Vegas is already telling us about next year’s Super Bowl contenders. Let’s hate on them.
We’re only two months removed from one of the wildest Super Bowls ever, but as the internet sports columns are always telling you, it’s never too early to look at contenders for next season.
Las Vegas has been putting out odds for Super Bowl 52 for the last two months and their most recent odds come from the month of March. Not surprisingly, the New England Patriots come in first at 4/1, followed by the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers at 10/1. These are your top three title contenders (according to Vegas), and as you’ve seen from all the articles that claim to be “way-too-early” yet put out rankings anyway, we’re going to analyze these teams. Except, I’m putting on my pessimist goggles and picking apart each team and breaking down their weaknesses. It’s easy to talk about why the best teams can win; let’s take a look at why they can’t.
New England Patriots
There really aren’t many flaws in this Patriots organization, let alone their 53-man roster, which is why they took home the Lombardi trophy in February and are Vegas’ best bet to do it again next season. But we’re here to nitpick and there are a couple spots on the team that could use some shoring up, a problem that most other teams wished they had.
Most of the minor issues lie on defense. Despite finishing the season with the league’s top-ranked scoring defense, the Patriots were a bit overrated on that side of the ball. I say that because it’s not that hard to keep opponents off the scoreboard when you face a septet of quarterbacks known as Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, and Matt Moore. That’s almost two months of average to awful quarterbacks.
The biggest defensive issue is an underwhelming pass rush. By the end of the 2016 season, the Patriots were exactly middle of the pack in sacks (34) as well as 26th in adjusted sack rate and adjusted pressure rate, per Football Outsiders. And with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard gone, New England has lost over a quarter of last season’s sack total.
Sticking with the defense, there is the issue of this team’s depth and talent at linebacker. The Patriots have developed a persona (especially on defense) as this nameless and faceless machine with a bunch of interchangeable parts and a lack of big names. The cliche is that no one player is greater than the system and that’s New England’s mantra.
However, that stance can only extend so far. At a certain point, strictly system guys won’t cut it and you need legitimate talent on the roster. Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Jonathan Freeny are potential starters right now, and I had the same Nick Young face typing this as you did reading this. Dont’a Hightower is a stud and graded out at 85.4, according to Pro Football Focus, but he is not enough, and the only other “name” guy in the linebacking corps is Rob Ninkovich, who received the lowest grade in the entire front seven (49.8). PFF also ranked the Patriots’ front seven as the 18th-best in the NFL, and that is the Patriots’ biggest flaw in much simpler terms.
While I will always claim that Tony Romo should have been the Cowboys starter last year as soon as he was healthy, I can’t say that the quarterback position was the only one keeping them from the Super Bowl.
Moving the ball was not an issue for Dallas last season, but getting to the quarterback was a major flaw. Some of that stems from the high risk decisions they’ve made and/or bad luck they’ve had along the defensive line. Randy Gregory was suspended for all but two games last season and promising defensive end Demarcus Lawrence battled a back injury all season. The lack of quality on the defensive line manifested itself in a second-to-last ranking in pressure rate. Their 36 sacks last season were good for 13th-best in the NFL, but it really isn’t that impressive. This inability to get to the quarterback showed itself when Aaron Rodgers did this to them:
NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2017
Stopping Rodgers or any other competent passer in the league will also be a whole lot harder when your entire secondary from the previous season ceases to exist. Corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox all left Dallas in free agency, and with them departs 2,643 defensive snaps from 2016, per Pro Football Reference. They have a couple of young guys that have played well in Byron Jones and Anthony Brown, but the secondary is not a place where you want to be overly reliant on youth.
The Cowboys would also do well to find a tight end to replace Jason Witten. Dak Prescott looked to Witten a lot throughout the season, evidenced by Witten’s 95 targets (three off the team high). Young quarterbacks can lean on tight ends as safety valves (as bigger targets over the middle of the field), and the Cowboys don’t have many playmakers catching the ball, so another talented option alongside Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley would greatly benefit Prescott in his second season as the starter.
Green Bay Packers
With a quarterback (and rightful MVP) like Aaron Rodgers, offense will rarely be the team’s weakness. Even with an offensive attack as one-sided as Green Bay’s, Rodgers’ elite playmaking ability wills this team to points on the scoreboard. What really lets this team, and Rodgers, down is their secondary. As a fan of Rodgers, I can’t tell you how many times I watched in anger as Damarious Randall and Ladarius Gunter got toasted, especially in the postseason.
Here’s Randall getting torn up by Stefon Diggs:
Here’s Gunter falling off the face of the earth while trying to cover Julio Jones:
Anyone have the number for missing persons? I want to file a report for Ladarius Gunter. Last seen trying to cover Julio Jones. pic.twitter.com/imSvfNpzyA— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 22, 2017
And here’s Randall and Gunter both getting embarrassed on the same play, in a fitting microcosm of the Packers’ secondary:
NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2017
Basically, the Green Bay secondary has more holes in it than a Luke Cage hoodie.
If GIFs and videos aren’t enough evidence, here are some numbers. In the 2016 season, the Packers finished:
31st in passing yards allowed (4,308)
25th in completion percentage allowed (64.8%)
29th in touchdowns allowed (32)
22nd in Football Outsiders’ pass defense ranking
Green Bay could also do their future Hall of Fame quarterback a favor by finding him an actual running back. Eddie Lacy is gone, though he was steadily regressing in Green Bay anyway, Ty Montgomery should probably go back to receiver, and neither James Starks or Aaron Ripkowski are viable starting running backs. Fun fact: Aaron Rodgers was the team’s second-leading rusher with 369 yards, and only 88 yards behind leading rusher Ty Montgomery.
And there you have it: the pessimist’s guide to Vegas’ top Super Bowl contenders. It’s never too early to be a hater.
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