Sunday, July 28, 2013

Flacco could be in deep trouble

I like Joe Flacco.  To many local Ravens fans, I probably don't like him enough though.  I'm not screaming from the rooftops about him being a top five quarterback.  I'm not predicting a return to the Super Bowl.  I didn't collapse in exhausted relief when he resigned with the team.  Still, I would say that I like having him as my home team's quarterback.  Despite my appreciation for what he can do, I think he could be headed for some trouble, and the alarm bells really started to ring when I heard of the Dennis Pitta injury.

After years of incompetent quarterback play, my team finally had someone who can actually play the position.  Flacco surprised me, after years of watching the likes of Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, and Jeff Blake.  Did I think that Flacco deserved to have his name mentioned among the top QBs of his time?  No, not really, not yet.  While he clearly has some skills, there were still too many people making excuses for him (it was all Cameron's fault!), to say that he was one of those rare individuals who could carry a team on his own.  Wondering if Flacco would become the next Rodgers, Manning, Brady or Brees, has never been a huge concern for me.  If he reached that level, great.  If he didn't, well, that's okay too.  Building the talent up around your QB, to get the most out of them, can work too (hmm, Eli?).  Unfortunately, things probably aren't really falling into place for Flacco right now.

Do you remember when Flacco was throwing passes to Derrick Mason?  It was one eight yard comeback route after another.  Over and over again.  It never stopped.  Mason was getting near the end of the road, but could still run that one route effectively enough to get open, and give Joe a place to dump the ball off if he was in trouble.  You could count on him.  When the team figured that time was running out for Mason, and that he was probably a bit limited in what he could continue to do, they traded for Anquan Boldin (again, a receiver that they didn't draft, since they don't know how to do so at this position).  Now, Anquan wasn't quite like Mason, but he still provided a nice security blanket for Joe to throw to, and despite it becoming quite apparent that Boldin was slowing down and couldn't get much separation, Joe took advantage of Boldin's reliable hands quite frequently.  Outside of those two receivers, who else has been a reliable option to go to, if Joe was feeling pressure?  Well, that would be Ray Rice, and everyone knows how often Joe throws to him.

Sometimes people talk about checkdown passes a bit too negatively, as if there is something cowardly about not taking every opportunity to fling the ball down the field.  Personally, I think they're great, and believe that finding someone who can provide that reliable outlet for a QB, is often a bit harder to find than an overrated deep threat.  Years of watching Travis Taylor cringe before trying to catch a short pass, which he inevitably dropped, probably influenced my opinion of this.  Taylor seemed to do much better though, when running deep, where he was less likely to get leveled the second he caught the ball (even there he still wasn't great).  Catching short passes seems to take guts, and seems like a surefire way to become your QB's best friend.

So, the Ravens trade away Anquan Boldin for a 6th round pick.  Honestly, I had no problem with this, but I based this on the assumption that the team would seek a replacement of some sort.  Then it seemed to dawn on everyone that Dennis Pitta would take over this role of catching relatively short passes and going across the middle.  Yes!  I was thrilled with this possibility.  After watching the team slowly acknowledge the fact that Pitta was obviously better than Ed Dickson, he was primed to explode!  Unfortunately it was his hip that exploded, in one of the first days of training camp.

So, what is the current picture?  The Ravens have two starting receivers in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, who have mostly been successful as deep threats, and otherwise somewhat inconsistent.  Jacoby is entering his 7th NFL season, and his best year produced only 562 yards for a team (Texans) that let him walk despite being desperate to find a second receiver.  It wouldn't have even cost them much to hold onto him, it that means anything.  Expecting him to suddenly blossom, seems unlikely at this point.  Torrey Smith, who I do like, has also mainly been a deep threat, and has similarly struggled to become much of a presence in the short passing game.  Coming out of college, there was some criticism of his hands and route running, but in his current role this hasn't been a huge issue.  Torrey's measurables from the combine suggest he could be good at running shorter routes, because of his excellent agility (0.805 Agility Score) and explosiveness (0.891 Kangaroo Score), but he hasn't demonstrated this yet.  If there is one area that might cause some concern that Torrey might not become more well rounded, it could be his tiny 8 5/8" hands.  Either way, neither has proven capable of playing this role yet, so expecting it to just happen suddenly is probably a bit overly optimistic.  Beyond these two receivers, you get into wild speculation about Tandon Doss (hmm, nothing happening there) and the 7th round  rookie, Aaron Mellette.

If your receivers are mainly running fairly deep routes, well that means your line is generally going to have to protect the QB for a longer time, correct?  It does take longer to run twenty or so yards, than ten, right?  Unfortunately the Ravens line is a bit questionable.  Yanda is the clear star, and he is starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list.  After Yanda, things begin to go downhill.  Osemele appears to be developing fairly well, but it's still a bit too early to be sure.  We have no idea who the center will be, though I think things will go better if Shipley starts over the more likely option of Gradkowski.  Our tackles are either erratic and overrated (Oher), or obese blobs like McKinnie, who has shall we say "issues" with maintaining interest and focus (though he does have strippers to pay, so that may provide some motivation).  If I am being generous, I would describe the line as average, and that assumes they live up to their potential.  Expecting a high degree of dominance from this group, seems a bit unlikely at this point.

So, Joe's receiving options probably require and extra second or two to get open (for longer range passes that generally have a lower completion percentage), and a line that probably needs him to get the ball out fairly quickly.  Yes, there is still the option of dumping the ball off to Ray Rice, but with the rest of the passing game appearing to be less potent, you would think that defenses could clamp down on Rice a bit more tightly.

While I didn't expect the 2013 Ravens to have a high flying offense, I thought there were enough promising signs of improvement on the defense to allow Joe to play a low key and cautious game.  With the loss of Pitta, I think an unfortunate domino effect occurs.  First, without a reliable short range option, what does Flacco do when he is under pressure?  It seems likely that his two options are to take a sack, or fling the ball up and pray, in which case his completion percentage would probably go down (from an already average result of 59.7% in 2012, and an even lower 57.9% in his much discussed playoff run), and his interceptions would go up (though he has usually been good in this department).

Considering the increased expectations (which are probably a bit unreasonable)that come with his new contract, fans could get a bit surly.  Even when things were going fairly smoothly, Flacco was only throwing for an average of 3,665 yards per year during the last 4 seasons, when other QBs were routinely throwing for over 4,000.  In 2012, 11 QBs managed to reach this mark, with Flacco coming in at the 14th spot.  In 2011, 10 QBs reached 4,000 yards, and Flacco finished in 12th place.  As far as touchdowns go, Joe similarly came in at the 15th and 13th spot.  Again, rather average results.  I'm not saying this to pick on Flacco, but to expect a move up the rankings, as his surrounding talent weakens, seems unlikely.  You could argue that such stats don't really matter, but I think there will be a lot of people, even amongst the team's management, who will be scrutinizing these numbers now that they are paying so much for them.

Another issue relating to his contract, is the way that it is structured.  While I could criticize how much the team paid him (yup, I think he was paid too much), I am more concerned with how they divided up the payments.  As it stands, the contract is somewhat back-loaded, and will need to be restructured after the 2015 season (after which his cap hit jumps from 14.5 to 28.5 million dollars).  For the moment I'll ignore the fact that the team will have very little leverage at that point to get Joe to take a lower salary.  The relevant point is that it is set up for the team to theoretically win within the next three seasons.  If we begin to accept that this season will probably be disappointing, then 1/3 of that window of opportunity is already wasted. 

So, what is the team going to do?  Well, they haven't proven to be terribly good at drafting or developing wide receivers, so I suspect there is a good chance they will make a foolish trade or free agent acquisition, as they have done in the past to address the receiver position (Please don't sign Brandon Lloyd! Please don't sign Brandon Lloyd!).  They currently have about 3.5 million dollars in cap space, though there appears to be little available in terms of free agents.  Getting back on the "pay an aging possession receiver more than he is probably worth" merry-go-round, probably isn't a good idea anyway.  In the meantime, I have to suspect that the team will try to focus on the running game.  There was already talk about Bernard Pierce getting more carries, but if the passing game takes a serious step backwards, this might become even more of a reality.  I don't know if relying on the running game, and a hopefully resurgent defense, will be enough, particularly in this age of explosive aerial attacks, but it seems like their only choice.  Grind it out.  Try to avoid making mistakes.  Hope for the best.  Welcome to the 2003 Ravens!

This also leaves the team in a peculiar situation when it comes to Dennis Pitta.  He is a talented guy, and will be a free agent after this season.  Can you resign him, and hope he recovers from the injury?  Or, do you end up having to let him walk (limp?) out the door on his way to another team.  I'm just disappointed that I won't get to see what I thought could be a very good season by a young and emerging talent, who may never be the same again.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nick Foles vs The Dog Murderer

***Warning: Since this blog is written by my dog (Oh, what a clever dog you are!  Yes, you are!  Yes, you are!), which I have mentioned before, this particular post could be a bit biased.***

For whatever reason, a significant number of people still seem to think that Michael Vick should be the starting QB for the Eagles in 2013, rather than Nick Foles.  Now, I can understand how people might not be too familiar with Foles, and perhaps dismiss him due to his status as a mere former 3rd round draft pick, but I think this could be a mistake.  Not that this even comes close to telling the whole story, but here are his college stats, in case you aren't familiar with them.

Year        Comp.    Att.     Comp.%     Yards      YPA      TD    INT
2009         260       410        63.4%       2485        6.1        19       9
2010         286       426        67.1%       3191        7.5        20      10
2011         387       560        69.1%       4334        7.7        28      14

These stats leave out his freshman year at Michigan St. (where he was a nobody), and skip directly to when he transferred to Arizona.  What I find encouraging about these numbers, is the steady improvement he had in virtually all categories (YPA, Yards, Comp%), while maintaining a healthy 2:1 TD to INT ratio.  Unlike some prospects (Matt Barkley, perhaps), there appears to be little reason to believe that Foles was benefiting from a lot of surrounding talent, as Arizona generally didn't have much of a rushing game during his time there, and the only receiver to amount to anything as a draft prospect was Juron Criner, who wasn't taken until the 5th round (though he is a moderately interesting player).

If you prefer to use one of the commonly referenced measures for predicting QB success, to see how Foles compares, we can do that too (even if I feel a bit cautious about subscribing to some of these methods).  According to the 2012 Lewin Career Forecast, Foles came in as the 4th highest rated QB from his draft class, just behind Andrew Luck.  While coming in fourth may not seem to be a sign of excellence, it was a rather strong QB class, and his overall score still rates fairly well in a more historical context.  According to the 26-27-60 rule, Foles also meets the standards for a QB who can likely succeed (his score would be 29-32-66.8).  As predictive tools go, these are both at least amusing, if not 100% reliable.  Whatever their shortcomings may be, these methods at least put Foles into a similar group to many of the QBs who have managed in the past to find some degree of success.

In his 2012 rookie year, Foles played in 7 games, at the end of the season, accumulating 1,699 yard, 6 TDs, and 5 INTs.  That isn't too exciting, but we have to remember that he was just a rookie.  If we expand those numbers to a 16 game season, it would work out to 3,883 yards, almost 14 TDs, and a little over 11 INTs.  Again, these aren't necessarily shocking stats, but I think they would be perfectly respectable for a guy who is just starting out.  Expecting everybody to explode onto the NFL scene like RGIII or Russell Wilson, is a bit unrealistic.  He also had a 60.8 completion percentage, only failed to go over 200 yards twice, in games when he was being sacked rather frequently, and had two games where he produced yardage gains of 345 and 381.  It should also be mentioned that Foles compiled these stats with DeSean Jackson missing for the last 5 games, and LeSean McCoy missing weeks 12-15.  This seems like a fairly significant handicap, and something that should probably be taken into account when judging Foles' brief run as the starter.

Foles did average about 1.1 fumbles per game, but Vick was also fumbling 1.1 times per game, in 2012.  Unlike Foles, Vick doesn't have the excuse of being a rookie, and has actually been fumbling the ball 0.91 times per games in the last 3 years.  As far as passing yards are concerned, Vick has only crossed the 3,000 yard mark twice in his 10 non-prison league seasons, and even then just barely.  In 2011 he had 3,300 yards, and in 2010, 3,018 yards.  Vick's career TD/INT ratio, is merely a 1.5, while Foles is already at 1.2, and again, Vick's edge in this category largely relies on his moderate success back in the 2010 and 2006 seasons, where his stats get boosted by a 2.15 ratio in those years.  Vick also still has a career completion percentage of only 56.3, though it has recently improved somewhat, and he has managed to produce only one year over 60%, back in 2010.  Unfortunately for the Vick supporters, Foles is already over the 60% completion mark.

Obviously, there is a difference between them when it comes to rushing yards.  With Vick averaging about 551 rushing yards per year, though these years are often shortened by injury, that is a point in the dog drowner's favor.  On the other hand, if Foles truly could maintain the pace with which he was accumulating passing yards, he would still likely surpass Vick in terms of total yardage.  The previously mentioned projection of 3,883 yards, over a 16 game season, would exceed Vick's total combined rushing/passing production in almost any year of his career.  Vick's best year only produced 3,892 total combined yards.  Leaving that year out, Vick's second best year only produced 3,694 yards.  As much as fans of the puppy pummeler may like him, there is very little that is exceptional about those stats, no matter how entertaining the manner of accumulating them may be.  This comparison also hinges on the idea that Foles would only maintain his pace, and not improve statistically, which seems rather unlikely as most QBs tend to make at least gradual progress in their 2nd and 3rd years.

I know that this is going off on a tangent, but I can't resist it.  On a year to year basis, even Kyle Orton has produced comparable yardage gains to Vick, and a similar TD/INT ratio, when given a chance.  Yes, I can already hear people screaming in protest at this comparison.  In Orton's last season in which he had significant playing time (2010), he had 3,653 passing yards, with a 58.3 Comp%, and 20 TDs to 9 INTs (in a 13 game season).  Prior to that, in 2009, Orton had 3,802 passing yards, with a 62.1 Comp%, and 21 TDs to 12 INTs (in 15 starts).  While raw stats definitely don't tell the whole story, I find this to be kind of funny, considering how little people seem to care about Orton in comparison to Vick.

People may want to point to Vick's ability to escape pressure, versus Foles' supposedly statue like immobility.  Sadly, the numbers don't really back this up.  In 10 games played in 2012, Vick was sacked 28 times, which averages out to 2.8 times per game.  Similarly, Foles was sacked 20 times in 7 games played, for an average of 2.85 times per game.  While this is most likely an overly simplistic way of viewing things, it doesn't suggest that the speedy Vick's famous athleticism really reduced the number of times that the team had to take a loss on an offensive play, or that his speed greatly compensated for any deficiencies in the offensive line. 

There's also the not so insignificant issue that the oft injured, and 33 year old Vick, is in the last year of his contract.  So, how should the Eagles view that?  Well, even if he performs well, it would seem unlikely that they could really justify extending Vick, at this point in his career.  He should, after all, be about to begin a steady statistical decline.  They also would probably have a difficult time trading the then 34 year old, and somewhat frail QB.  Most likely, I suspect, Vick will end up walking after the season, and signing the best one or two year contract that some desperate team will throw his way (Hello Oakland!).  I just have a hard time seeing any angle from which Vick appears to be a long or even medium  term solution for the Eagles.

So, why not roll with Foles?  Why not see what you have in him, and to what degree he can continue to improve?  At the very least, he has shown a degree of competence.  Maybe he won't become the next Manning or Brady, but mere competence is often undervalued at the QB position, and can go a long way.  Just ask the Jaguars if they would be content with competence.  Or, on the other end of the scale, look at the Ravens (yes, I'm beating up on my home team again).  They won the Super Bowl with a "competent" QB (maybe he'll get better, but at this point, yes, he's just average in most statistical categories).  Personally, I think Foles could turn out to be quite good, but these things are always a bit of a crapshoot with QBs.  Even if a player is good, being certain that they will get a significant opportunity isn't guaranteed.  Especially if they are stuck behind an over-hyped mediocrity, who's never accomplished much beyond being the star of highlight reels for the bozos at ESPN.

Hmm, yes, I suspect this whole post is a bit pointless.  As far as I can tell pretty much everybody has already chosen a side in the Vick debate, and swaying anyone's opinion is probably unlikely.  I just have a strange, and possibly paranoid feeling, that Foles could get screwed over in all of this.  If he gets pushed into a backup role, and we don't get to see what he is really capable of, my curiosity wouldn't be satisfied.  Not that this probably matters very much to Chip Kelly.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Charles De Mar: Head Coach

I've had a lot of hobbies.  A whole lot of hobbies.  Way too many hobbies.  They keep me busy, and help me avoid spending too much time gazing into the mirror admiring my beauty.  Keeping me rooted, and in touch with the common (and less stunningly handsome) man, is important to me.  One thing that I've found, is that every hobby has a small circle of gurus in it, some of whom are an asset, and some of whom are blustering buffoons. The buffoons are more interested in maintaining their "expert" status, than helping somebody to figure out a problem.  As long as somebody knows one thing that you don't, there is a good chance they are going to hold this over you.  That's how it seems to work; possess one fact that the next guy doesn't have, and wait for your pedestal to be erected.

Even in the lowliest of jobs that I have had, there was always a lingo that needed to be acquired, so that everyone could maintain an air of professionalism.  "Would you like your butter pecan in a sugar cone, a cake cone, or a waffle cone, sir?", I said before scurrying back to my peers to madly cackle about the fool who had requested the "sharp cone".  Yes, as a teenager I scooped ice cream for a "living" (ironic quotation marks included to comment on my decades ago salary of $3.65 an hour).  We even had someone request a "danger cone" once, suggesting that the pointed tips of a sugar cone could be used as a menacing weapon.  The point is that we derided the common man's lack of knowledge regarding such vital information about the ice cream industry.  We were idiots, but idiots with our hands on the praline filled nectar of the gods.  My current profession in Cryptozoological Phrenology just makes me even more of a menace.

Have you ever been with someone when they are discussing their work, and they throw out a term that is clearly unique to their work environment, as if you are supposed to understand what they mean?  Well, of course you aren't supposed to know what they meant when they referred to the hassle of filing a "TPS report".  They just want you to inquire as to what this mysterious term means, to create the impression that they are masters of some sort of mysterious domain, where memos to accounts billable turn into unicorns sprinkling pixie dust, which keeps our world afloat.  If you didn't ask, they would probably have to shoot themselves.  Your awe keeps them alive.  I do believe in lawyers.  I do!  I do!

Now, I'm not saying that all coaches are blustering buffoons, but it does seem likely that a good number of them are.  For a game that is basically a combination of tug-of-war, and tag-you're-it, with perhaps a pinch of keep-away thrown in once the passing game was adopted, there seems to be a great deal of effort given to obscuring what any clumsy four year old should be perfectly capable of comprehending.  If you've ever had an older sibling plant the palm of their hand into your forehead, and watch gleefully as you flail about unable to reach them with your stubby arms, then you already get the basics of being an offensive lineman.  Class dismissed.  You can pick up your degree from the University of Iowa at the door.

For this reason, I am submitting Charles De Mar as my candidate for the next open head coaching position.  His resume as a fictional character, albeit in an Oscar worthy film, may a bit of an obstacle to overcome, and I'm not sure how the Rooney Rule applies to nonexistent applicants, but I think it is worth a shot.  His straightforward, no bullshit approach to the game, seems like just the sort of thing we all need.  Here is a brief except from one of his inspirational speeches, that I think captures what he brings to the table.

I think that pretty well sums up what most coaches need to tell their players.  It is true, that he probably doesn't know the difference between an X, Y, or Z type of receiver.  Still, there seems to be a good argument for the idea that three distinct classifications of receivers is somewhat pointless, when many teams can't even find more than one guy who can reliably catch the ball.  Simplifying things to a more basic "he sucks" and "he doesn't suck" criteria, just seems to make sense.  The same thing applies to the different personnel groupings and the peculiar number system that is used to describe them.  An "11" grouping would be a formation with one running back, and one tight end.  A "21" grouping would consist of two running back, and one tight end, and so on.  I'm sure Mr. De Mar, could simplify this to a more refined and obvious approach of not letting the "guys who suck" onto the field.  This may sound too simplistic, but it would certainly keep Shonn Greene off the field, a victory for the De Mar supporters.  So, again, there is a language which exists in the world of football, which mainly seems to exist to obfuscate some simple truths.  I suppose using the word "obfuscate" also obfuscates things a bit, but that irony only serves to aid in making my point.

To a large extent, what I find most shocking is the degree to which players come into the league with certain well known shortcomings that either can't be, or aren't corrected.  Players inevitably mature to some degree, and their stats improve.  The degree to which this happens just by becoming comfortable in their new environment, seems likely to outweigh any sort of coaching.  When is the last time a receiver came into the league with a reputation for having bad hands and poor college productivity, and suddenly found himself snaring balls with great proficiency?   Generally, the players who sucked at certain key aspects of their position, continue to suck at those things.  Of course, when an undrafted player like Cameron Wake gets booted from the league, only to go off and dominate the CFL, he is hailed as someone who has been improved, or "coached up", rather than to admit that people probably completely squandered his talent for a few years.   When Arian Foster or Victor Cruz went undrafted, and participated very little in their rookie years, did their sophomore explosions of productivity owe to being "coached up"?  Or, were the management and coaches of their respective teams probably oblivious to the talent that they were sitting on.  If they were somewhat oblivious, then it raises a question.  To what degree can you critique a player, and guide them to improve, if you don't even possess the ability to recognize the talent that is there in the first place?  The same eye for correcting flaws, should be capable of identifying what is exceptional, shouldn't it?

In the end, I do think that there are a number of coaches who bring valuable skills to the table.  It's just that very few of them seem to be in areas that we consider "coaching".  Managing a large group of maniacal prima donnas with drinking problems and 'roid rage, is no small task.  Recognizing your opponents' tendencies and weaknesses, and coming up with an effective game plan to exploit this knowledge, clearly is valuable.  It just doesn't seem like actual coaching though.  So, the annual hopes that fans develop around particular draft prospects, and how they will become stars once certain issues are corrected, leaves me feeling a bit pessimistic.  The inbred nature of the coaching world where multiple generations of certain families end up with head coaching jobs, doesn't really aid in dispelling my doubts.  The possibility that some ancient tome of secrets is being passed down through the Ryan, Harbaugh, or Shanahan families, possibly written in the blood of long snappers, seems unlikely.  I like to envision a stone in a field outside of Canton, where young boys are brought by their fathers, from which they try to pull a millennia old jock strap, which will signify their role as the chosen one, who will one day lead the Browns or the Jaguars to a 7-9 season.  It seems plausible to me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

High Agility Pass Rushers!

Well, my computer decided to attempt suicide this week.  The official reason would seem to be due to bad wiring in my house, causing an electrical surge.  The more obvious explanation is that the computer is being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of my amateur stats, foresees a world in which moxie is no longer valued in relation to objective data, and committed hara-kiri to save mankind from my idiocy.  Either way, we are limping along.

I've been meaning to put this here as a follow up to the Explosive Pass Rushers post, but kept getting distracted.  While I place a greater deal of faith in pass rushers who demonstrate explosiveness and power though their Kangaroo Score, there is a place in the world for other types of players.  This second category of pass rushers, who succeed because of exceptional agility, is a bit more difficult to pin down, and the overall rate at which they become successes is probably a bit lower in general.  So, there is a bit more risk with drafting these players, but still a decent chance that things can work out.

One of the reasons why I prefer the explosive variety of pass rushers, and why I believe they succeed more often, is due to the simplicity of how their traits are employed.  Beating the opposing tackle at the snap (an explosive first step), or simply overpowering them, really isn't that complicated.  When all else fails, being able to fall back on raw power, is a good thing.  The simplest approach to a problem (killing the QB, in this case), tends to be the most reliable.  So, I suspect that the highly explosive pass rusher is more likely to use the simple bull rush a good deal of the time.  It might not be pretty, but it works.

On the other hand, a highly agile pass rusher is a bit more likely to execute spin moves, or juking their way around their opponent, or even the dreaded squirrel move.  Since added bulk tends to diminish your agility (though possibly add to your raw power), many of the high agility pass rushers tend to be smaller guys.  Staying out of the clutches of the tackle, is probably more of a necessity, as they generally won't have the power to break free from a locked on tackle.  Of course, these are all generalizations, and all players have some combination of explosiveness and agility, some just rely on one trait much more heavily than the other.

One of the best current examples of a successful and highly agile pass rusher, is the Packers' Clay Matthews.  A lot has been made of the exceptional 10 yard split of 1.49 seconds, that he produced in his forty yard dash, but I'm still not sure that this was the measurement that mattered.  As predictors go, I'm much more interested in how he did in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill.  His short shuttle time of 4.18 seconds is 1.014 standard deviations above the average for his pass rushing peers.  Similarly, his 3-cone time of 6.90 seconds, is 1.242 standard deviations above average.  This gives him a combined Agility Score of 1.128.  These are rather exceptional results.  On the flip side, his Kangaroo Score of -0.238, is a little below average.

So, the numbers would suggest that Matthews had some intriguing athletic traits, though he probably wouldn't thrive as a player who bull rushes a lot, which is probably the most basic and straight forward pass rushing move there is.  I think this idea becomes particularly interesting if we look at a recent article that Pro Football Focus wrote about him.  In examining his strengths and weaknesses, they suggested that his primary shortcoming might be as a bull rusher.  They claim that in the last two years, he has only produced 8 pressures while bull rushing, and only 3 pressures in the last year (one in every 137 pass rush attempts).  At the same time, they suggest that he is producing a pressure once in every 15.8 attempts, when rushing outside, and going around the tackle.  This is in no way meant to be a condemnation of Matthews, but I merely mention it to illustrate how he seems to be basing his style of play on his physical strengths, and abandoning completely any attempt to be something which he isn't physically designed to be (a mauling bull rusher).

The real problem with examining the high agility pass rushers, is that there really aren't that many of them.  Often times, a player might be highly agile, but also have a good Kangaroo Score, making it difficult to assign them strictly to the high agility group.  Among the players who seem to solely rely on agility, you get a handful of players who have occasional successes, but generally don't consistently produce sacks at the same level as their more explosive counterparts (Matthews is a rather large exception to that statement).  Still, I thought I'd post up a list of some players with highly exceptional agility scores, but who might also be somewhat lacking in terms of explosive power.  As always, all scores are given in terms of the number of standard deviations that a player's results are away from the average for his position group.

Player                                 Avg. TFL      Kangaroo     Sh. Shuttle      3-Cone      Tot. Agility
Bruce Irvin 14.5 -0.162 1.845 2.012 1.929
Von Miller 19.5 0.532 1.679 2.012 1.846
Channing Crowder 6.75 -0.057 0.793 2.398 1.595
Kyle Vanden Bosch 14 1.211 1.568 1.550 1.559
Demarcus Ware 14.25 0.759 1.624 1.435 1.529
Pisa Tinoisamoa              N/A -1.322 1.624 0.972 1.298
Melvin Ingram 13 0.028 1.014 1.512 1.263
Miles Burris 19.5 0.319 0.904 1.589 1.246
Trevor Scott 14.25 0.001 0.959 1.473 1.216
Sam Acho 15.5 -0.026 0.239 2.051 1.145
Brian Cushing 6.5 -0.219 0.793 1.473 1.133
Clay Matthews 6 -0.238 1.014 1.242 1.128
Jerry Hughes 18 0.155 1.181 0.895 1.038
Rob Ninkovich 13.25 0.267 1.014 1.011 1.013
Jason Babin 29.5 0.492 1.236 0.741 0.988
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila              N/A -0.354 0.461 1.242 0.851
Chad Greenway 9 -0.634 0.793 0.818 0.806
Rosevelt Colvin              N/A 0.545 0.959 0.548 0.754
Chike Okeafor              N/A 0.392 0.904 0.510 0.707
Brooks Reed 7.25 -0.360 0.461 0.433 0.447

For the most part, this list was assembled by just sorting my pass rusher database, looking at their Total Agility score, and pulling out the players who have achieved some measure of acclaim.  Generally, I avoided including players who also had high Kangaroo Scores, since that isn't the purpose of this examination.  Still, I included a few such as Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jason Babin, and Rosevelt Colvin, who had at least moderately above average Kangaroo Scores, as well as exceptional agility scores.  Compared to the Explosive Pass Rushers, this list is a bit more hit-and-miss in terms of producing consistent pass rushers.  I would say that, even here, as the player's Kangaroo Score moves towards the average result or above, their success rate does seem to improve.  Similarly, as their Avg. TFL stat goes up (their average number of tackles for a loss in their last two years in college), things likewise seem to improve.  In Clay Matthews' case, his Avg. TFL number is actually unreliable, since he wasn't a regular starter in his last two year, so that can be ignored for the most part.  Including Brian Cushing, who is really a MLB, might also seem a bit odd, but I just threw it in on a whim.

While there are some good football players in this list, if you truly eliminated all of the players with Kangaroo Scores that were below average (less than zero), it quickly becomes less intriguing.  Suddenly, it becomes a list of perhaps good, solid football players, who might possess some versatility, but could be a bit inconsistent at getting to the quarterback.  Their exceptional agility may still demonstrate itself in their ability to drop back into coverage, but they are somewhat less likely to end up producing double digit sacks.

Calculating the success rate of these sorts of players is a bit tricky.  In forming this sort of list, I passed over numerous players who have amounted to nothing in their careers.  Finding an objective measure for what we can call a success, is also a bit problematic.  Since many of the high agility players also tend to be lighter in weight, they also find themselves being moved to other positions quite frequently, such as 4-3 LBs or 3-4 ILBs, which adds another complication.  All of these issues make calculating the success rate for pure high agility pass rushers somewhat impossible.

Still, if I look at the complete list of pass rushing prospects (about 591 of them) from the last 13 years, and examine just the players with total agility scores over 1.000 (the exceptionally agile), and Kangaroo Scores that are no better than 0.500 (reasonably explosive, but not shockingly so), we can make some rough estimates based on the 44 players that remain (an unfortunately small sample size, but that's life).  While some of these 44 ended up moving to positions that weren't exclusively oriented towards pass rushing, I'm only concerned with whether they emerged as regular, and productive,  muti-year starters for their team.  So, with all that blathering out of the way, I would say that pure high agility, pass rushers become reasonable successes approximately 43.18% of the time.  Obviously, this is still really just spitballing.  Compared to the highly explosive pass rushers, who I think can probably be predicted to succeed around 65-82% of the time (though these players are actually not purely high explosive types, and may possess good agility also), this lower proposed success rate may not seem too impressive.  With that said, it is still comparable or better than the typical league wide success rate of about 20-30%, when selecting pass rushers and linebackers.  With some careful examination of the individual prospect, a success rate of over 50% is probably still quite achievable, though this is just wild speculation on my part.  After all, the idea of a 43.18% success rate is just based on how many have succeeded based on sorting them according to their agility scores alone, and merely including the data relating to their college success (Avg. TFL), should improve things a fair bit on its own.  Again, this is mindless speculation, but it seems reasonable to me.

I should also mention something that I found rather interesting, if not surprising, about this small sample group.  When I divided the 25 "failures", and the 19 "successes", into their separate groups, the differences between them became quite apparent.  Among the successes, their average Kangaroo Score was -0.026, which is merely average, but still significantly better than the -0.628 that was seen by the "failure" group.  Also, the Avg. TFL number amongst the successes was 12.52, compared to a 9.25 for the failures.  So, the more productive college players did indeed turn out better, and even though I tried to de-emphasize the explosiveness of the Kangaroo Score, the more explosive players still came out on top.

With all of this being said, I still prefer the idea of a player who exhibits a high degree of explosiveness, in combination with good agility, as this seems to be the best of both worlds, and has the highest likelihood of working out.  In combination with a high Avg. TFL number, to demonstrate some history of living up to their physical potential, things tend to turn out well with these sorts of draft picks.  With the more purely nimbly-toed player, I might be intrigued, but the idea of selecting them before the 3rd round, would make me a bit nervous.  As compelling a success as Clay Matthews has been, he is still a bit of an oddity.  I think Ted Thompson (GM for the Packers) is clearly one of the top 3 GMs when it comes to the draft, but the Clay Matthews pick could have turned out very differently.  His more recent selection of Nick Perry, another peculiar USC pass rusher, who was selected with the 28th pick in the 2012 draft, might end up serving as an interesting counter-argument to Matthews' success.

Similarly to Matthews, Perry played at USC, and accumulated comparable stats, as far as Avg. TFL are concerned.  Over his last two years, he averaged 10.25 TFL, compared to Matthews 6 TFL average   Unfortunately, Clay accumulated his stats in just 12 games started, while Perry had 21 starts.  So, Matthews had 0.5 TFL per game started, while Perry had 0.488 per game, very similar, and generally a fairly poor result (though in Matthews case it clearly turned out to be a poor predictor of future success).  Normally I am looking for first round pass rushers to have closer to an average of 15 TFL, or somewhere around 1.25 per game, but that's just me.  Either way, while we can see Matthews athletic measurables above, Perry was a similarly unbalanced athlete, though his strengths leaned much more heavily towards the explosive side, with an exceptional 1.870 Kangaroo Score, and a rather poor -0.874 Agility Score.  Whether Thompson's gamble on Perry will turn out quite as well will be interesting.  For the most part, I think Perry is unlikely to amount to much, though his numbers suggest he could perhaps do better if he moved to a 4-3 defensive end position, where his abysmal agility might matter a bit less.  Either way, you have a team making very similar gambles, on vaguely similar types of risks.  It would somewhat defy the odds for this to work twice, but we'll have to wait and see.  All of this is just meant to say, that while I get excited about explosiveness, a balanced approach is always the most appealing to me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Athleticism and the Defensive Tackle

Since I kind of enjoyed comparing the athleticism of offensive linemen to their CarAV scores (Career Approximate Value), I thought I would do something similar for defensive linemen.  For this post, I will only be looking at players who could be defensive tackles or 3-4 defensive ends, so I'll just use the 280# mark as the cutoff.  As much as possible, I want to be comparing apples to apples, so having a simple cutoff point determined by weight should be reasonably sufficient. 

I'm going to lay this out the same way that I did for the post about Athleticism and the Offensive Line part 2.  For each draft class, from the year 2005 through 2010, I will list the three players with the highest CarAV score (a basic measure of their productivity and how active a starting role they have) who were taken in the 3rd round or later.  I will also include the one player from each draft class, who was selected in either of the first 2 rounds, who had the lowest CarAV score.  What we are looking for is some sign as to whether the mid-to-late round "successes" are demonstrating above average athletic ability, and whether the more highly drafted disappointments showed below average athletic ability.

To keep things relatively simple, their athletic ability will be measured based on the Kangaroo Score and Agility Score.  Both scores are shown in the form of how many standard deviations above or below average that a players is, relative to the average player in their position group (in this case defensive tackles).  I'm also going to toss in their times from the 40 yard dash, even though this is of questionable value for defensive linemen.  I have the numbers, so I might as well throw it in there, in case anybody is interested.

As I have said before, I have some reservations about using CarAV to evaluate players.  Still, as long as you are comparing players from the same draft class, at similar positions, CarAV is generally adequate.  Including a player amongst the "successes" from a given year, doesn't mean that I endorse them.  It merely means that they have gotten on the field more often, and probably contributed more, than most of their peers from that draft class.  I'm mainly using CarAV as the measure of success, since it seems more objectively acceptable than just throwing out my opinion that "this guy sucks".  No current statistical measure can quite capture the "suck factor", at least not in a way that satisfies me.  So, without further ado, here are the numbers.

Player                         Year      Pos.         Pick#   40-yd          Kangaroo        Agility     CarAV
Geno Atkins 2010       DT 120 4.75 0.793 1.056 33
Corey Peters 2010       DT 83 4.98 -0.344 -0.153 18
Greg Hardy 2010       DE 175 4.82 0.517 0.631 14
Torell Troup 2010       NT 41 5.12 -0.481 -0.158 1

Terrance Knighton 2009    DT/NT 72 5.21 0.293 -0.758 21
Roy Miller 2009      DT 81 4.95 0.317 -0.837 16
Vaughn Martin 2009      DT 113 5.00 1.179 1.442 12
Ron Brace 2009      NT 40 5.48 0.157 -1.040 6

Kendall Langford 2008    DT/DE 66 4.95 -0.007 -0.237 29
Ahtyba Rubin 2008    DE/NT 190 5.20 0.125 -1.560 26
Red Bryant 2008    DE/DT 121 5.00 0.660 -0.159 16
Kentwan Balmer 2008    DE/DT 29 5.29 -0.245 -0.451 7

Brandon Mebane 2007      DT 85 5.15 -0.762 -0.495 39
Paul Soliai 2007      NT 108 5.10 1.336 -0.139 27
Antonio Johnson 2007      NT 152 5.15 0.236 0.611 18
Justin Harrell 2007      DT 16 5.04 0.041 -0.343 2

Barry Cofield 2006      DT 124 4.95 0.529 1.095 40
Domata Peko 2006      DT 123 5.27 -0.365 0.174 39
Kedric Golston 2006    DE/DT 196 4.88 0.659 0.549 23
John McCargo 2006      DT 26 5.15 0.283 0.137 3

Jay Ratliff 2005      NT 224 4.85 0.821 1.530 51
Sione Pouha 2005      NT 88 5.02 1.381 0.072 36
Jovan Haye 2005      DT 189 4.74 0.003 1.069 26
Shaun Cody 2005      DT 37 5.05 -1.168 0.163 27

Avg. Successes

128.3 4.99 0.409 0.216
Avg. Busts

31.5 5.18 -0.235 -0.282

There are two notes I should mention about this list.  First of all, I used John McCargo to represent the highly drafted "bust" for 2006, rather than Claude Wroten.  I did this because the data for McCargo was more complete.  If you are interested, Claude Wroten has a CarAV of 2 (1 point lower than McCargo), and a Kangaroo Score of -0.338 (worse than McCargo's 0.283).  It was due to Wroten's lack of data regarding his agility scores that led me to leave him out.  If I had included him it would have lowered to average Kangaroo Score for the busts to -0.339 (as opposed to -0.235), so I feel I am being somewhat generous by excluding him.  Secondly, since the Kangaroo Score combines the players performance in the vertical jump and the broad jump, this created a problem in the case of Vaughn Martin, who only participated in the vertical jump.  Since that was the only data available for him, that was what I used.  It shouldn't create much of a problem though, since the vertical jump tends to be more reliable than the broad jump as a predictor of success.

With that out of the way, we can get to some of the simple observations.  Overall, players who were drafted in the 3rd round or later, who achieved some degree of success, were 0.644 standard deviations better than there more highly drafted peers, when it came to the Kangaroo Score.  When it came to the Agility Score, they were 0.498 standard deviations better than their more disappointing and highly drafted counterparts.  The players taken in the later rounds, who had some arguable success, also ran the 40 yard dash 0.19 seconds faster, on average, than the more disappointing players from the first couple of rounds.

While there are numerous players in the "success" group that I don't particularly care for, this isn't my concern.  Success, in many of these cases is somewhat relative.  My biggest concern with assembling a list like this, is that I really don't think all defensive linemen should be lumped together in one group.  I feel that as you move out from the nose tackle position towards the defensive end position, the importance of the Kangaroo Score (raw explosive power), begins to diminish somewhat, and the value of the Agility Score goes up.  At the same time, I don't think the Agility Score matters too much for nose tackle (though it is still nice to have a good score).  None of this really matters though, for what I am doing here.

For this extremely simple examination, I'm just curious as to whether late round players, whom teams expect less of, and probably give fewer opportunities to, will rise to the top, to get their team's attention.  On the flipside, it is interesting to note whether the highly drafted players, who became disappointments, were obviously lacking something when it came to their physical measurables.  On both sides of the equation, things seem to work out pretty much as you would expect.  While the highly drafted disappointments might not have abysmal scores, they do tend to fall into the mediocre range, with none of them scoring better in either category than a 0.283 (John McCargo's Kangaroo Score).  Compared to some of the more noteworthy names from the later rounds, where 38% of the 18 "successes" had at least one score of 1.000 standard deviations above average, and 61% had at least one score that was 0.500 standard deviations above average, the results of the highly drafted disappointments becomes a bit glaring.

If people want to dismiss a player's physical measurables as being inconsequential, that is their right.  I wouldn't do it, but I'm just an bozo who rambles on the internet.  I have no problem with the idea that a player can succeed despite poor test scores. I just think that if I were making a pick in the first couple rounds, I would probably have fewer concerns about a player who was physically superior. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Looking back at the 2012 draft

While it's now a bit pointless to contemplate what might have been, there are some players from the 2012 draft that I am still watching with a bit of curiosity.  Some have gotten off to better starts than others.  Some will never amount to anything.  Either way, these are some of the guys who I will be paying attention to as they go into their second year.  Rather than listing them in order of preference, I'll just lay this out in order of when they were actually selected.  For the most part, this will just be a list of oddballs, rather than players who have starting roles already locked up. 

Pick #30- A.J. Jenkins, WR, San Francisco 49ers.  Many people seem to have written him off already, due to his failure to accomplish anything as a rookie.  Others were questioning from the very start why he was taken in the 1st round.  While I probably wouldn't have taken him quite this high, I do think there are reasons to remain optimistic about his future.  For an average sized receiver (6' tall, 190#), his overall Athletic Score of 0.003 seems extremely average.  This score, while acceptable, hides some interesting physical traits.  His agility score was 0.816, which is exceptional.  His 40-yard dash time of 4.39, and a vertical jump of 38.5", are also quite good.  The reason these numbers fail to boost his overall score is simply due to a lack of mass.  So, he might not be able to convert his explosiveness into power, but combined with his agility he could be quite productive as a "small" type receiver, where he bases his game off of eluding people, sharp route running, and speed.  He also had a 2nd Gear Score of 0.17, suggesting his deep speed could be even better than his 40 time might lead you to believe.  Where he really stood out was with his college Stat Score, where he had an above average 0.557 result.  While he was only responsible for 14.45% of his team's offense as a junior (a somewhat average result), this number leapt to 27.59% as a senior (truly remarkable).  Watching his games from Illinois, he also seemed to really extend for the ball, and have reliable hands.  If he had been taken in the second or third round, I would have been more comfortable with this pick, but I still wouldn't write him off.

Pick #49- Kendall Reyes, DE/DT, San Diego Chargers.  Reyes has already begun to emerge as a talent, but he could get even better.  In his rookie year, he accumulated 5.5 sacks and 28 tackles, though he was only listed as the starter for 4 games.  According to the computer, he really should have been selected in the first round.  Physically, he might have been the most gifted defensive linemen in the draft (hmm, it's debatable).  His Kangaroo Score of 0.999, combined with an Agility Score of 0.640, suggest he has the power and nimbleness to contend with pretty much anyone (though he is no J.J. Watt).  While his sack numbers in college weren't shocking (only 4.5 in senior year, and 2.5 in his junior year) his average number of tackles for a loss, in his last two years, was a very respectable 11.75.  I have a hard time imagining that he won't continue to improve.  I'm really interested to see who turns out to be the best between him and Derek Wolfe (Broncos), who is somewhat less powerful (0.279 Kangaroo Score), but more nimble (1.145 Agility Score).  I really don't have a strong preference for either one at this point.

Pick #66- Josh Robinson, CB, Minnesota Vikings.  I've already mentioned him a little bit in the past, so I'll keep this short and sweet.  Physically, he is the ideal model of what a cornerback should be, except for his slightly below average height.  He is extremely fast (4.29 forty yard dash, with a 0.19 2nd Gear Score), explosive (38.5 vetical jump, 11'1" broad jump), and has elite agility (1.578 Agility Score).  This doesn't mean that he will become the next Champ Bailey, but the likelihood of him failing to develop into a reliable/solid corner seems fairly slim.  10 interceptions and 36 PBUs, in his 3 years at UCF, are also encouraging.  At the very worst this seems like a good risk vs. reward pick at the start of the 3rd round.

Pick #74- Donald Stephenson, OT, Kansas City Chiefs.  I haven't been able to follow him as much as I would like, but starting 7 games in his rookie year isn't a bad start.  A 1.815 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.372 Agility score, would put him amongst some of the more intriguing offensive line prospects from 2012.  Still, his only moderately better than average Agility Score, may mean he should stick to the right side of the line.  With the other recent additions that the Chiefs have made to their line, finding playing time might prove to be  a challenge.

Pick #76- Brandon Brooks, OG/OT, Houston Texans.  There is nothing I can say that I haven't said before.  I'm very excited to see how things turn out for him.

Pick #88- Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles.  Normally, I try to avoid speculating about QBs, since it is hard to break them down using numbers.  As an off the cuff kind of opinion, I'll just say that I am a bit of a fan of Foles.  I'm not saying that he will become Peyton Manning, merely that I think he is at the very least a decent QB who has some value.  During the draft people seemed to be down on him for being immobile, but when I watched him play in college he actually seemed remarkably adept at rolling out and making accurate throws.  Nobody will mistake his running for Michael Vick, but that isn't the point.  He seemed to make quick and intelligent decisions, and not get overly disturbed by pressure.  I'm really not sure why more people aren't rooting for him.  The likelihood that he doesn't have enough flashiness to his play, and spends his career as a backup, seems disturbingly high, which I think could be a shame.

Pick #106- Robert Turbin, RB, Seattle Seahawks.  Having him stuck behind Marshawn Lynch is going to be frustrating.  I don't see any reason to believe that Turbin can't be as good or better than the 8 RBs who were selected ahead of him.  Besides being a surprisingly smooth receiver, for a large running back, the main thing he brings to the table is his power with a 0.790 Kangaroo Score.  Combined with his above average 4.42 forty yard dash, and you have an interesting physical specimen.  There seems to be a growing lack of appreciation for power backs. 

Pick #129- Miles Burris, OLB, Oakland Raiders.  As awkward as this is to admit, Burris was the computer's favorite pass rushing prospect from the 2012 draft (excluding the larger DTs, and 3-4 DEs).  His combination of physical skills and college production were fairly unique.  His 17.5 sacks, and average of 19.5 TFLs, in his last two college years (San Diego State), puts him in rather elite company when it comes to college production.  If you ever watch any of his college games, you'll probably see that he really attacks QBs like a murderous lunatic, but dropping back into coverage he was a bit more average.  Athletically, his Kangaroo Score of 0.319 was decent, but his 1.246 Agility Score was where he really excelled.  Considering his somewhat smaller frame (6'2" tall, 246#, small for a 3-4 OLB, but good for a 4-3 OLB), it makes some sense that his game would be built around this exceptional agility, since taking opponents head would be less likely to work.  While smaller pass rushers are always a bit riskier, I am very excited to see what he turns into.  Picking up a player like Burris, at the end of the 4th round seems to present good value for the Raiders. 

Pick #193- Tom Compton, OT, Washington Redskins.
Pick #195- Nick Mondek, OT, Houston Texans
Pick #221- Nate Potter, OT, Arizona Cardinals    I'm going to lump these three guys together since they are all variations of a similar theme. These three players all fit in the mold of being at least somewhat athletically gifted, to the point where throwing out a late round pick for them seems like a low risk/high reward type of deal.   Tom Compton comes out with a 0.400 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.690 Agility Score, both of which are in the decent to good range.  Of these three, he is probably the most athletically gifted.  Nick Mondek had a very average 0.142 Kangaroo Score, and an exceptional Agility Score of 1.325.  I would be curious to see him move to the guard position, though he might still do okay as a tackle.  Nate Potter had an uninspiring -0.608 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.695 Agility Score.  In Potter's case his numbers aren't terribly strong, but he also has somewhat longer than average arms, at 34 5/8".  Again, I would suspect that he might do better at guard.

Pick #232- Greg Scruggs, DE, Seattle Seahawks   With a  0.661 Kangaroo Score, a 1.410 Agility score, (when compared to the DT group, because of his 284# weight), his numbers are quite impressive. He never really lived up to his physical potential while playing at Louisville, but as a 7th round flier, he could be interesting.  The Seahawks, probably more than any other team, recently seem to be able to get good performances out of players with rather mediocre measurable athletic ability.  So, seeing what they can squeeze out of someone with the sort of traits that Scruggs brings to the table might be fun to watch.

None of this is meant to suggest that these players will become the "stars" of their particular draft class.  These are just a few guys that perhaps haven't gotten a ton of attention from the ESPN-heads, and who I think will be interesting to watch for signs of improvement.