For every week until the end of the season, I will be ranking the NFL teams from 1-32, power rankings style. They will be arranged into four blocks.
Super Bowl contender
Each week, I will write about four teams, one from each block. It's nice and square. Every team gets written about twice until the season is over.
My biggest problem with traditional power rankings is they take too much in account of every week. Each game is exacerbated. Every loss is the end of the world. Every win is another stitch in a dream season. Part of it just goes along with football in general. These games happen only once a week. There are only sixteen of them. Exaggeration is just part of it. I'm going to try and remove that by looking at the big picture instead of bumping up and down based on one loss or one win. The rankings below are simply adjustments made based on what I thought heading into the season; in the future, they will be adjusted based on an entire body of work and trends, not because of a single HUGE win or one BAD loss.
32.) Cleveland Browns--Record: 0-4. Point Differential: -41. DVOA: -29.1% (31). Last Week: 32.
Aside from being blown out in Week One by the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, the Browns have been competitive. In Week Two, it took a horrendous triple coverage interception from Josh McCown to seal a loss against the Ravens. In Week Three, Cody Parkey missed a game-winning 46 yard field goal. Last weekend, a sp00ky ghost fumble recovery smashed a stone against the head of their comeback attempt against Washington.
Being competitive is a success for Cleveland. They weren't even supposed to do this. They are in it for the long haul and are here this year to lose a lot of games, collect a top five pick, see what they have, and go home.
In the offseason, Cleveland is going to trade down and horde draft picks. They are going to take chances on talented players that other teams have moved on from. If they hit on a few draft classes, scrounge up some flea market finds, they can use free agency to fill out the rest. It's the best way to rebuild in the NFL today.
This season every one of their rookies has played a snap except for their final fifth round pick Trey Caldwell and seventh round pick Scooby Wright III. The rest, eleven of the thirteen, have played in a NFL game. Of those, six have played at least 30% of the snaps on their side of the ball. Those six were the first six picks they used in the 2016 NFL Draft.The Browns knew they were going to be bad. Rather than fake it by playing mediocre veterans who aren't capable of expanding their skill set and growing, the Browns are developing and giving their young men a chance.
When it comes to playing Storage Wars, two well known players are the ones that stand out--Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor. Instead of taking Carson Wentz, the Browns traded down and added picks. They were given the 8th overall, 77th overall, 100th overall, a 2017 first, and a 2018 second rounder for their 2nd overall selection in 2016. They then flipped the eighth overall pick for even more assets to Tennessee.
At quarterback, the Browns decided to see what they had with RGIII. In the present, Wentz has been very good in a safe offense with a great defense. Griffin ran into a defender while running towards the sideline and broke an imaginary bone in his shoulder. It was a play so stupid that even the defender was shocked when he ran into him. Although Griffin is injured and Wentz has been good, the Browns made the right decision by trading down and adding multiple young cheap contracts instead of putting everything into a singular player who may or may not pan out.
That scratch-off hasn't matched three of the same dollar figures, but so far Terrelle Pryor has. The former Ohio State quarterback is the perfect example of what the Browns are trying to do. Just add talent. Pryor was a quarterback with Oakland from 2011 to 2013. He was then traded to Seattle for a seventh round pick. He didn't make the team, failed to sign with another after trying out with Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York (G), and Washington. He didn't play ball in 2014. Then in 2015, he was cut by Kansas City and Cincinnati. Pryor then decided he would be open to playing wide receiver. Now here he is in Cleveland, where he is the team's number one receiver.
This season, he's caught 19 of the 40 passes (47.5%) thrown to him for 190 yards, 1 touchdown and is averaging 15.3 yards a catch. He's done this with three quarterbacks. He himself has played quarterback as well, completing 3-5 for 35 yards to help take the pressure off Cody Kessler in his first start against Miami.
So much of what Pryor does is in the subtext. He's more than a gifted athlete. He represents what the Browns are trying to do. Find cheap talent. He's also an example of how Hue Jackson creatively schemes to find ways to get the talent the ball.
Going back to the Miami game, Pryor played quarterback. He didn't play it often. It's not a staple of the Browns' offense. He attempted just five passes. But he still did it. On back to back plays against the Dolphins, he ran a zone read play for 15 yards and a play action pass off the same play, where he found a wide open Gary Barnidge in the center of the field for 26 yards.
The first was the same zone read everyone knows about. The offensive line blocks down to create as many double teams as possible, with each one responsible for a linebacker. The defensive end is the read man. They use a tight end at fullback to play lead blocker.
The defensive end attacks Isaiah Crowell, who is somehow the best running back in the NFL this year. The lead blocker almost runs past the weak side outside linebacker before turning and sealing him. Then Pryor jukes, runs past the defender in the alley, and uses a great block from Rashard Higgins (#81) to pick up a few more.
On the next play, Cleveland does the same thing. He fakes the hand off to Crowell and slides left. With Pryor at quarterback, nobody expects him to throw the ball. That would be too crazy. Each linebacker comes up. There are eight defenders in the box. The two outside receivers run the defensive backs down the field. Barnidge runs behind all of them for an easy completion.
These two plays show off some of head coach Hue Jackson's offensive genius. He's great at designing plays and creating easy passes out of a variety of formations. This same ingenuity that created the best passing offense last year in Cincinnati is now being used in Cleveland.
When it comes to being a receiver, Pryor is really bad at catching deep passes and really great at catching short passes. On deep balls, he's caught just two of the fourteen fade route heavy passes heaved his way. That's a catch rate of 14.3%. On these passes, the Browns have gained 69 yards. The deep pass attempts are why Pryor is low on the efficiency and total value totem pole.
He lacks the nuances in route running to get open down field against corners who can match his speed. He doesn't set up the route with shimmies or fakes to create separation. Instead he faces up the defender, then snakes to the sideline and tries to burn him down the field. On most of these passes, corners will meet him when he breaks down field and squeeze him out of bounds. When the ball finally falls from the sky, all he can do is bound over the corner after it.
In the short game however, Pryor has been awesome. He's caught 17 of 26 passes (65.4%) for 221 yards, 1 touchdown, and 13 first downs. He's 12th in the NFL in yards gained on attempts traveling less than 15 yards in the air and T-7th in first downs. In the infancy of the season, these throws were the result of defenders playing off him and being afraid of the down field throw because he looks like a deep threat receiver. Then once the games were played, they began to suffocate the space and play close to the line of scrimmage. Still the passes have been completed.
Last week, Josh Norman routinely played press man against him and was in his pocket. Pryor still got open. When running routes, Pryor is great at cutting the string and breaking his route. He can stop in three steps and turn for the ball while the defender is still carrying down field.
Here the single high safety, the straightness of the route, and the fear of the deep ball takes the corner down field. Pryor starts his route by breaking to the left to beat the press. He uses his hands and swipes at the top of the route to create separation. Then he stops, slides across Washington's soupy and slippery field, and is able to keep balance and composure to still make the catch before ensuring both feet are in bounds. This is a wide receiver. This isn't some side-show carnival athlete masquerading around a football field.
He's also really great at getting inside leverage on slant and inside throws to the center of the field. He knows how to use his body to block out the defender. Turning covered passes into completions is a skill of his. If the ball placement is there, he has the acceleration to turn eight yards into dozens more by running past the defender and through arm tackles.
The sentimental thing I like about Pryor is he cares sooooo much about the outcome on the field. I have never seen a player on a 0-4 team so visibly distraught after every loss. Most players accept the team is bad. They go out, compete, and move on with their life. Pryor looks like he's listening to that very sad Turnover album after every fourth quarter collapse.
Because of the absence of having to win, Cleveland can give talented players like Pryor and others that teams pass over a chance to play. This is great. It gives players who might have been placed in the wrong situation or squandered their first opportunity another chance at success. For this year and probably next, Cleveland can be a factory of failed first rounders and fun college players instead of a factory of sadness. Along the way of their rebuild, they will unearth a few gems like Pryor.
31.) Chicago Bears--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -35. DVOA: -9.5% (23). Last Week: 31.
30.) Tennessee Titans--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -22. DVOA: -12.7% (15). Last Week: 29.
29.) San Francisco 49ers--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -17. DVOA: -16.6% (28). Last Week: 27. (Doesn't Count TNF)
28.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -51. DVOA: -21.4% (30). Last Week: 23.
27.) Miami Dolphins--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -18. DVOA: -8.8% (22). Last Week: 26.
26.) Jacksonville Jaguars--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -27. DVOA: -6.9% (19). Last Week: 30.
25.) New Orleans Saints--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -16. DVOA: -6.7% (18). Last Week: 25.
24.) New York Jets--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -26. DVOA: -31.1% (31). Last Week: 19.
23.) Detroit Lions--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -7. DVOA: -12.9% (26). Last Week: 17.
22.) Indianapolis Colts--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -17. DVOA: -14.7% (27). Last Week: 21.
21.) Los Angeles Rams--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: -13. DVOA: -10.0% (24). Last Week: 28.
20.) San Diego Chargers--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: +13. DVOA: 4.1% (13). Last Week: 20.
A sixteen game schedule is such a brutal thing. Every win and loss is so important. There isn't enough time for things to balance out over the course of a longer schedule. No team knows this more in 2016 than the San Diego Chargers.
Currently the Chargers are 1-3. They have a point differential of +13. Their DVOA is 4.1%, which is 13th. Their expected win loss record is 2.3-1.7. They've scored 121 points, which is good for third. As a whole, they've been a good team. They haven't been a basement dwelling, skin sagging cretin like their record indicates.
The Chargers have lost each of their games in the fourth quarter or overtime this year. In Week One, they were up on Kansas City 24-3 with 6:02 left in the third quarter. The Chiefs had a win probability of 1.2% at this point. KC then proceeded to outscore San Diego 30-3.
In Week Three against Indianapolis, they were up 22-20 with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter. San Diego's win probability was 84.69%. Andrew Luck converted a 4th and 7 to T.Y. Hilton. Then with 1:28 left on 2nd and 1, Luck hit Hilton on a slant route. Jason Verrett missed a defensed pass attempt after diving to slap the ball, Hilton made one defender miss, and then scorched a safety who took a pour angle en route to a 63 yard touchdown that actually helped San Diego. Starting at their own 25, down 26-20, San Diego had a chance to win. Hunter Henry picked up a first and was tackled from behind. Clayton Geathers wrapped his arm around Henry and poked the ball out. The Colts recovered. The Colts won.
Last week, the Chargers went up 34-21 with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter against New Orleans. Their win probability was 99.6%. They lost 35-34. Melvin Gordon fumbled on the first play of their next possession at San Diego's own 13 yard line. The Saints scored a touchdown to make it 34-28. On the next possession, Travis Benjamin fumbled on the first play. The Saints recovered at the San Diego 31 yard line. John Kuhn punched it in to make it 35-34 after a successful PAT. There was 1:57 remaining. With a chance to win with a field goal, Philip Rivers was sacked, recovered a fumble for a loss of -13, threw an incomplete pass on 3rd and 22, and threw an interception on 4th and 22. The Chargers lost.
Despite how well San Diego has played for 45 minutes, they are 1-3. They are 0-3 in one possession games. They have blown and choked away three games they should have won. San Diego has been outscored 59-34 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Scoring just one touchdown and giving up eight touchdowns to one field goal. It's kind of impressive actually.
Even at 1-3, in what may be the best division in football so far this season, it would be too early to write San Diego off simply because of how well they have played for 90% of the season. Their future schedule is projected to be 19th in the league after playing the fourth easiest through the first four weeks. In addition to the divisional games they have, the Chargers play Tennessee, Miami, Houston, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland. If they can snag a few division games, they may have a chance to salvage this season.
The problem is the Chargers have been destroyed by injuries.
The Chargers have fourteen players on injured reserve. Staring cornerback Jason Verrett hasn't officially joined that group but probably will. Of that crew, four were starters or were expected to get pounds of playing time. Manti Te'o was the starting inside linebacker. Danny Woodhead was the second running back and a key component of the passing attack. Keenan Allen was their wide receiver one. Steve Johnson was slated to be their third receiver.
The biggest problem is the Chargers are now missing three of their five starting members of the secondary. Jahleel Addae is out with a broken collarbone, Verrett is repairing a partially torn ACL, and Brandon Flowers has a concussion. This was the strength of their mediocre defense. Now the majority of that mediocrity is watching in bucket hats from the sideline.
Usually football seasons like this are disgusting and lugubrious for one year. Then things tend to balance out the next. This looks like it is going to end up being a hellacious 2016 for San Diego. The issue for the team, aside from a possible impending move, is players and management rarely understand the problems with a short season. Philip Rivers may want to move on. Mike McCoy will definitely be fired whether it is warranted or not. The future is fragile for them even if it is not rooted in the truth of the present.
19.) Buffalo Bills--Record: 2-2. Point Differential: +19. DVOA: 10.0% (10). Last Week: 24.
18.) Washington Redskins--Record: 2-2. Point Differential: -13. DVOA: 2.3% (14). Last Week: 22.
17.) New York Giants--Record: 2-2. Point Differential: -12. DVOA: -7.2% (20). Last Week: 12.
16.) Carolina Panthers--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: -9. DVOA: -7.4% (21). Last Week: 8.
15.) Houston Texans--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: -4. DVOA: -19.3% (29). Last Week: 16.
14.) Arizona Cardinals--Record: 1-3. Point Differential: +12. DVOA: 3.9% (16). Last Week: 10. (Doesn't count TNF)
13.) Baltimore Ravens--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +12. DVOA: 8.3% (11) Last Week: 13.
12.) Atlanta Falcons--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +28. DVOA: 16.0% (8). Last Week: 18.
Remember last year when the Atlanta Falcons started 5-0? They beat four NFC East teams and the Houston Texans. They had a point differential of +50 that was inflated by the non-tackling massacre against Houston. They were 3-0 in one possession games. They had a positive DVOA in three of these games. Then, after a win against Washington, Atlanta went 3-8.
They finished the year with a an offensive DVOA of -7.8% (23rd), 23rd in passing (2.8%) and 25th in rushing (-15.4%). Their point differential dropped to -6. Their one possession record fell to 5-6. They had only two games with a positive DVOA--one possession wins against Carolina and Jacksonville. All the while, the defense cemented the team with below average play.
It's happening again. The Falcons are 3-1. They are top ten in DVOA. Their point differential is +28. But unlike last year, most are wary about this team. Also unlike last year, I don't think the offense is going to fall off.
The Falcons' defense was bad last year, but at least it was consistent from the beginning of the year to the end. The offense, however, plummeted. The biggest reason why was that they didn't have anyone aside from Julio Jones to complete passes to. Last year, Jones accounted for 33% of Matt Ryan's targets, 33% of his completions, 40% of his yards, and 93 of his first downs. Jacob Tamme was the only receiver with thirty catches or more to finish with a positive DVOA. Everything went to Julio. Everything that didn't go to Julio was a waste of a play until they could find a way to throw to Julio again.
This season Matt Ryan is first in DYAR at 517 and is second in DVOA at 40.1% with a touchdown to interception ratio of 11:2. His QBR is 89.11, second only to Jimmy Garoppolo. He's completing 72.1% of his passes and averaging 10.5 Y/A. He's coming off a game where he threw for 500 yards, 300 of which to Julio. Plus, by vaporizing a Carolina secondary that consisted mostly of poor, newly unemployed Ben Benwikere chasing after #11, the Falcons' playoff odds have jumped 22.6%. Their total odds are 65.5% and they have a 61.1% chance to win the division, via Football Outsiders.
Through the first five weeks of the season last year, the Falcons' passing offense was great, just like it is this year. The difference now is they have players other than Jones to throw to. Julio has accounted for 25% of Ryan's targets, 15.7% of his completions, and 33% of his yards. Ryan is now spreading the ball around and having success. Free agent Mohamed Sanu has caught 13 of 20 passes for 142 yards and 8 first downs, but has a DVOA of -4.8%. Tamme has a catch rate of 72.7% and a DVOA of 9%. Atlanta has been able to throw the ball to their third through fifth receivers too.
The biggest difference is the running backs. In 2015, Devonta Freeman caught 73 of 97 passes for 578 yards and a DVOA of -1.2%. He was just a dump-off option for whenever Julio Jones was double covered and no one else could get open. Tevin Coleman was targeted only 11 times; he caught two passes last year. This year Freeman has a DVOA of 15.1% (6th) and Coleman has a DVOA of 43.4% (3rd). Together they have caught 24 of 27 passes for 263 yards and 1 touchdown. Kyle Shanahan has evolved this offense from more than throwing it to Jones over and over and over again.
They are in as good of a spot as they could be after losing in Week One to Tampa Bay. They have the best offense in the NFL so far. The two problems are that they have the 31st ranked defense, and that the schedule is about to get tough. For the rest of the season, they have the sixth toughest schedule. They play Denver this week, Seattle next, and have future matchups against Green Bay, Philadelphia, Arizona, Kansas City, and the rest of the division. Like last season, we will know quickly if Atlanta is good or not. Unlike last season, the Panthers aren't going 15-1. If the offense doesn't fall off like last year and Ryan keeps spreading the ball around, the Falcons can usurp the first consecutive NFC South winning team in division history.
13.) Oakland Raiders--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +2. DVOA: 16.1% (7). Last Week: 14.
11.) Dallas Cowboys--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +24. DVOA: 12.4% (9). Last Week: 15.
10.) Philadelphia Eagles--Record: 3-0. Point Differential: +65. DVOA: 46.4% (1). Last Week: 11.
8.) Kansas City Chiefs--Record: 2-2. Point Differential: -9. DVOA: 0.9% (15). Last Week: 5.
7.) Cincinnati Bengals--Record: 2-2. Point Differential: -4. DVOA: 8.0% (12). Last Week: 9.
6.) Green Bay Packers--Record: 2-1. Point Differential: +8. DVOA: 17.4% (6). Last Week: 4.
5.) Denver Broncos--Record: 4-0. Point Differential: +47. DVOA: 25.7% (4) Last Week: 7.
4.) Minnesota Vikings--Record: 4-0. Point Differential: +38. DVOA: 29.3% (3) Last Week: 6.
Despite losing Teddy Bridgewater (I miss you) and Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings are undefeated. The difference between this and last year is their defense. In 2014, while talented, their performance was a tickle above average. Their DVOA was -1.8% (14th). This year, with nearly the same personnel, they have vaulted from 14th to 4th overall and are 4th in pass and rush defense DVOA. This is why they have thrived without Bridgewater and Peterson. This is why they can sustain themselves with three Sam Bradford throws a game.
You know the personnel: Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Terrance Newman, Xavier Rhodes, Brian Robison, Sharrif Floyd. These are players everyone knows about. The one monster lurking underneath it all is Danielle Hunter.
I didn't know who he was until I made my annual football pilgrimage through the Football Outsiders' Almanac. At the end of every edition, they rank the top twenty-five prospects in football. These players are third round picks or later drafted between 2013 and 2015. They are all younger than 26 and have played less than 500 snaps. Every year, Football Outsiders points out players like Everson Griffen, Lamar Miller and Brandon Brooks, players I had never heard of before that usually they end up being contributors.
This year, Rivers McCown wrote this feature. Hunter was number two on the list. I read his snippet, thought that's interesting, and I didn't think about it again. Until after Week Three, when Hunter murdered Michael Oher.
I mean, OMG.
He comes off the snap lined up one-on-one against Oher. The Panthers are running play action, so rather than kick slide back, Oher comes immediately after Hunter. Danielle gets into his chest, punches him, and turns him into goop. Michael Oher no longer exists. He's just a puddle of teeth, entrails, and fluids. Hunter is shocked. He can't believe he just did what he did. It's like when you lift weights and bump it up ten or fifteen pounds to give it a try and then actually do it. Hunter did this to a NFL offensive tackle. Once the shock wears off, he leaps over Oher's ransacked body, runs past Andrew Norwell's help, and leaps onto the field, scanning Cam Newton's neck like a catamount.
There's this adage in scouting that if a player does something once, he can do it again. If he has the ability to shoot lightning and make a play like this, there is an enormous amount of talent there to mold and sculpt. That's what this play is. It's like the Jadeveon Clowney helmet hit. It makes one think they can teach a player like that to do anything, anything at all. This is important because Hunter, despite his talent and sack totals, still has problems with his game.
Last year, he had six sacks, seven hurries and two quarterback hits. This season, Hunter has three sacks and four hurries while seeing his number of snaps increase from 36.6% to 56.9%. The biggest problem when it comes to production isn't the talent. It's the effort.
Too often his pass rushes lack desperation. There will be a dramatic difference in his get-off. He will simply go after the outside shoulder in one non-deviated path. Punch, long arm, and pump his legs until the ball is thrown. The explosion. The strength of the punch. None of it is there.
On this play, Hunter is a wide "5" lined up one-on-one against Oher.
He gets off the snap late. His counterpart on the other side, Brian Robison, the lesser athlete, is one to two steps ahead of him. Cam Newton is in the second step of his drop back.
Because of this, Hunter loses any advantage he had with his width. The edge rush is closed off. Oher is able to get square with him before contact is made.
Hunter comes directly into Oher's chest and punches.
Oher grabs the chest and sits while Hunter meekly pumps his legs.
At the end, he uses a long arm to try and show some semblance of a rush.
This is the problem with Hunter. He doesn't bring it every play. He doesn't have that desperation that great rushers do--the ones who take advantage of every opportunity and influence every play. I don't know if it is effort or if he doesn't react to his keys fast enough to get in pass rush mode. What I do know is what he brings on every down isn't enough. When he wants to, he can explode like a nuclear blast off the edge. I mean, look at this sack against Arizona his rookie year.
Compare that to this previous rush. In one he comes around the edge with so much power that his rip move knocks the tackle backwards toward the line of scrimmage. On the other, he just waltzes into Oher, a player he crumpled as if he was the end of a cigarette rolled between damp fingers and not a three hundred pound human being.
This is seen by the numbers, too. Hunter picks up sacks through bursts of great play. He lacks the production by constantly beating blocks. Despite playing more than half the snaps, he isn't forcing the quarterback out of the pocket or smattering him into the turf. It's not like he is only playing in pass rush situations. He's a three down player. He has a great punch and holds the point of attack. He can also make plays on the running back when outside runs are used. The coaches will pull him out for entire series at a time. He will disappear entirely off the field instead of just disappearing on it.
The Vikings already have a great pass rush. They have 15 sacks and are second only to Denver, which has 17. They have a pressure rate of 18.1%, which is 7th. They've been able to do with with Griffen being a monster, and by head coach Mike Zimmer using A-gap pressure and creative blitzes. If Hunter can bring it every play, the Vikings have the scheme and talent to make the leap to Denver levels. With a pass rush like that and a deep secondary, we all know what that can lead to.
3.) Pittsburgh Steelers--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +28. DVOA: 19.3% (5). Last Week: 3.
2.) Seattle Seahawks--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +25. DVOA: 35.4% (2) Last Week: 2.
1.) New England Patriots--Record: 3-1. Point Differential: +20. DVOA: -5.6% (17). Last Week: 1.
Texans vs Vikings coverage