2017 NFL Roster Valuation: Season Preview

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The NFL season is upon us, and after another whirlwind offseason of coaching changes and player movements, I’m pleased to present the 2nd edition of my NFL Roster Valuation model.

For those not familiar with the previous iteration, the goal of my roster assessment isn’t to fall in line with others that put together individual lists of players and assign grades. It’s to assess rosters on more of a macro level. Football, by its very nature of having 11 players versus 11 players fighting for one ball, is not a game that should be based solely on individual analysis. One player not doing his job on any one play has a direct effect on that play’s outcome, potentially negating the individual performance of other players on the field. Where individual analysis of players does help is on the margins after a more broad-based analysis like this one.

But for this exercise, my goal is to capture, as best I can, not only the overall talent on a team’s roster (in this case, their condensed depth chart minus special teams), but also the stage in development of that roster. Some rosters are veteran, some are young, and some are in a period of transition from one to the other. Capturing both the talent and development value doesn’t just give a snapshot of each team’s potential, but also tells a story of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they could go. The stability and volatility scores of each team show the reader what stage they are in.

Stability = The percentage of a team’s roster valuation score comprised of win because, win with, and quality vet players.

Volatility = The percentage of a team’s roster valuation score comprised of players in the first three years of their career, where most improvement occurs and where most players are not finished products.

When I first adopted this model last season, I acknowledged two things. The first is that the grouping of players into specific categories rather than giving each their own grade is only a starting point. The eventual next step in this process is to dig deeper on these original groupings and create a more micro, player-based analysis to be used in tandem with this team analysis.

The second thing is that the idea is constantly evolving and there may need to be change. The process of player evaluation stayed the same and it remains how I explained in my previous article. This offseason, I revamped the scoring system so that it assesses teams from an overall, offensive and defensive perspective on a scale from 4-10.

2017 NFL Roster

Each team then has an average score from 4-10 as an average of each position group on the roster. Based on these values, I can hopefully answer a few questions before they are even asked.

“Why is there no poor veteran or below average veteran?”

Because I’m typing on my computer and not playing football so to call someone “below average” like I had done previously is probably not the best thing to do. These guys are in the NFL.

“This guy saw a ton of playing time, but he’s still in the ‘potential’ category”

I used my own discretion for some players on the margins. Playing time and getting reps are one thing, but showing progression toward a player’s full potential is something else entirely.

“How did you handle injuries, suspensions, and holdouts?”

Anyone that is projected to play at least half of the season was included in their appropriate place on the depth chart (i.e. Ezekiel Elliott, Aaron Donald, Duane Brown, Willie Snead)

These ratings aren’t absolute. They are meant to trigger conversation. They are meant to broaden viewpoints to see what others may see. They are meant to take a different perspective to assess roster value and team development.

Here is how I see each division shaping up:

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – The Patriots get better and the rest of the division gets worse. And the world keeps spinning

The Patriots being good is nothing new. But the divide between New England and everyone else in the division seems to have widened. After winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots added three “win-with” players while the Dolphins lost their quarterback, the Bills are revamping their roster under new leadership and the Jets are doing…something. The Patriots 1st overall rating is even better given their top 2 ranking in both offense and defense, in addition to their mid-level volatility rating, which is better than average for a team with such high stability. The Patriots don’t waste time with replaceable players. The Dolphins’ playoff appearance may have been a mirage, as their talent rating is low and their volatility rating doesn’t point to much more improvement. Buffalo is in a bit of the same boat with both low overall and volatility ratings. The Jets on the other hand, for all of the issues at quarterback, have a large portion of their value taken from young players with development potential. Granted, there is going to be a lot more of it needed to catch the Patriots any time soon.

Division Contender – New England

Playoff Contender – None

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – The Steelers and their explosive offense are nipping at the Patriots heels, but the Bengals are threatening.

With LeVeon Bell back in the fold, the Steelers should be back to wreaking havoc on AFC North defenses. They have one of the best offensive lines in the game and a number of defensive players on the brink of being household names, if they aren’t already. The Steelers have done a good job managing their management by converting youth/investment players into high-level contributors and that’s reflected in their 2nd overall league ranking. The Bengals finished a surprising 7th in the overall valuation, although I may have been a bit generous in some of my individual rating of players like Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Kevin Minter, Clint Boling, and Dre Kirkpatrick because they are players I value higher based on what I’ve seen, compared to other evaluators. Baltimore is relying far too heavily on aging veterans and although their 19th overall rating is within striking distance of a playoff berth, those teams on the fringe need a higher volatility score than 29th. The Browns on the other hand, with their reliance on youth (a league leading 58.3% volatility), are headed in the right direction, although that may not be seen immediately. I considered putting Pittsburgh alone as the division contender, but the talent difference in this model between the Steelers and Bengals is close. With everything that could go wrong within a season, it’s a good idea to hedge my bets.

Division Contender – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati

Playoff Contender – None

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – The hype around the Titans is backed up by the ratings.

Following a nine-win 2016, most people have been projecting Tennessee to take home the AFC South title. That belief is backed up by these ratings, as they finish 10th in overall rating. The Titans have a strong offensive line, improved their receiving targets over the offseason, and with a healthy Marcus Mariota should at least be able to hold serve at nine wins. The Texans have a high volatility score with the single most important component being the quarterback position. Both Tom Savage and DeShaun Watson are unknown quantities when it comes to regular season production. Given that the Texans were able to get to the playoffs last season with subpar quarterback play and a stellar defense (even without J.J. Watt), their chances should not be discounted. The Jaguars and Colts continue to lag behind and have very different issues. While the Jaguars defense is loaded with talent (7th in NFL), Blake Bortles and the offensive line remain a problem. The Colts, a team that was thought to be the superior team in this division as long as Andrew Luck’s right arm is attached to his shoulder, flounder in most every category and project to have little chance at the playoffs this season.

Division Contender – Tennessee, Houston

Playoff Contender – None

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – The toughest division to call with only 0.25 separating top from bottom

When I started this process, I did not expect the margin in the AFC West to be this tight. With the Chiefs being perennial contenders, the Raiders showing improvement in recent years, and the Broncos continuing to possess a top-notch defense, I expected things to be close. But even the Chargers, with a 5th ranked volatility score pose a threat when none of the AFC West teams’ overall rating is above 11th in the NFL. None appear to be threats for the title and there’s a good chance they beat up on each other throughout the year to the point where we have four teams between 9-7 and 7-9. The biggest question in the division is whether Trevor Siemian can take a step forward in his development or if is he just a placeholder for the next Broncos quarterback. They have the skill-position talent and defense to support him, but a 30th ranked volatility means there is little room for internal improvement. The Raiders took the leap into the playoffs last year, but I’m expecting a slight regression for a young team as they continue to find ways to fortify their 27th ranked defense. The Chiefs appear sound on defense again, but do they have enough weapons surrounding Alex Smith (or Patrick Mahomes) to win the division again? Their points scored versus points allowed last season signaled they were more of a 10-win team than a 12-win team. The Chargers need to deal with a franchise move, but have some interesting pieces in place, including the best quarterback in the division, to threaten for a playoff spot.     

Division Contender – Denver, Kansas City

Playoff Contender – Oakland, Los Angeles

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – Both playoff teams from last year give way to a new potential champ

I called for an Eagles playoff berth last year and while I was wrong, they didn’t do anything to make me regret the pick. Other than, you know, not making the playoffs. Six of their nine losses came by a touchdown or less last season. This year, my model has them atop the division as they finish eighth in the NFL in overall roster value. Carson Wentz taking the next step is vital to the team’s success, but adding players like LeGarrette Blount, Ronald Darby, and Alshon Jeffery obviously helps. I feel more confident taking them this year than last year because of that influx of talent. Dallas and New York are prime candidates for regression, not because they aren’t good, but instead because they are in the middle of the road for overall talent and won two more games than they should have last season based on points scored and points allowed being converted to expected wins and losses. Both teams are in the top half of the league as far as volatility as well, which could combat the aforementioned possibility of regression. Both will challenge for playoff spots, but I don’t anticipate either team exceeding or meeting their win totals from last season. Washington’s struggles in my roster valuation was the biggest surprise. Their 13th ranked volatility score points to better things potentially in the future, but those players need to transition to high-end contributors.

Division Contender – Philadelphia

Playoff Contender – Dallas, NY Giants

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – Peers lagging behind provide a cushion for the Packers

The NFC North looks to be the Packers division for the taking. Again. Detroit had a leap into the playoffs last year buoyed by miraculous wins, but the defensive talent just isn’t there across the board. Their reliance on average veterans to see significant snaps on defense significantly limits the Lions’ upside this season. Many are pegging Minnesota as a threat in the North, but their talent level is bunched up in the middle of the pack. With a questionable offensive line, the Vikings are going to need breakout performances from offensive playmakers like wide receiver Stefon Diggs and running back Dalvin Cook to support a top 10 defense. An 11th ranked volatility score does bode well for a team with a good balance of young guys and veterans to make some improvement from their overall talent level, specifically with the potential of defenders like Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks.  At the bottom of the division, the Bears aren’t in as much trouble as one might think if Mitchell Trubisky does eventually turn out to be what they think he is. They have a talented front seven, including young players like Eddie Goldman and Leonard Floyd. They also appear to have hit on two building blocks on offense in Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard. But Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay will remain the class of the division this year, and probably as long as he is the one slinging it. They have the best stability score in the league which makes sense given Ted Thompson’s desire to build and develop young talent. The key difference between the Packers being a division champ and a Super Bowl champ will be the improvement of the defensive backfield, which was sliced and diced in the NFC Championship game last year.

Division Contender – Green Bay

Playoff Contender – Minnesota

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – We’re headed for a slugfest between talented teams in the South

By a wide margin, the best division by my roster valuation metric is the NFC South. Atlanta is believed to have a stranglehold on the division following their Super Bowl berth last season, but their division rivals all appear to be talented enough to take them down. This isn’t something new for a division with a revolving door of champions. Since realignment in 2002, the NFC South is the only division where each member has made a Super Bowl and won at least three division titles. All have reason to be happy this season, including two teams in the top six of my overall ratings, the Falcons and Panthers. Atlanta added Dontari Poe to the middle of their line and have a number of talented defenders that improved over the course of 2016 in support of NFL MVP Matt Ryan and the explosive offense. It was a disappointing, injury-plagued 2016 for Carolina following their Super Bowl appearance in 2015. This year, they add firepower on offense with the return of Kelvin Benjamin and rookie RB Christian McCaffrey. Getting Luke Kuechly back can’t hurt either. New Orleans remains explosive on offense, but it’s the mining of youngsters to improve the defense that remains the key to their overall improvement. The Buccaneers are the popular choice by many to become the Raiders of 2017 and vault from youthful upstart to playoff participant, but their overall rating profile (middle of the pack in overall, stability and volatility) suggests one more year of waiting for Jameis Winston and his bunch.

Division Contender – Atlanta, Carolina

Playoff Contender – New Orleans, Tampa Bay

2017 NFL Roster

Opening Statement – A bounce back from Arizona could threaten Seattle

The league’s #1 defense still resides in the Pacific Northwest, for at least one more season. The Seahawks not only bring back their usual cast of characters, including a recovering Earl Thomas, but just added former Jet Sheldon Richardson to an already imposing defensive line. The weapons for Russell Wilson have gotten better, but whether the protection improves will ultimately be the key to their divisional battle with Arizona. The Cardinals, based on my volatility ratings, rely on veterans more than any other team in the league. Two of them hold the key to their success this season: Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer. One of the hardest ratings I had to make this year was whether to classify Fitzgerald as a “win-with” or “aging-quality vet”. Maybe it’s because putting Fitzgerald into that “aging” category would be an admission that I’m aging. But when you watch him, while he isn’t what he was at his apex, Fitzgerald is still one of the best in the league. More important to the Cardinals’ success will be the performance of Palmer. The 37-year-old struggled at moments last year, but threw for 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his final five games and could have one more good year in him. The Rams welcome Sean McVay who will be tasked with developing quarterback Jared Goff. When you look at the Rams’ roster, it’s not completely barren. Their front seven is talented (even more so when Aaron Donald comes back) and they’ve started putting weapons around their young signal-caller. What a novel idea! It may not be seen in 2017, but in 2018, we could see significant progress from the Rams. The 49ers on the other hand may need a few years as GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan rebuild the team from the ground up. They finished last in overall talent rating, but players like Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas will be key to their future.

Division Contender – Seattle, Arizona

Playoff Contender – None

2017 NFL Roster

New England may be a boring pick to win it all, but it’s hard to argue about them on paper. I see NE, PIT, GB, SEA, and ATL as a cut above everyone else this year. I pondered the idea of not including Atlanta because of the difficulty of the division and having to play a first-place schedule, but there is too much talent there to count out. My roster valuations even assisted me in my goal of assigning four to six new playoff teams in my predictions every year since that’s the approximate amount of turnover in playoff teams from year to year. I have six new teams climbing into the playoffs that were home immediately following the 2016 regular season.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including predicting the top 10 Heisman finalistsrisers and fallers in the NCAA, and what went into the Texans’ decision with their 2006 draft.

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