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The Outsiders don't expect another gloom and doom season from the Colts, but they are still a ways a way from contention.
McCown, who also writes for the Battle Red Blog, helps us dig into those numbers.
B/R: What's the upper limit for improvement by Indy's D? Other than coaching incompetence, is there any hidden reason for optimism? Fumble luck?
McCown: Indy did have bad fumble luck, but it wasn't extraordinarily bad. They pounced on five of fourteen fumbles, a percentage that puts them closer to middle of the pack than a true outlier. Typically when you think of a team that is really helped or hurt by fumble help, they have a completely unsustainable ratio, like Miami's defense keeping 10 of 11 fumbles last year.
The thing about Chuck Pagano is that he was only an NFL defensive coordinator for a single season. It was a great season, mind you, but how much of that was him, and how much of that was Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs?
I don't think it's completely implausible that Indianapolis winds up with an above-average run defense, especially considering how high I am on Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner. I'm having a much harder time seeing the pass defense come together. At the end of the day, I don't trust anyone in that secondary outside of Jerraud Powers or Antoine Bethea.
I don't think the transition to "endbacker" is really a big deal or that it is going to be especially difficult for Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis—but I also don't think their decline in hurries last year is something to shake off as a one-year fluke. Older gentlemen tend to lose their explosiveness in the NFL, and as great as those two have been, I would not at all be surprised if they declined further.
But the upper limit is that Freeney and Mathis party like it's 2009, that Drake Nevis adds some penetration from a 3-4 end spot, and that they get some unexpectedly solid performances in the secondary. I'd guess the ceiling, if all that happens, is about the 12th-to-15th best defense in the league.
B/R. Bruce Arians plus Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen = ?
McCown: I'm really intrigued as to how this question will answer itself this year. The Arians Steelers have always run a lot of multiple-tight end sets, but never with multiple players that were really worthy receivers.
I suppose the train of thought is that if Allen's hands hold him back a little, he can be a dynamic blocking tight end anyway, but I think what is really underfoot here is a team looking for matchup nightmares. Having Fleener and Allen on the field will force defenses to dictate whether they are playing for the run or playing for the pass, and from there the Colts can choose the other side.
We've given Fleener a really insane projection for a rookie tight end. Fifty-three receptions for 706 yards and five touchdowns seems like a garden-variety NFL tight end today now that we've been spoiled by Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, but when you really think about how tight ends have been utilized throughout history, that is bonkers. And he shouldn't have too much of a problem reaching it on this team, either.
Ultimately, I think Fleener is going to be good—not as good as Gronkowski, but I think he profiles as a top-10 tight end. Allen is more of a question mark and it rides solely on his hands just what kind of player he'll be. A 54 percent catch rate at Clemson isn't going to get it done in the pros. He had a lot of other responsibilities there, of course, but if he can up that closer to 65 percent, Indianapolis is going to be the only team that can match what New England is doing with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
B/R: The playoff odds for this team stand at 9.3 percent, and with a 21 percent chance of 8-10 wins. The realistic best-case scenario for the Colts is what, eight wins? If I have to choose between that and under four wins, I'll take the under. You?
McCown: Prior to this new CBA, I would have disagreed with you. However, the old draft system that ushered gigantic contracts onto the highest draft picks is gone, and thus those picks have actual value to teams.
I absolutely do think it would behoove Indianapolis to tank to an extent in 2012, particularly given the new-found willingness (and rising returns) of teams to trade into the top 10. The Colts can either nab a top talent at a position of desperate need (corner, receiver, pass rusher) or ransom the pick to get multiple mid-round selections.
That said, I tend to think the Colts will be friskier than most this year. I would not at all be surprised if they finished second or third in the division, and given what a quarterback-driven league the NFL has become, the Colts definitely have the best long-term bet there in the South—and probably the best current quarterback as well, unless you're really high on Matt Schaub.
Our model gives them a 54 percent chance of winning five to seven games, and though most of it comes on the lower end of that, I think this is a team that will be selecting in the eight-to-11 range in next year's draft unless things go horribly awry.
Many thanks to McCown, who will be doing similar previews on the other teams in the South in the days to come. Make sure to buy your copy of FOA 2012 today.