December 5, 2016

Is Deion Branch Worth a Huge Contract?

Ah, being the new guy. My name’s Bill Barnwell, and welcome to the first in what will be a weekly series of pieces covering the Patriots through the critical lens of Football Outsiders. For those of you not familiar with the website, our aim is to bring objective analysis to football; to provide a cliche – and assumption-free look at football through research. The most recent version of our yearly book, Pro Football Prospectus 2006, was recently released and can be purchased on Amazon.com. The creation of the website was announced in these very pages in 2003, and Bruce Allen has previously contributed to the site. Our work can be read both on our website, Foxsports.com, and the New York Times, among others.

I really wanted to write a column weighing the potential replacements for Adam Vinatieri in this season’s Papa Gino’s commercials (Ken Walter? Jonathan Sullivan? Diet Pepsi Machine? Would that even be allowed?), but without any real research, rhyme, or reason, this is going to be column #8,473 in a series of 11,142 on the Deion Branch conundrum. Hopefully, I can offer a little bit of a different perspective on whether Branch is worth that shiny new deal he wants.

Our metrics have seen Branch out to be a relatively effective wide receiver. The table below shows Branch’s performance according to our two primary statistics. DVOA (explained here) measures how well Branch does versus an average player in the same game situation. Meanwhile, DPAR (explained here) measures the total number of points scored due to plays where Branch caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level WR in the same game situations.

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What you see here is a player who took a leap forward in his third season, where the impact of his performance (as measured by his high DVOA, fifth in the league) was muted by the fact that he was injured (hence his 35th place ranking in the league for DPAR). Last year, Branch graded out across the board as one of the top receivers in the league.

A concept familiar to those who have read Bill James’ work in baseball is that of similarity scores, the idea of which is to find the players who, historically, are the closest comparison to a modern player. Essentially, I’m going to use the similarity scores to point out the career paths displayed by the five receivers whose numbers over three seasons had the most in common with Branch’s 2003, 2004, and 2005 season stats (as seen at the bottom of the table above). I’ll be presenting their numbers that link them to Branch, their numbers for the season immediately following (so, then, what we might expect to see from Branch in 2006), and then for the three year period following (what we might expect to see from Branch in the ’06, ’07, and ’08 seasons, after which point the Patriots would probably want to let Branch sign elsewhere). All numbers from seasons afflicted by labor problems are pro-rated.

1. Henry Ellard

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In this year’s Pro Football Prospectus, we namedrop Ellard as the guy who Branch is most comparable to – the similarities, to be honest, are a little eerie. They’re both undersized (Branch is listed at 5’9″, Ellard at 5’11”). They both went to a mid-major (Branch to Louisville, Ellard to Fresno State). They both also missed about half a season due to injury (Ellard’s was in his fourth season, Branch’s his third – they were both, however, 25 at the time). Neither was a touchdown machine in their first few seasons.

As you can see, if Branch was to continue along the same path that Ellard did, the contract terms he’s asking for would be very acceptable. Ellard broke out in 1988, leading the league in receiving yards, and nearly equaling his touchdown haul over the last three seasons. His numbers remained high over the next few years; they decreased in his ninth season, when he only had 64 catches and 3 touchdown receptions, and went down even further to 47 catches and 3 TD receptions the year after. What makes Ellard really special, though, is his revitalization at age 33, when he had three consecutive 1000-yard seasons with the Redskins.

2. Henry Marshall

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Marshall, who played for Kansas City his entire twelve-year career, was an underrated receiver. His best year, 1982, consisted of only nine games because of the strike, so his unadjusted numbers (40 catches for 549 yards and three touchdowns) don’t look particularly fantastic. He also missed four games due to injury in 1981. That being said, the increase in Marshall’s performance, while reasonably substantial, did not compare to Ellard’s.

3. Jerry Porter

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Hey, speaking of disgruntled wide receivers… Obviously, we only have Porter’s numbers for the first year after his seasons similar to Branch, so we can’t form much of a projection for Branch’s future based upon Porter. Like Branch and Ellard, Porter suffered an injury in the second of the three analyzed seasons that kept him out for around half the year.

4. Isaac Bruce

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Bruce, to continue the pattern, suffered an injury in 1998 that limited him to five games. Bruce’s career path differs from everyone else we’ve looked at so far in that he was already a star: his second season, where he caught 119 balls for 1781 yards, was the best of his career.

5. Cris Carter

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Carter is the first WR in the study to change teams over the period of our analysis – he was cut by the Eagles during the preseason in 1990 because of his substance abuse problem. While the Vikings claimed him and used him that season, he only had 27 catches all year as a reserve receiver, which is one of the reasons why his numbers are comparable to other players who saw a hit in their numbers during the second analyzed season due to injury. Carter took off in 1993, with the first of eight consecutive 1000+ yard seasons for the Vikings.

Finally, let’s see how Branch’s averages for the next three years would look were his stats to improve at the same rate as each of these five players’ did (while we can still compare him to Porter, the fact that we only have one year of data to work with means that link is a little more tenuous):

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If Branch’s performance were to increase at the average rate that his most comparable compatriots did, then, he would be averaging 91 catches, 1152 yards, and 6 touchdowns a year for the next three seasons. It is worth noting that, outside of Marshall’s four games out in 1981, no one was injured during the three years we are projecting for Branch; any sort of injury would, obviously, throw a wrench into the works. In addition, the Patriots’ utter lack of a respected wide receiver across from Branch may cause him to stumble until Chad Jackson is ready.

Is it worth, then, giving into Branch’s demands? I suppose that depends on what his terms legitimately are, something I’m yet to actually see. If Branch produces at this level somewhere else for the next three years, though, Patriots fans will miss a departed #83.

Bill Barnwell’s arrival at Northeastern University in 2001 precipitated the Patriots’ surprising ascent to greatness. His recent graduation must, sadly, signify the decline of the Belichick Empire. Bill co-writes the Scramble for the Ball column each week on the Football Outsiders website, and can be reached at [email protected].

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