The 2017 NFL season has official begun! After an exciting (and surprising) opening night in Foxboro, the analytics group at PFF is excited to present their spread picks for week 1 of the season. These picks are the result of a machine-learning algorithm that uses, among other things, PFF’s unique player grades and its PFFELO rating system as features.
Each week we will provide five picks for which we are confident, with our remaining picks available through PFF Elite. This week's picks are being shared with all readers. For each pick we discuss a point and counterpoint for making the pick, using perspectives from our unique data and player grades. For our Thursday Night Football pick, please follow us at @PFF_George and @PFF_EricEager.
Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears (+6.5)
Pick: Falcons 29 – 20 (Falcons cover)
Point (George Chahrouri): Despite my earnest attempts, our model doesn’t have a variable that measures the size of the chip on each team’s proverbial shoulder. The Falcons have PFF’s No. 3 ranked passer and No. 1 receiver in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and a supporting cast that features two backs with receiving grades over 75.0. Last season, the Bears allowed the seventh-highest passer rating on throws 20 or more yards downfield while Ryan’s 136.1 passer rating on deep shots led the league. It’s easy to forget that the Atlanta defense pressured Tom Brady on 44.0 percent of his dropbacks until Brady finally wore them down. For many reasons, no one will be mistaking Mike Glennon for ‘The Tom' anytime soon.
Counterpoint (Eric Eager): The last two Super Bowl losers have lost outright in their opener the following season, including the Seahawks on the road against an aggressively-average Rams team in 2015. The Bears have the ability to neutralize one of the strengths of the Atlanta defense with their interior offensive line, featuring guards Cody Whitehair (85.9 overall grade in 2016) and Josh Sitton (85.7). If they can move newcomer Dontari Poe (74.2) and Super Bowl standout Grady Jarrett (79.7) from the point of attack, running back Jordan Howard (85.5) might be able to keep it close in the Windy City.
Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers (+5.5)
Pick: Panthers 28-20 (Panthers cover)
Point (EE): The Kyle Shanahan-led 49ers will likely try to mimic the success the 2016 Falcons had passing out of heavy formations (127.5 passer rating with two or fewer wide receivers). However, the Panthers have the personnel to match this approach, with third linebacker Shaq Thompson starring as both a run defender (81.6 run defense grade in 2016) and in pass coverage (82.6 pass coverage grade) a season ago. With new options and health restored, look for Cam Newton to revert towards his 2015 self against a 49ers defense that is still shaky in the secondary, with none of their five starters posting a player grade above 75.0 a season ago, and Jimmie Ward (74.5) a question mark due to injury.
Counterpoint (GC): As much as the Niners improved their defensive talent through the draft with Solomon Thomas (92.5 college grade) and Reuben Foster (95.2), a defense that allowed a passer rating of 129.0 on deep throws (worst) a season ago probably won’t shut down Cam and crew on opening day. On the other hand, the Niners offense surely won’t be as pathetic as it was last year. QB Brian Hoyer is familiar with Shanahan’s system from their time together in the QB capital of the world, Cleveland, OH, and WR Pierre Garcon brings some sure hands (one drop on 80 catchable targets in 2016) that were missing from last year’s team. Shanahan’s 2016 Falcons offense used play action on 28 percent of passing plays (most); Hoyer had a perfect passer rating with play action this preseason (yes that is a sample small, but you’ve got to start somewhere), while the Carolina defense yielded the 10th highest passer rating vs play action in 2016 (102.6). Our model was quite confident that the Niners wouldn’t jump out to a 25-point lead, so Shanahan’s play calling wizardry may have us biting the nails we don’t have…
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (-4)
Pick: Cowboys 27 – 21 (Cowboys cover)
Point (GC): The passing game reigns supreme in 2017. No doubt that was a major reason our model favors the Jerry’s team. As a rookie, QB Dak Prescott earned the 10th-best grade among QBs while Giants QB Eli Manning ranked 26th of 34. Prescott took advantage of his strong running game en route to the highest completion percentage on play action passes last season (75.7 percent). With Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, those opportunities should remain. On the other side, Manning’s grade has declined each of the last two seasons and may be without WR Odell Beckham Jr., who helped his quarterback out by forcing 29 missed tackles after the catch (most among WRs) last season.
Counterpoint (EE): While getting Elliott for this game is a big deal for Dallas, the play of Damon Harrison (with a league best 15.7 run stop percentage) a season ago gave the Giants a huge boost. In two games against the Giants a season ago, Zeke averaged only 3.6 yards per carry (2.5 of which came after contact), meaning that the Cowboys will likely need a big performance at the quarterback position to hit this number. In two games against the Giants last season, Prescott averaged less than five yards per pass attempt and threw 40 percent of his season’s interceptions. Given that he averaged more than 7.4 yards per attempt in 14 of his other 15 starts a season ago, we’re certainly betting on the Giants games being the outliers.
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings (over/under 48)
Pick: Vikings 26-23 (the over hits)
Point (EE): The Saints have one of the league’s best offenses, with QB Drew Brees generating an overall grade of 86.6 or better in each of the PFF era seasons. While the Vikings’ defense was quite good a season ago, the loss of Captain Munnerlyn (74.5 overall grade in 2016) and the age of CB Terence Newman (86.3) leave substantial question marks in their secondary. Couple that with an expected improvement in the Vikings’ running game, and the fact that the 2016 Saints finished with our 28th-highest graded defense a season ago, and the over appears to be the bet to make in this one Monday night.
Counterpoint (GC): Making the case for the under when Brees is involved feels pretty pointless. But it would be worth noting that the Vikings passing game was severely limited last season as evidenced by Sam Bradford’s 6.6-yard average depth of target, which was the third-lowest PFF has ever charted (2006-2016). Bradford found himself forced to throw short even in important situations, targeting receivers that were short of the sticks on 50 percent of his third down throws. The Vikings defense should pose a threat to Brees’ success, they had the third-highest pressure rate in football last season (37.2 percent), led by Everson Griffen (81.3 overall grade in 2016) and Danielle Hunter (79.8) on the edges. To top it off they are playing the game outside in January where the Minnesota weather…oh wait, never mind.
Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams (over/under 41.5)
Pick: Rams 23 – 21 (the over hits)
Point (EE): While it’s true that Andrew Luck (shoulder) is going to miss the game because of injury, so is CB Vontae Davis (groin), leaving the Colts with Rashad Melvin (74.2 overall grade a season ago) and rookies Nate Hairston and Quincy Wilson looking to improve on the third lowest-graded defense in the league in terms of pass coverage a season ago. Throw in the fact that Aaron Donald (98.5) is holding out, and Jared Goff (83.3 adjusted completion percentage) showed improvement in the preseason, and the over is the best bet in this one.
Counterpoint (GC): There are about 10 or so people out there who remember watching Scott Tolzien light up Thanksgiving on Sunday Night Football 10-plus months ago. And those people likely took a vow never to watch football again so they are not reading this. In that game, Tolzien completed just 5-of-16 passes that traveled 10 or more yards downfield. Scott’s counterpart doesn’t make the over seem any more likely. While the Rams worked to sure up their offensive line by signing LT Andrew Whitworth (90.2 overall grade in 2016), Goff put up a 72.9 passer rating from a clean pocket last season, the only quarterback below 80.0 (yes he was worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler). Whether one can learn how to run an NFL offense and where the sun appears each morning remains to be seen, at least I’ve never heard of it happening before.
All Spread Picks:
No pick NYJ at BUF (-9.5)
No pick PIT (- 8.5) at CLE
No pick PHI (-1) at WAS