The NFL’s 100th season kicks off tomorrow night with two division rivals continuing their long tradition of playing against each other. We at PFF are excited to share our weekly power rankings with our readers throughout the season, powered by our own PFF ELO metric.
Like any ELO system, it adjusts the ranking of a team after each game based on what happened in the game and the perceived strengths of the team and its opponent prior to the game. As opposed to most other ELO systems, PFF ELO doesn’t use the final score to update the rankings. Instead, we compute what the final score should have been based on the player grades. Thus, the predictive power of our grades carry over to a strong predictive power of our ELO rankings, though we should note that other variables go into our season-long or game-by-game projections.
At this stage of the season, our ELO metric consists of various ingredients. Last year’s final rankings are regressed to the mean based on coaching changes, adjusted for quarterback changes and influenced by the betting market.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 1
If the Patriots are looking for motivation from doubters, they can’t look to us. Ageless wonder Tom Brady’s performance slipped somewhat in 2018, albeit from the highest possible base. Brady’s passing grade, big-time throws and turnover-worthy plays ranked fifth, 10th and 13th (highest), respectively, falling from first, first and fifth in 2017. The potential return of Josh Gordon could propel Brady back to the top. Continuity in the defensive backfield should help the Patriots maintain a top-five defense that was largely driven by strong coverage.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 2
In Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, New Orleans features the second-most valuable quarterback and receiver from 2018 on their roster, per our PFF WAR metric. Along with a solid offensive line that returns four of five starters, this kind of firepower should be enough to make them a serious contender once again when the defense performs at a league-average level.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 3
We continue to expect good things from the Chiefs’ passing attack, who led the league in big-time throws and EPA per pass play in 2018, headlined by MVP Patrick Mahomes. While we think the Frank Clark trade was too expensive, he will look to help the pass-rush stay near the top of the league, and Tyrann Mathieu should be able to improve the coverage unit.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 4
In 2018, the Rams built on their turnaround from 2017. Sean McVay has all his core players at his disposal. Whether they come close to repeating a 13-3 season might depend on what will happen if more teams try to copy the blueprint the Bears and Patriots used last season to stop their explosive offense.
Final 2018 Ranking: No. 8
The Eagles put a premium on their pass-rush, and it pays off as they led the league in pressure rate for the second consecutive year in 2018. With Desean Jackson returning to his former team, Carson Wentz has all the weapons along with the proper protection to enjoy a very good season in 2019.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 5
Following an early offseason of crisis, the Steelers have settled in without drama-inducing Antonio Brown. The loss of Brown can’t be ignored, but he had a down 2018 by most efficiency measures (0.16 EPA per target, 0.35 in 2016-2017). Ben Roethlisberger should still find success surrounded by phenom JuJu Smith-Shuster and our No. 3 ranked offensive line.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 6
With Vic Fangio departing to Denver and defense being generally more volatile than offense, we expect some regression on that side of the ball. More importantly, Chicago’s quest to repeat as the division champion hinges on the question whether Mitch Trubisky can improve in Year 3, as we don’t expect the passing offense to overcome underwhelming quarterback play for the second year in a row.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 9
Perennial favorites of the NFL’s national media, some of the bloom is off the rose for the Chargers following significant injuries to versatile safety Derwin James and left tackle Russell Okung. If Philip Rivers can play his MVP-adjacent level of last season – highest passing grade since 2010 (90.3) – the Chargers have the remaining talent on both sides of the ball to make noise in the AFC.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 11
The Vikings had the third highest-graded defense in the last two seasons, and we expect Mike Zimmer to keep them on a high level in 2019. First-round draft choice Garrett Bradbury is an immediate upgrade, as he fits perfectly in Kubiak’s rushing scheme. The elephant in the room is whether the passing offense, which ranked 30th in percentage of routes run beyond the first down marker in 2018, can take a step forward.
10. Seattle Seahawks
2018 Final Ranking: No. 12
A handful of big names have come and gone this offseason for the Seahawks, but the most important piece for the Seahawks’ is the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, Russell Wilson. Even hardcore NFL fans probably can’t name the Seahawks’ Week 1 starting wide receivers. Luckily, Wilson has made a habit of thriving without surrounding top-tier talent. The loss of Frank Clark from the Seahawks’ strong front seven was more than mitigated by the addition of Jadeveon Clowney.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 7
Losing Andrew Luck, the third-most valuable player of 2018 according to PFF WAR, is a severe blow to the Colts’ title hopes in 2019 as they have to replace him with Jacoby Brissett, who ranked 27th in the same metric in his only starting season as a pro (2017). The story of their season will be whether Frank Reich can turn Brissett into a quarterback taking fewer hits and sacks just as he did with Luck last year.
12. Dallas Cowboys
2018 Final Ranking: No. 13
Lingering doubts about the availability of Ezekiel Elliott this offseason were more relevant to media narratives than our projections for the Cowboys’ offense. Reality is that the offense was middling last year with Elliott, ranking 19th in EPA per play. Continuity on both sides of the ball gives the Cowboys a decent chance shot at another playoff run, but the divisional round might be the high-end of the team’s potential outcomes.
13. Baltimore Ravens
2018 Final Ranking: No. 10
The Ravens finished 2018 strong with a record of 6-1 under savior Lamar Jackson after starting 4-5 with Joe Flacco. #QBWinz analysis, unsurprisingly, misses internal numbers that paint a less sanguine picture. The Ravens’ offense fell in EPA per play ranking under Jackson (13th to 17th), while the defense stepped up (8th to 3rd). The biggest area Jackson will need to improve is accuracy after posting the second-highest uncatchable throw percentage last season (min 150 attempts).
14. Atlanta Falcons
2018 Final Ranking: No. 14
The Falcons rank first in EPA per pass play and yards per attempt since 2016 and thus have the potential to rank much higher on this list at the end of the season. Whether they can fulfill that potential depends on whether healthy seasons of Keanu Neal and Deion Jones (our fourth highest-graded linebacker since 2017) are enough to have the defense operate at a league-average level.
15. Houston Texans
2018 Final Ranking: No. 16
Head coach Bill O’Brien isn’t easing into new dual role as acting GM. There’s no doubt that adding Laremy Tunsil to protect Deshaun Watson’s blindside will help. That said, our research shows that quarterback’s have more ownership of pressure rates than offensive linemen. The Texans’ path to the AFC South title has widened with the retirement of Andrew Luck, though we currently place that probability at 31%, only slightly higher than the Titans (29%) and Jaguars (23%).
2018 Final Ranking: No. 17
In 2018, Aaron Rodgers led the league in throwaways and took the fifth-most sacks while enjoying the league-best pass protection. The story of Green Bay’s season will be whether Matt LaFleur can reinstate Aaron Rodgers’ trust in his receivers not named Davante Adams, especially over the middle of the field.
17. Tennessee Titans
2018 Final Ranking: No. 15
Maintaining strength on the defensive side of the ball will be key for a Titans team ranked in the top-10 by EPA per play. The offense, on the other hand, ranked 23rd, and expecting meaningful progression from Marcus Mariota in his fifth season is unlikely, though not unprecedented. If the defense holds up its end of the bargain, expect heavy doses of Derrick Henry, who averaged over 20 carries the last five games of the season and had the second-highest broken tackle rate last year.
18. Cleveland Browns
2018 Final Ranking: No. 18
Our projections like the Browns over the Ravens and give them a 45% chance to make the playoffs this year. With Baker Mayfield, who finished 2018 with the third-most big-time throws and as a top 10 quarterback, throwing to newly acquired Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns have a great opportunity to quickly climb up this list.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 19
The Jaguars’ defense wasn’t mediocre last season as much as not otherworldly. Their defensive grade fell from the top ranking (91.9) but only as far as seventh (85.5). It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Jaguars return to the playoffs if Nick Foles can inject some juice into a passing offense that ranked 28th in EPA per play last season.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 20
The consensus view on the Panthers is fairly rosy under the assumption the team’s 6-2 record to start the year with a healthy Cam Newton is the baseline for this season. While there might be some truth in that assumption, we can’t ignore the team’s drop in offensive efficiency in the second half of the season – from fifth in EPA per play to 13th – and a defense that ranked 29th in EPA per play for the entire season. A tough division is reflected in the defensive numbers, but it also isn’t getting any easier this year. We only give the Panthers a 25% chance of making the playoffs.
21. Denver Broncos
2018 Final Ranking: No. 22
Among 2019 starting quarterbacks, Joe Flacco ranks only above Eli Manning in PFF passing grade since 2015. Denver is in danger of wasting what could be a sound defense: They brought in Vic Fangio and addressed their weakness in coverage with the signing of Bryce Callahan. He knows how to excel in Fangio’s defense, as he posted an 81.3 coverage grade last season.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 21
Washington hopes that Case Keenum, who led the 26th-ranked passing attack according to EPA per pass play last season, can ignite a passing attack that ranked 27th in the same metric last year. This – and our win projections that have the Redskins finishing last in their division with a mere 13% chance to make the playoffs – suggests that their best hope might be a positive development from first-round draft choice Dwayne Haskins.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 26
The 49ers have a scary defensive line, are led by a head coach with the reputation to be one of the better offensive minds in the league, get back their starting quarterback and are due for some positive turnover regression on defense, as they caught only two interceptions and got seven total turnovers in 2018, both last in the league by a wide margin. If everything clicks, they can rise up these rankings in a heartbeat.
24. Miami Dolphins
2018 Final Ranking: No. 29
We understand the optics of having the Dolphins anywhere but the cellar is puzzling. While #FishTank is the rage on Twitter, we have a more sanguine view of the Dolphins’ chances to win this season, largely due to the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick. No one would mistake Fitzpatrick for Aaron Rodgers or Philip Rivers, yet he finished with a top-10 passing grade last season (min 200 dropbacks). Fitzpatrick is unlikely to repeat that performance with a significant downgrade in weapons, but he might not be a disaster.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 24
The Buccaneers, who changed their whole coaching staff, carry a lot of upside. They – even after losing Desean Jackson to the Eagles – have one of the better receiving corps in the league, which helped their passing offense post the eighth-best EPA per pass play since 2017. While this suggests they could climb up the rankings, they are locked into this spot until their rushing attack and pass defense, both being among the worst in the league in the last two seasons, show improvement.
26. Detroit Lions
2018 Final Ranking: No. 23
Is Matthew Stafford an elite quarterback? No. But that doesn’t mean he can’t surprise and lead the Lions back to the playoffs, though we only place the probability of that occurring at roughly 22%. The Lions spent a lot in free agency for the additions of Trey Flowers and others, but high-priced free agents rarely cause drastic changes in team outlooks. But this could be a bounceback year for the Lions if they can maintain their strong run defense (90.4 grade) while beefing up the pass rush (61.0, second-to-last).
27. New York Giants
2018 Final Ranking: No. 15
The argument against drafted Saquon Barkley at No. 2 in the 2018 draft was never about his talent, and Barkley looked every bit of the player the Giants hoped with rushing and receiving grades in the top-five at 84.6 and 86.3, respectively. What’s holding down the Giants’ power ranking entering this season are assumptions of less than stellar play for the team’s quarterback and defense. Eli Manning ranked 30th in passing grade last season (63.7, minimum 200 dropbacks), and there’s limited evidence that rookie Daniel Jones will perform materially better in his first season.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 28
Andy Dalton is often seen as the cutoff point for a viable starting quarterback, and his 13th-ranked passing grade last season (minimum 200 dropbacks) fits the bill. Without improvement on the other side of the ball, it’s unlikely Dalton will carry his team to playoffs considering the strength of the AFC North. But we wouldn’t count the Bengals, as our simulations give them almost a 30% chance to make it to the postseason.
29. Buffalo Bills
2018 Final Ranking: No. 27
Josh Allen has to improve upon his 58.0 passing grade from his rookie season to help the Bills, who roster a good defensive unit, become more than Patriots’ punching bag. The front office did everything in their power to help him, as they signed multiple receivers and improved the offensive line with signings of Mitch Morse and Ty Nsekhe among others. They also used an early Day 2 pick on Cody Ford, who posted an 85.2 pass-blocking grade in his last year at Oklahoma.
2018 Final Ranking: No. 32
We saw Kyler Murray as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class, and his diminutive frame will carry the hopes of a Cardinals rebound this season. Looking back at what happened in 2018 for hints of what’s to come is difficult when a team has a new quarterback, head coach and significant changes in many position groups. It’s generally smart to have tempered expectations for rookie signal-callers, and that’s reflected in our power ranking.
31. New York Jets
2018 Final Ranking: No. 31
After a foot injury through midseason, Sam Darnold returned to the lineup and posted a strong 85.3 passing grade from Week 14 through 17, making him the second highest-graded quarterback in that span. If this is any indicator of his future performance, the Jets should fly up these rankings, provided they don’t fall in the trap of handing off to their new star running back too often.
32. Oakland Raiders
2018 Final Ranking: No. 30
Last year’s Raiders ranked second-to-last in defensive grade (62.4), and the offensive grade wasn’t a whole lot better at 25th (69.1). The addition of Antonio Brown doesn’t move the needle much for our power ranking, though he could help Derek Carr stretch the field after posting the lowest aDOT in the NFL (7.5 yards, minimum 400 dropbacks) in 2018. The Raiders might be at the nadir of their rebuild, but there’s still likely a ways to go.