Assessing The NFL's Undefeated Teams

Through five weeks (and one Thursday night game in Week 6) exactly five NFL teams remain undefeated. Despite being undefeated, each of these teams have question marks which would impact them as their seasons progress. This article will analyze the rest-of-season outlooks for the NFL’s unbeaten: the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, and Panthers. 

New England Patriots

The Patriots began the season with a projected win total of 10.5 based on Vegas odds, tied for third best with the Colts behind only the Seahawks and Packers. That win total appears to have been conservative, as the Patriots offense has come out of the gates extremely hot, with the league’s second highest scoring offense (37.2 PPG) and highest yards per game (423.8). 

New England’s offense will score plenty of points this season. Wide receiver Julian Edelman has developed into a true WR1 despite not having the prototypical WR1 build (5 ft. 10 in., 200 lb.). In four games played Edelman has racked up 34 catches for 399 yards and three touchdowns. 

In addition, the emergence of RB Dion Lewis has added an explosive element out of the backfield that the Patriots were presumed to have been missing this season with the loss of Shane Vereen in free agency. A threat in the run and pass game, Lewis has already produced 418 total yards and three touchdowns and the production appears poised to continue with talented plays such as this: 

Still, as good as the offense has been, there’s reason to expect tougher days ahead for New England. Consider the fact that two of their four games have been played against teams missing their best offensive weapon. Game 1 against the Steelers was the first of Le’Veon Bell‘s two-game suspension. Game 4 against the Cowboys featured the Brandon WeedenTerrance Williams show, filling in for all-stars Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Then of course they had the helpless Jaguars in Week 3, who are scoring a mere 18.6 PPG this season, good for sixth worst in the league. 

With the exception of the Bills in Week 2 (who tallied 32 points that week), the Patriots have yet to really be tested. That bodes poorly for New England’s defense, which figures to struggle down the line with glaring weaknesses at cornerback and interior d-line. Losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency leaves this untested unit as a big question mark, especially concerning their abilities to play man coverage against higher-caliber passing games.

Despite these concerns, it could take until the playoffs for the Patriots to be truly slowed down. They have arguably the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, with only four games against plus-.500 teams, plus three games apiece against the weak AFC South and NFC East. 

Projected Finish: 14-2

Cincinnati Bengals

For a while now the AFC North has espoused three competitive teams sans the Cleveland Browns. That’s not the case this year, as Baltimore has quickly fallen out of the race with a poor 1-4 start. Expectations were modest for the Bengals entering Week 1 (8.5 projected wins), yet five games in, Cincinnati has emerged as the team to beat out of this typically wide open division. 

The first thing that jumps out when reviewing Cincinnati’s success is the remarkably easy schedule they’ve enjoyed thus far. The Bengals have flat out bullied the AFC West, winning games against the Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs for a cumulative +40 point differential in those three games. 

Add the three AFC West bouts to two very tough games against Baltimore and Seattle, and the Bengals, believe it or not, do not have a +.500 opponent under their belt to date. Obviously Cincinnati contributed to this result, but even without their games against Cincinnati none of those five teams have performed above .500. The takeaway is that Cincinnati has benefited from a highly favorable schedule up to this point, and it’s reasonable to predict losses in tougher games to come (Bills, Steelers x2, Cardinals, Broncos). 

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY SportsDespite the easy schedule, it’s impossible to entirely scoff at some of Cincinnati’s numbers. They’ve averaged 29.6 PPG, good for fourth best among all teams. The most surprising part of the offensive production is easily Andy Dalton‘s stat-line: 67.5% completion rate, 1,518 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Such a pace sustained over sixteen games would not only amount to the best season of Dalton’s career by far, but it would also put him in MVP front-runner territory. 

The question remains going forward whether or not Dalton can sustain his current level of production. The Bengals have surrounded him with an elite offensive line led by Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth, an athletic wide receiving corps hallmarked by superstar A.J. Green, and a deadly one-two punch running game in young studs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Simply put, Dalton has everything a quarterback could ask for to succeed. At this point, he’s the only remaining question mark in Cincinnati’s offense. 

Projected Finish: 11-5

Denver Broncos

On pace to win the AFC West for the fifth straight season, the Denver Broncos are doing it with a whole new formula this time around. QB Peyton Manning‘s arm strength has noticeably declined and, with it, Denver’s formerly gaudy offensive numbers. Instead, the defense has carried the team, led by a fearsome pass rush featuring Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, among others. 

Through five games, Denver’s defense has given up the second fewest PPG (15.8) and the fewest YPG (278.0). They’ve also allowed the lowest 3rd down completion percentage in the league at 30%. A huge reason for this is the overwhelming pressure they’ve put on opposing quarterbacks, with a league-leading 22.0 sacks. 

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The Broncos boast a complete defense, with elite coverage corners to back up the stout front seven. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was ranked last year as Pro Football Focus’ top coverage corner, has two interceptions this season including a game-sealing pick-six against the Oakland Raiders. Veteran Aqib Talib also has two picks (one a pick-six as well), and Denver’s 2014 first round pick, Bradley Roby, has yet another one. 

There’s little doubt Denver’s defense will make them contenders almost by default this season, but how far they can push this momentum in the postseason will bear on the offense’s ability to find a rhythm. So far, the offense simply hasn’t lived up to the bill, posting the league’s third-lowest metrics in YPG (302.6) and first downs per game (17.8). 

It would be irresponsible to talk about Denver’s offensive struggles without mentioning how poorly the offensive line has played of late. Only one of Denver’s starting linemen was on the roster last season, a stat which, for a position that requires so much chemistry and communication, really should have been looked at more closely by Denver in the offseason. 

The lack of protection is especially problematic for a quarterback like Manning who requires a clean pocket due to his lack of mobility. In sixteen games last season, Manning was sacked just 17 times; in five games this season, he’s already been sacked 12 times.

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The question going forward will be two-fold: can the Broncos offensive line figure it out as they get more games together, and relatedly, can the Broncos run game take some pressure off Peyton Manning? All of the struggles in the passing game are compounded by Denver’s rushing ineptitude so far this season, as they currently rank second-worst in yards per carry (3.3) and third-worst in rushing yards per game (71.6). That the only team with worse metrics in both these categories, the Detroit Lions, currently sits at 0-5, should tell you something about just how much the rest of the team is producing in the run game’s absence. 

Denver has survived so far with very little offensive production, but it’s unclear whether that will continue against tougher competition. With the Minnesota Vikings the only .500 opponent they’ve faced thus far, Denver will have to show balance offensively to contend with the likes of Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in weeks to come. 

Projected Finish: 12-4

Green Bay Packers

Different year, same story for the Packers, who with Aaron Rodgers in his prime figure to always be contenders. Following his MVP season last year, Rodgers is on pace for yet another MVP-caliber season, with a career best 70.6% completion rate, along with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. For what it’s worth, those two interceptions came last week at home against the St. Louis Rams, and ended Rodgers’ 19-game streak without an interception at Lambeau Field. 

Green Bay has done just enough to remain undefeated so far, not racking up ridiculous scoreboard numbers like the Patriots every game (although they did explode against the Chiefs). Instead, the offense currently sits at just fifth-best in the league in points per game (27.4), a mark which seems surprisingly low given Rodgers’ ability to make plays such as this:

If one were to really nitpick with Green Bay’s offense so far this season, perhaps there’s something to be said for the loss of Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL in the preseason. Despite Rodgers’ strong overall numbers, his YPA currently sits at his lowest mark of the last three seasons (8.08). Though James Jones has been a remarkable addition on the outside, Green Bay’s receiving corps has apparently struggled to replace Nelson’s deep threat ability, especially with
sophomore Davante Adams being hampered by injury. Still, with household playmaking names like Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy, it’s tough to have any real concerns about Green Bay’s offense going forward. 

Likely the biggest difference for the Packers this season, apart from the absence of Nelson, is the expansion of Clay Matthews‘ role on the defense. Matthews, traditionally an outside linebacker in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, shifted to middle linebacker this season and has really shined in the new role. He’s already on pace to break his career record in sacks (currently 4.5), and has 15 tackles along with an interception to date.

The mark of a truly exceptional franchise, Green Bay develops nearly all of their players in-house, preferring to build through the draft over time and make only minor changes in free agency. It’s no surprise, then, that not a whole lot changes for the Packers from year to year, and they look just as ready to compete for the Super Bowl as they did last season. 

Projected Finish: 14-2

Carolina Panthers

My personal pick for the worst remaining undefeated team, the Carolina Panthers have been overwhelming benefactors of an extremely generous schedule. With a bye in Week 5, the Panthers’ first four games came against the Jaguars, Texans, Saints, and Buccaneers. Those four teams had a combined 21 wins last season, a mark which gives Carolina the easiest strength of schedule so far. 

The easy schedule is a huge reason why the Panthers’ defense currently sits at fourth-best in points allowed per game, as all four of their opponents to date rank in the bottom half in points per game. That the Panthers stifled these offenses without their best player (on either side of the ball), Luke Kuechly, should tell you something about the level of competition they faced during the first four games. 

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While the win streak surely won’t hold up for long, Carolina still has plenty of reason to be excited about the fact that franchise quarterback Cam Newton appears finally healthy. After battling injuries on and off the field all of last season, “Superman” is back and running the ball more than ever. He’s currently on pace for 172 rushes this season, a mark that would best his career high by 45. 

At the same time, much of Cam’s running is out of necessity, since the Panthers lack consistent receiving options without Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL in the preseason. Rookie Devin Funchess hasn’t put it together to date and Tedd Ginn Jr is simply not a number one (or two) option in a standard passing offense. 

Carolina’s schedule gets much tougher from here on out. Their next four games are against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Packers, all 10+ win teams last season. Further down the line they face the Cowboys, Giants, and Falcons twice. Add the incredibly difficult upcoming schedule to the lack of offensive weapons and highly favorable schedule thus far, and the result is a team which should see a major drop in the standings going forward. 

Projected Finish: 8-8


The momentum of a 4-0 or 5-0 start typically makes it very difficult for these teams not to make the playoffs, but the concerns brought to light in this article may come to light as soon as Week 6 and could pose problems for these teams in the playoffs. Still, each of these teams has shown significant strengths in one area or another, and a few adjustments could be big difference-makers going forward. 

Four Preseason Takeaways

Six days. That’s right—six days until the NFL regular season kicks off with a marquee matchup between the Steelers and Patriots. Clearly, we’re well past the point where the preseason is still generating a lot of buzz (teams don’t even play their starters in week four) and football fans want nothing more than a fast-forward button to get through this excruciating week of anticipation. 

Aha, not so fast! Believe it or not, the preseason does matter. Or rather, some of the preseason matters. Of course most box scores will have no bearing on the regular season. The Steelers’ Landry Jones was the preseason’s leading passer in terms of total yards through the first three weeks. Wow, sounds great, right? Well, the Steelers clearly weren’t all that impressed, as they went out and signed Michael Vick. Yawn. 

But before the regular season gets underway, there’s actually a lot of useful information that can be gleaned from the preseason results—it’s just a matter of looking in the right places. So, in an effort to separate the preseason “news” from ordinary preseason “noise,” here are the top four preseason takeaways to actually pay attention to. 

1. Eagles Offense Poised to Dominate

If you watched any of their first three games, you saw just how easy it looked for the Philadelphia Eagles to both move the ball down the field and to score. They managed 1,331 yards of total offense, including 488 rushing yards, and dropped 115 points…in three games. 

I know, I know…box scores don’t usually matter. But the Eagles’ success is a product of head coach Chip Kelly’s system, so in this case the box scores are relevant. This is an offense which averaged 22.8 seconds between plays last season (the next closest was Cleveland at 25.8). That tempo is virtually impossible for opposing defenses to keep up with, and it’s a huge part of why Philly’s ground game has been so successful since Kelly came in 2012 (first in team rushing yards in 2013, ninth in 2014). 

It also doesn’t hurt that Philadelphia has one of the best offensive lines in the league. According to Pro Football Focus Premium Statistics, the Eagles’ offensive line was tops in the NFL in run blocking and second in pass blocking last season. This success came without Pro-Bowl center Jason Kelce and the young future Pro-Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson for multiple games. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Eagles graded first in PFF’s run blocking for 2013 as well—Philly’s o-line just flat-out mauls people. 

It’s too early to say a whole lot about the defense, which has held them back the past two seasons. But it’s hard to imagine this offense being stopped very often this year. Sam Bradford is an ideal fit for Kelly’s system—a decently mobile quarterback with an accurate arm—and he’s been basically perfect in the time he’s gotten (10/10 with 121 yards and three touchdowns in week three). 

DeMarco Murray proved he can handle a heavy workload in Dallas last season, and health willing he will continue the charge in 2015. Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles also ensure the Eagles will have no shortage of running back depth. 

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Again, preseason box scores don’t normally mean much, but Kelly’s system is getting it done from the first team to the fourth string Tim Tebow team. When defenses look helpless against the likes of Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, and even Tebow, that’s a good sign the offense is doing something right. The Eagles went 10-6 in each of the first two years of Chip Kelly’s tenure, and frankly, 11-5 this season looks like a conservative estimate at this point.

2. Steelers’ Defense Will Hold Them Back

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has generated plenty of hype this offseason, for good reason, but little attention is being paid to their defense, which looks bad enough to seriously hamper their chances of contending in 2015. 

Most notably, veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retired this offseason, and based on the secondary’s paltry, albeit limited, performance thus far, their leadership appears to be sorely missed. 

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In the dress rehearsal game (week three), Pittsburgh made the Buffalo Bills’ passing platoon of Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, and Matt Simms look like a collective Aaron Rodgers. Buffalo’s quarterbacks completed 30-33 passes for 386 yards, including three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Obviously Pittsburgh’s first string defense can’t be entirely blamed for those stats, considering they didn’t play the whole game. But still, they were really, really bad. Polamalu’s replacement at strong safety, Shamarko Thomas, actually earned a -2.7 grade from PFF’s premium statistics for that game, the worst on the team. 

Sure, one game is a small sample size, I agree. Well luckily PFF tracks the entire preseason, and guess what? Thomas was the worst-graded safety in the entire NFL for the first three weeks. Get this: the QB rating for passes thrown into his coverage for the first three games was 158.3 (that’s a perfect rating, FYI)! 

Nothing against Shamarko, but if he’s the best option the Steelers have at strong safety they are going to get burned a lot this season. It’s not difficult to imagine the likes of division rivals Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, and even Josh McCown/Johnny Manziel faring at least as well as the Bills quarterbacks did. 

Not that Ike Taylor was anything special last season, but his replacement Cortez Allen isn’t going to change things, either. Allen earned a below league average grade from PFF for the preseason and he’s not the kind of corner that carries a defense by any means. 

As formidable as the Steelers offense may be on paper, they may be forced to play from behind quite often this season, thanks to their less-than-formidable defense. Expect Pittsburgh to be in many shootouts this season and don’t be surprised if the defense drags them down to an 8-8 record. 

3. Broncos’ Defense Will be the Focal Point

For an offense that features talent the likes of Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders, among others, it might sound surprising to say that Denver’s biggest strength this season will be its defense. But the philosophical shift in coaching staffs has materialized nicely in the preseason, and if the limited first-team reps are any indication, the Broncos defense could produce gaudy numbers this season.

The defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has shifted back to a 3-4, a scheme that better fits Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and rookie Shane Ray, who are all natural 3-4 outside linebackers. Miller, in particular, will be able to rush the passer a lot more often in the new scheme. 

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Phillips has a reputation for being an aggressive play-caller and the defense has lived up to the billing so far. Through the first three weeks of the preseason the Broncos tallied fifteen total sacks, most in the NFL (the second most being twelve). That’s five sacks a game, which if somehow continued into the regular season would be far and away a new record. 

Denver’s success in the pass rush isn’t at all a fluke, either. Their defense earned the highest overall grade over the first three weeks from PFF premium statistics, including the second-highest grade in pass rush, run defense, AND pass coverage. Simply put, the Broncos’ defense is performing at an extremely high level across the board and there’s no indication of a glaring weakness. 

Russell Wilson surely noticed a different team than he saw in the Super Bowl two years ago when he was sacked twice on his first two drives week one, including a strip sack from Miller. 

With the Broncos expected to shift to a more conservative, run-heavy offense under head coach Gary Kubiak, the defense will be relied on more heavily as well. So far, Miller and Co. appear more than ready to step up as needed. Even though Denver will likely score fewer points this season, 50-plus total sacks en route to an 11-5 record is well within the realm of possibilities. 

4. Chiefs Wide Receivers Will Catch a Touchdown Pass

Crazy, I know. But if you followed football at all last year, you surely heard more and more of this ridiculous storyline as weeks went by. Amazingly, the Kansas City Chiefs managed to go all sixteen games last season without throwing a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver….

No, that’s not a typo. 

Well, Chiefs fans can rest easy, because not only should a Chiefs wide receiver score one touchdown this season, but the connection between new addition Jeremy Maclin and Alex Smith thus far in the preseason bodes well for their chances of numerous wide receiver touchdowns. 

Kansas City’s addition of Maclin this offseason made a ton of sense. They were without any great talent at wide receiver in 2014, so Maclin filled a glaring need. Maclin also has history with head coach Andy Reid from back in Philadelphia, so Reid knows how to utilize Maclin’s skill set. 

Reid made it abundantly clear in the third preseason game that the Chiefs offense will feature Maclin this season. In their dress rehearsal, Maclin was targeted eight times (the next highest for any receiver was five), resulting in seven catches for sixty-five yards, including a twenty-nine yard touchdown…all in the first quarter. 

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Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Straight-line speed and raw athleticism make Maclin a constant threat in space and Reid is crafty enough to manufacture him touches in the open field, even given Smith’s difficulties with the deep ball. The ridiculous streak of no touchdowns isn’t going to last long at all with Maclin around. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Chiefs’ wide receiving corps eclipse fifteen touchdowns this season. 

Honorable Mentions

For all the media’s focus on the ugly stories so often surrounding the NFL, here’s an attempt at a few noteworthy feel-good stories from the preseason action thus far. 

There’s no shortage of great stories from the Chiefs-Cardinals week one matchup. First and foremost, a ton of respect goes out to Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who returned for the first time after his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s awesome—what else is there to say?

From the same game, shoutout to both the NFL and the Arizona Cardinals. Sarah Thomas was the first female official to ever work an NFL game, and Jen Welter, who worked with Cardinals inside linebackers, was the NFL’s first female coach. Also awesome. 

Lastly, check this guy out:

That’s former Australian rugby star, now San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne. He’s not a lock to make the roster, but his athletic ability is obvious, and he’s fun to watch. He belted a fifty-three yard run week one against the Texans. 

Fantasy Football Draft Recap

Fantasy football players everywhere are likely advocating for later draft dates this past weekend, with the news of season-ending injuries to a couple major players. Of course, not all drafts will be delayed until September 9th, and regardless of how late your draft is, it makes sense to plan ahead. 

In this article, I’ll provide remarks on the first eight rounds of my league’s recent draft. Of course, no two leagues are exactly the same, and everyone is going to have different perspectives on specific players, but hopefully the results will give you some useful insights on player value and draft strategy. For each round I’ll go over my own pick, and at least one good pick and one questionable pick.

Round 1

Team 1-Adrian Peterson

Team 2-Eddie Lacy

Team 3-Le’Veon Bell

Team 4-Marshawn Lynch

Team 5-Jamaal Charles

Team 6-Antonio Brown

Regan’s Team-C.J. Anderson

Team 8-Calvin Johnson

Team 9-DeMarco Murray

Team 10-Matt Forte

My Pick: C.J. Anderson—Injuries put Anderson in the starting role last season, and he exploded to the tune of 648 yards and 8 touchdowns in the final six games. This season the Broncos are committed to the run game and running backs in new coach Gary Kubiak‘s offenses have historically put out major numbers, with players like Steve Slaton, Arian Foster, and Justin Forsett providing bell-cow production. The only question mark with Anderson is how firm a grip he has on the starting role given he pretty much came out of nowhere last season, but in fantasy that problem is easily alleviated by drafting his handcuff in Ronnie Hillman, which I did later. 

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Good Pick: Le’Veon Bell—Despite his suspension, Le’Veon Bell could easily go number one overall. He has the fewest real question marks among the top running backs—no injury questions, young, and the unquestionable bell cow—so you can be sure you’re getting the best fantasy running back for the fourteen games he’s active. 

Questionable Pick: Calvin Johnson—No matter how much you like Megatron, first round is a reach, considering his ESPN ADP is 18. There have also been a growing number of reports that injuries have taken their toll on Johnson, so he’s much more of a risk than people realize. 

Round 2

Team 10-Dez Bryant

Team 9-Demaryius Thomas

Team 8-Rob Gronkowski

Regan’s Team-Jeremy Hill

Team 6-Odell Beckham Jr. 

Team 5-Julio Jones

Team 4-A.J. Green

Team 3-Randall Cobb

Team 2-LeSean McCoy

Team 1-Andrew Luck

My Pick: Jeremy Hill—Having previously written about Hill’s chances of a breakout sophomore season, it’s no secret I think he’s going to have a stellar year. 

Good Pick: LeSean McCoy—Injury concerns coupled with a run on receivers in round two caused McCoy to fall to pick 19. McCoy has been a top ten RB the past two seasons and reports are that he’ll likely play week one, so this could be the steal of the draft. He’ll also be the focal point of Buffalo’s offense, and he’s proven he can handle a bell-cow workload, with 270+ carries three of the last four seasons. 

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Questionable Pick: Honestly, most of this round comes down to draft strategy, so it’s hard to call any one pick out as questionable. Do you go RB-RB, RB-WR, or if you drafted a WR round one do you play it risky and avoid RB again? My philosophy on this is simple—the wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback positions tend to be much deeper than running back, so I prefer to load up on the more scarce position early. 

That said, fantasy is ultimately a question of value, so if you think the overall benefit you get from drafting a non-RB earlier will make up for your inevitable weakness, it may well be worth it. That’s what Team 1 did in drafting Andrew Luck at pick 20, which could pay off if Luck has another 2014-caliber season.&

Round 3

Team 1-T.Y. Hilton

Team 2-Aaron Rodgers

Team 3-Alshon Jeffery

Team 4-DeAndre Hopkins

Team 5-Justin Forsett

Team 6-Russell Wilson

Regan’s Team-Mike Evans

Team 8-Lamar Miller

Team 9-Alfred Morris

Team 10-Peyton Manning

My Pick: Mike Evans—After going RB the first two rounds, I was looking to get a top-tier WR, so I was incredibly happy when Mike Evans fell to me at pick 27. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Evans’ rookie numbers is that his quarterback was a combination of Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. No matter how you spin it, Jameis Winston will be at least as good as that tandem in 2015, and the fact is Evans has the physical tools to compete for the number one overall wide receiver ranking. 

Good Pick: Alfred Morris—There’s nothing flashy about Alfred Morris, but not every pick needs to have a ton of upside. Morris can be counted on for 1000+ yards and 8+ touchdowns just about every season—that’s the kind of reliable production fantasy owners can build a roster around. 

Questionable Pick: Russell Wilson-He’s being drafted based in part on his 113 fantasy points on rushing plays alone last season, but that kind of success for a QB is likely unsustainable. For reference, quarterbacks not named Michael Vick have scored triple-digit rushing fantasy points in a season only five times since 2001, and Wilson himself combined for 117 in that category over his first two seasons. Do the math and the result is Wilson should see some significant regression in 2015. 

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Round 4

Team 10-Melvin Gordon

Team 9-Jimmy Graham

Team 8-Mark Ingram

Regan’s Team-Frank Gore

Team 6-Latavius Murray

Team 5-Drew Brees

Team 4-Tony Romo

Team 3-Emmanuel Sanders

Team 2-Jonathan Stewart

Team 1-Brandin Cooks

My Pick: Frank Gore—To be clear, entering his age 32 season Gore doesn’t come without risk. That said, he has a ton of scoring upside in the vaunted Colts offense, so if his body holds up he could easily be a top 15 running back with upside. 

Good Pick: Brandin Cooks—This is great value at the end of the fourth round. Cooks is the guy in New Orleans now that Jimmy Graham is gone, and even though the Saints project to run the ball more this season, Cooks is still an electric receiver whose playmaking potential will ensure him plenty of looks from Drew Brees. He’ll be a target monster and his speed makes him a vertical threat, which gives him the unique combination of both a high floor and high ceiling. 

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Questionable Pick: Tony Romo—Ummm….what? Romo’s ESPN ADP is 70—regardless of Team 4’s expectations, Romo would’ve been available at least two rounds later.

***(In the interest of brevity, I’m going to cover rounds 5-8 two at a time.)***

Round 5                               Round 6

Team 1-Arian Foster                          Team 10-Sammy Watkins

Team 2-Joseph Randle                             Team 9-Golden Tate

Team 3-Joique Bell                             Team 8-Cam Newton

Team 4-Chris Ivory                                  Regan’s Team-Mike Wallace

Team 5-Jordan Matthews                   Team 6-Martavis Bryant

Team 6-Andre Johnson                             Team 5-Carlos Hyde

Regan’s Team-Ben Roethlisberger      Team 4-Davante Adams

Team 8-Amari Cooper&nb
sp;                             Team 3-Giovani Bernard

Team 9-Andre Ellington                            Team 2-Todd Gurley

Team 10-Keenan Allen                             Team 1-T.J. Yeldon

My Picks: Ben Roethlisberger—Roethlisberger arguably has the most weapons at his disposal of any quarterback this season, and with the Steelers returning the same core cast from last season, I expect Roethlisberger to improve upon his fifth overall QB ranking from 2014.

Mike Wallace—Wallace was a top twenty wide receiver last year in Miami and he could easily improve upon those numbers in Minnesota. In particular, Wallace’s strength when he thrived most in Pittsburg was the deep ball, and Ryan Tannehill—30th in vertical YPA among qualified QBs—stunted his production in that regard. Teddy Bridgewater ranked fourth in that metric last season, which bodes well for Wallace’s fantasy ceiling. 

Good Picks: Carlos Hyde—Hyde in the sixth round definitely shouldn’t have happened. San Francisco’s offense doesn’t project greatly this season, but he’s still the likely bell cow there, which is valuable. If I still needed a starting running back I would have taken him before any of the running backs selected in round 5. 

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Jordan Matthews—I’ve written previously about Matthews’ chances of success this year, so it’s safe to say I’m a big fan of this pick, especially as late as the fifth round. 

Questionable Picks: Arian Foster—This pick is simply too risky for my tastes. There is still no definitive timeline on Foster’s return (late September has been called the best-case scenario) and more importantly there is no guarantee he doesn’t just get re-injured immediately upon return. There’s no way I’m drafting Foster in the first ten rounds until there is some clarity on his rehab timeline. 

Joique Bell—Bell’s knee injury gave Ameer Abdullah the perfect opportunity to showcase his lead-back potential. Abdullah, who has lit up the preseason thus far, simply looks too likely to take Bells’ starting role, even if Bell comes back for week one (which is far from guaranteed at this point). 

Round 7                               Round 8

Team 1-Ameer Abdullah                            Team 10-Jason Witten

Team 2-C.J. Spiller                              Team 9-Matt Ryan

Team 3-Greg Olsen                                  Team 8-Brandon Marshall

Team 4-Martellus Bennett                          Regan’s Team-Jarvis Landry

Team 5-Travis Kelce                                 Team 6-Dwayne Allen

Team 6-DeSean Jackson                            Team 5-Nelson Agholor

Regan’s Team-Jeremy Maclin            Team 4-Ryan Mathews

Team 8-Rashad Jennings                     Team 3-LeGarrette Blount

Team 9-Allen Robinson                            Team 2-Isaiah Crowell

Team 10-Julian Edelman                             Team 1-Cody Latimer

My Picks: Jeremy Maclin—Drafting Maclin as my WR3 felt great. He was a top ten wide receiver last year with the talent to be at least a top twenty wide receiver this year in Kansas City. Everyone is weary of Alex Smith‘s receivers given their ridiculous streak without a touchdown last season, but a large part of that was due to the fact that the Chiefs had very little talent at the wide receiver position in general. Andy Reid, who previously worked with Maclin in Philadelphia, understands how talente
d the twenty-seven year old receiver is and, make no mistake about it, will manufacture a ton of touches for Maclin in 2015. 

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Jarvis Landry—Recognizing that I went heavy on running back early and thus had a bigger weakness at wide receiver, Jarvis Landry was sort of an insurance pick for my wide receiver depth. Working primarily out of the slot, Landry is now the number one target for Ryan Tannehill with Wallace in Minnesota, which bodes extremely well for Landry’s fantasy floor, considering his 75% catch rate was the highest among wide receivers last season. Landry could easily manage 75+ receptions this season, which, if he sees a few more red zone targets than usual, could equate to steady WR2 value. 

Good Picks: CJ Spiller—I’m a big fan of Spiller this year, who never really got a fair chance in Buffalo due to injuries and poor offensive line play, in addition to the existence of Fred Jackson. Spiller is still not the clear-cut number one back in New Orleans, but his role as the passing down back in a Drew Brees offense is a much better fit. When he’s in space Spiller is easily one of the most explosive players in the NFL and I trust Sean Peyton’s ability to manufacture plays that give Spiller open field to work with.

Nelson Agholor—The main reason I’m a big fan of Jordan Matthews this season is because he is (presumably) the lead receiver in Chip Kelly’s offense. That said, a lot of scouts think Matthews is better suited for the slot position, in which case Agholor could be the one that really benefits from the X receiving role in Philadelphia. If Agholor emerges as the primary downfield threat for Kelly’s offense, he’s easily WR2 material with upside. 

Questionable Picks: Rashad Jennings—There’s not a lot to like about Jennings’ situation this year. As of right now he is technically the Giants’ lead back, but both Andre Williams and Shane Vereen figure to be relevant this season. That bodes especially poorly for Jennings, whose significant injury history could open the door for either Williams or Vereen to seize the job entirely. 

Cody Latimer—It’s extremely rare that an offense can make three receivers fantasy relevant, and the Broncos, though they have done it in the past, are not going to be one of those offenses this season. In an effort to take pressure off Peyton Manning in 2015, Denver will feature a two two-tight end set with Owen Daniels and Virgil Green, so there just isn’t room for Latimer to get enough snaps, let alone targets, to be worth drafting this early. 

That wraps up this recap. While drafting strategy may change as the season iches closer, hopefully this gives some perspective on who’s going where and how to approach draft day. Good luck to all with their own drafts and seasons.

Sophomore Breakout Candidates

Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper, Kevin White. How many times have you heard these names this offseason? It’s no secret that the excitement from the draft tends to carry over into preseason buzz, but it’s a small tragedy that the guys who were rookies just one short year ago are so quickly forgotten. Well, this article is for the sophomore break-out candidates―the second year players who aren’t being hyped up, but each of whom has the ability to make a huge impact in 2015. 

QB-Teddy Bridgewater

The preseason QB buzz has been a mix of Tom Brady, Deflategate updates and, of course, Geno Smith‘s jaw. But few are talking about the potential of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entering his second season. 

Barred from the starting job until this guy got injured in Week 3, Bridgewater didn’t produce the flashiest numbers in his rookie season, yet he exhibited the skill set that many scouts deem worthy of a first-round draft grade. 

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In particular, Bridgewater’s decision-making was spectacular, and not just for a rookie. He threw a total of twelve “interceptable” passes in 2014, a metric measured by Cian Fahey of Pre Snap Reads to gauge the interceptions that a quarterback was actually responsible for. Taking into account the number of total pass attempts, Bridgewater threw one “interceptable” pass every 33.5 attempts, which is the fifth best rate among qualified quarterbacks. 

Furthermore, Bridgewater ranked third among qualified quarterbacks with a 0.5% bad decision rating (BDR). BDR is a metric developed by ESPN Insider KC Joyner used to gauge how often a quarterback makes a mental error resulting in a turn-over opportunity for the opposing team. Bridgewater’s stellar performance in this metric wasn’t shocking―he posted a remarkable 0.6% BDR against BCS-caliber opponents in his final year at Louisville. 

The mantra of quarterbacks that bridge the gap from “good” to “great” is superb decision-making, and Bridgewater fits the bill. He has received Aaron Rodgers-esque scouting comparisons in terms of average physical tangibles, along with the ability to read defenses and accurately deliver the ball under pressure. 

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Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe most importantly, the prolific nature of the Vikings offense is sure to benefit Bridgewater’s play. RB Adrian Peterson returns from his own saga and you can bet All Day’s presence is going to free up the passing game. WR Mike Wallace also comes from Miami, and he provides a serious vertical threat to aid Bridgewater. 

RB-Jeremy Hill

Most of the running back hype this offseason has surrounded rookies vying for their team’s starting jobs; consequently, far less attention has been given to second year Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. 

Hill got a crack at the starting job as a rookie in 2014 after RB Giovani Bernard went down with a hip injury in Week 8. From that point on, he never looked back, leading the league in rushing yards and yards per carry in the second half. Overall, Hill averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the season. Entering 2015, his role as the centerpiece of Cincinnati’s offense is secure, with Bernard playing a larger role on third downs.  

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Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The thunder back in a run-first offense, Hill will benefit greatly this season from a fantastic offensive line. The Bengals’ o-line ranked sixth overall in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics. Given the inconsistent play of Andy Dalton, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson surely recognizes the importance of establishing the run, so expect the offense to lean on Hill for first and second downs. 

Much of Hill’s 2014 success can be attributed to the blocking up front, and luckily for Hill, all five starting offensive linemen are returning in 2015. Led by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati’s o-line simply overpowers many defenses and can certainly pave the way for a monster season from Hill in 2015. 

WR-Jordan Matthews

2014 was the year of the rookie wide receiver, but between Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews tends to fall out of the discussion.  Matthews enters 2015 with the best combination of talent and system among this group of sophomore studs. 

The talent is obvious to anyone that watches him play. Admired by college scouts for his smooth route-running and sticky hands, Matthews was nothing short of impressive in his rookie season, racking up 872 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

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Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Sure to only build upon his skills in his sophomore season, Matthews benefits greatly from playing in head coach Chip Kelly’s hurry-up offense. Since Kelly took over in 2013, the Eagles’ number one wide receiver has finished in the top 10 of total yards each season. 

More a product of system than talent, both DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (the two #1 receivers in 2013 and 2014, respectively) had the best year of their careers in Kelly’s offense. Jackson outperformed his career best in receiving yards by nearly 200 yards and Maclin, who returned from having played zero games in 2013, outperformed his career best by almost 350 yards. 

The success of past number one receivers in Chip Kelly’s offense bodes well for Matthews, who projects to be “the guy” in Philadelphia this year. The only potential question mark here is the role that first round wide receiver Nelson Agholor will have in the offense. Josh Huff and Riley Cooper don’t represent real threats to Matthews spot, so most of his ability to emerge as the next DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin rests on Agholor’s transition to the NFL. 

2015 Seattle Seahawks Are Men Among Boys In The NFC West

Few expected the NFC West to become the powerhouse it is today after the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks clinched the division in 2010. Yet three conference championships and one Super Bowl victory later, it now seems like a yearly given that the NFC West will be among the best in football.

Fans, however, would be prudent to temper their expectations for this division in 2015, as a multitude of factors suggest the division as a whole is approaching rapid decline. The Seahawks should still dominate, but, compared to years past, the rest of the division stands little chance of competing with Seattle for the division title.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams can blame their 6-10 record in 2014 on their paltry offense, which ranked 28th in yards per game (314.7). 

St. Louis tried to remedy this problem by trading Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Nick Foles, but he’s not a sure improvement. Foles followed up his incredible 2013 season with a dud in 2014, earning an overall performance grade of -7.4 from Pro Football Focus premium statistics, 25th among quarterbacks. Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, the team’s 2014 passers, ranked 26th and 29th, respectively. 

Foles also loses a respectable offensive line in Philadelphia, which ranked 8th in pass blocking, while St. Louis ranked 27th. 

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rams fans hope that Todd Gurley will propel this offense to acceptable levels, but the reality is that Gurley, though supremely talented, won’t change much initially. Gurley is still recovering from a knee injury and his availability Week One remains uncertain. Even when he does play, defenses will stack the box and force the Rams to throw. Drafting Gurley was a start, but St. Louis has miles to go in the passing game before they win consistently. 

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners have appeared in conference championships three of the last four years, yet they parted ways with the man that brought them there, Jim Harbaugh

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Probably the biggest testament to Harbaugh’s value was just how many players abandoned ship after he announced his departure. Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Dan Skuta, Chris Culliver, and Michael Crabtree are all on different teams now, and Patrick Willis retired. Some may have left anyway, but it’s unlikely all six would have left if Harbaugh stayed. Clearly, his leaving was a sign that rebuilding was looming.

Time is working against the aging Niners defense. With the addition of thirty-four year old Darnell Dockett, the Niners have four defensive players age thirty or older expected to see significant playing time. 

While the defense is filled with veterans whose window is closing, the offense is a total unknown. The offensive line is young and showed promise last season, but Colin Kaepernick took major steps backward in his passing game, posting the lowest total QBR of his career (55.86), and he remains unproven. Likewise, Carlos Hyde replaces Gore and he’s talented, but it’s not a given he will be the bell cow they previously had. 

Arizona Cardinals

After consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, the Cardinals look poised to contend in 2015 at first glance, but several predictive metrics suggest decline is imminent. 

The Pythagorean projection was explained by fellow SQ contributor Daniel Apadula in his article on teams poised for a comeback. Essentially it’s a mathematical prediction of wins developed by Football Outsiders, the idea being that teams who over/underperform their projection are likely to regress the following year. This bodes poorly for the Cardinals, who outperformed their expected win totals of 9.46 in 2013 and 8.34 in 2014. 

Also detailed in Daniel’s article is the predictive application of fumble recovery percentage. Theoretically a team’s fumble recovery percentage should be around 50%, yet Arizona recovered fumbles an NFL-best 62.86% of the time in 2014. This kind of luck is unsusta
inable, so expect fewer fumble recoveries in 2015 and consequently, maybe fewer wins. 

Arizona’s strength in 2014 was its defense, which changed a lot this offseason. Starters Antonio Cromartie and Dan Williams both signed elsewhere and former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles became head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles is credited with the attacking style defense that made Arizona dangerous and opposing teams will recognize his absence. Arizona added LaMarr Woodley and Cory Redding, both of whom figure to help the pass rush but do nothing to fill the depleted secondary. 

Offensively, the big question going forward is whether Carson Palmer can stay healthy. In his six games last season, Palmer threw eleven touchdowns and just three interceptions, demonstrating relative effectiveness in Bruce Arians’ vertical system. 

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After Palmer tore his ACL in week 6, however, the Cardinals were exposed, as backup Drew Stanton ranked 31st among quarterbacks in PFF’s overall performance grade. Palmer’s injury history (17 missed games the past four seasons) suggests a sixteen-game stint is unlikely, so the arrow is pointing downward in Arizona. 

Seattle Seahawks

Despite two years of utter dominance, the Seahawks could actually be better in 2015. Only three starters departed this offseason–Byron Maxwell, James Carpenter, and Max Unger. Maxwell is replaced by veteran Cary Williams, whose physicality suits the Legion of Boom well. Carpenter is easily replaced by Alvin Bailey, and as for Unger, the Seahawks are plenty happy with that move, considering they got Jimmy Graham in return. 

Graham has to be the biggest offseason upgrade for any team, solely because his red zone prowess should stop plays like this from ever happening again:

Seattle has led the league in total defense the past two seasons, and all of their core components are slated to return Week One. Factor in the the addition of Graham to an offense that already features a dominant rushing attack via Marshawn Lynch and continues to improve with the growth of Russell Wilson and Seattle’s offense should score more than enough for the Legion of Boom to continue carrying them. 

We’ve come to know the NFC West as one of the toughest divisions in football. That might not be the case this year, as major question marks surround the Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals. Unsurprisingly, the Seahawks appear poised to trounce the competition once again, but for the first time in a while it looks like their division won’t offer much resistance.