Over the next two weeks or so, I’m going to be previewing the upcoming season, using a bit that Joe Posnanski came up with on his blog (and really, if you haven’t gone over to his site and read his stuff, you are missing out. He is, quite simply, the best sports writer in America. I don’t care if you hate Kansas City, baseball and apple pie—his stuff is so good, you’ll still enjoy it. Also, buy his book on Buck O’Neill—it’s an amazing read). The basic idea is this—I’ll ask two or three questions about each team (some of which will be Vikings related) and the Pro Football Prospectus, written by the great folks over at Football Outsiders, will answer them (and yes, you should buy the Prospectus. It’s a great book for NFL fans and Fantasy Football players, and it will help you understand and enjoy the game a lot more). And now that I’m done plugging books for which I receive no compensation, onto today’s preview—the AFC South, home of four teams on the Vikings schedule and four teams that finished .500 or better last year. I’m not going to try and predict their record, but I am going to put them in the order I expect them to finish.Indianapolis Colts
Is Marvin Harrison going to be Marvin Harrison again?
PFP: Nope, but it won’t matter. And that’s before you factor in that no one outside of the RCA Dome knows the truth about the knee injury he suffered against the Broncos. The Prospectus has him catching only 52 passes for 741 yards and 5 touchdowns, which would be his worst statistics in a full season ever. The thing is, it won’t matter. Not only is Reggie Wayne the best receiver on the Colts, and has been the last two years, eclipsing Harrison in DVOA and DYAR in 2006 and 2007, but Anthony Gonzalez is poised to become the next great Colts receiver after having the best DVOA of wide receivers with a minimum of 50 passes thrown to them. He showed up in the playoffs too. If Gonzalez matches his projection of 1085 yards and 10 touchdowns, the Colts won’t even notice if Harrison never steps on the field.
Can the Colts hold off the Jaguars again and challenge the Patriots for the AFC Championship?
PFP: Depends on whether the Defense can stay healthy. Last year, the Colts lost 53.9 worth of games from their defensive starters, the highest total by far in the NFL. Of course, that’s what happens when your two best defensive players are injury prone, though last year, safety Bob Sanders missing games wasn’t the problem (he only missed on game)—everyone else was. When either Sanders is healthy, the Colts have one of the best pass defenses in the league; they were 3rd in 2005, the last time Dwight Freeney and Sanders were both healthy, and 4th last year, when Sanders was healthy. When Sanders was hurt in 2006, the Colts were only 19th against the pass, though Sanders return for the playoffs helped shore up their defense and propelled them to their Super Bowl win.
Can David Gerrard repeat his amazing 2007 season?
PFP: Yes, though he’s going to throw more than 3 interceptions this year. His coaches are the same, his line is the same, he’ll have the same support from the running game and the Jaguars brought in Jerry Porter to catch his passes. PFP has him throwing for 3898 yards with a 23:13 TD to INT ratio and completing 61.3% of his passes. While it seems like a big jump in interceptions, maintaining an interception per attempt rate of less than one percent isn’t realistic. All of the fifteen quarterbacks with the lowest interception per attempts in a season since 1978 saw their INT/Att percentage increase the next year (excluding Tom Brady and David Gerrard, who obviously haven’t played their next year yet) and all but two threw double digit interceptions the next year.
Is the Jaguars defensive line as good as the Vikings’ defensive line?
PFP: Not anymore. Prior to the addition of the Jared Allen, one could argue that the Jaguars line, while not as good against the run as the Vikings, was so much better at getting to the passer that they were the superior defensive line, though injuries were starting to diminish their effectiveness. Now, with defensive tackle Marcus Stroud gone in a trade that yielded the picks the Jaguars used to move up to select Derrick Harvey and defensive end Paul Spicer, who lead the team in sacks, turning 33, they’re a line in transition. Derrick Harvey will be good (and I will be comparing him with Jared Allen as long as I possibly can as a way to evaluate the Vikings’ decision making) and second round pick Quentin Groves should help at end as well, but the fact they’re counting on rookies means that they can’t compete with the new Purple People Eaters.
Can anyone on the Jaguars catch the ball?
PFP: Yes—Jerry Porter and Mercedes Lewis. Maybe Dennis Northcutt. That’s it. Every other receiver on the team combines stone hands, butter fingers, alligator arms and poor eyesight into the perfect maelstrom of pass dropping (basically, Troy Williamson prior to his Lasik). And if David Gerrard's performance takes a step back, Troy Williamson will likely have played a role in it. I’d also like to point out that Randy Moss had the second best season by a receiver since 1995 last year. Heck of a trade by the Vikings in 2005.
Can the Texans make the playoffs for the first time in their history?
PFP: Definitely. The Texans are projected to win 8.9 games this year, the fifth highest total in the AFC, behind only the Colts (9.9 projected wins) and Jaguars (9.2 projected wins) in their division and the Patriots (12.4 projected wins) and Chargers (12.0 projected wins) outside the AFC South. Their schedule isn’t particularly hard either, ranked 15th in the NFL in opponents' projected DVOA. That being said, their three hardest games out of their division are on the road (@ PIT, @ MIN, @ GB), so they don’t have a lot of wiggle room if they want to get the final Wild Card spot.
Was Mario Williams the right choice in 2006?
PFP: Looks like it. Williams broke out in the final six games of last year, racking up 10 sacks, and finishing with 14 for the season. That kind of production from a defensive end is worth the #1 overall pick in the pass happy NFL. And in a division that contains two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, having someone who can put pressure on them is priceless. That being said, one of the things holding back the Texans’ offense last year was the lack of a home run threat in the backfield. The Texans offensive line was had the lowest Stuff percentage in the NFL last year, which shows they were great at opening holes on the line. They were only 22nd in the NFL in runs of 10+ yards though, which means that Ron Dayne, Ahman Green and Darius Walker weren’t able to make things happen once they were through the line, something Reggie Bush specializes in. The Texans brought in Chris Brown this year to compete for the starting job in the backfield, but odds are he won’t be the answer. Unlike good defensive ends, good running backs can be found relatively easily in the draft, though, which means that Williams was the right choice, even if he’s only above average at getting to the quarterback.
What’s the difference between Vince Young and Tarvaris Jackson’s NFL Careers?
PFP: The 2006 Rose Bowl. Young was drafted third overall in 2006, and Tarvaris went late in the second round. Since then, they’ve been roughly comparable, though Young has played in 14 more games. Tarvaris has an INT/Att of 4.3%, while Young’s INT/Att is 4.1%. Both threw 9 touchdowns last year, had a similar net yards per pass attempt average (6.0 for Tarvaris and 5.9 for Young), similar adjusted sack rates (6.5% to 6.7%) and both have the ability to scramble, though Tarvaris had a higher rushing DVOA (25.4% to -9.7%)and more rushing DYAR (80 to 9) than Young last year. He also had a higher passing DVOA (-5.8% to -8.4%)and more DYAR (107 to 74) as well. Jackson’s projection is better than Young's this year as well, with more passing yards (3376 to 2783), a higher net yards per attempt (5.8 to 4.7), a better TD:INT ratio (21:18 to 13:15) and a better passing DVOA (-7.0% to-15.3%). How much of this is due to the fact that Tarvaris plays in a much better offense is up for debate, but his receivers weren’t much better than Young’s last year (Tavaris had his receivers drop 6.9% of his passes, the ninth highest percentage in the NFL, while Young’s receiver's drop percentage didn’t crack the top ten) and he still had better statistics.
Is Albert Haynesworth the best defensive tackle in the NFL?
PFP: Yes, and he just might be the best defensive lineman in the NFL, even though he’s penalty prone (something I was shocked, I say SHOCKED, to find out). Haynesworth had 9 penalties called on him last year, the fourth most on a defender in the NFL and the most of any defensive tackle (his partner at defensive tackle, Tony Brown, was tied for fifth with 8). Haynesworth was the only player to finish in the top ten in Percentage of Team Plays Made (9th overall), Stop Percentage (5th overall) and Average Yards Against (3rd overall) among defensive tackles. Pat Williams just missed out, finishing 3rd, 9th and 11th respectively. Justin Tuck of the Giants was the only player to finish that high amongst defense ends, finishing 10th, 7th and 10th in the three categories.
The Titans are basically the 2006 Vikings, right?
PFP: Yup. Bad offenses (the Titans were 21st in offensive DVOA last year, while the Vikings were 29th in 2006) combined with good defenses (the Titans were 1st in defensive DVOA last year, while the 2006 Vikings were 4th overall), leading to mediocre seasons. The Titans were a little better on offense and defense last year than the 2006 Vikings, which was the difference between the Vikings’ 6-10 finish and the Titans’ 10-6 finish. The thing is, the Titans didn’t improve the quality of the players Vince Young has to throw to (excluding a 33 year old Alge Crumpler, who is coming off his worst season), so unless Young plans on playing like the #3 pick should play in his third year (something he showed no signs of doing last year), the passing game isn’t going to improve. Without any improvement, the Titans will continue to rely on their rushing game and defense to generate points, neither of which is likely to improve their offensive DVOA (partially because defensive points obviously aren’t factored into the statistic). And then you factor in the loss of defensive end Antwan Odom, who had 8 sacks, and a small step back from players like Kyle Vanden Bosch (12 sacks last year) and 34 year old cornerback Nick Harper and the 6th hardest projected schedule and all of sudden, it isn’t that hard to see the Titans matching their Mean Win projection and finishing with the same 6-10 record as the 2006 Vikings.