2018 NFL Roster Valuation: Season Preview

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]On the day of the kickoff for the 2018 NFL season, I’m pleased to present the 3rd edition of my NFL Roster Valuation model. Please throw your stones and hurl your insults now!

For those not familiar with the previous iterations, 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 their 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. 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 high-quality veteran 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.

I have also included offensive, defensive and total ratings for each team.

When I first adopted this model two seasons ago, 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.

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.

On to a few player examples:

Quinton Spain had an awful PFF grade last year…why is he a ‘Win With’ player?”

There are a number of examples like this, but the best way I can put it is that each player is capable of an off year. Pro Football Focus, and other sites that grade players, do an outstanding job of providing a snapshot of a season. What I’m trying to do is say, more often than not, given his track record and point in career, Spain is a “Win With” player.

Jameis Winston is a ‘Win With’ Player?

Leave the off the field stuff to the side. Sure, there have been inconsistencies on the field, but I felt it more appropriate to classify him here than average veteran. He’s past his third year in the league, we have a good sense of who Winston is as a player, so he was placed in “Win With”.

“Why is Randy Gregory a ‘Potential, Moderate Investment’ Player considering where he was drafted and years in the league?

There are a few where I operated outside of the scope of my own parameters. I try to stick to my rules as closely as possible but I’m not shackled by them, either. Gregory, drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 Draft, should have played three seasons by now, but due to suspensions, he’s instead been in only a handful of games. At this point, his second round draft pick status is pretty inconsequential, but his inexperience and relative youth still classify him as having some potential, but not an average veteran or some other veteran classification.

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.

Below I have embedded the workbook with all teams roster valuations. Peruse at your leisure while reading the division summaries below.

Within each division, I’ll attempt to point out teams that could contend for the division, and teams that could be nipping on the heels of a playoff appearance. I’ve also included a table showing the following data for each team within the division: 2017 wins, 2017 pythagorean wins, rank in volatility, stability, offense, defense, and an overall ranking heading into the 2018 season.

Last season, 7 of my top 11 ranked teams made a postseason appearance – New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Carolina, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Kansas City.

The four top 11 teams that didn’t make it dealt with their own issues. Injuries ravaged Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona while Cincinnati once again didn’t play up to their talent level.

New Orleans exploded back to the postseason, as I pegged them with the 6th highest volatility score – thanks to quite the haul in the 2017 Draft – and the 8th rated offense. Minnesota’s defense only got better and their offense led by Case Keenum surprised. Jacksonville were in the top 10 in both volatility and defense and they finally got a running game to match. The Rams had a top 5 defense, based on my scores, headed into last season, and Sean McVay decided to give the offense a huge kick start too. And Buffalo, who I had pegged 28th overall…well, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Without further adieu, the 2018 NFL Roster Valuations:

Opening Statement – The Patriots may not be as good as previous iterations, but the competition leaves little to worry about.

The Patriots having the most talented roster in the division is not a surprise. But for the rest of their foes to be so weak is remarkable. The other three squads in the AFC East, including 2017 playoff participant Buffalo, rank in the bottom four of the entire league with regards to overall talent on hand. The Bills have a top 10 volatility score and defensive score, which may help them maintain their place behind the Patriots (and even surprise again), but last year’s playoff appearance was with Tyrod Taylor largely at the helm, not Nathan Peterman. The Jets are building something on defense, but with very few weapons around Sam Darnold, I don’t see them making the jump this year. Miami may be in the most trouble with little top end, established talent (25th in stability) and few young players ready to make a leap (26th in volatility). A total reconstruction may be in the near future. For now, the Patriots rule the East. The defense may be one of the best the team has had in a while as their young players have morphed into established high-end talents and it’s hard to doubt the offense while Brady is still around.

Division Contender – New England

Playoff Contender – None

Maybeeeeeee – None

On the Clock – Miami, New York, Buffalo

Opening Statement – Surprises potentially, but can we really count on the Bengals?

If you wanted a justification for the Bengals not playing up to their talent, look at last season. They were 7th overall in roster valuation score yet finished with only seven wins. Replacing Marvin Lewis seemed like the logical next step, but Cincinnati stayed on whatever course they’re on. The talent is still there, but this season is different. They were 31st in volatility and 3rd in stability last season relying on a much more veteran team. This season, those splits move to 5th and 22nd, respectively, implying a higher concentration of upside players including Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, William Jackson and Joe Mixon. Of course, the Steelers are still there with their high-powered toys. When Le’Veon Bell will report is important, but the holes in the defense are real, as they saw a 17 spot drop in defensive rank from last year (7th to 24th). Baltimore, like Cincinnati, has seen significant movement in their concentration of young players (29th in volatility last season, 7th this season), but can an offense led by the Joe Flacco we know now be trusted? Cleveland added veterans this offseason to buoy their young core, but even more so than talent, is this coaching staff the one to get them there? Probably not.

Division Contender – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati

Playoff Contender – Baltimore

Maybeeeeeee – Cleveland

On the Clock – None

Opening Statement – Competitive at the top, but mixed signals

There was a time when the South was seen as weak. Not so much anymore. But to call any of the top teams in the division a sure thing would be too much. The South has three teams (sorry Indianapolis) that could win the division, but each has a negative sign that could hold it back. Let’s start with the Titans, who surprisingly checked in with the fifth highest overall score in my roster valuation model and tops in the AFC. An outstanding offensive line, ascending young stars and astute free agent acquisitions will do that. They did overachieve last season by 1.6 wins, hinting at a regression this year, but can that be mitigated by a new coaching regime led by Mike Vrabel? We know what we’re getting at this point out of the Jacksonville defense, but I’m looking at the offense possibly taking a step back without Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, or even Allen Hurns. A revamped wide receiving corps will have to make plays every now and then as opposing defenses will attempt to take the run away. The Texans come into this season with superstars and a nice balance of established veterans and young players, but severe offensive line issues in front of Deshaun Watson could spell trouble. The Colts had the single biggest roster shift in the league. Their volatility score went up 24.7% and stability score dropped 17.7%, each change ranking 1st in the league.

Division Contender – Tennessee, Jacksonville

Playoff Contender – Houston

Maybeeeeeee – None

On the Clock – Indianapolis

Opening Statement – In a time of change for the west, the old pro ascends

Since 2010, the division has been won by either the Broncos or Chiefs. The Broncos struggled last season, trying desperately to fill their large hole at quarterback. The Chiefs stumbled in the postseason and are now ushering in the Patrick Mahomes era after sending veteran Alex Smith to Washington. Heading into 2017, the most stable thing about the division seems to be the Chargers. Odd given their move to Los Angeles last season, but with roster turnover for the aforementioned rules of the division and Jon Gruden coming back into the fold to terrorize the Raiders roster, the Chargers and Phillip Rivers may be in the right spot to capitalize. Their tenth ranked overall talent doesn’t drastically outpace Kansas City and Denver (13th and 16th respectively), but its their balance of established stars and young players coming into their own that is exciting. I’ve already elevated Joey Bosa to the “Win With” category. Go ahead and challenge me on it. The big thing for the Chargers will be health, as key contributors tight end Hunter Henry and cornerback Jason Verrett have already been lost for the season. The Broncos should be better with Case Keenum and see a big jump in volatility with the addition of Bradley Chubb, Royce Freeman and Courtland Sutton. Von Miller and Chris Harris headline the defense, but Bradley Roby’s continued ascent may be the most important following Aqib Talib’s departure. The Chiefs have explosive potential on offense with Maholmes, Hill, Hunt, Watkins and Kelce, but aside from Eric Berry, who is going to prove to be a difference maker on defense? The Raiders just traded away their best player in the prime of his career for nickels on the dollar so let’s just take a pass on them.

Division Contender – Los Angeles

Playoff Contender – Denver, Kansas City

Maybeeeeeee – None

On the Clock – Oakland

Opening Statement – The reigning champs have widened the gap

After two years of calling for a Philadelphia division win, I was finally proven right. And after ranking 8th last season in my overall model, they come in 1st this season. Their 1st ranked stability score emphasizes the veteran presence on the team, and that’s not including quarterback Carson Wentz who is still labeled a  “Productive Rising-High Investment” due to last season’s injury as he heads into his third year this season. I’m guessing we’ll be looking at a “Win Because” player soon. With the return of Jordan Hicks and Sidney Jones from injury and the additions of Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata, a deep team gets deeper. The Cowboys looked to be on their way to conquering the division just two seasons ago, but questions at the skill positions with Dez Bryant’s departure and Jason Witten’s retirement are real. The questions on offense outweigh those on defense as far as projecting out how good each unit can be because there is so much talent in the hopper on the other side of the ball from the last three drafts. The Giants, on the other hand, are loaded at the skill positions, but have serious questions on the offensive line and about what’s going to happen at quarterback if Eli Manning doesn’t have it. New head coach Pat Shurmur should elevate the game planning from where it was. Washington saw a drop in volatility score coupled with a essentially the same overall score as last season signaling that very little has changed or will change due to talent development.

Division Contender – Philadelphia

Playoff Contender – None

Maybeeeeeee – Dallas, New York

On the Clock – Washington

Opening Statement – A Packers/Vikings bloodbath with the Bears and Lions not TOO far behind

The NFC North is only the division with all four teams residing in the top half of my overall roster valuation scores. The return of Aaron Rodgers puts the Packers just ahead of the Vikings, with the Packers better on offense (mainly due to the porous Minnesota offensive line and Rodgers) and the Vikings clearly better on defense. There is a pretty stark contrast in how each roster is constructed. Although they are only one spot apart in rank, the Vikings have an 8% advantage in stability score while being 11% lower than the Packers in volatility. This implies the Vikings roster is in very much in win now mode, while the Packers saw almost a 10% jump in volatility from last season, relying on more young players in key spots, especially in the defensive backfield and at running back. The Bears added the best player to change teams this offseason in Khalil Mack. And that was after others were predicting them to take the next step in their organizational development under Matt Nagy. While some are calling them the “new Rams”, their top 10 volatility and defensive profiles suggest they are more similar heading into the season to last season’s Minnesota and Jacksonville teams (solely based on the numbers). The Lions are going to be hanging around as long at Matthew Stafford is slinging it to weapons in front of an outstanding offensive line. They attempted to fortify the running game this offseason with LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson, but outside of veterans Darius Slay, Ziggy Ansah and Glover Quin, there is very little on defense to get excited about.

Division Contender – Green Bay, Minnesota

Playoff Contender – Chicago

Maybeeeeeee – Detroit

On the Clock – None

Opening Statement – Well that was unexpected…

I should be accustomed to expecting the unexpected from the NFC South.  The Falcons and Panthers ranked 4th and 6th respectively last season and each came through by making the playoffs. But neither won the division. The Saints, led by their influx of rookies, won the South, despite their 18th ranked roster heading into last year. This season, the Falcons look even better, the Panthers look to take a huge step back, and while the Saints may be in for a slight regression, the biggest surprise could be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have the 7th best overall score in the league. Sure, there is the Jameis Winston drama, as he is missing the first four games of the season due to a suspension and his career in the Bay is very much in question, but he looked outstanding this preseason (take that with a grain of salt). Still, when he’s on, he’s on. Finding a dependable running back and fortifying the offensive line may be an issue, but Mike Evans and Chris Godwin could be an outstanding duo, the additions of JPP, Vita Vea and Vinny Curry have bolstered their defensive line and they still have stars like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. But is Dirk Koetter the right coach? They were 9-7 just two seasons ago, so perhaps. Atlanta is just so damn talented. Along with the Eagles, they are the only other team to rank in the Top 5 in stability, offense, defense and overall scores. New Orleans jumped up to 10th in my rankings this year, but playing a first place schedule may prevent them from another division win and Carolina suffers a huge drop from 6th to 20th.

Division Contender – Atlanta, New Orleans

Playoff Contender – Tampa Bay

Maybeeeeeee – Carolina

On the Clock – None

Opening Statement – Sean McVay knows how to make an entrance! Let’s see about the encore!

Well then, Mr. McVay. I guess you know how to make your presence felt while subsequently reaffirming all of our thoughts about Jeff Fisher. The Rams had a young offense that struggled in 2016 and all of a sudden turned into a world beater in 2017 behind an improved Jared Goff and a super-charged Todd Gurley. They head into this season with a balanced roster (13th offense/10th defense) and a large divide between themselves and their closest competitor in their division (Rams at 9th overall, Cardinals at 23rd). While there are still depth issues on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in the defensive backfield that give me pause about making them such an easy playoff selection, the star power is immense with Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib joining Aaron Donald, Gurley and Goff. The Cardinals, to me, are an interesting case because they essentially went 7-9 last season without a quarterback and and any semblance of a running game. This year, they get back David Johnson, have a host of playmakers on defense (Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Deone Bucannon) and some potential stars (Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, Josh Rosen, Christian Kirk) coupled with a new coaching staff eager to make its mark. Most people are pegging a Seattle team without the “Legion of Boom” for a precipitous fall and my numbers back that up. They have the largest difference in overall score from 2017 to 2018 in the entire league, by a relatively wide margin (-.72 with the next team, Carolina, at -.59). Russell Wilson makes it hard to believe they’re totally out of it. The converse is the 49ers, who most people are pegging to make the jump this season. I’m here to say incremental change is still substantive change even if it doesn’t mean a playoff run. The 49ers are 28th in overall talent, but saw the 2nd biggest increase from 2016 to 2017 and it largely due to the youth on the roster (2nd ranked volatility). Next year is probably more realistic for a move by Shanahan’s boys.

Division Contender – Los Angeles

Playoff Contender – None

Maybeeeeeee – Arizona, Seattle

On the Clock – San Francisco

Something about this Atlanta team, the way its constructed and this particular unit’s trajectory through the Matt Ryan-era attracts me. And what better way for the Falcons to capture their first Super Bowl than in their home stadium after squashing the memories of the blown 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI. They are talented at every position, deep in the secondary and in skill players at Ryan’s disposal, can protect the quarterback and generate a pass rush. A case could be made for all six representatives in the NFC, while I struggled picking one in the AFC. The Chargers are a popular pick and the offensive fireworks generated by the Steelers are certainly a draw, but they are all lacking something. The Patriots seem like the safe way to go even if I’m kind of hoping for a new face to crash the party.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including his piece on the elusiveness of the Heisman winning running backthe best playoff QBs in recent memory, and his look at Allen Robinson and the Unknown in Chicago

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