2018 NFL Preseason Rankings: The Deep, Deep NFC

Here are the official TeamRankings 2018 NFL preseason rankings and ratings. Further explanation of our preseason ratings methodology and tips for interpreting the data follow below the table.

2018 NFL Preseason Rankings Highlights

  • Thin AFC & Deep NFC. While the top 2 spots in our ratings are AFC teams (New England and Pittsburgh), only the Chargers and Jags join the Pats and Steelers as above average AFC teams. Meanwhile 8 of the top 12 teams are NFC squads. And there are 4 strong division favorites nipping at Pittsburgh’s heels for the #2 spot, with the Saints, Vikings, Rams and Eagles all less than a point behind
  • Tyrod Taylor’s Huge Impact? The QB change with the highest positive impact in our preseason ratings is Tyrod Taylor replacing DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan in Cleveland. While he’s not an All-Star, Taylor has consistently turned in average to above-average ratings in most composite QB metrics. Matching those numbers would be a huge improvement for Cleveland. On the flip side, the second biggest projected negative impact for a QB change this season is Buffalo replacing Taylor with J. Peterman Nathan Peterman. They are downgrading from a slightly above average QB to a former 5th round pick that has never attempted more than 14 passes in a regular season game, and has a career 38.4 QB Rating.
  • Pitiful AFC East. New England is our preseason #1 team, as usual. And the rest of the AFC East is weak competition, as usual. But it’s never been this stark of a difference before. The Bills, Jets, and Dolphins are projected to be the worst 3 teams in the NFL this season. The Dolphins are only “normal bad”, and are barely rated worse than the Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts. But the Jets are “bad bad”, and the Bills … well, let’s just say we think “pick against the Bills” is going to be a common Survivor pool strategy this season.

Official 2018 NFL Preseason Rankings

  • NOTE: Team ratings are expressed as points better (positive rating) or worse (negative rating) than the average NFL team, when playing on a neutral field
1New England5.8
3New Orleans4.6
5LA Rams4.4
8Green Bay2.6
9LA Chargers1.6
16Kansas City-0.3
23San Francisco-1.5
25NY Giants-2.1
28Tampa Bay-3.0
31NY Jets-4.9

A Quick Primer On Our NFL Preseason Rankings

Our 2018 NFL preseason rankings are almost entirely data-driven. We’ve used team data from past seasons to find which descriptive statistics have correlated strongly with high end-of-season power ratings. We then used those stats to create a model that predicts a team’s power rating.

Here are the key components of the model, in order of importance.

Team Quality Baseline. This is based on a weighted average of end-of-season team power ratings from the last few years. The most recent season gets by far the strongest weight.

The highest and lowest Team Quality Baselines this season:

  • Patriots (+7.1)
  • Eagles (+4.8)
  • Vikings (+4.4)
  • 49ers (-4.3)
  • Colts (-5.5)
  • Browns (-7.9)

QB Changes. We make simple projections for the QB Rating of all the starting NFL quarterbacks this season. We then compare that to the actual QB rating for each team from the past several years (with a weighted average that mimics the Team Quality Baseline weighting).

The biggest positive and negative QB Change adjustments this season:

  • Browns (+2.7 for Tyrod Taylor replacing Kizer/Hogan and past Browns QB’s)
  • Texans (+1.7 for an expected full season Deshaun Watson)
  • Cardinals (+1.4 for the addition of Sam Bradford)
  • Bears (-0.7 because, while Mitch Trubisky started last year and this year, the Bears’ QB baseline includes some better play from Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler 2 and 3 seasons ago, which we don’t expect Trubisky to match)
  • Bills (-2.7 for Peterman replacing Taylor, discussed above)
  • Chiefs (-3.0 for exciting-but-unproven Pat Mahomes replacing boring-but-dependable Alex Smith)

Turnover Luck. This one may be familiar to those of you who like to read about football analytics. While he didn’t come up with the idea, Bill Barnwell has written extensively about how teams with good turnover margins tend to get worse the following year, and vice versa. We go deeper than that, and break turnovers down by type.

What we’ve found is that interceptions thrown are mostly a QB skill, and we barely adjust for those at all. On the other hand, opponent fumbles lost is almost entirely luck (after accounting for forcing fumbles, which does involve some repeatable skill), and we adjust very strongly for those. Interceptions caught and own fumbles lost are between those two extremes.

The biggest positive and negative adjustments for past-season Turnover Luck:

  • Raiders (+1.8)
  • Browns (+1.7)
  • Dolphins (+1.4)
  • Chiefs (-1.3)
  • Ravens (-1.5)
  • Lions (-1.6)

Draft Score. We assign “draft points” to every pick in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft, from 5 points for the top pick to 1 point for a 3rd-round pick. Our research has shown that teams with high Draft Scores from 3 and 4 drafts ago tend to improve the most, probably due to having a lot of improving young players.

This year the largest positive and negative Draft Score adjustments belong to:

  • Titans (+2.3)
  • Browns (+2.0)
  • Saints (+1.7)
  • Chiefs (-1.0)
  • Cardinals (-1.1)
  • Bills (-1.6)

After accounting for all these components, we have a power rating that represents how many points above or below average we think a team is. A rating of 0.0 represents a “perfectly average” team.

Gut-Checking The Initial Preseason Ratings

Once we generate initial 2018 NFL preseason rankings & ratings, we then check them against the betting markets and other preseason ratings.

If our ranking for a team seems severely out of whack with those other sources, we’ll investigate. We check to see if there’s some factor not taken into account by our model, that the betting market is picking up on. Most commonly, this might involve a coaching change, or some major defensive free agent upgrades. If we find something we think warrants an adjustment, we’ll tweak our rating toward the consensus. Though only rarely will we adjust it all the way to match the consensus.

It’s worth noting that these preseason ratings also drive our NFL season projections — at least before the season begins. As the 2018 season progresses, the impact of these preseason ratings will gradually fade, and actual game results will play a larger role in determining our team power ratings (which continue to drive the season projections).

An Open Letter To Crazy Hardcore Fan Of Team X

Dear Hardcore Fan Of Team X, before you get angry that our models are obviously biased against your favorite team, please keep two things in mind:

  • We use a systematic approach to rank all 32 teams. Our approach has done very well over the years when measured by the most important yardstick: the overall accuracy of projecting team performance levels in the upcoming season across the entire system of 32 teams. Being entirely data-driven, our model doesn’t pay attention to some things that mainstream media analysts are convinced is important. It’s also going to get a few individual teams slightly wrong, and some very wrong, for all sorts of reasons.
  • Look at ratings, not just rankings. For example, 1.1 points separates #1 New England from #2 Pittsburgh, but only 0.8 points separates #2 Pittsburgh from #6 Philadelphia. In other words, Pittsburgh is closer to being #6 than #1. So don’t overreact to a team’s ranking. Look at the rating as well, and you’ll be able to tell which tier a team is in.