With the NFL draft in the rearview mirror, it's time for another round of Football Outsiders projections for the 2017 season. As with the projections we did in April, this forecast shows how parity has declined in the NFL over the past few years. Fewer teams are making rapid turnarounds from one season to the next -- and predicting which teams will make those rapid turnarounds is always difficult. Nonetheless, we can get a good idea of why certain teams will be better or worse in 2017 by looking at their underlying performance in 2016 (not just simple wins and losses), and then factoring in coaching/personnel changes and general year-to-year regression trends.
While the NFL draft plays a huge role in building a winning franchise, its effect on the next season is small and difficult to predict. Did your team add a bunch of promising talent on draft day? Guess what: So did every other team -- except the Patriots, who added veteran talent before draft day instead. The draft does play a small role in changing our projections from what we had a month ago, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Although offense is generally more predictable than defense, drafting defensive players near the top of the draft tends to have a stronger positive effect than drafting offensive players near the top of the draft. Subjectively, we can all be excited that the Los Angeles Chargers added wide receiver Mike Williams and then filled two holes on their offensive line. But objectively, Indianapolis drafting Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson in the first two rounds has a stronger effect on our forecast for 2017. (But not much stronger: We still have Indianapolis third in the AFC South.)
Our projection system starts with Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings for the past three years, although last year's ratings end up about six times as important as either 2014 or 2015. (You can find last year's final ratings here.) Offensive projections also incorporate a separate projection for the starting quarterback done independent of the team. After that, we account for general regression trends and incorporate a number of other variables that measure everything from turnover ratios to personnel and coaching changes on both sides of the ball.
Each team has a forecasted record but also, for those of you wanting more detail, a more exact "mean projected wins" number. We also list strength of schedule based on average projected DVOA of next year's 16 opponents, ranked from the hardest (Philadelphia is No. 1) to the easiest (New England).
When considering these numbers, remember that this is not the final, official Football Outsiders forecast for 2017. There are still personnel moves to be made, and improvements to our forecast system that will alter our projections before we publish Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 in July.
Also note that stat projections naturally consider a wide range of possibilities. There's a lot of randomness in the NFL: Player development is difficult to predict, injuries have a huge impact, and even the better team on an individual day might not win a game because of the arbitrary bounce of a fumble or a tipped pass. A team projected to go 7-9 could realistically end up anywhere between 3-13 and 11-5. Taking the average of so many possibilities, all teams end up grouped more toward 8-8 with few teams listed with double-digit wins or losses. We've tweaked the results slightly to get a more realistic spread of win-loss records, but nonetheless, the numbers published below don't mean that we expect the 2017 season to end with no team below 5-11.
The Patriots already had a top-five projection in all three phases of the game, but it got even stronger after they signed Mike Gillislee away from the Bills. Gillislee led running backs in our DVOA and success rate metrics last year, though with an asterisk: It takes 100 carries to be ranked, and Gillislee had 101. We're also still projecting the Patriots with the easiest schedule in the league, because we're forecasting decline for many of their out-of-division opponents including Atlanta, Denver and Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC East comes in under .500. I still feel our Miami projection is a bit too pessimistic; the Dolphins' 10-6 record last year was built on an easy schedule, but Miami wasn't a bad team that lucked into a playoff spot, just an average one. On the other hand, our Jets projection may seem too optimistic. It's lifted by a better-than-expected defensive projection, because run defense is more consistent from year to year than pass defense and the Jets had the No. 1 run defense in the league last season.