NFC East Preview 2016

After weeks of previewing the AFC, I’ve finally gotten around to starting my preview of perhaps the league’s most historic division in the NFC East. However, as of lately, this division has been one of the NFL’s most unpredictable. While last year’s division champ was Washington, the year before had the Dallas Cowboys taking the NFC East, 2013 had the Philadelphia Eagles. Curiously enough, the last team to win a Super Bowl, the New York Giants, won their last division title in 2011, the same year they ended the season as league champions.

So, who’s going to take the division this year? Let’s see who has the best case.

2016 Dallas Cowboys

Pros:

Before going in-depth about the Cowboys’ strengths, it’s important to recognize that Dallas enters this season as the easy favorites to take the division. Outside of looking at its specific strengths as a football team, you can can take a look at many high-variance factors behind the Cowboys’ 4-12 record last season – and why that will likely not happen again.

One such high-variance factor in Dallas’ record last year was its 2-7 record in one-possession games, as well as a 29th place in toxic differential, which combines both turnover and big-play differential. This is not to say that the Cowboys were somehow significantly better last season than the results show, but a simple regression to the mean could be enough to at least bring them from having the No. 4 overall pick to being in contention for a playoff spot.

Even with Romo’s most recent back injury, there’s also every reason to believe incoming backup quarterback Dak Prescott  has the support he needs to succeed. They’re aided by a dominant offensive line, anchored by the likes of elite left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and perhaps the league’s best center in Travis Frederick. That’s not even going into “weak links” on the line being right tackle Doug Free and left guard La’el Collins, who is off an up and down rookie year.

This is a mammoth of a unit that was literally so good that they helped lead the No. 9 offense in rushing DVOA and practically carried Darren McFadden to a 1,000+ yard rushing season. Therefore, the odds could not look any better for  rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot to have a Todd Gurley-esque breakout season. You obviously always have to take training camp rumors and pre-draft hype with a grain of salt, but Elliot in particular looks like the real deal so far.

If the running game gets going, it could give the passing game a chance to look fantastic.  Think about a return to form for star wideout Dez Bryant, maybe another solid year for tight end Jason Witten and additional help from slot wideout Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. This group has as good of continuity within its core as another other set of weapons in the NFL and could be part of an offense that is, even without Romo, certainly capable enough on its own to succeed.

Cons:

Dallas’ defense last year ranked No. 19 in the NFL, showing that it wasn’t as bad as people thought. However, this year’s unit, held up by defensive coordinator and lineman guru Rod Marinelli, will have its work cut out as far as covering up weaknesses.

For instance, the Cowboys’ pass rush. Last year, Dallas finished 16th in adjusted sack rate, with DeMarcus Lawrence, Greg Hardy, Tyrone Crawford and Jack Crawford as its leading pass rushers in sacks. Hardy is now a free agent, finishing last season with the team’s second most sacks.  I’m not arguing that Hardy is valuable as a locker room or even as a morally decent human being, but as a pass rusher, his kind of production, while clearly not elite any more, is still difficult to replace. That’s not even going into Lawrence being suspended for the first four games of this season.

Left on the line are the Crawfords, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton, an unproven and still-green second year end in Ryan Russell and the now-injured rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Marinelli is a hell of a defensive coordinator and has a penchant for developing linemen, but he could be working with a defensive line that could look like the league’s worst.

The outstanding middle linebacker Sean Lee provides a glimmer of hope for this defense, but last year was his first season since 2011 of playing 14 games. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Dallas had another linebacker to help him out, but linebacker Rolando McClain will be missing the first ten games of the season due to a codeine addiction that reportedly is crippling his NFL career. Instead of him, Dallas has the likes of Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant to help out Lee, making this linebacking unit one injury away from becoming a disaster. That’s terrifying, considering the Cowboys already finished last year as the league’s 29th best second-level rush defense.

The secondary’s best player next year will probably be free safety (and fellow UConn alumni) Byron Jones, who looked versatile and great in his rookie season,  but outside of Jones, the names are dauntingly uninspiring. Accompanying him deep is strong safety Barry Church, while the rest of Dallas’ defensive backs are essentially Brandon Carr (notorious for being murdered by Calvin Johnson), the disappointing Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, an otherwise solid cornerback that missed all of last year with a knee injury. If Dallas fails to get a pass rush, this is a secondary that could just as easily rank near the bottom of the NFL.

Best Case: Tony Romo comes back to form after Prescott holds the offense above water, with a breakout year from rookie Ezekiel Elliot – AKA LeSean McCoy 2.0. Marinelli somehow turns this ragtag group of defenders into a just below average defense for another year, as Byron Jones looks like the next Ed Reed. The Cowboys win the division title and go for a wild playoff run at 10-6.

Worst Case: With Romo missing a bunch of games or playing at less than 90 percent, the offense chugs along at just above league average with Prescott looking totally incompetent, while the defense completely collapses. With another disappointing season at 6-10, head coach Jason Garrett finally gets canned and owner Jerry Jones likely tries to find takers for Romo on the trade market.

2016 New York Giants

Pros:

Although they were a talented team in a few ways, the 2015 Giants were also a team that had a tremendously unlucky record in close games. In one-possession games, they finished 3-7, a good amount of it due to luck and also former head coach Tom Coughlin’s inability to effectively close out games. Coughlin was a great coach in other ways, but at least you could reasonably see the Giants improving here in his absence. Especially if they can have the league’s No. 2 ranked special teams DVOA again as they face what is right now the league’ second easiest schedule. .

The Giants also have one of the league’s most electrifying receivers and a top ten talent in Odell Beckham Jr.. Across him on the other side of the line is Victor Cruz, who last looked like a superstar three years ago, but if healthy could provide meaningful minutes as a secondary option for quarterback Eli Manning to throw to, if not rookie Sterling Shepard. Manning will be given help by the Giants’ strong interior line, which features left guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg, who went from looking like a replacement level player in 2014 to looking like a premier center last season.

Add in a solid running back crew of Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen – this is a relatively high floor offense that could become even better with another year under former offensive coordinator and current head coach Ben McAdoo, who when signed by the Giants in 2014 brought them from No. 31 to No. 15 in DVOA. Though New York finished only No. 19 last year, it wouldn’t be crazy to see the team improve.

On defense, New York’s signing of Olivier Vernon adds an elite pass rush talent on a line that could end up as the best group of Giants pass rushers since its 07 season. Say what you want about the contract having the possibility to blow up in New York’s face later, but along with Vernon is another signing in Damon Harrison, whom the Giants stole from the crosstown Jets – and could possibly be an even more impactful at defensive tackle, given his dominance in rush defense game. Those two players are already a great duo on their own, but they’re joined by returning and now healthy Jonathan Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul. This has a good chance to end up as the best defensive line in football, if it isn’t already. Considering where the Giants were at last year at this position (No. 30 in adjusted sack rate), that could be enough of a jump in production to warrant success.

New York also has one of the league’s better cornerback duos with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins. Neither of them are ace cornerbacks, but both are above average on their own and versatile in whom they can successfully defend. If the Giants pass rush can look as strong as its projected to, the team could have one of the league’s best pass defenses – a crucial strength to have in today’s league.

Cons:

The problem with the Giants’ offense might just be Eli Manning. This sounds like heresy to say about someone who threw for 4,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year, but Manning is also 35 years-old and has taken a lot of hits in his NFL career. How he does could be dependent on the kind of protection he gets from his offensive line, as well as his supporting skill position players.

But neither of these units are particularly that incredible. They have talents like Pugh/Richburg and Beckham Jr. at the top, but afterwards the talent drop is pretty enormous. For example, on the offensive line exterior, the Giants’ new right guard is John Jerry instead of Geoff Schwartz, which is basically the equivalent of going from a trusted starter to a below average player. It gets even worse when you look at their tackle duo of Ereck Flowers and Marshall Newhouse: maybe the worst exterior group of blockers on an offensive line in the NFL.

Moreover, if Cruz and Shepard don’t pan out, it’ll be another year of an offense being carried by Beckham Jr. If he gets hurt, New York could all of a sudden turn from an above average offense to looking like one of the worst in football, one led by Manning throwing bombs down the field under pressure and having more “bad Eli” games than Giants fans would like to see.

The defense also has enormous flaws behind its defensive line, which will pretty clearly be doing all the heavy work in covering them up. Take a look at the New York linebacking core, which composes of a suddenly resurgent Jasper Brinkley, but also JT Thomas, Keenan Robinson and Devon Kennard. That’s probably the worst group of linebackers in the NFL to back up the Giants’ stacked defensive line.

It gets only worse when you look at New York’s safeties, which look like a mess right now. Already worrying enough to return the disappointing safety Landon Collins, the Giants have a group of relative nobodies after him, with rookie free safety Darian Thompson and rookie defensive back Eli Apple. Having a pass rush can cover up bad defensive backs, but what happens if the rush never happens or if the opposing team starts throwing earlier in the play? The Giants could be trying an outdated strategy from 07 on defense.

Best Case: Manning proves me wrong and has a stellar year with Beckham Jr. looking like the best receiver in football and leading a high-octane offense, while the defensive line carries hard and single-handedly drags the Giants’ defense to a top ten finish. New York wins the division at 10-6 and could be in position to make a few playoff upsets.

Worst Case: Manning gets hurt or completely implodes ala 2013, while the offense completely tanks and the defense gets shredded across the middle of the field for 16 games, with a pass rush that only gets sacks in garbage time. The Giants finish 6-10, with little hope or any clue on what to do with their aging quarterback.

2016 Washington

Pros:

You would have had every reason to be skeptical of Kirk Cousins heading into last year, but Washington’s starting quarterback was phenomenal last season. After never having an interception percent of less than four percent, last season, Cousins threw only 2.0 of his passes for picks, while completing 69.8 percent of passes and throwing for over 4,000 yards.

A big part of that is the teams’ incredible receiving core. Their two wideouts in Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson complement are already effective enough as a respective possession receiver and deep threat, but Washington also has an effective slot receiver in Jamison Crowder, who had a solid rookie year last year. If that wasn’t enough, the team also has elite tight end Jordan Reed coming back, the team’s leader in receiving yards last year.

It’s also promising that Washington will have four returning starters from last year’s offensive line. That kind of continuity is already valuable enough to have on its own, but the returning players are also at the top or well above average for their position. Left tackle Trent Williams and guard Spencer Long anchor the weak side of the line, while Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff anchor the strong side. Veteran center Kory Lichtensteiger is the only weak link on the line and looked awful last year, but given another year could at least go from game-breakingly bad to replacement level.

Of course, Washington also made arguably the offseason’s biggest splash when it poached star cornerback Josh Norman away from Carolina in free agency. Even if he isn’t the same kind of game-altering ballhawk and lockdown defender that he was last year, he’s already a huge upgrade over Will Blackmon, who is now back playing free safety. Norman being able to take opposing No. 1 wideouts should also free up the third-year Bashaud Breeland on the other end. DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton aren’t world-changers in the safety backfield, but with Norman, they won’t have as much to worry about and are decent enough to where Washington could boast one of the league’s most consistent secondaries.

Cons:

While Cousins was phenomenal last year, it’d be a little silly to imagine that one breakout season would erase all kinds of doubts about him as a starting quarterback. His career interception rate still stands at about 3.2 percent, showing that the  mean for Cousins to regress to could be a little more realistic of an expectation rather than his last season.

Moreover, Washington might have the worst running back core in the NFL to back him up in the non-passing game. In today’s NFL, offenses set up with rushing game with passing, but Washington has almost no one it can realistically trust as a feature back or part of a committee. After the fumble-heavy back Matt Jones, the team has to basically rest its biggest hopes on seventh-round rookie Keith Marshall or third-year Chris Thompson. As we have seen from past seasons with the Chargers, a team without a running game can only go so far. We could see another repeat last-place finish for Washington in rushing DVOA.

The Norman splash also might have helped Washington’s secondary, but it might go for naught if the defensive front seven plays as bad as it’s expected to play. While the pass rush should be still be at least decent (finished No. 9 in adjusted sack rate last season), there’s much else to be excited about. Veteran outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and defensive tackle Chris Baker are probably the best players in the team’s front seven.

As for everyone else? Well, if you thought the Giants and Cowboys were the only NFC East teams with bad groups of linebackers, take a look at Washington, who will likely be giving Preston Smith, Will Compton and Mason Foster significant minutes. If that wasn’t concerning enough, it also replaced Terrance Knighton with the likes of Kedric Gholston and Kendall Reyes on the defensive line. Washington might keep its pass rush, but it’s going to look vulnerable at times during a schedule that has the team facing Le’veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliot in its first two weeks.

Best Case: Cousins’ regression isn’t significant and Washington leads an above average offense and just around good enough defense carried by an elite secondary. The team finishes 9-7 with some good luck and gains a division title.

Worst Case: This is the same team from last year, but with an offense that isn’t as explosive and looks even more exposed without a running game, as well as a defense that can’t stop the run and can’t get off the field. 7-9 and out of the playoffs, barring some kind of miracle.

2016 Philadelphia Eagles

Pros:

It’s fair to assume at this point that quarterback Sam Bradford did not live up to the hype of being a No. 1 overall pick for St. Louis. But while he’s left a lot to wish for in Philadelphia, it’s not as if he isn’t a serviceable quarterback. For reference, Bradford posted a 3,725 yard season in 2015, with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Those aren’t awe-inspiring numbers, but they at least show some form of capability – and even if you’re skeptical of the box score being misleading, keep in mind that Pro Football Focus ranked Bradford No. 12 out of all quarterbacks in the NFL last year out of starting players, based just on how he looked per play.

He’ll be helped by one of the league’s best and most experienced offensive lines as well. Left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce aren’t the stalwarts they were a few years ago, but they’re still extremely valuable at their positions, along with right tackle Brandon Brooks and right guard Allen Barbre. Rookie Isaac Seumalo or Stefen Wisniewski would likely take the left guard position, though that hasn’t been defined yet for the Eagles.

Similar to the Titans, the Eagles also have one of the league’s best and promising tight end duos. Formerly the nominal “fantasy sleeper” jokes, Zach Ertz finally looked among the best at his position, being a capable red zone threat and blocker down the field. He’ll be joined by longtime fan favorite Brent Celek, creating an extra duo of capable blockers who can also be red zone threats and safety blankets for Bradford to check down to.

The Eagles also have a secondary with the potential for greatness. With perhaps the league’s best safety duo in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McCleod, they’re already set with both defending opponents deep and being able to add an extra man in the box when they can, but take a look at their cornerbacks. Though neither Nolan Carroll nor Leodis McKelvin played particularly amazing (with McKelvin being hurt in the last two seasons and looking bad in 2015), they don’t have to be. If these two veterans can be just average, this secondary could look like one of the league’s best.

This strength would be highlighted even more if the Eagles can get the most out of their front four, with the presence of defensive left tackle Fletcher Cox and end Brandon Graham creating one of the league’s most devastating one-two punches on the strong side. That should free up defensive right tackle Bennie Logan and versatile edge rusher Connor Barwin (Philadelphia’s very own Rob Ninkovich) to wreak havoc. Not to mention, situational pass rusher Vinny Curry.

Add in a returning healthy Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks within Philadelphia’s linebacking core and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could have a front seven like the one he had in Buffalo for 2014, when the 4-3 mastermind masterminded the league’s No. 1 defense in DVOA. It’s not likely if Bradham and Kendricks don’t return in form, but Schwartz has another opportunity to be a part of something similarly dominating.

Cons:

Can you think of another player with as many “last chances” as Sam Bradford? Although he’s shown promise at times as a decision maker, his inability to throw the ball down the field is less Alex Smith and more Matt Cassel. It frequently hurts his team in ways that don’t necessarily manifest themselves in his box score production, but definitely in his team’s lack of explosiveness on offense. Imagine if the offense just fails to show any kind of life and Bradford gets benched. Does that mean Philadelphia throws No. 2 pick Carson Wentz out on the field as the starting quarterback? What if he isn’t very good either?

Also consider last year, when the Eagles relied on the back of the washed up DeMarco Murray as their leading rusher. He was definitely a step below how he performed in Dallas, if not just bad at points in the season, but Philadelphia’s options at running back this year are still unpromising. Are its fans supposed to trust Ryan Matthews to be a new starting running back for 16 games, given his extensive injury history? The only other options currently on the roster are the pass catching specialist Darren Sproles and perhaps fifth-rounder Wendell Smallwood.

It’s also hard to tell whether Bradford can’t go deep or whether he lacks the receiving threats to do so. Other than his tight ends and Sproles, the other guys include the disappointing Nelson Agholar and Jordan Matthews.

Moreover, the defensive hopes for Philadelphia rests on the health of some of its newer players and veterans alike. What happens if Kendricks and Bradham struggle in what’s supposed to be their redemption seasons? All of a sudden, the Eagles look vulnerable in the middle of the field – and that’ll only get worse if McKelvin can’t stay healthy or plays like he did last season on the decline.

Best Case: 8-8 wild card winning team that somehow manages to have a top ten defense and an average offense, led by Wentz after Bradford gets benched early into the season.

Worst Case: The defense never gets the jolt it needed and the offense is the worst in football, with a totally wasted offensive line, tight ends and quarterback controversies throughout the season. Philadelphia finishes 4-12, but somehow lets Bradford return, wanting to give him another chance.

Smash History: 2009’s Top Ten Melee Players

At the beginning of 2009, Super Smash Bros. Melee players expected to have one last hurrah at Revival of Melee before moving back to Brawl or whatever non-Melee related activity they’d otherwise do. But rather than a swan song, those smashers got something completely different.

genesis07
Photo per rxgaming.net, of GENESIS 1 doubles bracket. Hbox and Hax pictured left, Armada on the right.


Suddenly, the scene blew up. As the old guard of Cort, KoreanDJ, Azen, Ken and HugS dropped in appearances, new players from regions like Europe, Canada, Tri-State and Florida began to enter the scene. Melee players not only got one Revival of Melee – they even got another one later in the year! That’s not even going into GENESIS, the largest tournament ever at the time and perhaps the most important in Melee’s post-Brawl to EVO 2013 history.

2009 was the start of an entirely new era and meta: one based around the rise of Falco and Jigglypuff over Marth and Sheik, advances made in shield pressure, the rebirth of an international scene, new regional clashes and the beginning of Melee’s greatest rivalry. Catastrophe and I (with the help of SleepyK) are back again with another edition of RetroSSBMRank: this time for 2009. Let’s get into the honorable mentions. 

Disclaimer: because of the lack of data regarding European tournaments in 2009 (as well as repetition in our previous HMs), we decided not to officially add amsah or Zgetto. However, the two were now among the best out of non-Armada players in Europe, with Zgetto, a rising Dutch Fox main at the time, taking a set off Armada at Smash Attack.

We also decided to enforce a minimum of four tourneys attended all year, to make sure we didn’t have the same honorable mentions of past players like KoreanDJ, Azen, Cort, etc.



Joey ‘Lucky’ Aldama

An up and coming Fox main and star of an infamous combo video, Lucky’s classic Norwalk style aggression quickly rose him through the ranks of the West Coast’s best players. Although he never defeated Mango, Lucky was Southern California’s No. 3 for sure and a player to look out for in the future.

Dustin “Darc” Hayes

The best player in New England, Darc was the world’s third best Jigglypuff, having sets over Hax and Jman in bracket throughout the year. Even with a few suspect local losses, Darc also had strong national placings, finishing 13th at GENESIS and fifth at Revival of Melee 2, along with a second place finish in GENESIS doubles.

Colin ‘Colbol’ Green

If you judge a player mainly on nationals, Colbol wouldn’t be Top 20, as his losses to KoreanDJ, RaynEX, Eddy Mexico and DEHF at two attended nationals (13th at RoM and 49th at GENESIS) severely hurt his placing. However, Colbol’s excellent 13-11 record over Hungrybox and his status as one of Florida’s three best players stand as impressive feats in 2009.

Timothy ‘Eggm’ Cody

An already up and comer from New Jersey, Eggm won Shell Shocked V over Chu Dat, went even with Hax and also boasted a set win over Jman. Later known for his tutorial videos for Fox and Falco, Eggm was one of the standout players in Tri-State, an already stacked region.

Jeff “SilentSpectre” Leung

It didn’t matter whether his moves made sense or not – they’d still hit you. SilentSpectre, a member of the DBR crew, was a hero in Northern California for going close with the very best of the West Coast and even boasted a victory over Mango. His 25th place at GENESIS sticks out like a sore thumb, but check out his performance in the GENESIS crew battle, where he took G$’s last stock, beat Pakman and then brought Hax to last stock.

Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami

Before being known for 20XX, Hax was a 14 year-old up and coming pink Captain Falcon player from New York that could hang with the big guns of Melee. Defeating the likes of Tope, Eggm, Cactuar, Kage, Chu Dat, Cort and a sandbagging Mew2King before the end of the year, Hax was clearly a name to watch in the Tri-State region – and a year later had one of the best combo videos ever.

Charles ‘Cactuar’ Meighen

Known as the “Mew2Dad” for his time as a mentor for Mew2King, Cactuar was also one of the world’s most fundamental and calculating Fox players, with wins over Jman, Kage and Eggm on the year. His stage-positioning heavy and conservative playstyle gave the community a good joke about Cactuar: that you couldn’t create a combo video for him because it would just compose of him getting slow, deliberate hits on his opponents until they die.

Daniel “Chu Dat” Rodriguez

You’re probably sick of reading about Chu Dat on our lists, but he was still MDVA’s finest throughout 2009 and still attending tourneys. Along with sporting two victories over Hungrybox at RoM and Get Smashed, Chu Dat also two wins over DaShizWiz, Colbol and Cort early on in the year. If he was a little more active in travelling out of region, maybe he could be higher.

Paul “Pink Shinobi” Vang

Although most think of SilentSpectre when remembering NorCal legends, Pink Shinobi was actually No. 1 on the region’s last PR in 2009, though we couldn’t find a tourney he attended out of region. With victories over RockCrock, Cactuar and SilentSpectre on the year, the underrated NorCal Peach was still one of California’s best, even with a notoriously campy playstyle.

Canada

Canada’s best performance of 2009 clearly came from Kage’s RoM 2 third place when he double eliminated Mango  – and others might even remember him for upsetting KoreanDJ, Azen and Jman en route to a fifth place at the first RoM. However, he might not have been the best player in Canada. Players like Vwins, KirbyKaze, Unknown522, RaynEX and Bam deserve credit for beating him locally, showing that the world’s most dangerous Ganondorf main wasn’t the only Canadian on the rise. The Alberta Canada legend FalseFalco was known for being a master of the Falco ditto and Toronto’s IB, a Captain Falcon-slayer was another improving player to watch. 



10. Kevin “Dr. PeePee” Nanney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming seemingly out of nowhere in North Carolina with a really thick Southern accent, the future “god” Falco main defeated Kage, Tope, Hax, Lambchops, and Colbol before nationally breaking out at RoM 2. Here, he defeated Alukard, Lucky, Darc, Jman and an on-fire Kage en route to a second place finish. Just to prove this wasn’t a fluke, Dr. PeePee defeated Chu Dat twice at Don’t Stop Billievin, cementing his place as one of the world’s fastest rising Melee talents.

9. Christopher “PC Chris” Szygiel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although he didn’t attend anything in the second half of the year, PC Chris’ first half of the year showed that he was still the same innovative spacies and Peach player from 2007 to 2008. He won Smashageddon early in the year, defeated Jman four times, took a set off Mew2King at GIMPED 1 and won his only set against Hungrybox at RoM, while also beating Kage. It’s hard to say how good PC Chris was by the end of 2009, but given the perception around him as one of the game’s greats and his first half success, we decided to put him here.

8. David “Darkrain” John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Darkrain wasn’t just the embodiment of Captain Falcon. He was easily the Midwest’s best player, dropping only four sets in-region throughout the whole year to Matt R twice (a hidden boss), Kels and Sliq. His seventh place at Genesis, with victories over Lambchops and Tope, isn’t even his most impressive moment of the year – his Tipped Off 4 victory with two sets over Hungrybox and another over Colbol cemented the Kansas Captain Falcon player as more than just a combo video legend. Well, either that or beating Lambchops on stream with Donkey Kong in a friendly match.

7. Julian “Zhu” Zhu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t just look at his victory over Mew2King at GENESIS, which gave Zhu a fourth place finish at the year’s biggest tourney. Zhu also was easily No. 2 on the West Coast, with a 5-2 record over SilentSpectre, 3-0 against Pink Shinobi and 6-2 lead to Lucky. Even if he never defeated Mango, the Falco legend has a resume that speaks for itself. At GENESIS, he also defeated Falcomist, Vwins, Pink Shinobi and a red-hot Hax.  If you were a die-hard West Coast player at the time, you wouldn’t have sounded ridiculous to put him in your top five by the end of the year.

6. Jesus “Jman” Fernandez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Already on the rise from a year ago, Jman took even more names in 2009. Notably taking Apex 2009, with two sets over Mew2King: a man considered to be impeccable versus Fox, Jman also had victories over KoreanDJ, Darc, Eggm, Hax, Cactuar, Chu Dat, Vwins, Dr. PeePee and even Mango at Mass Madness 15, though supposedly Mango had split with Jman and played the set for show. One thing was clear: Jman was the world’s best Fox main and Tri-State’s second best player.

*5/6. Bobby “Scar” Scarnewman

Okay, so as you can probably infer, this is not our actual ranking, but Scar’s sixth place finish at GENESIS has to be one of the most simultaneously impressive, miraculous and hilarious placings of the year. After losing in pools to FalseFalco, Scar tore through winners bracket, defeating Taj and then upsetting Lambchops. However, now in winners quarterfinals, Scar beat Raistlin, a Florida Jigglypuff player that wasn’t even top five in his own state and who had to play Axe and Bob$ en route to a ninth place finish, instead of Jman and Colbol for winners round of 32 and 16, who each were upset early.

 

 

 

 

 

Scar then lost to Mango in winners semifinals before losing again to Hungrybox in losers quarterfinals and losing to Mew2King for the tiebreaker game, giving the East Coast’s most flashy Captain Falcon player his infamous sixth place finish. Consider this a special honorable mention, since it wasn’t like Scar was a nobody, as he had strong victories over Chu Dat, Tope, Hax and Dr. PeePee on the year.

5. Bronson “DaShizWiz” Layton

DaShizWiz was Florida’s best player in the first half of 2009, with victories over Hungrybox and Colbol, along with taking a set off a visiting Chu Dat. His third place finish at RoM came with victories over Eggm, Kage, Chu Dat and PC Chris, showing that DaShizWiz could still hang with the best of the world. Who knows – if he didn’t lose to Mew2King twice that tournament, maybe we could have seen a matchup against Mango’s Falco: a matchup DaShizWiz was more than experienced at playing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you thought his heartbreaking finish at RoM would be DaShizWiz’ final national tournament, you’d be wrong. His ninth place at GENESIS may look unimpressive, but at the same tournament, DaShizWiz beat SFAT, Darc and Zhu, while just losing to Hungrybox and Armada – infamously dropping a crucial game on counterpick Mute City, which played a role in smashers considering banning the stage. Not a bad year for someone who at the time was arguably the world’s most thrilling spacies player.

4. Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He wasn’t dominant as he was in past years, but the “Zimmermanson from Cinnaminson” was still the Northeast’s best player and the world’s top Marth main. Despite his Jigglypuff and Falco problem vs. Hungrybox and Mango, Mew2King rarely lost a local tournament, only dropping sets to PC Chris, Jman and Hax (while sandbagging at SNES) out of Northeast players.

Many attributed the drop in Mew2king’s performance to his focus on Brawl – others insisted that this was just a john that took away credit from his opposition. Nevertheless, Mew2King’s second place at RoM and fifth place at GENESIS, while disappointing given the expectations headed into each tournament, still stand as a reminder for his greatness. In particular, the fourth game of losers finals at RoM, commonly referred to as Match 4 (above) was the most viewed Melee match of all time – and you could argue that Mew2King’s immortal three-stock comeback against DaShizWiz single handedly brought competitive Melee back to life.

3. Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before becoming the best player of 2016, Hungrybox was arguably one of 2009’s biggest and most criminally underrated stars. The hate for his character, Jigglypuff, and his passive, patient, spacing-oriented playstyle caused Hungrybox to be given some of the most retrospectively absurd seedings. Take his seventh place at RoM, with losses to PC Chris and Chu Dat.

Nevertheless, the Florida Puff player persevered. After gaining an impressive ninth place at RoM, Hungrybox finished in third place at the year’s biggest tourney in GENESIS, despite having to play Mango as early as winners round of 16. He then beat Vwins, Darc, DaShizWiz, Darkrain, Scar and Zhu before getting eliminated by Mango in losers finals. Although Hungrybox struggled locally against Colbol, Hungrybox’s strong 4-2 record over Mew2King, his head to heads against every non-Mango player in the Top Ten and his incredible consistency gave him the edge as our pick for 2009’s No. 3 player of the year.

2. Adam “Armada” Lindgren

 

 

 

 

Although it seems ridiculous now, it’s important to understand just how big of an underdog Armada was heading into the world’s biggest tournament. Many were impressed by how devastating his Peach’s punish game was, leading to his status as the unquestioned No. 1 in Europe, but others were sure that Armada was overrated due to the relative lack of high-level European players and one dropped set to Zgetto in April. Some even thought that the caliber of competition in the United States was so much higher that he would lose in pools at GENESIS. A close call in a 2-1 pools victory over WhatIsFear, a SoCal Ganon player who two-stocked him game one, seemed to back up the skepticism.

It soon became clear just how wrong that was. Armada destroyed everyone in his path on the way to winners quarters, beating players like Lunin and Lucky (who successfully counterpicked to Poke Floats in game two and got three-stocked in game three). By this time, people knew that Armada was beginning to warm up, but nobody could have predicted his 2-1 set win over DaShizWiz nor his 2-1 victory over Mew2King: the first time the world’s premier Marth player lost on Final Destination against Peach. All of a sudden, the Swedish Peach nobody expected to go far was in winners finals. Imagine their surprise when Armada two-stocked Mango’s Jigglypuff, scaring him into playing Falco for the rest of the set: a 3-2 victory for Armada, shocking the world.

 

 

 

Without Armada, there is no legacy behind GENESIS and no rival to immediately challenge Mango’s post-RoM throne. Coming out of seemingly nowhere and beating three top five players in the world, he paved the way for international players to come in the post-Brawl era and beat the Americans at a game that people thought only they could dominate. You could have dismissed this run as a fluke back then, but think about the context behind him getting to grand finals: in one swift tournament, Armada had turned from a barely English-speaking Swedish teenage underdog into Melee’s final boss.

1. Joseph “Mang0” Marquez

 

 

Was Mango flawless or unbeatable? Of course not. Anyone who watched RoM 2 can tell you just how brutal his double elimination was, especially at the hands of a player like Kage (THE WARRIOR). Mango also dropped other sets throughout the year, including a loss against Fly Amanita in January while playing Captain Falcon, another set to SilentSpectre with Jigglypuff and Fox in April, and another to Jman in the same month at Mass Madness 15 as Falco, after forfeiting winners finals and agreeing to split before playing “for show” in a grand finals set Mango didn’t take seriously.

By the end of the year, Mango had won two (RoM and GENESIS) of the three biggest nationals of the year. He held a combined 14-1 record against Armada, Hungrybox and Mew2King, never losing to the latter two. In fact, Mew2King was so scared of playing against Mango in bracket that he often begged Mango not to play Jigglypuff, only to lose to his Falco anyway.

 

If that wasn’t terrifying enough for his opponents, Mango also never lost a tournament that entered for singles in the West Coast. He ended the year with a combined 35-1 tournament record against Zhu (15-0), his biggest training partner Lucky (10-0), SilentSpectre (7-1) and Pink Shinobi (3-0). His dominance against Zhu is particularly hilarious, as he even embarrassed our No. 7 in the world as Captain Falcon. Imagine if this year’s Hungrybox won 15 straight sets against SFAT and routinely took sets off while playing secondaries. That’s how game-breakingly good Mango was.

Furthermore, there also used to be a misconception that his success came from Jigglypuff – or that his spacies weren’t as good. Mango  played Falco and Fox in matchups that he didn’t like playing, like against Captain Falcon. For example, SilentSpectre often looked better against Mango’s Jigglypuff than he did against his Falco. In another case, Hungrybox beat Mango once in a Jigglypuff ditto game, though Mango still won the set 3-1, winning the runback 3-1 again with his Fox.

Claiming that Mango’s Jigglypuff was somehow a cut above his other characters tremendously understates his brilliance at the game. By the end of 2008, you could have argued that Mango’s Pound 3 run was fluky and that it came as a result of unfamiliarity with Jigglypuff, but there’s no such argument against him as No. 1 in 2009. Armada may have been the most important player of the year, but its best player wasn’t Mew2King, like everyone still believed even heading into the year. Mango was unquestionably competitive Melee’s hero, its savior and true champion.



Data Dump For Nerds

H2handTournamentResultsin2009


Let us know your thoughts on Twitter! Contact us: @ssbmjecht, @GCH_Catastrophe and @sleepike for your views on smash history, what you agreed and disagreed on, etc.

AFC West Preview 2016

Last week, I only took a look at one division: the woeful AFC South. But this week, I’ll be previewing what I think will be the most stacked division in football. And it goes beyond the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

Make no mistake: I could see any team winning this division. Where all the AFC South teams finished last season as average to bottom-tier competitors, this year’s AFC West almost assuredly will all its teams fighting for playoff spots in 2016.

2016 Denver Broncos

Pros:

Let’s start with the most obvious pro: if you’re the defending Super Bowl champions, chances are that your roster has some talent on it. Denver’s defense last year wasn’t just the best defense in the league – it was arguably one of the better defenses of the last fifteen years (lower numbers are valued as greater, for reference).

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There’s also little reason to think the Broncos will regress too much – out of starters from last year, only defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan aren’t coming back. These are great players at their respective positions, but Denver still retained arguably the league’s best pass rushing linebacker in Von Miller, while still keeping the same secondary core of Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, TJ Ward and Darian Stewart: a mix of savvy veterans and rising talent.

Add in the return of vaunted edge rusher DeMarcus Ware and the comically underrated star defensive end Derek Wolfe to make up what’s still easily the most well-balanced defense in the NFL and probably its best front seven even after losing Trevathan and Jackson. Denver’s defense may not end up as historically dominant as last season, but odds are that the 2016 Broncos, like the 2014 Seahawks did before them, can maintain their top dog status on the top of the defensive leaderboards.

If you’re especially hopeful, you can also point at Denver’s upgrade at quarterback: from the remains of Peyton Manning to presumably Mark Sanchez. That sounds like a joke, but consider just how awful Manning was last year, when he was rated one of the worst quarterbacks in football. Sanchez isn’t the kind of guy you can trust with long-term control over a franchise, but as a below-starter, but above replacement-level quarterback, he can succeed if given a strong defense to back him up, as we saw with the Jets several years ago.

Broncos fans don’t need Sanchez to turn into Aaron Rodgers to succeed – they just need him to hand the ball off to CJ Anderson and occasionally make throws to the likes of Emmanuel Sanders in the slot and DeMaryius Thomas down the field. Given the talent at Denver’s offensive skill positions, it’s hard to imagine that even Sanchez would be noticeable worse than Manning last year – and perhaps play more like Brock Osweiler did within coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-heavy offense.

Cons:

Unfortunately, if you’re a defending Super Bowl champion, history is usually not on your side when it comes to repeating. Save for the 2014 Seahawks, who returned to the Super Bowl, and the 2004 Patriots, who won, no Super Bowl champion in the last fifteen years has come back to the big stage.

2015 Patriots – 12-4, lost in the AFC championship game.
2014 Seahawks – 12-4, lost in the Super Bowl.
2013 Ravens – 8-8, missed the playoffs.
2012 Giants – 9-7, missed the playoffs.
2011 Packers – 15-1, got upset in the divisional round.
2010 Saints – 11-5, got upset in the divisional round.
2009 Steelers – 9-7, missed playoffs.
2008 Giants – 12-4, got upset in the divisional round.
2007 Colts – 13-3, got upset in the divisional round.
2006 Steelers – 8-8, missed playoffs.
2005 Pats -10-6, lost in the divisional round.
2004 Pats – won Super Bowl. 
2003 Bucs – 7-9, missed the playoffs.
2002 Pats – 9-7, missed the playoffs.
2001 Ravens – 10-6, lost in the divisional round.

The “Super Bowl hangover” is clearly overstated, as you can see from the records above. Most defending Super Bowl champions are still mostly great teams that can persevere through departed starters, lost coaches, etc. Nevertheless, it’s hard maintaining championship level success: a whole different beast from just staying merely good.

Take Denver’s sustainability in closing out close games. Last year, they were 9-3 in one-possession games during the regular season. If you include the playoffs, that number goes up to 11-3. It’s unfair to completely discredit Denver’s close wins due to its historically great defense last season, but it’s also ridiculous to expect to them to maintain such an absurd record in close games. Expect to see some natural regression to league average or worse next season.

Moreover, while it’s easy to be amazed by Denver’s lack of weaknesses on defense, it’s similarly terrifying to see just how bad its offensive line will be heading into the season. The Broncos upgraded at left tackle, replacing the dreadful Ryan Harris with a more serviceable Russell Okung, but they also lost brilliant left guard Evan Mathis. In Mathis’ place is the out-of-position center Max Garcia, who started five games last year and looked like a replacement level player when he did play.

On the right end of the offensive line is a whole other nightmare for Denver, with its replacements for Louis Vasquez and Michael Schofield being Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson. Both Vasquez and Schofield were extremely disappointing last year, but there’s no reason to think the people coming after them will be any better.

If Denver had a more reliable quarterback, the discontinuity and stagnancy of its offensive line wouldn’t be as big of a problem, but think about how this could be deleterious for a backup like Sanchez. He is a capable enough quarterback to hand the ball off to keep the chains moving, but when forced to make plays, can be rattled under pressure and extremely turnover prone.

Earlier in his career, he worked well with the Jets because they had a line that could protect him. Once that line regressed in quality and terms of play, Sanchez was essentially left to the dogs and unable to successfully make plays for his team, frequently turning the ball over early on in a possession and giving his defenses little field position to work with. Also: here’s an obligatory butt fumble video.

Best Case: The Denver defense is once again the best one in football, while the offense hovers a bit below league average, but not badly enough to drastically affect Denver’s 10-6 record and shot at an AFC championship game.

Worst Case: Mark Sanchez and the offensive line implode, leading the Broncos quarterback situation to spiral out of control and ruin an otherwise fine football team, which begins to look less like the 2002 Bucs and more like the 2013 Bills in terms of a talented defense being totally wasted by an incompetent offense. 6-10 record, missing the playoffs.

2016 Kansas City Chiefs

Pros:

Even just looking generally at the Chiefs, you can tell they’re just about as good as anyone in football. This sounds like hyperbole, but consider their No. 5 overall ranking on DVOA last season, along with their 11-5 record. By all accounts on offense and defense, Kansas City had a talented roster that’s mostly coming back next year on both ends, ready to have another strong season.

The Chiefs surprisingly finished last season as the No. 6 team in offensive DVOA – and that was mostly without star running back Jamaal Charles. With him back, as well as returning receiving options in reliable tight end Travis Kelce and the versatile Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs have a chance to continue offensively chugging along with a game manager quarterback like Alex Smith.

If Charles returns with a stellar season, it’ll likely be due to Kansas City’s tremendous improvements on the strong side of its offensive line. For example, the upgrade at right tackle, from the terrible, out-of-position Jah Reid to Mitchell Schwartz, constitutes one of the best offseason moves. That alone might be just enough impact for the Chiefs to stay effective offensively, along with going from a turntable rotation of bad left guards to rookie Parker Ehringer, who may not provide an immediate solution, but could turn into a long-term starter.

On defense, Kansas City has all of its front seven coming back, which is impressive for a a defense that finished No. 7 in adjusted line yards and No. 4 in adjusted sack rate. Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston (a monster when healthy), Tamba Hali are already three of the best complementary linebackers in football on their own, but Alan Bailey, Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard are 27, 25 and 27 year-old talents that are either in their primes or entering it soon. It’s rare to see such continuity on a front seven, but it’s an excellent sign for the Chiefs. If the Broncos didn’t exist, you could argue a healthy Kansas City defense as having the league’s most formidable front seven.

The Chiefs don’t have stars at cornerback, but they don’t need to if their front seven can put enough pressure on opposing teams. The presumably starting Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson are both in their second seasons and already looked like starter-quality material as rookies. Given the talent and continuity both on the front seven and within a safety duo of star Eric Berry and the veteran Ron Parker, it’s hard to imagine both Peters and Nelson noticeably regressing – making up a defense that has the continuity, talent and coaching (A fourth season for defensive coordinator and maestro Bob Sutton) to become the best in the league.

Cons:

While Kansas City’s offense remarkably exceeded expectations without Charles in the starting lineup for a chunk of its season, you could argue that its performance was due to a small sample size and a little bit of luck. Per toxic differential, which combines both turnover differential and big play differential, the Chiefs ranked No. 5 in the NFL.

Even with a game manager like Smith at quarterback, it’s hard to maintain that kind of fortune. This doesn’t mean that he will suddenly turn into Blaine Gabbert, but it’s reasonable to expect a regression from his impressive 1.5 interception rate to his career mark at 2.3 this season. A 0.8 percent increase sounds minor, but it has a huge impact, as Smith can tell you himself, having experienced it from 2011 to 2012.

After two years of looking horrendous, former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher finally looked serviceable at left tackle, but he has still looked mostly disappointing given how highly he was regarded in 2013 and how up and down he’s been in his career. Moreover, if second-year right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tarif struggles for another season, it could add another hole in the interior offensive line. To be fair, if there’s any coach that can make guys like Fisher, Duvernay-Tarif and Ehringer work, Andy Reid is the guy, but it will still be difficult if the Chiefs aren’t as lucky in staying away from turnovers.

There’s also a big flaw that stops the Chiefs’ defense from being assuredly greater than its contemporaries: depth, since it doesn’t have any noteworthy players behind the defensive starters. Moreover, while Peters played well as a cornerback last year, that was also with Sean Smith acting as Kansas City’s No. 1 corner taking on most of the responsibility of taking the toughest defensive assignment. It’s tough to say for certain how Peters will fare in a new role.

Best Case: Charles plays like a top-five running back in football and coach of the year Reid makes a patchwork offense still look capable for another season, complemented by the best defense in football. Looking like the most rounded team in football, Kansas City goes 13-3 and possibly wins a Super Bowl with defensive player of the year Justin Houston as its Super Bowl MVP.

Worst Case: The Chiefs’ line regresses and so does the play of Kansas City’s skill position players. Add in injuries to the defense exposing depth problems that hurt the Chiefs’ ability to succeed throughout the season against their cutthroat division. A final, painful mistake in clock management or play calling by the brilliant, but infuriating Reid closes out an 8-8 season where Kansas City misses the playoffs.

2016 Oakland Raiders

Pros: 

It sounds weird, but read the following sentence out loud. The Raiders are a good football team. Maybe you haven’t read a phrase like that since 2002, but if you’ve watched Oakland last season, you know that now is probably the teams’ best chance to content for a playoff spot.

In a division that has the Broncos and Chiefs, the Raiders are equipped to have an offensive line that can take on any defensive front seven in football. It was already enough that they returned starters in left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson: already all arguably borderline top ten or higher at their positions.

But the Raiders also replaced the dud and out-of-position J’Marcus Webb with Kelechi Osemele, who already had a great start to his career in Baltimore and has the supporting cast around him to succeed like he did in 2014. The only relative weak link on the offensive line is the talented, but oft-injured Menelik Watson in place of Austin Howard, but Watson will also be likely playing with support from the underrated Lee Smith, an underwhelming receiving tight end, but a force to be reckoned with as a blocker.

If the offensive line looks as great as promised, the Raiders skill position players could thrive in another year. As a rookie, Amari Cooper already showed flashes of brilliance and fellow second-year Clive Walford should show additional progress as a receiving tight end to complement Smith. We could soon see that No. 18 rank in offensive DVOA rise up to a top ten finish if quarterback Derek Carr makes the second-to-third year jump that his fans have been waiting for.

It’s not as if Oakland is a one-dimensional team heading into 2016. In fact, the 2015 Raiders finished a higher No. 15 in defensive DVOA and could get even better this year. Anchored by Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker who is just about as excellent as any of his contemporaries in the NFL, Oakland’s defense also features players like promising defensive end Mario Edwards, Dan Williams and a veteran presence on the outside pass rush like Bruce Irvin.  These are great players for coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to work with, given their excellent track records with defensive talent.

One key player for the defense is Justin Ellis, who looked like an average starter in his second season, but is reportedly outplaying Williams for a starting nose tackle spot. This is especially impressive given how effective Williams was last year. If the Raiders can find some way to have lineups with both defensive tackles on the field, not only will they have the depth to compete against any offensive line, but they’ll also have two interior gap defenders to shut down any opposing rushers. Combined with a pass rush led by Mack and Irvin, we could see last year’s underwhelming adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate stats increase to a more fitting spot by the end of the year.

Oakland’s secondary also looks like it could be the best it’s been in a decade. Cornerback David Amerson was secretly one of the better defenders at his position in the league – and this year, he’ll be complemented by Sean Smith, the Chiefs’ former No. 1 corner. Backing them up deep are the consistent Reggie Nelson and first round rookie Karl Joseph, replacing Charles Woodson. Given the depth and versatility of Oakland’s defense up front and in the secondary, Joseph is in an ideal situation for a young defensive back.

Cons:

On paper, Oakland’s offense looks balanced, but in practice, the results could be hard to come by if it doesn’t see drastic improvement in its key skill position players. Keep in mind that even with last year’s offensive line, the Raiders finished only No. 24 in rushing offense DVOA. The same goes for Carr, who has looked promising, but might just not be the same kind of long-term franchise-changing player that someone like Drew Brees or Phillip Rivers is. Especially if the Raiders don’t recover 61.1 percent of their fumbles again.

If Cooper gets hurt and running back Latavius Murray doesn’t significantly improve as a running back, the Raiders won’t have enough offensive options to take advantage of their tremendous offensive line. Wideout Michael Crabtree is a great No. 2 receiver at this point in his career, but there’s simply not enough depth behind him at the skill positions to warrant too much defensive attention. That could be the difference between Oakland’s offense finally breaking out versus it still hovering around or even below league average.

Moreover, the defense still has its problems of defending across the middle of the field. DJ Hayden, coming off a down year, former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney are not players without promise, but they could be easily exposed across the middle of the field if the Raiders can’t get a consistent pass rush going or stop the run.

This sounds like a minor problem, but considering how heavily some of the league’s best teams focus on throwing in the slot and going wide, it’s arguably the worst issue for Oakland to have on its defense – particularly if it can’t find a way to use both Williams and Ellis on the same line without sacrificing speed and versatility on the line.

Best Case: The Raiders make that offensive jump, as Murray, Carr and Cooper all substantially improve behind the league’s best offensive line. Mack makes his case for defensive player of the year and, for the first time since 2002, Oakland wins an AFC West division title at 10-6, possible even making some waves in the playoffs.

Worst Case: Oakland looks like the same promising team from last year, but never fully makes the jump from average to good, as they can’t find a way to break the impenetrable wall of defensive juggernauts like the Broncos and Chiefs. A losing division record leaves the Raiders as the odd men out in a stacked division, with the team finishing a competitive, but still heartbreaking 7-9, fourth-place divisional finish.

2016 San Diego Chargers

Pros:

The 2015 Chargers were bad in ways, but perhaps most painfully near the end of their matches, as seen by their porous 3-9 record in one-possession games, including a stretch from October 12 to November 9 of losing five straight games by eight points or less. If San Diego has anywhere near as awful of a season-killing stretch as that this year in one possession games, I would be both amused and horrified. The same goes for its eyebrow-raisingly bad toxic differential last year, a result of big plays given up by their defense, a lack of big plays on offense and an unfortunate turnover differential.

In 2016, the Chargers’ plan for success will likely rely on how much more effectively quarterback Phillip Rivers can throw the ball down the field from last year, when he had virtually no deep threats. The healthy return of wideout Keenan Allen, as well as Travis Benjamin coming into replace the retired Malcolm Floyd, should go a long way towards improving a passing offense that already ranked No. 8 last year in pass DVOA despite a total lack of a running game behind it. Especially if San Diego can get another productive season from the reliable Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead.

You can certainly criticize offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and coach Mike McCoy as in-game decision makers, but their track record of growing versatile wideouts is impressive.  Whisenhunt has coached players Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, while McCoy was arguably the architect behind the Broncos when they had DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. San Diego’s group of receivers could add their names to the two coaches’ resume.

The Chargers have a cornerback duo that could become one of the best in the NFL. Cornerback Jason Verrett had another standout year from his defensive teammates, but instead of Brandon Flowers on the other side of the field will be Casey Heyward, one of the league’s best nickel backs and slot defenders. Flowers himself could see an improvement as a situational defensive back since he won’t have to worry about defending slot receivers any more.

Another tandem to watch out for on defense could be outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu, who could add their names to a list of developed linebackers for defensive coordinator John Pagano, who has already helped develop strong linebackers of the past for San Diego, like Steve Foley, Randall Godfrey, Shaun Phillips and Shawn Merriman. Perhaps even second year linebacker Denzel Perryman can make his name on that list too.

Cons:

While I think San Diego’s record in close games has a lot to do with bad luck, you could also argue that it came because of McCoy’s bad history of in-game decision making. I’ve written about my issues with McCoy several times before as part of my old Coaching Corner weekly pieces – particularly in his peculiar decisions on fourth down, where he was often unreasonably and indefensibly conservative in his approaches. You can see what I mean here, in a table I made to measure the most risk-averse and risk-taking coaches in the NFL.

It won’t help McCoy if he can’t get a running game started for another season either. Last year, the Chargers were ranked as the second worst rushing team per DVOA and they almost did nothing in the offseason to fix that outside of replacing Trevor Robinson, perhaps the worst center in football last year to get meaningful snaps, with Matt Slauson, maybe one of the league’s best.

But even Slauson doesn’t immediately bring the line to average. Even discounting down seasons from left tackle King Dunlap, guard Orlando Franklin and right guard DJ Fluker: all hurt last year and below replacement level when they played. In fact, right tackle Joe Barksdale might have been the Chargers’ best offensive lineman last year. If he or Slauson get hurt, this is once again one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Barring some improvement from second year running back Melvin Gordon, the Chargers will likely be stuck with another one-dimensional offense, even if their passing is even better this season.

Pagano’s also likely in his last year of defensive coordinator for San Diego if he can’t stop their defensive decline since he took reigns of the defense in 2012. Since then, the Chargers defense have gone from being ranked No. 18 to No. 32 to No. 25 to No. 28 in defensive DVOA. Unfortunately, there’s not much talent outside of the linebacking and cornerback duos within San Diego’s defense, even with the addition of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to help the Chargers’ woeful No. 31 finish in rush defense DVOA.

The rest of the defense involves the likes of Corey Liuget, No. 3 pick left end Joey Bosa, the disappointing Manti T’eo and a sieve in safety Jahleel Addae, who has looked worse each successive season since being drafted in 2013. Make no mistake: the Chargers are one injury away from, if not already being a part of, becoming one of the league’s worst front sevens and least versatile defenses.

Best Case: Rivers turns the clock back eight years and, along with a receiving cast reminiscent of the 2008 Cardinals, leads a top five passing offense in the NFL, carrying the Chargers to go even with their divisional opponents and beat up on the easiest schedule out of them. With better luck in close games, San Diego somehow finishes 10-6 and with a division title under the back of its MVP-level quarterback.

Worst Case: San Diego’s defense stays bad and the offense isn’t strong enough to overcome botched fourth-down decisions and a tough division. Even worse, an injury to Rivers basically guarantees a disappointing 5-11 finish and awkward offseason where several coaches get fired.

AFC South Preview 2016

If you’re unfamiliar with watching any AFC South team play football last year, the results are uninspiring. The Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans finished with a combined  25-39 record throughout the 2015 season. Exclude these teams records against eachother and you have a group of four teams that went 13-27 against every other team in football – the worst out of any division in football.

However, even win-loss records doesn’t describe just how relatively bad these teams were last year. By almost any metric you look at, their performances range from being graded as around average to being ranked the worst in football. Take a look at AFC South division leader from last year: the Texans. They graded only 18th in overall DVOA and 16th in SRS, which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule. In order, the Colts finished 23rd, Jaguars 25th, Titans 31st at each respective statistic.

Either way, someone from this division will have to go to the playoffs. Which team will it be?

2016 Houston Texans:

Pros:

It doesn’t sound like much, but the Texans actually seem to have an upgrade at quarterback! After struggling through a year with Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates and Ryan Mallett leading the offense, Houston seems to have finally found their starter for hopefully a full season: Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler isn’t necessarily a good decision maker, but as shown through his stretch with starting for the Broncos last season,  he is an okay game manager that can occasionally throw a deep ball pretty well. It would obviously be ridiculous to expect Osweiler to turn into some kind of star, but based on what we’ve seen from him so far in his career, he is about an above-replacement level player at his position and has the potential to become an average starter. That’s already a huge improvement from Hoyer, Mallet and Yates: all below replacement level players last season.

Also consider a guy who will most likely be Osweiler’s biggest target for the season: DeAndre Hopkins, who is an arguably top five or ten player at wide receiver. Add the Texans’ upgrade at running back as well, from an aging Arian Foster to the fresh and promising Lamar Miller as another weapon for the young quarterback to use, along with the speedy first round draft pick wideout in Will Fuller. Given his skillset as a big-arm guy and his history of playing in a conservative offense, there’s reason to be optimistic about Osweiler – especially since Hoyer had a relatively good box score stat line for the year, with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Osweiler doesn’t have to be Aaron Rodgers or even Joe Flacco to make this offense work – he just has to be capable.

If the offense can hover around league average, it could provide a good enough support for Houston’s JJ Watt-anchored defense, which ranked No. 8 in defensive DVOA last year and has someone who arguably has the best defensive prime of an NFL player ever. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel deserves a ton of credit for turning around the formerly No. 18 defense in football in 2013 to becoming a top ten force with a chance to get even better.

However, just giving credit to Watt for Houston’s excellent defensive line play is unfair. Edge rushers in Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney provide great pressure on the outside, even if their individual sack totals don’t show impress skeptics. Situation veteran defensive tackles like Vince Wilfork and John Simon also add depth to a front seven that ranked No. 9 in adjusted line yards in stopping the run and No. 6 in adjusted sack rate last season. There’s no reason to believe that rank won’t increase or stay around the same level heading into next season, given the return of the solid cornerback tandem in Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson as well.

Cons:

Houston’s offensive line is no longer the force it was back when left tackle Duane Brown was one of the league’s elite players at his position. Even with right guard Jeff Allen providing a great upgrade over the departed Brandon Brooks and returning starting right tackle Derek Newton, there are question marks at center and left guard: with the disappointing left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo coming back and the unproven rookie second round center Nick Martin. Injuries in an offensive line are almost inevitable for any team – if any of these guys go down, it will have a negative ripple effect on the offense.

Though the Texans’ defense is one of the best in the league, it’s also still dependent on how it does in the trenches. Second-year Bernardrick McKinney is a bright spot in an otherwise desolate group of inside linebackers like Brian Cushing and an out-of-position Eddie Pleasant. This can cause Houston to be susceptible to No. 2 wideouts or at defending receiving backs: in both categories, Houston ranked No. 23 and No. 18 in DVOA.

That may not even be Houston’s biggest weakness. The Texans had the worst special teams DVOA in the NFL last season to continue a stretch of abysmal special teams play over the last few years. Firing their special teams coordinator was a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly still a concern for Houston heading forward, even if they aren’t the worst in the league again.

Best Case: Houston sweeps its own porous division and an Osweiler looking to prove himself leads a well-balanced offense with a breakout year from Lamar Miller. An elite defense and improved enough special teams squad help the Texans finish at 10-6 with an AFC South division title.

Worst Case: Despite playing with two of the best skill position players in the league, Osweiler regresses under the pressure of being a starter and the defense suffers enough injuries to its core, while the special teams unit stays awful. The Texans finish 6-10 and out of the playoffs.

2016 Indianapolis Colts

Pros:

After 2014, when Andrew Luck looked like he could become an MVP-candidate in 2015, Luck was awful last year, playing in only seven games, throwing 12 interceptions, completing only 55.3 percent of his passes and having a 5.04 ANY/A. As prone to turnovers as Luck can be at his worst, it’d be overzealous to see him throw 4.6 percent of his throws for interceptions again: an almost unsustainably bad rate. His career 2.6 percent INT rate should be a little more indicative for the kind of season we can expect, since he’ll also be back in top shape and likely not leading the No. 30 team in offensive DVOA again. Maybe he’ll even begin to solidify himself as the NFL’s corniest commercials guy.

Supporting Luck on the offense are returning veterans in halfback Frank Gore, the devastating deep threat TY Hilton and a promising secondary wideout in Donte Moncrief. Moreover, the offensive line should still be solid for Luck, with returning weak side linemen in tackle Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhurt. Even Indianapolis’ rookie first round center Ryan Kelly should provide an improvement from last season’s Jonotthan Harrison, who was hurt and one of the worst starting centers in football when he played.

Don’t forget that the Colts finished No. 13 in defensive DVOA last season, despite struggling on the other end. Here, they also have returning starters and players like Vontae Davis, Henry Anderson, Kendall Langford, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis and Erik Walden coming back. Continuity in key starters on a defense over the years is important for improvement and sustainability.

It doesn’t hurt that one of the positions the Colts has tried to replace has a great jump in quality of play. In place of the much-maligned cornerback Greg Toler is Patrick Robinson, who quietly had a resurgent year with the Chargers before singing with Indianapolis. Replacing any starter on a defense can be tricky, but the difference between horrendous and even just average can sometimes be all it takes for a defense to significantly get better in an area.

Cons:

Even if Luck doesn’t play like the worst at his position again, there’s still questions about how much of an impact he can actually have on his offense. Despite his reputation as a box score stat stuffer, he has never led an offense to a top ten finish in DVOA since being drafted. This is obviously not an indictment on Luck’s ability to be a successful starter, but just something to consider when discussing his ability to be the next Tom Brady-esque player at his position.

The strong side of Indianapolis’ offensive line also still has questions. Right guard Hugh Thornton missed four games last year, but was a below replacement player when he played, while returning right tackle Joe Reitz was up and down throughout the year. The Colts could try to use a mix of tight ends Jack Doyle or Dwayne Allen to help out in blocking, but neither of these two are Rob Gronkowski as dual threats in blocking and receiving.

Furthermore, while I wrote about Robinson replacing Toler, the Colts also lost their defensive MVP last season in linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who left for Chicago and was one of the best players at his position in football, as well as probably the best run-stopping linebacker. In his place will be likely Sio Moore coming back from a bad hip injury that kept him out for all of 2015. Moore might not be a bad player, but he’s a huge drop in production from the brilliant Freeman.

Strong safety Clayton Geathers, who looked inconsistent and frequently lost when he played in last season, should look better this year, but he’ll be replacing the departed Dwight Lowery, who is now in San Diego. If the young Geathers doesn’t improve significantly, he and the ageless, but declining free safety Mike Adams could be liabilities down the field for opposing offenses to expose.

Best Case: Andrew Luck comes back with a vengeance with a less turnover-heavy and more touchdown-filled season, finally leading a Top Ten offense people have dreamed of him. He gets a few MVP murmurs early in the season and leads the Colts to a 10-6 season.

Worst Case: Luck doesn’t have the breakout season his fans wanted to see and plays like the same solid, but up-and-down gunslinger we’ve seen earlier in his career. The defense significantly declines and Indianapolis stumbles around mediocrity at 7-9 for another missed playoffs year, as head coach Chuck Pagano gets fired.

2016 Tennessee Titans

Pros:

You wouldn’t be able to tell by their 3-13 record last season, but the Titans actually have a unified direction in terms of the future for their offense. Yes – a team that just finished dead last in the league in offensive DVOA somehow has a cohesive identity for the future outside of just having a promising young quarterback like Marcus Mariota.

Take the signing of veteran DeMarco Murray to complement second-year Antonio Andrews at running back, along with recent Heisman Trophy winner and rookie Derrick Henry. Murray is clearly not the running back he was with Dallas, but he provides another option as a veteran running back and could at least show competence, which could help a rushing offense that finished No. 30 in DVOA for the year. Also consider Mariota’s effectiveness as a running quarterback, just to add another rushing threat on the offense.

If the rushing game succeeds, it will also likely be because of the Titans’ returning two tight ends in the still effective veteran Anthony Fasano and Delanie Walker, who has a case for being the best non-Gronk tight end in football. As seen by his stint with Jacksonville in 2012, Mike Mularkey isn’t exactly an ideal head coach, but his history in working with versatile tight ends is quite remarkable, having been a tight ends coach for Walker and Tony Gonzalez and successful blocking tight end Mark Bruener before. He’ll have a lot to work with on the offense, along with wideouts like Rishard Matthews and rookie Tajae Sharpe, who has looked great so far in training camp and on Twitter.

Either way, it’s tough to imagine the Titans being as bad on offense as they were last season. Most of their failures came as a result of lacking big plays and turning the ball over, which are high-variance factors that should return back to league average. They ranked 31st in toxic differential last year, which combines turnover differential and big play differential. If Mariota comes back healthy, it’s almost guaranteed that this rank gets better.

Led by longtime great defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Tennessee’s defense also could become one of the league’s most stout forces. Having already finished No. 1 in adjusted sack rate last season, the combination of defensive ends Jurrell Casey and Daquan Jones, as well as edge rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan should continue to wreak havoc on opposing passers – especially if given help by blitzing defensive backs, like the zone-blitz innovator LeBeau is notorious for doing.

The return of corner Jason McCourty, who played only four games while hurt all of last year, plays a crucial role in Tennessee’s hopeful growth as a pass defending team. Cornerback Perrish Cox, safety Da’Norris Searcy and star linebacker Wesley Woodyard add continuity to a promising defense.

Cons:

Before getting into the flaws with Tennessee’s current team, look at how they’ve drafted over the last three seasons. After drafting Sankey in 2014, they picked up the undrafted free agent Andrews in the same season, traded for Murray two years later and then drafted Henry anyways. Running backs are valuable, but loading up on them is certainly a curious decision if the Titans are trying to find good offensive talent.

The tight ends help with trying to create a heavy-set offense, but the line outside of left tackle Taylor Lewan is still extremely suspect, with left guard Quinton Spain coming off an injury-filled and bad 2015. Right guard Chance Warmack has started in most games for his first few seasons, but he hasn’t quite evolved past being an up and down lineman. Anchoring the spot between rookie right tackle Jack Conklin and center Ben Jones is going to be a heavy task for Warmack heading into the season.

On the other end, Tennessee’s blitz-heavy defense still has significant holes in its rush defense, as the team didn’t really do anything to address its need here, having finished No. 24 in rush defense DVOA. Linebackers Sean Spence and Avery Williamson are also particular suspect in defending slot receivers – and the Titans emphasis on getting the passer at all costs could still leave open holes all over the middle of the field against a quick passer.

Best Case: The Titans vision for a heavy-set offense with a physical and blitz-heavy defense creates vast improvements in both sides of the field, as Murray has a redemption year ala 2015 Chris Johnson to be a contributing member of a good offense. Tennessee then takes care of an easy schedule en route to an 8-8 record and maybe, just maybe, a division title if the division is bad enough.

Worst Case: Instead of significantly improving, the Titans emphasis on a jumbled running back committee doesn’t make any gains, as the offensive line stays below average and the secondary doesn’t improve with a still inconsistent McCourty. Mularkey finishes the year 5-11 and questions around Mariota’s ability to be a starting quarterback linger in the offseason, as Tennessee most likely picks up another running back to desperately fix its problems.

2016 Jacksonville Jaguars

Pros:

If you watched Jacksonville last year, you can attest to its skill position players being some of the most underrated in the NFL. You wouldn’t be able to tell this by their No. 21 offensive DVOA rank, but there is a ton of hidden potential within the Jaguars offense that goes beyond just low-key valuable skill position fantasy players.

The two beasts at wide receiver on both sides, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, are probably the duo of wideouts that offensive coordinator Greg Olson has had to work with since being the offensive coordinator for Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Alongside them is a returning Julius Thomas, who should be better this season after missing last year’s opening four games with a broken finger and looking inconsistent for the rest of the season.

Another hidden boss within the Jacksonville offense in running back TJ Yelton, who looked good in his stint as a starter and will likely be splitting carries with the effective veteran Chris Ivory. For a young quarterback like Blake Bortles, these skill position threats are about as much as you can realistically want for success and continued development on offense.

As a defense, the Jaguars were clearly not very good last year, finishing No. 26 in defensive DVOA, but they have a good chance to be a lot better this season. Another year in head coach Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme should lead to improved play from returning players Jared Odrick, Roy Miller, Sen’Derrick Marks, presumptive starting edge rusher Dante Fowler in his first healthy year and the newly acquired Malik Jackson: a crucial member of last year’s tremendous Broncos defense. If its members can stay healthy, this could be one of the better defensive lines in the NFL and much better than last year’s injury prone squad.

The Jaguars struggled against top wideouts last year, finishing No. 31 in pass defense, but that number should get a bit better with the addition of veteran corner Prince Amukamara, who will be part of a defensive back group of rookie slot corner Jalen Ramsey and nickel defensive back Davon House. This is a versatile group of defenders that aren’t barnburners, but are solid and versatile enough to defend in man coverage against any group of receivers. For what it’s worth, these players will at least be practicing against Robinson, Hurns and Thomas each week. That should do enough for improvement, right?

Cons:

Football guru and ESPN writer Bill Barnwell has already gone at lengths to analyze Bortles and what we can expect from him in his third season. The main gist of his article was that a look at the tape shows that Bortles was often bailed out by his gifted skill position players, frequently throwing would-be incompletions and only improving marginally as a decision maker. Per Football Outsiders, Bortles actually led the league last season in adjusted interceptions, which takes into account dropped picks.

It’s also hard to say the Jaguars’ current motley crew of disappointments and castoffs constitutes anything close to an ideal scenario in the trenches. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, leaving Pittsburgh, is the line’s only bright spot. He’s an enormous improvement from Luke Joeckel at left tackle, but instead of getting a new guard, the Jaguars shifted Joeckel to left guard and moved their former starting guard Brandon Linder to center.  Jacksonville also kept both strong side starters in guard AJ Cann and tackle Jeremy Parnell.

Shifting players on a line can already be a dangerous proposition, but with a quarterback already susceptible for turnovers, an otherwise promising offense can turn into a disaster defined by missed pre-snap assignments, confusion in play calling and general chaos. Bortles is the kind of quarterback whose strengths get magnified depending on the kind of pressure he receives – if he doesn’t have time to throw, his production could get ugly for the Jaguars.

Additionally, if Jacksonville’s defensive line and corner play are going to improve, that still leaves a gaping hole in the team’s safety positions, likely occupied by converted corner Tashaun Gipson and John Cyprien, two of the worst players at safety in the NFL. To add onto their weaknesses is a porous linebacking core, with likely starters in Telvin Smith, Dan Skuta and whatever is left of Paul Posluszny. The Jaguars could theoretically move a player like Fowler to the outside linebacker position to help out, but that doesn’t do anything to help their atrocious safety help and vulnerability in the middle of the field.

Best Case: Somehow, miraculously, the offensive line plays just good enough for the skill position players to lead the offense for an better year, while the defensive line carries the defense. If Bortles can develop into an average starter this year, maybe this could be an 8-8 division title holder?

Worst Case: This is the same team from 2015, but with a marginally better defense and a quarterback that isn’t bailed out from his receivers. 4-12 finish in coach Bradley’s final season.

Smash History: 2008’s Top Ten Melee players

A week and a half ago, fellow Super Smash Bros. Melee historian Catastrophe and I wrote about the Top Ten of Melee’s golden year: 2007. This week, we’re looking at the dark ages of 2008, when the game’s sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl nearly killed it out.

Before we get into our honorable mentions for our RetroSSBMRank – and our Top Ten rankings – you have to understand the extent of how Brawl’s release nearly killed Melee’s chances of having a unified international scene. It’s only one example, but consider the case of the Mass Madness series. Once a hotbed for smashers in and out of New England, in 2008, the series barely drew any people for Melee within New England, save for the old guard. Instead, Brawl was the community gathering unbelievably large crowds.

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For Catastrophe and me, both Melee-centric writers that have followed Melee’s competitive scene since Apex 2013 (him a little bit earlier), we’ve briefly known of a time when Brawl’s competitive scene was still very much in the limelight. Even still, reading about Melee’s seemingly dying days as part of our research was surreal enough – seeing all the hype, disappointment and massive popularity of Brawl back then was even more unbelievable. It even gave us this hilarious classic Scar thread, which discussed the differences between competition and competitive.

Here are our honorable mentions for top Melee players of 2008. Italicized are Catastrophe’s descriptions, while text in normal font are mine. Once again: think of this a “living document.” This is based on the data we could find, as well as, admittedly a fair bit of speculation given the lack of national tournaments.

Our Honorable Mentions

Kashif “Teh_Spamerer” Qureshi

While many reading will have no idea who the man known as Spam is, anyone who played him can say he was quite a force to be reckoned with. A strong spacie player from Jersey, Spam did not travel out of region all year, but had strong local results, with even to positive records against Cactuar, Jman and Eggm, as well as a win over Chu Dat.

Shane Walter “Eggz” Johns

In a time where Ka-Master was the undisputed best in the PNW, Eggz was the clear second-best player. Actually taking a singular set off of Ka-Master, he consistently defeated his contemporaries, really only ever losing to the Master of Luigi himself. At Pound, Eggz beat HugS, Dope thrice and Colbol en route to a 13th place finish.

Charles “Cactuar” Meighen

The Tri-State legend was a force to be reckoned with in 2008, being one of the top competitors in the Tri-State area, arguably the strongest region at the time. With wins over Jman, Eggm, Spam, Vidjogamer and Darkrain, Cactus was a scary opponent to fight no matter who you were.

Elam “Lambchops” Ucles

Before changing his tag to “Beerman” later in his career, the wacky laser-up-close and balls to the wall Florida Falco was one of the world’s most exciting players, taking a set off Cort in FAST 1 pools and going back and forth with Colbol and Hungrybox, among other top Florida players. Westballz has said before that the Florida Falco was one of his favorite players.

Timothy “Eggm” Cody

Before becoming infamous for an incident involving a certain New York teenage Captain Falcon player, Eggm’s Falco and Fox were on the rise, winning tournaments over the likes of KoreanDJ late into the year, as well as competing with Cactuar and Jman for a spot below Mew2King and PC Chris for Tri-State players. Eggm was also an excellent teams player, finishing third with Swiftbass at FAST 1, just behind Mew2King and Cort, along with DaShizWiz and Hungrybox.

David “Darkrain” John

Darkrain had been getting better and better as Melee’s lifespan extended and by 2008 was quite easily the best Falcon player in the world. With an extraordinary 7th place at Pound 3, defeating PC Chris, Eggz and Drephen, Darkrain shocked many and cemented himself as one of the best in the world.

Adam “Armada” Lindgren:

Armada finished third at Epita Smash Arena 2, the largest tournament of 2008 and Europe’s premier international major. Here, he beat legendary Japanese player Masashi and only was double eliminated by Captain Jack. At the age of 15 years-old, Sweden’s No. 1 was already beginning to revolutionize Peach’s punish game, as seen by his four-stock of Masashi’s attempt at a Marth counterpick.

Ryota “Captain Jack” Yoshida

While the old school Japanese legend was far past in prime at the time of 2008, this became the only time Captain Jack could safely be called the best in Japan. Getting second at ESA 2, double eliminating Armada, is more than enough to cement his spot in our honorable mentions.

Bronson “DaShizWiz” Layton:

We were surprised to find only two tournaments all year that Shiz entered, with a third place finish at FAST 1, losing to Cort and Mew2King (in “that set in Florida“) at Florida’s largest tournament at the time and a GIGABITS tournament in January, when he lost to his brother and training partner KeepSpeedN. However, his unanimously agreed on position as Florida’s best smasher, along with his status as arguably the world’s freshest Falco main, keeps him in our list as a mention, even if he wasn’t very active.

Amsah “Amsah” Augustuszoon

Much like in 2007, both of us have once again elected to place Amsah in the HMs due to the lack of data. While he was unable to play against the USA’s best, he was still the undisputed No. 1 in Europe, winning ESA 2 over the likes of Armada and Japan’s best, Captain Jack and Masashi. It’s clear Amsah was elite, but it took longer before the Dutch Sheik could prove himself.

10. Jesus “Jman” Fernandez

jman
Photo taken from the public ssbwiki.

When looking at Jman’s 2008, it’s a tale of two stories: one of a guy who placed 33rd at Pound 3 and was inconsistent in locals during the first half of the year versus someone who, in the second half of the year, beat the likes of Cactuar, Eggm, Cort and even Mew2King in tournament? Although he started off 2008 as just another Fox player, Jman was the Fox player everyone was watching heading into 2009. Think of him like 2007 Mango: someone who didn’t begin the year as a consistent top level threat, but found themselves in a prime position to shoot up the rankings, as well as scare the best players.

9. Ammon “Luigi Ka-Master” Styles

A legend of the game, Ka-Master was a dominant force from the Pacific Northwest in 2007 and continued to be dominant in 2008. Decimating his locals in both Melee and Brawl when he appeared, Ka-Master defeated his contemporaries enough to the point where it was said they had a “Ka-Master problem.” His only time traveling out of region was a significant one, as he placed secnd at one of the biggest tournaments of the year, UCLA V, defeating Lucky, Zhu and HugS, only barely losing to HugS in the runback in Grand Finals.

8. Hugo “HugS” Gonzalez

Though he just missed our list last year, this year he was even better. Being firmly No. 2 in SoCal prior to his break for Brawl, HugS only ever to lost Mango locally, defeating everybody else in the region, including Zhu, Lucky, DEHF, Mike Haze and SilentSpectre.  At Pound 3, HugS was able to garner a solid ninth place, taking names like Eggm, Plank, Sensei, Scar and Dope. However, HugS’ most impressive feat had to be his win at the SoCal super regional, UCLA V: Melee Strikes Back. Here, after losing to Ka-Master in Winners Semis, HugS made a massive losers bracket run,  defeating Mango, SilentSpectre, Zhu, and making an immortal comeback with all of Southern California on his back during a victory over Ka-Master in Grand Finals despite holding 4-1 deficit in the best of nine.

7. Daniel “KoreanDJ” Jung

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Although KoreanDJ didn’t go out to much outside of Massachusetts, he still attended local Mass Madness’ every now and then, winning one in July and another in December to close out the year. Losses to Darc and Eggm show that the once impervious Sheik/Fox/Marth player wasn’t the same player from 2006 or 2007, but KoreanDJ’s two set wins over Cort illustrate how even an old-school legend of the game could still hang with its top players. On another fun note, KoreanDJ also began his short Brawl career successfully, winning two Nintendo-sponsored tournaments in early 2008.

6. Daniel “Chu Dat” Rodriguez

Chu Dat started off the year by double eliminating PC Chris at Rochester’s Final Smash. Following this, he stayed strong with a fifth place finish at Pound 3, including wins over Hax, Forward, Wobbles, Silent Wolf and Darkrain. His final tournament of note was “The Greatest Tourney Since Brawl Came Out,” where he defeated Cactuar, Hungrybox, Jman and Eggm to prove his dominance over the East Coast’s elite. Despite some inactivity and inconsistency to his year, with dropped sets to Skler, Chillin, Spam and XIF, among others, Chu still showed that he was more than capable of competing with the top level of talent .

5. Christopher “PC Chris” Szygiel

Remembered mostly for his time as a spacies metagame innovator, PC Chris concluded the year as our No. 5, with a Fox, Falco and Peach that still had arguments to be among the best in the world at each character. His character versatility helped him place highly within both New England and Tri-State, as he took two sets off Cort, won a Mass Madness, won LOBSTER2 and finished third at Pound 3.

In a scene that looked like it was on life support, PC Chris’ willingness to still travel and compete with out-of-region opponents was remarkable on its own, giving us a bigger set of data to work with in comparison to a player like Ka-Master. Another fun fact: PC Chris was also a proficient Brawl Snake player.

4. Christopher “Azen Zagenite” McMullen

Azen started the year as MDVA’s No. 1 in-region player, and continued to be so throughout the year. With a double elimination of Chu Dat early on, Azen also had a great run to seventh at another tournament in Pound 3, defeating Mike Haze, RaynEX, Chu Dat, Forward, Wobbles, Eggm and more, with no upset losses. Compare this to losses held by PC Chris and Chu Dat at the same tournament.

Although Azen only lost to our three highest ranked players and defeated everyone he faced ranked lower on our list, his lack of data does not lend itself to being ranked any higher. However, Azen’s continued dominance in MD/VA and consistency throughout the few tournaments he was able to attend still prove he was an elite talent.

3. Paul “Cort” Rogoza

Based on the data we found, Cort was the clear-cut No. 3 in the world. Even with a few relative bumps on his record to DoH at Pound 3, Lambchops at FAST 1, and HBK late into the year at XII.E.S.T.I.C.L.E., Cort still placed fourth, split for first and finished second at each respective tourney. He even beat Mew2King in Falcon dittos at FAST 1 and Mass Madness 8, for whatever it’s worth. Personally, we thought the victories were still impressive.

Cort ended the year with a set victory over Shiz, a 4-2 record over PC Chris and additional sets over Azen, Vidjo and Jman, showcasing his varied matchup proficiency and consistency. It’s a pity that Cort’s prime coincided with Brawl’s release and the rise of both Mew2King and Mango – the No. 1 of Connecticut back then is one of Melee’s most underrated players of all time and someone “doc kids” would be smart to read up on.

2. Joseph “MaNg0” Marquez

Before the Mango fanboys attack us in full force, consider the following: even during his legendary Pound 3 run, Mango lost to the likes of Vist, Plank and Sensei in pools at the same tournament. Pools losses may not mean as much as losses in bracket (which for Mango includes another loss to Silent Wolf in Link dittos), but a month after winning Pound 3, Mango finished fifth at UCLA V: Melee Strikes Back, losing to HugS and DEHF in what we now know as classic Mango “bustering out.” Even at the beginning of the year, Mango dropped a set to DEHF at Shuffle & Cut. Regardless of if these were sandbagging losses, they still stand out as sour notes in what otherwise was a stellar year.

After UCLA V, Mango won every set he played, ending the year as unquestionably the best on the West Coast. But that’s not even his most impressive part of the year. His Pound 3 losers’ run had him beat each of the East Coast’s best at the time, including members of 2007’s RetroSSBMRank in Azen, Chu Dat, Cort, PC Chris and Mew2King (twice), as well as Cactuar and Forward. On the same weekend that the 2007 Giants upset the 2007 Patriots in the Super Bowl, Mango’s stunningly miraculous run single-handedly raised Jigglypuff on the tier list and brought himself to the national conversation for best player in the world. His Pound 3 run is indubitably the greatest losers bracket run in Melee history and could alone be an argument for placing him as your number one for the year, even if it took a bit of luck. However…

1. Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman

When it comes to determining the best of any sport, you have to look at the whole competitive spectrum, not a single matchup or tournament. Moreover, if you’re looking retrospectively at a player in the past, it’s important to think about what their peers thought at the time and try to eliminate any kind of hindsight or bias when it comes to an objective analysis. Even with his humiliating second-place finish behind Mango at Pound 3, Mew2King was considered the world’s best player by the end of the year.

In fact, after Pound 3, Mew2King placed first or split for first at every single tourney he entered in 2008. Just think about that for a moment: the only non-sandbagging set he lost was to Jman late into the year at a bi-weekly, before quickly 3-0’ing him back. After having a losing record against Chu Dat earlier in his career, Mew2King finished 2008 with a 3-0 record against his former nemesis. When it came to consistency, data, perceived skill and high placings, nobody was on Mew2King’s level for the whole year – and this time, he only lost four serious sets all year (Azen, Mango twice and Jman). He ends our RetroSSBMRank as 2008’s best player for a consecutive year. The question was if the king could stay on his throne for another year or if he had finally reached an unsolvable problem in Mango.

Hate our list? Love our list? Wanna follow us smash historians on Twitter either way? Tweet us your thoughts, to @ssbmjecht and @GCH_Catastrophe! Here’s our “living document” of data we’d be willing to add to!

2008LivingDataSet

AFC North Preview 2016

As said in my last column, I’m previewing two NFL divisions each week as part of my NFL season preview. Today I’ll be taking a look at the teams in the AFC North and their pros and cons heading into the season.

2016 Pittsburgh Steelers:

Pros:

Even as it’s missing Martavis Bryant for the rest of the season, Pittsburgh’s offense will likely be elite, if not easily the best offense in the league. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is prime for an MVP season given that he may have the NFL’s best at running back (Le’veon Bell), as well as certainly its top wide receiver.

In case you’ve been living under a bridge for a while, the latter is in reference to Antonio Brown, who over the first six seasons of his career has looked about as good as any wideout in football history. This sounds like hyperbole for the gazelle-like 5’10 and 180 pounds possession fiend, but a look at the numbers shows it really isn’t.

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Claiming Brown is the best receiver ever obviously goes into “hot take” category, but when it comes to six-season starts to careers, he’s just about as good as anyone else. The numbers show he isn’t anywhere close to as good of a red zone threat as his contemporaries are, but he’s arguably on their level – if not better than most of them – as a route runner both down the field and in the slot. Consider that guys like Moss, Johnson, Rice and Owens are all taller and have at least 20 pounds on Brown, whose combination of vertical speed, acrobatics and quickness is unmatched in the NFL today. In terms of Career Approximate Value, he’s second only to Moss on this list for most successful overall wideout in the first six seasons of their career.

If you don’t believe the numbers, consider what Denver Broncos cornerback (and one of the league’s best) Chris Harris Jr. had to say about the hardest receiver to cover in football. Or just watch Brown thoroughly eviscerate Harris, a man who at the time simply didn’t allow touchdowns in man coverage.

On defense, Pittsburgh last season had one of the league’s most remarkable turnarounds, going from No. 30 in 2014 to No. 11 in defensive DVOA. Former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison was a huge part of the turnaround, adding five sacks in fifteen games and constant pressure on the outside. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Arthur Moats anchor the rest of a defensive line that last year helped anchor the league’s 5th best rush defense per DVOA and its No. 7 adjusted sack rate for a defense. A solid safety duo in Michael Mitchell and Robert Golden should also help this defense improve in stopping the passing game as well, even with the loss of Will Allen.

Cons:

Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t totally invulnerable. Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all average or above average for their positions, but left tackle Ryan Harris had a brutal year when he played for the Broncos (despite being part of a Super Bowl winning team). Moreover, center Maurkice Pouncey missed all of last season and could look slower in his return. That said, players like Richie Incognito show that lineman can still return in professional form, if not look even better than ever, but players like Incognito are exceptions to the general arc of a player’s career. Then again, Pouncey was an All-Pro center just two seasons ago.

Meanwhile, linebacker Lawrence Timmons is coming off a brutal year, looking exploitable in the passing game, while fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier came off a second season where he was hurt with a bad shoulder injury and looked underwhelming on the field.  The Steelers don’t have to worry about cornerback sieve Antwon Blake any more, but replacing him with a first round pick like Artie Burns is clearly a long-term move and not so much an immediate fix. Pittsburgh wouldn’t have to worry about starting Burns, were it not for an untimely Lisfranc injury to 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson, who could be missing up to 12 weeks a season after already missed his rookie year with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Best Case: Big Ben leads an incredible all-time great offense with the league’s most dominant receiver and the defense stays around the same level or just good enough to let the offense score 33+ points a game en route to a 14-2 record and Super Bowl victory. Get ready for the inevitable “SevenBurgh” hashtags. 

Worst Case: Big Ben gets hurt or regresses with the offensive line – and the offense stays really good, but the defense totally collapses with regressive seasons from their linebacking core. The team probably gets a wild card at 9-7, but struggles in the playoffs. 

2016 Cincinnati Bengals:

Pros:

Somehow last season Andy Dalton went from being the baseline quarterback for competence to having a legitimate argument for being Top Ten at his position, prompting former Wall Street Journal and current The Ringer contributor Kevin Clark to put Dalton fifth on his Top Ten QB list, one spot ahead of Aaron Rodgers.

It sounds ridiculous, but look at how remarkable Dalton’s improvement has been. After throwing 13, 16, 20 and 17 interceptions in each of his first four years, he threw only seven last regular season in 13 games, while also tossing 25 touchdowns. You could attribute this, to luck, but according to Football Outsiders, Dalton only outperformed his expected interception total by 0.1, while only having nine adjusted interceptions throughout the year, adjusting for picks that come from wide receiver drops and dropped takeaways by defenders.

Who knows – if he wasn’t hurt heading into the playoffs, maybe Bengals fans could have seen Dalton finally lead the Bengals to a victory over Pittsburgh rather than watching AJ McCarron play in a meaningful game. For now, his skeptics can continue to point towards his abysmal playoff record as ammo against Dalton, despite him leading the No. 1 passing attack in the NFL last season per DVOA.

Either way, Dalton’s supporting cast is also just about as good as it gets. Wideout AJ Green and tight end Tyler Eifert make up one of the league’s best one-two punches as passing options, both being unquestionably top five at their position, as well as overwhelming in man coverage. An offensive line trio of right guard Kevin Zeitler, premier left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling add stability to an offense that might not be No. 2 in DVOA again, but still hang with the best of the league, given the return of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill as a strong running back duo.

The Bengals also have reason to believe in their defense. After doubts about how defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ injuries were going to affect him in the long-term, Atkins looked once again like a premier interior pass rusher in the league, contributing 11 sacks and playing all 16 games in the regular season. Supporting him on the outside are familiar and effective teammates in end Carlos Dunlap, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and the occasionally questionable human being, but great run stopper Vontaze Burfict.

If Atkins and the line has another strong year, their pass defense should look just fine, with the return of corners Adam Jones, the promising Darquez Dennard, free safety George Iloka and Shawn Williams. Talent is one virtue, but continuity in a scheme is also important for a defense’s development – not to mention a 13th straight year for special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons doesn’t look too bad either.

Cons:

Though the Bengals are set on most of their skill positions, Dalton’s fractured thumb last year still stands as a concern for Cincinnati to look ahead for. Even if it’s not, there’s still warranted nature for its luck when it comes to turnovers.

Usually highly variable and almost unpredictable, the Bengals went from having a league average turnover differential (zero in 2014) to having the league’s third best (plus 11 in 2015). As I wrote above, some of this can be attributed to Dalton’s growth as a quarterback, but unless you’re a player like Tom Brady, maintaining low interception rates over the course of multiple seasons is almost near impossible. Ask Nick Foles how that turned out.

Moreover, the Bengals look like they’re still going to start third-year center Russell Bodine, who seems to have declined in his growth as a player. Despite his strengths as a gritty second-level zone blocker, Bodine particularly struggles against players with a greater reach, as he did against Brandon Williams in the third week of last season. Most of this is due to Bodine’s short arms and relatively slow speed as a lineman, as you can see below.

If Bodine is a clear weak link on the offense, Dre Kirkpatrick is an even more obvious pick for worst possible returning starter on defense, and his more than $7 million “poison pill” cap hit this season (as part of his $8 million, four year deal he signed  shows that Kirkpatrick is not only playing in a contract year, but also for his job. There’s a real possibility that if he doesn’t turn up his level of play, Dennard or even first-rounder William Jackson III (if he returns from a torn pectoral muscle) could take Kirkpatrick’s presumed starter spot.

Ranked as the third worst cornerback in the league and on an otherwise pretty well-rounded Bengals defense, Kirkpatrick deserved a lot of scorn received from Cincinnati fans. Despite his 6’2, 190 pounds frame, Kirkpatrick was bullied frequently at the line by large receivers, extremely prone to getting faked out by cuts across the middle of the field and also inconsistent as a tackler. Like Bodine, Kirkpatrick’s short arms cause a lot of problems for him against No. 2 wideouts that can both outbully, outsmart and outrun him.

Best Case: Andy Dalton silences his critics and leads the most balanced offense in the league, while Geno Atkins turns into a defensive player of the year candidate. Cincinnati gets over its playoff hump and Dalton has a 2012 Joe Flacco-esque run of dominance en route to a 12-4 season and Super Bowl victory.

Worst Case: Either through injuries or a decline in play, the offense regresses to being just above average and the Bengals fall off defensively. Unable to contend with the Ravens or Steelers successfully, Cincinnati finishes 8-8, barely missing the playoffs and costing head coach Marvin Lewis his job.

2016 Baltimore Ravens: 

Pros:

We don’t even have to talk about Xs and Os to see that the Ravens are prime for a turnaround in 2016 – a look at a few “high variance” numbers shows that the team’s chances of improving could come with just a bit better luck.

In addition to finishing 31st in the NFL for turnover differential (negative 14), the Ravens were also 4-9 in one-possession games, at one point starting off the season 1-6, with every game being decided by eight points or less. According to DVOA, Baltimore was No. 17 in the league overall, showing that its 5-11 record for the season showed the Ravens underperforming by just over a win. That’s not to say that closing out a game isn’t a skill elite teams have, but it’s more fair to assume Baltimore was slightly better than their record. Especially given its previous record in one-possession games from 2012 to 2014: a combined 17-14.

Another underrated part of Baltimore’s roster is their continued brilliance in special teams. Along with having arguably the league’s best kicker in Justin Tucker, the Ravens finished last season as the No. 1 team in special teams DVOA, an improvement on 2014’s No. 2. This is another reason to believe Baltimore’s record in one-possession games should improve, since game-winning field goals and special teams returns are innate high variance parts of football. The Ravens being among the NFL’s best in special teams for another season could only help.

The Ravens offense also looks like it could have one of the league’s most underrated wideout duos in the NFL. With veteran star Steve Smith (who tore up the league last year before an awful Achilles tear) and the rising young gun Kamar Aiken returning for another year, quarterback Joe Flacco could be due for a return to form. It’s fair to be skeptical of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s ability to work with Baltimore’s personnel, given its No. 20 rank in offensive DVOA, but keep in mind that Trestman also made Josh McCown look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2013.

Moreover, the Ravens seemed to have covered up from their previous holes in the secondary. Along with retaining an average starter in Shareece Wright at corner, Baltimore also signed former star and the still effective strong safety Eric Weddle and moved former corner Lardarius Webb to free safety. These aren’t barnburner players by any stretch, but they are solid players that can create depth in a secondary. If nose tackle Brandon Williams can develop into the next Haloti Ngata for Baltimore, this defense could also have one of the most promising young defensive lines, with fellow ends Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy as quality supporting linemen.

Cons:

Even assuming Baltimore doesn’t suffer from losing close games, there’s still a lot of holes on the roster from a talent standpoint. For example, once a staple of its strength, the Ravens’ offensive line is now almost entirely dependent on Yanda, given the departure of guard Kelechi Osmele, who left for Oakland. According to Pro Football Focus, center Jeremy Zuttah is the only other Baltimore offensive lineman that ranked as better than average.

The other three players on the line are question marks, starting with Ricky Wagner coming off a suspect 2015, backup John Urschel replacing a talent like Osmele at left guard and first round pick Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Baltimore’s line won’t necessarily be subpar next year, but these are a lot of question marks for an offense that still looks to start 30 year-old Justin Forsett at running back. At least Ravens fans won’t have to worry about Trent Richardson coming to play for them since his departure. Or will he return?

On another note, Baltimore’s two most noticeable defensive names, edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, are coming off down years where Dumervil notched only six sacks all year, while Suggs is returning from tearing his Achilles tendon. The two of them are 32 and 33, respectively and look like they are finally past their peak years. To Suggs’ credit, he has returned from the same injury before, but it’s still a pretty good reason to doubt his effectiveness heading into this season.

Jimmy Smith, a former star corner that looked like he could become the best defensive back in football, also heavily regressed in 2015. Though many reports show that he’s feeling much better than last year, when he played with a surgically repaired foot, he adds another injury concern to Baltimore’s defense, which also still lacks good secondary depth.

Best Case: Baltimore transforms their offense into a more vertical and high-flying machine, with Joe Flacco looking like a much better and sustainable 2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick. On the other end, John Harbaugh gets the most he can from a solid secondary, a rapidly improving defensive line and an aging linebacking duo en route to a tough 10-6 record and dark horse AFC contender status as the AFC North champions.

Worst Case: The Ravens’ aging defensive players get hurt or are totally ineffective and injuries to veteran players on the offense derail what should otherwise have been Baltimore’s turnaround season. An 0-4 record against the Steelers and Bengals damn the Ravens to 7-9, as mostly silly and totally reactionary questions around Harbaugh’s long-term status as head coach begin to permeate through sports media.

2016 Cleveland Browns

Pros:

Because there’s not much to talk about for the Brown’s strengths, let’s talk about franchise left tackle Joe Thomas and the kind of legacy he already has among his peers.

– Since being drafted with the third overall pick in 2007, Thomas has made nine consecutive Pro Bowls. No other offensive lineman in NFL history has had this happen in his first nine seasons.
– After his initial Pro Bowl rookie season, Thomas has made an All-Pro team in each of the following eight seasons: six of them being on the first team.
– Thomas hasn’t missed a regular season game throughout his professional career.

The left tackle is about as good as it gets when it comes to a high level of play and consistency even when you compare him to his all-time peers in players like Anthony Muñoz and Bruce Matthews, whose Pro Football Focus’ namesake award was given to Thomas last season for being the NFL’s best offensive lineman.

Furthermore, as I’ve written about earlier with Baltimore, Cleveland last year was also similarly unlucky. Along with finishing 28th in turnover differential (-9), the Browns were 1-5 in one-possession games – and their schedule was the second hardest in the league according to Pro Football Reference. Again, that’s not to excuse all their losses as bad luck, but a simple regression to average could be the difference between being in position for  a No. 1 draft and possibly still being in playoff contention by November: especially if cornerback Joe Haden returns healthier and back to his elite form.

Cons:

Here’s the obvious elephant in the room: is there any reason to believe disgraced quarterback Robert Griffin III or wide receiver Josh Gordon still have anywhere near the level of franchise-impact they may have had years ago?

It’s already unfair to their peers to assume that these players can still be league average starters years after playing meaningful minutes in a season. But even assuming they aren’t huge question marks or future bench players, the rest of the offense doesn’t give much confidence either, unless rookie wideout Corey Coleman is secretly Antonio Brown 2.0.

If there’s reason to be wary of Cleveland’s effectiveness in passing, their rushing game doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Running backs Duke Johnson and Isiah Crowell occasionally showed promise, but still had subpar years, finishing just below 4.0 yards per carry – the standard for running backs. Not even offensive genius and newly hired head coach Hue Jackson seemed convinced of Cleveland’s running game.

That was also with an offensive line that still had center Alex Mack for 16 games. Replacing him and right guard Mitchell Schwartz on the line are respectively Cameron Erving and Alvin Bailey, both still below 25 years-old, but also coming off years when they were two of the worst linemen in football. Even assuming guards John Greco and Joel Bitonio come out stronger and stay healthier this year, Erving and Bailey both disrupt continuity on the line, as well as effectiveness.

On the defense, there’s also not much consistent talent for defensive coordinator Ray Horton (who also had the same position in 2013 before he went to Tennessee). Edge rushers on the defense like Paul Kruger and Jamie Meder are declining, if not around replacement level for their positions, along with right end John Hughes. At 22 and 23, nose tackle Danny Shelton and outside linebacker Nate Orchard showed glimpses of potential in stopping the run, but were still up and down throughout the season, if not hurt in Orchard’s case.

Even if Haden comes back successfully and plays around the same level he did earlier in his career to create a solid tandem with fellow corner Tramon Williams, that still leaves a glaring hole in the middle of the field. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson weren’t world-changers last season, but their replacements this season in Ibraheim Campbell and Jordan Poyer barely have experience as long-term starters. The likes of Chris Kirksey and DeMario Davis as middle linebackers should also give Browns fans anxiety when facing teams like Baltimore or Pittsburgh with receiving threats down the field and in the middle of it.

Best Case: Griffin and Gordon return to being capable offensive players, but a breakout rookie season from Corey Coleman leads the Browns’ passing attack to near the top of the league, while the standard Horton blitz-heavy defense can give teams a nightmare if they sleep on Cleveland. A competitive 5-11 season to improve from last year, barring a plane crash or something that injures key starting players for their division rivals, in which case Cleveland finishes 6-10.

Worst Case: The question marks pile up on offense and Joe Thomas misses a few games with injuries. Meanwhile, the defense can’t stop a nosebleed either. At least the Browns get a No. 1 draft pick, finishing as the worst team in the league at 2-14. 

AFC East Preview 2016

The beginning of August is here – and so soon will the NFL season. You know what that’s got us all feeling.

I’ll be previewing two divisions each week as part of my NFL season preview, recapping each of the team’s pros and cons heading into the 2016 season, as well as their best and worst case scenarios. Let’s start with the AFC East.

2016 New England Patriots:

Pros:

Let’s start with the man everyone is talking about heading into the season. We can pretend we know enough about Jimmy Garoppolo to have hot takes about the kind of quarterback he’ll be for New England in the first four Brady-less game of the season. Outside of him though, his top three receivers, Rob Gronkowski (the best tight end in football), Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are a pretty great trio of guys to throw to and should keep the offense afloat until Tom Brady comes back, when the offense will probably revert back to being one of the best in football.

Look for New England to also succeed a lot more in the dual tight end sets, where the Patriots will use Martellus Bennett as a situational decoy or receiving threat the same way former tight end He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did earlier this decade. If there’s an offense with a supporting cast any quarterback can look good in, New England’s is near the top.

On the defensive end of the field, the Patriots still have one of the best linebacker duos in D’onta Hightower and Jamie Collins. While the former is known for being an excellent run stopper and playcaller from the middle of the field, Collins is a pass rushing menace when asked to blitz and one of the best coverage linebackers in football. The two anchor a defense that also has a promising young cornerback duo in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, as well as excellent safeties in longtime fan favorite Devin McCourty and the resurgent Patrick Chung, who shockingly played like one of the best safeties in football last season. Having the above average 25 year-old Duron Harmon also adds a level of depth and versatility to New England’s nickel-heavy defensive strategy.

Moreover, despite a blunder-filled game against the Eagles last year, New England quietly had one of the league’s five best special teams units, per Football Outsiders, which also ranks the Patriots in the top five for special teams Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for last five seasons. It’s safe to assume New England will probably stay around the same level – and maybe even higher with second round pick Cyrus Jones, who was Alabama’s punt returner and Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl a year ago.

Cons:

Outside of a college coach that claims Garoppolo has the quickest time since Dan Marino and a few professional showings in garbage time, we have no reason to think Garoppolo will be anything more or less than a replacement level quarterback. As a result, the Patriots are going to likely run the ball a lot more, but there’s still warranted skepticism around how effective this will be. New England’s running back committee of LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, James White, etc were either injured or just plain bad last season.

Out of running backs they signed in the offseason, only fellow UConn alumni (go Huskies) Donald Brown stands out – and the career journeyman isn’t exactly Adrian Peterson. If New England’s plan is to run the ball more with Garoppolo leading the offense, facing the likes of the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills in the first few games of the season is going to be a pretty heavy task for a team that last year had a merry-go-round rotation for an offensive line and might be shuffling through different linemen again.

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Photo per Cover32.com – of coach Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

To solve this, New England brought back offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia and traded for the talented, but oft-injured Jonathan Cooper to add depth to the line’s interior. Given how Cooper has already suffered a lower leg injury before the season started, it seems like the interior of the offensive line will likely have the replacement-level likes of Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork and Josh Kline anchoring it.

The best case scenario for New England’s offensive line would be resurgent seasons from tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, but if either way, the Patriots will have another year where they’ll be reliant on quick throws to the middle of the field to neutralizing opposing pass rushes. Either that or they revert back to albatrosses in Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon, praying for the best. Maybe third round pick Joe Thuney turns into a modern day John Hannah while David Andrews improves upon his up-and-down 2015 season.

The Patriots’ defensive front seven also looked suspect in its first day of practice against the offense. After trading its best rusher in Chandler Jones, New England signed the likes of Terrance Knighton and the talented, but injury-ridden Chris Long to add size on the defensive line. Jabaal Sheard will now have to face more attention as his team’s best pass rusher after being one of the league’s best defensive ends last year. Even assuming an improvement from the second-year Malcolm Brown, the Patriots almost certainly won’t have the same elite pass rush they had last season.

Best Case:  Coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turn Jimmy G into 2008 Matt Cassel and lead the Patriots to a 3-1 record to stay above water. Helped by a revamped running game and an even better secondary , a rejuvenated Brady leads a trail of destruction in his wake en route to an MVP-caliber 12-4 season. The Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl victory to close out a season of vengeance.

Worst Case: Belichick and McDaniels can’t prevent Jimmy G from playing like 2015 Matt Cassel en route to a sputtering 1-3 start. Hurt by an inconsistent running game, inexperience on the offensive line, a slightly worse defense and age, a mortal Brady can’t muster enough magic to take the AFC East. The Patriots then limp to a 9-7 wild-card season, but quickly fizzle out in the playoffs to close off a season of decline.

2016 New York Jets:

Pros:

The first season post-Rex Ryan was a tremendous success for New York’s most maligned franchise, even if it missed the playoffs. The Jets finished 10-6 with a defense spearheaded by head coach Todd Bowles, ranked No. 5 by DVOA last season: despite missing star defensive end Sheldon Richardson for the first four games. And in those games, the Jets averaged an opposing 13.75 points per game. Even if this came against teams like the Browns, Colts, Eagles and Dolphins, this is still extremely impressive.

Most of the Jets’ defensive success comes from just how vaunted their defensive line is. Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams arguably form the league’s best defensive line trio considering they anchored a defense that led the NFL in rush defense DVOA last year. The line also allowed a league-best 2.93 yards from scrimmage, essentially turning opposing running backs into dust during running plays. There’s little reason to think they’ll be significantly worse at stopping the run.

What’s more surprising for an average viewer is how talented the Jets offense is at its skill positions. Brandon Marshall, a still-effective and big possession receiver who was football’s fourth-leading receiver in yards last year is about as good as you could realistically ask for a No. 1 wideout. Eric Decker, a solid 6’3 and 210+ pound slot receiver adds another dimension of vertical potential for the team’s passing attack, which surprisingly ranked No. 10 by DVOA in the NFL last season, ahead of teams like the Lions, Giants and Bears.

Additional players like Matt Forte, Khiry Robinson and Bernard Pierce give the Jets options for receivers out of the backfield, as well as versatile rushing options. Given the age and experience of these players, the Jets are clearly in a win-now position.

Cons:

Ryan Fitzpatrick looked good, throwing 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season, but there’s reason to believe he’ll regress back to his career ratio, which are a modest 154 touchdowns and 116 interceptions.  Last season, Fitzpatrick was one of the league’s luckiest quarterbacks when it came to interceptions, which varies from year to year for most players. This obviously played a huge role in the Jets’ offensive success, build mainly from Fitzpatrick’s effectiveness as a mobile gunslinger willing to throw the ball up to his big receivers in contested coverage. What happens if they don’t bring down the ball as much?

Considering the mess that makes up New York’s offensive line, Fitzpatrick may also be forced to make quick decisions, which he isn’t as comfortable with in comparison to throwing down the field. 32 year-old center Nick Mangold, a longtime Jet and former superstar, had a down year last year in which he ranked only No. 17 at his position for player grades by Pro Football Focus.  The sudden retirement of left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson adds another hole in the offensive line, which the Jets filled by adding Ryan Clady: a former 2012 All-Pro with the Broncos coming off a lost year from a torn ACL.

That’s not even going into the right side of the line, which features the disappointing 2013 third round guard Brian Winters and the 30 year-old Breno Giacomini, who at this point in his career plays like a permanently petrified Final Fantasy character. Even if Giacomini doesn’t start at right tackle by the beginning of the season, New York has few options backing him up: it would have to pick between rookie Brandon Shell, the 6’7 and 315 pound raw beast in Brent Qvale and Ben Ijalana as Giacomini’s replacement. Only James Carpenter looked anywhere decent last season out of returning starters on the offensive line.

For a team with such a vaunted defensive line and blitz-heavy reputation, the Jets also weren’t very good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks last season. They ranked only No. 21 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate  Not being able to get to passers consistently opens up the Jets to quick passes across the middle to slot receivers who will be covered by Buster Skrine, who often looked like a deer in the headlights in coverage last season, or even poor coverage linebackers like David Harris, Erin Henderson or rookie linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

This can negate the promise and potential of New York’s promising and young safety duo in Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor. It also diminishes cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is still one of the league’s better starters, but definitely no longer what he was in his prime or even what it was with New England.

Best Case: Offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer Chan Gailey keeps the FitzMagic going, as the Jets turn up in a considerably easier second half of their schedule, only splitting games with New England. Meanwhile, the pass rush improves and Darrelle Revis turns back into the best cornerback in football en route to the Jets winning a division title at 11-5 and perhaps getting a Super Bowl appearance.

Worst Case: Left with the likes of Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty or the dreaded Geno Smith at quarterback after a poor offensive line gets Fitzpatrick hurt or benched near the start of the season, the Jets get murdered by their brutal opening seven-game stretch against the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers, Cardinals and Ravens. Any kind of improvement in the second half of the season isn’t enough, as the Jets finish 7-9 with another offseason wondering when they’ll get a long-term starting quarterback and what to do with all the veterans they’ve spent money on.

2016 Miami Dolphins

Pros:

Since 2008, when Miami finished 11-5 and won the AFC East, I’d imagine that being a Dolphins fan at this point in your life is probably frustrating. They’ve finished either  6-10, 7-9 or 8-8 in every season since, going through four head coaches and already on their fifth in Adam Gase. However, given Gase’s success as an offensive coordinator with the Broncos and Bears, there’s reason to believe he can turn around the Dolphins on the offensive end.

Though the Dolphins ranked only No. 22 in offensive DVOA last year, they were No. 8 in the year before, showing that they still have legitimate talent on the roster. With perhaps the league’s best slot receiver in Jarvis Landry, a solid No. 2 and deep threat in Devante Parker and the young but already starting-caliber quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, Miami is built for quick throws and ball control. Tight end Jordan Cameron, who often looked lost as a blocking tight end under former interim coach Dan Campbell’s, could be prime for a redemption-year at his position, not too different from how Gase developed Julius Thomas before his breakout year in 2015. First round draft pick Laremy Tunsil, marijuana predilections aside, also looks to be one of the best offensive line prospects ever and a long-term solution to Miami’s offensive line woes from previous seasons.

The Dolphins also have two strong duos on their defense: the menacing strong side rushers in Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, not to mention a weak-side replacement for Olivier Vernon in Mario Williams: who is off an extremely disappointing year with the Buffalo Bills, but should be allowed to freely rush on the outside more in newly hired defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme, heavily based around a 4-3 set that Williams excels in.

Joseph, who has success coaching defensive backs for the 49ers, Texans and Bengals, should work well with safeties Isa Abdul-Quddus (signed from Detroit), All-Pro special teams player Michael Thomas and Reshad Jones, who for what it’s worth was the highest rated strong safety in Madden 17. Miami will almost certainly improve upon their No. 29 DVOA ranking in pass defense and No. 22 adjusted sack rate.

Cons:

By the same logic I’m using to promote Gase’s credentials, you could have also said the same thing about Joe Philbin, who was fired near the beginning of last season and had a history of being a successful offensive coordinator with the Packers before. The offseason signing of Arian Foster also could be overstated, given how he might actually lose the starting job to the young Jay Ajayi, who suffered a knee injury yesterday in practice, causing even more questions at the running back position.

More concerning for Miami is its consistent lack of options near the right side of the line. Out of players that could start there next season are likely guards like the horrendous Dallas Thomas, fellow 2014 draft class disappointment Billy Turner or the still developing Ja’Wuan James. If left tackle Branden Albert and center Mike Pouncey regress, it would be asking a lot of Tunsil to lift up a line ranked No. 31 by Pro Football Focus. You could even say it’d be thinking too highly of him. Sorry for the pun.

On the other end, Joseph has talked about his fears for the Dolphins’ lack of depth behind their eleven starters. Having already seen Byron Maxwell brutally fail as a No. 1 corner in Philadelphia, Miami curiously decided to trade for him as its replacement for the departed Brent Grimes, while also collecting the talented, but glass linebacker in Kiko Alonzo. Both Maxwell and Alonzo are already questionable at coverage across the middle of the field, but outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins and slot corner Bobby McCain are arguably just as susceptible. It’s also asking a lot of second round cornerback Xavien Howard or sixth round safety Jordan Lucas to play significant minutes.

Best Case: Adam Gase finally manages to be the offensive mastermind that pushes Ryan Tannehill into the Top Ten conversation for NFL quarterbacks, as the Dolphins go back to having an above average offense and above average defense, improved by weapons like Tunsil and Williams in the trenches. Miami finishes 9-7 with a wildcard spot.

Worst Case: The offensive line play is inconsistent throughout the year and Gase is unable to give Tannehill the rushing help he needs to avoid getting sacked another 60+ times for another season. Injuries on defense rushes rookies and younger players to significant playing time where they get badly exposed en route to what Miami fans dread most: another 6-10 season that leads to a clean house for its front office.

2016 Buffalo Bills

Pros:

If anyone told you heading into 2015 that Buffalo would have the No. 9 offense in football per DVOA, you would have had every right to laugh at them. Somehow, offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned quarterback Tyrod Taylor into a mini Colin Kaepernick, with a hugely successful 3035 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions-filled yards season from the Virginia Tech prospect in 14 games. Coordinating an offense based around explosive plays from Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Roman completely shattered expectations heading into his first season with Buffalo.

What’s even more impressive is just how thoroughly dominant the weak side of Buffalo’s offensive line looked, with stellar seasons from standouts like left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Richie Incognito and a great showing from center Eric Wood. You don’t have to like Incognito as a human being to acknowledge his tremendous impact on the Bills last season, when he played like the best guard in football, being a huge part of Buffalo’s No. 2 ranked rushing DVOA attack.

Buffalo’s defense also seems prime for a rebound, given its uncharacteristically awful No. 30 rank in rush defense DVOA, No. 31 rank in adjusted sack rate and No. 24 rank in defensive rank in DVOA for defense, which they ranked No. 2 in 2014 in. Talent wise, there’s no doubt that Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams form one of the biggest and baddest cores of a defense that should have more experience and better communication with each other as part of coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.

Bringing along Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed as an assistant defensive backs coach is an underrated and brilliant move by Ryan to restore his reputation as one of the NFL’s greatest defensive masterminds ever. Especially given the talent Reed will be directly working with, like the excellent cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, who is off an excellent rookie season.

Cons:

Though the Bills had an amazing offense last year, it’s hard to expect Tyrod Taylor to put up another 99.0 passer rating this season. Buffalo also recovered 64.29 percent of its fumbles last season, which should regress back to somewhere closer to the league median (52.94 percent) and cause a decline in Buffalo’s offense on its own. It’d be more realistic to expect Taylor to play like an average starting quarterback this season than the mobile menace he was last season for opposing defenses.

This could cause a huge problem for the Bills, who last season also led the league in three-and-outs in offense. Though the weak side of the line was incredible last season, it also didn’t mask John Miller or left tackle Jordan Mills, both among the worst at their position in football and contributing to a still awful strong side of the line. Buffalo’s only other options to deal with its lack of talent here are players like Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kouandijo. One injury or return-to-Earth season for any of the vaunted left side linemen  could drastically hurt Buffalo’s chances of having another good offense. The injury to Watkins this summer already could hurt the Bills’ ability to maintain a good offense.

On the other end, it’s tough to say if Buffalo losing its leading pass rusher (Mario Williams, who was tied with Hughes for most sacks) is the way to improve its No. 30 adjusted sack rate on the season. The Bills also still looks suspect in their linebacker score, with question marks surrounding the effectiveness of Preston Brown, Zach Brown and Manny Lawson, players who played a part in Buffalo’s weakness in defending the middle of the field, where they ranked 27th last year in DVOA. Rookie linebacker Reggie Ragland and rookie defensive end Adolphus Washington are prime for playing time, but also green for opponents to expose early on in the season. An additional injury to first round defensive end Shaq Lawson also could hurt.

Best Case: Motivated by last year’s disappointing results, the Bills defense beats everyone black and blue and makes it way back near the top of the league. Tyrod Taylor isn’t as effective as last year, but is good enough to lead his team a 9-7 record and possible wildcard appearance.

Worst Case: Buffalo’s offensive line suffers injuries as a cruel irony from them returning all five starters from last season and Tyrod Taylor gets hurt or benched as a result, leading to an EJ Manuel or Cardale Jones appearance. The Bills’ defense never gets back on track, instead more focused on getting flagged for personal fouls and Ryan becomes a laughing stock of his own division again after a 4-12 finish.

How do you think the AFC East will turn out? Tweet @ssbmjecht what you think!