The start of the NFL season is upon us (finally!) and before the Week 1 action concludes, it is important to look at all the rosters to see which teams currently have holes and which teams are stacked. Jeff Feyerer used his roster evaluation system to break down each team’s roster and see which teams are primed to dominate in 2016 and which teams are still year(s) away.
When my system for roster valuation was introduced in June, it was meant to spur conversation about how rosters are developed and the sheer volume of variables that go into player assessment. Looking at one season of player performance misses out on the bigger picture. Instead, as my system proposes, players should be evaluated on a number of measures related to their own skill development and role on their team as well as their team’s investment in that player and their value to the team.
My goal with this project is to continue to develop ways of assessing not only roster talent, but also development and investment. Right now, this level of assessment is being conducted at a macro level; it is based on my own view of each player relative to the variables below. When taking all of these into account, a score is placed on each player. One major question by having only six grading levels may be, “Why not drill down to 4.9, 4.8, etc so that there is some separation.” That is an eventual goal, but will require further thought and development of methodology to present the best data possible.
The simple grading rubric is below:
For a data junkie like myself, gathering data and using analytics to form, validate, or disprove assessments of player performance has long been an interest of mine. Of even more interest is the idea of each player’s role on a team of 53 players, or as is the case in this study, 30 players that see most of the playing time for a given team. But the value of my roster valuation model right now lies in the simplicity, because open-ended questions lead to debate drawing varying viewpoints and new information that leads to more a more targeted assessment.
I tried to grade players fairly based upon the above rubric while also keeping in mind the number of players in the league and the fact that while many people think certain players are stars, there are far more that are simply average. Below is a summary of where the population of players graded out.
What follows is my complete assessment of each NFL team’s condensed 30-man roster entering Week 1 of the season. Key injured or suspended players are not included in this grading scheme. This was not meant to skew the figures, but instead to create an apples-to-apples comparison heading into the first week. In the comments section of each division, I have included my own assessment as to whether or not these exclusions should be expected to have a large bearing on the outlook for the year.
One thing you will notice is that teams are relatively close to each other in terms of overall talent level. A big reason, again, is that I’ve limited the magnitude of assessment to six potential numbers. In this study, no team is going into the season with holes on their roster so really there are five. But that’s why it is important to consider the talent in the context of the stability and volatility scores included.
Stability is the percentage of the team’s talent score derived from veteran players that have an assessment of good veteran or better on the grading rubric. Theoretically, a team with a high stability score will be more likely to achieve high performance due to a large portion of their condensed depth chart consisting of high performance, veteran players. On the other hand, volatility is the percentage of the team’s talent score from high investment-youth, and high-upside / low-investment youth. These players have not yet established themselves in the league and questions remain about their true value, development and eventual performance as they move into the veteran category in their 3rd or 4th season. Teams with high volatility may see a wider range of performance outcomes in the coming season.
The AFC East has a surprising competitor to the Patriots’ reign of dominance in Miami. Adam Gase’s crew rates 9th in the NFL in overall talent including the 6th-ranked offense and a high stability score making them a likely candidate to perform at their talent level. The Patriots rate 6th in overall talent, even without Tom Brady. My grading has the New England offense and defense in the top 10, spearheaded by a high upside defensive backfield and the star power of Rob Gronkowski, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower.
As for the Bills and Jets, both rank near the bottom of the league in both talent and volatility, meaning their ability to overcome expectations based on the performance of young players is very small. Buffalo ranks dead last in overall talent, including a league-leading five players who rate as below average at their respective positions. Injuries to high investment players like Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, in addition to the suspension of Marcell Dareus have a definite negative effect on this score. The Jets have one of the starkest contrasts between offense and defense in the league. The offense rates 29th based on three below-average performers and very little young talent, while the 6th-ranked defense is comprised of five high-investment youth and two stars.
What It Means for 2016: I anticipate another Patriots division crown while the Dolphins should compete for a Wild Card spot.
One of the biggest shocks through the roster valuation process was that the Steelers ranked 26th in my scale in talent, mainly because of a lack of star power on the defensive side of the ball. The team’s volatility score does rank in the top half of the league meaning the Steelers young talent on defense is simply in a transition period and could reach higher levels of performance this year if players like Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt can take the next step. The three-game (as of this article being published) absence of Le’Veon Bell does have an effect. His inclusion would boost the team talent score two points and increase the stability score putting the Steelers firmly in playoff contention.
The leading team graded out to be the Cincinnati Bengals checking in at third in overall talent. The Bengals are one of only three teams in the league to be in the top half in all five measured categories along with the Chiefs and the Panthers. The mixture of stability and volatility means the Bengals should easily be able to achieve a performance to their talent level while also having room for growth. Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens surprised me with how high they graded coming in at 12th in overall talent. Seven spots on their condensed depth chart are occupied by high-investment youth players signaling a confidence in the talent they’ve drafted. The Browns have done a total overhaul of their roster with 56.3% of their listed players in their first three years in the league, grading easily for the highest volatility score in the league. While their talent ranks 30th currently, the Browns seem to be rebuilding the right way instead of relying on retreads.
What It Means for 2016: I expect the Bengals to win the division outright with the Ravens and Steelers vying for a Wild Card spot.
The AFC South has a surprise leader in overall talent: The Jacksonville Jaguars. With 10 high investment youth and the third-ranked volatility score, the Jaguars may have the best young talent in the league led by Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. With the 30th-ranked stability score, it’s tough to say whether Gus Bradley’s bunch will definitely perform to their talent level, but the possibility is there for a playoff berth this season. The Texans look like the favorite with a talent score grading only a single point behind Jacksonville, but with a 6th-ranked stability coupled with 11th-ranked volatility. Houston’s offseason additions on offense including Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller, and the receiving duo of Braxton Miller and Will Fuller have its offense ranked 7th while its defense is a surprising 16th because of the lack of talent balance. Indianapolis and Tennessee both have the 19th-ranked talent scores in the league. Coupled with both weak stability scores and weak volatility scores, it is highly unlikely either sniffs the playoffs this season even with a comeback from Andrew Luck or “exotic smash mouth” taking the league by storm.
What It Means for 2016: The Texans look to be the strongest contender for the AFC South crown while Jacksonville could surprise or disappoint depending on whether its young talent takes another step in their development.
A large problem I have with my own methodology, and one that I will be attempting to correct in the next step of development, is an adjustment for quarterback play. Looking at the two top teams in the AFC West solely based on the scores presented, Denver would seem like an outstanding pick to win the division; the Broncos have the 3rd-ranked overall talent, the 2nd-rated defense and the roster with the most stability. The problem is that they will be counting on Trevor Siemian (or Paxton Lynch) to lead them to the playoffs. One could argue that they had only replacement level performance last year and won the Super Bowl, but that was with a lot of luck as they outperformed their pythagorean win total by 2.3 in the regular season.
One team I think could be a sneaky Super Bowl pick are the Kansas City Chiefs because 92.4% of their condensed depth chart consists of high-level veterans and players within their first three years. While they may not have the star power of other teams, they have balance, experience and plenty of room for development. Their volatility level is unique for a team 7th in total talent and 11th in stability. The Raiders are another trendy pick by people who love their young talent, but they are likely a year away with their talent level needing to be higher to take advantage of their 4th-ranked volatility. San Diego doesn’t appear to be a player in the division race ranking 29th in total talent.
What It Means for 2016: Quarterback is the only big question for Denver, which means I see a race for the division title between the Broncos and Chiefs. But due to their high talent, stability and volatility, I anticipate Kansas City having a better chance to reach the Super Bowl.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]AFC Roundup:
AFC Division Contenders – New England, Cincinnati, Houston, Denver, Kansas City
AFC Top Playoff Contenders – Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville
AFC Second Tier Playoff Contenders – Oakland
AFC Outside Looking In – New York, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Tennessee, San Diego
Based on my rankings, the NFC East could see a drastic reversal of fortune in 2016. Washington, last season’s division champ, ranks 26th in overall talent. Combine that with a tougher schedule based on winning the division and a movement down the standings seems to be in the cards despite the addition of Josh Norman. The Eagles on the other hand appear to be on the rise. One huge caveat is that rookie Carson Wentz will be the starter at quarterback, perhaps signaling a need for a positional adjustment to my ratings given the difficult transition to the NFL for rookie quarterbacks. They have high talent levels on both sides of the ball, a crop of good veterans, and a coach they might be able to get along with in Doug Pederson replacing Chip Kelly.
The Cowboys have the 1st-ranked offense in overall talent, despite Dak Prescott taking over at quarterback for Tony Romo; their outstanding offensive line along with Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott has a lot to do with it. Unfortunately, their last-ranked defense and last-ranked volatility leaves little room for improvement from their 16th-overall talent score. The Giants present another interesting case because they are toeing the line between top level and middle of the pack as far as talent goes, but are in the bottom half in both stability and volatility.
What It Means for 2016: Despite all the turmoil in Philadelphia last season, the Eagles did go 7-9 and their talent seems to point to them as the division favorite. With the other teams looking like middling contenders at best, there’s a large weight on the shoulders of Wentz to lead a talented team to the playoffs.
The Packers, once again, despite the unexpected release of offensive guard Josh Sitton, appear to be the class of the NFC North and one of the best teams in the league. They are the only team to rank in the top five in total talent, offense, defense, and stability and have plenty of star power to back it up, especially with the return of Jordy Nelson. The left side of the offensive line appears to be the only question mark currently. The Vikings, even with the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, appear capable of making a playoff run behind a 6th-ranked defense and their 12th-overall talent score. Minnesota has the only starting defensive line in the league with each player rating at least as good, while one of the worst offensive lines in the league drops their offensive score.
Detroit could be a surprise playoff contender, even with the loss of Calvin Johnson. Matthew Stafford had the best year of his career in 2015 and is supported by good skill position players and an offensive line with a ton of potential. The Lions have a better stability score and volatility score than the Vikings with similar talent levels making it more likely, given the methodology of these rankings, that they go to the playoffs. The Bears have a very similar overall profile to the Raiders in that they have a high volatility score, but are still only 19th in overall talent making a jump to the playoffs difficult.
What It Means for 2016: The Packers appear to be the runaway favorite in the division with the Vikings and Lions competing for a playoff spot. I lean toward the Lions over the Vikings as the 2nd favorite for a playoff spot due to their stability and volatility scores as well as the fact Minnesota will be taking on a more difficult schedule than Detroit.
Like the NFC North, the NFC South appears to have a clear favorite: The Carolina Panthers are head and shoulders above everyone in the division in every rating except volatility, where they’re close to the other despite their high level of talent. The Panthers have a done a fantastic job of developing young talent into high-level veterans and continually supplementing those veterans with more young talent. Carolina has not only the league MVP, but also the best defensive front seven in the league and a defensive backfield with upside.
Any of the other three teams in the division could make an argument for being included in the playoff contention discussion, though it appears the Falcons have the best shot if they see improvement on defense and Matt Ryan plays better than he did in 2015. Surprisingly, New Orleans’ defensive score is higher than their offense’s score, but whether or not they play that way depends on the young developing talent. Tampa Bay has star power in Doug Martin, Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, but is waiting for players like Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, and Kwon Alexander to provide another year of evidence they can be top-level players. Their talent score is dragged down by a defensive backfield with three below-average performers.
What It Means for 2016: The Panthers have a stranglehold on the division as long as they don’t suffer some major injuries or fall victim to the Super Bowl loser hangover. The Falcons and Saints could have a shot at the playoffs, while the Buccaneers may need another year of talent development.
The NFC West appears to have two main contenders this season, and the numbers bear that out: The Cardinals rank 3rd in overall talent and 10th in stability while the Seahawks rank 9th in overall talent and 3rd in stability, signaling a strong chance that both will play to their talent level and make the playoffs. Neither team relies heavily on young players, instead leaning heavily on their stars. Players such as Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, and newly acquired Chandler Jones grade out as stars for Arizona, while Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman rate as stars for Seattle. Arizona’s weakness appears to be its offensive line and the potential for a decline from veterans Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. Likewise, Seattle has a poorly rated offensive line given its over-reliance on high upside players over investing high draft picks.
San Francisco’s talent rating came in much higher than anticipated bolstered by a mix of high-level veterans and high-investment youth on defense. For a young team, the 49ers’ low stability is expected, but their low volatility as well leaves little room for a jump.
The Rams are above only Buffalo as far as overall talent goes and have the lowest-rated offense in the league. A strong front seven on defense doesn’t do much for changing the fortunes of Los Angeles and I expect them to be at least a year away.
What It Means for 2016: I anticipate Arizona and Seattle to again be competing for the division title with San Francisco and Los Angeles on the outside looking in for playoff contention.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]NFC Roundup:
NFC Division Contenders – Philadelphia, Green Bay, Carolina, Arizona, Seattle
NFC Top Playoff Contenders – NONE
NFC Second Tier Playoff Contenders – Dallas, New York, Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans
NFC Outside Looking In – Washington, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, San Francisco
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Concluding Thoughts
When assessing these teams for playoff potential, it may be best to look at their talent, volatility and stability relative to the league average to better estimate their chances.
A high-talent, high-volatility team has a good chance to take the next step as a number of players on their condensed depth chart develop and either realize their talent potential or take a step back from what they were thought to be. The young players are typically surrounded by a number of good veterans that have bolstered the team’s talent score. Below there are seven teams that meet those qualifications (BAL, HOU, KC, NE, CIN, KC, JAX)
Stability is the measure of players who have provided enough evidence that their level of performance is good to great so that each team can be confident in their expectations. Generally, these teams have a far better chance of reaching their projected talent level. Denver and Green Bay outpace everyone below, but are joined by a host of others.
When a team is better than average in all three categories, there is a high probability that the team will reach its talent level while also allowing for development of the talent on the roster. It was mentioned in the division assessment that three teams – Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Carolina – ranked in the top half of the league in those measures. But when we look at the actual average of the data, two other teams jump into the conversation: New England and Houston. These teams are in the green section below.