2018 NFC East Previews

Philadelphia Eagles

Market Implied Wins: 10.1

Carson Wentz is saying “it’s going to be close” for him to play in week 1 and the Eagles probably won’t rush him back considering they just won the Super Bowl riding backup Nick Foles, who also got dinged up last week. Still, an adjustment would need to be made for Philadelphia’s offense if Foles is under center. People forget Foles averages a modest 6.3 yards per pass play for his career, including just 4.7 yards per pass play after taking over for the injured Wentz in the regular season before his incredible 8.9 yards per pass play in the playoffs, and despite the postseason heroics, our model still makes Foles about 2.5 points per game worse than Wentz. Philadelphia’s quarterbacks will get a new vertical threat in 2018, upgrading from the washed-up Torey Smith to Mike Wallace – who tied for 13th last season in deep pass receptions. The Eagles led the league in 3rd-down conversions and added the 3rd most points on 3rd-downs of any offense since 2000 according to our metrics. Philadelphia’s offense also had the second-highest touchdown conversion rate in the Redzone last year. Third-down and Redzone plays are crucial in deciding the winner of games but have no more predictive value than any other plays and I expect the Eagles will score fewer points this season due to regression to the mean in both of those key categories. Still, we have Philadelphia’s offense with Wentz under center ranked 4th in our ratings.

The defense is losing a starter at all three levels, but they seem to have viable replacements for each. DE Vinny Curry has moved on after bringing 47 pressures last season, but the Eagles replaced him with Michael Bennett, who racked up 70 pressures (11th among edge rushers). Linebacker Jordan Hicks should be an upgrade over Mychal Kendricks, particularly in pass coverage. Hicks was lost to an Achilles injury last season but finished top of the league in yards allowed per cover snap in 2016 (min 300 snaps). Patrick Robinson’s ability to shut down inside receivers will be the toughest to replace after surrendering a reception on just one out of every 10.5 cover snaps in the slot (5th), but 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones did show some promise last year allowing only one catch for 3 yards in 17 cover snaps. We expect Philadelphia’s defense to finish in the top 5 again along with the offense and the Eagles certainly look primed to challenge for back-to-back titles if Carson Wentz can return to 100% health.


Dallas Cowboys

Market Implied Wins: 8.4

Even if Jerry Jones won’t say it publicly, Jason Garrett may be on the ‘hot seat’ considering the Cowboys have been in win-now mode since he officially took over as head coach in 2011 and have just two playoff appearances to show for it. Much of Garrett’s fate rests on the shoulders of third-year quarterback Dak Prescott, who lost his two favorite targets this offseason. Jason Witten or Dez Bryant were on the other end of 41% of Prescott’s career passing yards and 49% of his career passing touchdowns. The two replacements, Allen Hurns and Geoff Swaim, combined for just 509 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns last year. Prescott regressed in his sophomore season and now he’ll have a less talented receiver core. Our model ranks Dak as the 13th-best quarterback in the league but Dallas’s offense will need to rely on their strong ground game. Ezekiel Elliott’s yards per rush dropped from 5.1 in his rookie season to 4.1 in 2017 but his success rate, which is more predictive moving forward, only declined slightly from 43% to 42%. Elliott still led the league in rushing yards per game last season and I expect him to continue making a massive impact, especially if left tackle Tyron Smith can play a full 16 games. Smith may be the best offensive linemen in the NFL, excelling in both run blocking and pass protection. The Cowboys surrendered 17 sacks in 4 games without Smith last season and just 15 sacks in the 12 games he played. Smith playing every game should offset the seemingly less talented receiving corps are our model currently ranks the Dallas attack as 10th best in the league.

As important as Tyron Smith is for the Dallas offense, Sean Lee may be even more valuable to their defense. The Cowboys allowed 6.2 yards per play without Lee last season – compared to just 4.7 yards per play with him on the field – and he may be one of the few linebackers in the league worth a full point. The Dallas defense also has DeMarcus Lawrence and his 14.5 sacks returning from last year (t-2nd) as well as David Irving, who finished 7th amongst defensive linemen with 7 sacks despite only playing half the season. Irving will miss time again with his 4-game suspension to start the season and the Cowboys are one key player injury (i.e. Lee) away from disaster. However, Dallas is certainly in the NFC playoff mix if they can stay healthy.


New York Giants

Market Implied Wins: 7.0

New York had high hopes last season after a successful 11-5 campaign in 2016, but an injury-plagued offense and a disappointing defensive performance (after ranking 6th in 2016) led to a disastrous 3-13 season and the firing of head coach Ben McAdoo. Pat Shurmur, who had good success transforming the Minnesota Vikings’ offense last season, is the new head coach and the offense should be much better with Shurmur at the helm.

A lot went wrong for the Giants and QB Eli Manning last season but nothing tops losing his top 3 wide receivers in the same week 5 game. Sterling Shepherd missed a month while Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall missed the remainder of the season. Injuries on the outside combined with the lack of a real threat in the ground game led to a predictable offense and Derek Carr was the only quarterback afforded less time in the pocket than Manning last year. The good news is the Giants seem to have a solution to these offensive problems for 2018.

New York bolstered their offensive line by adding former Patriots’ starter Nate Solder at left tackle and drafting guard Will Hernandez at 34th overall, which should open lanes for number 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley up front. First-year running backs are coming fast out of the gates recently with three rookies finishing top 10 in scrimmage yards last season after two rookies finished in the top 10 in that category in 2016. Barkley is the consensus projected top contributor of this year’s class, listed at nearly at a coin-flip (+125) to win Rookie of the Year at Bookmaker, and he will have the benefit of running the same inside zone scheme with Shurmur that he ran so successfully at Penn State. The return of Odell Beckham will also add a spark to New York’s offense and reports out of training camp show he’s taking some snaps in the slot as Shurmur loves to utilize inside receivers with both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs of the Vikings finishing in the top 10 last season in yards per route run from the slot.

Last season’s offensive woes directly affected New York’s defense in the field position game with Giants’ opponent drives average start at the 30-yard line (30th in the NFL). New York’s defense dropped from 6th in my 2016 ratings to 24th last year. The Giants’ linebackers were terrible in coverage as they surrendered the 28th most receiving yards to tight ends and the 29th most yards per target to opposing running backs. However, New York seems to have addressed the issue with the signing of LB Alec Ogletree, who finished 10th in yards allowed per cover snap amongst linebackers (min 300 snaps). Top cornerback Janoris Jenkins didn’t get along with the previous coaching staff and played much of last season hurt before opting for surgery in week 13. Jenkins finished 6th in yards allowed per cover snap amongst all cornerbacks in 2016 and new defensive coordinator James Bettcher will want him back at that level after spending three years in Arizona with Patrick Peterson at his disposal. Still, arguably Bettcher’s best asset on this Giants defense is tackle Damon Harrison, who tied for the league lead in 2017 with 45 run stops. New York has solid defensive talent and should improve on that side of the ball. The Giants would probably be a playoff contender in the AFC but instead, they face the 5th-most difficult schedule and will likely find themselves on the outside looking in.


Washington Redskins

Market Implied Wins: 6.9

Alex Smith had a career year in 2017, finishing 5th in quarterback efficiency according to our numbers. The Redskins would’ve been a touchdown better per game if you replaced Kirk Cousin’s 2017 production Smith’s. However, it obviously isn’t that simple as Smith benefited from better skill position players and the Andy Reid/Matt Nagy offensive scheme while Cousins had just lost Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, and Sean McVay. Washington’s offense also finished with the 2nd-most adjusted games lost to injury via Football Outsiders. The difference between the two quarterbacks last season was stark, but also mostly due to outside factors, and our quarterback model projects Cousins and Smith as equals that are separated by just 0.07 points per game.

Alex Smith had his highest deep ball passing rate in a decade last year, throwing 12.3% of his passes more than 20 yards downfield. The Redskins clearly intend to continue this new vertical style with the signing of Paul Richardson, whose 8 deep pass receptions last season ranked 14th in the NFL. Chris Thompson will also be dangerous after finishing 1st among running backs and 6th overall last season in points added per target. Thompson missed 6 games last year and is questionable for week 1 but Washington may need him to be a workhorse back in 2018 after projected rookie starter Derrius Guice tore his ACL in training camp. All-time great RB Adrian Peterson was recently added to the roster and is getting rave reviews from his new teammates, but his performance level has been bad in recent years. Regardless of who’s getting the carries, the Redskins’ ground game should improve with a healthier offensive line and the addition of Alex Smith’s scrambling (he added 334 rush yards per season in Kansas City). The Redskins offense finished 22nd in my end-of-season ratings and they project to be right around there again in 2018 (currently 20th in my ratings) – although with some upside potential.

Washington’s defense was notably unbalanced in 2017, ranking 6th against the pass but last in rush success rate allowed. The rush defense should improve after drafting run-stopper Da’Ron Payne in the first round but the pass defense will almost certainly decline with the loss of CB Bashaud Breeland, who ranked 9th in yards allowed per cover snap, and Kendall Fuller, who was traded after ranking 3rd in yards allowed per cover snap in the slot. The Redskins’ defense finished 27th last season and we have them rated 28th for 2018. Washington will play the league’s second-hardest schedule this year and I expect them to miss the playoffs again despite the major personnel changes.


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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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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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