Wednesday, September 6, 2017

2017 NFL Over/Under Picks: AFC

Labor Day has come and gone, so it is officially time for the NFL season to start. That means in addition to cheering for your teams both real and fantasy, it's time for some fun making picks thanks to the good folks in Vegas! I was 19-13 in predictions for teams' win totals last year before finishing 60-44-3 against the spread, so I'm going to start with those again. Along with my picks, I'm including last year's record and Pro Football Reference's Expected W-L records based on points scored and allowed. First up, the AFC with the defending champs.

Patriots over 12.5 wins
Last year: 14-2. Expected: 12.7-3.3

There's a reason they are the heavy favorites to repeat, and after going 14-2 last year despite Tom Brady's bogus 4 game suspension, I have no reason to doubt them. Yes, Julian Edelman tearing his ACL is a painful blow as Brady's most trusted target, but Rob Gronkowski is now fully healthy with Brandin Cooks added to the fold to lift the lid off defenses and Chris Hogan a year into the system. Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead should more than make up for the loss of LeGarrette Blount as part of a deep running back committee with Dion Lewis and James White behind a great offensive line, and unlike other teams who would fall well short of expectations should anything befall their quarterback, New England can count on Jimmy Garoppolo as a backup. This total is so high that I probably wouldn't bet it, but for the sake of this post, I'm comfortable taking the Over.

Defensively, the surprising choice to splurge on cornerback Stephon Gilmore rather than give Malcolm Butler a new contract or re-sign the reliable Logan Ryan does provide a short term upgrade in a good secondary. They'll need fourth round rookie Deatrich Wise and sneaky late addition Cassius Marsh to help out last year's fourth round find Trey Flowers in providing a pass rush for those DBs, but otherwise the front seven is a stout unit. They finished 3rd in rushing yards allowed and 5th in Football Outsiders' rush defense DVOA, so whether or not they need to blitz in order to get pressure is really the only question about this team overall. In the end, I think history repeats itself, and the most talented team and best coach go back-to-back to make it 3 out 4 like they did in 2001, 2003, and 2004.
Look for these two to connect on the most TDs in the league.
Steelers over 10.5 wins
Last year: 11-5. Expected: 9.9-6.1

The Killer B's are back together now that Martavis Bryant was officially reinstated to provide another threat alongside Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger, and with a top-notch line in front of them, this offense will be devastating as long as all of them are on the field. That is always the concern given the injury history of Big Ben and Bell, while suspensions tend to loom around the latter and Bryant, as well. Right now, though, it looks like all systems go for this team to put up points early and often.

Playing with a lead will help this defense that came alive after their Week 8 bye thanks in large part to blitzing 43% of the time in the second half of the season. Former first round pick Bud Dupree erupted for 4.5 sacks over the last four weeks of the season after being activated off of IR in Week 11, and they picked T.J. Watt in this year's first round to bookend him as an edge rusher. The defensive line held their own against the run, so if blitzers can tee off in obvious passing situations, opponents will have a tough time attacking a secondary that has some potential with Joe Haden recently joining Artie Burns at corner. Given that there might have been a little luck in going 5-2 in one-score games last year to outperform their expected record, the Over might be a bit close, but I think they'll hit it based on their track record.

Raiders over 10 wins
Last year: 12-4. Expected: 8.7-7.3

I'll admit, there is some regression to the mean coming after an incredible 9-2 record in one-score games helped them exceed expectations, but this is still a young team on the rise for the most part. Donald Penn and newly unretired Marshawn Lynch are the only offensive starters that are past 30 years old, and 26 year old Derek Carr has shown he can rise to the occasion in close games. Top target Amari Cooper is still only 23 and ready to break into the elite tier of wide receivers in his third year with newly promoted offensive coordinator Todd Downing likely be more aggressive as he pushes Carr to continue to improve. If Lynch proves he still has something left in the tank like he appeared to in the preseason, he should easily provide balance to the offense running behind their outstanding line. I'm honestly expecting them to be right at 10 wins, but since I can't pick that, I'm betting on continued improvement making up for some tougher luck in close games.

There might not be a defense that has as much boom-or-bust potential as this one, though. If third year player Mario Edwards can stay healthy, he can make plays at both defensive end and defensive tackle so that reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack doesn't have to do everything again. If third round pick Eddie Vanderdoes can also provide an interior push on a consistent basis, the pass rush could be deadly after strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin proved to be a solid addition last year with 7 sacks. Relying on 5th round pick Marquel Lee and last year's 6th rounder Cory James to make plays from the middle and weakside spots is risky, however. The secondary is up and down with David Amerson and Reggie Nelson solid starters at two spots, but they'll need their first round picks these last two years, Karl Joseph and Gareon Conley, to solidify the other two spots after enticing second round safety prospect Obi Melifonwu was placed on temporary IR and cornerback Sean Smith struggled in the first year of his big free agent contract. That's a lot of questions, but I think there is enough potential to continue to keep them in games and let the offense do the rest.

Chiefs over 9 wins
Last year: 12-4. Expected: 10.1-5.9

I've seen some pessimistic views that this team will be going through something of a rebuilding year after drafting developmental quarterback Patrick Mahomes II in the first round and cutting loose veterans Jamaal Charles and Jeremy Maclin, but the core of the talented team that earned a playoff bye still remains. They just also have an eye towards the future with Alex Smith's eventual replacement in place, a versatile runner that they also traded up for in Kareem Hunt, and more responsibility in the hands of dynamic second year playmaker Tyreek Hill. I believe that Hunt can step into the featured role just fine in the wake of Spencer Ware's unfortunate knee injury, so with a solid offensive line and DVOA's #1 special teams unit setting them up, the offense should remain fine. The fact that Andy Reid has averaged just under 11 wins during his four year coaching tenure doesn't hurt, either.

Their draft pick between their backfield of the future, Tannoh Kpassagnon, should be an immediate contributor with his Adonis-like frame in their defensive line rotation, and with new nose tackle Bennie Logan also added, they could be much better against the run this year. Having star pass rusher Justin Houston finally healthy for a full year is huge for their already strong pass defense so that ball hawks Eric Berry and Marcus Peters won't have to make so many plays in coverage. There is some concern for the cornerback depth behind Peters, but overall, they should be able to handle the difficult first place schedule they face.

Broncos under 8.5 wins
Last year: 9-7. Expected: 9.1-6.9

I don't feel great about this one, but with my Over picks for the rest of the teams in the stacked AFC West, inevitably someone has to see their win total drop. My reasoning here is that with the coaching changes, the elite defense that they relied on so much last year won't be quite as dominant without Wade Phillips at the reins, and the surprisingly competent Trevor Siemian might not take well to Mike McCoy's offense after Gary Kubiak guided him so effectively. It should be noted that McCoy has tailored his schemes to personnel well in the past, but changing coordinators is never easy for young quarterbacks. I'm also not convinced that the changes along their suspect offensive line will provide immediate improvements to allow their strong set of skill players to shine, although their electric sixth round pick De'Angelo Henderson could be a diamond in the rough who doesn't need much of a crease to make plays.

It is a good sign that rookie head coach Vance Joseph isn't being stubborn about sticking to his past 4-3 schemes and empowered rookie defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who previously coached up their dominant secondary. Even with an expected drop off of some sorts, they should still remain one of the best defenses in the league with star players still remaining across their 3-4 alignments. However, the signing of nose tackle Domata Peko might not help them get their run defense back towards the top of the rankings, since he is going on 33 and on downside of his career. That could mean trouble if the offense leaves them behind in games with other teams trying to run out the clock.

Texans under 8.5 wins
Last year: 9-7. Expected: 6.5-9.5

I may come to regret this, but after sneaking into the playoffs thanks to an 8-4 record in one-score games, I think they just miss out this year. Tom Savage probably can't do much worse than what Brock Osweiler did at quarterback, but Deshaun Watson will be making starts at some point after the team moved up 13 spots in the first round for him. I'm willing to pick against that uncertainty at the sport's most important position, particularly with their best pass protector, Duane Brown, a contract holdout at the left tackle spot and Jets castoff Breno Giacomini a question mark on the right side. Having Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as anchors in the running and passing attacks helps, but you shouldn't expect a much better offense than last year's 30th best unit in terms of DVOA, especially with the #31 special teams unit setting them up.

If they do make a playoff push, it will be thanks to an elite defense again. Breakout star A.J. Bouye left for Jacksonville, but they should still be fine at corner with Jonathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson. They added second round linebacker Zach Cunningham and fourth round defensive tackle Carlos Watkins to an already loaded front seven that is also getting three-time DPOY J.J. Watt back healthy, so there aren't likely to be too many shootouts in their games this year. Maybe that will be enough for a winning record, but since there's also a little bit of uncertainty with Mike Vrabel promoted to DC, I'm looking elsewhere in this division.

Titans over 8.5 wins
Last year: 9-7. Expected: 8.1-7.9

And this is the team I like to take Houston's place after falling short last year due to the tiebreaker. Already one of the best young leaders in the league, Marcus Mariot is ready to become an elite passer after the team selected the draft's best receiver, Corey Davis, 5th overall, traded up in the third round for my favorite sleeper, Taywan Taylor, and signed veteran Eric Decker. With reliable targets Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews still in the fold, an imposing pair of runners in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and a strong offensive line, this offense should be one of the best in the league since the 23 year old signal caller is showing no ill effects from the broken leg suffered in Week 16.

The key for this team will be the improvement of a secondary that was torched last year because their strong front seven stuffed the run and got after the passer well enough. Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien should be solid free agent additions, so their playoff chances will likely come down to second year corner LeShaun Sims and their other first rounder this year, Adoree' Jackson, who is a phenomenal athlete but more of return specialist than shutdown corner at this point. With Kevin Byard finishing his rookie year strongly at the other safety spot, though, I'm confident enough to pick this team to at least match their 9 wins from a season ago.
Mariota is poise to take the leap to the top of the QB rankings
Bengals over 8.5 wins
Last year: 6-9-1. Expected: 8.3-7.7

I like Cincinnati to bounce back this year and maybe even win a playoff game finally under Marvin Lewis with some better luck with health and one-score games, in which they were a remarkable 1-6-1. They added a lot of talent in the draft, and Andy Dalton is now stacked with weapons around him with first round pick John Ross providing a deep threat to draw double teams away from A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert and second round pick Joe Mixon combining the receiving skills of Gio Bernard and power aspect of Jeremy Hill into one running back. Relying on former top picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher at the tackle spots is something of a risk, but if this offensive line can be just decent, their skill players should shine.

Getting pass rushers Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the third and fourth rounds shows how deep this draft was and should provide an extra boost to a defense that was solid last year. They've invested a lot into their cornerback group, and their safety duo of George Iloka and and Shawn Williams should be back from their injuries sooner rather than later. Replacing Rey Maualuga with Kevin Minter should be an upgrade at middle linebacker, so if newly healthy nose tackle Andrew Billings can help Geno Atkins on the interior of the line, they can fix last year's leaky run defense.

Colts under 8 wins
Last year: 8-8. Expected: 8.4-7.6

It should be noted that this was at 8.5 and even 9 wins earlier in the summer before concern grew over Andrew Luck's surgically repaired shoulder brought the total down and now off the board completely as far as I can tell. The risks around that golden throwing shoulder are enough for me to lean towards a losing season despite liking this team for the most part. Even if there is some optimism around the young right side, the offensive line in front of Luck is still a concern with impressive second year center Ryan Kelly recently needing foot surgery. That will make it hard to rely on a consistent ground game while Scott Tolzien has to fill in at QB, but I do have my eye on fourth round pick Marlon Mack because he can create big plays and could eventually push the ageless Frank Gore for carries.

Missing arguably their best defender, Vontae Davis, for a couple of games due to groin injury also makes it a tough sell for this team's playoff chances, despite new GM Chris Ballard's strong start on this side of the ball. First round pick Malik Hooker could be a transcendent talent at free safety if he can stay on the field, second round pick Quincy Wilson has a lot of potential across from Davis at corner, and third round pick Tarell Basham should provide a nice pass rushing boost in a rotation with nice free agent additions Jabaal Sheard and John Simon at outside linebacker. Perhaps most importantly, the signing of nose tackle Johnathan Hankins should finally fix their horrendous run defense, so there is potential for this team...if they can ever get healthy.

Ravens over 8 wins
Last year: 8-8. Expected: 8.6-7.4

This might have been the hardest pick because I was leaning towards the Under when it opened at 9, but the total has since dropped down a full game. The offense is nothing to write home about with Joe Flacco proving that he is definitely not elite and now dealing with a back ailment, the offensive line only having two reliable starters in Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda, and a reliance on J.A.G. runner Terrance West as the starting running back. The hope is that Buck Allen and free agent signee Danny Woodhead can provide a bit more juice out of the backfield and a healthy Breshad Perriman could basically be an extra addition like Jeremy Maclin across from Mike Wallace. Still, the chance of Flacco missing any time is a huge concern since Ryan Mallet has shown time and again that he doesn't deserve to be a #2 quarterback.

That being said, I'm tentatively going with the over here thanks to John Harbaugh being a good coach and their defense and special teams ranking 6th and 4th in DVOA, respectively. Re-signing stud defensive tackle Brandon Williams means they'll continue to stuff the run, and for the pass defense, they added corner Marlon Humphrey in the first round along with edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams in the second and third. Cornerback Brandon Carr and especially strong safety Tony Jefferson should be solid free agent additions to solidify the secondary with Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle, so there aren't any obvious weaknesses in this defense.

Chargers over 7.5 wins
Last year: 5-11. Expected: 7.7-8.3

I may not be as bullish on them as Mike Clay is, but LA's newest team has a lot of potential with talent across the board. Like the Bengals, they were kind of snakebitten by injuries and close games, of which there were plenty. Hopefully they'll improve on their 4-9 record in one-score games under new head coach Anthony Lynn, and new special teams coordinator George Stewart could have a heavy hand in that after that unit ranked 29th in DVOA last year. Ken Whisenhunt being retained as OC provides some continuity, and the offense could become more efficient with a reconfigured line headlined by Russell Okung's arrival, although the torn ACL of second round steal Forrest Lamp puts a damper on things. More running lanes would help Melvin Gordon continue to take the next step towards stardom, and a more consistent ground game could take some of the pressure off of Philip Rivers as he takes his pick of talented targets with Keenan Allen now healthy, Tyrell Williams coming off a breakout year, Travis Benjamin back to full speed, Hunter Henry building on a strong rookie season, Antonio Gates about to become the tight end TD king, and first round pick Mike Williams due back before the midway point of the season after avoiding the PUP list.

I am excited about how this defense might come together in new coordinator Gus Bradley's 4-3 scheme thanks to the re-signing of Melvin Ingram to form a dynamic duo at defensive end with Joey Bosa. Having nose tackle Brandon Mebane, whom Bradley had in Seattle, back from a torn biceps is good news for their run defense, and although middle linebacker Denzel Perryman missing at least half the year on IR hurts, Jatavis Brown should excel on the weakside. If Jason Verrett is back to 100% after last year's ACL tear, he and Casey Hayward are one of the best pairs of corners in the league, and after falling surprisingly far in the draft due to disappointing measurables, fifth round pick Desmond King has proven to still be a playmaker in the preaseason no matter which position in the secondary he's playing. With so much potential star power, this unit could help the Chargers push for the playoffs.

Dolphins under 7.5 wins
Last year: 10-6. Expected: 7.6-8.4

This is a tough one for me since I was on top of them being over 7 wins last year, but they ended getting a bit lucky and making the playoffs behind 10 wins despite an expected total of just 7.6. Now, they're turning to Jay Cutler at QB due to Ryan Tannehill's ACL issues, and although that might be an upgrade for DeVante Parker's fantasy stock, the king of DGAF is likely to throw up jump balls a few times too many. Combine that with questions around the interior of their line and Jay Ajayi's consistency (he had the three amazing 200 yard games but was under 80 yards all but one other time), and I have serious concerns about this offense.

They also lost Vance Joseph at defensive coordinator for a unit that was average at best. Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, and a pass rush that added Charles Harris in the first round can help cover up for an inconsistent secondary to a certain extent, but the run defense leave a lot to be desired, especially with a linebacker group that is more name than game at this point. Having safety Reshad Jones back healthy for the whole year could help, but after having an 8-2 record in onescore games, I think the pendulum swings the other way.

Maybe another year in Adam Gase's offense will help Cutler. Or maybe not.
 Jaguars under 6.5 wins
Last year: 3-13. Expected: 5.9-10.1

After being something of a Jacksonville apologist these last couple of years in my picks, it hurts sticking with the Under for them, but I just don't see how you can trust Blake Bortles at this point. I know they want to try and do what the Cowboys did with Ezekiel Elliott last year by taking Leonard Fournette at the same 4th overall slot, but they don't have nearly the same talent along the offensive line to play keep away like that. Hopefully second round pick Cam Robinson can change that as he steps into the left tackle spot, but when they do have to pass, his protection on the blindside might not be up to snuff yet as a raw 21 year old. If Bortles can just be decent enough to get the ball in the hands of his intended targets rather than the other team's, this offense could score enough points for some W's thanks to Allen Robinson headlining a strong receiving corps that added explosive fourth rounder Dede Westbrook and undrafted free agent find Keelan Cole. Unfortunately, you can't count on the passes even being catchable, so even if new head coach Doug Marrone can help them improve on their 2-8 record in one-score games, it's hard to pick them improving by four wins.

The main reason I was tempted to take the Over is that this defense has a chance to be one of the stingiest in the league after supplementing their existing talent with the signings of Bouye at corner, Calais Campbell on the line, and Barry Church at safety. If Yannick Ngakoue or Dante Fowler could provide a consistent pass rush off the edge to help out Campbell and Malik Jackson inside, there wouldn't be any clear weaknesses thanks to Jalen Ramsey's star potential at corner and the exciting combination of Telvin Smith and Myles Jack at linebacker. Seeing is believing, though, so we'll just have to wait on whether this unit is as good as they seem on paper.

Bills under 6.5 wins
Last year: 7-9. Expected: 8.5-7.7

In case it wasn't clear already, the new regime's recent trades officially signaled how much this team is rebuilding by getting strong future value at the cost of this year's record. That means we can almost throw out last year's record for this pick since the roster and philosophy will be different under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, who were in Carolina together last year as DC and assistant GM, respectively. Being most effective on deep throws, Tyrod Taylor wouldn't seem to be a fit in new OC Rick Dennison's West Coast offense, and now that Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are both in LA, there's even more uncertainty in the passing game. I'm a big fan of rookie receiver Zay Jones, whom they moved up in the second round for, but he and last minute addition Jordan Matthews are both likely best suited in the slot despite their size and athleticism. Before possibly ceding duties to fifth round rookie Nathan Peterman, Taylor will likely end up relying on check downs to reliable tight end Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy, who will have to be a workhorse 'back to carry this offense to respectability.

The defense will be switching back to a 4-3 base under McDermott and new DC Leslie Frazier, so maybe that will improve their surprisingly porous run defense. I'm not sure how effective journeyman linebacker Lorenzo Alexander will do in this scheme after his out of nowhere 12.5 sack campaign, but the switch should help last year's first round pick Shaq Lawson generate more of a pass rush in his traditional defensive end spot. That will be needed since this year's first round pick, Tre'Davious White, has a ton of potential but is being asked to be a #1 corner right away next to constant burn victim Shareece Wright and new addition E.J. Gaines. McDermott has worked magic with secondaries made up mostly of afterthoughts before, but he might have his work cut out for him this year.

Browns under 5 wins
Last year: 1-15. Expected: 3.5-12.5

Cleveland has a lot going for them, and like I've made pretty clear with the 76ers in basketball, I think their approach of getting as many bites at the apple as possible is a worthwhile strategy that requires patience. Landing Myles Garrett in the first round and DeShone Kizer in the second reminds me of the Raiders getting Khalil Mack and Derek Carr in 2014...but the Browns also picked up Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku in between those picks late in the first to increase their athleticism at safety and tight end! To me, Kizer had the highest ceiling in the draft and is deserving of starting from the jump despite being the third youngest opening week starter in NFL history, and with the free agent additions of Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter on the line and Kenny Britt at receiver, the offense should rise up from its bottom-dwelling status. There's a chance their young 'backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson and last year's first receiver taken, Corey Coleman, take a leap forward to provide a stabilizing force for the rookie passer, but asking for a four win improvement is a tall order.

I'm not expecting much of an improvement on defense under new coordinator Gregg Williams based on his history, so that might put more on the shoulders of the offense. The switch to the 4-3 could allow them to get more of their young pass rushers on the field along with top outside linebacker Jamie Collins, but I don't think they got much better against the run. In coverage, Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty, and Brien Boddy-Calhoun could form a decent cornerback trio, but there's a reason their former teams weren't inclined to hold onto them. Peppers could help make up for the rest of the secondary, but there's sure to be some rough patches as he transitions back to a deeper role after playing as a hybrid linebacker last year.

Jets under 4.5 wins
Last year: 5-11. Expected: 4.5-11.5

And here lies the worst team in the league. New OC John Morton is certainly undergoing a challenge in his first stint at play calling at this level given his lack of any proven wide receivers and reliance on 38 year old oft-injured QB Josh McCown in front of two uninspiring projects, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. The only bright side is that Bilal Powell showed what he could do with a more featured role when veteran Matt Forte went down last year, and the two of them could provide something of a steady running game behind a possibly decent offensive line. They'll certainly be relied upon as the only reliable pass catchers until raw rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen prove ready.

Conversely, they should still be pretty good at stopping the run even after trading away Sheldon Richardson thanks to having Leonard Williams, Steve McLendon, and Muhammad Wilkeron on the line. It's their edge rushers like last year's third round pick Jordan Jenkins that will need to step up in order to make up for a questionable set of corners in coverage. Their top two draft choices this year, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, could become a devastating safety duo, but they're sure to have a lot of growing pains to start.

Click here for Part Two with the NFC

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