2018 AFC West Previews

Los Angeles Chargers

Market Implied Wins: 9.1

It’s fair to say the 2017 Chargers were defined by their kicking, an obvious rarity even in a sport called football. Los Angeles was 1-4 in games decided by 3 points including late field goal misses in the first two weeks of the season. The Chargers converted just two-thirds of their field goal attempts, the lowest percentage of the last 3 seasons, despite trying just 3 beyond 50 yards. Los Angeles also tied for the league-lead with 5 missed extra points. They’ve brought in Caleb Sturgis who has produced league average kicking performance throughout his 5-year career, a major upgrade. The poor kicking, which led to a bad record in close games, disguised how good the Chargers actually were last season. The Chargers out-gained their opponents 6.0 yards per play to 5.3 yppl in 2017 and their compensated net yards per play differential of +0.67 ranked 4th in the NFL.

The story of the Chargers’ defense can be told through their best two players, the edge rushers. Melvin Ingram finished 52nd in run stop percentage (min 100 snaps) and Joey Bosa missed 9 tackles against opposing running backs, tied for the 5th-most, hence Los Angeles rated 28th against the run according to our metrics. Meanwhile, Ingram and Bosa combined for 151 quarterback pressures ranking 5th and 7th respectively, which is a major reason why the Chargers surrendered just 5.6 yards per pass play (6th). The pass defense is further aided by excellent cornerback play, with both Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams finishing in the top 20 of yards allowed per cover snap and Desmond King ranking 8th in yards allowed per cover snap in the slot. Los Angeles’s defense certainly could be a top 10 unit if they sort out their run stop and they’re going to be pretty good even if they continue to struggle to defend the run.

Philip Rivers threw more yards and touchdowns under pressure than any quarterback last season, but his protection will get better with the addition of Mike Pouncey, who has allowed just one sack in his last 25 games. The Chargers also add 2017 second-round guard Forest Lamp to the offensive line after he missed his entire rookie season. Los Angeles didn’t make any splashy offseason acquisitions, but they have one of the easiest schedules in the league and they’re solid on both sides of the ball. Los Angeles ended last season with 6 wins in their final 7 games and I expect the Chargers to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.


Kansas City Chiefs

Market Implied Wins: 8.1

The Chiefs made the playoffs while finishing in the top 2 in turnover margin each of the last three years. However, change is on the way as they move from a mature quarterback that protects the ball (Alex Smith) to a young gunslinger that sometimes trusts his arm more than he should (like Jay Cutler). Patrick Mahomes has one career start, in week 17 last season, but his performance in that small sample ranked 11th in quarterback points added per play just in front of Matt Ryan and Jared Goff. I expect there to be some growing pains, but Andy Reid tends to make his quarterbacks better and there’s certainly optimism surrounding Mahomes for 2018. Kansas City added WR Sammy Watkins, who has averaged 15.9 yards per catch and 8.8 yards per target in his 4 years in the league. Watkins played his first 3 seasons with conservative QB Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo and he didn’t connect well down the field last season with Jared Goff, as he saw 16 deep ball targets last year and caught the only three deemed catchable by Pro Football Focus. Mahomes’s vertical style could unlock the skillset that made Watkins the 4th-overall pick and they’re hoping that Watkins produces like he did in 2015 when he totaled 1047 receiving yards and averaged 11.0 yards per target. Mahomes should also be a good fit with Tyreek Hill, who caught 54% of his deep ball targets last year, and Travis Kelce, who led all tight ends with 9 deep ball catches. Alex Smith’s deep passing ability was certainly underrated but Mahomes should thrive in that regard this season. However, avoiding interceptions the way Smith has done throughout his career will be a challenge for the first year starter.

Kareem Hunt looks prime for a solid sophomore campaign after finishing second to Todd Gurley in points added per rush according to our numbers. Andy Reid’s offenses in his five years with the Chiefs bounce back-and-forth between average and good finishing 7th, 16th, 7th, 17th, and 5th according to our end-of-season ratings. The trend looks like it’s going to continue as we project the Chiefs offense to regress back around average for 2018, but they certainly have the potential to be a top unit if Mahomes can successfully play vertically without turning the ball over.

In week 1 at New England last season, the Chiefs held the Patriots to 3.5 yards per rush and Rob Gronkowski had just 2 catches for 33 yards, but then Eric Berry was lost for the season at the end of that game. Kansas City’s defense went on to finish 31st against the run and was one of four teams to allow more than 8 yards per target to opposing tight ends. The return of Berry can’t be overstated for this defense, but the Chiefs will be without edge rusher Tamba Hali and linebacker Derrick Johnson for the first time in more than a decade. Hali will be replaced internally by 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford and Anthony Hitchens was brought in to play inside linebacker. Hitchens is an upgrade in rush defense, ranking 5th in run stop percentage while Johnson ranked 92nd, but a drop-off in coverage as Hitchens ranked 29th amongst linebackers in yards allowed per cover snap while Johnson was the best in the league. The Chiefs will significantly downgrade at the cornerback position with the loss of Marcus Peters to the Rams. Peters was responsible for the most interceptions in the NFL the last two seasons and is being replaced with David Amerson, who was one of just two cornerbacks to allow more than 2 yards per cover snap in 2017. However, Kansas City’s secondary did add Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith trade and he ranked 3rd in yards allowed per cover snap from the slot in 2017. Overall, we expect the defense to finish about the same as last year, around the middle of the pack, despite the return of Berry and the offense likely takes a step back. However, the wide-range of possibilities for Mahomes means this team could finish anywhere from a top 10 pick in next year’s draft to an AFC West title for a third-straight year.


Oakland Raiders

Market Implied Wins: 7.9

The Raiders gave John Gruden a 10-year, $100 million deal this offseason but instead of focusing on long-term team building, he’s bringing in veterans with six free agent signings of players north of 30 years old. He also signed 29-year-old running back Doug Martin, who ranked dead last in rushing success rate in 2017, to split carries with 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch. Still, there’s reason to be optimistic about Oakland’s offense with Gruden’s short passing West Coast philosophy ideally suited for quarterback Derek Carr’s game. Carr will be comfortable getting the ball out quickly considering he already had the quickest time to throw of any quarterback in the NFL last season (min 300 dropbacks), and the scheme should keep Carr from making mistakes after he led the league with 9 interceptions thrown under pressure last season despite seeing the league’s third-lowest pressure rate. Gruden’s offense could also get Amari Cooper back on track by putting him inside more often where he gained 2.2 yards per route run from the slot last season, which ranked 7th in the league. Newcomers Jordy Nelson and Martavius Bryant have the potential to make a big impact as well and we have the Raiders offense improving to slightly above league average this year with the potential to be better than that.

In 2017, Oakland’s defense ranked 28th in yards allowed per pass play but they’ve attempted to remedy the situation by signing CB Rashaan Melvin, who allowed just a 60.3 passer rating when thrown towards last year (10th). The pass defense may be further supplemented by 2017 first-round pick CB Gareon Conley who played in just 2 games last season due to a shin injury. The Raiders’ two linebacker signings complement each other well on paper with Tahir Whitehead coming off a season with 36 run stops (8th) and Derrick Johnson leading the league in yards allowed per cover snap. Khalil Mack recorded 79 quarterback pressures in 2017 (2nd), but he is amid a serious holdout and there’s a decent chance he doesn’t play for the Raiders at all this year. Despite the aging roster, this team looks to be at least as talented as last season’s squad that was projected for 9.4 wins by the market – assuming Mack suits up. The market is more pessimistic about the Raiders this season (7.9 market implied wins) but we have the Raiders as a borderline playoff team in the Black Hole’s penultimate season in Oakland.


Denver Broncos

Market Implied Wins: 7.1

The Broncos finished below .500 for the first time since 2010 in Vance Joseph’s first year as head coach mostly due to poor quarterback play. The combination of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch produced -0.13 points per passing play, the second-worst passing offense in the league last season. Case Keenum arrives in Denver after coming off a career year in Minnesota where he rated as our 8th-most productive quarterback in the NFL. I don’t expect his play to continue at that level given Keenum’s modest career numbers and considering quarterbacks play about a point below expectations in their first year with a new team. However, even using Keenum’s career numbers would lead to an improvement of 5.8 points per game over Denver’s quarterbacks last year. Keenum’s only two proven weapons are Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who both finished top 25 in yards per route run three consecutive seasons before dropping off in 2017 due to poor quarterback play. The Broncos may have the worst tight end situation in the league with expected starter Jeff Heuerman averaging just 9 receptions per season and they will rely on rookies Courtland Sutton and Royce Freeman in the slot and backfield respectively.  We have Keenum ranked as our 27th-most valuable quarterback for 2018 and the talent around him is below-par, but we still expect the Broncos offense to improve upon their woeful 2017 performance.

Denver’s offensive problems last year also affected the other side of the ball as the defense started with the worst field position in the NFL by nearly 3 yards. In fact, no defense in the league has started with worse field position since 2010 and the Broncos finished 22nd in points allowed despite surrendering just 4.9 yards per play (3rd). Denver’s defense will take a significant downgrade at cornerback with the below average Bradley Roby replacing Aqib Talib, who ranked 2nd in yards allowed per cover snap last season. However, rookie DE Bradley Chubb, the 5th-overall pick in the draft, should provide help opposite star Von Miller, the 2017 league-leader in quarterback pressures. We project Denver’s defense to finish 10th this season, as the special teams have been improved significantly with the signing of former Raiders’ All-Pro punter Marquette King, whose 4th best all-time punting average should increase in the high altitude of Denver. Overall, the Broncos will probably finish below .500 again this season with a shot at the playoffs coming only if Case Keenum continues to significantly outperform expectations.


Free Week 1 Regular Season Best Bet


Dr Bob Sports NFL Best Bets Service

2016 was the first season using the new play-by-play model and my NFL Best Bets the last two seasons are a very profitable 137-101-2 (58%). Prior to 2016 my NFL Best Bets were based on situational analysis and my original math model, which performed very well for many years but offered very little value in later years. My NFL Best Bets were 57.8% from 1987 through 1998 but were just 50.6% from 1999 through 2012, which is when I decided to stop handicapping the NFL until I had a better model.

The new play-by-play model was introduced in 2016 with very good results and an improvement to the model was introduced starting in week 11 of the 2017 season that improved results (21-10-1 on Best Bets the last 10 weeks of the season). Work was done this summer to fine tune the model and the back-tested results were very good – particularly on totals, which have underperformed the last two seasons. I am very excited about the improvement to the play-by-play predictive model and look forward to a profitable 2018 season.

2016-17 NFL Best Bets were 137-101-2 (57.6%)  – 92-48-2 on sides, 44-48 on totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals.

2016-17 NFL Strong Opinions were 92-71-4 (56.4%) – 41-43-3 sides, 43-27-1 totals, 1-0 1st-half totals, 7-1 Super Bowl prop bets.

2017 NFL Best Bets were 37-32-2 (26-22-2 sides, 10-5 totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals) and Strong Opinions were 28-19 (14-13 sides, 7-4 totals, 1-1 1st-half totals, 6-1 Super Bowl prop bets).

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Dr Bob College Football Best Bets Service

My College Football Best Bets are 2038-1679-64 (55%) on a Star Basis for +219.6 Stars Since 1999 (+222.7 Stars on Sides, -32.7 Stars on Totals, and +29.6 Stars on season win totals and futures) and the Strong Opinions are a profitable 637-560-15 (578-498-14 on Sides and 59-62-1 on Totals).

My 2017 College Best Bets were a decent 56-47-2 but I feel my level of handicapping was better than that record. My 101 Best Bets (excluding the 4 season win totals) combined to cover by a total of 229 points, which is an average of +2.3 points, despite my side Best Bets being -9 in fumble margin, which is random and worth about 36 points. A line differential of +2.3 points would normally equate to a win percentage of 56.1% winners, which is the best indicator of my handicapping level in 2016.

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