NFL Mock Draft guru Xavier Cromartie and I (RC) recently published a daily series we do about this time every year – a computer simulation of the upcoming NFL season based on our inputs on the talent levels of the rosters, the schedule challenge/interpretations, etc.
Now, we are publishing our annual post-simulation chat about each division in the NFL -- looking at our differences and asking various questions about teams in the division. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we’re far apart.
We’ll be publishing our chat, done via email, division-by-division each day and soon after we’ll be publishing our ‘Top 3’ over/under win total bets with a fictitious $1,000 to spend on the three teams and seeing how we do after the season. We’ve both been ‘over/under’ winners for a couple of years now…you could make money following our ideas. Or just sit back and enjoy the free discussion and debate of ideas.
Please note, we were emailing back and forth. There might/will be typos, grammar things, abbreviations…but they’re limited, and you’ll be able to follow just fine, but note this is the raw transcript of our discussions…
AFC-W (XC) W L .PCT
y-LAC … 11 - 5 = 0.688
w-KC … 9 - 7 = 0.563
DEN … 9 - 7 = 0.563
OAK … 4 - 12 = 0.250
KC …. 10 - 6 = 0.625
DEN … 9 - 7 = 0.563
LAC … 7 - 9 = 0.438
OAK … 4 - 12 = 0.250
RC: Well, the AFC West contains one of our biggest disagreements...for a 2nd+ year running, I think, the LA Chargers. You have them 11-5 and going to the Final Four (last year you had them in the Super Bowl). I have them 7-9, not in the playoffs this year. Last year, I believe I had them as a one-and-done wild card. In reality, LAC beat the Ravens on the road round-one of the playoffs and then lost the Pats...no shame in that.
I guess the onus is on me to make my case here because LAC had a great 2018 season, and you've been consistently behind them...and I have not been as gracious. Most people would side with your case on a gut feeling and seeing them go 12-4 last year and no obvious reason to think the team's roster is worse this year.
Honestly, I was shocked when I saw the 7-9 finish spit out of the system. I had them 4-2 after 6 weeks, tied for first, everything seemed fine...but then they went 3-7 to end the Faux season and here I am as a Chargers-denier. For me, my case has to do with 1-2 punch of believing this is a decent/good team...a C+ team overall with a much tougher schedule in 2019 than the cupcake one in 2018.
Last year, LAC got the good fortune of playing SF after Jimmy G. got hurt, facing Cleveland while Hue was there, drawing the collapsing Cardinals, Cincy missing Dalton. If they drew those four teams in 2019...they might go 2-2 vs. 4-0 and be a whole different story. Against playoff teams last season, LAC was 2-3. I just think the Chargers were a 9-7 type team that played like a 9-7 team but the schedule helped bump them to 10+ wins. Half of their schedule was against bottom-10 teams in the league in 2018.
That's all fine and dandy on the scheduling...they can only play who they play and they went 12-4. Credit to them. But in 2019, I think the schedule totally turns against them and takes a 9-7 team and drags them toward 8-8. I see three for-sure/stronger probability wins on the schedule (at DET, OAK, DEN) and then a dog-fight in the other 13 games. Even a favorable game like Week 4 at Miami...going to Miami in September coast-to-coast is unfavorable. At home with Miami, easy LAC win. Going to Miami...50-50/doubt created.
We both see an improved Denver team, and Denver is tough to beat at Denver, so if LAC splits with Denver, sweeps OAK, and splits with KC...4-2 in division. Their 10 other games are all battles...and the easier non-divisional of at DET and at MIA are not the best road trips.
Last year, they faced 4 elite offenses/QBs -- Mahomes 2x, Big Ben, Goff. This year, they are scheduled to face Mahomes 2x, Luck, Big Ben, Rodgers...with decent Watson, Trubisky, Foles too, but those three good offenses/QBs bringing better defenses with them. Last year against BUF-BAL-DEN-TEN-LAR defenses, better defenses, they went 2-3 (not counting Week 17 w DEN). This year JAC-CHI-DEN 2x, IND, TEN, HOU-MIN...and if GB steps forward.
My case would be, LAC is a 9-7 talent that rode a schedule to 10+ wins last year, but the tougher schedule sets up this year to pull them to 7-8-9 wins with a harder path to 10+ wins. It's not a high-end offense, it's not a lock down defense (actually got worked by the good offenses last year). The coaching is nothing special. I think they do not have the horses to get to 10+ wins with this schedule...but they are a good team, just once with a daunting task of a schedule layout. My 7-9 may be too low, but I think your 12-4 is too high...but I also feel your pro-LAC sentiment isn't unreasonable, in general.
XC: I aggressively supported the Chargers last season as one of the best teams while most people were still hedging and putting them in the 10-15 range of their power rankings. And they were one of the best teams. The Chargers were a tiebreaker away from the #1 seed. With the #1 seed, they might have gone to the Super Bowl. They were 7-1 on the road, which is exceptional. They won @SEA, @PIT, @KC, @DEN, and dominated @BAL in the playoffs.
I believe in them because their roster is legit. Their roster is not only better this season but also healthier (as of now). Hunter Henry missed last season. Joey Bosa played seven games. Their LBs all went on IR. To win in the league, a team should focus on getting a QB, pass catchers, and DBs. The Chargers follow the formula. Philip Rivers is great and he has four quality receiving options in Allen, Williams, Henry, and Ekeler. They got possibly four worthwhile starting players in the draft at their four biggest positions of need. There is no weak point on the defense after the draft.
With all of their talent, I'm not worried about their schedule. I don't think it's a particularly bad schedule anyway. The AFC South and NFC North are good but not worth being scared of. They get the tougher teams at home and the easier teams on the road. The can go 7-1 at home and 4-4 on the road to get to 11-5. And I feel that's a conservative road record projection. Their only problem is that @NE in the playoffs is too difficult to overcome.
RC: I'm in the minority on LAC, but I'm not a fan of the roster. In my book, it's good/solid but I don't see it nearing the great side.
I'm not as big on their defense, which is the thing most people like/love. Not a fan of their linebacking rotation when they were healthy -- and the injuries last year led them to having to start Jatavis Brown, who is their best LB and who had a great season...and he'll not start in 2019 potentially. Joey Bosa is a great pass rusher who leaves holes all over his side of the line because he's just pass rushing.
LAC held down (20 or fewer pts allowed) QBs: Josh Allen (debut), Carr 2x, Baker (w/ Hue), Mariota, Wilson, Keenum 2x.
When they faced Mahomes 2x, Ben, Goff, Brady...they allowed 33.4 pts per game, three of those with Bosa playing. Higher-end passing offenses are a threat to LAC.
That's where the schedule kinda scares me...more higher-end QBs to face this year, and their 'on paper' easier games on the road to put them at risk. However, I have an up-and-down track record with projecting the Chargers...so, I could be off here. I just look and see Rivers as not a top 10 QB, Gordon not a top 10 RB talent, Allen-Williams capable but not game Changers. I see a lot of capable but not as much scary/special. If I'm wrong again this year, I'll give up and just put them 16-0 next year (and losing 1st-round of the playoffs because that's the Chargers...).
We both see a KC dip, and many people are calling for that right now. We both see Oakland as weak, and that's in-line with the world. One thing we have in common but pushes ahead of the consensus -- we both see Denver as dangerous. How confident are you that Denver gets to a winning record this year...and more to the point -- could they shock win the AFC West, or at least get a wild card? I see Denver as a tough out team, but I see some internals and the schedule layout where Denver could start 1-4 and really fall off the cliff from there, especially if they pressure themselves into Drew Lock. I have little confidence Denver is going to live up to our winning record predictions...as a gut reaction.
XC: We'll agree that we evaluate the Chargers' roster differently. I think that the Broncos could be similar to the Bears last season. And I don't mean just because Vic Fangio is there now. The Broncos' roster is constructed similar to the way the Bears' roster is. The Broncos stole CB Bryce Callahan directly from the Bears, which is a significant move. Kareem Jackson is an ok signing as well. Von Miller is good. The rest of the defense doesn't have any serious concerns. But I don't like their offense. We may differ here. No one likes Flacco, but I'm not a fan of their pass catchers either. I see mediocrity on their offense except for Phillip Lindsay. I'd rather see Drew Lock than Flacco.
The reason that they come up 9-7 is that with their defense, they look like they can win most of their home games. They might beat the Chiefs at home. Maybe not the Chargers though. They get road games against the Raiders and Bills that could also be wins. I don't really like this team. Any given week they could win or lose, and they'll probably end up with 8 or 9 wins in the end. Vegas says 7 wins. I'd maybe put it at 7.5, but I don't have enough confidence in the Broncos to bet either side. I don't like them as a playoff contender. There should be 8 or 9 AFC teams better than them.
RC: Denver has a good O-Line. The Lindsay-Freeman talent in the backfield. Sutton-Sanders-Hamilton is nice, a bit young on two of them but talented. Fant is a weapon. If Flacco is just managable...and Chris Harris stays on defense -- it is the Bears' story and I'd argue more talent on offense, and it all comes down to Flacco, who we may find out had a Jim Harbaugh offense problem. When Marc Trestman had him he was really coming on. Problem is...old school coaches in Denver. I like a lot of the way things lineup for Denver this particular year. I could see them winning the division if Tyreek Hill is suspended full year.
We both have Oakland as a bottom feeder in the NFL. Do you see any hope here? Will the Raiders dump Gruden if they go 4-12 and Antonio Brown goes off the rails while Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper go to the playoffs?
XC: The Raiders are not going to dump Jon Gruden. They signed him with the move to Las Vegas in mind. At the moment, no team looks completely awful, including the Raiders. Someone has to be the least talented, though. The Raiders lack star power. They have a lot of players who are at or slightly above replacement level. Antonio Brown is the best they have, but he's in decline. They're stuck with him through age 32. No matter who it is, it's risky to pay someone at that age. A WR typically peaks around age 26 and then starts to decline, often rapidly. Most of the top WRs from 2013 are out of the league now. It's foolish to bet on a statistical outlier.
Everyone says that it was dumb to trade Khalil Mack, but I don't think he's worth the mega-contract that he got, no matter how good he is. There's no doubt that he's one of the best defenders in the game, but his impact on wins and losses is overstated. With four years of Mack, the Raiders' defense was never better than 20th. And I'd say that now that they've added Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, they don't need to worry about the edge in next year's draft. If they want to become a good team, they need to first draft a better QB (or maybe tank 2020 too so they can get Trevor Lawrence in 2021). Then they need to find young WRs, CBs, and LBs. Fortunately the 2020 Draft will be loaded at WR. But if they're drafting in the top two, they'll probably get a QB. They look like a 4-5 win team this season.
RC: For fun, can I pick the argument of...'Change My Mind..."
Change my mind...I think Denver has as-good, a better roster than the Chargers.
DEFENSE = Fangio + Callahan (I agree...that's so huge) + Harris back + Chubb-Miller is better than Gus Bradley/Lynn + Bosa-Ingram. Denver better defensive coaching, better/as-good pass rush, as much of a cluster at ILB, better secondary.
MISC. = Denver better home field, easier schedule. LAC a better special teams/return game.
OFFENSE = I take Freeman/Lindsay over Gordon/Ekeler any day. I take Sanders-Sutton-Hamilton over Allen-Williams-Benjamin. I take Fant over Henry. I take the Denver O-Line over LAC's (and LAC is good too). It all comes down to QB...
Rivers better...but is he so much better that it makes LAC 3-4 games better/so obvious? Flacco...younger, was on pace for the most yards in his career for a season before injury struck. Flacco 24 TDs/4 INTs in his last 10 playoff games (last 4 seasons of making it) -- nearly 100+ QB rating in his last 4 seasons of playoffs. Rivers' numbers dive in the playoffs...under 60% Comp Pct in 11 playoff games, 14 TDs/10 INTs, 241 yards per. Do I want Flacco when IT MATTERS?
Versus NE in the playoffs in their careers: Rivers (0-3) 3 TDs/4 INTs, less than 50% Comp Pct. Flacco (2-2) 9 TDs/4 INTs...about 57% Comp Pct.
'Big game Joe' with this Denver roster...not as far off Rivers/Chargers for me. With Fangio running the defense...I kinda like Denver better overall, because I think their offense is better at every spot except QB, but it's not as a big a difference as we all think?
XC: I've granted that the Broncos have a defense that is about as good as the Chargers'. I've also said that the Broncos can win most of their home games like the Chargers. The difference is mostly in offense. There's a perfect storm here where the Chargers have a bunch of guys that you hate in contrarian fashion while the Broncos have some of your personal favorites. I think you're still mad at Melvin Gordon for the crime of being drafted before David Johnson and have to maintain the narrative that Gordon sucks despite his 5.1 YPC as one of the best pure rushers last season. Gordon isn't a good receiver, but Austin Ekeler is one of the best. When the Chargers combine the two of them optimally, they're the equivalent of Saquon Barkley-like effectiveness at RB. Phillip Lindsay is good as a runner but he's not in the elite category. Neither he nor Freeman are good receivers, so the Chargers win even just considering Ekeler.
Noah Fant is a rookie TE, a fact that almost guarantees that he'll do nothing this year. He's not even that good of a prospect; he's just a really good athlete. Hunter Henry is a top TE and in his prime in his fourth season. And Rivers actually uses TEs effectively. The Broncos haven't thrown to a TE since Julius Thomas was there five years ago.
Evidently the problem with the Chargers' WRs is that they dared to be better than Tyrell Williams and stole "his" fantasy targets. Keenan Allen deserves plenty of targets because he's a top-five real life WR. Mike Williams—a pick hated because he was drafted to be Tyrell's direct replacement—has turned out to be a a good WR2. He is up there as the best WR from his draft class along with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are in their prime years, and they are better than Tyrell Williams ever was. Courtland Sutton is a guy who had a good 3-cone. Big deal, that has about a 1% correlation to NFL success. He didn't show anything noteworthy as a rookie, nor did DaeSean Hamilton. Emmanuel Sanders is 32 and coming off a torn Achilles.
Comparing Philip Rivers to Joe Flacco is a mismatch. It's a top five v. bottom five QB. Flacco was protected by the Ravens' elite defense his whole career. The Ravens probably would have won more Super Bowls if they hadn't stuck with a mediocre QB for 11 seasons. They won only one (by fluke when the 2012 Broncos choked) despite having a top 10 defense almost every season. Flacco has a 3.7% career TD rate, and it's only 3.2% over the last four seasons. That's an awful number. Compare that with Rivers's 5.3% for his career and 6.3% last season. For perspective, Drew Brees is also at 5.3% for his career. Elite QBs throw TDs, simple as that. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the differences between QBs account for most of the win-loss variation. The Colts dropped to 4-12 with Jacoby Brissett replacing Andrew Luck. I'd say, yes, Rivers alone is worth 3-4 more wins than Flacco.
RC: If we can use 2018 Melvin Gordon ypc as confirmation of his greatness...than I'd like put forth his 2015-2017 ypc's, where he sucked/was a below-average runner per touch...3.5 in 2015, 3.9 in 2016, and 3.9 in 2017. There's more evidence of 3.something ypc Melvin Gordon than 5.something. In typical Gordon fashion, when he faced better run defenses in 2018...he died. 3.1 vs. #10 BUF run defense (by ypc allowed). 3.4 vs. #3 BAL run defense. In the playoffs, 2.12 yards per carry in two games. He did go off against #22 or worse run defenses (by ypc) his best ypc games vs. #24 CLE and #30 SEA, He faced #22 or worst run Ds seven times in 12 games.
Aside from that, I didn't say Gordon was good or bad. I just maintained I'd rather have Freeman-Lindsay than Gordon-Ekeler. I like the power running of Freeman better in a duo, and I think Lindsay could be an all-pro WR...whereas Ekeler is an OK screen game guy.
Courtland Sutton was so bad that with Case Keenum he almost scored as many TDs (4) as the great Keenan Allen (6)...despite Sutton not seeing as much playing time and about 40% less targets. You can have Keenan Allen and his 12.3 yards per catch. Allen is not a red zone threat or a breakaway threat...he's good catching his little 5-yard passes he gets a million of.
Allen is a great hands/reliable receiver but not much more. Mk Williams is a good, big body receiver with nice hands and weak speed/agility...not a game breaker, doesn't get open easily. I don't have to fear this LAC passing game...I can single cover the LAC group. We'll see how the Denver WR group turns out because 2/3 are entering 2nd year. I think Sutton is a potential star. I like what Mike Williams did in spots last year. I don't hate Allen-Williams, per se, I just like the Denver guys more...especially drawing DaeSean Hamilton vs. Travis Benjamin into the equation.
Hunter Henry is fine...but I like Noah Fant better as a game breaker TE option...if Denver can make it work, which is for sure questionable.
I fear Lindsay...I fear Sutton...I fear what Fant can do. Denver has some things adding up to threaten opponents...and a great O-Line. I don't fear any LAC weapon. I respect them, but I don't live in fear. Which makes a great case for what Rivers' brings to the table.
QB-wise, you can put Flacco in whatever tier you believe, I can't argue against bottom 5-10-15...I just then believe Philip Rivers isn't far off wherever Flacco is. I take Rivers if I could only have one, but I don't think Rivers is as good as he's made out to be. So many letdowns in big games or just seasons in general. He hasn't earned the right to be called great. He's OK/good...and Flacco is 'meh' but considering how he has stepped up in the playoffs -- he has some gas in his tank. He's not Case Keenum.
The Rivers v. Flacco differential is a big deal here for perception...and why the safe/smart money has to go with LAC (because QB is everything) and I'm not even castigating the Chargers here...I'm more saying Denver might be closer than we think or maybe better all things considered. And then I think the schedule for DEN vs. LAC gives Denver a little free push as well.
You can have the last word on this one/the AFC West...
XC: RBs as pure runners are all pretty interchangeable and don't matter much to winning. Running is a time control tactic used either by teams with inferior talent or teams leading at the end of a game. RBs are valuable as receiving mismatches who can deceive defenses. Ekeler is the best of the group.
YPC isn't the measure of how valuable a receiver is. After QB play, good slot receivers like Keenan Allen are the biggest key to winning football games. NFL teams understand this fact; that's why slot receivers/CBs are on the field 70% of the snaps now. All of the top teams focus on the slot. The Patriots are most famous with Julian Edelman (formerly Wes Welker). The Rams with Cooper Kupp ran 3 WRs on every snap. The Saints offense works so well because of Michael Thomas in the slot. Tyreek Hill is more effective in the slot than outside. The slot is more valuable than the outside because the QB can release the ball so quickly. If you rewatch the Patriots v Chargers playoff game last season, you see Joey Bosa's complaining that he was beating his man every play but Brady was always getting rid of the ball before Bosa could get to Brady. That's why CB is more valuable than edge rusher in today's game—the edge rusher doesn't have enough time to get to the QB before the ball is released.
Also Rivers doesn't have to force it to Allen in the red zone because the Chargers have always had other taller receiving targets. They have Mike Williams and Hunter Henry now and formerly Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates. They're all 6'4+. I don't know how you aren't worried about the biggest, most effective receivers in the league with an accurate QB.
To throw in something about the Chiefs, I'd just treat them as the same team as the Packers with Aaron Rodgers. They could always win because their QB is so good, but the defense won't help at all. So expect them to lose sometime in the playoffs again.
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