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ESPN’s updated Football Power Index reinforces expectations for 2018 Los Angeles Rams and the NFC as a whole

It’s tight at the top.

The Los Angeles Rams celebrate a touchdown by WR Sammy Watkins against the New Orleans Saints in Week 9, November 26, 2017.
The Los Angeles Rams celebrate a touchdown by WR Sammy Watkins against the New Orleans Saints in Week 9, November 26, 2017.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN updated their Football Power Index this week and has a whole set of new analytics to look at for the 2018 season and the Los Angeles Rams.

Asking what the hell the Football Power Index is in the first place? You’re not alone. Here’s how ESPN described it when they launched it in 2016:

NFL FPI is a prediction system for the NFL. Each team’s FPI rating is composed of a predicted offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency, as measured by expected points added per play, and that rating is the basis for FPI’s game-level and season-level projections.

In the preseason, FPI uses a number of predictive factors to project future team strength. The main component of preseason FPI is Vegas expectations; the expected win totals and money lines for each team are an accurate representation of predicted team strength and provide a strong baseline for teams entering the season.

But relying solely on Vegas has its flaws, and more information is needed to determine what percentage of a team’s projected win total can be attributed to its offense, defense and special teams units -- the components that make up FPI.

Therefore, other information included in the preseason ratings include: previous years’ efficiencies for each unit, number of returning starters (on offense and defense), coaching/coordinator/quarterback changes and quarterback injuries.

After combining all of these factors, a preseason FPI rating is determined for each team, which represents the points above or below average a team is expected to be in the coming season. Preseason FPI will serve as the basis of the early-season predictions but will diminish in effect as the season progresses and we learn more about the actual strength of each team.

To quote John

So where to the Rams rank right now in their initial 2018 rankings? Pretty damn highly:

That’s in line with what we’ve seen from most power rankings to this point, so not exactly shocking. The takeaway here, as it has been with the power rankings as well, is how highly the NFC is being respected right now:

The FPI started making preseason projections in 2015, and since then the conference divide within the top 10 of its rankings has been fairly even (6/4 splits in 2017 and 2015 with an even 5/5 divide in 2016). The balance of power for the 2018 season looks a little more like the NBA, with the NFC playing the role of the Western Conference.

The NFC owns eight of the top 10 teams and nine of the top 12 in the FPI’s initial iteration. The configuration is a little different when compared to the NBA’s Western Conference as there is no Warriors-like overwhelming title favorite in the NFC, but the depth at the top overall is quite similar.

All four divisions in the NFC have a team that ranks within the FPI’s top six, with multiple representatives from the NFC West (Rams second, 49ers 10th) and NFC North (Vikings fifth, Packers seventh) inside the top 10.

The AFC does boast two of FPI’s top three teams in New England and Pittsburgh, but you have to go down all the way to No. 14 to get a representative from the other two divisions (Los Angeles Chargers at 11 and Jacksonville Jaguars at 14). The AFC also holds the dubious distinction of being home to four of the five teams at the bottom of the rankings, including each of the bottom three.

This results in a wide-open race for the Super Bowl in the NFC, where five teams are all given a 10 percent chance or better at making the Super Bowl, compared to just two in the AFC.

Here’s what they’re referring to with their Super Bowl probabilities (top 18 teams):

And here are their unit rankings (top 18 again):

They wrote up the Rams for their unit rankings in a bit more depth:

After finishing last season as the FPI’s top defense, it’s no surprise to see the Vikings as the No. 1 defense heading into the 2018 season. The big surprise comes at No. 2, where the Rams make the jump after finishing last season as the 11th-ranked defensive unit (and the eighth-most efficient). It’s a good example of the way in which FPI works: Though the model doesn’t explicitly consider the substantial acquisitions of non-quarterbacks such as Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Brandin Cooks (and the departure of players like Trumaine Johnson), those changes are in some way reflected in the team’s Vegas win total. If the betting market believes a team improved over the offseason, the increase in rating is distributed to each side of the ball based on what it already knows about that team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Because the FPI remains somewhat skeptical of Jared Goff -- the former Cal quarterback improved after a disastrous rookie campaign but still finished only 16th in Total QBR last year -- it makes the assumption that more of the improvement is coming on the defensive side of the ball.

I was a bit more suprised at their special teams rankings placing the Rams 16th for a team that had four special teams players in the Pro Bowl in P Johnny Hekker, K Greg Zuerlein, KR/PR Pharoh Cooper and LS Jake McQuaide though GZ was obviously still sidelined with his back injury. But hey. Rankings.

The FPI also ranks strength of schedule where the Rams have the second toughest stretch in the NFL in 2018. Not a real surprise with last year’s divisional winners all on the docket along with the AFC West.

They look at the contenders for the top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Not surprisingly, we’re not in contention there. You could guess all the obvious candidates though.

And then they look at their top games of the year with one involving the Rams: our Week 7 clash on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Obviously, we’ll have to see what records we and the Niners have going in, but it’s not difficult to see that being a massive, massive game on Sunday Night Football. With the rivalry renewed and QB Nipsy Pailofdough reviving hopes up north, it obviously sets the stage for a memorable mid-season meetup.

That’s a lot of data. And a lot of...stuff.

But it’s May 31. We’re in the middle of organized team activities. The NFL is nearing the summer desert we have to traverse to get to training camp and the preseason and, well, football.

So right now, we’re all just setting the bar for expectations for teams for the 2018 season. And the FPI just reinforces what pretty much everything has since the Rams began this wild offseason: expectations for the 2018 Los Angeles Rams are high.

Very high.