Friday, May 24, 2013

Richard Sherman, and our perception of talent over time

I think we tend to have a rather short term memory when it comes to the players we classify as 'stars'.  Whether we are talking about a highly touted draft prospect, or our team's newest big ticket free agent acquisition, it is easy to buy into the hype.  Despite our general awareness that few of these acquisitions actually pan out, an appreciation for consistency gets downplayed, in comparison to hot streaks. Highlights trump reliability, until the highlights start appearing less frequently.

At one point, you saw the Eagles paying Nnamdi Asomugha $15 million per year.  Then, two years later, he is cut and playing for a different team for $1.7 million.  Did he deserve the initial contract, or the latter one?  Was he the best cornerback in the league, or an overrated bum?  Did your opinion of him sway, or remain steady throughout?

What about Brandon Lloyd?  He produced mediocre to poor results for seven years, then suddenly became relevant in 2010.  Suddenly people were taking him seriously.  People seemed to shift from doubtful, to enthusiastic.  Then they shifted back to doubtful again, in 2013, as he was cut by his sixth team in ten years.  Again, did your opinion ever sway, perhaps more than once?

In some cases we can blame injuries or a "bad fit" team-wise, for these fluctuations.  Too often, I suspect we use these excuses to cover up bad player evaluations.  The players are what they are, with whatever limitations they were born with.  It's probably our eagerness or desperation to fill a void on a team,  that lets us see something that really isn't there for more than brief flashes.

Knowing where a player fits in the bell curve of the physically gifted, also has some application after the draft.  When a player starts shooting into the spotlight despite measurables that suggest some physical limitations, it seems reasonable to wonder if this stardom is sustainable.  Is it all just a momentary blip on the radar, that is likely to get a player overpaid, and lead to possible ruination for his team?  Let's take a look at some interesting examples.  As always, scores are given in terms of the number of standard deviations that a player is away from the average results for players in his position group.

Player                                    Ht/Spd Score         Agility Score

Richard Sherman 0.882 -0.334
Champ Bailey 1.272 2.321
Darrelle Revis 0.656 1.176
Antoine Winfield -0.485 0.920
Leon Hall 0.535 1.361
Charles Tillman 0.636 0.599
Patrick Peterson 1.322 1.160
Brandon Flowers -0.870 0.775
Lardarius Webb 0.261 0.581
Devin McCourty 0.436 0.859
Terence Newman 0.338 1.231
Antonio Cromartie 1.082 0.674

I don't think discussions of "shutdown corners" have much value.  Cornerbacks tend to move in and out of the spotlight, the names changing all the time.  For the most part, their periods of celebrated high level play can be traced to the surrounding talent on their defenses.  This is why I don't place a lot of value on corners, in comparison to pass rushers, who I think dictate the outcome of situations more than corners.  Still, a very small collection of corners seem to stick around and remain relevant, regardless of their situation.  Recently, Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis, would appear to fit in this group, and others may join them in time (of course Bailey is at the end of the road). 

The truly rare agility that most of the top corners have in common seems unlikely to be a coincidence.  Often, their agility score is one full standard deviation above the average for their position group.  It is easy to envision where this sort of agility would come into play for them.  Having excellent speed relative to their height, also seems to be a valuable trait, just as our intuition would have suggested.  So, based on this, what do we make of a player like Richard Sherman, who we are consistently told is one of the top cornerbacks in the game today?

I don't get to see Sherman play very frequently, living on the opposite coast, so my opinions are obviously somewhat suspect.  Still, I have to wonder about the likelihood that he will remain a dominant corner while possessing a rather below average agility score.  From what I can gather, his game is heavily reliant on physical play and jamming receivers at the line, which is a sensible tactic considering his large frame.  Nnamdi Asomugha seemed to benefit from a similar approach before going to Philly, where he appeared to struggle with a different style of defense.  Interestingly, perhaps, Asomugha didn't take part in the short shuttle drill or 3-cone drill, which the agility score is based on.  This normally makes me suspicious that a player is trying to hide an area where they know they might be weaker.  So, is Sherman likely to be similarly limited?  The numbers suggest he might be. Maybe our perception of Sherman will change.  If we were to just compare him to notable cornerbacks that had weaker agility scores, the list would look something like this:

Player                        40 time        Sh. Shuttle Score     3-Cone Score    Total Agility Score
Johnathan Joseph4.31-0.717-0.139-0.428
Tim Jennings4.32-1.198                         N/A            N/A
Brandon Browner4.63-0.511-1.444-0.977
Asante Samuel4.490.174-0.189-0.007
Tramon Williams4.57-0.238-0.189-0.213
Brent Grimes4.57-0.580-1.092-0.836
Mike Jenkins4.38-1.609-1.494-1.552
Cortland Finnegan4.34-1.198-0.189-0.693
Marcus Trufant4.39-1.0600.211-0.424
Rashean Mathis4.45-0.0310.892-0.461
Dre Bly4.510.517-0.942-0.212
Richard Sherman4.54-1.1290.462-0.333
Eric Wright4.36-0.443-0.089-0.266

Yes, there are some noteworthy names on that list.  Many of them were the also the flavor of the month, at one time or another.  Remember when people were talking about Tramon Williams all the time?  Do we elevate Tim Jennings after his 9 interceptions in 2012, or focus on the 6 mediocre years that preceded this explosion?  When we break open the agility score this way, we see that Sherman's 3-Cone Score is actually quite respectable, and that it is his Short Shuttle that is dragging things down.  The most similar players in this respect seem to be Marcus Trufant, Mike Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan.  Generally, I think of the short shuttle score as something that relates to a cornerback's ability to transfer out of his backpedal.  The cornerback prospects that you hear described as having "stiff hips" tend to do poorly on the sort shuttle.  Maybe someone else has a different view on this.  If this is the case, then it would be at this point in the receiver's route that these cornerbacks should be most vulnerable to giving up room to a nimble opponent.  Maybe this isn't an issue for Sherman, or maybe by jamming the receivers, they simply can't blow past him, forcing him to make such a transition very often.

We can also see that out of these 13 somewhat less nimble cornerbacks, 6 of them were running the forty yard dash in the 4.3 range.  That seems like a noteworthy level of speed, and perhaps something which gave them the ability to excel at times, while being weaker on other occasions.  While Tramon Williams, Asante Samuel, and Rashean Mathis ran more pedestrian 40 times, their agility scores also came out much closer to the average result for a cornerback.  Combining the exceptionally speedy guys, and the passably agile, 2/3 of these 13 corners demonstrated at least some measure of physical adequacy.  So, even amongst the seemingly below average, in a rather unscientifically assembled list, a significant portion are showing some degree of promising potential.  While focusing on the speed issue, let's look at how Sherman, and his teammate Brandon Browner, measure up against the average cornerbacks' results, as well as the results for 24 Pro Bowl and All Pro cornerbacks.

Player                                          40 yard                  10 yard             2nd Gear Score
Richard Sherman 4.54 1.56 0.02
Brandon Browner 4.63 1.67 0.04
Cornerback Avg. 4.46 1.53 0.06
Pro Bowl/All Pro Avg. 4.41 1.53 0.13
Not only do they both come in significantly below below the average for Pro Bowl and All Pro corners, but they are below the average for all cornerbacks.  The 2nd Gear Score even makes it difficult to dismiss these 40 times by blaming a bad start to their run, as they seem to be showing only borderline acceleration from the 10 yard mark to the finish.

Like Sherman, Browner is also a rather large cornerback.  While Sherman was taken in the 5th round, Browner went undrafted.  Already this seems unusual for a team to have found two successful corners so late in the draft.  While Sherman ran a 4.54 forty yard dash (below average, but acceptable for someone his size), Browner ran a 4.63 (well below average).  Peculiar irregularities seem to be building upon themselves.  Browner's Ht/Spd Score of 0.657 seems good, but is probably unreliable in this case.  Obviously, the Ht/Spd score becomes a bit skewed when you are looking at a 6'4", 221 pound cornerback.  Sherman's mediocre athletic measurements actually seem spectacular compared to Browner's, yet even Browner managed to become a Pro Bowler   Regardless, it does seem odd to think that this one particular team is having such success drafting corners so late, that conform so poorly to the traditional mold.  This begs the question, are the players truly great, or is the coach/team employing these players in some crafty way that disguises their physical shortcomings?

None of this  is to say that Richard Sherman can't continue to do well in Seattle.  I just mean to suggest that his skills may not be as transferable or universally valuable as Revis' abilities are (assuming Revis recovers from his ACL injury).  I also have to wonder if Sherman's apparent reliance on a more physical style of play can remain as relevant, as officials get more eager to throw penalty flags.  For now, it's only the results that matter, and Sherman seems to be doing a good job.  If he was a free agent though, I would be hesitant to pay the kind of money he will probably be seeking.  Considering that his price tag will probably be in the $10-12 mil./year range, a team could be taking an enormous risk for a player who might be uniquely suited to a very limited number of teams.

Undoubtedly, Sherman will go on to appear in multiple Pro Bowls, and I will look like a moron for continuing to have doubts about him.  He really isn't a terrible athlete, just mediocre in more areas than I would typically expect to see.  If it weren't for his being paired with the similarly enigmatic Browner, I would probably overlook it.  The two of them combined, however, confuse the hell out of me.

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