Happy Football Friday.
Week 12 was a compelling week of football, starting with a Green Bay upset over divisional rival Detroit, and finishing with a Chicago upset over divisional rival Minnesota. In between we saw an epic game in Houston between the Jaguars and the Texans, a Hail Mary returned for a touchdown in New York, a running back in Kyren Williams that has me believing in running back value again, and an epic meltdown by the Buffalo Bills in Philadelphia at the hands of the 10-1 Eagles. The Chiefs got back on track in Vegas, while the Patriots drew ever closer to the first overall pick with a 10-7 loss in New Jersey against the Giants.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 13 is a smaller slate, with the last big week of byes upon us. Philadelphia is the site of another big game, a rematch of the 2022 NFC championship Game between the Eagles and the 49ers, while Patrick Mahomes gets to make his Lambeau Field debut, after missing the 2019 matchup with a knee injury. The Joe Burrow injury robbed us of a great Monday night matchup in Jacksonville, alas.
Let’s dig in.
One Thing I’m Monitoring
I’ve been high on the 2023 Buffalo Bills. From my first version of this article to later versions, I’ve bought Bills stock whenever it’s been available. It has tanked in recent weeks, with Buffalo holding only a 20.6% chance to make the playoffs, 10.0% chance to repeat as AFC East Champs, and 1.5% chance to win the Super Bowl.
This is even though the Bills are the fifth-best team in terms of our Elo ratings, third-best team in offensive EPA per play, and 13th in defensive EPA per play as Josh Allen is currently leading all quarterbacks in total EPA generated at 124.3.
The Bills might be the best team in the history of the league to miss the playoffs.
Here’s the list of the best teams by DVOA that missed the playoffs. If the season ended today, #BillsMafia would be 7th on this list.
Asterisk = would have made playoffs under current rules.
The 1990 Chargers are kind of crazy. Outscored opponents by 34 pts, went 6-10. pic.twitter.com/ctg71GlRWL
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@ASchatzNFL) November 29, 2023
Per my friend Aaron Schatz, they have some competition, even within their own walls, as the 2004 Drew Bledsoe-led team was the best team to miss the postseason per his DVOA metric, followed by my personal choice for the mantel, the 1991 49ers.
One of my top-five favorite teams in NFL history is the 1991 Falcons. They ran my favorite historical offense (the run and shoot), had two of my favorite players (Deion Sanders and Brett Favre (on the field)), and ran the grits blitz defense that was a staple of the legendary Jerry Glanville.
The funny thing about that 1991 Falcons team, though, is that they wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if not for the 2023 Bills-like efforts of that 49ers team. In the last matchup ever between the teams at Fulton County Stadium, for example, the 49ers managed to miss four first half field goals and surrender a Hail Mary from Billy Joe Tolliver to Michael Haynes to lose 17-14, securing the season sweep and the tiebreaker over the 49ers.
San Francisco had the league’s leading passer Steve Young, who replaced the legendary Joe Montana, and a 154-point differential, but couldn’t overcome the variance of a whacky season. Hopefully for Bills fans, Buffalo doesn’t suffer a similar fate this year. Still, I’m not holding my breath.
One Thing I’m Buying
One thing I’m buying is that teams with a lot of cap space this coming offseason should consider trading for disappointing big contract players.
This stems from a good question I got from a good follow on Twitter:
@ericeager_ for teams that enter off-seasons with a tremendous amount of cap space, outside of trading for a Tee Higgins type and extending them, do you have a preference on the best way for teams to effectively use this money?
— YardsAfterContract (@after_yards) November 28, 2023
It’s a good question because what we’ve learned over the past few years is that salary cap space is not necessarily the blessing that it sounds like a year ahead of time. Last year at this time many lauded Ryan Poles’ approach to team building: gutting a bad roster quickly – setting up an offseason worth of spending that would, in theory, propel them to relevance in the NFC North. That largely hasn’t happened, and we’ve talked about the main reasons why in many places. TL;DR non-premium positions are the only positions in which a team can use this cap space on elite talent in the actual free agency market (e.g., Joe Thuney). When it comes to premium positions, like quarterback, edge defender, and tackle, only mid-tier players are available (e.g., Derek Carr). Hence, when used in free agency, this cap space is not going to have great ROI.
Sometimes opportunities present themselves to trade for a premium position player – for example the Bears trading for D.J. Moore and Montez Sweat – which are better a better allocation of said moneys, but require trading draft capital and ponying up money for a contract. These trades are usually fine (see e.g., Jalen Ramsey), but in cases like Jamaal Adams, Frank Clark, or Russell Wilson, the failures are sizable.
Thus, for teams with big cap spaces in 2024 (see below, courtesy of our pals at OverTheCap) there may be value in buying draft capital through the process of taking on a big-money player that another team cannot retain – either through performance or contractual means, or both. This rarely happens in the NFL, but it did most notably with Cleveland in 2017, where they traded for Brock Osweiler and the pick that they used to acquire Nick Chubb in the 2018 draft. The Lions did something similar in the Jared Goff trade, although they had to let go of Matthew Stafford to do so.
The benefits for the trading team are readily apparent: if one trades a player with a guaranteed base salary, those guarantees come off their books, so the dead cap hit is often substantially lower than simply releasing the player. For the receiving team it’s less apparent, since the player they are trading for is often at a different phase of their career arc. However, in addition to receiving draft capital, which long term has a higher ceiling than established veterans from a surplus value standpoint, these players can help lift the water level at key positions while young players are coming around.
Given the teams that are cap strapped right now, possibilities for such trades include Derek Carr (Saints, $30 million guaranteed base salary in 2024), Ed Oliver (Bills, $10 million), Zach Sieler (Dolphins, $8.625 million), Mike McGlinchey (Broncos, $15 million), Zach Allen (Broncos, $15.25 million), and Jedrick Wills (Browns, $14.12 million).
One Thing I’m Selling
I’m selling the Denver Broncos.
On a five-game winning streak, which includes a win over a Chiefs team they hadn’t beaten since 2015, the Broncos are firmly in the playoff race, as we at SumerSports give them a 27.1% chance of earning their first berth since 2015, which was also the last time they won the Super Bowl.
The streak is a bit fluky, though, buoyed by things like turnover luck. The Broncos, over the course of the entire season, are seventh in turnover EPA differential at 29.9 points, which is roughly equal to one win in total, but since Week 6 they have forced a turnover on defense on 25 percent of drives, which leads the league. While they certainly don’t have to give these plays back, such an ability to take the ball away is not a sustainable trend.
Since week six, 25% of all drives against the Broncos defense have ended in a turnover.
Might be one of the most outrageous stats of the season to be honest.
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) November 29, 2023
Should the turnover luck on defense regress, I’m not sure the offense can pick up the slack. While Russell Wilson, appearances-wise, has had a much better season in 2023 than he did in 2022, he hasn’t been that effective, as the following post on X demonstrates.
Russell Wilson passing yards and YPA during the #Broncos five-game winning streak:
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) November 28, 2023
People gravitate towards touchdown-to-interception ratio, which I understand given that it’s what most of us grew up with, but even that is a bit fluky for the former Seahawk. Per PFF, Russell Wilson has a 2.7% turnover-worthy play rate, which is slightly higher than his mark of 2.6% last season and is his highest mark since 2018. This is even though his average depth of target of 7.2 yards is the lowest of his career by almost two yards.
great teams use the regular season to work through weaknesses
less than great teams hide their weaknesses during the regular season
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) October 30, 2023
Sean Payton is doing a wonderful job of saving face with Wilson, but such tactics are those of a mediocre team at best, one that may become exposed when not facing the Dorian Thompson-Robinsons and Josh Dobbses of the world in the coming weeks.