Monday, January 27, 2014

Bigger & Stronger

I feel compelled to do something that I don't really want to do, which is to defend Gino Gradkowski.  It's not that I think he is a good center.  He probably isn't, and most likely never will be.  In fact, all the signs were there to suggest it was a mistake for the Ravens to draft him.  Hmm, this probably doesn't sound like the opening statement of a defense of Gradkowski, but I'm building to that.

Still, despite Gino's obvious shortcomings, at some point people started making peculiar claims about him that were...well...kind of bullshit.  For some reason I keep seeing people trying to describe Gino's failures as a product of his being "undersized" or "not strong enough".  I assume that most of the people making these claims are driving Hummers to their local Sam's Club, while sucking down a Big Gulp.  Bigger isn't necessarily better, though this desire for sheer bulk seems to also be invading the minds of people who should be more sophisticated than your average internet commentators.

"We've got to get bigger in the interior of our offensive line.  That's one of the areas that I think we need to improve on."- Ozzie Newsome, at the 2014 'State of the Ravens' press conference.

While Ozzie doesn't specifically mention Gradkowski in this comment, it doesn't take a detective to figure out that the team is probably a bit concerned with how he performed last year.  Still, you have to wonder if throwing bulk at the problem will really get you the result you desire.  The Steelers have been infatuated with drafting Texas-sized offensive linemen for the last few years, and the results of this pursuit have been fairly poor.

There is also the nagging problem that referring to Gradkowski as "undersized" is probably just untrue.  Just for the hell of it, let's compare Gino to 32 other players who started a significant number of games at the center position in the 2013 season, based on how they measured up at the NFL Combine.

 Height (in inches)     Weight    Bench Press
Gino Gradkowski 74.6 300 29
Average of 32 Starting Centers 75.2 303.8 28.6

Yes, Gradkowski was a whopping 0.6 inches shorter than the average center in 2013, and a ridiculous 3.8 pounds lighter.  It's amazing that he managed to survive at all, being so helplessly undersized.  While his height makes him the 10th shortest starting center, only 9 centers (28.12%) were more than an inch taller than Gradkowski.  Similarly, as the twelfth lightest center, only 14 centers (43.75%) weighed at least 5 pounds more than Gradkowski.  The only reason I also threw in their bench press results is because of the "he isn't strong enough" argument, though this is sort of an odd issue, since I don't personally believe the bench press really matters that much, or says a lot about a player's strength.  Still, some people seem to place value in that trait, so I thought I would just toss it in there to once again show that he was also within the average range there too.

Of course, the argument could be made that this is only comparing Gradkowski to league-wide averages, and that we should really compare him to the more accomplished and celebrated centers in the league.  Okay, we can do that too.  This time we will only include players who have been selected to All-Pro/Pro Bowl teams, or have had rather long and productive careers as centers.

Player  Height (in inches)     Weight    Bench Press   HT Diff.  WT Diff.
Gino Gradkowski 74.6 300 29

Mike Pouncey 77 303 24 2.4 3
Nick Mangold 75.5 300 24 0.9 0
Maurkice Pouncey 76.4 304 25 1.8 4
Alex Mack 75.7 307 20 1.1 7
Chris Myers 76.5 300 25 1.9 0
Brad Meester 75.3 298 25 0.7 -2
Manny Ramirez 75 326 40 0.4 26
Nick Hardwick 75.4 295 27 0.8 -5
Jason Kelce 74.5 280                  N/A -0.1 -20
Ryan Kalil 74.6 299 34 0 -1
Roberto Garza 74.1 303 37 -0.5 3
John Sullivan 75.4 301 21 0.8 1
Dominic Raiola 74 307 29 -0.6 7
Max Unger 76.5 309 22 1.9 9
Scott Wells 73.7 300 31 -0.9 0
Jonathan Goodwin 75.2 318                  N/A 0.6 18
AVERAGE 75.3 303.1 27.4

MEDIAN 75.35 302 25

Even amongst this rather select group of 16 centers, only 4 (25%) are more than one inch taller than Gradkowski, and only 5 (31.25%) are more than 5 pounds heavier than him.  In fact, only Manny Ramirez and Jonathan Goodwin appear to be significantly bulkier than the average, with a weight difference relative to Gradkowski of 26 and 18 pounds respectively.  While Gradkowski may indeed suck, trying to explain his issues as merely a matter of insufficient mass seems a bit overly simplistic.

Instead, let's consider another possibility.  The Ravens selected a short-armed center (31.75"), from a lower level college football program (Delaware), who had rather poor physical measurables (-0.509 Kangaroo Score, and a -0.034 Agility Score).  If you just want power, I would look to the Kangaroo Score, as I think it is an adequate predictor of such things.  More importantly, I would look to Gino's short shuttle time of 4.78 seconds, which is -0.164 standard deviations below average for an offensive lineman, and possibly the most important drill for prospective centers.  You can click here, if you crave some extensive and deranged ranting about short shuttle times and centers.  Basically, Gino Gradkowski was 5 pounds of talent in a 10 pound sack, but it wasn't his physical size that was the most likely limiting factor.

In some ways, this reminds me of the situation with Danny Watkins, though I suppose the similarities might not be obvious.  Watkins was a guard for the Eagles, selected with the 23rd overall pick in 2011.  When he was released from the team, in 2013, the Eagles' GM Howie Roseman questioned what had happened to Watkins' "innate toughness", and suggested that Watkins failed due to the pressure of being a 1st round pick, rather than admit that:

A.) Drafting a 26 year old in the first round is just a bad idea
B.) Taking this gamble for a less valuable position, such as a guard, is an even worse idea
C.) While Watkins demonstrated moderately above average agility (0.605 Agility Score), expecting him to be a powerful "enforcer" with a cripplingly low -1.306 Kangaroo Score, was a bit insane.

So, rather than just admit that the team had incorrectly evaluated Watkins' abilities, they instead suggested that Watkins failed to live up to the vast potential that they saw in him.  Potential that certainly must still exist.  They had seen it.  Therefore, it was somehow Watkins' fault, for being too psychologically frail to become the player that the team was confident Watkins was capable of becoming.   

Every draft pick is a calculated risk, but occasionally the writing is on the wall that teams are pursuing fairly outlandish hunches.  Do Gradkowski and Watkins suck?  Probably.  Should they be derided and labelled as busts?  Probably not.  They are what they are, and it isn't their fault that unreasonable expectations were placed on them.  Instead, you might as well turn your jeering attention to the men who selected them, and ask upon what evidence they based their belief in these players.  And pray.  Pray with all you heart, that when these fallible men (fallible like us all) try to correct their mistakes, they don't simply say,"We need to get bigger."

Or, perhaps these comments about size are just innocuous statements, which I shouldn't pay so much attention to.

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