Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Pair of Pass Rushers: Hughes & Worilds

Sometimes the decisions that teams make really baffle me.  One the one hand, you know that NFL GMs covet quality pass rushers.  On the other hand, they often seem perfectly willing to screw over their players, and not give them a chance to succeed.  Maybe that comes across as a little harsh, but let's take a look at some of the odd decisions that they made this year, related to Jason Worilds and Jerry Hughes.

First off, we'll poke around the Jerry Hughes situation.  Despite being a former first round pick (31st overall selection in 2010), he was constantly buried behind Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on the Colts' depth chart, starting only 7 games in his first 3 years.  You would think that failing to take a starting job from either of those two players would be understandable, but the fans seemed to eventually turn to the "he can't get on the field, so he must be a bust" viewpoint.  The Colts' management evidently were of the same mindset as the fans, as they drafted Bjoern Werner in the first round (24th pick overall in 2013), to provide a pass rushing presence that Hughes apparently wasn't capable of while sitting on the bench.  With renewed confidence that they had gotten it right this time, the Colts promptly traded the nearly showroom condition Jerry Hughes to Buffalo, for middling linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.

What was the outcome of this trade?  Well, let's look at their statistical performances in 2013.

          GP           GS    Tackles        Sack         Pdef            FF
Jerry Hughes 16 1 46 10 2 2
Bjoern Werner 13 1 18 2.5 2 0

It appears that when finally given a real opportunity, Jerry Hughes did turn into a legitimate pass rusher.  His replacement in Indianapolis, on the other hand, has struggled mightily.  Now, I'm sure that some people will argue that Werner is just a rookie, and that he should be given time to prove himself, the same sort of time that I might criticize the organization for not giving to Jerry Hughes.  The difference here is that Werner's measurables don't give me much confidence that he will ever really develop into anything special, while Hughes at least gave us some reason to be optimistic.

So, let's look at their data from the combine, side by side.

Player         Year       Pick#    40 Yard     KANG     Agility    FINAL Avg. TFL
Jerry Hughes 2010 31 4.65 0.155 1.038 0.448 18
Bjoern Werner 2013 24 4.83 -0.280 -0.251 -0.220 14.5

The Kangaroo Score (my measure of lower body power) and Agility Score (based on the short shuttle and 3-Cone drill), are given in the form of how many standard deviations away from the average result for their peers, that a player is.  As I explained in the post on Explosive Pass Rushers, I basically use the player's Final Score, in combination with a player's Avg. TFL (the average number of tackles for a loss that a player had in his last two years in college) is used to come up with a rough idea as to what round I would be willing to draft a player in.  According to these numbers, Jerry Hughes would have been considered a 3rd round prospect by the computer (admittedly lower than where he was selected, but still intriguing to us).  Technically, Hughes is a player who would better fit in the High Agility Pass Rusher category, for obvious reasons, though this doesn't alter the round in which the computer would have selected him.  Werner, despite a respectable number of tackles for a loss in his college years, would have been viewed as too risky a prospect for me to select in any round (though a very late round pick could be considered, I suppose), due to his poor physical measurables.  You can take this all with an enormous grain of salt, as it is just my goofy method for judging things, but it tends to produce reasonable results.

One of the more peculiar aspects of this, is in how these players are utilized.  Being a somewhat smaller to average sized DE/OLB prospect, at 254 pounds, Hughes, with his excellent agility measurements would have seemed to perhaps be better suited for a 3-4 defense, where he could operate in space and not get smothered by larger offensive tackles.  Of course, the Colts were running a 4-3 defense during the majority of the time he was with them, until 2012 when they switched to a 3-4, and suddenly Hughes responded with 4 sacks in 6 games started.  Then, to make matters even stranger, they draft Werner, a somewhat larger 266 pound player with below average/poor measurables in terms of agility and speed, and ask him to operate in space, something he may not be terribly well suited for athletically.  Hello there, square peg and round hole, I'd like to introduce you to Chuck Pagano's mighty mallet of misguided machinations, which will make everything turn out just fine.  It almost feels as if teams select their defensive scheme, with little to no thought as to whether it suits a player's abilities.

Now let's move on to the Steelers' situation with Jason Worilds.  Similar to Jerry Hughes, Worilds was stuck behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, a rather successful and talented pass rushing duo.  After three years of just occasional usage in a rotation, it seems that the Steelers' expectations had diminished for this former 2nd round pick.  With the departure of James Harrison, the organization decided to fill this void by selecting Jarvis Jones in the first round (17th pick overall), in the 2013 Draft.  While Jones was given the starting job at the opening of the season, his lack of production eventually resulted in Worilds being given his first real opportunity to prove himself.  Let's take a look at their results in 2013, to see how they did.

          GP           GS    Tackles        Sack         Pdef            FF
Jason Worilds 15 11 63 8 2 2
Jarvis Jones 14 8 40 1 4 0

Again, I suspect a lot of people will argue that Jarvis Jones just needs time to develop, but I'm just not terribly confident he will ever really turn into the sort of player the Steelers are probably looking for.  The positive side of this, is that the Steelers could still choose to bring Worilds back next year (he will be a free agent after the 2013 season), though this might require admitting to some problems with Jones.  Teams do seem to have a problem with admitting to potential mistakes with their draft picks, so this will be interesting to watch.  Still, just like we did with Hughes and Werner, let's take a look at how the computer viewed them as draft prospects, to see if either one has an advantage over the other, or might be a better long term gamble.

Player         Year       Pick#    40 Yard     KANG      Agility    FINAL Avg. TFL
Jason Worilds 2010 52 4.65 0.604 0.727 0.583 14.75
Jarvis Jones 2013 17 4.92 -1.243 -1.304 -1.216 22

In this case, the computer feels that the Steelers hit the nail on the head with their selection of Jason Worilds, and assigned him a 2nd round grade, which is precisely where he was taken.  Jarvis Jones, on the other hand, produced nightmarishly poor results at the combine, that largely negated any good will his excellent college production might have engendered.  I honestly have to wonder if Jarvis Jones was drunk at the combine, to produce these kinds of numbers.  While it is certainly possible for a player with poor physical measurables to become a quality player, it isn't the sort of thing that happens frequently enough to take this sort of gamble in this first round.  When you throw in Jones' health concerns (spinal stenosis), it makes his selection in the 1st round even more perplexing.

When you see that the computer only rated Worilds and Hughes as 2nd and 3rd round draft prospects, it might seem odd that I am so interested in how they perform.  The truth is, that despite these modest appraisals, they were still the computer's second and third rated pass rushing prospects in 2010 (out of 57 players, between 240-280 pounds, who we felt might be used in a pass rushing role), and rated well ahead of players like Brandon Graham, Jason Piere-Paul, and Derrick Morgan (who were selected with the 13th, 15th, and 16th overall picks).  Graham has clearly been a disappointment for the Eagles.  Morgan appears to have done somewhat better, though almost certainly not at the level you would hope for from a 1st round pick.  Pierre-Paul is a bit of an enigma, who had one huge season, then started to turn into a pumpkin again (though injuries may be a factor).  So, it is nice to finally see Worilds and Hughes beginning to justify the computer's optimism.  We were getting tired of waiting.

In the end, none of this should be taken as a statement of my strong belief in Hughes or Worilds.  I think they are legitimate pass rushing prospects, now somewhat confirmed, though a long way from greatness.  Their physical measurables and college production suggested they had potential, though they certainly wouldn't rank as highly as many other prospects in better draft classes, whom the computer might feel more strongly about.  Still, like I said, they seemed to have a reasonable likelihood of doing okay for themselves, which is more than I can say for the people that teams have tried to shove onto the field as their replacements.  That, right there, is the issue that confuses and annoys me.  Just having to ask the question of whether the best players are even getting on the field, is something that should be unthinkable.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sometimes I'm Wrong...

Speculating about the future success of college football players is a questionable endeavor.  Having your speculation based almost entirely off of the players' combine data and college stats is even more questionable.  Sometimes I'll be right, and sometimes I'll be wrong.

Being wrong doesn't necessarily bother me too much, so long as it doesn't happen too frequently.  My main goal is just to explore some ideas on how to optimize a team's chances of success in the NFL Draft, based on more objective data.  I can't pretend to have watched the majority of the players when they were in college, and honestly doubt that doing so really is a very reliable method for identifying talent.  For the most part, I'm just curious as to whether draft selections chosen by a computer can approach or exceed the results made by NFL GMs.  If, indeed they are experts in this field, I should fail horribly.  If the GMs are blindly guessing, while posturing as highly paid experts, maybe the results will be surprising.  Personally, I suspect that the average fan with a draft magazine and a dart board, could probably do just as well as the best experts, so I aim to encourage a bit of doubt when it comes to blindly trusting the people in charge.

While I have plenty of stupid ideas, the real core of my idiocy probably gets condensed down to my annual Ozzie Newsome Challenge.  While teams talk about taking the "best player available", I think it can generally be agreed that all such claims are blatantly bullsh*t.  Frequently this familiar line gets modified to "best player available at a position of need", which is more honest, though probably still a bit misguided.  It's kind of like going to a party, in search of your future wife/sandwich maker, and saying that you are seeking the "best wife available....with exceptionally large breasts".  The added qualifier "with exceptionally large breasts" sort of reveals what your real motives are.  For instance, do you really think that Matt Elam and Arthur Brown (the Ravens' first 2 selections in the 2013 Draft), were the best players available?  Or, were the Ravens blatantly trying to fill holes left by the departure of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis?  In the Ozzie Newsome Challenge, we admittedly don't exactly go for best player available either.  Instead, we try to select the player who we think is the "best player available..who we think will be gone in the next 32 picks (or however long it is until our next pick)".  Occasionally, our earliest picks aren't the ones we are most interested in acquiring, but we figure we can wait to take particular players who we anticipate will be overlooked by NFL teams.

It will be quite a while before we can judge the results from the 2013 Draft, and there are one or two selections that the computer made that I wish I could change.  Still, amongst the players that the computer selected, and who have been given  an opportunity to prove themselves, I am generally quite pleased with the results so far, and wanted to take a brief look at two of the more interesting results that came from late round selections.

First of all, we have Chris Jones, defensive tackle for the New England Patriots.  His initial selection at the end of the 6th round (198th pick overall), already shows the degree to which teams weren't too intrigued by him.  Then, the team that drafted him (the Texans) chose to cut Chris Jones before the regular season began, another vote of no confidence.  He was promptly picked up by the Buccaneers, who also quickly dropped him before he ever played a single game.  Once again, things were looking rather bad.  Then, he gets signed by the Patriots, shockingly is allowed to actually play, and accumulates 45 tackles and 5 sacks in his first 8 games started. 

I don't want to engage in a subjective analysis of how well he has played, since I don't think that will get us anywhere.  Loosely throwing around opinions is pretty useless.  However you look at it though, I think it is probably fair to say that Jones' performance has likely exceeded his draft position, and thus the expectations of NFL GMs (experts!).  Instead, let's just ask the question "How unlikely was it that Chris Jones would start at least 8 games as a rookie?", a mark he just reached yesterday.   If we look back at data from past drafts (1992-2011) we can calculate how unlikely it is that such an occurrence is just a fluke (using historical data from Tony Villiotti at To even out any irregularities at a particular draft slot, I looked at all the players taken during this 20 year span, that were selected between the 188th pick and the 208th pick (ten spots prior to, and subsequent to where Chris Jones was chosen).  In total, there have been 420 players selected in that range in the past 20 years, and only 20 of them managed to start at least 8 games in their rookie year.  So, the odds were 1/21 (a 4.76% chance) of such an outcome happening just by blind luck.

Next, we have the case of Paul Worrilow, linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.  Of course, Worrilow wasn't drafted at all, and the Falcons were supposedly the only team to even offer him a chance.  Despite this, he has now accumulated 101 tackles and 1.5 sacks, through his first nine games started.  Unfortunately, the lack of data related to undrafted players complicates things a bit.. Without this data, I decided to examine the issue as if Worrilow had been selected at the end of the seventh round, figuring that if anything the odds for an undrafted player would probably be even lower.  Using the same data from, I examined the situation as if Worrilow had been selected between the 235th pick and the end of the seventh round to get a similar sample size to the one we had with Chris Jones.  In this case, we had 421 players during this 20 year time frame that had been selected in the range, with only 7 managing to start at least 8 games in their rookie season.  That works out to a 1/60.14 probability (a 1.66% chance), of such an event occurring due to dumb luck.

Where this becomes really interesting is when we ask the question "What were the odds of a team selecting 2 such players in the same draft?".  The odds of both events occurring would be 1/1262.94 (a 0.079% chance).  To be fair though, Team Kangaroo had 5 selections from the end of the 6th round to the end of the 7th round, so our actual odds were closer to 1/252.5 (or 0.395% a chance).  Either way, those odds do make you wonder about the likelihood of whether the computer was just lucky, or if taking a more objective view of a player's data might be a reasonable thing to do.  It also makes me have a greater appreciation for late round draft picks.

Will either of these player end up as Hall of Famers?  Probably not, but that would be a rather unreasonable expectation anyway.  Yes, judging a player based on his number of games started as a rookie is obviously questionable.  Still, observing the successes of late round and undrafted players, is much more interesting to me than their counterparts who were selected in the first few rounds.  The hype factor is less of an issue with the late round players, so getting on the field probably does suggest that a player is doing something right, rather than inheriting a starting role because a team has invested a lot in them.  All I'm concerned with is whether I can get anything at all out of a draft pick.  I really don't think that selecting "stars" is nearly as important as avoiding "bums", who can tie up a roster spot for years simply because they were highly drafted.  Why some players succeed, when nobody was really betting on them doing much, probably reveals more about what really matters.

As for the computer's other picks in 2013, well, some will turn out well and some won't.  The biggest question for me is whether a player is given an opportunity to show what he can do, over which I have no control.  As it stands, I think the odds are in our favor that a few more of the computer's picks should turn out quite well...if given a chance.