Tuesday, February 23, 2016

2016 Free Agent Dumpster Diving

We've been feeling a bit sluggish lately, and were considering the possibility of not doing a post about free agency this year.  It's just not a subject that really excites either Reilly or myself.  Then, we realized that we could use this as an opportunity to ridicule Stephen Ross, and the Dolphins in general, which picked up our spirits a little bit.  After all, we don't really have much else to do until after the NFL Combine.

It really struck us as a mildly interesting coincidence that two of the players who interest us the most, among this year's potential free agents, come from the same poorly run team, the humble Dolphins.  The poor sorry bastards we speak of would be running back Lamar Miller, and wide receiver Rishard Matthews.  Now, don't get me wrong, we're not going to suggest that vast sums of money should be spent on either of these goofballs, we just think they are oddly interesting individuals, with potentially similar issues.  We've liked them both, ever since they were mere draft prospects, and we're just curious as to whether they can escape the black hole that is Miami.

I guess we might as well start off with Lamar Miller, since we've already dropped him into the conversation of misused and under-appreciated players several times in the past.  Watching Miller's career over the past four seasons has been more than just a little bit frustrating for us.  As far as I can tell, Dolphins fans seem to be a bit divided as to how they feel about Miller, which is fine.  Really, it's the attitude of the team's management that confuses us the most.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been a recurring message from the team, that they wished Miller was a more physical runner.  I suppose they want a player who they can consistently pound between the tackles, which is fine.  Such players do exist, and aren't that difficult to find.  The problem is, Miller probably isn't really built for that.  Despite weighing a reported 225 pounds, we still feel his measurable traits from the combine point towards him being an outside the tackles runner, which is they area where he seems to have thrived so far in his career.  With a 0.071 Kangaroo Score, a 0.857 Agility Score, a 40 time of 4.34 seconds (with a 2nd Gear Score of 0.19), his strengths seems to lean in the direction of speed and elusiveness.  You could somewhat fairly say that Miller has more in common with Jamaal Charles than he does with Adrian Peterson, based on these results.  Unfortunately, all the Dolphins appear to see is a fairly large bodied running back, and not the skills that Miller actually possesses.  So, they keep trying to bang that square peg into a round hole.  The Dolphins management are, what we call in this field of study, "idiots".

Now, I'm not saying that Miller can't run the ball between the tackles, but with a player that has rather pedestrian lower body power (again, referring to the Kangaroo Score) it probably is more likely that they are going to require a respectable offensive line to consistently execute those sorts of running plays.  That's probably not something the Dolphins have really provided.

There are some fine stat geeks out there who have made attempts to judge an offensive line's ability to assist running backs on plays like this, but I still find this subject to be a bit murky and debatable.  Instead, I thought we would just show the Dolphins sack rates over the last 5 seasons, which I realize can appear to be an entirely unrelated issue.  Just bear with me here.

Year       Sack Rate
2015         7.10%
2014         7.17%
2013         8.89%
2012         6.83%
2011         9.98%

While the precise extent to which an offensive line is helping or hurting a running back is a bit foggy, I think we can agree that the Dolphins O-Line has been a bit sub-par the past few seasons, when it comes to pass protection.  Some might even say that they suck.  Is it likely that they are significantly better as run blockers? I kind of doubt it, but the sort of athletic traits we look for in pass blockers, are also things we look at in run blockers, and I can't say that many of the players on their line have ever struck me as very interesting in either area.

Let's think about some of the linemen this team employed in 2015.  Even if we can accept that Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey might be above average players (though I have some minor arguments against this), the rest of their line was horribly suspect.  Billy TurnerJason Fox?  The laughably horrible Dallas Thomas (who has allowed 16 sacks in his past 25 games)?  No, for the most part these guys are bozos.  It almost makes you wonder if people were too harsh with poor Richie Incognito, and his questionable motivational techniques.  Where is the great Jonathan Martin now, you sensitive hippies?  Oh, right, he's out of the league, because he sucked.  In retrospect, it makes you wonder if the lunatic was right, even if his tactics seemed a bit absurd. 

Let's also consider the extent to which the team has continually tried to ignore what Miller has contributed, despite his circumstances.  Miller has maintained a career rushing average of 4.6 yards, while accumulating 2,930 rushing yards, 887 receiving yards, and a combined total of 22 touchdowns.  Despite that, the Dolphins have only handed the ball off to him about 12.8 times per game over the last 2 seasons.  Yet, people only seem to see the lack of gaudy rushing totals, as if that was entirely his fault, and question the value of resigning him.

What if we looked at the two former 1st round running backs that the Dolphins have brought in from other teams, during the past few seasons, in their attempts to find their savior.  Those players would be Knowshon Moreno and Reggie Bush.  Both of these players came to the Dolphins in their 6th NFL season, with varying amounts of hype, but how had their statistical performances measured up at that point in their careers, compared to what Lamar Miller has done in his first four seasons?


Player          Att.       Yards             Avg.           TD
R. Bush 524 2090 3.98 17
K. Moreno 845 3468 4.10 26
L. Miller 638 2930 4.59 19


Player         Rec.       Yards             Avg.           TD
R. Bush 294 2142 7.28 12
K. Moreno 157 1401 8.92 9
L. Miller 117 887 7.58 3

Outside of the obvious disparity in opportunities, the results of these other players aren't noticeably better than those of Miller.  You also have to consider that Moreno and Bush were brought to the Dolphins when they were 26, while Miller is still just 24.  We can also point to the fact that Moreno and Bush came to the team having both missed 25% of the their career games due to injury, while Miller has so far only been on the inactive roster for 4.7% of his games.  Yet, Moreno and Bush were brought in with some apparent intention of being utilized as starting running backs, while Miller has always been treated as if he were a step away from getting benched.  Would Miller be treated differently, if he wasn't a former 4th round pick, but a 1st rounder instead?  I suspect so, and that thought irritates me to a surprising degree.

Look, this whole situation is a mystery to me.  I just find it interesting to contemplate the lunatic ways in which the minds of NFL GMs appear to operate.  Am I endorsing that the Dolphins, or anybody else should spend vast sums to acquire Lamar Miller?  No, absolutely not.  I just think it would be nice to see him wind up somewhere that he could be appreciated for what he is, rather than treated like a red-headed step-child.

Okay, that's enough ranting on that subject.  Let's move on to Rishard Matthews.

I think part of what makes Matthews interesting, probably stems from my deranged fascination with Lamar Miller.  There seems to be a similar mount of neglect that has been given to both players.  What this potential neglect says about how the Dolphins are run, and their ability to get the best players on the field, I won't say.  I just think it is a bit interesting to observe.  It's sort of like watching Donald Trump run for president, oddly fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

Now, when Matthews came to the league in the 2012 draft, Reilly and I probably would have ranked him somewhere in the range of our 7th or 8th highest rated receiver prospect for that year.  At a whisker over six feet tall, and weighing (at the time) 217 pounds, he had a nice solid frame.  In terms of speed, his forty times ranged somewhere between 4.54 seconds, and 4.44 seconds (at his pro day).  So that checked out fine as well.  With a 0.651 Kangaroo Score, and a 0.187 Agility Score, his other athletic traits ranged from average to slightly above average.  When it came to his Stat Score (our lazy measure of college production), he had a result of 0.311.  Matthews just kept ticking off the boxes on our checklist of requirements, even if he wasn't necessarily blowing us out of the water.

He struck us as a fairly interesting prospect, that we probably would have projected to go somewhere around the 4th or 5th round.  Unfortunately, he wasn't actually selected until the 7th round, which has probably hurt his ability to get playing time.

Now, the interesting thing to us is how he has gradually been showing signs of progress over the last few seasons, despite getting limited playing.  Let's look at some of his results.

Year Pass Routes Run   Rec Yards      YPRR  Target%  Catch %         YPC
2015         339           662        1.95 17.4    72.9   15.4
2014         111           135        1.21 18.9    57.1   11.3
2013         376           448        1.19 16.4    66.1   10.9
2012         160           151        0.94 11.2    61.1   13.7

While Matthews raw statistical production has never been terribly impressive, we still think he's been an interesting guy to keep an eye on.  As his Catch % would suggest, he generally seems to have been a fairly reliable target, and perhaps even a bit above average.  The main issue has been in getting him targets.  While his Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) results in his first 3 seasons have generally only hovered around the area where we expect to find most team's 3rd or 4th receiver, they have gradually been improving.

It's really his results from 2015, that make you wonder if he might be about the step up to another level.  With a YPRR of 1.95, along with a catch rate of 72.9%, and a YPC of 15.4, you're seeing results that are really quite impressive.   I wouldn't want to get carried away with any of this, but Matthews could be developing into someone who could be a nice secondary receiver for some team.  We also can't underestimate some of the things that might have been holding him back in Miami, including his quarterback, and the team's lack of investment in developing a former 7th round pick.

The neat thing about all of this, is that I would tend to doubt that Matthews would cost very much to acquire.  Since he hasn't crossed the sort of statistical thresholds that tend to draw the eyes of NFL GMs, and also still carries the burden of being a former low draft pick, I wouldn't expect the bidding to get too high.  Maybe a contract that offers around $3 million/year, at most.  His price could end up a tad higher or lower, but regardless, it would be a fairly low risk investment.  If he performs well, continuing on from where he left off in 2015, your team could get a hell of a deal.  If he stumbles and falls, well, the cost of dropping such a contract, and the dead money hits that would go along with it, are really quite minimal.  It strikes me as a nice low risk, potentially high reward situation.

I guess I'll toss in a few odds and ends types of players here as well, since I have nothing else to do while waiting for the psilocybin to kick in.

Maybe it is a product of being in Baltimore, and hearing the locals fret about the looming departure of guard Kelechi Osemele, but I've really been curious about the number of sites that list him as a more desirable free agent than Brandon Brooks.  Admittedly, Reilly and I have had a bit of a man-crush on Brooks for quite a while, so this might be a product of our own biases.  Still, we truly feel that Brooks should be the much more desirable of the two, and someone we could be tempted to spend stupid amounts of money to acquire.

Assessing the performance of offensive linemen generally opens a huge can of worms, so I'll let you judge this on your own, based on whatever sources you trust.  All I can say is, as far as we can tell, Brooks has consistently been a vastly superior guard to Osemele when it comes to pass protection.  We'd also say that Brooks has been superior in terms of run blocking, though Osemele probably comes closer to narrowing the gap in this area.  If you enjoy watching fat men tussle with each other (and who doesn't enjoy that), really look at these two side by side, and tell me that Brooks isn't the better player.

The main thing that seems to be hurting Brooks' stock this year, were the claims that his run blocking started to slip some in the 2015 season.  Personally, I have my doubts about these claims.  It seems more likely to me that this perception come from the Texans having to replace Arian Foster with more humble talents like Chris Polk and Alfred Blue.  People see the running backs getting less yardage, and for some reason they just didn't reach the conclusion that these running backs were as lame as a a three legged mule.  Instead they blamed the line.  Again, maybe this is all just mindless speculation on my part.

There is also the question of the injury risks that come with Osemele versus Brooks.  Over the past 3 seasons Osemele has missed about 27% of his games due to injuries that seem to keep popping up.  Brooks on the other hand, has only been out for 8.3% of his team's games.

If I had to throw a number out there, as to how high I would bid on Brooks, how high would I go?  That's hard to say.  Considering the lack of attention his looming free agent status seems to be garnering in the press, it is hard to say where things will wind up.  Honestly, I think if his price remained under $7 million/year, I'd have a hard time not pursuing him.  Maybe that sounds a bit high to some people.  I really can't say.  Personally, I think he could end up being a good deal even at a price higher than that, since I think he could end up being viewed as one of the best guards in the game today, if people were paying closer attention to Brooks.

I suppose the final looming free agent prospects that I am interested in might be among the league's scattered defensive backs.  I tend to hate these players, as I think they are overpaid, and inconsistent, but a team still requires that you have a few of them.

I'd probably put cornerback Patrick Robinson at the top of the list.  Robinson seems to be mainly treated with apathy, as far as I can tell, and the one year $2 million contract he played for in 2015 doesn't speak too highly of the league's attitude towards him.  In my opinion, he is an above average athlete, who was probably drafted a tad higher than he should have been, leading to unfortunately high expectations.  As far as I can tell, he has probably performed at a respectable level during his career, on some questionable defenses, and could be a nice bargain.  We're looking for a rebound.  Something in the $2-4 million/year range seems like a minimal risk to me.

Then we have the somewhat dreaded cornerback Josh Robinson on our shopping list.  We've been severely disappointed with his play so far in his career, especially since he is about as perfect an athlete as you could find for that position.  Still, we think he was gradually showing signs of improvement in 2015, so a reclamation project might be tempting.  I'm guessing he should be insanely cheap, maybe $1.5 million/year, so there is no real risk in seeing if his career can be revived.

Finally, I will admit to a slightly strange interest in Vikings' backup safety Robert Blanton.  On paper, he has the sorts of athletic traits we like to see at this position, a 1.177 Agility Score to go along with a 0.947 Kangaroo Score, and he seems to have performed to a respectable level in his appearances in 2014.  No, he might not ever become a star, but I suspect he can be quite respectable...and cheap!  Compared to someone like George Iloka, who will probably also hit free agency, I think Blanton could be 90% of the player for maybe 20% of the price.  I mean, how much can Blanton really cost, maybe $1.5 million/year?  I've probably got that under my couch cushions.

I guess there might be a few more players that interest me, at the right price, such as linebacker Vincent Rey, running back Robert Turbin or the perpetually ignored and forgotten defensive tackle Quayshawne Buckley.  In the end, though, I've already spent enough time prattling about the unloved and unappreciated, which just reminds me too much of the cold inattention I receive from my ingrate parents.  So, I guess I'll just pour a drink and have a good cry, much as I suspect many of these players will be doing on March 9th.