The following is excerpted from the team chapters of the always-excellent Football Outsiders Almanac. Buy the PDF for $12.50 or order the printed book from Amazon.


AFC East

New York Jets: With Marty Mornhinweg and his West Coast Offense now in New York, that could mean good things for Mike Goodson. Regardless of system, expecting consistent production from either Santonio Holmes or Kellen Winslow, Jr., is foolhardy, so the Jets may wind up throwing a bunch of short passes to the running backs. Over the last three seasons, LeSean McCoy has caught 180 passes in just 42 games while playing under Mornhinweg. Last year, Shonn Greene led all Jets backs with 19 catches, but a healthy Goodson—who is a better receiver than Chris Ivory—could easily double that number. The offense won't be great, but fewer turnovers from the quarterback and more big plays from the running backs could go a long way toward making this unit respectable. The Jets' average rank in offensive DVOA for the first three years of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez was 19th. That's not above average, but it's also a long way from ranking 30th. (Chase Stuart)

New England Patriots: The loss of Aaron Hernandez is a bigger deal than the loss of Wes Welker, because the Patriots were completely unprepared for it. Yet it may not be as big a deal as most people think. Hernandez missed six games last year with various injuries, plus most of a seventh. (He started the Week 2 loss to Arizona but left with an injury after just eight minutes.) How much did the loss of Hernandez hurt the Pats? Surprisingly, it didn't. The Patriots actually had more offensive production without Hernandez than they did with him, no matter whether you measure by points scored, yards per play, or DVOA. They certainly go into this season with more question marks than any season since 2006, but it's hard to see this team missing the playoffs despite the turnover on offense. The offense will still be good, the defense is likely to get better, and the special teams should once again be excellent. As an added bonus, the Patriots play in the easier conference with very little competition within their division. In 42 percent of our season simulations, New England was the only team in the AFC East to finish with a winning record. They could drop to 11-5 or 10-6 and still make the playoffs easily, which gives Tom Brady an entire season to get used to his new receivers and Rob Gronkowski an entire season to get healthy. The Hernandez fiasco is an embarrassment for the organization, but this team still has to be considered one of the top two or three contenders to win Super Bowl XLVIII. (Aaron Schatz)


Buffalo Bills: E.J. Manuel was the second-fastest quarterback at the Combine, running the 40 in 4.65 seconds, and out of this year's quarterbacks he's the one who best fits a decision to use the read option. But that's not all he is. Jimbo Fisher's offense at Florida State used both the I formation and a traditional shotgun to go along with the read-option plays. Doug Marrone got to work with Drew Brees the last time in the NFL, and he wants a quarterback like Brees who can run a fast-paced offense and has strong fundamentals as a passer but also the ability to improvise. There aren't really holes in Manuel's game, things he just plain cannot do. If he's not yet ready to step into an NFL starting lineup, it's because of elements in his game that grade out at C instead of B, or B instead of A. (Aaron Schatz)

Miami Dolphins: For the sake of argument, let's assume Mike Wallace manages to uphold his end of the bargain and has another 1,200-yard season. Even then, recent history suggests that signing a No. 1 receiver—even one who has a productive season—doesn't do much to improve a team's overall pass offense. Just last season, Tampa Bay only improved six spots in pass offense DVOA despite Vincent Jackson's individual exploits. Terrell Owens had 72 catches for 983 yards and nine touchdowns with Cincinnati in 2010, but the Bengals pass offense improved only four spots. In 2009, T.J. Houshmandzadeh had an Owens-like stat line after signing with Seattle, but the Seahawks finished 25th for a second consecutive season. (Danny Tuccitto)

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: Without Ray Lewis in the spotlight, the 2013 Ravens are a Newsome team built on Newsome principles: lots of developmental players and no glaring weaknesses (in the leaner years, the only Achilles heel was usually the quarterback). This is a team built the old fashioned way. The 2012 Ravens were the same way, once you looked past the legends. Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger did not start the season as superstars, or even starters: they were slow-burn prospects who grew into their roles as the season progressed. Graham was a Bears special-teamer acquired by Newsome to be a nickelback. Not even Newsome expected him to emerge as a top-tier starter, but only Newsome saw more than just a kick gunner. The Ravens built their Super Bowl run out of these players, as well as rookies (Bernard Pierce, Justin Tucker, Kelechi Osemele) and reclamation projects (Jacoby Jones, Bryant McKinnie, Ma'ake Kemoeatu). The last few seasons of Ravens football have been a master feat of roster creation, facilitated by Harbaugh and his staff, who made sure every replacement part knows where he is supposed to fit. (Mike Tanier)


Cleveland Browns: Barkevious Mingo lit up our SackSEER projection system with a rating of 94.6 percent and a projection of 34.5 sacks in his first five seasons. He draws comparisons to Jevon Kearse with his lanky frame, and runs like a 250-pound strong safety in the open field. Ray Horton, whose scheme accommodates talented square pegs, may be the ideal coordinator for him, and playing behind Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard will help Mingo develop. The Browns should have a nasty pass rush, which will be a very big important improvement over last year. Our charting lists Cleveland bringing pass pressure on only 16.7 percent of pass plays (31st in the NFL), and the Browns had the largest gap in the league between DVOA allowed with pressure (-124.4%, 1.2 yards per play) and DVOA allowed without pressure (37.9%, 7.4 yards per play). (Mike Tanier)

Pittsburgh Steelers: New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is helping Todd Haley install an outside zone-blocking scheme. The scheme has to help a running game that finished 31st in the NFL in runs up the middle last year, while running up the middle a league-high 75 percent of the time. Despite the "outside" in the name, outside zone runs often bounce inside once the defense has been stretched laterally. The new system earned rave reviews in minicamp, as new systems often do in minicamp. What's not clear is how suited the Steelers' linemen are to a scheme that emphasizes quickness and technique over size and force. Maurkice Pouncey, who was slowed by injuries last year but still played at a high level, should be fine. Right guard David DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with a dislocated kneecap and got beaten up by Marcus Spears and Geno Atkins in late-season action against the Cowboys and Bengals, but he is still a fine prospect and good system fit who should settle down. At left guard will be Ramon Foster, who signed a three-year contract after testing the free-agent waters and finding them frigid. He looked terrible when trying to block on the move last season and is an odd fit for a zone-blocking scheme. (Mike Tanier)

Cincinnati Bengals: They made the playoffs for the third time in four years, which has never happened in team history. Plateau, gather-step, or what-have-you, the Bengals have distanced themselves from the Bungles and shed their reputation as a shoestring operation with a knack for botching the draft and larding the roster with unrepentant troublemakers. The front office may still be teeming with members of the Brown-Blackburn clan, but executive vice president Katie Blackburn is a better administrator than father Mike Brown, Duke Tobin has run several productive drafts, and infrastructure and scouting budgets are finally close to league standards. The Bengals finally have the "organization" part of their organization down pat. While improvement on their 2012 season may be hard to see, steep decline is even harder to imagine. The Bengals roster is now too talented and professional for a sudden 4-12 circus flop. The team is deep in serviceable players at every position, and the front office is now nimble enough to keep the shelves stocked. The Bengals are not yet great, but they are demonstrating a sustained ability to not be terrible, which is a new development for the franchise. (Mike Tanier)


AFC South

Houston Texans: What can J.J. Watt possibly do for an encore? It's hard to say, but probably not quite as much. Watt's dominance helped inspire all three divisional foes to make significant investments on the right side of their offensive lines: Jacksonville and Tennessee through the draft, and Indianapolis through free agency. Of Watt's 20.5 sacks, 9.5 came in the six divisional games. His pace of 11.5 sacks in the other 10 games still gives him a projection of 18.5 sacks even without feasting on Guy Whimper, Leroy Harris, and Jeff Linkenbach, but the rest of the teams on the Houston schedule will also be concentrating on countering him. Watt had a season-low one solo tackle in the playoff loss to the Patriots. He still penetrated well, but New England running backs were taking wider initial steps to make it harder for Watt to make plays from the backside. (Tom Gower)


Jacksonville Jaguars: We project the Jaguars to be the league's worst offense in 2013. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, missed the final 10 games of the regular season with a Lisfranc foot injury before undergoing surgery in December. The Jaguars have very little depth behind him; Justin Forsett (53 DYAR in 63 runs as the No. 3 back with Houston last season) is the top backup entering camp. First-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch also plans to get the ball into the hands of former Michigan quarterback-turned-running back Denard Robinson about 10 to 15 times per game. However, it's unclear in what capacity those touches will come, and when was the last time that a rookie gimmick player undergoing a position change actually got 10 touches a game? Jacksonville's receiving corps is fairly thin, as well, especially considering Justin Blackmon's four-game suspension. Cecil Shorts is coming off a breakout season (154 DYAR, seven touchdowns) in 2012, but the main receivers after him are injury-prone slot receiver Jordan Shipley and fourth-round rookie Ace Sanders. (Brian McIntyre)

Indianapolis Colts: Left tackle Anthony Castonzo had the dubious honor of leading all NFL offensive linemen with 36 blown blocks. This is a worrying sign about Castonzo's development; it's one thing for a first-round pick to have an awful year as a rookie, but by year two he should be improving. Closely behind Castonzo was right guard Mike McGlynn, who our game charters had leading all NFL guards with 30.5 blown blocks. That includes 9.5 blown blocks on running plays, which may partially explain the Colts ranking 30th in both Adjusted Line Yards on mid/guard runs and Stuffs. Castonzo and McGlynn were the mainstays on the line, while center Samson Satele and right tackle Winston Justice missed a handful of games apiece and veterans Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz split duties at left guard. (Brian McIntyre)

Tennessee Titans: It is difficult to say just how much difference even relatively acclaimed additions like Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack will make. Levitre is renowned primarily as a pass protector and is not a people-mover in the run game. As for Warmack, guards drafted in the first round generally turn into good players, but the Titans need him to be an impact starter in his first season, in part to handle Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. How will he transition from being part of a dominant team in college to one that struggles to win games in the NFL? Mike Munchak, a renowned technician as a player who developed quality offensive linemen as a position coach before taking the head job, has indicated he will be taking a more hands-on role with the offensive linemen this year. The Titans' offensive line, however, has not had a regular starter with less than three years of NFL experience since tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos were in their third seasons in 2007. Some level of growing pains should be expected. (Tom Gower)


AFC West

San Diego Chargers: This year, coach Mike McCoy is crafting a spread-out, quick-passing system that fits perfectly with the way today's NFL has evolved. Instead of asking the immobile Rivers to drop back seven steps behind a porous offensive line, McCoy will ask him to rely more on his sharp pre-snap diagnostic skills and get the ball out on three- and five-step timing. McCoy has said he thinks Rivers can complete 70 percent of his passes in this system. That's pretty unlikely given that only three quarterbacks in NFL history have completed over 70 percent of their passes in a full season (Ken Anderson, Drew Brees and Steve Young), but at least this kind of system should help Rivers rediscover some of the mechanical discipline that has leaked from his game over the past two years. (Andy Benoit)

Denver Broncos: Champ Bailey had a phenomenal season last year. However, he's also going to be 35 years old this year, and his game-charting numbers had been declining steadily over the past few seasons before rebounding in 2012. (Until last season, Bailey's Adjusted Success Rate had dropped every year except 2009.) Common sense says you should expect decline from any 35-year-old football player, but what about cornerbacks specifically? What can we learn now that Football Outsiders has eight years of game charting data on pass coverage? Well, the numbers don't suggest that a 35-year-old cornerback will decline significantly, and they don't suggest that he will play as well as the year before. What they suggest is that he won't play much at all. In eight years, only five cornerbacks played enough at age 35 to qualify for our cornerback rankings (40 charted targets or eight games started): Nick Harper and Al Harris in 2009, Ronde Barber in 2010, Charles Woodson in 2011, and Antoine Winfield in 2012. These cornerbacks are outliers when it comes to the aging process, and obviously so is Bailey. (Andy Benoit)


Oakland Raiders: Last season, Darren McFadden was playing behind a zone-blocking line, which his running style simply does not fit. This year, the Raiders will be back in a man-blocking scheme under Greg Olson. The former Lions/Rams/Bucs offensive coordinator is stepping in for Greg Knapp, who was fired after one season. By making this change, McKenzie and Dennis Allen tacitly admitted that they made a mistake with the direction they took the offense in their first year together. They thought they wanted one thing and after seeing it play out (or not play out) with Knapp, they changed their mind. (Andy Benoit)

Kansas City Chiefs: Kansas City's front seven is built for winning one-gap battles. Dontari Poe is a sensational athlete who is more suited to play in attack mode, rather than a more technique-oriented two-gap react mode. Defensive end Tyson Jackson is worth giving more one-gap assignments to since it's been apparent over the years that the former No. 3 overall pick is very average as a two-gap controller. Jackson is not a pure three-technique type, but he has a build and athleticism more fit for penetrating than simply fighting to hold ground. It's known that newly-signed end Mike DeVito can thrive in an attack scheme because he did with the Jets. Furthermore, being attack-oriented would make it harder for opponents to combat Kansas City's athletic linebackers. (Andy Benoit)

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, who now carries the all-encompassing title of "Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President, and Director of Player Personnel," recognized the need for a big ugly, and made a big, ugly trade to get one. Positioned with the 18th overall pick in the first round of the draft, Jones and Jones decided to trade down and acquire the San Francisco 49ers' 31st overall pick, plus a third-round pick for good measure. With that 31st overall pick, Dallas selected Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, the eighth-ranked offensive lineman on's Big Board, and a second- to third-round prospect in the minds of most in the know. Frederick, for his part, was refreshingly honest about his new status. "I thought I was a second-round offensive lineman," he told Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. "I thought somewhere in the second round would be more of a fit for me. I truly didn't expect this." The point here isn't to pick on Travis Frederick, who very well could develop into a starting center with a 10-year career. The Frederick trade is just a symptom of the larger problem, a disconnect between cost and value that has plagued the Cowboys franchise in recent years, especially when it comes to the draft. (Doug Farrar)


Washington Redskins: There was no aspect of the Redskins' offense that Griffin did not affect in a monumentally positive sense. Griffin is not just another Velveeta spread-boosted quarterback better outside the pocket than in it—unlike Vince Young, Jake Locker, and (gasp) Tim Tebow, he is totally comfortable when asked to stand in the pocket, scan his reads, and fire the stick throw under pressure. Believe it or not, Washington was most efficient going old school. When the quarterback was under center, Washington averaged 6.8 yards per play with 34.1% DVOA. From pistol, Washington averaged 6.4 yards per play with 21.7% DVOA. From shotgun, Washington averaged 5.7 yards per play with 7.5% DVOA. This is not a fluke; Griffin is a real-life, bonafide pocket quarterback who just happens to have three extra gears on the ground. In fact, Griffin's 54.1% passing DVOA under center was the highest for any NFL quarterback in 2012 with more than 100 attempts. (Doug Farrar)

Philadelphia Eagles: If you're a regular reader of Football Outsiders, you know that last year's turnover problems don't mean much for this year. The 2012 Eagles were the 45th team since 1990 to fumble 35 times or more in a season. The first 44 teams, on average, fumbled 37.7 times, but that number dropped to 28.1 in the following season. Some regression towards the mean should be expected, and an improved offensive line should cut down on the quarterback sack/fumbles, too. And while the Eagles often looked more like a traveling comedy act than a football team, they also experienced their share of bad luck. Philadelphia lost 22 fumbles, another number that is prime for some regression. Thirty-one other teams since 1990 have lost 20-plus fumbles in a season, although the Eagles are the first team since the 2007 Ravens to join the list. On average, that group lost 21.3 fumbles, but only 14.7 fumbles the following season. (Chase Stuart)


New York Giants: Since 2006, the Giants have gone 42-14 in the first eight games of the season, which averages to a 6-2 start through the halfway mark. But on the back eight, Tom Coughlin's team has a 24-32 record, and rough second halves have kept New York out of the playoffs in three of the last four years. If not for one poor pass from Tony Romo to Miles Austin, New York's second-half woes might have kept the team home in January for four straight seasons, and Coughlin would probably be out of a job. But by winning Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, the Giants have avoided the media criticism and the "choker" label that would befit a team that struggles down the stretch. But it's not all the Giants' fault, as Howard Katz and his team of schedule makers on Park Avenue have back-loaded the Giants schedule nearly every year. Since 2006, the Giants' average first-half opponent has had a .446 winning percentage while the average second-half opponent has had a .573 winning percentage. That's roughly equivalent to facing the same opponent each week, but playing them at home in the first half of the year and on the road in the second half. Once again this year, the schedule isn't going to help things: Our average projection for New York's first eight opponents is a -2.4% DVOA, while the teams in the back half average 4.7% DVOA. Although the Giants to get to play five of their last eight games at home, the second-half opponents include Green Bay, Seattle, and Washington twice—with Robert Griffin likely to be more healthy than he will be in September. (Chase Stuart)

NFC North

Detroit Lions: The root problem for the Lions is that they are one of the last victims of the winner's curse in the NFL Draft. To cut through an economic theory succinctly in plain English: the top ten picks in the NFL Draft used to get exorbitant salaries that were in line with the best players at their positions despite the rookies not having proven their worth yet. The fact that these contracts were so out of line made them very hard to re-negotiate and effectively locked teams into paying franchise money for players who may or may not have been saviors—or taking enormous cap hits to get rid of them. After the NFL's lockout in 2011, enormous rookie contracts were lost in a concession by the NFLPA, and a slotting system was instituted that gave players more reasonable (well, reasonable to the owners, anyway) salaries. If Detroit's stars were drafted under the current NFL Draft system, their low salaries today would be an asset for the Lions in negotiations, as Detroit could give them long-term deals with large up-front bonuses that effectively spread the cap costs of the contract around. Instead, since they are working from humongous deals with gigantic cap hits, the Lions are effectively trying to play a game of Cap Hit Minesweeper with no safety net. Unless the new NFL TV money raises the salary cap or they cut bait on Suh, the Lions are going to be carrying nearly 50 percent of their cap on three players for the foreseeable future. (Rivers McCown)


Chicago Bears: It's been hard to separate quarterback Jay Cutler from his offensive line since he's been in Chicago, because it's a ready-made excuse when a quarterback gets sacked as often as he has. Cutler does have decent feet and good pocket movement to buy time, but he has tended to overuse it and not trust his secondary receivers unless he was sure they were open. Perhaps stepping up like Brees will make him more comfortable. The only sure thing at this point seems to be that new coach Marc Trestman, a devotee of rational analysis, will be willing to mold his scheme to the player rather than vice versa. (Rivers McCown)

Minnesota Vikings: It doesn't take a lot of digging to figure out Christian Ponder's main issue as a quarterback: an inability to consistently connect on deep passes. At Florida State, Ponder could neatly be divided into two different prospects. There's the junior who was averaging 8.2 yards per attempt before he separated his throwing shoulder on a vicious hit by Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel, and there's the senior who averaged 6.8 yards per attempt and struggled through constant nagging injuries. Ponder's NFL play has resembled the senior season vintage. We marked the Vikings with 22 completions and five pass interference penalties on Ponder's 77 passes that travelled 15 or more yards past the line of scrimmage ("deep" passes, from here on). That's good for a DVOA of 10.7%, which sounds nice until you realize that the average DVOA on deep passes fluctuates somewhere between 45% and 65% on a seasonal basis. We have pass distance data for the past eight years. In that time Ponder was one of just 41 quarterbacks to post a DVOA below 20% on deep passes in more than 50 attempts. (Rivers McCown)

Green Bay Packers: A big reason that we are so high on Green Bay this season is that they were, by far, the most-injured team in our Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) database last year. They became only the sixth team ever to conjure up more than 100 AGL in a season. While there was no great upward trend in this specific sample of teams—something your author blames on small sample size theatre and Matt Millen—they all showed a marked improvement in health next season. The fact is, teams that tend to be that unhealthy tend to be really bad. They tend to bring in new coaches and front offices, and those new coaches and front offices usually gut the roster of injured players and succeed or fail on their own merits. That's not the case with the current Green Bay Packers, which is an incredible demonstration of how deep this team has been built. Going back to 2002, every other team that finished dead last in AGL posted a negative DVOA, and usually it wasn't even close to league average. Injuries don't make for a sexy narrative, though. There's no humanity in them. They are often accused of being excuses rather than explanations. It's much easier to worry aloud if Dom Capers' scheme is just poor at stopping the read option than to point out that Green Bay's linebacker corps was playing reserves and severely banged-up starters. With an AGL of 40.1, the Packers had more Adjusted Games Lost at linebacker than seven teams had on all units combined; postseason starters Brad Jones and Erik Walden were backups forced into the lineup due to injury, while Matthews was dealing with hamstring problems down the stretch. Capers hardly had all the answers in that game—in fact, recent reports noted that he barely prepared for the read option at all—but along with Dick LeBeau and Wade Phillips he's probably one of the three best defensive coordinators in the modern history of the NFL. He's successfully shifted his scheme from the grind-it-out '90s to the modern spread attacks of today; he probably knows a thing or two about making adjustments. (Rivers McCown)


NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sander Philipse, one of the FO game charters who also writes for, discovered a presentation Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano gave on his defensive philosophy at the 2011 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic. The first building block of Schiano's game plan: Stop the run. Schiano emphasized his point by pointing out the win-loss records of teams that did or did not rush for 100 yards in a game. Schiano correctly noted that the team that rushes for more yards usually wins the game. In the process, though, Schiano failed to distinguish correlation from causation. High rushing yardage totals come because winning teams run, not because running teams win. Most successful teams pass to build a lead, then pile up ground yards in the fourth quarter as they run out the clock. If Schiano's focus on stopping the run is in any way hurting Tampa Bay's ability to stop the pass, then he's doing his team a disservice. Pass defense is simply more important than run defense. That is especially true in this, one of the most passer-friendly eras in league history, but it was also true in the 1990s, the 1980s, and even in the dead-ball 1970s. Frankly, teams with bad run defenses win Super Bowls all the time. Five teams this century have won the Super Bowl with a run defense that ranked 20th or worse in DVOA, including last year's Ravens. Four teams pulled it off in the 1990s. Our DVOA database only goes back to 1991, but two teams in the 1980s won championships despite ranking 20th or worse in yards allowed per rush, two more pulled it off in the 1970s, and the 1967 Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl II despite ranking 15th in a 16-team league. Meanwhile, only two teams have ever won the Super Bowl despite ranking 20th or worse in either pass defense DVOA or net yards allowed per passing play: the 1998 Denver Broncos and the 1976 Oakland Raiders. (Vince Verhei)

Atlanta Falcons: We don't forecast the Falcons to be one of the top Super Bowl contenders of 2013 because when you look at the numbers underlying their 13-3 record, the Falcons really shouldn't have been one of the top Super Bowl contenders of 2012 either. The 2012 Falcons resembled the 2010 Falcons, who were also 13-3 and clearly not the best team in the NFC despite finishing as the number-one seed. Except that by our numbers, the Falcons have actually declined since 2010. Atlanta's DVOA peaked at seventh in 2010, then fell to eighth in 2011 and tenth last year. Locals took it as disrespect when the national media refused to give the Falcons their due even as they were coasting to home-field advantage in the playoffs, but the vaguely phrased distrust coming from the football commentariat simply reflected the numbers. The Falcons outperformed their Pythagorean record by nearly two full games and their Estimated Wins by nearly four. They benefitted from the 27th toughest schedule in the league, particularly blessed by problems throughout their division. The implosion in New Orleans, Josh Freeman's inconsistency, and Ron Rivera's "coaching" all redounded in Atlanta's favor. Outside their division, the Falcons played five of the seven teams that finished last season 5-11 or worse. (Robert Weintraub)


Carolina Panthers: Every year, there's a surprise team in our projections, a dark horse that we expect will rise from a losing record to a Super Bowl contender. This year, that team is the Carolina Panthers. There's a lot to like about the talent on this squad. Cam Newton is a superstar quarterback going into his third season, and his continued development should vault the offense forward several notches. The defense features a potentially dominant front seven, led by another young blossoming star in Luke Kuechly, which should cover up for some question marks in the secondary. They finished the year on a four-game winning streak, which inspired hope for the following season. For all those positive signs, though, there is one big weakness that can't be ignored, and for that reason we're subjectively skeptical of our objective optimism. It's not the lack of depth at receiver that has us worried, nor the shaky status of the secondary, though those are certainly viable concerns. In fact, it's not a player that has us worried at all. It's the head coach. Through two seasons, Ron Rivera has done little to show that he's capable of managing an NFL team on Sundays, and that will likely be the reason Carolina comes up short again this year. (Vince Verhei)

New Orleans Saints: Mission No. 1 upon coach Sean Payton's return is fixing the defense, which has never been his area of expertise. There is some good news regarding that beleaguered unit. As worst defenses go, New Orleans was pretty good. The Saints' 14.8% defensive DVOA was the best of any last-place defense since the 1995 expansion Jaguars. Given the fact that defensive regression towards the mean is stronger from season to season than offensive regression, improvement is almost mandatory. The 21 previous teams that finished dead last in our defensive rankings improved the following season by an average of -10.6% DVOA. Only the 1998 Bengals and 2008 Lions got worse on defense by more than a tenth of a percentage point. On the other hand, with rare exceptions, the improvement of godawful defenses tends to stop somewhere around "still pretty bad." The 2006 Redskins (Department of Irony: their defensive coordinator that year was Gregg Williams) were crushed by injuries, and set a record for fewest takeaways in a season, with but 12. Health and turnover regression helped propel them back to strength in 2007. The 2010 Jags imported a raft of free agents and made a quantum leap up the charts in 2011 (before giving back almost all their gains a year ago). But for the most part, quick turnarounds are rare. Indeed, both the Cardinals at the beginning of the millennium and the Lions at the end of its first decade remained the NFL's worst defense for three straight seasons. (Robert Weintraub)

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: Our numbers place most of the blame for the dreadful ground game on the offensive line. The Cardinals finished with 2.93 Adjusted Line Yards, the worst figure in the 18 years for which we are able to calculate the statistic. Like most such teams, the Cardinals are relying on a mix of different offensive linemen and a new running back to improve the picture for the next season. The two top runners are gone, as LaRod Stephens-Howling signed elsewhere in free agency and Beanie Wells was cut. The new starter will be former Steelers first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, reunited with Arians from their days together in Pittsburgh. Arians was effusive in his praise for the free-agent acquisition, declaring "He took me personally to a Super Bowl." Our numbers, however, indicate the Ben Roethlisberger-led passing game and the defense may have had more to do with it than Mendenhall. Mendenhall also had a worse 2012 DVOA than either Stephens-Howling or Wells. While his career numbers suggest he is unlikely to fumble every 17 carries again, he has never ranked in the top 20 in the league in DVOA. A savior, he will almost certainly not be. An improvement? That's a possibility, but not a certainty. (Tom Gower)


San Francisco 49ers: Looking at the potential of the raw talent on the San Francisco roster rather than trends in the team's performance over the previous two or three years, it was clear going into 2012 that the 49ers were far from an average team. In the pre-Harbaugh years, Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe had amassed one of the most talented rosters in the NFL; it just wasn't being utilized properly by the previous coaching regime. In 2010, San Francisco went 6-10 despite getting a combined 161 starts from the first-round picks on their roster, which was second-most in the NFL that year. (The Jets went 11-5 behind 186 starts from 15 former first-rounders.) That total also ranked 11th among all teams over a 20-year period from 1991 to 2010; eight of the top 10 finished over .500. Even more to the point, the 2011 49ers got 162 starts by former first-round picks, which was second-highest among the 81 Plexiglass Principle candidates since 1991 (i.e., teams that improved by at least 20 percentage points of DVOA the previous season). Only the 2008 Baltimore Ravens had more (177), and they too avoided a bounce off the plexiglass a year later (29.1% DVOA in 2009). In other words, San Francisco's quantum leap to 13-3 in 2011 was due in no small part to the sudden eruption of dormant talent that had been on the roster all along. (Danny Tuccitto)

Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll employs some of the more unique defensive sets the NFL. The coach has termed it "a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel." You could probably flip that terminology around and get something just as accurate, but the point is, Carroll's scheme takes players who would get lost in more mainstream formations and gives them a chance to shine. Red Bryant couldn't get on the field as a defensive tackle under Jim Mora, but Carroll moved him outside as a massive 5-technique defensive end and let him ruin the perimeter run games of the NFC West. The Eagles thought so little of Chris Clemons that they threw in a draft pick when they traded him to Seattle years ago (a deal that sent Darryl Tapp to Philadelphia), but he has taken over Seattle's hybrid end/ linebacker Leo position and become one of the team's most critical defenders. Brandon Browner, a CFL refugee, lacks the speed to be a star corner for most teams, but his immense size makes him a perfect fit for Carroll's press coverage concepts. Carroll's not the only coach with this kind of system—the Ravens just won a Super Bowl using some of these concepts, Clancy Pendergast used a similar defense to get Arizona to a Super Bowl, and Bill Belichick has been using hybrid 3-4/4-3 fronts for most of the past decade—but it's still a somewhat rare system, and it helps Carroll get the most of the pieces around him. (Vince Verhei)


St. Louis Rams: In a pass-happy league, the Rams have begun to construct a team the right way. They've built one of the league's best young front sevens, one capable of forcing opposing quarterbacks into third-and-long, then forcing them into the turf. On offense, they've gone all-in with franchise passer Sam Bradford and have drafted numerous receivers in an effort to surround him with as much young talent as possible. It's a solid theory of roster management. (Vince Verhei)

Excerpted from the Football Outsiders Almanac, which can be purchased as a PDF or a book. The almanac was written by Aaron Schatz, Andy Benoit, Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, Tom Gower, Matt Hinton, Sean McCormick, Rivers McCown, Brian McIntyre, Mike Tanier, Danny Tuccitto, Vince Verhei, and Robert Weintraub.