2018 NFC West Previews

 

Los Angeles Rams

Market Implied Wins: 9.7

Head Coach Sean McVay achieved an incredibly successful debut season, moving the Rams from 30th in my end-of-year 2016 ratings to 3rd last season with an improvement of 14 points. McVay seemed to get the best out of quarterback Jared Goff, who is still on his rookie deal, and his $7.6 million cap hit allowed the Rams to go on a Free Agent frenzy this summer. The main offensive addition is deep threat wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who comes over from the Patriots. Only 11.9% of Goff’s passes last season exceeded 20 air yards, ranking 22nd in the league (min 100 dropbacks), but Goff was one of the best deep ball throwers in the nation while he was in college at Cal and I expect him to look deep more often in 2018 with the addition of Cooks, as deep passes accounted for 33% of Cooks’ targets in 2017 (2nd in the NFL). McVay also unlocked Todd Gurley’s potential, whose 46% success rate on the ground last season lead all rushers with at least 200 attempts. My numbers also show Gurley added 22 points of offense in the receiving game, which ranked 3rd best amongst running backs. We expect McVay and the Rams offense to have another dominate year, as that attack ranks 6th in our offensive ratings.

Defensively, Wade Phillips is known for making a huge impact in his first year with teams and last season was no different. Coming into 2017, Phillips had taken over as the new defensive coordinator eight times in his career and led those teams to a staggering average improvement of 5.1 points per game. Last year’s Rams followed suit by allowing 4.1 points per game less than the 2016 edition. It’s unlikely we’ll see the same drastic improvement again this year given that Phillip’s teams have regressed by an average of 1.7 points per game in his second seasons in charge. However, Phillips has the tools to buck that trend with some major free agent signings coming into the fold. Ndamukong Suh is still one of the best all-around interior defensive linemen in the game, finishing 15th in combined tackles and assists on runs and 11th in quarterback hurries amongst interior defensive linemen last season. Furthermore, fellow additions Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters finished 2nd and 11th, respectively, amongst cornerbacks in yards allowed per cover snap.

Coming into last season Los Angeles’ market implied win total was just 5.6 and now they have Super Bowl aspirations. However, it remains to be seen if Goff and the rest of the roster can keep up with the dramatic shift in expectations.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Market Implied Wins: 8.2

Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo started a great relationship finishing last season with 5 consecutive wins, including wins against three straight postseason-bound teams, and Jimmy G’s career advanced numbers would make even Tom Brady envious. Our metrics show Garoppolo’s +0.28 expected points added per play was the best of any quarterback in the NFL (min 100 dropbacks). Garoppolo will get a new receiving weapon with veteran Pierre Garcon healthy again after missing the second half of last season. Garcon has some of the surest hands in the league and has only dropped one pass combined in the last two seasons, the lowest in the NFL among receivers with at least 100 targets. Although Garoppolo clearly has tremendous upside, there is a good chance his excellent career statistics regress in his first full season as a starting quarterback, as my quarterback model projects him 12th in the league just behind Matt Stafford and Carson Wentz. However, even that more modest projection would still have San Francisco’s attack in the top-half of the league and the Niners would be elite offensively if Garoppolo maintains the level of his first 7 NFL starts (including the 2 with New England in 2016).

San Francisco’s defense improved drastically in the second half of last season as they were a half yard per play better when rookie first-round pick Reuben Foster returned from injury. Foster was crucial in the ground game, finishing 6th amongst linebackers in run stop percentage. Foster will miss the first two games of this season due to suspension but the Niners have reason to be excited about their 2016 first-round pick as well. DeForest Buckner followed up 48 pressures in his rookie season with 52 last year (5th amongst defensive linemen) and should be a force up-front again in 2018. San Francisco’s weakness last season was the lack of a shutdown cornerback, as they didn’t have any player ranked in the top 30 of yards allowed per cover snap. The 49ers addressed the deficiency by adding one of the league’s most feared cornerbacks in Richard Sherman, who has finished in the top 6 in cover snaps per reception each of the past 6 seasons. Our current ratings project San Francisco’s defense to play around league average this season but it’s important to remember they won’t be at full strength until Foster returns in week 3.

San Francisco will look to build off the last season’s successful close and have the potential to make a strong playoff push in 2018 if Garoppolo continues to play at an elite level.

 

Seattle Seahawks

Market Implied Wins: 7.8

Seattle has been on a downward trend since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49 and last season’s team missed the playoffs for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. Seattle ranked 10th in our final 2017 rankings and it’s likely that the Seahawks will drop even more in 2018 due to significant changes on the defensive side of the ball. The Seahawks lost 5 Pro-Bowlers in Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril. The sole bright spot remaining from the once-vaunted defense is Bobby Wagner, who is still one of the best all-around linebackers in the NFL finishing 8th in yards allowed per cover snap, 5th in quarterback pressures, and by far the league’s surest tackler with 44 attempted tackles per miss (next best was 29). Despite Wagner’s greatness, Seattle’s defense is projected to finish in the bottom half of the league for the first time since Pete Carroll’s first season.

Seattle’s offensive regression due to an atrocious ground game. The Seahawks’ running backs had a historically awful season in 2017, managing just a 27% success rate while having the distinction of being the only group of RBs below 30% in the last four seasons according to our database. Consequently, Russell Wilson’s ability to successfully break containment and scramble was needed to keep Seattle’s offense on the field. The Seahawks are 4.4 points per game better when Wilson gains at least 3.5 yards per rush throughout his career and it’s worth noting 63% of games he failed to reach the 3.5 mark were against NFC West opponents despite divisional games accounting for only 38% of his schedule. However, the Seahawks are also 6-0 ATS as division underdogs and 10-3 ATS in all games as a dog of 3 points or more since Wilson became the starting quarterback in 2012 – and this year’s team will be an underdog more often than in the past. Wilson will have a lot on his plate with pass-catching TE Jimmy Graham and WR Paul Richardson now gone and we are projecting Seattle’s offense to finish around league average despite having the 4th best quarterback in our metrics. The offensive numbers will obviously be better if they find a capable runner or simply decide to call more pass plays than they traditionally have under Pete Carroll.

The Seahawks’ home field advantage will be tested in 2018 as the Cardinals are the only team scheduled to visit CenturyLink Field with a market implied win total below .500. This will likely be more of a transition year for Seattle as they look to put pieces around Wilson while he’s still in the prime of his career.

 

Arizona Cardinals 

Market Implied Wins: 6.0

The Cardinals bring in a new coaching staff this season with Steve Wilks at Head Coach and Al Holcomb at defensive coordinator. Wilks was the DC in Carolina last year and Holcomb was the Linebacker Coach. Their system with the Panthers relied on the talent of LB Luke Kuechley but now with Arizona they have to work with one of the worst linebacker units in the NFL. Last season, Keuchley had the league’s second-best run stop percentage and the Cardinals will likely be relying on Deone Bucannon to play his role. Bucannon finished 50th out of 68 qualifying linebackers in the same statistic. Arizona’s defense ranked 21st last year in our numbers after finishing top-10 the previous two seasons and we expect them to continue dropping off in 2018 as they search for the right personnel for their scheme. Still, I’m sure Wilks and Holcomb will be pleased with CB Patrick Peterson leading the pass defense, as he’s finished with the best yards allowed per cover snap in two of the past three seasons (min 500 snaps).

The offense will go through some drastic changes as well, switching from the Bruce Arians vertical attack to a much more conservative approach with new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. The Sam Bradford signing makes sense, as his short to intermediate passing style gels nicely with McCoy and veteran WR Larry Fitzgerald, who finished 9th last season in yards per route run from the slot. However, our quarterback model is not optimistic and projects Bradford as the 28th-ranked QB for 2018 and for Arizona’s offense to finish near the bottom of the league. Furthermore, Bradford’s injury history, combined with Arizona’s low expectations, means we will probably see rookie Josh Rosen at some point this season, which would likely further decrease Arizona’s potential offensive output.

A nightmare scenario early last season, when the Cardinals lost star running back David Johnson and their two best offensive linemen Mike Iupati and D.J. Humphries, resulted in Arizona averaging just 3.5 yards per rush in 2017, which ranked 2nd from the bottom. I expect the ground game to improve and Johnson’s pass-catching ability should work well in the new system. However, even with Johnson’s return, Arizona still seems to be firmly in the cellar amongst the NFC West teams thanks to unfortunate personnel fits on defense and the potential for some inefficient quarterback play. I’ll lean under on the Cardinals’ win total.

 

Dr Bob Sports NFL Best Bets Service

2016 was the first season using the new play-by-play model. 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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