With the NFL season fast approaching, now's a good time to employ some of the underlying statistics from 2017 and a bit of common sense to project which teams are most likely to improve on and decline from their records in 2018. The numbers mentioned below have exhibited some ability to project future performance in the past. You can read more about those metrics here.
Click the links below to read about each team:
Cleveland Browns (0-16)
Point differential in 2017: -176
Pythagorean expectation: 3.3 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 0-6 (.000)
Strength of schedule: 0.492 (13th-easiest in NFL)
In this very space last year, I identified five teams that were likely to improve and five that seemed likely to decline. The teams that were predicted to decline each did so, falling off by an average of more than five wins. Four of the five teams I projected to improve did so, including the Eagles, who exceeded even the loftiest preseason expectations in winning Super Bowl LII.
The one exception was the team that had the least work to do. The 1-15 Browns just needed to make it to two wins last season. The league's eight previous one-win teams going back through 1989 had all improved by a minimum of four wins and an average of 6.6 wins. Even if that was too much to ask of the Browns, two wins against a schedule that included the AFC South didn't seem particularly unlikely.
Instead, the 2017 Browns became the first team since the 2008 Lions to go 0-16. It was bad enough to see Hue Jackson's team look worse than the 2016 Browns; it was even worse to watch the Browns decline further as the season went along. From Week 10 on, Cleveland was favored to win at any point during just one of its games, that coming against Brett Hundley and the Packers in Week 14. Even for the Browns, the Browns were wretched.
This season will be different. Even if the Browns aren't good, they should at least be watchable. History suggests they will not go 0-16 for a second straight campaign.
The simplest element, naturally, is that Cleveland made an upgrade at quarterback. Jackson spent the fall repeatedly benching DeShone Kizer, only to subsequently stick with him through one of the worst seasons in recent league history. Among passers who threw 300 times or more since the merger, Kizer's adjusted net yards per pass attempt index (ANY/A+) of 68 is the fourth-worst over nearly 50 years of football.
As the first overall draft pick, Baker Mayfield has a significantly better pedigree than Kizer. He projects to be a better passer than Kizer, a second-round pick in 2017 NFL draft. The Browns also have a useful bridge quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, whose most significant skill -- protecting the football -- is the simplest path for how the Browns are likely to improve.
Kizer threw 22 interceptions last season. Six of those picks came in the red zone, which is an astronomical figure; no other quarterback in the league threw more than three interceptions in the red zone in 2017. Taylor coughed up a red-zone interception just three times over his three years with the Bills. Mayfield had only three of them across 40 games at Oklahoma.
It would be a near-impossibility for the Browns to be as bad with turnovers as they were a year ago, both inside and outside the 20. Cleveland posted a turnover margin of minus-28, comfortably the worst in the league. You might not want to hear this if you think that smart teams win the turnover margin year after year, but it's an inconsistent stat from season to season.
Since the league went to 32 teams in 2002, the teams that finished dead last in turnover margin in a given year posted an average margin of minus-20. The following year, those same teams posted a positive turnover margin, averaging a mark of just under plus-three. The teams improved by an average of 3.6 wins. If you're this bad at turning the ball over, a combination of luck and offseason investment tends to flip your margin the following season. The Browns had the league's fifth-worst fumble recovery rate (totally random) and replaced a historically sloppy quarterback with the league's safest pair of hands.
It's reminiscent of what new general manager John Dorsey did in Kansas City, where he inherited a Chiefs team that went 2-14 and finished the 2012 season with a turnover margin of minus-20. Dorsey replaced the combo of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn -- who combined for 20 picks -- by trading for 49ers passer Alex Smith. The Chiefs were likely to improve the following season, and they flipped their turnover margin from minus-20 to plus-18 while jumping to 11-5.
As you might suspect from a team that went for a Sixers-style tank under former general manager Sashi Brown, Cleveland was also a young team in 2017. By snap-weighted age, the Browns last season had the league's youngest offense, defense and overall roster. Football Outsiders' data suggests that the Browns were the youngest team the NFL has seen in more than a decade.
Some of those young players are going to develop into useful contributors. There could be as many as 14 first- and second-round picks serving as starters for the Browns this season. Cleveland already has a star in defensive end Myles Garrett, who racked up seven sacks and 18 knockdowns despite being limited to 48.5 percent of Cleveland's defensive snaps due to injury. The Browns defense allowed a 111.5 passer rating and 82.3 Total QBR with Garrett sidelined, but it improved to a passer rating allowed of 92.8 and a QBR of just 62.7 when the Texas A&M star was on the field.
My colleague Mike Clay is excited about the Browns and thinks they have a realistic shot of making the playoffs if a few breaks go their way. I don't think the Browns are likely to be much more than a four-win team, but stranger things have happened. Remember that the Dolphins went 1-15 in a division with the 16-0 Patriots in 2007, but then won the AFC East the following year. At the very least, we can say confidently that the Browns won't win fewer games in 2018.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Point differential in 2017: +149
Pythagorean expectation: 11.8 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 2-3 (.400)
Strength of schedule: 0.464 (3rd-easiest in NFL)
Teams that make huge leaps in a given season rarely improve the following year. From 1989-2016, there were 23 teams that improved by seven or more wins in a given season, as the Jags did a year ago in jumping from 3-13 to 10-6. Just three of those teams -- the 1997 Jets, 2012 Colts, and 2014 Texans -- maintained or improved on their record the following year. In one sense, the Jaguars are up against history.
On the other hand, though, evidence suggests that the Jags were an even better team than their record indicated. Doug Marrone's team outscored the opposition by an average of nearly 12 points per game. Part of that was beating up on the league's easiest schedule, but Jacksonville beat Baltimore 44-7 in London and blew out the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh, too.
Teams as dominant as the 2017 Jaguars usually rack up even larger win totals, as we can see from their Pythagorean expectation. Teams with Jacksonville's point differential would be expected to win an average of 11.8 games, which would pegged the Jags as the third-best team in the league instead of being tied with several other 10-6 teams in eighth.
Crucially for the 2018 Jags, even good teams that underperform their Pythagorean expectation tend to improve, since a team's expected win total is a better predictor of future win-loss record than its actual win total. When you go back through 1989 and look at similar teams to Jacksonville by examining squads with .500 or winning records that finished more than 1.5 games below their expected record, you'll find that those teams improved by 1.7 wins the following year.
As one of the league's youngest teams, the Jaguars have a core of talent that could still improve. One of those players is Blake Bortles, who posted a Total QBR of 55.6 last season, which was ahead of the likes of Kirk Cousins (52.3) and Cam Newton (47.7). I'm skeptical that Bortles' contract extension was a wise move, but he exceeded my expectations and deserved another crack at the starting job.
Bortles did that without his best wideout, as Allen Robinson went down with a torn ACL in what ended up as his last game in a Jaguars uniform back in Week 1. Robinson, now in Chicago, was replaced on the roster by the less-than-inspiring Donte Moncrief, but Bortles' most successful run came throwing to Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, all of whom are back in 2018. Lead back Leonard Fournette also slowed dramatically after a midseason ankle injury, as he averaged 4.6 yards per rush before the injury and 3.2 yards afterward. The addition of star guard Andrew Norwell should help clear holes for the running game.
An offensive improvement could counteract some likely decline from the defense, if only because Jalen Ramsey & Co. were staggeringly healthy last season. The Jags' 11 starters -- along with key reserves like slot corner Aaron Colvin and rotation edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. -- combined to miss just three games last season. There's no way to pull that off again, but the Jags are teeming with talent on the defensive side of the ball, even with an average amount of injuries. They've committed $120 million in cap space to their defense this year, a staggering number given that no other team in football is even at $100 million.
The 2017 Jaguars were the classic example of a team with underlying numbers that suggested they were likely to improve. (Admittedly, they improved more than I expected.) The 2018 Jags aren't as obvious of a fit, but this is a team that overwhelmed the Steelers in Pittsburgh and led the Patriots by 10 points in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. Its top gear is as good as anybody else's in football.
Houston Texans (4-12)
Point differential in 2017: -98
Pythagorean expectation: 5.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 1-4 (.200)
Strength of schedule: 0.506 (10th-toughest in NFL)
I probably don't need to sell you too hard on the idea that the Texans will be better than they were a year ago, if only because you watched Deshaun Watson play. Watson started six games, and the Texans' offense averaged 31 points per contest in those games. That was the best mark in the league. After Watson went down with a torn ACL, an offense led by Tom Savage and T.J. Yates scored just 12.9 points per game. As you might suspect, that was the worst mark in the league. The teams that were ranked 25th (Raiders), 26th (Bills), 28th (Colts), 29th (Bears), 30th (Browns), and 31st (Giants) over that time frame all changed their head coaches and/or offensive coordinators after the season, while the 27th-ranked Broncos fired Mike McCoy in the middle of the season.
The Texans will run things back with Bill O'Brien as both head coach and offensive coordinator. You have to think his success with Watson under center has earned him a chance to see what the pair can do over a full season, but there are also reasons to be concerned about O'Brien's late-game management. The Texans had chances to seal late leads over the Patriots and Seahawks, and O'Brien played both scenarios conservatively despite possessing a seemingly unstoppable offense. They lost both games.
Those decisions were among the reasons why the Texans went 1-4 in one-score games last season. It would be easy to worry whether O'Brien just can't manage late-game situations, but the Texans were a strong candidate to decline last season because they went 8-2 in games decided by seven points or less in 2016. Under O'Brien, the Texans are a combined 14-13 in one-score contests. They're likely to be far closer to .500 in those games in 2018, which would be worth a couple of wins on its own.
The Texans should also be healthier in 2018, given that they ranked 29th in Adjusted Games Lost a year ago. Getting back Watson would obviously be a huge improvement, but Houston has also spent most of the last two seasons without J.J. Watt, who was arguably the league's best player from 2012-15. Watt wasn't quite his old self after returning from a back injury last season, as he racked up four knockdowns without a sack in five games before going down with a tibial plateau fracture. There isn't much of a track record for a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Watt missing most of two consecutive seasons with injuries before returning to his previous level of form, but with Jadeveon Clowney breaking out in Watt's absence, even a limited version of the guy Watt used to be would give the Texans one of the best pass-rush combos in football.
Their schedule will also be easier. After finishing first in the AFC South in 2016, Houston fell to last place in the division, which lines it up for matchups against the Browns and Broncos. My strength of schedule metric is to look at the Texans' opponents from a given year and see what their point differential was in games not involving the Texans. By that measure, the Texans had the 10th-most difficult schedule in football a year ago. ESPN's Football Power Index, a more mature measure, projects that the Texans will have the easiest schedule in football in 2018.
The downside for the Texans is that they don't have the draft picks that a typical bad team would get to improve its roster, given that Houston sent its first- and second-round picks to the Browns as part of the trades to add Watson and remove Brock Osweiler. The Texans have the worst set of offensive tackles in the league, which won't help Watson's chances of staying healthy. Virtually every one of their stars besides DeAndre Hopkins is an injury concern. They also have as much top-level talent as anybody in the league. If any team has the upside to come out of nowhere and emerge from the bottom of their division as one of the league's best teams overnight in the same way the Eagles did a year ago, it's the Texans.
Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
Point differential in 2017: +83
Pythagorean expectation: 10.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 3-4 (.429)
Strength of schedule: 0.469 (5th-easiest in NFL)
This is the third straight year in which the Chargers have appeared on this side of the ledger, which is a testament to both their stubbornness late in games and how well they played after the first few weeks of the 2017 season. In 2015, San Diego went 3-8 in one-score games. The vast majority of teams that bad in seven-point games improve the following year. The 2016 Chargers, though, went 1-8 in those same games, and while their overall record improved from 4-12 to 5-11, coach Mike McCoy was thrown overboard during the move to Los Angeles.
Last year looked like the same old Chargers for a while. In Week 1, rookie kicker Younghoe Koo hit a game-tying 44-yard field goal at the end of regulation, only to be iced and have his follow-up attempt blocked. Six days later, Koo missed a 44-yarder that would have given the Chargers a win over Miami. The Chargers played the Chiefs tight in Week 3, but a late first down from Kareem Hunt sealed the game before Hunt subsequently took a meaningless 69-yard run to the house to turn a one-score game into a 24-10 final. Los Angeles then lost by two points to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles, with its defense unable to get the ball back from the Eagles on a final drive that lasted 6:44.
From Week 5 on, though, the Chargers went 9-3 and outscored opponents by 104 points. Their three losses came to the three best teams in the conference: the Chiefs, Jaguars, and Patriots. Their loss to the Jags might qualify as typical Chargers -- they picked off Blake Bortles twice inside the final 2:40 of regulation with a three-point lead and still managed to lose -- but they went 3-1 in games decided by seven points or less.
How did the Chargers overcome themselves? They flipped their turnover story. Any team with Philip Rivers at quarterback is going to turn the ball over here and there, but in 2015 and 2016, the Chargers had a combined turnover margin of minus-11. Through the first four games of 2017, they were at minus-3. Gus Bradley's defense had gone three games without a takeaway, and while it had forced two against the Broncos in the opener, the Chargers had also dropped a would-be pick-six.
Casey Hayward & Co. didn't drop many pick-sixes the rest of the way. They forced takeaways in 10 of their remaining 12 games, with their 25-takeaway total paced by their infamous five-interception half against Nathan Peterman and the Bills. (The Chargers unsurprisingly lost both of the games where they failed to force a takeaway.) The offense went turnover-free in six of its 12 remaining contests, and Los Angeles' turnover margin of plus-15 over the final three quarters of the season was tied with the Ravens for the best in the league.
Relying on takeaways can be a risky way to build a great defense; ask the Raiders and Buccaneers, who ranked second and third in takeaways during the 2016 season and then finished 2017 ranked 29th and 32nd in defensive DVOA, respectively. The good news for the Chargers is that they were also a great pass defense even when they weren't intercepting passes. If you strip interceptions out of the equation, the Chargers allowed a Total QBR of 76.6 over their final 12 games, which was the third-best rate in football.
The run defense also improved as the season went along, thanks to the return of inside linebacker Denzel Perryman, who missed the first half of the year after undergoing ankle surgery, then suffered a hamstring injury in December. In between those two absences, Perryman shored up things. The Chargers allowed 5.0 yards per carry and first downs on 25.1 percent of rush attempts with Perryman out of the lineup, which would have ranked among the bottom five in each category over a full season. With Perryman on the field, the Chargers still allowed a below-average 4.3 yards per carry, but their 16.5 percent first down percentage would have been the third-best mark in the league.
Perryman has yet to complete a full 16-game season after three years as a pro, and he's hardly the only Chargers player who represents an injury risk. The Chargers, one of the league's most injury-hit franchises in recent years, were actually relatively healthy in 2017, as they improved from 31st to 16th in Adjusted Games Lost. They got full seasons from superstars like Keenan Allen and Joey Bosa, although expected starters like Forrest Lamp and Jason Verrett didn't make it out of September.
Sadly, the Chargers are already down two starters before even hitting August. Hunter Henry went down with a torn ACL earlier this summer, while Verrett tore his Achilles on Friday and will finish his five years with the Chargers having missed 55 of 80 possible games. Los Angeles is still deep at cornerback with Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King all playing well last season, but Verrett's injury deprives Los Angeles of both a player with upside and a valuable insurance policy against an injury to one of those three corners.
The most important player for the Chargers to overcome their old reputation might be their kicker. Even after cutting Koo, Los Angeles' kicking game was a mess. After using four different kickers during the season, the Chargers finished the year with a 66.7 percent success rate on field goals, the worst mark for any team since 2014. By Football Outsiders' kicking stats, which adjust for distance and stadium, the Chargers' kickers cost them 22.2 points of field position, which was the worst mark in the NFL by nine full points. Only the Giants had worse special teams.
Enter Caleb Sturgis, who was one of the worst kickers in the league from 2013-15 before producing a much better season with the Eagles in 2016. Sturgis got injured and subsequently lost his job to Jake Elliott last season, and the Chargers signed the former Dolphins kicker to a two-year, $4.5 million deal. Sturgis is no guarantee of better kicking, but the combination of a better-pedigreed kicker and sheer regression toward the mean should help the Chargers hit a higher percentage of their field goals in 2018.
At their best, the Chargers should compete with any team in football. They might have the league's best one-two set of pass-rushers, and they have a devastating secondary. No team in the league goes deeper on the outside at wide receiver and cornerback. Rivers just posted his best ANY/A mark since 2013. No lead is safe against the Chargers. In 2018, they'll have to prove that they can continue to protect their own.
Chicago Bears (5-11)
Point differential in 2017: -56
Pythagorean expectation: 6.2 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 2-5 (.286)
Strength of schedule: 0.532 (Toughest in NFL)
The worst record in one-score games over the past two years belongs to the Browns, who are 1-11 in those games (and 0-20 otherwise). The second-worst record in games decided by seven points or less belonged to John Fox's Bears, who were 3-11, including 2-5 last season. And while you might argue that the Browns weren't really in many of those contests, Chicago lost a lot of winnable games in 2017. The difference between Fox keeping his job and losing it to Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy revolves around a few breaks going the wrong way:
In Week 1, the Bears faced a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line down 23-17 to the defending NFC Champion Falcons with 26 seconds left. Mike Glennon's receivers subsequently dropped two likely touchdowns, and the Bears did not score.
In Week 5, Mitchell Trubisky took the ball back with 2:32 left in his first NFL start against the Vikings in a 17-17 game and threw a pick to Harrison Smith, setting the Vikings up for an easy game-winning field goal.
In Week 6, the Bears were up 24-13 on the Ravens with four minutes to go, only for the Ravens to tie the game over 67 seconds with a long field goal, a 77-yard punt return, and a two-point conversion. The Bears actually ended up pulling this one out in overtime, but it wasn't a pretty ending.
In Week 11, Trubisky converted a fourth-and-13 with a 19-yard scramble and got the Bears into field goal range with a 15-yard completion, only for Connor Barth to miss a 46-yard field goal that would have pushed a 27-24 game with the Lions into overtime.
In Week 13, the Bears led 14-12 with 5:35 to go when they punted on fourth-and-6 from the San Francisco 42-yard line. Jimmy Garoppolo subsequently capped his first start as 49ers quarterback by taking the Niners 87 yards in just over four minutes before setting up former Bears kicker Robbie Gould for a game-winning 24-yard chip shot.
It's easy to attribute this to Fox, given that the longtime NFL coach infamously told Peyton Manning to kneel and take the game to overtime after the Ravens converted their Hail Mary to tie the game on the Rahim Moore play during the 2012 playoffs, but this is mostly randomness. Fox's teams had actually been well above-average in one-score contests before the 2016 season, as the Panthers, Broncos and Bears had combined to go 53-41 in games decided by seven points or less under Fox through 2015.
While nobody should have been surprised to see Fox fired after three consecutive seasons with six wins or fewer, he did leave the Bears with a parting gift. The former Giants defensive coordinator and assistant Vic Fangio was hired to turn around the Bears' defense and finally pulled it off. Fox inherited a defense that ranked 28th in DVOA in 2014. It was subsequently 31st in 2015, but Fangio's unit improved to 23rd in 2016 and a step further to 14th last season.
There are reasons to think the Bears might improve even further in 2018. Chicago posted the league's fourth-lowest interception rate on defense, and that isn't a sticky statistic from year-to-year. The Jaguars went from worst to first in interception rate from 2016-17, while the Saints jumped from 29th to fourth. The Bears didn't make the sort of major addition those teams did in signing A.J. Bouye and drafting Marshon Lattimore, respectively, but they will return the same four starters in the secondary for the first time since 2012. Four of Chicago's five primary defensive backs are 26 or younger, so it would hardly be a surprise to see an improved takeaway rate.
We've gone this far without discussing the Chicago offense, which was the clear focus of this offseason for GM Ryan Pace (aside from top draft pick Roquan Smith). Trubisky spent most of his rookie season in an almost-comically conservative scheme under former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, but that was in part due to the injuries impacting Trubisky's receiving corps. By October, Trubisky was already down his presumed top three wideouts (Cameron Meredith, Markus Wheaton, and Kevin White) and primary pass-catching tight end Zach Miller. His starting wideouts during the second half were Joshua Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman, the latter of whom is out of football.
That has changed. You can certainly quibble with the prices for some of Pace's decisions this offseason, but he reeled in the highest-upside wide receiver (Allen Robinson) and tight end (Trey Burton) from this year's free-agent market, then supplemented that with former Falcons deep threat Taylor Gabriel and second-round pick Anthony Miller. A team that looked like it might be relying on White and second-year tight end Adam Shaheen in meaningful roles suddenly doesn't have to count on anyone short Robinson to produce.
The Bears should also face an easier schedule in 2018, even given the return of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Chicago went up against the league's toughest schedule by DVOA last season. Ten of its 16 games came against teams with a winning record, and that doesn't include matchups against Garoppolo and Rodgers, whose teams were a combined 9-2 when they were healthy and played the entire game. This year, the Football Power Index projects the Bears schedule to fall in the middle of the pack.
To be fair, there are a lot of things that could go wrong for the Bears. Nagy wasn't even an offensive playcaller until the second half of last season. Pace's free-agent investments in years past have mostly gone awry. None of the receivers they signed this offseason are sure things, as even Robinson only has one season in which he has played like a WR1. Burton has gone from being the Eagles third-string tight end to one of the highest-paid players at his position. Kyle Fuller was on his way out of town this time last year and picked up one of the largest cornerback deals in the league after his first successful pro campaign. The offensive line likely took a step backward in the short-term in swapping out Josh Sitton for second-round pick James Daniels.
Most importantly, we still have no idea whether Trubisky is any good, given that he has yet to throw even 1,000 combined passes past the high school level. To the extent we can judge quarterback prospects at all, history seems to suggest that the best way to draft and develop a successful passer is to surround him with the right people. It's not difficult to see a scenario in which both Trubisky and the Bears take a big step forward in 2018.
Indianapolis Colts (4-12)
Point Differential in 2017: -141
Pythagorean expectation: 4.2 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 3-6 (.333)
Strength of schedule: 0.468 (4th-toughest in NFL)
In many cases, the obvious candidates for this list are the teams with win-loss records that came up well short of what their point differential suggested. As you can see, that isn't true for the Colts, who finished with exactly the sort of record their point differential would have indicated.
The Colts are here because they were two different teams from half to half. In the first half of its games in 2017, Indy was outscored by a total of just 23 points, which is right in line with the 2017 Titans, who were outscored by 14 points. You can probably see where this is heading: During the second half of their games, the Colts were outscored by a total of 118 points. The Giants (-96) were the only other team to be outscored by more than 70 points during the second half of their games.
Indy lost seven games it led at halftime last season, the third-highest total since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. The Cowboys lost four such games, and no other team in the league blew more than two. The Colts failed to win five games they led heading into the fourth quarter, which is tied for the most in league history over that same time frame. As Warren Sharp noted, Indy's playcalling in the fourth quarter was pathologically conservative. The Colts offense was worth -2.4 wins in the fourth quarter and overtime by ESPN's Win Probability Added metric. ESPN has win probability data going back 11 years, and no offense has been more damaging in the fourth quarter than the Colts were a year ago.
As painful as last season was, there are few good pieces of news for Colts fans. One is obviously that Chuck Pagano, Rob Chudzinski and the rest of the coaching staff in Indianapolis are gone and replaced by former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles were the third-most aggressive team in the league on fourth downs in 2017 under Doug Pederson, and Reich only needs to look at his ring finger to see the benefit of keeping his foot on the pedal.
While it's tempting to mythologize about teams that don't know how to close out games, the reality is those that blow a ton of halftime leads often improve the following year. Teams like the 2015 Cowboys and 2016 Chargers are recent examples that had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory before turning things.
Since 1989, 28 teams have taken a lead into halftime and subsequently lost five or more times in a single season. Unsurprisingly, their records were a combined 114-334 (.254). The following year, just one of those teams repeated the feat. On the whole, they blew an average of less than two halftime leads per season. Their record improved to 201-247 (.449), an average win boost of more than three victories per team.
The other piece of good news is the new quarterback the Colts have under center. While the offense's failures in the fourth quarter might have fallen more upon bad playcalling than Jacoby Brissett, the return of Andrew Luck should give Indianapolis a quarterback with a track record of coming up big in the fourth quarter. From 2012-16, Luck posted a 74.7 Total QBR during the fourth quarter and overtime, which was the third-highest mark in the league behind Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo. He was fourth in clutch expected points added behind Brees, Rodgers, and Matt Ryan.
Indy should also be better on defense, where it was catastrophically bad on third down, as the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac notes. Indianapolis was 10th in the league in defensive DVOA on first down and 16th on second down, but it was the worst defense in football on third down. By the raw data, only the Buccaneers (48.6 percent) allowed opposing offenses to convert more frequently than the Colts (44.5 percent), but Indy's average third down was nearly half a yard longer.
When a defense is fine on first and second down but horrific on third down, it tends to improve the following season. Indianapolis' secondary is still a mess, especially at cornerback, but it used three of its second-round picks to add pieces to the front seven. The Colts' other two top-60 picks went toward fixing the offensive line, as general manager Chris Ballard used his first-round pick on Notre Dame mauler Quenton Nelson before adding Auburn guard Braden Smith in the second round. Drafting linemen isn't a fix in itself, as we saw from former first-round pick Ryan Kelly's struggles at center last season, but this is the best-pedigreed offensive line Luck has ever had.
Indy's schedule is also about to get much easier. The Colts played 10 games against teams that were .500 or better in 2017, including seven against playoff participants. This year, they're projected by the Football Power Index to face the seventh-easiest schedule in the league. They still have to play both the Eagles and Patriots on the road over a three-week span, but the AFC East and NFC East are relatively friendly divisional opponents. This year's Colts might seem like a relaxing week off to opposing fans, but with Luck returning and more help coming in the fourth quarter, Indy should surprise.