Today we continue discussing where the NFL is going in 2022 with a look at the AFC North. Our NFL projections are based on a forecast of team performance and a subjective assessment of each team’s quarterback’s storylines.
The team win forecast is primarily driven by a new advanced QB metric called QB Wins. The QB Wins metric is something that I have been working on for a decent amount of time. The QB Wins metric is computed using a wide range of raw data (TD passes, interceptions, yards, etc.), expert statistics (passer rating, QBR), and non-QB data (defense stats, rushing, etc.). The algorithm leverages the correlations and differences between these data sources to separate out QB, running game, and defensive performance. A second statistical analysis estimates the relationship between quarterback performance factors (and defensive and rushing factors) and team performance (wins). The result is a QB metric that identifies how much a player contributes to his team's record in a given year.
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I forecast each team’s 2022 record using the QB Wins metric, with particular attention paid to changes in the QB position. We also consider and rank the QB-oriented storylines likely to dominate each team’s media coverage.
The preview is intentionally QB centric. These players disproportionately drive on-field success, fan interest, and salary cap issues. The NFL is the dominant sports league across just about every demographic group, and the QBs are the stars. We will publish a new division each week. See last week's AFC East division preview here.
1. Cleveland Browns and Deshaun Watson
Despite being a small market with a struggling team, Cleveland consistently generates drama. The commercially successful Baker Mayfield departs (highest endorsement to win ratio?), and Deshaun Watson arrives this year. In 2020 Watson threw for 33 TDs with only 7 interceptions (approaching Aaron Rodgers territory). But currently, Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault. Also, the Browns gave up three first-round picks for Watson. An elite QB is worth the gamble but do these gambles ever work out for the Browns?
Deshaun Watson’s average QB Wins contribution was 1.6 wins in 2019 and 2020. Mayfield is about a -2.8 QB Wins player over the last two years. The Browns were an outstanding team with a poor QB. If Watson plays and plays like he did in 2020 (QB Win of 2.7) the Browns would be projected to dominate the AFC North. The Browns are hard to predict because we have to make an assumption about how much Watson plays. Assuming he plays half the year and plays at his average level in 2019 and 2020, I have the Browns at 9.9 wins.
Browns’ Forecast: 9.9 Wins
Browns’ Fan Base Ranking: #20
Media Narrative Grade: A+ (if Watson plays and performs)
2. Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Burrow
Joe Burrow may be the next great sports marketing star. The swagger of Conor McGregor, a resemblance to the Home Alone kid, and off-the-charts likability. The question about Burrow is where does he settle in at in terms of production. The numbers place Burrow in the solid but not spectacular range of QBs. But Burrow seems very much on an upward trajectory.
I’m partially rooting for Burrow to become an elite player because Burrow has the marketing ability to create something special. A premier fan base and brand in Cincinnati? Who’d have thought that was possible. Burrow came in at a 1.25 win contribution last year. Given his late-season run it seems as though he is continuing to improve. Given his youth and trajectory, if we put Burrow at a QB Win score of 1.75 the Bengals project out to 9.7 wins. This story could go either way, but Burrow will be a story. If the Watson experiment fizzles, Burrow taking Cincinnati to an AFC North crown and another playoff is as good as a Cincinnati NFL story.
Bengals’ Forecast: 9.7 wins
Bengals’ Fan Base Ranking: #30
Media Narrative Grade: A
3. Pittsburgh Steelers and Mitch Trubisky
The Steelers are in a transition from Big Ben to whatever is next. Transitions make it a challenge to forecast teams like the Steelers because we don’t know who will start or finish the season. Trubisky as the starter is a guess. But maybe it’s Rudolph, or it’s Pickett. However, the Steelers have more than enough brand power and fan loyalty to get some spotlight even when rebuilding.
The story here is that one of the marquee jobs is open. It’s fascinating when the Steelers, Cowboys, or other iconic brand is transitioning. The Steelers are probably a middle-of-the-pack team this year. Big Ben was a positive 1.5 in 2020 and a -.6 in 2021. Trubisky was a -.5 with the Bears (Rudolph was -1.5 for the Steelers in 2019). Oddly, switching Trubisky for the 2021 Roethlisberger is a push. Maybe the Steelers transition to Kenny Pickett, and they take a slight move backwards with a rookie QB. My guess is that Trubisky keeps the Steelers in contention, and this keeps Pickett on the bench.
Steelers’ Forecast: 8.8 wins (Trubisky)
Steelers’ Fan Base Ranking: #5
Media Narrative Grade: C+
4. Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson
My numbers suggest that the Ravens are a good team with a faltering QB. Jackson’s QB win score was 2.25 in 2019, -.75 in 2020, and -2.04 in 2021. The QB Win metric suggests Jackson is in serious decline. The fate of all running QBs? This trend is at odds with the current narrative surrounding Jackson, which is about his next contract.
The economic side of the Jackson story will be fascinating to watch. Jackson is deferring talk of an extension until after the 2022 season. The theory is that if he performs at an elite level, he will be in line for a Mahomes / Allen type of contract. However, as Jackson has trended downward, so have the Ravens. The Ravens are in a tough situation. Do they pay for past performance? At the QB position, experience is often a positive, but with a player like Jackson they might be better served to use a running back perspective. Rewarding Jackson for the player he used to be could cripple the franchise for years. I think this will be a significant media narrative this year. Complicating the story for management is that the Ravens play a relatively weak schedule in 2022 that could inflate the Ravens’ record. I’m using Jackson’s 2021 QB Win score in the Ravens’ 2022 forecast and projecting 8.2 wins.
Ravens’ Forecast: 8.2 wins
Ravens’ Fan Base Ranking: #17
Media Narrative Grade: A-