Part of what draws our attention to this subject goes back to the 2014 NFL Draft. As always, we plugged each player's available data into the computer, and it gave us our projected draft grades for where we would have been willing to select each of them. We ended up assigning 3rd round draft grades to both of Murphy and Jeffcoat, and actually found that we had to parse the data a bit more thoroughly to really distinguish one player from the other.
Athletically, they both measured up as remarkably similar players. They both fell into our category of High Agility Pass Rushers, which is a group that tends to be a bit less likely to achieve stardom, but a group that you still can't ignore completely. Weird and wonderful outcomes do occasionally show up with these sorts of players. Perhaps even more interesting, at least for this comparison, this is also a category of pass rushers that Junior Galette also falls into, and he is the player whom they would both be competing to fill in for. When it came to their statistical production in college, Muprhy and Jeffcoat also fell into somewhat similar categories, once we adjusted the results for college games missed due to injuries. It still remained a bit difficult to predict who was likely to have a better NFL career.
In the end, we ended up examining their collegiate statistical production even more thoroughly. We tried to factor in their age, the degree to which their respective teams might be relying on them, and the advantages they might have had when it came to their team playing with a lead. We also compared these factors to many of the players from the past, who have gone on the become obvious successes in the NFL. This added approach became something that interested us, and is something we've started to quietly apply to other players, though it's still something we are fiddling with.
We came to the conclusion that if we had to bet on one of these players, we would have to put our money down on Jackson Jeffcoat. We also started to feel just a tad nervous about the quality of the 3rd round grade we had for Trent Murphy.
Where their paths sadly diverged.
Trent Murphy would go on to be selected in the 2nd round (47th overall pick), by the Washington Redskins, just a bit higher than where the computer suggested that he should be considered. Jackson Jeffcoat, to many people's surprise, would wind up not being selected at all.
It's still not entirely clear why nobody selected Jeffcoat, as he was generally discussed as a fairly popular prospect. I don't really recall any discussion of unfortunate 'off the field issues', that often explain these kinds of occurrences. The only possible explanation I have heard is that Jeffcoat had dealt with some injury issues in college. The severity and long term impact of these injuries was difficult to judge. Still, even if that was the issue, we would have expected someone to select him with a late round pick. It was all a bit of a mystery.
Regardless, after being picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Seahawks, we kept our eye on Jeffcoat, but is was all for nothing. The team released him after the 2014 preseason, which wasn't encouraging. Shortly thereafter, the Redskins would pick him up, assigning Jeffcoat to their practice squad. That's when things became very interesting to us.
Suddenly, we had these two peculiar prospects, whom we had previously directly compared to each other, playing on the same team, and competing at the same position. It was truly a moment of dork-tastic joy for us.
So, what happened?
Well, not much.
As you would expect, the player whom the Redskins had invested a high draft pick in (Murphy), had a clear advantage, and saw actual playing time much earlier in the 2014 season. Until week 16, Jeffcoat would only be on the field for 1 single snap. For week 16 and 17, however, we got to see a very brief glimpse of what Jeffcoat might be capable of doing, if given a chance.
Despite the advantages or disadvantages that each player might have possessed, I though we would put up their statistical production from 2014, including their number of games played/started, as well as their total snaps played.
Now, it is admittedly a bit difficult to really compare the performance of these two players based solely on this limited snapshot of their results. Murphy started 8 times as many games, and was on the field for about 5 times as many snaps as Jeffcoat. Even attempting to compare a player based solely on their stat sheets is something that would likely just lead to arguments, though I think most of us would agree that we prefer to see players producing measurable results.
I also have no interest in condemning or criticizing Trent Murphy. That's not our goal here. Based solely on his statistical production, I would say that Murphy produced respectable/tolerable enough results for a rookie outside linebacker, even if I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that he set the world on fire with his play.
What does interest me, is what happens if we try to extrapolate Jackson Jeffcoat's results over a full 16 game season, and compare this to Trent Murphy"s results. This would also be a highly questionable thing to do, since the sample size for Jeffcoat in 2014 was very small, and could lead to some extremely debatable conclusions. Despite all of that, I am intrigued by an undrafted player who can come off the bench, and produce a sack and an interception, even in very limited playing time. There are generally good reasons to be doubtful about the prospects of most undrafted players, or players who have fallen into a backup role. Yet when Jeffcoat was finally allowed on the field, he did seem to make his presence known, at least to some extent.
Of course, sacks and interceptions tend to be flashy plays, that frequently have too much emphasis placed on them, especially in the confines of the small sample size we are looking at here. So, we'll try not to get carried away with our irrational optimism.
Looking towards the 2015 season.
That leads us to what happened in the 2015 NFL preseason, that brief window in which we get to see some of the less talked about players, as they compete to be noticed. Once again, Reilly and I found ourselves drawn to what might be happening between Murphy and Jeffcoat, and we were encouraged by what we saw.
Let's take a look at the results for each of these two players through 4 preseason games. This time we'll leave out the games started/played stat, since it is a bit meaningless in the preseason.
When given an opportunity to play in an almost identical number of snaps, Jeffcoat really made a rather good impression. The number of high impact plays he was involved in actually strikes me as fairly stunning, particularly since this wasn't just the product of merely one good game. In every single preseason game, Jeffcoat managed to get to the quarterback for a sack, which we still feel is the primary purpose for this type of outside linebacker. The additional interception and forced fumble, are just nice added bonuses.
We could also talk about their tackle numbers, though most people don't seem to be interested in the statistical geekery that surrounds that subject. This is where we get into the discussion of "stops", which relates to where a tackle was made on the field, which determines whether it was a true victory for the defense, as opposed to a more meaningless down the field type of tackle. Of Jackson's 7 credited tackles, 6 were considered to be stops by PFF, which works out to 85.7%. In Trent Murphy's 3 credited tackles, PFF only viewed 1 to be a successful stop, which is just 33.3%.
Again, none of this is meant to be a judgment of Murphy. There's plenty of room to debate how these results come about in preseason games, especially with how these players are rotated onto the field. The degree to which they faced comparable levels of talent from their opposition, based on this rotation, is hard to say. We're really just interested in the differences in how these two player's are currently being perceived by the public, and by their own team.
We don't believe in hope.
I suppose the reason we really find this comparison interesting stems from the way we hear people discussing these two players. Through the preseason, it was largely assumed that Trent Murphy's starting role with the team was secure. Jackson Jeffcoat, on the other hand, was being mentioned in numerous articles that discussed whether he was "on the bubble", and someone who might not even make the team's roster at all (though he eventually did make the team). I have to admit that I find this to be incredibly bizarre. Is there any explanation for this, beyond the favoritism that is shown towards players with a higher draft status? I really don't know, though I have my suspicions.
In the limited time that these two players had to demonstrate their skills and potential impact, it would seem to me that one of them (Jeffcoat) made the debate very interesting. Murphy, on the other hand, seems to be getting a lot of goodwill faith placed in him, despite making a relatively unexceptional impact, at least so far. I realize that some people will say that what went on in the team's practices probably played just as important a role in how the Redskins viewed these players. Unfortunately, that sort of falls into the realm of "coaches have an eye for talent", which makes me a tad nervous. After all, I come from a magical place where people once heralded Kyle Boller as a potential savior. Basing decisions off of measurable results just makes me more comfortable. In that area, Jeffcoat is, at the very least, very intriguing.
While I wouldn't consider myself an advocate for making Jeffcoat an immediate starter, based merely off of these relatively small samples, the idea that the team could have potentially cut him in favor of Murphy strikes me as a bit peculiar. At the very least, you would think rotating both of these players onto the field, until a clear victor emerges might be the sensible thing to do. I also don't really see it as presenting much real risk to the team. Still, I sort of doubt that this will happen. Teams seem to have a strong belief in the hierarchy and value of draft status, and shaking off labels such as 'starter" or 'backup' is only done with much difficulty. It is unfortunate.
While I can't say that we are optimistic about the possibility of a true, honest and open competition ever occurring between these players, we are curious as to how it will all play out.