Looking at the ESPN NFL Futures Projections


ESPN put out another fun offseason article, in which they polled a few of their NFL experts to determine a three year future power ranking chart (subscription required). Looking through their rankings got me to thinking it would be interesting to see how teams actually did fare over three year stretches compared to their initial record. Our data set for this goes back to 1993, such that we hit the entire salary cap era, and ends in 2010, the last year we can total three years worth of forward winning. Rather than give additional credit for playoffs and Super Bowls I just wanted to use regular season wins as a barometer and rank the teams accordingly.

One thing that is probably worth pointing out is just one team that finished with the best record in the NFL actually ranked 1st in total wins over the next three seasons, the 2010 New England Patriots. The top teams have actually come from all over the field. The average record was just 9.7 wins leading into the three year window, with the 1998 Rams teams being the worst team to make the leap while the 2010 Patriots were the best team to maintain the spot.

Also interesting is how things have changed over the years. During the 1990s, the average number 1 three year rank had just 7.7 wins, showing a great deal of turnover at the top spots. That was the early days of the salary cap and some teams fell apart due to poor cap management. But likely moreso than this is the fact that the league was neither QB dependent nor were there any players in their primes at he level of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Since 2000 only two teams did not have double digit wins leading into their run to the three year top spot- The 9 win Patriots in 2002 and the 8 win Saints in 2008. The rest of the era was dominated by Brady and Manning’s teams switching spots at 1 and 2.

Despite the fact that predicting success year to year is near impossible in the NFL, in general good teams will continue to play well over a three year period while bad teams take time to build up. About 70% of teams that finish with 5 or fewer wins, will finish the next three years ranked in the second half of the NFL in total wins. By comparison just 20% of teams with 13 or more wins and 36% of teams with at least 11 wins will finish that poorly. Looking at winning teams, about 50% of teams with 11 or more wins will continue to play well and be playoff contenders, ranking in the top 10 in total wins over the period. I think this does indicate that a majority of teams with a solid infrastructure in place are continuing to build well and manager their rosters and salary caps properly.

The following chart breaks down the three year ranking for each team. The wins column indicates the current year wins, while the percentages indicate the percentage of teams that ranked in each group over the next three years. For example, a 10 win team ranks in the top 3 in total wins over the next three seasons 9.7% of the time.

WinsTeamsTop 3Top 56 to 1011 to 1617 to 2526 to 32
LT 3350.0%0.0%8.6%22.9%31.4%37.1%

The teams that dropped badly from the 11 win plus category were the 1998 Falcons (27th over the next three years), 2001 Bears (29th), 1993 Oilers (27th), 1994 Browns/Ravens (28th), 2002 Raiders (32nd), and 2008 Panthers (28th).  The teams with 5 or less wins that made the leap were the  1995 Jaguars (5th), 1998 Rams (1st), 1999 Eagles (1st), 2000 Patriots (2nd), 2003 Chargers (3rd), 2004 Bears (5th), 2005 Titans (5th), 2007 Falcons (3rd), and 2010 Broncos (4th). In most of these cases the jumps corresponded with a new QB providing superior play.

So where did the ESPN folks forecast the teams from 2013?

WinsTeamsTop 3Top 56 to 1011 to 1617 to 2526 to 32
11 to 12714.3%28.6%14.3%28.6%28.6%0.0%
LT 320.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%50.0%50.0%

Obviously this is a much smaller group that they are working from, but many of these seem to fit in with the normal ranges that should be expected. Are they a little high on Denver and Seattle?  Probably. A better fit might be one top 5 (or top 3) and the other 6 to 10, but it has happened before. The 1996 Packers and Broncos and 2007 Patriots and Colts all finished with 13 or more wins in the same year and both ranked in the top 5 in total wins over the next three seasons.

The projections on the 11 and 12 line look to be right in line with what should be expected.  The 9 and 10 win teams are al fair assessments, especially with Arizona being selected right at 16, which puts them very close to the next tier which is the most likely location for the 10 win teams.

I found the 8 win team projections to also be interesting. I’m obviously including Green Bay in this grouping, who they have picked to be a top team for the upcoming three years. In general we should expect one 8 win team to break out from the pack so its certainly a realistic expectation. If there was anything here that stood out its just that they were a little high on some of the teams whereas the expectation might be more along the lines of one of those teams (Ravens, Bears, Steelers) dropping down to the 17-25 category. Putting a number of these teams in the worst category fits right in with our historical data sets.

The 7 win group is the first that could open some discussion. While the rankings match up with the most common tier, one can at least argue that one team maybe would make the top 10. We only have a very limited number of 5 and 6 win teams so while the bottom might not be the most common spot to land its not a stretch to say that’s where those teams likely will be.

There should be no argument against 80% of the teams with 4 wins landing in the bottom portions of the NFL, its more just picking the team that will make the leap. Choosing the team (Atlanta) with the best QB as the one with the most upside certainly makes sense. There may be more upside to Atlanta than shown here, but that’s splitting hairs. Expecting the worst teams to continue to be the worst teams makes sense as well.

So overall I think the ESPN outlook, which has caused a fair share of debates, is pretty reasonable in the grand scheme of things. If anyone has any other thoughts or information you are interested in just leave it in the comments or email me and I’ll see what I can do.