks this offseason in an attempt to make up the talent deficit that plagued their efforts last year. They traded for star wide receiver Antonio Brown (who is entering his age 31 season); they signed Tyrell Williams to a four-year deal worth $44 million despite the fact that he has only eclipsed 100 targets OR 50 receptions OR 5 TDs in one season so far (the season in which Keenan Allen tore his ACL in Week 1); and they took backup Alabama running back Josh Jacobs in the first round of the draft. The Raiders also signed RT Trent Brown (PFF rank 71.0) as well as LG Richie Incognito, who is also a massive risk and did not play in 2018. However, with these two additions the Raiders starting offensive line has all but one player who doesn’t rank “Above Average” or better on PFF: left tackle and 2018 fifteenth-overall pick Kolton Miller. Can Kolton Miller and Richie Incognito stabilize the left side of the Raiders offensive line? Given that Derek Carr ranked 30th in passer rating when pressured last year, this is an incredibly important question to answer for the boys in black and silver.

Ahat’s going to wrap it up for the first write-up of the 2019 NFL season! Hopefully you got some interesting tidbits to chew on or some insight into what to be looking for when evaluating teams in camp and preseason. Next up, I’ll be looking at the key questions I have for the sixteen NFC teams.

NFL Model Play Plans

The NFL season is quickly approaching and many of you have begun asking what my plans are when it comes to sharing my NFL model plays. For those of you that followed along last season, we enjoyed a 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI). To keep things short and sweet, I will be charging for the NFL model plays this season. However, I will still be doing a free weekly writeup during the regular season that will cover one model play in-depth. Those write-ups can be found on this site every Thursday afternoon.

Model Play Package Details

  • Price: $500
  • Full refund issued if the model plays do not generate a 5 unit profit ($100 bettor breaks even, or is refunded)
  • Includes model plays for regular season and playoffs
  • Includes model-recommended preseason and in-season futures

You can purchase the model plays by heading to the Products page.

Model Changelog

Spreads of +7 and higher

I made a change in how the model derives larger spreads. Last year the model struggled with spreads of +7 or higher last season (11-11-2 for -2.72 units) and plays on such spreads were discontinued Week 10 onwards. I implemented a change and backtested it, and the record on those plays were now 7-5-0 for +1.73u. I was more pleased with the increased selectivity (12 plays vs. 24) as opposed to the better performance, as the sample is obviously too small to make anything of the increased performance.

Unit Change

Last year each point of disagreement equaled one unit of play which made it so that the lowest possible play was two units, given that the model required two points of disagreement for a play to qualify. This year each point of difference will equal a half unit of play, so that the base play is one unit. I’ve went ahead and made this change across the site and in last year’s model tracker, as the previous net was +86.2 units but now stands at +43.1 units. The scale does not change the ROI for last year, which still stands at 18%.


I didn’t follow along last year, how does it work?

I would recommend reading last year’s model recap.

How will model plays be sent?

Model plays are delivered via a private Slack channel and through email, and you are free to use either or both.

When are model plays sent?

A model play for any game can be sent anytime up to until 15 minutes before kickoff.

Will you still be avoiding Thursday Night Football games?

Yes, unfortunately I have been unable to derive a mathematical method to account for this subset of games. I’m still looking for solutions, but it is looking unlikely at this point.

Will there be any packages except for the full season package?

There are no plans for any additional packages.

Do you accept other forms of payment (Venmo, Bitcoin, payment plans, etc.)?