Analytics expert Cynthia Frelund took data from the past 10 NFL campaigns to create historical references for personnel, scheme and matchups, identifying factors that are proven to lead to wins (or losses). She vetted the correlations with a bunch of real football people (e.g., coaches) and had her math checked out by real math people (e.g., PhDs) to make sure the model reflected reality as much as possible. Then she compared this season's personnel, schemes and matchups -- with the vetted mathematical weightings -- and simulated the season more than a million times, producing a ceiling, floor and projected win total for all 32 teams. The ceiling-to-floor range is something to home in on -- a big discrepancy means the team is projected to play in more close games.
Without further ado, here are the projected win totals for NFC teams in the 2019 campaign, ordered from most to least wins, with playoff berths noted. (Click here for the AFC figures.)
Philadelphia Eagles: 10.9 wins (projected NFC East champions)
The Eagles earn the NFC's highest win total in my model due in large part to having top projection ratings in three of the most predictive indicators: offensive line, defensive front (especially pressure) and quarterback. The Eagles have my model's top-ranked O-line, meaning the unit boats the combined ability to help the team earn the most first downs and touchdowns via run and pass blocking. Carson Wentz ranks as my sixth-most-valuable QB, but adding backup Josh McCown to the equation brings Philly's value at the position up to fourth overall. (The Eagles' backup QB is obviously notable, seeing as how injuries have significantly impacted each of the past two seasons for Wentz.) Then add in the defensive front's projected ability (No. 5 ranking) to collectively disrupt opposing QBs -- my definition of "disruption" is entering the 5-foot halo of an opposing quarterback in a relevant direction, my proxy for "making the QB change his initial plan" -- and you start to see why the Eagles have such great potential.
Los Angeles Rams: 10.1 wins (projected NFC West champions)
My model projects Aaron Donald to again lead the NFL in sacks (with 18 this time around, after last season's 20.5), making him the first player since Reggie White in 1987 and '88 to repeat as sack king. Not surprisingly, he's my No. 1 defensive player when it comes to projected win shares. The Rams' schedule projects to be more challenging this season compared to last. Improvements (plus potentially increased health) in the NFC West make 10 wins the most likely total for the division title, and the Rams are the most likely to win 10 or more games (10-plus wins in 55.7% of my simulations).
New Orleans Saints: 9.8 wins (projected NFC South champions)
I am quite certain you consulted my offensive line rankings prior to your fantasy draft -- obviously, seeing as how both Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas went so quickly ... No? OK, well here's the thing: This line ranks as my No. 5 unit. There are a number of great projections about the Saints that I could add here, but I want to shine a light on LB Demario Davis' ability to stop the run. Over the past two campaigns, he has ranked in the top five at his position when it comes to limiting rushing first downs -- and last season was his best to date.
Chicago Bears: 9.6 wins (projected NFC North champions)
Let's do a checklist with some of the most predictive metrics ...
Defensive (front) pressure potential? Check. Top three.
Defensive (back) pressure influence? Check. Top three.
Defense overall?Double check. No. 1.
Offensive line? Check. Top seven.
Strategic alignment with play-calling and personnel? Yup. Check.
And now a projection that's pretty cool: Rookie RB David Montgomery scores more than six rushing touchdowns in 58 percent of the simulations.
Green Bay Packers: 9.5 wins (projected wild card)
Did you notice that? The ceiling part? Green Bay's ceiling is higher than Chicago's in my model. The Bears' elite defense keeps their median projection insulated, but Aaron Rodgers, increased O-line depth (SEE: rookie second-rounder Elgton Jenkins) and an improved defense (with the additions of Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage) drive the Packers' potential.
Atlanta Falcons: 8.6 wins
Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan reuniting created a big uptick in the Falcons' ceiling. Julio Jones has logged double-digit touchdowns just once in his career (10 in 2012, during Koetter's first tour of duty as Atlanta's offensive coordinator); this season, my model projects eight touchdowns in the median scenario, but 10-plus in 40.3 percent of simulations.
Dallas Cowboys: 8.6 wins
My model projects the Cowboys to start 3-0 in 60.8 percent of simulations. That's the highest percentage of any team in the NFL to start undefeated through three games. This number does factor in Zeke playing at least 50 percent of offensive snaps in these three games.
Seattle Seahawks: 8.6 wins (projected wild card)
The addition of Jadeveon Clowney just before the season's kickoff created an all-upside scenario for the Seahawks. Defensive pressure was one of Seattle's biggest question marks (with Frank Clark's departure) -- Clowney's presence mitigates that concern. This is oversimplifying a little, but think about it like this: If a team can efficiently run the ball on offense and create lower-probability passing situations on defense, you've complemented your offensive control by reducing the potential for teams to score quickly against your defense.
San Francisco 49ers: 8.4 wins
In San Francisco's first two games (at Bucs and at Bengals), we'll get a better snapshot of how this offense will run in 2019 -- or, more correctly, with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. Projecting who will be the slot target is harder for my model than projecting that targeting the slot will be a big deal, based on Kyle Shanahan's play-calling history, the team's personnel and its opponents. Keep an eye on Dante Pettis for now, but don't lose track of Deebo Samuel as the rookie's season evolves.
Minnesota Vikings: 8.3 wins
Should you put Josh Doctson on your watch list for fantasy acquisitions in the coming weeks? My model says yes. Slot receptions have been a key first-down and touchdown driver for the Vikings with Kirk Cousins, and while Adam Thielen projects to be the main beneficiary, the newly acquired Doctson could be another weapon in OC Kevin Stefanski's tool box. My model currently ranks this offensive line in the bottom six overall, though Minnesota's run blocking should get better as the season goes on. (A rookie center -- No. 18 overall pick Garrett Bradbury -- means there is a learning curve involved.)
Carolina Panthers: 7.7 wins
Luke Kuechly is my No. 2 middle linebacker by projected win share, with only Bobby Wagner rating higher. Kuechly's ability to shut down the middle of the field strongly complements Christian McCaffrey's rushing/short-receiving abilities on offense and insulates the Panthers' floor. Should Cam Newton's health be (and stay) strong, this well-rounded team could track to the ceiling.
Detroit Lions: 7.1 wins
This is what the Lions face in Weeks 1 through 5: at Cardinals (the league's most mysterious offense in Week 1), vs. Chargers, at Eagles, vs. Chiefs, then a bye. So, the toughest stretch of Detroit's schedule is the start, followed by an early bye. Considering many of the Lions' new-look defensive front players do not appear to be fully healthy and didn't participate in preseason practices, this adds an element of uncertainty to their win totals (hence the wide spread between ceiling and floor). Second-year coach Matt Patricia talks about getting better from Thanksgiving on, which the Lions do project to do. One fantasy player to track as the season gets underway? Danny Amendola. Detroit targeted receivers out of the slot at the fifth-lowest rate last season, but remember: Darrell Bevell is now architecting the attack, so things will be different.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5.7 wins
The threat of a strong rushing attack helps create space for receivers -- and vice versa. The Bucs' pass catchers certainly command defenses' constant attention, but questions on the ground don't optimally set them up. And Jameis Winston's turnover track record further limits Tampa's projected wins, even with two-time Coach of the Year Bruce Arians at the helm.
New York Giants: 5.3 wins
While the preseason isn't predictive of much, one area where the Giants' August did allow me to add value to my model was along their O-line. Given the spark of improvements during the last five games of 2018 (the G-Men ranked between 18th and 21st in each week, after starting the season no better than 25th), the addition of right guard Kevin Zeitler via trade and an encouraging showing up front in the preseason, running back Saquon Barkley is my highest non-QB offensive player when it comes to win shares.
Washington Redskins: 5.2 wins
Maybe the most underrated pass rusher in the league, Ryan Kerrigan again projects to rank in the top eight in disruption percentage (when a defender gets within a 5-foot halo of opposing QBs). Injuries, O-line uncertainty and the unpredictable development of rookie QB Dwayne Haskins drive a three-game difference between the ceiling and floor projections.
Arizona Cardinals: 4.6 wins
Tell me you didn't overlook David Johnson in your fantasy draft. My model has him earning six-plus scrimmage touchdowns in 64.6 percent of simulations. That's a very high confidence level. This will help rookie QB Kyler Murray. Even with Murray's attributes and potential -- and coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense being congruent with the No. 1 overall pick's skills -- the Cardinals' O-line projects to be problematic, ranking second-worst in my model.