Early Looks At 2021 NFL Team And Player Futures

With the NFL Draft over and the 2021 regular season schedule released, it’s time to look ahead. Yesterday, we looked at pre- and post-draft line movement for Super Bowl odds. Today, we’ll look at some other futures with win totals to target and Rookie of the Year odds on both sides of the ball.

Top Team Fade

There is a long way to go to analyze potential team futures, but I do think there is one team that I will be fading the most in this offseason and that is the Tennessee Titans. You can find under 9.5 wins -130 on Betonline and NO to make the playoffs at +107 on DraftKings. I like both here and would take under 9 at anything -110 or better.

The Titans had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season (29th in DVOA, 30th against the pass) and I don’t believe the moves they made this offseason will help that much this season. They gave edge rusher Bud Dupree a lot of money, and while he was 27th in pressure rate he was only 82nd in pass rush grade among 123 edge rushers according to PFF and is coming off a torn ACL late last season.

Typically, when edge rushers switch teams, they don’t perform up to their prior seasons and when you add in a new scheme, no T.J. Watt on the other side and a rebound off of a major injury, I am skeptical he alone can fix a defense that created the second-lowest pressure rate in the NFL last season.

Tennessee’s pass defense is not likely to be significantly better either as they essentially swapped out veteran CB Malcolm Butler, who finished 25th in PFF pass coverage grade, for CB Janoris Jenkins, who finished 48th in coverage grade last season. At best it’s a lateral move and it will be really hard to assume rookie CB Caleb Farley will make an impact after taking 2020 off due to Covid to go along with some major back issues right now.

On offense, the Titans lost top play-caller Arthur Smith and did not replace the free agent loss of WR Corey Davis. They have no outside WR weapons besides A.J. Brown and the OL is a mess as well. Their current starting RG is Nate Davis who finished 62nd among NFL guards in pass block grade and RT is journeyman Kendall Lamm who has played sparingly for the Browns the last two seasons.

The Titans also are set to face a schedule that ranks sixth-toughest, using 2020 DVOA ratings, after facing the seventh-easiest schedule last season. They currently have the largest disparity of schedule strength from 2020 to 2021 in the NFL.

In addition, the Titans benefited from a couple of luck stats that should regress closer to 50% next year. They ranked fourth-best at recovering fumbles at 67%, produced an absurd 74% red zone TD percentage, ranking second-best in the NFL, and finished 7-2 in one-score games. Overall, they had a Pythagorean win expectation of 9.2 wins, which was 1.8 wins lower than their actual win total of 11. That ranked fifth-highest in terms of actual wins above expected. You also wouldn’t expect the Titans to be as lucky when it comes to injuries either. Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Titans had the sixth-best luck when it came to injuries after finishing third-best in 2019.

Teams I will Back

I’ve already talked ad nauseam about my love for the Broncos this year and mentioned a strong push in yesterday’s post for the Falcons as a Super Bowl sleeper. Another team I do think merits backing at this point, with the prices where they stand, is Jacksonville (Over 6.5 wins, 7-1 to win the AFC South).

The Jags have nowhere to go but up and the obvious reason to be hopeful is the upside of top overall pick Trevor Lawrence and the potential one-year boost from new head coach Urban Meyer. No matter what anyone thinks of Meyer as a long term fit in the NFL, and some of his early moves like the signing of TE (?) Tim Tebow and drafting of RB Travis Etienne in Round 1 were both puzzling, it is clear that college coaches tend to boost a team’s fortunes immediately.

Chip Kelly took over a 4-12 Eagles team and led them to 10-6 in his first season. Jim Harbaugh went 13-3 in his first season after taking over a 6-10 Niners team. Bill O’Brien improved the Texans win total by seven games, Kliff Kingsbury added 2.5 wins, Matt Rhule and Doug Marone kept the same win total for their respective franchises and even Greg Schiano improved the Tampa win total by three games. The last seven head coaches who made the jump from college to the pros improved their team’s win total by an average of nearly four wins the next year and three made the playoffs in the first season.

There are some luck stats that you would expect to regress in the positive direction this coming season for Jacksonville as well. The Jags finished 1-6 in one-score games, for a pathetic 14%-win percentage. Since 2016, there have been 12 teams that finished with a one-score win percentage below 20% and those teams, in aggregate, won 41% of their one-score games the following season with 11 of the 12 improving their one-score record the next season. Only two of the 12 teams finished with a worse overall record the next season and on average the 12 teams improved by an average of 2.5 wins. In addition, the Jags’ Pythagorean win expectation above actual wins was the second-lowest in the NFL at -2.7 last year. They only won one game last year but based on point differential should have won closer to 4 games.

The AFC South is extremely weak overall and could be for the taking. As mentioned above, I don’t think the Titans are a clear playoff team and we already know how historically bad the Texans roster may be if Deshaun Watson is suspended for the season. The Colts also are a high variance team considering they are banking on a reclamation project at QB with Carson Wentz as well as a major hole at LT with the retirement of Anthony Costanzo.

Wentz is coming off a season where he ranked dead last among 32 NFL starting QBs in EPA + CPOE. They tried to fill a hole at LT by signing veteran Eric Fisher this week, but he is coming off an Achilles tear late last season and may not even be ready until October. While Fisher is decent (34th among tackles in PFF pass block grade, 45th in efficiency, 38th & 53rd in 2019) he is far from elite. It is crazy to me that they never once addressed OL in the draft and instead opted for a pass rusher in Kwity Paye, who could only muster 11.5 career sacks in 28 college games. The offense is a major concern, and the team goes from facing the single easiest schedule in the NFL last year to one that is closer to league average this year. 

There are scenarios where Jacksonville wins the AFC South with only eight or nine wins and at 7-1 this division offers up value for the Jags.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

It is important to analyze where Offensive Rookie of the Year winners have come from historically in order to get a better baseline as to where we should be fishing for a contender this season. Since 1995, 35% of offensive rookie of the year winners have been QBs, 50% RBs, and 15% WRs. Since 2010, QBs have won this award at a much larger rate, at 55%, with RBs 36% and only 1 WR (Odell Beckham Jr.) winning this award.

Interestingly, outside of Dak Prescott in 2016, every ROTY at QB has been a top-11 draft pick. At RB, many of the winners have come from outside of Round 1 so if we are looking for a longer shot outside of an early draft pick, RB is the route to go. Since 1995, five of the 13 RBs who have won ROTY, were drafted outside of Round 1. And no need to really dig too deep for an RB as only Mike Anderson has been drafted outside of the top three rounds and won the OROTY.

So, in filtering out some of these trends, the main focus should either be a quarterback in the top-11 of Round 1 or a running back drafted in the first three rounds. Sure, a wide receiver can win it but we’ve only seen four receivers since 1995, and only one in the last 10 years, win it. The fact that Justin Jefferson could produce such an amazing rookie season at WR (88 rec, 1400 yards, 7 TDs) and still not win it tells you the mountain those guys need to climb.

If we exclude WRs and TEs just based on the lack of winners at those positions, that essentially leaves us with quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields along with running backs Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and Trey Sermon to choose from.

Taking a look at the DraftKings odds, it is clear that they are following the recent trend of QBs drafted high at the top of the list. I’d much rather take Jacksonville over their win total or to win the division than take Lawrence at only +300. When you consider injury risk, it’s difficult for me to pull the trigger on such low odds and the other QBs just don’t offer me the type of odds I would be looking for comparatively. 

Williams at 33-1 offers the best odds, in my opinion. With Teddy Bridgewater at QB, expect a lot of dump offs to RBs. Last year, Bridgewater targeted RBs at the seventh-highest rate at 22% and in 2019 targeted RBs at 30% with the Saints. Williams is going to a Broncos team that is expected to be much improved and considering they are expected to face one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year, could be in line with a lot of carries while holding a lead.

In addition, the Broncos get to face the second-easiest schedule of opposing run defenses when considering 2020 DVOA run defense ranks. Williams will play nine games (KC 2x, LV 2x, LAC 2x, DET, JAX, DAL) against teams that ranked in the bottom 10 of DVOA run defense a season ago. Melvin Gordon is the incumbent in Denver but he was really bad last year, ranking 28th in DVOA and 44th in success rate among 47 RBs. He is also carrying an $8.9 million cap number this season and the Broncos could save $2.5 million by cutting him any time prior to the beginning of the season.

If the Broncos needed to free up some cap space for, say, an Aaron Rodgers trade, Gordon could be in trouble. Outside of WR Tim Patrick, Gordon is the only backup or fringe starter where Denver can save money if they are desperate. Veteran Mike Boone was also brought in as a free agent but given that Denver is barely paying him above the veteran minimum ($1.8 million) he isn’t expected to be anything other than a potential RB getting spot carries. 

Williams was PFF’s top-graded RB in the entire country last season, ranked 10th in yards after contact per carry, second in missed tackles forced per attempt, and second in percentage of carries that ended up in a touchdown or first down. He even broke the PFF record for broken tackles per attempt last season. Even with some concerns that Denver’s OL isn’t great at run blocking (28th in adjusted line yards), Williams’s ability to force missed tackles and break tackles is a huge plus. Williams was also a capable receiver out of the backfield, catching 24 of 30 targets for 276 yards, which ranked 14th overall among RBs.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Finding a defensive rookie of the year is much harder to do. Looking at the historical trends, since 1995, 36% of defensive rookie of the year winners have come from edge rushers, 12% from DT, 40% LB and 12% CB. Since 2010, the dispersion has been much more equitable with edge rushers and DT both at 30% while LB and CB each have won at a 20% clip. Interestingly, every edge rusher since 1995 to win the award has come from the top 16 of Round 1.

Digging even further, 22 of the 25 DROTY winners came from Round 1 and the only three players to win the award outside of Round 1 were LBs. I only went back 25 years but there has not been a DROTY that came outside of the top two rounds. Three of the last five winners were edge rushers from Ohio State, ironically, but there is a clear advantage to gaining sacks as a way to win this award. 

To take a CB, you somehow would have to properly predict interceptions. The last two winners, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters, had five and 8 interceptions, respectively, in their rookie seasons. Both had at least one pick returned for touchdown. So really what the filter comes down to is a first-round defensive player at edge rusher and defensive tackle as well as a linebacker in the first two rounds. The list from these filters is below along with current odds from DraftKings:

I am not sure there is a clear-cut favorite from this list. Normally, Jaelan Phillips would be a perfect fit as the top edge rusher drafted on a good defense but his injury history, especially having to briefly retire at UCLA due to concussions, is a major red flag. I would need better odds than 7-1 to take on that risk.

One sleeper option I do like would be Nick Bolton, a middle linebacker with KC at 33-1. Bolton should be able to win the job in the middle of that defense and will have a chance to rack up a ton of tackles. Incumbent Anthony Hitchens has been terrible the last two seasons (graded as the 69th and 85th-ranked LB by PFF the last two seasons) and the Chiefs can save $6.4 million by cutting him after June 1.

The Chiefs will be facing a bunch of run-heavy offenses, including three of the four run-heaviest teams in the NFL last season in the Browns, Ravens, and Titans. Add in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott and the Giants with Saquon Barkley and Bolton will get plenty of opportunities for tackles.

The other longer shot that I like is Azeez Ojulari from the Giants. As mentioned above, sacks are a huge driver of edge rushers winning this award and by all accounts Ojulari was the best or second-best pure pass rusher in this draft. He only dropped to Round 2 based on some potential long term medical concerns with his knee but all we need is one really good rookie season to cash this ticket. The Giants have a clear hole at OLB and he should step in on day one.

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