2018 NFC South Previews


New Orleans Saints

Market Implied Wins: 9.4

The 2017 season ended in heartbreak for New Orleans as they were on the wrong side of the first ever fourth-quarter walk-off touchdown in NFL playoff history. However, last season’s Saints return almost all their key contributors including up front in the trenches. New Orleans was one of four offensive lines in the league to start a different combination in every game last year, but they were able to maintain remarkable production in both pass protection and run blocking. The Saints gained 4.5 yards per rush (3rd) and rookie Alvin Kamara led all running backs with a 53% success rate before his injury in early December. Kamara’s success rate dropped to 35% after his injury including the playoffs but New Orleans will be hoping he’s back to 100% for the start of the season with Mark Ingram suspended for 4 games. Our numbers show Kamara added more points in the receiving game than any running back in the league, but he’s never been given more than 12 carries in a game and it remains to be seen if he can perform as a workhorse back.

The offensive line kept a clean pocket for Drew Brees, who only saw pressure on only 22% of dropbacks, the lowest mark for any quarterback in the last three seasons. Protection for the 39-year-old quarterback is crucial as the Saints shift to a more dink-and-dunk approach. New Orleans ranked 20th in pass rate last season after finishing inside the top 10 every other year this decade and Brees threw for just 6.4 air yards per attempt, the shortest in the NFL. We still have Brees rated as one of the league’s most valuable quarterbacks and project the Saints’ offense to be the third highest scoring unit in the NFL this season.

New Orleans’ defense should expect to get a few more takeaways as they recovered a league-worst 25% of their forced fumbles in 2017. While fumble recoveries are certainly the product of hard work, every team is expected to obtain about half of the available loose balls over time so the Saints had bad luck in that category last season. The Saints traded up in the first round to draft defensive end Marcus Davenport and it better work out as they had a much more glaring need at linebacker, assuming Alex Okafor comes back healthy from his Achilles injury. Alex Anzalone is expected to start after ranking 113th amongst linebackers in yards allowed per cover snap last year, which is a reason the Saints’ defense is likely to get worse. Overall, we expect New Orleans’ defense to finish in the bottom half of the league, but their offense should carry them to the playoffs in typical Saints fashion.


Atlanta Falcons

Market Implied Wins: 9.1

The Falcons went from the 8th highest scoring team of all time in 2016 to the 15th highest scoring team of last season after former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was replaced by Steve Sarkisian. Predictably, Matt Ryan dropped off in most statistical categories but some of his decline can be explained away by bad luck – such as 5 of his 12 interceptions bouncing off his intended target’s hands. Atlanta’s offense was also unfortunate to perform significantly worse inside the 20 with a 37% success rate (21st) compared to a 49% success rate outside the Redzone (2nd) – a difference that is mostly due to variance. Ryan also didn’t get any favors from special teams as the Falcons started with the second-worst field position in the NFL. Fewer fluke plays and less negative Redzone variance, combined with the special teams regressing up towards the mean, should allow the Falcons to score more points in 2018. All of the top guys will be back and Atlanta’s offense upgraded the receiver position with first-rounder Calvin Ridley, who they hope can emulate fellow Crimson Tide star Julio Jones. We have Matt Ryan ranked as the 5th-best quarterback going into his second season with Sarkisian, which would result in a significant improvement over last season’s performance.

Dan Quinn’s defense plays a ‘bend but don’t break’ style and allowed 20-yard plays at the third-lowest rate of any team last season. This scheme requires teams to clamp down in the Redzone, where Atlanta’s defense ranked 5th in success rate allowed. Still, the Falcons ranked 28th in overall success rate allowed and I would expect their defense inside the 20 to regress this year. The good news is the loss of Dontari Poe might not be as impactful as many are suggesting. Poe was playing just slightly above replacement level, ranking just 15th in pressures out of 20 defensive linemen with at least 400 pass rushes and 51st out of 61 in run stop percentage. We expect Atlanta’s defense to finish around average and the offense to be a top 10 unit. The Falcons should be in the NFC Wild Card mix but have the potential to win their division if the offense can get back towards their 2016 standard.


Carolina Panthers

Market Implied Wins: 8.6

The Panthers followed up their Super Bowl appearance with a 6-10 season in 2016 and then bounced back to 11-5 last year. The last two teams were only about 3 points per game apart in our end-of-season power ratings but going from 2-6 to 8-1 in one-score games made the difference and Carolina isn’t likely to be as fortunate in the close games this season. That could spell trouble as the defense is aging with 35-year-old linebacker Thomas Davis, 37-year-old safety Mike Davis, and 38-year-old pass rusher Julius Peppers all projected to be starters. Ron Rivera’s Cover 3 becomes easier to exploit the more often teams see it as the Panthers surrender 6.6 yards per pass play versus the NFC South compared to 5.9 yards per pass play versus the rest of the league since he arrived in 2011. Some of that discrepancy can be attributed to the NFC South’s better than average quarterback play in general, but I expect the rest of the NFC’s offenses will catch up to Carolina as well unless Rivera starts to vary his approach. James Bradberry is listed as the top cornerback on the depth chart despite finishing 71st in yards allowed per cover snap last season and Carolina’s defense may be forced to rely on second-round pick Donte Jackson more than they would like. The Panthers did sign DL Dontari Poe to replace Star Lotulelei but I’m not expecting him to make a major impact (see Atlanta’s preview for details on Poe’s horrible production numbers). Carolina could slip to the bottom half of the league in our defensive metrics this season.

Veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner will take over the offense but it seems the league might be passing him by. After finishing 9th in 2011 with San Diego, Turner’s offenses have ranked 19th, 23rd, 24th, 23rd, and 26th in our ratings since then and it doesn’t seem like he has ideal personnel for old-fashioned deep ball schemes in Carolina. The Panthers’ best pass-catcher is likely running back Christian McCaffery and they just drafted D.J. Moore in the first round, who also does most of his work in underneath routes. The vertical game also requires deep quarterback dropbacks, which could expose Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams as both finished in the top 15 amongst tackles in most pressures conceded last year. Devin Funchess had 22 deep ball targets but only caught 4 of them in 2017 and new signing Torrey Smith seems to have lost a step with only 25 deep ball targets in the last two seasons combined. Our numbers project the Panthers’ offense to finish slightly above average in 2018 but it could be worse with Turner’s offense seemingly not fitting the personnel. Regardless, Carolina wasn’t nearly as good as their 11-5 record last season and they likely won’t be good enough to make the playoffs in this year’s NFC. I lean under on their win total.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Market Implied Wins: 6.2

The Buccaneers finished at the bottom of the NFC South again last season after a 9-7 record in 2016 broke their 5-year last place streak. One of Tampa Bay’s largest deficiencies was pass rush, generating the fewest sacks in the NFL, but they addressed this by drafting Vita Vea in the first round as well as signing Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul, who finished with a combined 94 pressures last season. Along with Gerald McCoy and William Gholston, the Buccaneers now have the second-most expensive defensive line in the league. However, our ratings still rank the Bucs among the worst in the league defensively heading into the season, so there is room for upside on that side of the ball if all the additions pan out.

Jameis Winston is suspended for the first three games but it’s worth noting he was actually outplayed by backup Ryan Fitzpatrick when Winston missed time last year. Our forward-facing quarterback model makes Winston about 2.5 points per game better than Fitzpatrick, so Tampa Bay’s offense should be hampered by the suspension if Fitzpatrick goes back to his careless brand of football after throwing just 3 picks on 163 passes last season (1.8% vs 3.4% interceptions in his career). Most of the hype will be around the wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson but the Buccaneers should be dangerous between the numbers as well with both O.J. Howard finishing 4th and Cameron Brate 14th in yards per route run by tight ends. Peyton Barber had the 5th-best success rate among running backs with at least 100 attempts last season and I expect Tampa Bay’s ground game to be improved as Barber gets more touches while the horrendous numbers of over-the-hill Doug Martin (2.9 ypr on 138 carries) are replaced by second-round draft pick Ronald Jones. The Buccaneers arguably have more talent on the roster than the 2017 team projected to win 8.3 games, but they face a brutal schedule that we have ranked as the 3rd-most difficult. Playing in a division with two of the last three MVPs and Drew Brees means the Tampa Bay probably makes it 7 out of 8 years in the cellar of the NFC South – although there is certainly some potential for this team to be in the playoff conversation come December.


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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.

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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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