We're back for the final part of our opponent preview. If you missed part one, two or three, be sure to check them out as well. Closing things out we get San Francisco's fiercest rival and a couple of AFC West teams whose prospects for 2014 aren't overly optimistic. Let's get to it.
2013 Record: 13-3
Pythagorean Wins: 12.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Close Games: 5-3 (.625, tied for seventh-best)
Strength of Schedule: negative-0.4 percent DVOA (16th)
Turnover Margin: plus-20 (best)
Welp, we had to get here at some point. This might be a little painful, but we'll persevere together.
When Pete Carroll took over as Seattle's head coach in 2010 the Seahawks were in ruins. They were coming off two of their worst seasons since the early 1990s. Unlike the situation inherited by Jim Harbaugh—where many of the core players for San Francisco's ensuing playoff teams were already on the roster—Seattle had an aging roster full of players that helped the Seahawks reach the playoffs in five consecutive seasons during the Holmgren era but whose usefulness had run its course.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider spent the next two seasons gutting the roster almost entirely, refueling with youth via the draft in the process. Seattle was unusually successful with their draft picks in the first few years of the Carroll administration. They added key cogs in left tackle Russell Okung and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in 2010; linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Richard Sherman in 2011; linebackers Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner and quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012; not to mention many additional role players.
Wilson proved to be the final and most important piece, transforming the Seahawks from a frisky but below average club in 2011 to the team that finished as the league's best in 2012 and 2013 according to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, culminating in February's Super Bowl Championship.
Which brings us to this offseason. Defending a Super Bowl title is no joke in today's NFL. The last team to do it successfully was the New England Patriots in 2004. That happens to be the only team to win back-to-back titles since the turn of the century. However, Seattle is better constructed than most to make a run at it this season.
According to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, Seattle was the NFL's second-youngest team in 2013. They also happened to be the second-youngest Super Bowl team ever. When looking at the full list of youngest Super Bowl teams in NFL history, the top of the list is dominated by teams that would go on to win multiple championships: the '71 Dolphins, '81 49ers, '74 Steelers and '92 Cowboys all were among the seven youngest teams to reach the final game of the year. Having talented players, regardless of age, is mandatory for winning football games but having young, talented players sets you up for the long-term.
The biggest obstacle in Seattle's future—outside of a run of injuries, which can destroy any team's hopes in a hurry—appears to be the salary cap. The Seahawks have benefitted immensely from the rookie salary scale instituted in the league's most recent CBA. Of all the players mentioned a few paragraphs ago that Seattle has drafted in the Carroll era, not a single one made over $10 million in 2013 and only Okung made over $5 million.
Removing Okung from the equation for just a moment—as he was Seattle's highest draft pick in the final year of the old CBA—the other seven players listed had a combined cap hit of $11.6 million. That's insane. Having that many key pieces at cost-controlled prices allows you to add Michael Bennett ($4.8 million) and Cliff Avril ($3.7 million) in free agency to upgrade your pass rush as Seattle did prior to last season. Teams with most of their salary cap space locked up by core veteran players don't have that luxury.
Seattle has already had to start making decisions as to which of these players they are going to pay and which they are going to replace. Sherman and Thomas both got new deals that are among the richest in the league at their respective positions. Wilson is sure to get a massive extension. These guys are all fantastic players; you hope to draft players of that caliber to build your roster around. But once they're being paid appropriately, that will make things more difficult at the margins.
For now, Seattle will again be one of the league's best teams in 2014. There's nothing in their underlying performance that screams regression—that league-best plus-20 turnover margin will probably take a slight dip but given their style of play, it should remain very good. From a roster construction view, they got thinner along the defensive line with the losses of Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald and the offensive line still isn't great, particularly in pass protection (32nd in Adjusted Sack Rate last year). But the Seahawks remain basically the same team that hoisted the Lombardi five months ago.
The NFC West will be decided on November 27th and December 14th. Mark your calendars.
2013 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.9 (underperformed by 0.9 wins, eighth-unluckiest)
Record in Close Games: 2-4 (.333, eighth-worst)
Strength of Schedule: 0.6 percent DVOA (13th-hardest)
Turnover Margin: minus-9 (sixth-worst)
It's been over a decade since the Oakland Raiders were last a relevant NFL franchise. Since reaching the Super Bowl in 2002, Oakland has toiled in obscurity, running together a bunch of four- and five-win seasons while consistently ranking as one of the worst team's in the league by DVOA.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has been hard at work on the rebuilding project but has struggled both to attract new talent via free agency and prevent homegrown talent from fleeing, something that was incredibly evident this offseason.
Flush with an inordinate amount of cap space, McKenzie was unable to re-sign Oakland's two best players—defensive end Lamarr Houston and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer—to long-term deals and opted not to use the franchise tag on either. Unable to lure any top-tier free agents, McKenzie loaded up on veteran players, smartly signing them to short-term deals that don't jeopardize the team's future while simultaneously making them more competitive in 2014.
The defense will feature a number of new starters. Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and first-round pick Khalil Mack replace over half of Oakland's front seven. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown cross the bay to try and improve a pass defense that ranked 29th by DVOA and features a soon-to-be-38-year-old Charles Woodson.
On offense we see just as much turnover with even more unappealing names. At 33 years old, there's a great chance we've seen the last of a useful Matt Schaub, who will at least begin the season as Oakland's starting quarterback. Maurice Jones-Drew joins Darren McFadden in the backfield to give the Raiders a pair of running backs that have struggled with injuries over the last couple seasons (or in McFadden's case, his entire career) and failed to average 3.5 yards per carry on 348 combined attempts in 2013. James Jones has some ability but has spent his entire career as the third or fourth option in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense. Those types of players almost always fail to produce when asked to be the top target in a less than ideal situation.
We could spend time looking further into the Raiders' underlying performance, but I'll spare you the gory details. This is a team that was terrible in nearly every aspect and not because they were abnormally unlucky but because their roster is devoid of talent. Oakland hopes that Mack and second-round pick Derek Carr will be the cornerstones of their next playoff team. But while the veteran additions should give them some level of competence, a schedule that replaces the AFC South and NFC East with the AFC East and NFC West will keep them among the league's worst teams in 2014.
2013 Record: 9-7
Pythagorean Wins: 9.2 (underperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Close Games: 4-5 (.444, 12th-worst)
Strength of Schedule: negative-3.6 percent DVOA (seventh-easiest)
Turnover Margin: minus-4 (13th-worst)
After three straight seasons of hovering within a game of .500 and failing to reach the postseason, the San Diego Chargers finally cut ties with head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith at the conclusion of the 2012 season. In their place came Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Indianapolis Director of Player Personnel Tom Telesco.
Though the Chargers again ended the season within a game of .500 once more in 2013, they returned to the postseason for the first time since 2009, beat the Bengals by 17 points in the Wild Card round and entered the offseason with reason for optimism, particularly with the offense.
McCoy provided a huge shot in the arm to the offense where their 22-spot improvement in offensive DVOA was matched only by Chip Kelly and the Eagles. That massive leap left them behind only Peyton Manning's record-setting Broncos in the rankings.
Philip Rivers thrived in McCoy's offense putting together perhaps the best season of his career to follow-up a campaign in which people were legitimately wondering how much time he had left as a viable starting quarterback. Rivers completed nearly 70 percent of his passes while simultaneously upping his touchdown rate and lowering his interception rate. His net yards per attempt rebounded from the lowest it had been in his career as a starter and he finished second in DYAR among quarterbacks, again behind only Manning.
Keenan Allen posted monster numbers for a rookie wide receiver, putting together a line of 71-1046-8 and finishing in the top 10 of both of Football Outsiders' primary metrics for evaluating wide receivers. Allen teamed with versatile running back Danny Woodhead to alleviate some of the pressure off aging tight end Antonio Gates, who still managed to lead the team in receptions.
An offensive line that started only center Nick Hardwick in the same position from 2012 also had a fantastic year in their first season in McCoy's system. The big boys did work in the ground game, leading an improvement from 28th to 12th in run defense DVOA. San Diego finished third in Adjusted Line Yards, fifth in power success and were stuffed for a loss or no gain on the league's lowest percentage of runs. Considering the Chargers also finished 13th in yards per carry and 27th in open field yards, it's safe to say that the offensive line had a lot more to do with San Diego's success in the running game than Ryan Matthews. To top it off, the Chargers did an admirable job of keeping Rivers upright with the NFL's eighth best Adjusted Sack Rate.
Things didn't go as smoothly on the opposite side of the ball. There were seven new starters on defense in 2013 with safety Eric Weddle, inside linebacker Donald Butler, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Corey Liuget the only holdovers. All of that change was primarily due to cutting ties with aging players who weren't apart of the long-term plan, but it also left the unit bereft of talent.
San Diego fell to dead last in defensive DVOA, finishing 31st in both pass defense and run defense in the process. Without a lot of salary cap space They returned every significant piece from that unit and didn't bring in much in the way of new pieces during free agency. The secondary should get a nice bump with the addition of Brandon Flowers—whose release from the Chiefs came late in free agency—and rookie first rounder Jason Verrett, finally giving Weddle some help on the back end.
By choosing to keep continuity on a unit that was terrible in basically every aspect a season ago, San Diego is counting on improvement from its young players—especially within the front seven—along with some good ol' regression.
Speaking of regression, there's a good chance we'll see that offense that was so incredibly efficient a season ago take a step back in 2014. Rivers is unlikely to maintain the completion percentage and interception rate he posted in 2013. The Chargers can expect a step forward for Allen but there's not a ton of talent at the skill positions—Gates certainly isn't getting younger and has struggled with injuries in recent seasons.
If the offense is unable to maintain its 2013 level of play, we're likely to see a small step back in 2014. Another season right around .500 seems most likely and there's a good chance the Chargers will stay there until they can infuse the roster with more young talent.