April 20, 2014

Outside Foxborough – Three Plays From Chargers/Patriots

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

At Football Outsiders, our analysis of the game goes in two different directions. The former, and the one we’re more known for, is our statistical analysis of the game using new methodologies. What we also do, though, is something else you don’t see in many other places on the net: Breakdowns of X’s and O’s, primarily by Mike Tanier in his weekly “Too Deep Zone” column on our site. Recently, Mike wrote up a “Blueprint” on how to quiet the Patriots offense, a defensive scheme with guidelines the Jaguars mostly followed on Saturday.

In that same vein, I’m going to spend this week looking at three plays from the Patriots and Chargers previous encounter, and what they show us about how the two teams match up and what they each might do to gain the advantage when the Patriots are on offense. I did not break down any plays where the Chargers were on offense because, really, it’s hard to tell what their offense is going to look like come Sunday. Chris Chambers wasn’t on the team in Week 2, while Antonio Gates, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Philip Rivers were all 100%. I’ll be using a similar style to Mike’s diagrams, which means it’s all Paint, all the time, daddy-o.

Instead, I’ll focus exclusively on three plays from when the Patriots were on offense in the game, two of which were successful.

Touchdown Pass to Watson

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The game’s opening score came on a six-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Ben Watson early in the first quarter, a play which exemplifies just how difficult it is to stop the Patriots offense. The Chargers line up in their 3-4 scheme, with the impact players being outside linebackers Shawne Merriman (lined up across from Ben Watson on the right) and Shaun Phillips (on the line of scrimmage on the left), as well as defensive tackle Jamal Williams, who warrants a double team from the Patriots in most of the snaps from this game. On this play, he’s handled by Dan Koppen and Billy Yates, who started at right guard this game. Phillips rushes and is blocked cleanly by Matt Light, but Kevin Faulk also chips Phillips coming out of the backfield before running a short curl route.

What makes the play work is the timing of the three receivers on the right, Watson, Wes Welker, and Randy Moss, from left to right. Watson is in man coverage against Merriman, who’s not a superb cover linebacker, but is fast enough to keep up with Watson, unlike most linebackers. A safety is matched up against Welker, while Moss has a corner bumping him at the line. He doesn’t get a clean break on his route and even if he did, he’d run right into Chargers inside linebacker Stephen Cooper and his zone. For those people who pretend that Moss doesn’t give up on plays anymore, he’s literally stopped and is looking around bored when the ball is thrown.

The timing of Watson and Welker, though, make the play work. As Welker runs his in, he turns just as Watson begins his cut in the corner route. Welker’s route effectively picks Merriman without touching him, and by the time Merriman can do anything about it, he’s grumbling with Cooper as Watson is about to catch the game’s opening score. The Chargers actually called a pretty good play against this pass, and they still couldn’t do anything about it. The natural response to that by a defensive coordinator is to blitz.

Merriman Sacks Brady

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The second play is a sack of Brady by Merriman on what’s technically a blitz, but is in reality just five men rushing versus what should be seven men blocking. That’s a good scenario for the Patriots, but the failure of Laurence Maroney on the play seals Brady’s fate.

The play call is simple enough: It’s what amounts to a series of zone clearouts, with Moss occupying the safeties while Welker runs his standard in and Watson runs what appears to be another corner. The routes are approximated because they didn’t appear on the broadcast, and there are defensive players missing because they were out of camera shot. The protection is relatively straightforward, with Kyle Brady remaining in on the right side to serve as assistance on Merriman, and Maroney chipping on any penetrators before heading on his merry way into the middle of the field. Again, with only five rushers, this should be an easy blitz pickup for the Patriots.

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Let’s look at the important part of the play, the interior rush, a little closer. Highlighted in red are the rushes of Cooper (54) and Merriman (56), who play the big roles in making the sack happen. The play is a series of failures by the protection, highlighted by Maroney.

At the instant of the snap, everyone knows what to do. Light handles the right defensive end (not viewable from the camera angle, but likely Igor Olshansky). Logan Mankins and Koppen double-team Williams. Yates picks up Cooper on a straight bull rush, while Nick Kaczur blocks Luis Castillo (93). Merriman drops off the line of scrimmage, so Brady helps out on Castillo.

The first failure is by Yates. Cooper’s bull rush isn’t designed to get to the passer, but instead to create a hole for Merriman’s twist to get through. Cooper succeeds, pushing Yates back three yards, and creating the diversion, in a sense, for Merriman’s blitz. The other two linebackers, Phillips and Tim Dobbins, drop into short zones so that Merriman’s rush has time to get home.

Merriman shows up with a head of steam about a half-second behind Cooper, a mess Maroney’s assigned to clean up. Instead, Maroney…kinda steps in the mess and walks away. He bumps into Merriman, but to call it a block is to give it far too much credit. It merely slightly deflects Merriman instead of blocking him, the biggest mistake on the play.

As this is going on, Kaczur realizes that Merriman is blitzing, and as a result, that Merriman was really his man to pick up, not Castillo. Kaczur then abandons Castillo in order to try and stop Merriman, but with Brady blocking Castillo from the outside at a poor angle, Castillo easily tosses the tight end aside and follows Merriman right to the quarterback. As for Kaczur, he trips over Maroney, who’s trying to get away from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. Merriman and Castillo meet at Brady, who never has a chance to throw the ball.

This blitz is one of the things you have to do to beat the Patriots: Namely, get pressure with fewer rushers than the Patriots have blockers. 5 on 7 is normally an offensive advantage, so for the Chargers to get a sack here is a huge coup. The Patriots’ mistakes in the blocking decisions didn’t help, but this came down to the rushes of both Cooper and Merriman, the former serving his role as a de facto tackle perfectly, the latter timing his blitz well and brushing off the mediocre blocker to get to the quarterback before the wideouts can create space for themselves in the level between the short zones the linebackers are in and the deep zones the safeties occupy.

As for Maroney, his failure here is the primary reason why he doesn’t see the field as often as a first-round back with his running talent would expect: His blocking simply isn’t up to snuff. Against the Jaguars, a team with a middling pass rush, that’s not a big deal; against the Chargers, that will be a much bigger issue. Expect to see more of Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans in the backfield on Sunday, and while that will hurt the Patriots some in the running game, if their offensive line opens up holes the way they did in our final play, it won’t matter who’s back there.

Patriots Offensive Line Opens New HOV Lane for Maroney

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We also focus on the interior play in this shot. The Chargers line up in what basically amounts to a 5-2 front, with Phillips and Merriman on the line and the two middle linebackers occupying the gaps inbetween the defensive linemen, several yards off. Kyle Brady rests on the hip of Matt Light, while Ben Watson is lined up directly across from Merriman.

The moment of the snap sees a similar pattern to our first two plays. Mankins and Koppen double-team Williams and occupy him from the get-go. That’s an advantage for the Chargers; even if Williams doesn’t make the play himself, that means that there’s now six defenders in the box against five Patriots blockers, giving them a chance to make a play on Maroney before he goes anywhere.

The reason Maroney gets fifteen yards is almost entirely due to two things. The first is the block that Matt Light puts on Olshansky. I drew where the block started, but not where it finished. At the point of attack, with Maroney likely to be running behind him, Matt Light didn’t just block Igor Olshansky. He got underneath him and pushed him a good three or four feet to the left, far out of the play, opening up a huge hole for Maroney to run behind.

There’s still more work to be done before Maroney can get there, though. Kyle Brady’s got a difficult job here, sealing the much-faster Phillips on the edge before he can get into the hole and make a play. Fortunately, Phillips helps out by attempting to take a route around Brady, making the tight end’s job much easier. They both end up in the trash on the left side.

Meanwhile, while the Chargers defensive line (including Merriman and Phillips) is crashing the play by attacking the gaps to their left, the two inside linebackers on the play, Cooper and Tim Dobbins, are filling in gaps to their immediate right. The idea is to fill every gap while taking advantage of the likely Williams double-team to have one of the linebackers run free and make a tackle on Maroney before he gets far. Instead, Merriman’s blocked out of the play by Watson, and Cooper and Dobbins overpursue the play based on Maroney’s first step, which directs him on a sweep behind Watson.

As the inside linebackers begin to dream about a big stop, Billy Yates is quietly pulling to the left side, creating an appetizing hole for Cooper to try and run through to make a play. Unfortunately for him, Maroney’s second step is to the left side, far away from the hole he’s already shifted his body to try and get to. By the time Maroney has the ball, Yates is beyond the line of scrimmage, emerging where Mankins started the play, and he’s blocking Dobbins, who would’ve likely made the play or at least slowed it down if he’d merely stayed in the gap he started in. Cooper, meanwhile, is so far removed from the play that by the time he catches Maroney, the Patriots rusher is in the secondary and about to be taken down by a safety following a 15-yard gain.

This is how the Patriots take advantage of teams who are looking pass on most downs. Randy Moss wasn’t in on this play, but the Patriots don’t hesitate to use Donte’ Stallworth in a similar role when Moss is off the field. Phillips and Merriman take themselves out of the play by pursuing outside lanes to the quarterback, while the counter movement by Maroney dekes the inside linebackers into overpursuit, and the excellent blocking by the offensive line and tight ends results in a huge gain on the ground.

You’re not likely to find anyone as bullish on the usage of statistics in understanding football as we are at Football Outsiders. With that being said, there are countless things that even the best statistics can’t measure, and things that even your standard-issue announcer doesn’t mention during gameplay. It’s the little things that you only pick up from close analysis, Wes Welker’s pick, Stephen Cooper’s bull rush, Matt Light’s blocking sled impression. The Patriots are great at a lot of the big, obvious things, but to make it to the Super Bowl, they’ll need to win a lot of the smaller, subtler battles as well.

Outside Foxborough – How Teams Are Using The Draft Value Chart

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

Last year’s Patriots-Jaguars game is best remembered by two things; first, the 74-yard Maurice Jones-Drew “He was never down” run, a run actually sprung by Kyle Brady, who “tackled” MJD when Ty Warren blew up the play and pushed Brady into him. The other memorable play of the game was the gorgeous diving catch by David Thomas on a Tom Brady touch pass, the only touchdown pass as of yet in Thomas’ career.

This year’s game will evoke memories of its own, with several key battles to be waged between the stars of the assorted teams. One of the battles you won’t see, though, is the one that we might’ve expected to rage on the interior when the Patriots are on offense, with All-World LG Logan Mankins and the woefully underrated Dan Koppen at center going up against the formidable Jaguars tackle combination of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.

The reasons why? Well, for one, they’re no longer formidable. The Jaguars rush defense, the one thing it seemed like you could count upon for the Jaguars heading into this season, was miserable for the first half of the year and merely adequate once Falcons castoff Grady Jackson arrived, with the Jaguars finishing 22nd overall.

The players haven’t done what was expected, either. Stroud won’t be participating, as he’s out for the year with an ankle injury. That injury came after Stroud spent four games suspended because of a positive steroid test, something Stroud attributed to a tainted substance. Henderson, meanwhile, has struggled through hamstring issues and whispers around the league that he’s been slacking off.

We link Henderson and Stroud together for a couple of reasons. Not only do they line up next to each other on the defensive line when they’re both healthy, not only do they form the core of Jacksonville’s defense, but they were drafted in successive seasons, which is a lot of expenditure to put into your defensive line.

Then again, I thought about Houston and the absurd amount of effort they’ve put into their defensive line the last few years. Four consecutive first-round picks have been spent on defensive linemen by the Texans (albeit with one of the picks, Jason Babin, moving to linebacker as a professional), and yet, the Texans were still 25th in our Adjusted Line Yards stat, measuring a defensive line’s ability to stop the run, and 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures a defense’s ability to rush the passer. Both take into account situation and distance as opposed to traditional yardage-based metrics.

So, then, does plowing lots of effort into a position improve things? I suppose the simple answer is, well, if you pick the right guys, but I wondered whether an optimal draft strategy was to focus on a specific area(s) with your draft picks or instead to spread the wealth.

The way we’ll measure how teams spend their draft picks is by the draft value chart, which is a chart concocted to quantify the value of draft picks. Simple enough. A sample chart can be found here. For the purposes of this research, we’ll be looking at drafts from 1996-2007, the “DVOA era”, since it’s the seasons which we’ve calculated DVOA for.

We’ll also be looking at draft value two different ways. The first is pure draft value, which is a simple summation of the value each team spent on their picks. The second will be a percentage split, which will measure what percentage of the team’s total draft value over the twelve-draft span was spent on a particular position. With this metric, we’re aiming to find the teams that poured a large percentage of their effort into a particular position, even if they didn’t have particularly high picks (otherwise, the research will just be an exercise in writing about the Raiders).

Quarterback

By pure draft value, the team that’s put the most into quarterbacks over the twelve years is, by a large margin, the San Diego Chargers. Picking Ryan Leaf, Drew Brees and Eli Manning (we’re going strictly on draft selections here, not accounting for trades) illuminates the hidden cost of failing with a draft pick like Leaf: Not only have you wasted a pick on a player who doesn’t help your team, and not only have you wasted part of your salary cap on paying and then getting rid of the player, but you also have to use another draft pick (or spend a sum in free agency) to replace the player with someone suitable to replace him. The Chargers went through that process with Leaf and Brees, and got lucky with the Manning deal to pick up extra draft picks to basically make up for spending three high draft picks within a decade on quarterbacks.

Second was Cincinnati, who failed with Akili Smith and then hit on Carson Palmer. Third was Cleveland, who actually didn’t draft Derek Anderson (another Ravens pick), but spent first-round picks on both Tim Couch and Brady Quinn.

Number four on the list was San Francisco, who underwent the same process — to replace Steve Young, they drafted Jim Druckenmiller, which goes against the Bill Walsh philosophy of finding a quarterback on the cheap and plugging him into a system where quarterbacks find it hard to fail. After Druckenmiller bombed and Jeff Garcia (a perfect example of the Walsh-style quarterback) departed, the 49ers used the first overall pick on Alex Smith, who the jury is very out on at the moment as well. It’s entirely possible they’ll use another high draft pick on a quarterback in the next couple of years, which shows the inherent difficulty in drafting one.

If we use our percentage metric, San Diego is far and above the rest of the league in their quarterback usage. 27.4% of the overall value they had to “spend” went to quarterbacks, horribly inefficient when you consider that they still had 21 starting spots to fill. Second was Cincinnati and then right behind them, Houston, who, of course, used their first pick on David Carr, who bombed. This methodology doesn’t include the picks they traded for Matt Schaub, which would push them into second place. Also high on the list are Tennessee (5th, although almost solely for Vince Young), Philadelphia (6th, for Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb), and Indianapolis (7th, almost solely because of Peyton Manning).

Running Back

Number one on this list, by a wide margin, would be the New Orleans Saints. Again, this doesn’t take trades into account, but if it did, they’d be ahead by an even wider margin when you consider the cost of acquiring Ricky Williams. As it is, Williams represents the first of three first-round picks the Saints spent on running backs in the era, including Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. With that, they’ve managed to muster, oh, one or two years where they actually had an above-average rushing offense. In other words, this doesn’t appear to be a ticket to success for a running game.

Second are the Miami Dolphins, who have spent an absurd amount of effort on a quantity of running backs. This doesn’t include the trade for Ricky Williams, so keep that in mind when I list the running backs they’ve selected. In chronological order: Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Stanley Pritchett, Jerris McPhail, John Avery, J.J. Johnson, Rob Konrad, Cecil Collins, Deon Dyer, Travis Minor, Leonard Henry, Ronnie Brown, Lorenzo Booker, Reagan Mauia. That’s two first-rounders (including #2 overall), two second-rounders, two third-rounders, two fourth-rounders, two fifth-rounders, and a sixth and seventh rounder. And of those twelve seasons, six of them saw someone besides one of the draftees lead the team in carries (Williams, Sammy Morris, Lamar Smith, and Jesse Chatman).

Third would be the Chicago Bears, whose skill position selections have been mostly tragic. Their Day One running backs over the time period were Curtis Enis, Anthony Thomas, and Cedric Benson, all of whom have been disappointments.

Fourth are the Rams, who were more hit-and-miss. They spent a high pick on Lawrence Phillips, and after he revealed himself to be crazy, they cut him and traded for Marshall Faulk, who was great. To complement Faulk, they spent a first-round pick on Trung Canidate, who was a guy who could run fast, not well. After that, they finally hit on Steven Jackson, but it was their third highly-selected running back of the era.

By percentage, the Dolphins come out on top, using nearly 27% of their overall draft value on backs. The Saints are #2, and Bears #3, while the Buccaneers (who dealt a good chunk of picks to the Raiders for Jon Gruden) are #4 by virtue of their selections of Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, and Cadillac Williams. At least they hit on their picks. Buffalo was behind them, as they spent three first-rounders on backs: Antowain Smith, Willis McGahee, and this year, Marshawn Lynch.

Wide Receiver

This one should be pretty easy. The Lions have spent 8453.6 points of draft value on wideouts. The next closest are the Jets, who have spent 5172.3 points of draft value. You know about the Lions already. The Jets have been through a few high picks in Keyshawn Johnson, Alex Van Dyke, and Santana Moss. Their current starters, though, are a third-round pick (Laveranues Coles) and a fourth-rounder (Jerricho Cotchery), and their most prolific receiver of the timeframe was undrafted, Hofstra’s Wayne Chrebet.

Arizona is third, with four high picks in David Boston, Bryant Johnson, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald. Johnson/Boldin/Fitzgerald represent a similar outlay to what we were discussing with Jacksonville, in that they were chosen in successive drafts.

Speaking of the Jaguars, although they spent consecutive first-round picks on Matt Jones and Reggie Williams (and one on tight end Mercedes Lewis the year after, although we’re considering them separately), they’re middle of the pack as far as draft value goes.

Believe it or not, Detroit’s outlay on wideouts is not the largest expenditure, percentage-wise, on a particular position over the timeframe. We’ll list those at the end of the essay. It is #1 for wideouts, though, with, surprisingly, the Steelers second. We don’t think of them as wideout-happy, but they spent first-round picks on Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Troy Edwards, a second on Antwaan Randle El, and third-rounders on Willie Reid and Hines Ward.

The Giants and Jets are tied for third. The Giants’ efforts in finding wideouts have been pretty embarassing since the early nineties and the days of Ed McCaffrey being let go to make space for Thomas Lewis. Day one Giants wideouts include Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard (#7 overall), Joe Jurevicius (who did little in a Giants uniform), Brian Alford, Ron Dixon (who is afraid of lightning), Tim Carer, Sinorice Moss, and the other Steve Smith. Only one first-rounder, but a whopping five second-rounders.

Tight End

Number one by both total outlay and percentage is, as you also might’ve expected, your New England Patriots. Not only were Daniel Graham and Ben Watson #1 picks in 2002 and 2004, respectively, but Rod Rutledge was a second-rounder in 1998.

The tight end selection process has a pretty small sample, so Kansas City gets #2 for picking Tony Gonzalez 13th and Kris Wilson 61st over the timespan. Overall, New England spent exactly 10% of their draft value on tight ends over the time period, while no other team had more than 8.7%.

Offensive Line

This is a position where we see huge differences because of the differences in philosophy between teams. The Colts and Broncos, who rely on late-round offensive linemen to build up their team, have spent only 2508 points and 1887.2 points on offensive linemen, respectively, while teams who struggle to find offensive line consistency like the Cardinals and Raiders have spent 6587.9 and 5976.4 points on linemen, respectively. Of course, the latter teams have struggled mightily, while the former have done very well for themselves.

This is a position where illuminating the data using our percentage metric is much more valuable than simply listing sums. Number one over the time period by a large margin is Seattle, who have used five first-round picks over the time frame on linemen: Pete Kendall, Walter Jones, Chris McIntosh, Steve Hutchinson, and Chris Spencer. Three are All-Pros, one is promising but inconsistent, and one was an absolute bust.

Second was New Orleans, who tried to supplement all those running backs with some linemen to block for them. The linemen they chose with their first-round picks were actually pretty good: Chris Naeole has been a very good guard for a long time, Kyle Turley was an All-Pro tackle for a while, Jammal Brown has shown flashes of brilliance, and LeCharles Bentley was one of the best centers in the league before his departure and subsequent injuries. Jonathan Stinchcomb was a bust, but four out of five is another pretty solid ratio.

Next up are Tampa Bay, whose expenditure is much more recent: Namely, first-rounder Davin Joseph in 2006 and second-round tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears in 2006 and 2007, respectively. They also used a first-rounder on disappointing Kenyatta Walker and a second on Jerry Wunsch back on the day, neither of whom were particularly good picks.

Fourth were Oakland, who famously chose Robert Gallery, who became the biggest bust of an offensive lineman since Tony Mandarich, but they’ve also spent high picks on Mo Collins, Matt Stinchcomb, and Jake Grove.

Philadelphia is fifth, and while they’re another team not particularly known for their outlay on offensive linemen, they’ve put serious effort into stocking their line. Jermaine Mayberry, Tra Thomas, and Shawn Andrews were all first-rounders, while Bobby Williams and the unfortunate Winston Justice were second rounders.

There is a hidden benefit to drafting offensive tackles, though, that most people don’t consider. Take Arizona, who are sixth. They drafted mammoth LT Leonard Davis with the second overall pick in 2001. Davis, simply put, was not a good tackle. He struggled with speed rushers and his footwork. Eventually, he was moved inside to guard, where, as a Cowboy, he’s been arguably the best guard in football. There’s a safety net on the offensive line for tackles: Guard. It’s also true in the secondary, where corners can become safeties if they struggle in coverage, but unless you’re Kordell Stewart, you can’t go anywhere if you fail out at quarterback. This makes offensive tackles inherently one of the safer picks of the draft.

Defensive Line

Here’s where we see our largest outlay by both sum and by percentage. The strange thing is that it’s from two different teams.

By pure most value used, Arizona is #1. They used the #3 pick on Simeon Rice, another #3 on Andre Wadsworth, the #12 on Wendell Bryant, the #18 on Calvin Pace, the #33 on Alan Branch, and the #34 on Kyle Vanden Bosch. You’ll notice these players either busted or enjoyed more success elsewhere than they did in Arizona, which is, as you might be aware, a bad thing. They’re only seventh by percentage spent on defensive linemen, though.

#1 by percentage, though, and the largest percentage outlay of any team at any one position in football, is Houston. Up to this point, a full 35.6% of their draft value has been spent on defensive linemen. That’s almost entirely the foursome of Babin, Mario Williams, Travis Johnson, and Amobi Okoye.

Number two are the Vikings, who have pushed a whopping six first-round picks out at defensive lineman: Duane Clemons, Dimitrus Underwood (arguably the worst first-round pick ever), Chris Hovan, Kevin Williams, Kenichi Udeze, and Erasmus James. Only Williams has proven himself to be an elite player. They also used second-round picks of James Manley, Kailee Wong (who moved to linebacker as a pro), Fred Robbins, Michael Boireau, and Willie Howard. Hovan, Robbins, and Boireau were all from the same draft, while the pairings of both Underwood and Hovan and Udeze and James were back-to-back first-rounders. All in all, it’s been a major disappointment for the Vikings.

Third are the Cowboys, who have been much more successful in their selections: Ebenezer Ekuban (great name), Greg Ellis, DeMarcus Ware (both eventually moved to linebacker), Marcus Spears (same year as Ware), and Anthony Spencer (also moved to linebacker) have all been defensive ends taken in the first-round by the Cowboys.

Defensive line is, in general, where teams seem to spend a lot of their dough. Only five teams have spent more than 30% of their draft value at one position. Three of those teams have spent it on defensive linemen, while the other two were on defensive backs. In addition, on average, 20.2% of the value in each draft goes towards defensive linemen.

By the way: The Jaguars, the team who started this whole study off? They ranked 20th in the percentage of draft value spent on defensive linemen in the league. As for the Patriots, they rank 13th despite using first-round picks on Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork. Of course, they managed to get those picks right, which meant they didn’t need to replace them with new first-round defensive linemen.

Linebacker

Welcome back Detroit! The Lions spent the most draft value on linebackers by sum, bringing in Ernie Sims, Reggie Brown, and Chris Claiborne with first-round picks, and Barrett Green, Boss Bailey, and Teddy Lehman with second-rounders.

Number one by percentage, though, were the Redskins, who drafted LaVar Arrington second-overall and used second-round picks on Rocky McIntosh and the legendary Greg Jones. Second were the Jets, who seemed to have some sort of weird linebacker depth fetish in the late-nineties and early-aughts. They drafted James Farrior eighth overall and barely gave him playing time before letting him become a star in Pittsburgh, while Bryan Thomas and Jonathan Vilma were both first-round picks. They also spent second-rounders on Victor Hobson and David Harris.

Third? The Jaguars! What a coincidence. In the first year of the study, they took Kevin Hardy second overall, who somewhat disappointed for that high of a pick. He was their only first-round linebacker, but they also spent second-rounders on Justin Durant, and Daryl Smith, and third-rounders on James Hamilton, TJ Slaughter, Danny Clark, Eric Westmoreland, Akin Ayodele, Jorge Cordova, and Clint Ingram. Not exactly the greatest bunch ever.

Third were the Lions and fourth was Denver, who have drafted six linebackers in twelve years, but used first or second-round picks on five of them: John Mobley, Al Wilson, Montae Reagor, Terry Pierce, and DJ Williams.

Defensive Back

Defensive back represents the other area of huge outlay for teams. There’s a huge gap between the top two and the rest of the pack percentage-wise that I’m going to focus on. First, the Redskins, who pumped four top-ten picks in eight years into defensive backs: Champ Bailey, Sean Taylor, Carlos Rogers, and LaRon Landry. Fred Smoot also went in the second round.

Behind them were the Titans, who drafted Andre Woolfork, Pac-Man Jones, and Michael Griffin in the first round, Andre Dyson and Tank Williams in the second. Ironically, their best defensive back at the moment is Cortland Finnegan, who was selected 215th overall in 2006.

Third has been Seattle, who took Shawn Springs third in 1997, Marcus Trufant, and Kelly Jennings with first-round picks, and Fred Thomas, Ike Charlton, Ken Lucas, Ken Hamlin, and Josh Wilson with second-rounders.

Again, there’s a safety net here for cornerbacks. If they fail, many of them can move to safety and be productive. In a process that exposes teams to huge risks, mitigating some of said risk by taking a cornerback or a offensive tackle cannot be ignored as part of the process.

Drafting Philosophies

So, after all that, is there an ideal philosophy?

First, we can do some simple splits to find percentages. 50.2% of all draft value has been spent on offense, 49.3% on defense, and .5% on kickers and punters (hi, Jets!).

The most offensive-minded teams in the draft have been Miami (62.1%), Cleveland (59.5%), New Orleans (59.4%), Indianapolis (58.3%), and Chicago (56.7%).

On the other side of the ball, the top five are Dallas (a staggering 66.9%), Washington (59.8%), Denver (59.3%), Tennessee (57.3%), and Carolina (57.1%). Neither group is particularly more effective than the other.

The teams that have spent the most on skill position players include the Chargers (50.9%), Bears (48.3%) Giants (48.2%), Dolphins (47.7%), and Browns (46.7%). The ironic thing is that, realistically, only the Chargers (and the Browns, this year at least) are known for their playmakers amongst those teams, and one of those playmakers, Antonio Gates, was undrafted.

Amongst the offensive and defensive lines, the big spenders are Dallas (48.8%), Philadelphia (47.8%), Tampa Bay (47.4%), Arizona (46.2%), and Houston (44.0%). The former three are three of the more successful franchises in football, while the latter two certainly are not.

If we just focus on a team’s front seven, then, we see Minnesota (47.3%), Dallas (42.8%), Carolina (38.8%), and Philadelphia (36.8%). The Oilers are also on that list at 41.2%, but it’s only based upon drafts from 1996 to 1999.

What about focusing on teams who spent a lot of effort on one position and very little on another versus teams who were consistent with value across all positions? We’ll check that by looking at the standard deviation of each team’s percentages across all positions, so that teams with a large focus in one spot and little focus in others would have a high standard deviation, while teams who are consistent would be low.

The teams with the five highest standard deviations were Washington, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, and New Orleans — again, a mix of teams who have been both successful and failing.

The flip side sees Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Francisco — again, some successes and some failures.

Sadly, not all research finds a clear answer. There doesn’t appear to be any surefire way to build a team through draft picks beyond, simply enough, making sure you draft the right guys.

Oh, and since we haven’t talked about it at all: The lowest percentage of draft value that any team’s spent on any one position in the past twelve years? Patriots. Quarterback.

Outside Foxborough – The Injury Effect, Part 2

logoby Bill Barnwell
[email protected]
 

Note: Last week, I mentioned that I would be discussing the offensive and defensive relationships to the injury data I gathered in this week’s column on Patriots Daily. The day my column went up, Willie Parker went down for the year with a broken leg, and it seemed natural to write a short followup piece on Football Outsiders discussing what the broken leg might do to the Steelers’ chances. In short, I mentioned that running back injuries have a very weak relationship to a decrease in wins or DVOA, and while they have somewhat of a relationship to a team’s rushing DVOA, an injury to a quarterback seems to have a similar relationship to the team’s rushing attack. You can find the full article here.

In the second part of my research into injury data, I looked at how injuries at different positions affected their teams’ performances, to see if it revealed hotspots for potential injury or tipoffs towards future success.

My findings were pretty distinct. I’ll summate them in order of importance.

1. Offensive injuries affect a team much more than defensive injuries.

This is a fascinating thing, to me at least. Of course, you’ll always hear more about an offensive injury because skill position players receive significantly more glory than most, if not all defensive players, but I was surprised to see that actually match up with their real importance as well. A team’s offensive injury rate has a -.37 correlation with their difference in year-to-year wins, while their defensive injury rate only has a -.23 correlation. Offensive injuries have a -.21 correlation with DVOA within a season, and a -.38 correlation with the difference in year-to-year DVOA, while defensive injuries are at -.06 and -.25, respectively. Essentially, what the data says is that offensive players are harder to replace than defensive ones.

2. Offensive line injuries are the most traumatic to a team.

Across all positions, injuries to the offensive line had the strongest correlation (-.30) against year-to-year wins as well as DVOA (-.33). That’s also likely to become stronger this year, when you consider the success of the Cleveland Browns following the return to health of their offensive line, as well as the impact that offensive line injuries have had on teams like the Rams and 49ers.

3. Quarterbacks are the second-strongest correlated.

Quarterback injuries have the second-strongest negative correlation with year-to-year wins (-.24) and DVOA (-.26). Does that mean that quarterbacks are less important than offensive linemen? It’s hard to say. I think there’s something to be said for the positional scarcity of quarterbacks, as well as the ability to hide a subpar offensive lineman with an extra blocking back or a tight end (which does, on the other hand, ignore the consequences that has on the offense as a whole, which come out in these correlations to a team’s overall performance).

It should also be noted, strangely enough, that while offensive line injuries correlate strongest with a drop in overall team DVOA, quarterback injuries (-.31) have a stronger inverse relationship with a drop in offensive DVOA than offensive line injuries (-.19). Whether that points to noise in the data or an effect of a team’s salary cap construction, I can’t say.

4. Linebacker injuries are the most difficult to recover from defensively.

Across the board, defensive back injuries are the least-correlated with success (perhaps owing to the Patriots’ success despite their mammoth infirmary behind the linebackers), and also across the board, linebackers have both the strongest relationship with year-to-year changes in wins (-.21) and DVOA (-.25).

5. Receivers are the most replaceable players in football.

I know, I know. This all sounds very silly when you consider the ’06 and ’07 Patriot offenses. But the data shows that wide receiver injuries have virtually no effect on offensive DVOA (-.02 difference year-to-year). Does that mean that the Patriots would do just as well without Randy Moss? Of course not. No statement is a hard rule. But all-in-all, wideout injuries are probably overspoken. If you think about guys who got hurt this year at wide receiver, have any crushed their team? Terry Glenn’s injury certainly hasn’t. Has Marvin Harrison slowed down the Colts’ offense? A little, but not noticeably. The Broncos passing attack was just as good without Javon Walker, Seattle without Deion Branch, and even arguably Houston without Andre Johnson.

6. Age has very little bearing on injury.

On offense, the average age of a team’s starters has virtually no relationship (+.02) with their propensity for getting injured. On defense, there’s a slight relationship (+.18). Overall, there’s virtually no relationship between the 22 starters’ age (-.04) and the team’s injury rate.

Of course, this research needs more data to munch on before we can assign it more reliability. Six years is a good start, but by this time next year, there will hopefully be twice as many injury reports for it to compare with success. If these findings hold up, the result could be some different guidelines for how to ideally construct a roster and use salary cap space, focusing more on offensive depth than defensive, specifically at offensive line and quarterback. We might be able to more accurately define replacement-level if we understand the propensity of players at a certain position to get hurt in a given season, which could have an economic effect on how those players are valued. For example, if the findings above were true, teams would likely be overvaluing a good portion of their wide receivers, whose absence from the team would have little effect on their team’s offensive performance.

Again, more data’s needed, but these findings are a very interesting first look into the effects on injuries across a whole team, and how success sometimes has more to do with random luck than some teams or media members would like to admit.

Outside Foxborough – The Injury Effect

logoby Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

The Miami Dolphins came into this season with high hopes following the acquisitions of quarterback Trent Green, wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., and outside linebacker Joey Porter over the long NFL offseason. Replacing the departed Nick Saban was offensive guru Cam Cameron, who’d successfully crafted the Chargers offense into one of the best in football. With Ginn and Chris Chambers stretching defenses deep, Porter and defensive player of the year Jason Taylor coming off the edges, and Green bringing a stability and authority that the quarterback position hadn’t seen since the Marino days, things were looking up for Dolphins fans.

14 games later, the Dolphins are the laughingstock of football, a team that induces tears from their owner upon winning their first game of the season, with a pass thrown from one Chargers castoff, Cleo Lemon, to another, Greg Caramillo. Cameron is likely one and done as a head coach, Chambers has ironically been shipped to San Diego, Ginn’s failed to make an impact at wideout, and while Taylor’s put up 10 sacks, Porter’s only mustered 3.5.

More than all that, though, it’s injury which has struck the Dolphins at their core. Green suffered a severe concussion in Week 5 that’s called his career into jeopardy. Ronnie Brown, who had been among the NFL’s best backs, went down two weeks later. That was also middle linebacker Zach Thomas’ last game of the year. Other starters have missed time: Vonnie Holliday, Travares Tillman, Channing Crowder, Matt Roth, and David Martin have all missed time with injuries this year.

On the other hand, the Patriots have enjoyed some remarkable health this season. Losing Richard Seymour for the first six weeks of the year would have been a problem for most teams, but the combination of Jarvis Green and Mike Wright (himself now gone for the remainder of the season) did an admirable job in his stead. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ long-term injuries consist of Sammy Morris, Wright, and Rosevelt Colvin, who managed to play for most of the season. Ben Watson is the only other injured player of note on the roster.

Obviously, the differences between the Patriots and the Dolphins are not a series of injuries. That being said, would this be the same Patriots team if their starting quarterback, best skill position player, and core middle linebacker had all gone down for the season by Week 7? Obviously not. Injuries are often discussed when it comes to why a team’s had a disappointing season, but when they have a great one, staying healthy is almost never one of the reasons you’ll hear bandied about as a reason why.

And, well, they should be. The effect of injuries on a team can be huge, and while everyone knows they’re bad, there’s been little in the way of research on how much they hurt, which hurt more, and what causes them.

Last year for this very website, I analyzed the injury rates of Patriots defensive backs and attempted to find reasons or trends in the data to explain this injury rash that had broken out. I later updated and expanded my findings in Pro Football Prospectus 2007, the annual published by me and my colleagues at Football Outsiders. With that as a starting point, I’ve done much more research into the trends of injuries and begun to quantify the likelihood and effects of injuries. The results, if confirmed with more data, could be staggeringly important: They could guide teams on how to construct their rosters, while offering gamblers and fans likely picks for teams that will rebound or decline in a given season.

We’ll be doing a two-part feature on the injury effect here on Patriots Daily. This week, I’ll be looking at the year-to-year effects of injuries, why they seem to happen, and what the results are on teams. Next week, we’ll get more specific, looking at offenses and defenses and what injuries are more important than others.

First, the data: The NFL injury reports, from 2001 to 2006, as compiled by Football Outsiders intern Chris Povirk. Injuries were weighted with a simple metric that measured the effect of an injury: A player who was listed as “Out” or placed on IR was scored with four points for each week he was in that role; a player who was listed as “Doubtful” three, “Questionable” two, and “Probable” one.

Following that, we compared the injuries to what we determined were the team’s 22 offensive and defensive starters heading into the season, its “projected” starters. For example, in 2006, although Tony Romo ended up being a huge part of the Cowboys’ success, Drew Bledsoe was the expected starter going into the season. We focused specifically on their injury rates, since the majority of a team’s salary cap, training camp, and focus is placed into those starters. This differs from last year’s research, which looked at a team’s 53-man roster equally.

We then split up the data by position and squad (which will be discussed next week) and compared it to wins and DVOA, our metric which analyzes teams based upon their play-by-play performance after correcting for down, distance, situation, and opponent. (For 2006 teams, in order to analyze their success this year, we used DVOA through 15 weeks, and did not include this year’s wins on their research.) This analysis was not only confined to one year, but we examined a team’s health from year-to-year and compared it to injuries from year-to-year. We used correlation coefficients, which gauge the relationship between two variables, to analyze whether there were significant comparisons between the injury data recorded and a team’s performance. When looking at the correlation coefficients, remember that football relationships tend to be less significant than those of most other comparisons because of the myriad variables involved, so what would be a small relationship in other fields is actually a decent relationship when it comes to football.

The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes. Over the six seasons that we looked at, injury rates had a dramatic effect on a team’s amount of wins, DVOA, and the change of the two from season to season.

Comparing a team’s injury rate to the number of wins they had in that season, we found a moderate relationship of -.22, indicating that there’s a negative relationship between injuries and wins. That shows some importance to injury rate, but that injuries aren’t a death knell to a team. Where the relationship becomes more intense is when we look at the difference in a team’s wins from a season ago. The correlation between injury rate in a given season and the difference in that team’s wins from a season before is -.38, or nearly twice as strong. When we correlate the difference in a team’s injury rate from year-to-year and the difference in that team’s wins, we get a whopping -.50 as the correlation, a huge indicator.

That’s borne out when we look at the injury outliers in our data. The most injured team in our study were the 2004 Tennessee Titans, who collapsed at the end of their multi-year run by going from 12 wins down to 5. Number two were the 2006 Cleveland Browns, who, of course, have been one of the surprise packages of this season.

On the flip side, the healthiest team we saw across the data were the 2003 Dallas Cowboys. They won ten games that year after winning five the year before. The year after, with a more normal injury rate, they went 6-10. Second were the 2002 Bills, who went 8-8 after going 3-13 in 2001; in 2003, with an average amount of injuries, they went 6-10.

Another issue that comes up is, as you can see, that teams tend to revert back to an average amount of injuries: Simply put, there’s no team that stays snakebitten with injuries. The correlation between a team’s injury rate and the same metric from the previous season is 0.02, or virtually nil. A team that’s extremely banged-up might get hurt a lot the next year, too, but they’re just as likely to stay healthy.

On the other hand, a team that does see a dramatic change is likely to see their fortune change with it. The biggest injury shift involves the Chicago Bears. A healthy Bears team in 2001 went 13-3; the next year, as the most injured team in football, they went 4-12. The year after, they got healthy and got back up to 7-9, but then suffered a serious injury bug in 2004 and stayed at 7-9. Finally healthy in 2005, they went 11-5.. The 2006 Browns were the second-largest shift, and they lost two more games that year than in 2005, while the third-placed 2004 Titans lost seven games more, as we mentioned.

That 2004 Titans team was a veteran team that had been through several years together before collapsing, which of course, brings up some comparisons to this year’s Dolphins, one of the older teams in football. It obviously brings up age as a possible indicator of likely injury. Surprisingly, though, age has little to do with the equation.

Taking the average age of the 22 starters and comparing it to injury rates reveal a correlation of 0.04: Again, virtually no correlation whatsoever. It should be noted that the Dolphins defense is significantly older than the Dolphins offense, and the correlation between defensive injury rates and age (+.18) is much higher than that of offensive injury rates and age (-.02).

Comparing injury rate to DVOA shows that the changes aren’t just superficial and related to lucky or unlucky wins. The correlations are similar to those we saw when looking at the relationship between wins and injury rate, but slightly weaker. For injury rate in a year and a team’s DVOA, there’s a -.16 correlation. If we compare injury rate to the difference in DVOA from the year prior, though, the correlation is -.4, and if we then compare the difference in injury rate to the difference in DVOA, it’s -.46. In short, there’s a very real and dramatic decrease in both the success and performance of a team when they get hurt more.

Looking at the 2006 season, this data would’ve given us several teams to highlight as potential flukes or sleepers because of their injury rates. One of them was the aforementioned Browns, who have stayed healthier and done much better than expected. The Jaguars were the second-most injured team in football, and have also rebounded with a nice year. Third was Tampa Bay, another team who’ve done well somewhat surprisingly. Our DVOA projections pegged all three of these teams as likely to improve.

On the other hand, there are several teams we’d expect to struggle with injury. First and foremost would be the Rams. Although we didn’t expect them to lose their entire offense, there was a strong likelihood that they would lose one or more of their key players to injury, and at times this year, they were without their starting quarterback, running back, and left tackle. Number two, surprisingly, would be the Cowboys, who illuminate the fact that injury rates aren’t infallible. They’ve stayed very healthy and had a superb year. Number three would be the Houston Texans, who will be at least one game better than they were last year, and number four would be San Diego, who have seen their performance drop some, although that likely has more to do with Norv Turner than injury.

Next week, we’ll analyze offense and defense and find out who’s more likely to get hurt and what the results are.

Outside Foxborough – The Ravens Curious Trade for Willis McGahee

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

The Ravens’ acquisition of Willis McGahee this offseason was a curious one. It wasn’t unexpected on McGahee’s behalf, as the then-Bills running back had expressed his interest in leaving Buffalo by criticizing its women. Furthermore, the Ravens understandably wanted an upgrade on Jamal Lewis, who seemed washed up despite only being 27 years old.

What made it strange was that the Ravens, of any team, should have seen how fungible running back performance was. After drafting Lewis in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft, the Ravens allowed him to start while benching their previous starter, Priest Holmes. Holmes served as Lewis’ backup before departing for Kansas City, where he put up several historic seasons as part of the offensive juggernaut there. Holmes’ replacement as Lewis’ backup was Chester Taylor, who then departed for Minnesota after his rookie contract expired and proceeded to put up a 1216-yard season. mcgahee.jpg

Still not convinced of the suitability of any back to fill in within their offense, though, the Ravens acquired McGahee for two third-round picks and a seventh-round pick. At the time, I wrote:

McGahee has the cachet of being a star running back, but he isn’t. Astute observers would note that his two 100-yard games in 2006 came against the Jets, who had the worst rush defense in football last season. His DVOA, which has remained remarkably consistent for his three seasons ( 0.4% in 2004, -1.3% in 2005, and -1.6% in 2006), isn’t the stuff of star players — it’s the home of guys like Vernard Morency, Greg Jones, and Artrose Pinner. While the price the Ravens paid wasn’t that expensive, the contract they gave McGahee was. Durability concerns alone would make the contract ill-advised, but the running back the Ravens are getting is not the one they’re paying for.

Essentially, what I saw in McGahee was a back that had simply not developed as a runner. Although he wasn’t playing in front of a great offensive line, according to the Adjusted Line Yards statistic we track at FO that measures offensive line performance without including the long runs by running backs that offensive lines have little to do with after the first few yards, McGahee’s new offensive line was actually slightly worse than the one he was leaving. Buffalo’s line ranked 23rd, while Baltimore’s was 25th; in addition, Baltimore lost a starting lineman in the offseason, while Buffalo added two.

Either way, the difference between the offensive lines wasn’t dramatic, but adding McGahee should have at least been a step in the right direction, right?

Well, not necessarily.

There are several questions that come up in relation to such a move, and we have the data set to answer them all. First, let’s define a group of backs similar to McGahee — since 1988, exactly 30 backs have moved from one team to another over an offseason and been the starting running back (defined as the back with the most carries on the team) for both. Those will be the 30 backs we’ll be looking at.

First, do those running backs offer an improvement over their predecessors? The answer is, well, a little bit. When those 30 running backs went to their new teams, their yards per carry was .12 yards higher than the previous back. However, that’s almost wholly attributable to Marshall Faulk, who replaced the absolutely execrable Robert Holcombe, who averaged 2.35 yards per carry in his year as the Rams’ most frequent ballcarrier. Faulk, of course, got that up to 5.46. If you take Faulk out and look at the other 29 backs, the average yards per carry is only .02. Of the 30 backs, 16 registered an improvement over the previous backs, while 14 declined. Regardless, it’s a small step in a positive direction.

If we look at DVOA, things are relatively similar. Since we only have DVOA data stretching back to 1996, our data set is limited to 17 of the 30 backs, but of the 17 backs, nine registered an improvement for their team’s rushing over the previous year, while eight declined. The backs saw their new teams’ rushing DVOA increase by an average of 3.8% with the new players as starters.

What about the players themselves, though? Did they improve and, with that in mind, should we have expected bigger numbers from McGahee? The answer appears to be no — of the 30 backs, their yards per carry average actually dropped .01 points from their previous season. In other words, there was almost no effect whatsoever. 15 of the backs improved their new team, while 15 of them saw the new team decline.

Currently, McGahee’s putting on a performance markedly similar to those he did in Buffalo, with the main difference being that the former Miami star has remained healthy. His yards per carry are up, but that appears to be more of a virtue of his usage pattern, seeing more carries in 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. His DVOA has actually dropped to – 10.5%, and his success rate, which tracks how successful a runner is at achieving the yards needed to stay on track towards or actually reach a first down, is a below-average 44%. McGahee may not be playing much worse, but his situation has changed, and although we can make excuses for his quarterback situation, it ignores a bigger point while proving it: Adding a big-name running back is rarely the solution to solving a problem within a team’s running game, and Willis McGahee, talented as he is, wasn’t the man who was going to save the Baltimore Ravens offense.

Outside Foxborough: Jason Peters – One of the Ten Most Valuable Properties in Football.

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
bill@patriotsdai[email protected]

When Marv Levy took over the Bills for the second time, it seemed like the last gasp of an owner who could barely remember what the face of success looked like. After Levy’s first offseason, many observers panned his moves as the decisions of a man who the game had passed by, specifically referring to the selections of Donte Whitmer and John McCargo (widely seen as reaches) and the signing of Peerless Price in free agency as the team’s #2 wideout. One of those observers was, of course, your friendly Football Outsiders correspondent.

Since then, Levy hasn’t been perfect, but he’s shown that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Whitmer’s been excellent at safety, while the jury is still out on McCargo, and Price has been a relatively awful part of the passing game. Levy appears to have cut bait on the right time at Takeo Spikes, and drafted an excellent replacement for London Fletcher in Paul Posluszny, but the team found no replacement for Nate Clements and has struggled defensively because of it.

The most money, though, has been poured into the offensive line. The Bills’ big signing this offseason was an unsexy one in guard Derrick Dockery, who got the Steve Hutchinson starter contract ($49 million) at about 85% of Hutchinson’s performance level. They also added former Raider Langston Walker and versatile journeyman Jason Whittle to shore up a line that had several holes in it.

The irony of all this is that at the most important position on the offensive line, the Bills have discovered a player who’s better than all the money they threw at their problems this year, while doing so at a fraction of the investment.

Jason Peters’ college career was an inauspicious one. He played tight end at the University of Arkansas, catching 28 passes for 300 yards over three seasons. His junior year saw him catch 21 of those 28 passes, and he was named All-SEC Second Team following the campaign. He left for the pros following the season.

He went unselected in the 2004 draft, and signed with Buffalo as a free agent, sticking with the team through training camp. He saw time at both tight end and tackle, but he showed enough athleticism to block a punt and return it for a touchdown.

In 2005, he became a full-time tackle halfway through the year, starting at right tackle for the last nine games of the campaign while also catching J.P. Losman’s first career touchdown pass. Last year, he continued his even more unlikely trip up the offensive line difficulty spectrum, moving to left tackle after seven games and excelling over the rest of the campaign.

It was last week, though, that Peters was really called into the limelight, when reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor paid Peters quite the compliment. The Buffalo News wrote:

“He’s probably the best left tackle I face this year,” Taylor said during a conference call with the Buffalo media this week. ” . . . He’s a big, athletic guy who is strong and moves very well. He’s got the size. He does a lot of things well. You don’t see him get beat a whole lot. He’s equally as strong in the run game as he is in the pass game. I think he’s a helluva player.”

When one considers the difficulty teams have in locating, acquiring, and keeping a left tackle cheap, Peters’ claim to being an elite left tackle makes him one of the most valuable — and unlikely — assets in pro football.

Let’s take a look at the left tackles that each of the 32 NFL franchises had pinned their hopes on this year, and see how they were acquired.

The “Home?” column denotes whether a player was homegrown or not. As you can see, many of the players here have been selected and retained by the team that picked them — while 24 of the 32 left tackles in the league coming into the season were homegrown, only 21 (if you consider Eli Manning homegrown) of the 32 quarterbacks in the league currently play for the team that originally drafted them. Among this list are eight top-ten picks. Generally, what we see here are teams making a huge investment in a left tackle and sticking with him for as long as they can. The players who have been acquired from other teams have generally disappointed (Jonas Jennings perhaps most prominently).

As you can see, Peters is one of only three undrafted free agents to be starting at left tackle, the other two being Denver’s Matt Lepsis and Oakland’s Barry Sims, both of whom suffered catastrophic knee injuries in their final year at school (Sims in the Hula Bowl) and went undrafted while rehabilitating their knees. Peters comes from a totally different angle than they do. In addition, Peters is one of the few players at the position who wasn’t drafted as a left tackle, let alone a tackle. Of the left tackles who came into the season as the starters, several have played right tackle and moved to left tackle or vice versa before returning, but very few have seen more than a handful of snaps at even another offensive line position, let alone at guard.

What makes Peters’ ascension even more remarkable and beneficial is how much he’s costing the Bills. Following his second season, the Bills were so sure about Peters ability to become an impact player somewhere that they ripped up his cheapo undrafted free agent contract and gave him a five-year, $15 million deal. This is the sort of cost-saving money that smart franchises like the Eagles employ frequently in the same vein that, say, the Cleveland Indians do to avoid paying young players the huge amounts of money they’d get in arbitration. While there’s no arbitration in football, free agency comes earlier and contracts are nonguaranteed, which is why it pays to lock up players on long-term deals. When you compare Peters’ deal to the rest of the league (as courtesy the contract data compiled by the fine folks at Rotoworld), he’s being paid a pittance.

“RC?” stands not for the delicious Royal Crown cola, but instead whether the tackle is still on his rookie contract or not. Of players signed to long-term deals, the only ones who came cheaper than Peters were two stopgaps, Ephraim Salaam and David Diehl.

At this point, Jason Peters represents not only a player with a unique path to his job and a interesting skill set, but he’s one of the ten most valuable players in football, when you consider bang for buck. His retention as an undrafted free agent is perhaps the biggest credit that can be given to the Tom Donahoe regime in Buffalo, and his resigning is the best thing Marv Levy’s done in his second stint as Bills supremo.

Outside Foxborough – Checking In With The Ex-Pats

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

Last year, we did a column on how ex-Patriots from the Belicheck era were doing in their travels around the NFL. It’s a year later and more Patriots have departed, so let’s repeat the installment — maybe this year, Willie McGinest will be able to shed the HTML code!

Joe Andruzzi, G, FA

Andruzzi, sadly, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Tom Ashworth, OL, SEA

Ashworth is the seventh lineman for a Seahawks offensive line that’s never looked the same since the departure of Steve Hutchison and the overuse of Shaun Alexander.

Tully Banta-Cain, OLB, SF

The pass rusher never seemed to get the hang of the Patriots scheme, and as a 49ers outside linebacker, he’s got 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks in eight games.

Monty Beisel, LB, ARI

Beisel’s a reserve linebacker for the Cardinals now; in eight games, he’s got 30 tackles and no sacks. He’s collecting years on his pension.

Deion Branch, WR, SEA

Remember when signing Branch seemed like a good idea? So, maybe my first column for then-BSMW didn’t turn out so accurately, but Branch has spent most of this season injured and has 22 catches for 343 yards in five games. Not exactly the production the Seahawks were looking for when they gave up a first-round pick for Branch.

Reche Caldwell, WR, WAS

Caldwell caught on with the Redskins following his release, but he’s only played one game, and went without a catch.

Matt Chatham, LB, NYJ

The linebacker who Peter King says started off the Belichick-Mangini feud spent the first seven weeks of the season on the PUP list with a foot injury. He’s a special teams player, but with Jonathan Vilma’s injury, Chatham becomes the primary reserve inside linebacker.

Andre’ Davis, WR, HOU

Davis has finally got some playing time by moving to Houston, where he’s emerged as arguably the team’s top wideout with Andre Johnson’s injury. His 23 catches for 441 yards have him 36th in the league in both DPAR and DVOA.

Tim Dwight, WR, OAK

Dwight had his first and only catch of the season on Sunday against Houston, a 28-yard touchdown. You weren’t watching.

David Givens, WR, TEN

After tearing his ACL midway through the 2006 season, Givens was expected to return in time for the 2007 campaign, but he was placed on the PUP list to start the season, and as Givens is yet to be taken off the list at the time of writing, it looks like he’ll go on IR and miss the whole season. That bodes very poorly for Givens’ future.

Terry Glenn, WR, DAL

Glenn’s career may very well be over following a series of knee complaints that led to two microfracture surgeries before the season. There’s a possibility he might return before the end of the season, but even if he does, the track record for aging wide receivers with knee injuries isn’t particularly good.

Daniel Graham, TE, DEN

On the receiving side, Graham has been nothing special, catching 16 passes for 149 yards. As a blocker, it’s harder to isolate his performance, but the Broncos rush offense has gone from being 20th last year to 18th this year (which also may have something to do with Matt Lepsis returning), so if there has been an effect, it hasn’t been great.

Damon Huard, QB, KC

The former backup has spent most of the season avoiding getting yanked; he ranked 31st in the league in DVOA and 32nd in DPAR, so there’s little pointing in his favor. Losing Larry Johnson will do him no favors.

Bethel Johnson, WR, FA

Johnson was waived by the Texans in the offseason, and his career appears to be over.

Dan Klecko, DL/LB, IND

Klecko is a spare part on the Colts defense, making four tackles on the campaign, while occasionally featuring in offensive sets.

Ty Law, CB, KC

Law’s been the weak point of an otherwise-superb Kansas City pass defense. Patrick Surtain lines up against #1 receivers for Kansas City, and their defensive DVOA against those wideouts is fifth in the league. Law lines up against #2 receivers; their DVOA against those receivers is 23rd.

Willie McGinest, LB, CLE

McGinest missed the first three games of the season with an injury, and since his return, he’s played a relatively limited role on the outside, mustering 11 tackles in five games. The decision to let him go seems relatively justified in hindsight.

Josh Miller, P, FA

The likable former punter caught on for a short stint with the Titans this year while Craig Hentrich was hurt. He’s waiting for a spot to open up, but then again, aren’t we all?

Lawyer Milloy, S, ATL

Speaking of justified decisions…even Tom Jackson knows by now that Milloy was on the decline when he left New England. He’s currently providing veteran leadership for a team that appears to have nothing in the way of veteran leadership.

David Patten, WR, NO

Patten picked up with the Saints in the offseason and has served as their slot receiver with some success, catching 24 passes for 422 yards and a 19.8% DVOA, leaving him sixteenth in the league.

Tyrone Poole, CB, FA

Poole was also cut by the Texans in the offseason and his career is probably done.

Hank Poteat, CB, NYJ

I gave Poteat the nickname of “Craigslist” after all the times he had to pack up and head to and from Foxborough for short stints with the Patriots. He actually had the stability of a one-year deal this year, but he’s been part of a Jets pass defense which has been astoundingly stinky this year. In his defense, he might be the best cornerback they have, but that’s faint praise.

Todd Sauerbrun, P, DEN

The man hunting for Gramaticas is having an entirely average year for the Broncos when you strip out the advantage he gets for punting in the thin air of Denver.

Greg Spires, DE, TB

Spires missed this week’s game against the Cardinals after starting the first eight games of the season for the Buccaneers at defensive end, across from rookie Gaines Adams. Spires has 24 tackles and a sack in the Buccaneers’ Tampa-2 defense, currently ranked 13th in the league.

Duane Starks, CB, FA

Starks was on the Raiders roster to start the season, but when JaMarcus Russell was signed, Starks was the one let go.

Vinny Testaverde, QB, CAR

If you’d picked a man on last year’s roster who would’ve been least likely to put up a performance of any relevance in 2007, Testaverde would have been the almost-universal pick. Of course, Testaverde managed to earn a start for the Panthers, although tendonitis (he’s old!) may keep him out for a while. Testaverde still has my admiration, though.

Keith Traylor, DT, MIA

Traylor’s contributed little to a Dolphins rush defense that has collapsed to 31st in the league. He’s just about done.

Adam Vinatieri, K, IND

That was Vinatieri you saw missing a field goal in the first quarter last week. According to our metrics for both scoring kicking as well as kickoffs, Stephen Gostkowski outpaces Vinateri in both. Oh, and that’s at about a quarter of the price.

Ted Washington, DT, CLE

Washington occupies the middle for a Cleveland defense that’s 18th in the league against the run. Sure, they may be 31st in the league against the pass, but realistically, Washington’s not on the field for most of those snaps, nor is it his job to rus…engag…engulf the passer.

Jermaine Wiggins, TE, FA

Wiggins was cut by the Jaguars in training camp, and is yet to catch on with another team despite catching 46 passes last season.

Damien Woody, OL, DET

When we last left Woody, he was impregnating women and on IR. This year, he’s played five games, starting three, and is a relatively high-paid bust on a relatively overrated team.

Outside Foxborough – Colts Cap Construction

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

Discussion regarding the Indianapolis Colts during the Peyton Manning era has rightly revolved around an offense combining clinical effectiveness with historical staying power. When the Colts won the Super Bowl, people talked about the Colts defense as if it had suddenly taken some leap forward, but it was a case of the media applying the simplest narrative possible to the story. While the Colts defense had taken a step forward in 2005, it had struggled mightily in 2006; it was only once the playoffs started that it returned to its 2005 form. In 2007, the Colts defense has been the best of the Dungy era, which would turn the Colts into a scary dynasty…most years.

What makes the Colts defense fascinating, though, is how it’s constructed. The Patriots got the reputation as the team that would let its stars go and replace them with draftees, but the Colts are a much better example. It’s not just that players like Cato June, Mike Peterson and Jason David have been allowed to leave in free agency; it’s that the Colts have successfully replaced them with middle-round draft picks and players that would normally be classified as roster filler. They don’t make a lot of money, and once they’re about to, they’re let go.

Obviously, the effects of being able to plug in these defenders allow the Colts to employ what’s commonly referred to in fantasy auctions as the “stars and scrubs” approach: Spending loads of money on a group of star players, and then spending the minimum or close to it on a large portion of your players. It’s diametrically opposed to the Patriots strategy of depth and not overpaying your star players, and while an article comparing the two approaches would require more research than is available in mid-week, I wanted to look at the Colts defense and see how it developed over Dungy’s tenure with the club.

I apologize in advance if any of the starters are incorrect, whether they’ve been placed in the wrong position or listed ahead of the real starter. Also, remember that the salary cap has risen dramatically in the last five seasons; the Colts’ salary expenditure in 2002 was a shade under $65 million; in 2006, that was over double, at $131 million. We’ll be looking at players’ salaries (not their cap value) as taken from the USA Today Salary Database; for 2007 data, we’ll be drawing information from coltscap.net.

We ironically start with the position the Colts identify as the most important in their Tampa-2 defense, defensive end. A majority of the Colts’ pressure comes from the defensive line, particularly Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Freeney and Mathis both play most downs and their primary purpose is to rush the passer; while that sometimes ends with them being pushed upfield while a running back runs into the hole they’ve vacated, they are a threat to get to the quarterback against any offensive line.

The Colts also value their defensive tackles as worth spending significant sums of money — not appearing on this chart is DT Booger McFarland, out for the year with a knee injury, who the Colts traded a second-round pick for and are paying $5,000,000 in salary to this season. The Colts found a gem in Raheem Brock, who the Eagles cut when they ran out of rookie cap space — Brock was good enough to be one of the few guys the Colts re-signed following their rookie deal. In addition, the Colts gave Corey Simon a big deal as a free agent, but Simon’s deal went so disasterously that Jim Irsay called it a “bad mistake”. Oops.

Here’s the first position where we really see how the Colts defense operates. Every single one of the Colts’ starters was let go following the expiration of his rookie contract except for Robert Morris, who was a failed middle linebacker and signed a cheap deal. The Colts have a plan on how to spend the cap space they’ve allocated to their defense, and know that there are some places they have to cut back at. When that means letting talented players like Mike Peterson or Marcus Washington go, the Colts bite the bullet, plug in the best guy they have, and let him rack up tackles. The latest example is Freddy Keiaho, who had a breakout game against the Saints in Week 1.

Morris became a free agent after his rookie contract ended, had no interest, and ended up shuffling back to Indy as a backup. His former backup, the undrafted Gary Brackett, had an excellent year in 2005, and then before he could become a restricted free agent in 2006, the Colts locked him up with a four-year, $10 million deal that included a $3.2 million dollar signing bonus, which is now all paid. In 2008 and 2009, Brackett will make an average of $2.25 million, but his contract will inflict no harm on the Colts’ cap if he’s cut to save costs.

The other position where the Colts have no problem getting rid of players is at corner — this is a strategy diametrically opposed to that of the Bears, who also play the Cover-2, but locked up both Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher to long-term deals.

The Colts have seemingly changed their strategy some recently, though, as while they used overaged undrafted Nick Harper and second-day pick Jason David at corner, they also spent first- and second-round picks on cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, respectively, to replace them once their contracts came up in 2006. While Harper’s been successful in the stifling Tennessee pass defense, he’s 33 and his career is about finished; David, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in New Orleans.

Don’t expect the Colts to hold onto Hayden and Jackson once their contracts expire, though.

The one place where the Colts have been remarkably stable is at safety. Mike Doss and Idrees Bashir have transitioned nicely into Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea.

Sanders is the most fascinating case on this defense. A second-round pick in 2004, Sanders held out and ended up receiving a six-year contract that allows him to void the deal after this season. As Sanders makes a relative pittance for his talents, he’s a lock to do so. Troy Polamalu received a four-year, $30 million contract with $15 million in incentives. Sanders would have every reason to expect and demand a similar contract. As you can see, the Colts have not, under Tony Dungy, valued the safety position at the level. It will be very interesting to see how the Colts handle the situation; it’s worth noting that, in a safety-rich draft, the Colts didn’t use one of their 2007 picks on a safety.

What’s more important than deciding whether the stars and scrubs or super-depth strategies are superior or inferior is understanding that the Colts have a plan and stick to it. So many teams in the NFL (everyone stare at Detroit and Oakland) struggle with taking a plan, sticking with it, and trusting it. They’re the dieters who starve themselves for a week and then binge.

The Colts, on the other hand, just eat well. They have a plan: Splurge on defensive linemen, particularly at end, and elsewhere, insert players on their rookie contracts and once they’ve played those contracts out, let ‘em hit the market. The result is a team with loads of money to spend on the places they deem valuable — and an offense that might even match the Patriots come Sunday.

Outside Foxborough – Scoring and Possession Trends

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

42 points in a half is a lot, even for these Patriots. It’s not an unbeatable total if you’re Bill Belichick, apparently, but it’s enough to inspire thoughts of record totals. It leads announcers to point out that the Patriots, against the Dolphins, were on pace to score 84 points.

The thing is, of course, teams who are “on pace” to score 42 points don’t score at the same pace in the second half. Both teams see their game plan change: The leading team runs the ball more to kill clock, while the trailing team throws the ball almost exclusively to make some attempt to catch up, as unrealistic as it might be. The leading team generally has fewer possessions because, inherently, teams that score 42 points in a half need some luck to get there — namely, an extra possession or two from turnovers. If we look at all drives from 1998-2006, we can see that teams would find it extremely hard to get to 42:

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With six possessions on average in each half, teams would need to score a touchdown on every drive. The Patriots are good, but not that good — they benefited from a Cleo Lemon fumble that gave them a short field, and picked up seven points on a Willie Andrews kickoff return.

What we also see in that breakdown is that both scoring and possessions are seemingly consistent — an average performance from a team sees them score about five points a quarter on three possessions.

Of course, describing the Patriots offense as “average” is nonsensical at this point. Let’s split the data by points per quarter and see how many points, for example, a team that goes scoreless in the first quarter scores on average in that game:

So, then, a team that goes scoreless in the first quarter averages 14 points per game — slightly less than the 5-point-per-quarter pace that we’d expect.

The issue with looking at data towards the realm of scoring the Patriots approached is sample size; while 15 teams have scored 38 points in a half, only one has scored 41, 44, or 47 points. That being said, none of them have significantly increased their total, so it’s a pretty safe bet to say that we shouldn’t really expect the Patriots to double their point total in the second half.

If we break point totals down by possessions per quarter and half, there are some interesting trends:

The Patriots, for reference, had two possessions in the first quarter (for 14 points), five in the second (28 points, with the Andrews kickoff return counting as a possession), but only one in the third and three in the fourth — that’s eleven possessions, actually one below average.

It’s interesting that there’s only really a slight upwards trend in the first half for points compared to possessions — you would assume that more possessions would yield more points and a shootout, but it’s also the case when teams just can’t move the ball and are punting at each other all game. In the third quarter, actually, there’s no relationship whatsoever between possessions and points, as it begins to blur together.

Do teams that have a lot of possessions in the first half continue to have them in the second half, though?

Not really. The small increases at the margins aren’t enough to say that possessions in the first half have any predicative value for possessions in the second half.

Next time an announcer says that a team is on pace for a certain amount of points, you can safely ignore him or her. Whether it be due to luck running out, changes in the game plan, a lack of possessions, or combination of the three, most teams’ scoring totals regress to the average over the course of a full game.

Outside Foxborough – The Pedigree of Ted Ginn Jr.

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

The Dolphins trade of Chris Chambers this week was both surprising and not surprising. On one hand, rumors pegged Chambers as potential trade bait going back to training camp, where he failed to impress new head coach Cam Cameron. Chambers was also plying his trade for a 0-6 team about to undergo a difficult rebuilding process, the other side of which Chambers wouldn’t be likely to see. On the other hand, Chambers had been an important part of the Dolphins offense this year, and was rebounding back to at least mediocrity following a dire 2006.

The other surprising thing is that the Dolphins would make this deal considering what else they have at wide receiver. Marty Booker, much like Chambers, is a veteran with little value left to the Dolphins. Derek Hagan is a lanky receiver who struggles with drops. Greg Camarillo is, ironically, a San Diego castoff who followed Cameron to Miami, but the elephant in the room is the one least likely to make an impact this year – Ted Ginn.

The Ohio State product was Miami’s surprise first-round pick in the NFL Draft following a high-profile career at OSU, highlighted by a kickoff return in the BCS Championship Game that left him injured for several months with a foot concern. Ginn’s performance at school wasn’t particularly special; he caught 135 passes in three seasons, and averaged only 14.4 yards per catch, not a particularly high number for a deep threat. The problem is, though, that we don’t know much, if anything, about what college statistics and performance mean with regards to wide receivers. I did hypothesize earlier in the year that Big 10 wideouts might be underrated versus those from other divisions because of the propensity of Big 10 teams to run the ball, but that still requires more research.

Besides, people weren’t picking Ginn based upon his college performance, they were picking him based upon the possibility that he might be Devin Hester 2.0. Ginn’s return skills were dynamite, and that was best measured by, well, his measurables. While Ginn did not run at the combine because of his foot injury, the numbers provided by his school were pretty amazing, highlighted by a blazing 4.28 40 time.

The thing is, standardized measurements are a lot like the standardized tests you’ll take while preparing to go to college; they’re a useful indicator of a person’s relative intelligence, but by no means are they exact. Some players actually play much slower than their 40 time, as taken without pads or opponents, while others run just as fast regardless of the conditions.

Much like how we don’t have any idea of the correlation between receiver performance in college and the pros, though, we’re still in the dark about what relevance a good or bad combine has to future success. We can probably infer that a good combine is a better indicator of a good player than a bad one, but what parts mean more? Is 40 time the most important metric, or is it vertical leap?

What gets lost in the whole mess is that Ted Ginn’s not a particularly fantastic prospect when it comes to his measurables. Granted, a 4.28 40 is a great time; that being said, he’s not particularly large and the only other figure we have for him, his vertical leap, is downright mediocre. At 5’11” and with a 34.5” vertical leap and a 9’9” jump, Ginn’s not going to be able to get to the ball in traffic, meaning that unless one of those things change, he’s going to have to run past guys to get the ball as opposed to running around them.

The other interesting thing I discovered when doing research on Ginn and his combine numbers is something I reported in this year’s Pro Football Prospectus; namely, that Ginn’s measurables match up very well to a current NFL player.

The similarities between Ginn and Texans receiver Jerome Mathis are pretty remarkable. Their height, weight, 40 time, and vertical leap are pretty much exact duplicates of one another. The big difference is in the jump, where Mathis has nearly a foot on Ginn. While Mathis has made no impact on the Texans passing game, he was a Pro Bowl returner in his rookie season before missing most of 2006 with an injury.

The other NFL receivers on this list also have superior numbers to Ginn. Chambers had 25 pounds of bulk on Ginn, and was a freak athlete outside of his blazing speed. Santana Moss had more than a half-foot of vertical on Ginn, and likely represents the best possible career path Ginn could hope for. Tim Carter’s found it impossible to stay healthy, while Troy Williamson remains a bust now into his third season.

Furthermore, there’s no real indication that even a great returner is easily findable in the draft. Take a look at the last ten years of Pro Bowlers at the return spots. Only Charles Woodson and Eric Metcalf were first-round picks; while 2006 selectees Justin Miller and Hester were both second-round picks, most of the others were either undrafted free agents or Day Two picks.

Ginn’s been virtually nonexistent this season. He’s been a decent return man, if not a great one, but his role in the Miami offense has been reserve receiver. While that puts him ahead of Robert Meachem in the scheme of things, that’s no great shakes. It’s entirely impossible that Ginn could turn out to be a great receiver, but based upon all the data we have up to this point, there’s not much evidence pointing in his favor.

Outside Foxborough – Undefeated Numbers

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

Although the Cowboys almost didn’t make it, their narrow victory on Monday does present us with a rarity coming up this week: a matchup of two teams, both 5-0. In fact, since 1983, there’s been exactly one 5-0 vs. 5-0 game, and it also involved the Patriots. In 2004, the 5-0 Patriots met the 5-0 Jets in Week 6. The end result? A 13-7 victory for the Patriots, and while both teams made the playoffs, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. So, then, if the Patriots beat the Cowboys this week, we can just pencil the Patriots in as champions and move on with our lives, right? No? Oh, statistics are annoying.

Obviously, there’s much more to the whole winning-the-Super Bowl-thing than going 6-0 and beating a 5-0 team. What we can do, though, is attempt to quantify what going 6-0 instead of 5-1 might do for the Patriots.

To do that, we’ll take the game-by-game records of every season from 1983-on, excluding the strike season of 1987. We’ll do game-by-game instead of week-by-week so that performances match up over the different bye week patterns that we’ve seen throughout the last 20+ years.

First, let’s see how likely a team is to even be 5-0 in the first place.

From this, we can see that 5.4% of teams have been 5-0 following Week 5. That means that that, on average, we could expect 1.72 teams a year to start their seasons 5-0. Now, you can understand how unlikely it is (a .28% chance, actually) that two 5-0 teams would be meeting when there’s not even a 50/50 shot of two 5-0 teams even existing come Week 5. In 2006, only Indianapolis and Chicago were 5-0, and in 2005, it was only Indy.Remember that this is based on real data, not simulations, so while there’s obviously a chance of a team going 16-0, because it hasn’t happened in the timeframe, 0.0% of the teams have won 16 games out of 16.

While it’s good to know the Patriots are one of a rare breed, what does that mean? Well, what we can do is compare those winning percentages week-by-week to a team’s end result; namely, how many wins did a team that started the year 5-0 average?

So, then, the Patriots catapulted themselves from a team that averaged 11.3 wins per season last week to one that now averages 12.2 wins per season. If they were to beat the Cowboys next week, they would go even higher and average 12.7 wins per season, but if they lose, they pretty much are back to where they were following their fourth game.

The bigger question, then, is what that means for the Patriots playoff chances. How often do teams that win 11 games make the playoffs? Or, alternately, how often does a team that starts 5-0 make the playoffs?

So, a team that wins 11 games will make the playoffs 98.1% of the time. The only 11-5 team to not make the playoffs in the course of this study were the 1985 Broncos, who missed out on a tiebreaker to two other 11-5 wild card teams, one of whom was, of course, the Eason Express.

On the other hand, a team that goes 5-0 will make the playoffs 94.1% of the time. A team that goes 6-0 will make it 96.0% of the time, but a team that’s 5-1 will only make it 85.4% of the time.

Finally, using this data, we can actually answer the age-old question. What’s the most important game a team can play? Judging by the playoff percentages, it’s actually a tie. In Week 9, a 4-4 team can really determine its destiny with its performance. If they lose, their odds of making the playoffs are a woeful 11.8%; if they win, an even 50%.

That 38.2% difference based upon the outcome of a sole game also comes up, not surprisingly, in Week 16. An 8-7 team is on the hotseat this time. Win, and you’ll make the playoffs 50.7% of the time; lose, and it’s only a 12.5% shot. Maybe some games really are more important than others.

Outside Foxborough – Pac 10 vs Big 10 and Marshawn Lynch

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

The Bills’ selection of Marshawn Lynch was a simple one. Buffalo needed a running back after trading the wantaway Willis McGahee to Baltimore. Lynch was, outside of Adrian Peterson, the best running back available in the draft. If only all draft picks could be this easy!

Unfortunately, they’re not, and even though Lynch was the second-best running back in this draft, it’s no guarantee he’ll become a star. My own opinion on Lynch after some pre-draft film study was that he was likely to be a starting running back in the NFL, but was unlikely to become a star; mainly, his 4.46 40-time seemed to be a product of effective workouts as opposed to a speed Lynch actually played at. That’s my only real complaint about Lynch, though. He bounces out of trash very well, he stays low to the ground and gives defenders little to hit, and is a quality blocker and receiver already (if you’ve watched Laurence Maroney come out in passing situations over the last two weeks, you realize the importance of those skills to your playing time). There was one thing I didn’t really take into account when I was looking at Lynch; his college stats.

The running back preceding Lynch at Cal was J.J. Arrington, currently the third-string halfback for the Arizona Cardinals. Arrington was a JuCo transfer who had one gigantic year in a California uniform, when he rushed for 2018 yards on 289 carries, averaging 6.89 yards per carry. In Lynch’s two years as the starter for California, he averaged 6.21 yards per carry. Arrington’s of a similar build to Lynch; Lynch is an inch shorter and weighs about 10 more pounds. His 40 time was 4.49, and his vertical jump 1/2 inch smaller than Lynch’s. They’re very similar, but Arrington’s performance in college was superior to Lynch’s. Does this mean he’s likely to be the better player? Not necessarily.

At Football Outsiders, we’ve begun to scrape the surface on college performance and how it relates to a player’s likelihood of succeeding in the pros. Our first efforts in this arena is the Lewin Career Forecast, named after its researcher and writer, David Lewin. His research (the original essay for which is available here shows that for quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds, a quarterback’s college completion percentage and games started are inextricably linked to his propensity for professional success.

We’re currently working on similar research into the performance of running backs and wide receivers. We’re not there yet in being able to point to a certain stat as immutable proof of quality like we are with quarterbacks, but the predictability of quarterbacks and the reliability of translated statistics across levels in baseball, basketball, and hockey leads me to believe that college statistics for running backs and wide receivers have some predicative value.

This was a topic I examined last year when I was attempting to analyze the selection of Laurence Maroney amongst the broader spectrum of both Big Ten backs and heavily-used ones. Since that essay was written, Maroney’s predecessor at Minnesota, Marion Barber, had an excellent year with Dallas, while Maroney had a good year for the Patriots. The track record of other recent Big 10 backs, though, has been hit-and-miss, and while doing research into college team statistics, I realized one of the reasons why: their statistics are bloated.

When I was compiling college statistics using the NCAA’s database (which covers teams from 2000-2006), I organized them by conference, normalized the teams’ schedules to a 12-game season, and then calculated the average performance each team put up for each year. By doing that, I was able to find the offensive performance of the average team in each conference over the six-year span.

What I found was that the run/pass ratio across different conferences was noticeably different. Run/pass ratio is a simple metric that measures how often a team runs the ball as opposed to passing it; for example, all D-1 teams over the six-year span averaged 1.28 rushing plays for each passing play. If you limit the figures to major conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-10, SEC, Sun Belt, and WAC), the figure is 1.24. The Big Ten and the Pac-10, though, stand on different sides of the divide. Big Ten teams averaged 1.36 rushes for each pass, while Pac-10 teams averaged only 1.08, the lowest figure for any conference.

What this means is that Big Ten rushing figures are likely to be inflated, while the passing statistics of the Pac-10 are likely depressed some. Meanwhile, the opposite is likely to be true for Pac-10 players.

While teams don’t draft based upon college statistics, players who have bigger games do tend to receive more publicity, which results in more exposure, and then potentially, a higher draft slot than would be expected or maybe deserved. What we can do is look at the different players who have come out of these conferences at the respective positions since 2000, and see if NFL teams are potentially overvaluing or undervaluing them.

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These backs have not been particularly successful in the NFL. Dayne, Bennett, Duckett, and Perry were all busts — of the first-rounders, only Larry Johnson was a starting running back within his first three years, and while Johnson put up great numbers in 2005 and 2006, few people remember that the Chiefs were ready to cut bait on him in 2004. While I happen to think Maroney will be successful, the jury is still out on him. The real finds have been later picks like Ladell Betts and Marion Barber, but they’ve also only been platoon backs.

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The similarity in draft value between these two lists is remarkable: 6844 points of draft value were spent on the Big Ten backs, while 6970 were spent on the Pac-10 backs. The latter has a big bust in Trung Canidate, but the Pac-10 yielded starting running backs in Steven Jackson and DeShaun Foster, the two most promising running backs in football in Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew, and a guy who was some marijuana away from being a starter in Onterrio Smith. The Pac-10 backs aren’t outclassing the Big Ten guys, but they’re the better group of running backs.

What if we take the same look at wideouts?

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There are two guys on this list who are useful NFL receivers — Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, both of whom went to Oregon State and were drafted by the Bengals in 2001. They’re much better than useful, actually. No one else on this list has evolved into much of anything except for, perhaps, Dennis Northcutt, who’s a third wideout and returner. The big busts are obvious and almost legendary at this point: R. Jay Soward, Freddie Mitchell, Reggie Williams, and Mike Williams are three washouts and a guy who was inactive in Week 1. On the other hand, that bust list is missing two players…

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This is a list of more useful players, short the two big busts, Charles Rogers and David Terrell. I’ve written at length about Chris Chambers’ mediocrity in the past, but even he’s a better player than everyone besides Houshmandzadeh and Johnson on the Pac-10 list. There are almost a dozen Big 10 wideouts from the last six years better than any non-Bengals Pac-10 wideout.

Finally, the same comparison with quarterbacks:

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pac10qb.jpg

The Pac-10 has notable busts in Tuiasosopo, Harrington, Boller, and perhaps Rodgers, but Palmer and Leinart. The Big Ten doesn’t really have much outside of the miracle that was Tom Brady, sixth-round pick, and Drew Brees. The difference, though, is that the Pac-10 produced multiple first-round picks at quarterback; the Big Ten didn’t have a single one (although Brees was close). There’s a possibility these Pac-10 quarterbacks could be overvalued because of the numbers they were racking up throwing the ball so frequently.

Of course, this isn’t a catch-all saying to never draft Pac-10 players involved in the passing game or Big Ten running backs. It’s merely an interesting data point in Marshawn Lynch’s favor. We’ll be revealing more findings in Pro Football Prospectus 2008, only ten months away!