Sannes' Win Total Projections: The Patriots' Spending Spree
At least we know the New England Patriots will never be boring.
A year after going 7-9 -- arguably the most yawn-worthy record imaginable -- they've backed up the Brinks truck to start free agency. They didn't dump their stimulus check into this; they went full Ben-Affleck-in-a-nun-mask.
So, they've got improved pass-catchers and an impact player in Matt Judon to prop up the defense. What does that do to their betting outlook for 2021? Just how much better should we expect them to be?
Let's dive into this now, using my updated win projections, the process for which was laid out last week. There's no point in putting the actual numbers in here yet because we don't know how the 17th game will be set, so we'll circle back for that at a later date. But we can at least get some broad insights into what to expect out of the Patriots and other teams that have been active in the first wave of free agency.
1. The Patriots Still Have Work To Do
The moves the Patriots have made thus far have been necessary and good. They weren't going to compete with the firepower they had on offense in 2020, and they had cap space to burn. This is helping their projection.
But if they want to compete, they had better keep going.
After making the alterations to their projected passing efficiency and other metrics, their win projection increased 0.9 wins from where it was previously. That's tied with Washington for the most in the league. It's a big, meaningful shift, and they're adding bodies in the areas in which improvement was most necessary. There are two lingering issues, though:
1. Their baseline projection was suuuuuuuper low.
2. It's hard to know what to expect out of Cam Newton in an improved environment.
Those two points are intertwined as Newton's projected performance was a catalyst for the low initial win projection. Newton finished 33rd in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back last year out of 44 qualified passers. NEP is the expected points metric we use at numberFire. The team-level data is what drives the win projections, and a player-level number like Passing NEP per drop back includes deductions for expected points lost on negative plays such as sacks, incompletions, and interceptions.
Newton's Passing NEP per drop back was 0.01 last year despite a non-difficult schedule. He was at 0.12 in 2018 but has dealt with shoulder and foot surgeries in the time since then. It's hard to project the offense to be better than that even with an improved supporting cast unless you think Newton greatly benefits from a full, healthy offseason in the same system.
That very well could happen, so the Patriots have gone from a blah team to one with upside. However, they're still a long way behind the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins grade out as being a higher-ranked team, as well. If we see divisional odds for the Bills slipping as a result of the Patriots' moves, we should look to buy in.
2. Washington Deserves More Discussion
As mentioned before, the Patriots are tied with Washington for the highest increase in win projection since the start of free agency. On Washington's side, that's largely due to the Ryan Fitzpatrick signing.
Fitzpatrick isn't an elite quarterback, so the upgrade in getting him is lower than it would have been had they gotten a higher-upside quarterback. But it's obvious he's at least an upgrade from what they had. Here are Fitzpatrick's Passing NEP numbers from last year compared to what Washington got, including the playoffs.
|In 2020||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Drop Backs|
System and situation matter a lot for a quarterback, so we can't just project Fitzpatrick's 2020 efficiency to follow him into 2021. That's even tougher when it's a journeyman quarterback entering his age-39 season. But we can definitely call it an upgrade.
How we view Washington will depend on what their win total number winds up at. Similar to our discussion around the Dallas Cowboys last week, they'll benefit from a relatively easy schedule, which is a plus, but the bookmakers will know that. It's tough to bet Washington to win the division with how much the initial win projections like that Cowboys team, ruling out that as an early takeaway. For now, this is just a team to monitor, see if they make additional upgrades, and reevaluate once win totals are posted.
3. The Raiders and Titans Are Going the Wrong Way
The pessimism around Las Vegas revolves entirely around their offensive line. Their win projection was being propped up by a respectable passing offense, which finished 13th in schedule-adjusted efficiency last year. But with four of five starters up front now gone from the roster, it's tough to see them duplicating that performance.
As of now, I have baked in improvements to the Raiders' pass defense thanks to the signing of Yannick Ngakoue. That's all wiped out after you reduce the projected passing and rushing efficiency due to the losses on the line. They were already projected to finish third in the AFC West, and the Los Angeles Chargers' signings have increased the gap between the Raiders and second place. We'll want to take a long look at an under for the Raiders, depending on where the number winds up.
As for the Titans, the losses there aren't as significant as cutting the entire offensive line. But the accumulation of losses eventually adds up.
With Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis officially gone, the pass-catching corps has suddenly gotten super thin. Both Smith and Davis missed some time in 2020, but Week 6 was the only time both were hurt simultaneously (and Smith did play 29 snaps before leaving that one). Add that to the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and you get some serious shakiness in the most important part of their projection.
Right now, it's tough to turn this into something actionable. The Titans still have the highest power rating for me among teams in the AFC South, and it's hard to see them getting knocked off unless the Indianapolis Colts add some sick pass-catchers to prop up Carson Wentz. But it does help keep us from pulling the trigger on any Titans futures despite the uncertainty inside the division, and that in itself is noteworthy.