Wednesday, October 23, 2013

If he was that good, he would be starting!

That line of thinking really makes me very uncomfortable.  I'm not looking to get into an argument, but when people say things like "He's a backup for a reason" or "If he's so great, why is he on the practice squad?", it makes my skin crawl.  These kinds of lines are sort of a close relative to the classic "Scoreboard!" argument that some fans make, in an attempt to end all discussion by saying something idiotic to end all debate on a subject.

While it is sometimes difficult to quantify which players/teams are good, versus lucky, or succeeding due to the peculiar circumstances that surround them, I think most people would agree that weird things do happen, and that the simplistic "Scoreboard!" view of things probably doesn't capture the truth a lot of the time.  The better team doesn't always win.  The player with the most gaudy stats isn't always the best.  A coach with a good win/loss record may still be a bozo.

The only reason that I mention all of this, is that I have a creepy (possibly paranoid) feeling about something that may occur soon.

The recent Reggie Wayne injury was obviously unfortunate.  He's a quality player, with no character issues that I am aware of.  In his absence, the Colts are left with T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, as their starting wide receivers, a somewhat sketchy position for the team.  Both of them are useful/good receivers, though Hilton seems to easily be the better of the two, but neither seems like the type to fill the void that Wayne will leave behind.  They are mostly just deep threats, while Wayne provided the steady and reliable option for Andrew Luck to throw to.  While Hilton and Heyward-Bey have caught 50.9 and 51.4 percent of the passes thrown their way, Wayne has been catching 66.1 percent of the balls targeted to him.  Granted, the deeper routes that Hilton and Heyward-Bey typically run, tend to be lower percentage types of plays in general, but even if they start running more short to intermediate routes, I doubt their overall catch rate would climb to Wayne's level.

So, this leads people to speculate about, and apparently clamor for, a trade.  The object of everyone's deranged desires seems to be the Brown's receiver Josh Gordon.  While Gordon has generally been a fairly good receiver, and would probably do even better with the Colts, everyone knows he has some significant baggage that he brings along with him.  If the rumors are true, he's just one exuberant Saturday night away from a year long suspension. His history of idiocy is fairly impressive for someone who has been in the league for such a short time, just as it was before he was drafted.  He spent more time in college suspended than actually playing.

At the same time, the Colts already have a potentially talented malcontent lurking on their practice squad, in the form of Da'Rick Rogers.  Despite his bad reputation, Rogers' only documented offenses seem to involve smoking weed in college and a scuffle outside of a bar during his freshman year.  Small potatoes compared to Josh Gordon's accomplishments in this area.  While I am a fan of Rogers, I obviously can't guarantee that he will be a success.  All I can say for certain is that the evidence suggests he could be quite good, but, of course, none of that matters if he isn't going to be given a chance.  At 6'2" tall, and 217 pounds, he seems to be built for the role the Colts are looking to fill, and his combine measurables suggest he is highly agile and explosive.  His college stats also point to Rogers being a better alternative than the other options that exist.  Best of all, it wouldn't cost the Colts anything to find out what he has to offer.  Why trade for a talented idiot, when you probably already have one?

Considering the Colts' most recent act of desperation, when they traded for Trent Richardson (how's that working out?), maybe they should be a bit more cautious this time around.  Maybe, they should save some of those draft picks that they have been eagerly trading away, and try to actually find out if it is worth giving a shot to some of the players that they already have.  Or, they can just run with their initial evaluation, and dismiss Da'rick Rogers as a mere "practice squad player".  After all, their initial evaluations have been so good, that it has gotten them in this mess in the first place.  Why would anyone second guess that?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The devil you know...

I'm generally much less concerned with the outcomes of NFL games, than I am in seeing how the young players are coming along.  This inevitably leads to immense (and pointless) frustration, as I have to wait for injuries or desperation to drive teams towards experimenting a bit with the rookies.  Too often, teams seem much more content to trot out the same old under-performing veterans, just because they feel that they know what they will get from these players, rather than to take some risks.  Much like my views on marriage, I think a similar attitude applies to football players.  Go with what you've got, until something younger and prettier comes along.

I am a bit annoyed by the Jets' release of Ryan Spadola.  Despite the lack of interest that teams showed in him during the draft, he is still a very physically gifted player, with college production that puts most receivers to shame.  When given a chance in the preseason, he statistically outproduced every single rookie wide receiver, and even ranked third amongst non-rookies.  Basically, he performed about as well as any reasonable person could hope for, and truly appeared to be a legitimate player.

Then, in a rain soaked week 2 game against the Patriots, he dropped one pass (the only regular season pass to be thrown his way), and was never targeted again this season.  At the same time, Clyde Gates dropped 3 passes in the same game, and has only been catching 43.1% of the 51 career passes thrown his way, and Stephen Hill is only marginally more reliable so far (47.9% for his career, but a somewhat improved 54.2% for 2013).   People seem to be offering the "coaches must have seen something in practice that they didn't like" explanation for why Spadola was cut, though I find this difficult to take seriously.  As long as Oniel Cousins has a job, I refuse to acknowledge that the majority of coaches have some sort of magical "eye for talent".  It's entirely possible that the Jets will resign Spadola to the practice squad, or that he will amount to nothing, but I would prefer to see him land somewhere else.

In a similar way, I was surprised by the Seahawks decision to release Stephen Williams.  Similar to Spadola's situation, it seems that Williams might suffer from the continued stigma of having been an undrafted player.  While I have compared Williams to his former teammate Sidney Rice before (though the computer thinks he could be better than Rice, if given a chance), I wanted to add a bit more to this thought.  Sidney Rice is currently engaged in a 5 year contract with the Seahawks that pays him, on average, $8.2 million per year.  This is more than Victor Cruz makes (who will average $7.6 million on his new contract).  Now, if we ignore Rice's 2009 season (1,312 yards and 8 TDs), he has only had one other somewhat above average year, which was in 2012, when he had 748 yard and seven TDs.  Though somewhat hindered by injuries (which were a bit predictable), I find this situation to be rather odd.  Rice's career, so far, is eerily similar to that of the somewhat disappointing Marcus Robinson.  I'm not saying this with the intent of insulting Sidney Rice, but merely to suggest that the Seahawks wide receiver situation might not be as settled as they seem to think.  Rice's status as a former 2nd round pick, and one great performance 5 years ago, seem to be outweighing his current reality.  I had hoped that the Seahawks would give Williams more of an opportunity to develop.

I suppose the upside of this, is that there are now two somewhat intriguing wide receiver prospects out there, that any team could sign for practically no cost.  Sadly, I don't really have any expectations of this happening though, since we seem to live in a world where teams would rather recycle former 1st round draft picks like Levi Brown, rather than admitting to a mistake and moving on.  Ah, confirmation bias is alive and well.

While Kenbrell Thompkins' 273 receiving yards and 3 TDs might be pleasing to the fantasy football crowd, I still find him to be highly suspicious.  Catching only 41.9% of the passes thrown to him is just a disturbingly poor result.  While I will acknowledge that I find Catch Rates to be a debatable statistic, heavily influenced by the routes a receiver is running as well as who is throwing the ball, none of it seems to justify Thompkins' current issues.  So far, he is credited with 5 dropped passes through five games, which is the second most for all receivers at this point.  On the one hand, I am glad to see a team give an opportunity to an undrafted player, on the other hand, I would prefer to see Josh Boyce get more of an opportunity.

On a more positive note, I was quite happy to see the Patriots give an opportunity to defensive tackle Chris Jones this week.  For the most part, this seemed to be the product of an Achilles tendon injury to Vince Wilfork, rather than actual confidence in Chris Jones, but I'll take what I can get.  Chris Jones was a 6th round draft pick this year, by the Houston Texans, but didn't get to play much in the preseason due to minor injuries, and was promptly released.  This caused me some minor annoyance, since he was a player I had selected in my battle versus Ozzie Newsome.  Then, my spirits perked up, when he was signed by the Buccaneers...only to see him cut shortly thereafter.  Again, I saw him picked up, this time by the Patriots, but at this point I was feeling a bit more pessimistic.  A future in the CFL seemed to be looming.  When he finally got significant playing time this weekend against the Bengals, he responded with 4 tackles and 1.5 sacks.  It's amazing how these things work out when you give a gifted player a chance.  I still think Jones is better suited to playing a disruptive role along the defensive line, rather than a space eating nose tackle role, but we'll have to wait and see how it all plays out.

It's also been pleasing to see the Falcons giving increased opportunities to undrafted Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.  While I should probably just be satisfied with this minor victory, I can't deny that I wish the team had made the switch earlier.  This is one of those situations where it seems like there was no real downside to gambling on rookies.  Was the team actually afraid that these players would perform worse than Stephen Nicholas, or the slightly more tolerable Akeem Dent?  While I've focused on Worrilow much more than Bartu, it should be noted that Bartu also showed signs of rather impressive athletic ability with a -0.015 Kangaroo Score (which is actually quite a bit above average for a 4-3 LB), and a 0.885 Agility Score.  I think Worrilow is still probably the more versatile of the two, though Bartu might have a slight athletic edge when it comes to rushing the passer.  While there are no guarantees on how things will work out, I think getting these two some experience should pay dividends in the future.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Steelers trade for OT Levi Brown

It looks like I spoke too soon when I called the Ravens' trade for Eugene Monroe "idiotic".  This move by the Steelers has significantly moved the bar for idiocy, making the Ravens look just "a little bit slow" in comparison.

I've already discussed the screwed up nature of the Steelers' offensive line in a previous post.  Basically, it boiled down to the idea that the Steelers seem to value bulk more than actual athletic ability.  The acquisition of Levi Brown continues this trend of large but oafish busts.

NAME  Height  Weight     Arm 40 yard   Kangaroo     Agility
Levi Brown 6' 5.4" 323 33.125" 5.40 -0.560 -0.516

Basically, Levi Brown has significantly below average power (based on the Kangaroo Score), below average agility, horribly below average speed (which, perhaps surprisingly, does matter for OTs), and below average reach (based on arm length).  Add to that a poor history of on the field performance in Arizona, and I have to ask, how could this possibly go wrong?  I'm sure Levi Brown will magically change for the better upon his arrival in Pittsburgh.  Surely it was the dry Arizona climate that was holding him back, and not just incompetence/inability on his part.

The main reason this trade troubles me is that it demonstrates a constant problem that plagues the league, which is the continued overvaluing of former first round picks (Brown was the 5th overall pick in 2007).  Regardless of how a player under-performs, if they were selected in the first round, they basically go through their career with a "1st round pick" merit badge pinned to their chest, ensuring that people will continue to give them future opportunities at redemption.  There is always some team that thinks they can cleverly salvage these players' careers, rather than just admitting that these players never should have been selected as highly as they were.

While players such as Levi Brown routinely get selected too highly in the draft, others who might be better sometimes get ignored.  You would think the cream would eventually rise to the top, and it often does, but inevitably this process gets delayed by the continuing affection for former first round draft picks who never lived up to the hype, yet remain in the spotlight.  Really look at the merits of Levi Brown, and tell me why anyone believes he is salvageable?  Then tell me that there isn't some gifted individual out there, perhaps wasting away on a teams practice squad, who might one day be good, if only the coaches weren't afraid to give a chance to someone with a lesser history of popular acclaim?

Ravens trade for Eugene Monroe

I'm going to be blunt.  I think this was an idiotic move by the Ravens.  Hell, the first suggestion that Google makes when I type in Eugene Monroe's name is "Eugene Monroe bust".  That's encouraging.  Truthfully, I don't think he is a bust, but merely a disappointment relative to where he was drafted (the 8th overall pick).

This is a move that smells of desperation.  Yes, the Ravens offensive line is a mess, but trading away future picks, even ones in later rounds, isn't the right thing to do just to put a band aid on a bad situation.  Treating late round picks as if they are worthless is a mistake, but doubly so when you are trading them away for a player who has so far been merely average.   The Ravens are making this decision because they aren't satisfied with their recent record, and are now wandering down the Jerry Jones/Daniel Snyder path of player acquisition.  The Ravens have enough fan support right now to ride out a bad stretch, and wait until next year's draft to rebuild, but they seem to be overreacting under some deluded belief that they can actually compete this year, which they probably can't.

Athletically Monroe is kind of on a similar tier to Michael Oher.  Actually, I would say that he is moderately better than that, but not so much as to make a real difference, in my opinion.

NAME Height     Weight         Arm   40 yard Kangaroo     Agility
Eugene Monroe 6'5 1/4 309     33 7/8" 5.18 0.340 -0.253
Michael Oher 6'4 1/2 309     33 1/2" 5.34 0.134 0.194

Yes, Monroe does a little bit better on the Kangaroo Score and a little bit worse on the Agility Score.  In the end though he is not a terribly unique athlete, and the fact that the Jaguars are willing to unload him should tell you something.  There is also the fact that even if he greatly outperforms my expectations, his rookie contract will be up after this season, forcing the Ravens to commit a lot a cash to him (which they don't have), and most likely cutting other high priced starters on a team that already lacks quality depth.  Actually, even if Monroe is just average, which is what I really expect of him, the team is still probably going to be forced to pay him to stick around, just to justify the draft picks they will have lost. 

I realize that a lot of people are going to see Monroe as the pretty new face on the team, and be hopeful because of his status as a former high draft pick.  Really, though, do you really think a team would let a left tackle and 8th overall pick leave their team, if he was actually an exceptional talent, let alone for a handful of low draft picks?  Just to be clear, I am not saying that Monroe sucks.  I just don't think he is likely to be a special enough player for the team to be binding themselves to, which I think this trade ensures they will be. positive....

Well, Monroe will almost certainly be better than McKinnie, who has been less of a physical presence than his friend Sweet Pea. The main reason this trade annoys me is because of the eventual financial cost of resigning Monroe after this season, when I would rather see the team going younger and cheaper (yes, Monroe is relatively young, but he probably won't be terribly cheap). 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

John Harbaugh: Master of the Obvious

If you expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed.  This depressing bit of advice has been the cornerstone of my family's continued acceptance of my foolish decisions. 

“The whole O-line is disappointing right now,” Harbaugh said.

I just had a vicious laughing fit when I read this post on PFT.  While John Harbaugh isn't the one who selects the players that wind up on his team, the possibility that he expected something better from them was probably unwise.  It's all just rainbows and unicorn farts in the optimistic world of John Harbaugh.

The problem, as I see it, is the o-line reverting to their normal/predictable level of play.  Their recent post-season run, where Flacco was only sacked once in every 21 pass attempts, was an aberration.  The o-line's history had generally shown them to allow a sack once in every 15 to 16 pass attempts, and currently (through 4 games) is allowing a sack once in every 14.08 attempts.  While this still only places the Ravens' slightly below what we we would expect their average results to be, recent history has shown what happens to Flacco as the hits start to accumulate.  So far, the game in which Flacco was sacked least frequently was against the Browns, where he was only taken down once in every 16.5 attempts (itself a rather mediocre result), and not coincidentally this game produced his best passer rating of the season (94.4).

“It’s a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh then proceeds to drop a fair bit of the blame on poor Gino Gradkowski, whom many seem to feel has been a significant drop off in talent from his predecessor Matt Birk.  Being expected to follow a Hall of Famers' career isn't an enviable position to be in, but this current situation also seems like it should have been a fairly predictable outcome.  The computer still thinks that A.Q. Shipley should be starting center, though it is entirely possible that the Ravens are waiting to see if recent draft pick Ryan Jensen might be the answer, when he returns from his injury.  While Jensen's measurables aren't quite as strong as Shipley's, Jensen's short shuttle time of 4.56 seconds is much more in line with what the computer expects from a center prospect, at least compared to Gradkowski's time of 4.78 seconds.  On the other hand, the Ravens' management could stick their fingers in their ears and say, "Naaa-naaa!  We can't hear you.!", while continuing to start Gradkowski.

Despite that bit of negativity, I actually think Flacco has been playing about as well as can be expected, considering the horrible pass protection, lack of running game, and questionable receiving corps.  That might seem odd to say about someone who currently has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5), while having a 69.4 passer rating, but he hasn't looked nearly as discombobulated as I would expect, considering the situation he has been put into.  Still, it probably is fair to wonder if paying Flacco as if he is the equivalent of 3.5 Steve Austins, really makes much sense (he's worth maybe 2 Jaime Sommers in my opinion).  This idea that any QB, who is about to become a free agent, automatically becomes the highest paid player in the league is hilarious.  You're either viewed as a bum, who the team lets go of, or a 21 million dollar man, and there is almost no middle ground.  Remember all of that talk about how it was Cam Cameron holding Flacco back, and how things would be different with Jim Caldwell?  In the end, you kind of have to wonder if it is worth buying into a small sample size, like last year's playoffs, as a way of making your decisions.

Speaking of the poor situation surrounding Flacco, a recent quote about Ed Dickson provided even more entertainment for me:

“The stats kind of speak for themselves as you’re alluding to. He’s not the same player right now than he was then (2 years prior) obviously,” Harbaugh said

The player that Ed Dickson was 2 years ago is kind of an illusion.  Even in his most productive year (2011) Dickson had a habit of dropping passes.  Ed Dickson was a player who benefited from his draft position to get on the field ahead of Dennis Pitta, who was almost certainly the superior player.  While Ed Dickson was selected with the 6th pick of the 3rd round, in 2010, Pitta was taken with 16th pick of the 4th round, again in 2010.  So, why was Dickson selected ahead of Pitta, and given an earlier chance to play?  Well, that is difficult to answer, but the popular opinion seems to have always been that Dickson was a better athlete, while Pitta was a more reliable but less physically gifted player.  Is any of this actually true though?

  Height   Weight    40-yard   10-yard  Bench  Vert.    Sh. Sht. 3-Cone   Br. Jmp
Dennis Pitta 6' 4.5" 246 4.68 1.63 27 34" 4.17 6.72 113"
Ed Dickson 6' 4.2" 249 4.59 1.64 25 34" 4.59 7.32 122"

While Ed Dickson did better than Dennis Pitta in the 40 yard dash and the broad jump, Pitta bested Dickson in the agility drills.  While we could debate the value of speed versus agility (I would obviously prefer a player to have both), I don't think it is unreasonable to say that the physical advantage of one over another, isn't really as big as some people might have made them out to be.  On the other hand, what they accomplished with these abilities while in college was staggeringly different.

Dennis Pitta       Rec.     Yards         YPC          TD  % of Off.   % of TD
2009 62 829 13.4 8 14.92 23.52
2008 83 1083 13 6 18.73 17.14
2007 59 813 13.8 5 14.12 19.23

Ed Dickson       Rec.     Yards         YPC          TD  % of Off.   % of TD
2009 42 551 13.1 6 10.28 37.5
2008 35 508 14.5 3 8.05 15
2007 43 453 10.5 3 7.45 11.53

While Pitta's stats are somewhat gaudy in terms of his receiving yardage, I am more interested in the percentage of his teams' offense that he was responsible for, which gives us some idea of how much the opposing defenses probably focused on stopping him.  In this area, Pitta clearly establishes that he was a much more vital target for his team, with his results averaging out to about 15.92% over his three years, compared to just 8.59% for Ed Dickson.  I know a lot of people will probably choose to disregard this, but it is something I tend to put a lot of faith in.  Beyond that, we can see that Dickson never really outperformed Pitta in any area during their time in college, except for the percentage of team receiving TDs in his senior year, which is a much flukier sort of stat.

So, why exactly was Dickson given 19 starts in his first 2 years, while Pitta was only given 2?  I have no idea.  All we can say is that it eventually became clear to the team that only one of these players could reliably be counted on to catch the ball, and it just happened to be the player that probably should have been the preferred target from the beginning.  Much like the Gino Gradkowski situation, I often have my doubts about whether teams actually put the best players on the field.  Too often it feels as if teams are hesitant to switch things up, even on a limited basis, preferring to stick with the guys they picked come hell or high water.  Of course, these sorts of complaints on my part are sort of like pissing into the wind.

If there is a positive side to all of this, it is that most teams are in equally bad positions.  There are probably only 3 or 4 teams in the NFL that are worth being scared of at this point, so the Ravens probably won't have to pay too steep of a price for some of their decisions.  They will most likely manage to bumble their way to somewhat mediocre results as the season progresses.  I'll just continue to expect the worst, and if things somehow turn out well, I'll be pleasantly surprised.  I anxiously await John Harbaugh's next great revelation, when it occurs to him that NFL head coaches are vastly overpaid.