Monday, December 1, 2014

Perhaps A Lobotomy Would Help?

I've been a bit distracted the past two months, folding paper cranes and writing haikus about sheepdogs, but those are the sorts of things which pay the bills.  Regardless, I'm back for the moment for some more deranged ranting about the potential benefits of lobotomizing your favorite NFL team's general manager.

Okay, in the previous post we set the computer up to behave like a bit of an imbecile.  We asked it to pick one player per draft class (from 2004-2013), who was between 245 and 285 pounds, based on their known physical traits, and their number of tackles for a loss in college. We were strictly looking at how productive these players were as pass rushers, and chose to use this range of weights because that is where you typically find the majority of the league's 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends.  The computer also couldn't pick anyone who was selected before the 3rd round, or anyone who went undrafted.  In the area below, you will find a basic tally of the computer's results for its 10 selections.

  POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Total 880 635 343 200 0.227 72.15 38.97

POTGP is simply the number of Potential Games Played for a given player.  For example, if a player was selected in the 2011 draft then, by the end of the 2013 season, they could have potentially played in 32 games.  GP is simply the number of games they actually played.  GS is the number of games where they were listed as a starter.  Sack/POTGP is their number of sacks per potential game played.  % GP is the percentage of 'potential games' in which they players appeared.  % GS is the percentage of 'potential games' in which the players were listed as a starter.

I should also mention that the actual average and median draft position of the computer's picks came at the 119th and 115th picks respectively.  Also, the computer's overall Sack/POTGP result of 0.227, would be the equivalent of its typical selection generating 3.632 sacks per 16 game season.

To make some comparisons a bit easier, I will list here the average and median results of the computer's selection, when it came to athletic ability, and the average number of tackles for a loss in a player's final two years in college.  The Kangaroo Score and Agility Score are given in the form of how many standard deviations that a player is away from the average results for someone in their position group.

Computer    Avg. TFL    Kangaroo     Agility
AVG 17 1.067 0.482
MED 16.625 1.279 0.664

Now, we finally get to compare the computer's results to those of a handful of actual NFL teams.  To do this, we'll list every player that these teams selected over the same period of time (2004-2013), who fell into the 245-285 pound weight class.  We also have to remember that we are only examining how these players performed between the time they were drafted, and the end of the 2013 NFL season.  Players who went undrafted, regardless of how they ended up performing, will be left off of these lists.  I won't include all 32 teams here, though I will say that the results we are about to show appear to present a pretty typical picture of most NFL teams.  For the sake of brevity (Ha!), I will just show a handful of teams that I thought were particularly interesting.  If you're curious about some other team's results, feel free to ask, or you can simply do the calculations yourself, since it really isn't that complicated.

We'll start with my favorite team to torment, the Baltimore Ravens.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
John Simon 16 7 0 0 0 43.75 0
Courtney Upshaw 32 32 22 3 0.093 100 68.75
Pernell McPhee 48 44 6 9.5 0.197 91.66 12.5
Sergio Kindle 64 3 0 0 0 4.68 0
Paul Kruger 80 67 23 22 0.275 83.75 28.75
Antwan Barnes 112 83 5 25.5 0.227 74.1 4.46
Ryan LaCasse 128 12 0 0 0 9.37 0
Dan Cody 144 2 0 0 0 1.38 0
Roderick Green 160 54 0 12 0.075 33.75 0

Total 784 304 56 72 0.091 38.77 7.14

The Ravens have selected 9 players over this period of time, which is just one player short of what the computer drafted.  The average and median draft position of the Ravens' picks would be the 109th and 129th pick.  So, the Ravens selected almost the same number of players as the computer did, at roughly a similar point in the draft.  Even if we ignore the insane difference in the Ravens' raw sack total compared to the computer, the computer still comes out well ahead in Sack/POTGP.  The Ravens' result of 0.091 would be the equivalent of a player producing 1.456 sacks per 16 game season, well below the computer's result of 3.632.  A total of 4 of the Ravens' picks (44.44%) came from the first two rounds of the draft, where the computer was barred from making a selection.

I suspect Ravens' fans will argue that including players like Dan Cody and Sergio Kindle in this list is a bit unfair, since injuries kept them from getting on the field.  All I can say to that is "Hey, that's life!".  Every team on this list faced an equal risk of this occurring, as did the computer.  I can also say that while both of these players were fairly productive in college, their measured athletic ability makes the likelihood of them becoming exceptional performers somewhat doubtful.  In Cody's case, his 0.187 Kangaroo Score and -0.289 Agility Score paint the picture of a fairly mediocre athlete.  With Kindle, we find he has a 0.203 Kangaroo Score and a -0.533 Agility Score, which again are extremely questionable results.  You can choose to ignore these factors if you wish to, much like the Ravens did, though the whole point of this exercise is to illustrate how that might be a mistake. 

While I have no real problem with the college level statistical production of this group, it seems obvious that actual athletic ability is something the Ravens don't place a lot of value in. Overall, the median athletic ability for their selections was a paltry 0.187 Kangaroo Score, and a -0.289 Agility Score.  This means that the team regularly bets on mediocre athletes, and they appear to get mediocre results.

I also seem to run across a lot of Ravens' fans who continue to express high hopes for Courtney Upshaw, despite his extremely limited contributions as a pass rusher.  We've discussed Upshaw in the past, so we'll cut to the chase.  The main defense that people present for Upshaw, is his supposed quality as a run stopper.  I have no interest in debating this, though I tend to view this argument as an attempt to see the silver lining in a bad situation.  So, here's a simple test, to see if you truly believe that being "good against the run" is as valuable as being a good pass rusher.  How quickly would you trade the one dimensional run stopper, Courtney Upshaw, for a younger but one dimensional pass rusher, like Dwight Freeney?

Now, let's take a look at the Steelers.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Jarvis Jones 16 14 8 1 0.062 87.5 50
Chris Carter 48 29 4 0 0 60.41 8.33
Jason Worilds 64 57 21 19 0.296 89.06 32.81
Bruce Davis 96 15 0 0 0 15.62 0
LaMarr Woodley 112 94 81 57 0.508 83.91 72.32
Shaun Nua 144 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nathaniel Adibi 160 0 0 0 0 0 0

Total 640 209 114 77 0.120 32.65 17.81

Compared to many of the other teams I looked at, the Steelers actually selected relatively few players in the weight class we are examining, just 7 in total.  While their combined 77 sacks is well short of the computer's 200, the Steelers actually do better than many teams on a per player basis, with a 0.120 Sack/POTGP.  That would give the typical Steelers' draft pick 1.92 sacks in a sixteen game season, which is better than many other team on this list (though well short the computer's average draft pick which produces 3.632 sacks per season).  The average and median draft positions of the Steelers picks would be the 105th and 88th pick respectively, which is about half a round higher than where the computer made its selections.  A total of 3 of these picks (42.85%) came from the first two rounds of the draft, where the computer was barred from making a pick.

I have no interest in criticizing the Steelers.  After all, they have produced better results than many of the NFL teams we'll be looking at, especially when you consider how few selections they made. Still, similar to the previously mentioned Ravens, they also have shown a relative lack of interest in quantifiable athletic ability.  The results for their median draft pick were a -0.144 Kangaroo Score and a -0.028 Agility Score, which is clearly very average.

It seems worth noting, however, that almost all of their sack production during this period of time came from two players, LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds, who were both taken in the 2nd round (James Harrison is excluded because he wasn't selected in the draft).  In case you don't remember, the computer was barred from selecting players who were drafted this highly, so the Steelers had a bit of an advantage in this area.  Despite that, I think we can safely say that the computer would have spotted these potential talents rather easily.  We've discussed Jason Worilds before, so we'll skip that topic, except to note his 0.604 Kangaroo Score and 0.727 Agility Score, as well as an average of 14.75 TFL in college.  As for LaMarr Woodley, his 1.195 Kangaroo Score along with a -0.075 Agility Score would have given him a combined 0.560 Total Score (according to the dumbed down methods the computer was using for this game).  When you factor in the 15.25 tackles for a loss that Woodley averaged in his last two years in college, this would have resulted in the computer giving him a 1st round grade, which is slightly higher than where Woodley was actually selected.  So, once again, exceptional athleticism, and a history of proven production seem to produce the best results.

Oh, and if you are still expecting Jarvis Jones to emerge as the next great Steeler's pass rusher, the computer would like to reiterate its strong doubts about that.

Now let's move on the the Patriots.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Jamie Collins  16 16 8 0 0 100 50
Michael Buchanan 16 15 0 2 0.125 93.75 0
Chandler Jones 32 30 29 17.5 0.546 93.75 90.62
Dont'a Hightower 32 30 27 5 0.156 93.75 84.37
Jake Bequette 32 8 0 0 0 25 0
Markell Carter 48 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jerm. Cunningham 64 38 14 3.5 0.054 59.37 21.87
Brandon Spikes 64 51 39 1 0.015 79.68 60.93
Shawn Crable 96 6 0 0.5 0.005 6.25 0
Justin Rogers 112 32 0 0 0 28.57 0
Jeremy Mincey 128 66 40 20 0.156 51.56 31.25
Ryan Claridge 144 0 0 0 0 0 0

Total 784 292 157 49.5 0.063 37.24 20.02

More than almost any team I have looked at so far, the Patriots have selected a lot of players in this weight class, with a total of 12.  Despite the abundance of picks that the Patriots have made, their total number of sacks is a horribly embarrassing 49.5.  Even if we look at a better measuring stick like Sack/POTGP, their result of 0.063, is still laughably bad.  That means their typical player would be producing just 1.008 sacks in a 16 game season.  The average and median draft position of these draft picks would come at the 111th pick and 84th pick respectively, which again, is slightly higher than where the computer made its selections.  A total of 5 of these picks (41.66%) came from the first 2 rounds of the draft, where the computer was prohibited from making a selection.

Now, unlike a number of the teams in this post, the Patriots' results get a bit skewed.  Their apparent preference for larger inside linebackers like Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, means that some of these players weren't likely to get as many pass rushing opportunities.  Still, even if we were to excuse that, it's hard to say that this would radically improve their overall results.  The median results for their selections were a very slightly above average 0.335 Kangaroo Score and a 0.301 Agility Score.  While these are better results than what we saw from the Ravens and Steelers, it unfortunately coincides with a dip in their typical players number of TFLs in their final two years in college, to a median result of just 10.62 (compared to a more respectable 15.25 for the Ravens, and 15.5 for the Steelers and well below the 16.62 for Team Kangaroo).  Obviously, we prefer prospects with great athletic ability and proven performance..

Their player with the highest Sacks/POTGP result, is Chandler Jones.  With a result of 0.546, that works out to about 8.73 sacks per 16 game season.  When you consider Jones' 0.859 Kangaroo Score, along with a 0.247 Agility Score, you start to see someone with some intriguing athletic ability.  When examining his average number of tackles for a loss, during his final two college seasons, we get a result of 11.25 (though we had to adjust this some since he only played 7 games in his final year at Syracuse).  While the computer wouldn't have given Jones a 1st round grade, he clearly had some intriguing potential.

So, how has a team like the Patriots managed to survive with so many of their draft picks producing such poor results?  Well, they've largely gotten by with a regular supply of mercenary free agent pass rushers.  Let's take a look at some of the players they have brought in to fill the void, during this time period.

Player    Kangaroo       Agility Avg. TFL
Rob Ninkovich 0.267 1.013 13.25
Andre Carter 1.230 0.577 19.5
Mark Anderson 1.344 0.846 12.5
Derrick Burgess 1.802            N/A          N/A
Adalius Thomas 1.573 -0.306 18

Well, how about that!  They've largely been signing freakishly gifted athletes who were highly productive in college.  While some of these players may not have provided exceptional results to their new team, some decline in performance should probably be expected when you are signing players who are going into their 2nd and 3rd NFL contract.   Still, it's funny to consider that these players are the ones that drew the Patriots eye in free agency, since they largely fit our mold for successful NFL pass rushers.  The only real question is, why don't the Patriots just draft players like this in the first place?  If there is one bit of good news, I do think things could potentially turn out quite well for Jamie Collins.

Let's see what a fairly terrible Falcons' defense has done.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Malliciah Goodman 16 14 1 0 0 87.5 6.25
Stansly Maponga 16 12 0 0 0 75 0
Jon Massaquoi 32 24 4 4 0.125 75 12.5
Cliff Matthews 48 25 0 0 0 52.08 0
Lawrence Sidbury 80 48 0 5 0.062 60 0
Curtis Lofton 96 96 95 7 0.072 100 98.95
Kroy Biermann 96 82 22 16.5 0.171 85.41 22.91
Chauncey Davis 144 102 25 11 0.076 80.83 17.36

Total 528 403 147 43.5 0.082 76.32 27.84

Over this period of time, the Falcons have selected 8 players in this weight class.  The average and median draft position of these picks came at the 139th and 140th pick, which is noticeably lower than where the computer (or any other team on this list) made its selections.  By a fairly large margin, the Falcons selections have produced the lowest number of total sacks, though when we look at Sack/POTGP, they at least manage to rise above the Patriots.  Their result of 0.082 would mean their typical pick produces the equivalent of 1.312 sacks in a 16 game season.

Most of the teams we are examining here were chosen due to their on-the-field success, or reputation for having a good defense.  I chose to include the Falcons for the complete opposite reason.  This isn't to say that there aren't good things about the team, but drafting quality pass rushers hasn't been their strong point during this period of time. 

The combination of making slightly fewer picks than the other teams, as well as making them later in the draft, suggests the Falcons really haven't viewed finding a pass rusher as much of a priority.  I can also say that the selections they did make almost invariably lacked the combination of athletic ability and college production that would have made them intriguing targets, in the eye's of the computer.  The median results for these selections were a 0.041 Kangaroo Score a -0.472 Agility Score, which obviously isn't anything to get excited about.  When you also consider their typical players poor median result of just 10 TFLs in their final two college seasons, success seemed quite unlikely.  Hey, that's their choice, and none of my business.  All I can say is that any complaints people might have about a poor pass rush were probably entirely foreseeable.

As one final note, I realize that Falcons' fans might object to Curtis Lofton being included in this list, since he clearly wasn't intended to be a pass rusher.  In the end though, he fell into the weight class that we had selected, so we couldn't exclude him.  If it makes any difference, just be glad we didn't include the Falcons' incredibly disappointing selection of Jamaal Anderson, with the 8th overall pick in 2007.  Anderson weighed 288 pounds at the combine, which excluded him from this list, and actually slightly improved the overall picture for the Falcons.  In the end, I think that sort of balances out including Lofton.

Finally, let's take a look at the Seahawks' defense.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Ty Powell 16 5 0 0 0 31.25 0
Bruce Irvin 32 28 12 10 0.312 87.5 37.5
Greg Scruggs 32 11 0 2 0.062 34.37 0
K.J. Wright 48 44 40 4.5 0.093 91.66 83.33
Aaron Curry 80 48 39 5.5 0.068 60 48.75
Nick Reed 80 26 0 1 0.012 32.5 0
Lawrence Jackson 96 69 24 19.5 0.203 71.87 25
Baraka Atkins 112 21 0 2 0.017 18.75 0
Darryl Tapp 128 114 35 25 0.195 89.06 27.34
Jeb Huckeba 144 0 0 0 0 0 0

Total 768 366 150 69.5 0.090 47.65 19.53

During this period of time the Seahawks have selected a total of 10 players in the weight class we are examining, the same as the computer.  The average and median draft position of these picks came at the 119th and 109th picks respectively, which is roughly the same area as where the computer and most of these other teams made their selections.  Their Sack/POTGP result of 0.090 would suggest that their typical draft pick produces about 1.44 sacks per 16 game season.  A total of 4 of these selections (40%) were chosen in the first two rounds of the draft, where the computer was barred from making a pick.

Despite the solid reputation of the Seahawks defense, their ability to successfully draft pass rushers is rather average to slightly below average, compared to these other teams.  Lawrence Jackson, actually ends up being credited with 28.05% of the sacks produced by Seahawks draft picks, though for 2/3 of these sacks Jackson was on another team, as he was only a Seahawk for his first 2 seasons.  That leaves only the somewhat mediocre Darryl Tapp and Bruce Irvin as the most productive pass rushers to be selected by the team during this period of time.

Again, the reasons for this apparent failure seem a bit obvious.  The median results for these selections would be a -0.007 Kangaroo Score and a 0.172 Agility Score, along with 13.5 TFLs in their final two college seasons.  Those are rather uninspiring results, and not surprisingly they produced uninspiring outcomes.

To fill this pass rushing void, the Seahawks have had to look outside the draft, similar to the Patriots.  In free agency they acquired Cliff Avril (0.287 Kangaroo Score and a 0.215 Agility Score), who was probably just a slightly above average athlete, though he did average 15 tackles for a loss in his final two years in college, which is quite good.  They also managed to pick up Michael Bennett as an undrafted free agent in 2009, and while his average of 9 tackles for a loss in college was fairly pedestrian, his 0.837 Kangaroo Score suggested some reasonable athletic potential (we don't have the data to calculate his Agility Score, unfortunately).  They also traded the previously mentioned Darryl Tapp, for the enigmatic Chris Clemons, who's eventual successes I admittedly have no real explanation for. 

Let's wrap this up...

I realize that only listing the results for 5 different teams may seem like I have been cherry picking the data a bit.  On the other hand, I tend to be a bit long-winded, and I doubt anyone would make it through a post where I did this for every single team.  All I can really say is, these teams seemed to do a good job of illustrating my overall point, and really appeared to capture the general problems most teams have in selecting pass rushers.  These teams, for the most part, are the norm.

That isn't to say that there aren't teams who have done significantly better.  There are.  The Giants, the Rams, the Titans, and a few others have done quite a bit better at selecting these sorts of players, though still quite a bit short of the computer's theoretical results.  Unfortunately, examining the methods to their success aren't that interesting, as their "hits" typically seem to be the very sort of players that the computer would approve of, the highly athletic freak who was productive in college.

Perhaps the most interesting team I looked at was the Kansas City Chiefs, which was the only team to slightly surpass the computer's results.  The combination of selections like Jared Allen, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston makes up a rather intimidating group of pass rushers.  Still, with the possible exception of Tamba Hali, these players also fit the computer's mold for successful players, so I really don't see much for us to learn here, beyond what we already suspected.  The Chiefs have simply done a good job.

I'm sure some other people will criticize the amount of attention that I give to a player's ability to generate sacks.  To some extent, I suppose that is fair.  Almost any statistical category can be a bit overrated.  Despite that, I think it is interesting that even if we look beyond sack production, the computer's imaginary picks are still crushing pretty much everyone when it come to %GP and % GS.  So, when we simply consider a player's ability to get on the field and play, the computer is doing a much better job there as well.

While some might suspect that the computer had the advantage of hindsight, which is always 20/20, you have to remember that the computer made its selections based only on very basic pieces of data that would have been freely available at the time, so it really had no advantage in this sense.  You also have to remember the huge advantage that these NFL teams had, simply by being permitted to select players in the first two rounds of the draft, while the computer was prohibited from doing the same.  How much more lopsided do you suspect the computer's results would have been if this restriction had been lifted?

In the end, you can never really eliminate the risk that a player will be a failure.  Making any sort of guarantee about how following the path I proposed will assure success would be incredibly stupid.  The only real point that I am trying to convey is that, perhaps, if general managers resigned themselves to the likelihood that their instincts for identifying talented players were largely nonsensical beliefs manufactured by their egos, and instead based their decisions on measurable data, they probably couldn't do any worse, and quite possibly would actually improve (I suspect significantly).  When you really consider their histories of repeated failures, what is the real risk?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pass Rushers...Now Lobotomized!

For reasons that are probably related to an undiagnosed mental disorder, our post on the Lobotomy Line was among the ones that I enjoyed the most.  Speculating on "what could have been", if a computer drafted offensive linemen based purely on measurable physical traits, gave me a bit of a chuckle.  For the most part, the computer had no problem matching, or simply outperforming, the draft picks that the Ravens made.  So, I thought we would play a similar game with pass rushers, to see how the computer could have theoretically done, in comparison to a handful of NFL teams.  The goal, just as it was when we looked at offensive linemen, was to go about this in as stupid and straightforward a manner as possible. 

When the NFL calendar rolls around to draft season in the spring, I frequently see people bemoaning the lack of quality pass rushers that are available.  Often, I hear people suggesting that if a team wants to improve their pass rush, they are pretty much required to take a player in the first round.  It's simply about supply and demand, so you have to pounce on the highly touted prospects, since there are so few quality players available.

To some extent they might be right.  The general quality of players taken in the first few rounds is a bit better, on average.  Unfortunately, I think a lot of this perception is also guided by the fact that teams just do a horrible job of identifying talent.  I suspect that there is a higher availability of talent than some may realize, though it sometimes gets overlooked.

When we discussed Reilly's views on drafting pass rushers (in the not very creatively titled Explosive Pass Rushers), we suggested a method that we believe should produce a successful pick between 65 - 82% of the time.  Of course, this suggested success rate hinged upon always drafting the best available pass rushers, in the eyes of the computer.  This doesn't necessarily mean taking somebody in the 1st round, as the computer's view on who the best player in a particular draft class can sometimes be surprising.  Still, it does frequently involve making a substantial investment of draft capital.  It's entirely possible that a team might not feel inclined to do that on a regular/annual basis.  When you start targeting lower tier pass rushers, your success rate will obviously go down a bit, though I think there are still some surprising opportunities out there.  Those less obvious opportunities are what we are going to explore today.

The rules for this game, however, will be slightly more complicated than when we were picking offensive linemen.  Just like we did before, the computer will pick one player per year, from the 2004-2013 draft classes.  We will discuss the computer's method of prioritizing these players in a second, but for now will just say that it is only looking at players whose weight ranges from 245-285 pounds (based on their combine weigh in), which is roughly the range in which you find most 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers.  The computer will not be able to pick anyone who was taken before the 3rd round.  Even when we reach the 3rd round, the computer will be blocked from taking players if they wouldn't have been available to them according the additional rules which will follow.  The computer will also be barred from selecting players who went undrafted.  In the end, the computer will simply be looking for the best combination of athletic ability and statistical production in college.

First of all, let's discuss the athletic ability portion of this game.  Now, in the approach we took in the previously mentioned Explosive Pass Rushers post, we gave a bit more weight to some combine drills than others.  We're going to foolishly throw that idea out the window, for the moment.  Instead, we're just going to give equal weight to a player's Kangaroo Score (based in equal parts on their vertical jump and broad jump), and their Agility Score (based in equal parts on their short shuttle and 3-cone drill).  By simply combining these two scores together, we will arrive at a Total Score, which gives equal weight to all four of these drills.  Personally, I think this is a stupid thing to do, but stupid is what we are aiming for.  In the end, we are looking for players that are at least 0.500 standard deviations above average, relative to their peers, and when they are in short supply we will lower our standards to 0.300.  These thresholds were simply chosen because they are the ones we have used in the past, though they really weren't intended to be used in this way.  Again, stupidity and a lack of effort are our goals.  The 40-yard dash will almost completely be ignored in all of this, except that we will have a cutoff of 4.90 seconds for all of the prospects, which really isn't setting the bar very high at all.

Now, we get to the statistical production portion of the computer's judgment process.  All the computer will consider here is the average number of tackles for a loss that a player produced in their final two years in college.  Players who attended non-Division I schools will be penalized with a 25% deduction from their actual results.  How did we settle on 25%?  Well, we kind of pulled that number out of our ass.  Remember our goal of being stupid?  We're achieving that quite nicely.  Regardless of the questionable (half-assed) scientific merits of this 25% figure, it only seemed fair to say that players at a lower level of competition should have their statistical production downgraded a bit.

Okay, so we have to combine this athletic potential, with the player's statistical production in some way.  Once again, we're just going to go with the method suggested near the end of the post on Explosive Pass Rushers, even though it was intended to be used somewhat differently.

Players Over 0.500 Players Over 0.300
Avg. TFL Round Avg. TFL Round
15                                 1st N/A N/A
14                                 2nd N/A N/A
13                                 3rd 15                                  3rd
12                                 4th 14                                  4th
11                                 5th 13                                  5th
10                                 6th 12                                  6th
9                                  7th 11                                  7th

Let's give an example of how this works.  If a player had a Total Score over 0.500 (for his athletic ability), and averaged 12 tackles for a loss in his final two college seasons, the computer would give him a 4th round draft grade.  The computer would not be allowed to select him any higher than this.  At the same time, a player with a Total Score of 0.300, but who averaged 15 tackles for a loss, would be given a 3rd round draft grade, which would put them slightly ahead of the previously mentioned, but more athletically gifted player.  I've always had a policy of not drafting players with sub-0.500 total scores before the 3rd round, which is why you see the 0.300 group having no proposed draft grade that could have them selected in the 1st or 2nd round, which we've carried over to this game, even though it is irrelevant for our purposes, since none of the computer's picks will come in the first two rounds anyway.

In the end, this might seem fairly complicated to some people, but it really isn't.  It's just a very basic system of balancing potential versus actual proven performance.  The less athletically gifted a player is, the more the computer will demand to see evidence of exceptional production.  The more freakishly gifted an athlete is, the more the computer is going to be willing to gamble on potential and upside.  I suspect my description of the process the computer will use makes it sound much more complicated than it really is. Let me see if I can simplify things.

We want freakish athletes with a lot of tackles for a loss.

There, that sounds a lot better, doesn't it?  Oh well, I tried.  Let's just move on to the list of players that the computer would have selected over this 10 year span.

Mike Catapano
207th Pick

Even with a 25% reduction to his average of 12.75 TFL (since he came from Princeton), Catapano still winds up with a result of 9.56 TFL.  This in combination with his Total Score of 0.789, would result in the computer giving him a 7th round grade, which is in fact where he was selected by the Chiefs.  While his contributions have been minimal so far, his Kangaroo Score of 1.176, and Agility Score of 0.402 are very intriguing.  Only time will tell what he will become.

Miles Burris
129th pick
San Diego State

At just 246 pounds, Burris barely qualifies for this list.  Still, the rules are the rules, so he is the computer's pick for 2012.  At his current playing weight of 240 pounds, the computer wouldn't have been able to select him at all.  Averaging 19.5 TFL, with a Total Score of 0.783, the computer would give him a 1st round grade, which is obviously a bit insane.  It's perhaps fortunate, in this case, that the computer is barred from taking him any higher than the 3rd round, which is one round ahead of where Burris was actually selected.  That's a price I would have been perfectly happy to pay for someone with his physical gifts (a 0.319 Kangaroo Score, and a 1.246 Agility Score).  I have to admit that I am fairly interested in how Burris' career progresses, as I've briefly mentioned before, though I do question the way in which the Raiders have chosen to utilize him.

Justin Houston
70th Pick

Averaging 16.75 TFL, with a Total Score of 1.043, the computer would have given Justin Houston a 1st round grade.  Fortunately, NFL teams didn't feel the same way about this, and let him fall to the 3rd round, where the computer would have happily and quickly picked him up.  In retrospect, I think people would agree that the computer's evaluation was probably the more correct one in this case.  It really does seem odd to me that NFL teams would have let a player with a 1.581 Kangaroo Score and a 0.506 Agility Score  slide this far... until you consider that none of these numbers actually matter to them.

Austen Lane 
153rd Pick
Murray State

When we adjust Lane's 20.75 TFL to 15.56 TFL, due to his level of competition, and combine it with his barely passable Total Score of 0.304, he becomes the computer's pick for 2010.  The options for the computer were fairly slim in this year, so we sort of have to write this one off as a failure, as Lane did very little in his brief time in the NFL.

Michael Johnson
70th Pick
Georgia Tech

Depending on whether or not we round up Johnson's 11.75 TFL,  and combine it with his Total Score of 0.732, the computer would have given Johnson something in the range of a 3rd or 4th round grade.  Since I can't find another 2009 prospect that the computer would have even viewed as draftable, we're sort of forced to go with the round-it-up-to-12 TFL option, and say that the computer would take Johnson in the 3rd round, which is indeed where he was actually selected.  I'm not really a huge fan of Johnson, but he's been relatively productive, so we can live with this result.

Trevor Scott
169th Pick

With an average of 14.25 TFL, and a Total Score of 0.608, Scott would have been the computer's pick in 2008.  Injuries, and perhaps a lack of opportunity, seem to have slowed Scott's career.  He had 12 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, but has rarely been asked to start many games since then.  He's still bouncing around the league, and I have to wonder if he may be a bit underutilized.

Brian Robison
102nd pick

This is a fairly interesting situation.  With Robison's average of 12 TFL, along with his Total Score of 1.154, the computer would have given him a 4th round grade, which is in fact, precisely where he was selected.  While his athletic ability is spectacular (with a 1.383 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.926 Agility Score), it's only his college production that held him back from getting a much higher grade.  While his NFL career started off a bit slowly, this seems to largely be due to playing behind Jared Allen and Ray Edwards in his first few years.  Since becoming a regular starter in 2011, by which point he was unfortunately already 28 years old, Robison has averaged 8.5 sacks per year, from 2011-2013.  I strongly suspect that the Vikings might have wasted a lot of the best years that Robison had to offer.

Chris Gocong
71st Pick
Cal Poly

Chris Gocong never became the sort of pass rusher that I would have hoped for, but he still seems to have been a serviceable player.  What makes this even more disappointing, is that the computer's 2md and 3rd choices for 2006 would have been Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson, who were both more successful.  Still, I suppose things could have been worse.

Justin Tuck
Notre Dame

With an average of 16.5 TFL, and a Total Score of 0.528, the computer would have given Justin Tuck a 1st round grade.  Fortunately for us, he actually fell to the 3rd round, where the computer would have happily pounced on him.  While Tuck has exclusively played as a 4-3 defensive end, I think his 1.060 Kangaroo Score and -0.004 Agility Score might have also made playing 3-4 OLB a real possibility.  I guess we'll never know for sure.

Roderick Green
153rd Pick
Central Missouri

This is a perfect example of why I am hesitant to dumb down our little system for identifying pass rushers.  Based on our normal method of doing things, where we give more weight to some combine drills than we do for others, Green would be rated much lower.  He also only weighed 245 pounds at his weigh in, so he would just barely qualify for this list.  In reality, there are numerous factors which would have made it unlikely that this would have been our actual pick, and it's particularly unfortunate since the computer's next two options would have been the vastly more successful Shaun Phillips and Jared Allen.  Still, the rules are the rules.  Roderick F***ing Green it is!

Okey-dokey, the computer has made it's ten picks, so let's see what sort of picture this presents to us.  Depending on whether we are considering the average or median pick at which these players were actually taken at, the results would be around the 119th or 115th pick, which places most of them solidly within the 4th round area.  So, these players generally didn't cost much to acquire.  When you consider how low most peoples' expectations are for players who are selected at that point in the draft, our expectations should probably be quite modest.

When we consider how productive these players have been, I want to focus not just on their sacks, but also on how many games they've played in, and how many games they were listed as a starter.  For this, we're going to refer to Potential Games Played.  Instead of just saying how many games a player actually played, we're going to count how many they could have theoretically played.  If a player was drafted 2 years ago, they could have potentially played in 32 regular season games.  We want to use Potential Games Played, because it will actually give us a measuring stick that is a bit crueler and less forgiving of injuries, or players who briefly played, but were booted out of the league.  We'll just abbreviate this to POTGP.  The results listed here will just reflect what they have done from the time they were drafted, through the end of the 2013 NFL season.

Player   POTGP        GP        GS      Sacks  Sack/POTGP      % GP      % GS
Mike Catapano 16 15 0 1 0.062 93.75 0
Miles Burris 32 22 15 1.5 0.046 68.75 46.87
Justin Houston 48 43 37 29.5 0.614 89.58 77.08
Austen Lane 64 30 17 3 0.046 46.87 26.56
Michael Johnson 80 79 45 26.5 0.331 98.75 56.25
Trevor Scott 96 76 18 16.5 0.171 79.16 18.75
Brian Robison 112 110 54 39 0.348 98.21 48.21
Chris Gocong 128 79 67 9.5 0.074 61.71 52.34
Justin Tuck 144 127 90 61.5 0.427 88.19 62.5
Roderick Green 160 54 0 12 0.075 33.75 0

Total 880 635 343 200 0.227 75.15 38.97

I think it's fairly safe to say that Justin Houston, Brian Robison, and Justin Tuck would probably be viewed by most people as successes, and Michael Johnson could arguably fall into that category as well.  Those four players alone account for 156.5 of the computer's 200 sacks.  So, let's say that the computer has been successful about 40% of the time.  Then, we have a couple of oddballs like Miles Burris, Chris Gocong, and perhaps another debatable player of your choice, where you might not consider them successes, but you probably wouldn't call them failures either.  So, depending on how you look at things, the computer might be edging somewhat closer to a 50% success rate.

However you slice it, these results are clearly below the 65-82% success rate that I have suggested might be possible (numbers which I still believe are attainable).  You have to remember though, we're dealing with a computer that views all the combine drills as being of equal importance in this scenario, which I believe is a fairly huge mistake.  The restriction banning the computer from taking players in the first 2 rounds is also a rather significant handicap.  So, all things considered, I would say that the computer did a fairly decent job, under the circumstances, though how this compares to the results of an actual NFL teams is something we will get into later.

Now, let's address some obvious questions. 

Isn't judging a player solely on their sack production a bit stupid?  Shouldn't they also be judged on how they perform against the running game?

It's not that I believe defending against the running game is completely unimportant, but people get carried away with praising such versatility.   I think if you had a player (defensive end or 3-4 OLB) who was good against the run, but only producing about 3 sacks a year, you'd probably be perfectly willing to trade them for a somewhat one dimensional pass rusher who was capable of putting up 10 sacks a year.  Hell, Dwight Freeney made a career out of it.  While I was never a huge fan of Freeney (Robert Mathis on the other hand, I like quite a bit), he was very good at rushing the passer.  With the way the rules in the NFL are changing to make it nearly impossible for defensive backs to properly cover someone without drawing a penalty flag, I think the only real option is to murder the quarterback.  I also tend to think that a good pass rush benefits the players in coverage, much more than the coverage is likely to benefit the pass rush, though that is an argument that is difficult to resolve.

Also, pass rushers are simply the rarer commodity.  If you just want somebody who is solid against the run, well, you can find someone like that in the 7th round without too much difficulty.

Isn't it cheating to draft players without giving any thought as to whether they are suited for a 4-3 defense, or a 3-4?

I think there tends to be a fairly fine line that divides a 4-3 defensive end from a 3-4 OLB, and a lot of these distinctions get exaggerated.  It's not that I don't believe that there is a difference, it's just that I think the difference probably doesn't matter too most cases.  People also might underestimate the degree to which NFL teams could already be employing players in defensive schemes that might not really suit them.  Take Brian Orakpo, for example.  With his 1.979 Kangaroo Score, he has the sort of explosive pass rushing power that makes me salivate.  On the other hand, his somewhat below average Agility Score of -0.312, could suggest some problems dropping back into coverage.  To some extent, I feel playing in a 4-3 might have been a better fit for him, but overall, he's still been quite successful a getting to the quarterback, averaging about 7.9 sacks per year from 2009-2013, despite missing nearly a full season's worth of games due to injuries.  On the other hand, Jason Babin might fit better in a 3-4, yet continues to play in a 4-3.  With a middling 0.492 Kangaroo Score, but a 0.988 Agility Score, I think he's probably better suited to playing with a bit more space.

While I would agree that Michael Johnson and Austen Lane probably fit better in a 4-3, and Miles Burris in a 3-4, I'd say that the rest of the computer's picks might be surprisingly flexible.  You also can't underestimate the value of adjusting your team's defensive scheme based on the talent that is available at the time, though most organizations seem to loathe doing so...because they stubbornly think their playbook matters ore than the talent implementing it.

Is it actually sensible to be drafting players like this, every single year?

Well, that all depends on whether you actually care about having a successful pass rush.  If a team is unwilling to invest in the position, then they certainly can't complain about being bad at rushing the passer.  I will say though, that this level of investment in pass rushers really isn't that different from what a lot of NFL teams actually do (though this comparison is going to have to wait until the next post).  In reality, I would probably be less rigid about selecting a player every single year, but might double down on the position in certain years where the talent appears to be stronger.  In the end, this would still probably result in a similar total number of players being taken though.

The biggest problem would probably be continuing to draft pass rushers, even when you already have good ones on the team.  Personally, I think teams should do precisely that, though I can understand how they might feel less incentive to do so.  The goal, from my perspective, isn't just to draft talented players.  It's to draft talented players, that push other talented payers out the door, so that you don't have to re-sign them to the sort of costly contracts that veterans demand.  I think the impact of quality pass rushers is obviously quite high for most teams.  Unfortunately, retaining a high quality veteran pass rusher can be unreasonably expensive, especially when the chances of their talents declining with age seems inevitable.  When you factor in the relative ease with which it appears that replacement talent can be acquired in the draft, I think there's a lot of incentive to not grow too fond of the bird in the hand.

Do I really think an outcome like this is actually likely, or possible, in reality?

Hmm, probably.  I think it is certainly doable, but it would really depend on a lot of difficult to assess.factors, that are outside of the scope of this little test.  I'm really only doing this to see what results might have been possible, if we unleashed a brain damaged computer operating on auto-pilot.  Personally, I think that significantly better results would be quite attainable, and some of the computer's more questionable decisions could have been avoided.  There are additional bits of information the computer is simply unaware of in this game.  A pinch of common sense wouldn't have hurt either  Still, even if the real world results were only half as encouraging as the ones seen here, I believe they would easily beat the results we see from actual NFL teams, but that is something we'll explore in the next post.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Walking Dead Money

It would be difficult to deny that the Ravens had some rather spectacular successes in the draft, starting with their first selections in Baltimore where they selected Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in 1996.  When you additionally throw in players like Peter Boulware, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, you see a collection of high end players that managed to carry a team through more than a decade, generally with a rather positive outcome in most seasons.

Unfortunately, time moves on, and I have to wonder if the young players that are taking over the team are capable of providing the sort of impact that their predecessors did.  While I've speculated a fair bit about whether the more recent Ravens' drafts have been as successful as their past drafts, I wouldn't deny that the Ravens have still managed to turn up the occasional gem.  The problem seems to be that a number of the team's better picks from recent years aren't showing the longevity we saw with some of the team's past stars, and it's leading to some potentially horrific financial consequences.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at some of the more expensive players that the Ravens currently have under contract.  For the moment, I'm going to leave out Joe Flacco, though we'll discuss him at some point.  I'll also ignore Haloti Ngata's obscene contract, that pays him $16 million/year in 2014 and 2015, since I think the damage has already been done in that case.  It seems fairly likely that Ngata will play out his remaining time, and then move on, which will eliminate that issue.  Instead, I wanted to just look at some of the situations which could have a longer term negative impact on the team.

This clearly starts with Ray Rice situation.  Whether it ever really made sense to give a running back a contract that paid him an average of $7 million/year was always highly debatable, but that question is now a bit irrelevant.  As things currently stand, the Ravens are looking at $9.5 million in dead money for 2015 after cutting Rice   While this is only $1.75 million more than Rice would have cost if he was still on the team, the real problem is that they're now getting nothing in return for the money they are spending.  There's no way around this one.  This situation is going to cause the team a headache, but it's really just a relatively insignificant starting point in examining their financial problems.

Then you have the problem that stems from Dennis Pitta's recent injury.  I've always been a big fan of Pitta, though I've often had issues with the team's utilization of him.  Prior to the 2014 season, the team signed him to a 5 year, $32 million dollar contract, with $11 million in his signing bonus (but $16 million in total guarantees).  They did this despite the fact that he was already 29 years old, and coming off a fairly serious hip injury.  The team threw caution to the wind, and now might be facing some unfortunate and painful consequences.  Now, after suffering a seemingly similar hip injury to the one he had in 2013, you have to wonder if he will ever be able to play again.

If this is the end of the line for Pitta, the team could be looking at another $12.8 million in dead money for 2015, depending on when/if he is cut or chooses to retire.  That would bring the combined Rice/Pitta dead money pool up to $22.3 million, though it's possible that not every single cent of Pitta's dead money would have to hit the team all at once.  It's entirely possible that Pitta and the team might not immediately choose to call it quits on his career, and give him an additional year to recover.  This could also give them additional time to spread out some of this dead money over an additional year or two.

Let's assume that Pitta can return next season.  If Pitta can play, what are the chances that he returns as the same caliber of player that the team thought they were paying for when they gave him the new contract?  The more likely scenario, in my opinion, is that he returns in 2015 only to be put on IR, to delay the acceleration of his dead money hit by one year.  In this case, the Ravens would be effectively be paying $15.2 million in 2015 dead money for Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta, while delaying an additional $6.6 million in dead money from Pitta's contract, which would hit the team in 2016.  This would be somewhat similar to how the team held onto an injured Peter Boulware in 2004 and 2005, despite never starting him.  Unfortunately, I think this sort of optimism is sort of like seeing the silver lining in slowly bleeding to death, versus a quick exsanguination. 

Okay, let's consider some of the broader implications of this situation, before we go any further.  The salary cap in 2014 is about $133 million.  We have no idea what the cap will be in 2015 (though some people have speculated that it could rise to $140 million), but the team is already projected to be at about $136.2 million in 2015, for the 41 players that they will still have under contract.  If Pitta retired, that would push the team's cap number to around $142.8 million, though in this scenario the team would only have 40 players under contract.  Now, even if the team filled out the 13 remaining slots on their roster with undrafted rookies making the league minimum ($435K in 2015), that would still add $5.655 million in cap expenses, pushing their total to $148.4 million.  It seems pretty obvious that filling those 13 roster spots will actually cost more than that amount, but we're just playing pretend.  Now, the Ravens are also currently carrying about $6.3 million in 2014 cap space that they could carry over to 2015 (if they don't spend it before then).  That would reduce the 2015 projection of their cap expenses to about $142.1 million (again, this assumes that Pitta retires, and the unrealistic assumption that 13 roster spots could be filled with players working for the league minimum).  It's not a great situation.

It appears to me that finding additional 2015 cap space would be a priority, but this could mean cutting quality players, simply to cover the expenses of players who are no longer on the team.  It would be like owning two cars, and selling the one that runs, to pay off the debt on the one you totaled.  As far as I can tell, there is really only a small handful of players that the team could cut to free up significant financial room.

Player            2015 Cap Hit                   Savings If Cut
Haloti Ngata $16,000,000 $8,500,000
Marshal Yanda $8,450,000 $5,500,000
Chris Canty $3,326,668 $2,660,000
Sam Koch $3,100,000 $2,500,000
Lardarius Webb $12,000,000 $2,000,000
Albert McClellan $1,200,000 $1,000,000
Daryl Smith $3,375,000 $750,000
Jacoby Jones $3,375,000 $750,000

While some of these players would obviously be less painful sacrifices than others, the easy players to cut don't tend to save the team much money.  So, let's say that we wanted to reduce the team's imaginary 2015 cap number of $142.1 million by about $8-10 million, to give the team some breathing space.  Well, unloading Ngata would go a long way towards reaching that goal, but would also probably put a sizable dent in the defensive line.  Ngata also only has one year remaining on his contract, so maybe it's for the best to let him play out the year.  Unfortunately, if the team doesn't cut (or massively restructure, which could be difficult) Ngata, they would have to cut perhaps 3-5 other players from this list to reach our goal of gaining $8-10 million in additional cap space (I'm sort of assuming that Yanda would be viewed as untouchable).

In the imaginary scenario I presented earlier, the team was already trying to fill 13 roster spots with players working for the league minimum, and now we could be adding 3-5 more roster spots that would need to be filled rather cheaply.  Pretty much anyway you slice it, you can probably expect the team to unload some proven quality, in the hopes that an unknown can do the same job for significantly less money.  Of course, if this was easy to do, the team wouldn't have been paying these players in the first place.

You can probably rule out the Ravens making any sort of substantial moves in the 2015 free agency period.  They simply won't have enough money for big ticket acquisitions.  Any new contracts that pay more than a laughably small $1 million/year are going to be difficult to squeeze in under the cap.  It could also be quite unlikely that the team will be able to resign any of their own free agents such as Justin Tucker, Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee, Justin Forsett or Owen Daniels, as it's doubtful the team would be able to afford them either.  So, accounting for those likely losses becomes a factor in all of this as well.  Even giving the franchise tag to the team's kicker, Justin Tucker, could cost somewhere in the ballpark of $2.51 million, which could prove to be difficult to afford.  So, does it appear that the team is likely to get better, or worse, in 2015?

This brings me to the one contract that the Ravens did recently renegotiate, which really confuses the hell out of me.

Let's take a look at the Ravens' star cornerback Lardarius Webb.  For a mere 3rd round pick in 2009, Webb was clearly a steal.  Despite that, it's hard to be a fan of the way his contract was restructured.  When the team adjusted his contract prior to the 2014 season, converting $4 million of his $7.5 million base pay to future guaranteed money, it became really unclear what they were trying to accomplish.

Let's take a look at his original contract, and then his restructured contract.  Please make some allowances for the fact that the details of these numbers can vary a bit, depending on where you look up the data, so there could be some relatively minor errors in this.


                 Year            Base Pay    Signing Bonus  Other Bonuses               Cap Hit    Dead Money
2012 615,000 2,000,000
2013 2,385,000 2,000,000 1,000,000 5,385,000 13,000,000
2014 7,500,000 2,000,000 1,000,000 10,500,000 10,000,000
2015 8,000,000 2,000,000 1,000,000 10,500,000 7,000,000
2016 8,000,000 2,000,000 1,000,000 11,000,000 4,000,000
2017 8,500,000
1,000,000 9,500,000 1,000,000


                 Year            Base Pay    Signing Bonus  Other Bonuses               Cap Hit    Dead Money
2012 615,000 2,000,000
2013 2,385,000 2,000,000 1,000,000 5,385,000 13,000,000
2014 3,500,000 2,000,000 2,000,000 7,500,000 14,000,000
2015 8,000,000 2,000,000 2,000,000 12,000,000 10,000,000
2016 8,000,000 2,000,000 2,000,000 12,000,000 6,000,000
2017 8,500,000
2,000,000 10,500,000 2,000,000

Regardless of how well Webb has played in the past, his recent contract restructuring makes little sense to me.  While it saves the team $3 million in 2014 cap space, this money hasn't been used to sign anybody else, and seems to have been of no immediate benefit.  At the same time, it increases Webb's future cap hits in the years from 2015 onward.  Most importantly, it increases the dead money hits that the team would face, if they chose to release him at some point in the future.

Now, as I've said already, I really like Lardarius Webb.  Despite that, he is still a fairly small cornerback (approximately 182#).   We can't overlook the fact that he does have a rather extensive injury history (quite possibly connected to being on the smaller side), including 2 torn ACLs, and is now dealing with some back issues.  He will also be turning 29 this coming October, so even if he wasn't already fairly beaten up, it's quite likely that his best years might be behind him.  So, why would they restructure his contract in such a way that makes the team even more committed to his long term role with the team?  As things currently stand, he is slated to have the 6th highest cornerback cap hit for 2015, which is silly for a guy that might have a 50/50 shot of being injured at the time.

The reason I find all of this interesting, is that all of these financial burdens seem to fall into 2015, which is the last year before Joe Flacco's contract explodes into utter lunacy.  As things currently stand, his cap hit for 2016 is slated to leap to $28.55 million dollars.  I plan to pursue the subject of Flacco's contract later, in a separate post.  Regardless, even if many of the team's current questionable/idiotic contracts will be off the books by 2016, the eventual room that is created by their removal is quickly going to get eaten up by Flacco. 

While there are many strange and magical ways to manipulate the salary cap that I haven't gotten into here, I have to wonder about the team's immediate future.  If the Ravens had a surfeit of young and emerging stars, of the caliber we saw in the past with players like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, maybe they could still push past the financial bump in the road they are quickly approaching.  I have my doubts that this is going to be possible.