Hacking the Draft….Default Positional Targets by Round

Yesterday we took a look at the success rates of different positions by draft position and round.  Today, we’ll use the chart to go a step further, identifying Position/Round combinations that are clearly sub-optimal and eliminating them.  After doing this we arrive at a modified chart that provides some valuable information and can greatly inform draft strategy.  Please note that this analysis is based on the general philosophy that says: The draft should be used to maximize talent and increase the overall skill level of the team.  Free agency and trades should be used to plug roster holes.  I’ll detail why I believe this is the case tomorrow.

First, a few caveats.  All of this relies on the assumption that our sample (draft picks from 1999-2011) is representative of draft classes going forwards.  This may not be the case, but it’s a fairly large sample and I have no reason to believe it is significantly skewed.

Also, when broken down by position and round, we are dealing with small sample sizes.  For instance, our sample has just 10 centers that have been chosen in the 5th round, with just 2 qualifying as “starters”.  Obviously, this is not a large enough sample to conclude that 20% is the true probability of finding a starting center in the 5th round.  This is a good example of why we are refraining from setting strict rules, instead using it to develop a general strategy.

Lastly, the first round of the draft is fundamentally different from the other rounds, especially in the very early picks.  The goal in the first round (especially in the top 10) is to find an elite player, regardless of position.  Therefore, as a general instruction for using the strategy we develop here: It should be adhered to more strictly as it gets later in the draft.    So picks in the first round should be based largely on scouting and player evaluations, whereas picks in the 7th round should be based almost entirely on historical probability.  This is particularly important for Eagles fans, since the team has the #4 overall pick.  For that selection, throw this chart away and hope for an All-Pro caliber player at whatever position in which that skill level is available.

The Process:

Here is a sample chart comparing three positions and their associated success rates in each round:

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 9.42.19 AM

Focus on the first two rounds and think about which positions you would select in both the 1st and 2nd round.  While there is plenty of room for disagreement, my personal opinion would be that the DE position is the optimal choice in the 1st, despite the DB position having better odds of success.  The reason for this is the relative decline in odds as you move later in the draft.  In the second round, the DE success rate is just 36%, whereas DB success is still above 50%.  Conversely, LBs are clearly not a good decision in the first round, since the success rate for the position falls off very little as you move into the 2nd round, making a 2nd round LB a MUCH better value than a first rounder.

Using that relatively simple analysis and applying it throughout the draft, we get this chart:

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 10.29.40 AM

I’ve blacked out areas that, in my opinion, are not good values based on our stats.  Consult yesterday’s post if you want to check the odds yourself, but in most cases I just eliminated rounds that offered no better odds of success than later opportunities.  Careful observers will note that I could have gone much farther if I applied the relative draft pick value standard to each area.  For example, according to the default NFL Draft Value chart, a 5th round pick is worth more than four 7th round picks (a clear example of how flawed the Draft Value chart is IMO).  Applying that to the chart, you would obviously rather choose four DBs in the 7th round (9% success each) than one DB in the 5th round (14% success each).  However, due to the number of uncontrolled variables and the potential for non-representative samples, we need to be careful not to go overboard and fall victim to false precision.

Now that you know the general idea/process behind the chart, take a minute to look at it and you’ll notice some interesting things (and almost definitely pick up on things that I will fail to mention or haven’t realized).

My takeaways:

– The 5th and 6th round are particularly notable for the small number of positions for which these picks make sense.  The 6th round is a relative wasteland, suggesting that at this point scouting means nothing.  Therefore, if we stick to the chart, a team should either choose a DT, TE, or G in the 6th round or trade down into the 7th round.  Any other decision is an inefficient use of assets.

It’s possible the Patriots realize this, explaining why they were willing to move down a pick in the 6th round of 2011 (trading with the Eagles) for no compensation, in a trade reportedly made “just for fun”.

– This is also a clear illustration of why DEs are so valued by some teams.  If you do not choose one in the 1st round, the next opportunity to choose one efficiently isn’t until the 5th round, when your odds of success are just 23%.

– The 7th round might be best used exclusively on the OL.  Looking at the odds above, it’s clear that T/G/C have a much better chance of success as 7th round picks than any other significant position.

– RBs are incredibly hard to pick, and it is probably a better use of resources to just sign one in free agency.  (Hard to believe for Eagles fans, since both Shady and Bryce were draft picks.  These guys are RARE exceptions.)

– WRs are rarely an efficient pick, with just the 1st, 2nd, and 7th rounds as value opportunities according to our chart.

There is plenty more we can do with this information, but I’ll hold off on that until another day.  In particular, we can use this to grade teams’ performance over the past decade, which I hope to do soon.

 

Hacking the Draft…Comprehensive Chart

Hopefully everyone has enjoyed the round-by-round breakdown.  While there are obviously a number of variables that can’t be controlled for, the pure statistical look at each position group has already provided some interesting insight.

Before I get to the big chart, let me just clarify exactly what I think this type of analysis is good for, then dig into an Eagles example.  Feel free to skip to the chart and come back.

The purpose of this is NOT to arrive at a set of rules by which teams should draft players.  Instead, it is meant to provide a general guideline, or a “default draft position”.  For example, yesterday I said that selecting DEs in the 3rd round is a terrible value proposition according to the data I’ve collected.  That doesn’t mean drafting a DE in the 3rd round is ALWAYS a terrible decision, it just means that for a team to make that decision, it must see or know something about the subject player that makes him CLEARLY much better than any other prospect available at that position.

The biggest flaw in NFL draft strategy, as far as I can tell, is each team’s confidence in its own ability to evaluate talent.  Regardless of the general manager, every team has historically had a very large margin of error when it comes to talent evaluation.  For instance, in the 1st round less than 6 in 10 LBs selected from 1999-2011 had or are having significantly productive careers (according to our definition.)

So what does that mean?  It means teams, in general, should be mostly focused on value during the draft, as opposed to parsing prospects.  This is perhaps never more apparent than when a team decides to trade up to select someone.  Let’s use the Eagles as an example.  NOTE: This is a very rough example, with numbers pulled from my ass, and is only meant to illustrate a larger point.

When the team traded up for Brandon Graham, it swapped 1st round picks with Denver and gave up two 3rd rounders as well (moving up from 24 to 13).

At the 13th pick, no DEs had been taken.  Between picks 13 and 24, 3 were taken, including Graham.  So that means the Eagles, in their analysis, decided that they had to take a DE (will not argue that decision here, though I was mad they passed on Early Thomas, and can produce witnesses that will verify I said that when it happened).

The only way the trade made sense was if the Eagles, in their DE analysis, decided that the odds of Graham becoming a stud DE were MUCH higher than the odds of JPP, Morgan, or Hughes becoming a stud DE.  Here is where the “margin of evaluation error” comes into play.

Using our historical draft data, we can calculate the odds of getting a starting DE with a 1st round pick and two 3rd round picks (I realize they were hoping more than an average starter, but stay with me).  Using the table below, we can calculate those odds to be 81.5%.  Using the Pro Bowl percentages from the earlier tables, we arrive at 37% for the odds of getting a Pro Bowl DE if you select DEs with a 1st round pick and 2 third round picks.  So here is the breakdown for “generic DEs”:

– 1st Round Pick – 24% chance of Pro Bowl, 67% chance of starting

– 1st Round Pick and 2 third round picks – 37% Pro Bowl, 81.5% starting.

Please note that this DOES NOT mean the Eagles made a bad decision.  Obviously the odds should be better for the 13th pick than for the 24th pick (we’ll get to that another time).  It DOES MEAN, however, that the Eagles, in their evaluation of Brandon Graham, should have been almost certain that he was more than 37% likely to be Pro-Bowl caliber, and more than 81.5% likely to start.

I have no doubt that they believed this, BUT, if they had applied a margin of error to their own analysis (as any good team should) prior to making the trade, they would have been unlikely to go through with it.  Let’s be extremely generous and assume the Eagles front office could peg these odds with a MOE of +/- 15% (WARNING: overly simplified statistics).   That means if they estimated Graham had a 90% chance of starting, his true odds of starting were almost definitely between 75-100%.

Immediately we can see an issue.  Even giving Graham incredibly high odds of starting (90%, which is more bullish than any team should be with any players outside the top few picks) and the Eagles a very generous MOE (+/-15%), the resulting range still does not exclude the 81.5% starting odds for the generic position of a first and two thirds (although it is near the bottom of that range).

That means the Eagles really should NOT have been (though I’m sure they were) confident that Graham would be better than just taking whichever DEs were available at #24 and in the third round, and hence, should not have made the trade.

I don’t mean to suggest that trading up is never a good idea, simply that the evaluative bar for whichever prospect is the target must be EXTREMELY high, and much higher than the standard currently being applied by most teams.

My final point:  Teams do not appear to take a probabilistic approach to drafting (which they almost certainly should), and I would guess that they do not actively overlay a margin of error onto their evaluations.  This is very much a “new-school vs. old-school” issue, similar to the statistical revolution in baseball, but IT IS NOT THE SAME.  It is largely a matter of GMs being willing to recognize and account for their own shortcomings and cognitive biases.  The franchises that can apply this will, in the long run, be more successful than those that don’t.  (Looking into which teams might be using this type of strategy will be another day’s post)

Ok, enough talk.  Here is the chart with every round included. I removed the All-Pro and Pro Bowl columns to make it easier to compare.  Dig into it and see what you think.  Later this week we’ll mine it for an “optimal default strategy”.

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More on Kick Returns

GUEST POST (Jared):

This one is shorter and just as interesting, I promise.

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post, I took a deeper look at the stats to see which teams were best at kick returns.

Remember, we looked specifically at ‘touchback-eligible’ returns, meaning kicks that traveled into the end zone and were brought out.  We examined these situations because they are instances where returners have to make a choice on what to do.  Our initial analysis of this past year provided a couple of insights.

–        Kick returners have a good sense of when to run the ball out of the end zone, providing their teams, on average, better field position than just taking a touchback.  This persists even on kicks landing deep in the end zone, and even when adjusting for the risk of turnovers (but not injuries).  Therefore, players returning kicks deep in their own end zone are, in fact, probably making the right decision.

–        However, the Eagles performed both significantly worse than average and significantly worse than if they had just accepted a touchback every time.  This raises questions as to why (Boykin’s decision making, coaching, talent, etc.).

But, another question came up.  How much better are the best teams at making these decisions?  The graph below is a repeat of one of our initial graphs, but with all NFL teams included alongside the Eagles and the NFL average.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.12.45 AM

The best teams, the Jets, Broncos, and Vikings, averaged over 0.80 Expected Points, significantly higher than both the NFL average of 0.45 and the touchback value of 0.34.

When we look at the return distribution for these successful teams, we can see why this is the case and why their Expected Points are so much higher than the Eagles.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.12.53 AM

It may be hard to see on the page, but notice all the kick returns beyond the 30 yard line?

The Jets, Broncos, and Vikings all have a good chunk of returns that go farther (even some touchdowns between then) than the 30.

You’ll notice that the Eagles have none.

Therein lies the difference.  Kickoff returns can have a decent degree of variance, and the overall performance of your return game hinges on the idea that you’ll bust some long returns over the course of the season.

The best teams do that more often, and this year, the Eagles never did.

But the results here got me thinking again (they tend to do that).  If the Vikings, Broncos, Jets, or other teams are so good at returning kicks, shouldn’t they be returning them more often?  And shouldn’t teams with poorly performing special teams take a knee more often?

If teams are behaving logically, we’d expect to see a relationship between return effectiveness and return percentage.

So what do we see?

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 11.13.00 AM

Looks like a relationship to me.

Generally speaking, the better you are at returning kicks, the more often you do it!  (I guess the reverse causality is also possible, but that seems much less likely).

We don’t see all that many weird looking outliers here, although a couple of cases are circled that are worth mentioning.

At first glance, it looks like several teams should be returning the ball more often.  The Jets, Vikings, Colts, and Broncos.  Are there reasonable explanations for why these teams didn’t return more kicks?

With the Broncos, you may have already guessed what’s at work.  Elevation.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of kickoff instances that are only listed in the Play by Play as ‘touchback’ without detail on how far the ball traveled.  I’d infer that most of these are kicks in Denver that simply are put out the back of the end zone given the high altitude.  It’s a shame, because it looks like Denver is pretty good at returning kicks.

The Colts also appear to have some explaining to do.  With such a high Expected Points average, why wouldn’t they return the ball more?  Looking at the data, it seems like they’ve rotated kick returners.  Earlier on in the year, through week 12, they had five different returners who combined to average just better than a touchback in terms of Expected Points.

But for the last few weeks of the season, Deji Karim took over and broke a number of long returns including a 101 yard TD against the Houston Texans.  Their boost came late in the year, and they didn’t have enough time to start moving their return %.

I thought the Vikings case would be easily explained by Percy Harvin getting injured, as he’s a fairly dynamic kick returner.  However, the team’s touchback % on eligible kicks didn’t change after he left the lineup and his replacement also did an above average job.  Maybe they should’ve just returned more (unless they wanted Adrian Peterson to have as long a field as possible!)

The last one I spent some time investigating was the 49ers.  They returned far and away the most touchback-eligible kickoffs, but with roughly average results.  What gives?

I assumed it was a combination of Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams just returning everything in sight.  But even when Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James returns, they don’t willingly take touchbacks frequently.

Jim Harbaugh has a rep as a great coach, with a keen eye towards in-game decision-making.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’s thought about this issue and for whatever reason has emphasized running kicks out of the end zone all the time.  The team is above average at doing so, and does significantly outpace taking a knee every time.  But I have to think there’s more at work there for a team to run kicks out of the end zone over 75% of the time.

Next up we’ll return to our historical draft breakdown, this time putting every round together (once I figure out the best way to display it all on one graphic).

Post-game notes: Eagles vs. Giants.

First things first:  Thank you to the Eagles for not winning, thereby securing the #4 pick (chance at #3 as of this post.)

Now to the game:

Wow…truly epic destruction.  Perhaps the defense figured that since none of them made the Pro Bowl, they could replicate the experience by playing this game as though it was in Hawaii.  There are really few words that could adequately describe the performance of this team today, but I will highlight one:  SAD.

As in, it’s really SAD that Andy Reid’s final game as head coach of the Eagles will go down as one of his team’s worst games ever.  Prior to the game, I was very concerned that the team would put it together to honor their coach, with Vick playing well in hopes of continuing his career and the Eagles pulling out a victory over the tailspinning Giants and ruining their draft spot.

Needless to say, that concern was sorely misplaced.

Here are my immediate notes:

– Is Michael Vick’s career over?  My gut says no, but I find it very hard to believe that there is an NFL coach/owner that believes he can be a difference maker for a contender.  Additionally, he’s about the last “veteran” you’d want to come in as a backup and help tutor a younger QB.  Perhaps Rex Ryan will make a play with him, but I don’t see a real role for Vick next year.  If he does get the job somewhere, expect that team to regret that decision.

– Do we still have LBs?  The Eagles entire LB corps registered 1 tackle in the first half.  Let that sink in for a moment.  In what was a terrible year for Eagles LB play, today was probably the worst individual game.

– B-Graham was silent.  Hard game to judge Graham on, but he was fairly quiet nonetheless.  I’ll be watching him closely on the film, but it looked like he did not have the same energy today as he has had most of the season.

– Has Nnamdi been Space-Jammed?  There may be no bigger example of unmet expectations than Nnamdi Asomugha.  Either he has had a precipitous decline in skill (likely combined with being overrated in the first place) or his skills have been stolen from him by pint-sized aliens hell-bent on world domination.  Either way, he’s not coming back.

– Is Trent Cole victim #2?  Though he’s done-so more quietly than Nnamdi, Trent Cole has also seen a huge decline in performance this year.  He recorded at least 8 sacks in every year after is first (when he had 5) and had 11 sacks last year.  This season?  Just 3.  With a new regime coming in, Cole might be one of the roster surprises next year, either because he’s no longer on the team, or because he moves to the bench.

Though I don’t expect to see anything useful/interesting, I will be completing a full Rewind of this game by the end of this week.

We’ll also take a data-driven look at Andy Reid’s tenure and start looking at possible replacements.

Pre-game Notes: Eagles vs. Giants

With today’s game, the Eagles season from hell finally ends.  Injuries have robbed us of the most interesting players to watch (Foles/Cox/Kendricks) but there are still a few reasons to remain engaged (other than doing it just because you are a real fan and love football.)

– A loss guarantees the Eagles pick no worse than 4th in the draft (a loss with a Raiders win over the Chargers gives the Eagles #3.)  A win, however, could drop the Eagles as low as 7th (according to BleedingGreenNation) if the Lions, Bills, and Browns all lose (very possible.)

– The Giants have lost 5 of their last 7 games, though maintain a slight chance to make the playoffs.  They need a win today and losses by Chicago, Minnesota, and Dallas.  It should also be noted that despite their streak of poor play, they’ve been good in their own stadium and bring a 5-2 home record into the game.

– Bryce Brown.  The Giants are allowing 130.4 yards rushing per game, so if Brown gets an honest chance, we could see some fireworks.  If McCoy dominates the carries, we’ll still get the fireworks, but they won’t be as meaningful (we know McCoy is awesome.)  If I was Jeffrey Lurie, I would have made it abundantly clear that I expected to see Brown get at least 10-15 carries…

– Brandon Graham.  Graham has had a good season, let’s see how he finishes it out.  He hasn’t erased the bust label yet, but he has shown enough potential that fans should be legitimately excited to see what he can do next year.  The Giants are a good test, giving up the least sacks per game at 1.3.  If Graham can be disruptive today, it’s a very good sign for next season.

– Michael Vick.  Vick’s play today really doesn’t matter to Eagles fans since he will almost certainly not be on the team next year, but it felt wrong not to include him.

– Jeremy Maclin.  Maclin has 293 yards receiving in his last three games.   Though the change to Vick will mean a different type of offense, hopefully Maclin can continue his strong play.   The Giant’s are ranked 28th in the league in passing yards allowed per game (257.4), so there should be some room for Maclin to work.

– Want to play the worst drinking game ever?  Drink every time you hear Jamar Chaney’s name mentioned…

Fitting End For The Youngsters

First off,  happy holidays to everyone.  Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope everyone was able to enjoy a few days off with friends and family.

Unfortunately, the news for several Eagles rookies over the weekend was not good.  Foles broke his hand and Cox/Kendricks were both concussed against the Redskins.  I don’t expect any of them to play in the final game (Foles is definitely out, still waiting for info on Cox/Kendricks, but why play them?).

Therefore, I thought a quick note reflecting on each of their performances this year was in order:

Nick Foles – Foles is garnering a lot of attention, and for good reason.  Here are Foles’ final numbers for this year:

60.8% Completion percentage

1,699 yards passing, 6 TD/5 INTs

79.1 QB Rating.

Rushed 11 times, picking up 5 first downs.

Overall, I think there is plenty of reason to be excited about Foles and do not understand the detractors.  I believe a large part of the negative analysis is the performances being made by the Luck/Griffin/Wilson combo, to which Foles does not compare.  However, in general, Foles performed very well for a rookie, especially given the circumstances surrounding the team.  (See the post from last week showing the rookie performances of some other current NFL QBs.)

His accuracy, pocket awareness, work ethic (anecdotally), and poise all appear to be strong.  His only big weakness thus far has been the deep ball accuracy and perhaps a reluctance to throw into tight windows (tough to grade him down on that.)

Though there is still one game to review (full Rewind will be posted tomorrow or Friday), I’ve seen more than enough to feel comfortable with Foles heading into next year.  There is no QB in the draft worth the #3-#4 pick, and there is little sense in bringing in a mediocre veteran, so the best use off assets for the Eagles is to commit to Foles for next year, rebuild the rest of the team, and see where that gets them.

Behind a strong OL (a possibility for next year) and with McCoy/Brown (if the team doesn’t ignore him), Foles has a chance to be a very productive QB.

Cox As most readers can probably tell, I am very excited about Cox.  It’s rare to find a DT with the pass-rushing skills this kid has, and he plays with energy every play.  He’s got some work to do against the run, but the talent is there and he has the potential to be a real force for the Eagles for a long time.  A lot will depend on the next coaching regime, but if he’s allowed to attack and put with the right players (perhaps a gap-filling NT….Lotulelei?), he’s gonna wreak havoc on opposing QBs.

Kendricks  Kendricks will probably end up as one of the bigger disappointments of the season.  He started the year with a few strong performances, and it looked like Eagles had found a playmaker at LB. However, his play tailed off as the season progressed.  He did rebound in the past two weeks when he was switched back to the WILL spot, but overall a very inconsistent year.  Still looks like he has the potential to be a good LB, but there are definitely some holes in his game that will need to be addressed (both tackling and reading.)

In total though, this Eagles rookie class looks stronger than any they’ve had in while.  I’ll add some more color once I review the Redskins game, but fans should be encouraged by the overall play of the rookies (we’ll do a full rookie breakdown after the season), especially in comparison to other recent draft classes.

 

Andy Reid Era

This will probably be just the first in a series of posts we do on Andy Reid over the next couple weeks, but here we have highlighted his success relative to other current NFL coaches.   Before we get to the chart, here are the rules:

The X axis is cumulative regular season winning percentage.  Important to note that this a) only includes current NFL coaches, and b) only includes their track record with their CURRENT team.  So Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan don’t get credit.  This is a What Have You Done for Me Lately? world.

The Y axis, I’ve termed Annualized Playoff Success.  I went through each coaches playoff history and gave them credit for their success on a simple point system I created.

Playoff Appearance (No Wins): 1 Point

Playoff Win(s) (but no Conference Championship): 2 Points

Super Bowl Loss: 3 Points

Super Bowl Win: 5 Points

You add up all those points and divide by total coaching tenure with the team (to mitigate the impact of long tenure).

The bubble size represents total Playoff Points under my system (so it’s a bit biased towards long tenure, but instructive nonetheless).  Orange bubbles, in case you couldn’t guess, mean super bowl winners.

Screen Shot 2012-12-24 at 10.43.08 AM

 

Andy Reid is a little tough to see, but he is the biggest blue bubble, just under Tom Coughlin.

The big takeaway here is: “Be careful what you wish for” regarding a coaching change.  I’ve long been an Andy Reid supporter.  Despite some obvious shortcomings, I believe he is still one of the best coaches in the league.  Most importantly, it is very difficult to find a good NFL coach.  As we can see in the chart above, by our assumed current standards (Andy Reid = just not good enough), there are A LOT of crappy coaches out there.

There’s no guarantee the Eagles make the right choice when it comes to the next coach, and I’d argue that the odds actually suggest it will be tough to find someone as good as Reid has been.

Just to clarify, this is not an endorsement of keeping Reid, just reminding everyone to temper their enthusiasm to get rid of him.

 

Eagles vs. Redskins: Pre-game notes

Looking forward to today’s game; here’s what is important to watch for:

-A cynical note:  It’s close to impossible to actively root against the team during the game, but a win here could prove hugely expensive.  Just remember, a top 3 pick in the draft is a lot more fun than a meaningless win in December.  Also, though I’ll never actively root for a division opponent, I think I’m in the majority when I say I’d much rather see RG3 in the playoffs then Eli Manning or Tony Romo (though watching Romo fail is hugely entertaining if a bit predictable.)

– Nick Foles.  Foles is coming off a relatively weak performance…expect him to bounce back.  The Redskins are among the worst pass-defenses in the league, allowing 285 yards per game through the air.  Their pass-rush has also struggled, notching just 25 sacks, tied for 28th in the league.  All-in-all, Foles should have the time and space to move the offense, so there will probably be a lot of fans trying to jump back on the bandwagon after today.

-Emil Igwenagu.  This is a bit of a wildcard, as there is still no clear indication of how he will be used or how much he will play.  However, Igwenagu has the strength/size/toughness to be a good blocking fullback.  Normally this wouldn’t mean much, but if we take Andy Reid out of the picture for next year, it’s not difficult to see the offense transitioning to more run-emphasis.  Imagine a full-speed McCoy/Brown tandem running behind a rejuvenated O-Line.  Add in a powerful run blocker out of the fullback position and it becomes a very intriguing prospect, especially when you remember DeSean will be there to keep defenses honest.  It probably won’t amount to much, and this could easily be the most we ever talk about Igwenagu, but for today I’m paying close attention and hoping he gets a chance to play.

-Fletcher Cox.  Assuming RG3 starts and plays without any noticeable limitations, this should be a tough assignment for Cox.  To date, he has proven himself as a strong pass rusher, either with the straight bull-rush or by using his hands to get separation at the snap before using his explosiveness to blow by his blocker.  Normally this is great, as collapsing the pocket from the inside disrupts just about every play.  However, against a QB like RG3, this can be an issue as it creates running lanes and makes it harder to contain the QB (assuming he can avoid Cox’s initial pressure).  I’m not sure how they’re going to play RG3, but if it were me, I’d be focused on containment and rely on the DBs to cover (the Washington WRs shouldn’t really scare anyone.)  If that’s the case, then we may see a dip in performance from the rookie DT, as he’s more successful when he can attack rather than react.

-The LB’s. Should be a rough day for Demeco and Co.  The RG3/Alfred Morris combo is a bad matchup, since they put a lot of pressure on the LBs (not exactly the Eagles’ strength.)  Morris is a strong runner both inside and out, and can be tough to bring down.  Hopefully Kendricks can use his speed to make a few plays, but in a one-on-one Morris-Kendricks battle, you’d have to bet on Morris coming out on top.  Also, I think we can safely assume that The Invisible Man (Jamar Chaney for those who forget) will remain invisible.

-Colt Anderson.  This should be a fun game to watch Colt.  He’ll either make a few big plays or look ridiculous.  The running attack of the Redskins plays to Colt’s strength, but he also has a propensity to lose his angle when attacking, making him vulnerable to missed tackles.  He played a solid game last week, but this offense is an entirely different challenge.

-RG3. I typically don’t highlight opposing players because it’s not within the purview of this blog, but RG3 is special.  For any fans who don’t have RedZone or Sunday Ticket, you’ve been missing out.  It’s possible RG3’s career gets derailed by injury or that he adjusts his game to avoid contact, but for now he might be the most entertaining player in the league.  It sucks that he plays for the Redskins, and I’m sure we’ll all grow to hate him if he kills the Eagles over the next 10 years, but for now I encourage everyone to enjoy the show.

Week 14: Eagles vs Bengals Rewind

Sorry for the long delay, but as some of you know, the All-22 footage isn’t available until the Wednesday after the game.  So at the risk of bringing up the memory of a game most fans would like to forget, here is the All-22 breakdown, featuring notes on key figures and breakdowns of three big plays:

Notes:

Overall – A better game then the score indicates, as I described in the post-game notes.  Key figures:

Nick Foles – Played a much better game then most are giving him credit for.  The interception was a terrible throw, but other than that he made good decisions.  Some will point to a couple throws at the end of the game that clearly weren’t high-percentage passes, and they’re correct, but I would argue that down 24 points with time running out is exactly the time to engage in higher risk plays.  Throwing an interception at that point doesn’t really decrease the odds of winning since they are so low to begin with.

He again showed good pocket mobility, though this game he didn’t make his progressions quite as well as he had been doing previously.  All-in-all another encouraging game despite what most are saying.  (That’s precisely why we just look at the tape rather than going off what we hear.)

Colt Anderson Colt played a better game than I gave him credit for.  In the post-game notes I mentioned the nice pass break-up but nothing else.  Colt made some nice plays in the run game (his strength) though he did have trouble bringing down the runner at the point of contact a few times (getting dragged a few yards).  A solid game, though, and certainly higher quality than we’ve seen from any of the safeties in a while.

Jamar Chaney – From now on Chaney will be referred to as either “The Invisible Man” or “Human Practice Sled”.  It is really amazing how he can play so much and yet have so little impact on the game.   The box score will tell you he had 7 total tackles (by far his highest of the year), but most of those came from him chasing down a man he should have stopped earlier.  By my count, he made just 1 positive play, bringing the runner down at the line of scrimmage. The best thing you can say about him is that he takes 1 blocker out of the play (which in fact is about the worst thing you can say about a LB).

Fletcher Cox/Brandon Graham – This was easy to see for most watching the game, but both of these players had a huge day.  If they can keep up this level of play, the Eagles have the potential for a great d-line.  Cox has already shown himself to be among the best pass-rushing DTs in the league, which is what the Eagles hoped for when they picked him.  Graham, however, has been a revelation (considering how low his stock was preseason).  In addition to the sacks, Graham played with a lot of energy on each play, including coming completely across the field once and bringing down a scrambling Dalton from behind on the opposite sideline.  Any fan looking for a reason to get excited has found it.

DRC –  DRC reminded everyone why he’s so well-known.  He was matched man-to-man against Green nearly the whole game, and held him relatively in check.  The TD fade is a tough one, DRC has to know that’s coming and find a way to stop it, but that’s easier said then done for any corner up against a receiver of that caliber.

Kendricks – Another young player to watch.  Kendricks had a tough game and was largely missing from the action.  He did have one pass defended, but was made to look foolish by Andy Dalton (on Dalton’s TD run).  Kendricks’ performance has definitely taken a hit outside of last week’s game.  Let’s hope he rebounds, otherwise the LB core is again pretty weak.

Now for some plays:

The Maclin Fake-Screen:

2nd and 3 at the PHI 38 yard line.  This is a great play not just because of how well it was drawn up and worked, but because the Eagles started setting this up the week before.  Remember all those WR screens they ran against Tampa?  Well they came out this game and early-on ran a couple, giving the Bengals plenty to recognize and key off.  Laying that groundwork paid off in this play, which ultimately led to a TD.

Here is the pre-snap look:  The Eagles come out trips-right with Riley Cooper on the opposite side (total of 4 WRs).  On this play, the Bengals are in a nickel defense, which means they only have 3 CBs on the field.  To account for the discrepancy, the Bengals’ safety takes responsibility for Maclin.

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Just after the snap, seen below, the Eagles are showing the WR screen.  Notice the safety covering Maclin has stepped up and crossed the 50.  To this point there is no real sign that it’s a fake, as Maclin could just be running to set up blocking position between his man and the receiver.

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Finally, we get the payoff picture.  At first glance it doesn’t look like much, the safety covering Maclin is still farther downfield.  What’s key though, as we can see from the above picture, is that at this moment Maclin is at full speed, whereas the safety covering him has just realized it’s a fake and is starting from a dead stop, giving him no chance of matching Maclin’s speed.

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A very well-drawn up play, but fairly simple.  The key was setting it up with actual screens both early this game and in the week before.  I know some people have mentioned Foles should have hit Maclin in stride (leading to a TD on this play), but I think Foles was really just trying to ensure a catch and got a bit conservative with his throw.

Play 2:  The Cooper TD

This play occurs shortly after the previous play.  Nick Foles hits Riley Cooper, who is wide-open at the goal line.  How did he get so open?  Below is the pre-snap.  The Eagles come out with 5 WRs and bunch 4 of them just off the line to the right side.  As you can see from the diagram, bunching 4 WRs (one is actually RB Lewis) together makes things very difficult for the defense.  If they are in man-coverage, the defenders are susceptible to “pick” plays or running into each other as they try to run with their man.  Zone coverage alleviates this problem, but means the defenders have to be communicating with each other perfectly, or else they may accidentally double-cover a WR and leave another open.  The second option (zone) is what appears to happen here.

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Riley Cooper is the WR lined up closest to the O-Line on the right side.  Pay close attention to his route.  See how it runs between the two defenders (shown as red circles)?  That ends up being the key to the play.  Of those two, the outside defender takes Dion Lewis, the Eagles WR furthest right in the above picture.  The inside defender actually disrupts Cooper’s route (seen below), forcing him towards the sideline.  However, this defender, after running with Cooper, sees Dion Lewis break back inside, therefore entering his zone.  He breaks off his coverage of Cooper and picks up Lewis.  The outside defender doesn’t get the message and also covers Lewis, leaving Cooper wide open on the goal line.

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Above, we can see Cooper being disrupted.  Lewis is about to break back towards the inside, which causes Cooper’s defender to leave him, sticking to his zone.  Below is the moment this happens.

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And here is the moment of the  pass.  Notice Cooper coming open and the two defenders covering Lewis.

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Bunching 4 WRs caused confusion in the defense and led to a very easy throw-and-catch for a TD.  It must also be noted that this play only succeeded because the O-Line gave it enough time to develop.

Play 3:  One for the defense.

Second Quarter, 1st and 20 at the 2 minute warning.  This is the fumble forced by Cullen Jenkins and recovered by Tapp.  There are two things that make this play interesting: it comes from the wide-9 alignment, and it involves Jenkins coming over top both the other DT (Cox) and DE (Cole), which means the DBs did a good job in coverage to give him time to do that.

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The key to the play, other than the coverage, is Cox and Cole’s ability to attack the center of the offensive line.  As I illustrated above and we can see below, the combined power of these players collapses the left side of the Bengal’s o-line, giving Jenkins the space he needs to come around.

 

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Above we can see Jenkins in motion and Cole setting the edge.  Below we can see Jenkins as he’s coming around the line.  Notice that the stunt action towards the center has drawn the Bengals’ LT to Cole, meaning there is nobody left to block Jenkins, whose original blocker  can be seen doing nothing in the picture below.

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Finally, the moment of the strip  Jenkins gets there just in time, as Dalton is about to release the ball (and fortunately just before his arm starts coming forwards.

 

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A big defensive play out of the wide-9, who knew?  In any case, this is the type of action the Eagles should be able to generate with Cox/Cole.  Both are great pass rushers (Cole not as much this year but he still has to be respected) and are used here to create space for Jenkins, leading to a turnover (something they haven’t created nearly enough this year.)  Let’s hope we see more plays like this in the next couple games.

What’s the deal with fumbles? (Should we worry about Bryce Brown?)

Given all the hyperventilating going on about Bryce Brown’s supposed fumbling problem, I thought it would be helpful to take a data-driven look into fumbling rates and see if there truly are players with “fumbling problems” or if it’s largely a result of chance.

Verdict?  While there are certainly some players that are better/worse than others at holding onto the football, most of it really is a result of luck (despite all the crap you hear from analysts).

How did I get there?  Stay with me while I explain:

I gathered a sample of relatively prominent running backs over the past ten years.  Admittedly this is non-random, however I wasn’t picking by any specific stat and after reviewing the sample I don’t see any particular reason to suspect that it’s largely skewed (one big caveat that I’ll get to later).

I ended up with 31 running backs of varying career lengths/prominence/etc… I’ve listed the full sample at the end of the post.  In all, this produced 167 seasons of 100 carries or more.  I then looked to see if there was any correlation between a player’s fumbling rate (fumbles/attempts) from one season to the next.

The end result was a correlation coefficient of .17.  For those unaware, correlation coefficients run from -1 to 1, with 1 suggesting perfect positive correlation and 0 suggesting no correlation from one year to the next.  A value of .17 tells us that while a player’s fumbling rate from year-to-year is somewhat correlated, the relationship is weak and largely dictated by chance.

So about Bryce Brown: While his fumbling rate this year is very high (3.9%), it’s way too soon to really worry about this as a long-term problem.  In fact, within the sample there were 7 RBs who carried a fumble rate of greater than 2.5% over the course of a full season (with 100+ carries).  Of those, only one RB recorded that high of a rate a second time in his career (Ricky Williams).

– Hat tip to Matt Swartz from Fangraphs for insight.  Follow him on twitter if you like analytical baseball stuff (@Matt_swa).

More Notes from the data:

– The highest fumble rate within the sample was Reggie Bush’s second year with 100+ carries.  That year he fumbled 4.46% of the time.  However, in every other season of his with 100+ carries (there were 4), his fumbling rate was never higher than 1.89%.

– Just two of the included RBs had career rates greater than 2%, Reggie Bush and Travis Henry.

– The lowest career rate was recorded by none other than Brian Westbrook, who fumbled on just 3 carries out of a total 1385, or just 0.22% of the time.

– Below are the charted season rates for Adrian Peterson and Tiki Barber, two players noted for early career “fumbling problems”.  I’ve explained that most of this is likely result of chance, but felt it was interesting to see given the reputation of each player (the chart should probably not have the data points connected given what I’ve talked about, but it makes things easier to see):Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 11.42.57 AM

-Now for the caveats: As I mentioned above, this was a non-random sample chosen mainly because I was looking for RBs with a large enough number of carries to make for a significant sample.  It’s likely that players who fumble a lot do not get many seasons with 100+ carries, though there were several players included who fumbled a lot in their early career and continued to get carries.  I will take a look at the records to see what the fumbling rates look like for players who did not have long careers (at least 3 seasons with 100+ carries).

-The data I used only includes RUSHING fumbles.  So if an included player caught a pass and then fumbled it is not counted.  I wanted to get a pure representation of rushing.  Westbrook in particular, had several fumbles after receptions.

– The data for current players did not include this past week’s games.

– Here is the sample of players used:

Ladanian Tomlinson
Fred Taylor
Ricky Williams
Eddie George
Jamal Lewis
Willis McGahee
Steven Jackson
Frank Gore
Clinton Portis
Tiki Barber
Shaun Alexander
Chester Taylor
Ahman Green
Adrian Peterson
Maurice Jones-Drew
Travis Henry
Marshawn Lynch
Brian Westbrook
Michael Turner
Chris Johnson
Willie Parker
Ray Rice
Brandon Jacobs
Reggie Bush
Jonathan Stewart
Fred Jackson
Ahmad Bradshaw
LeSean McCoy
Felix Jones
Arian Foster
Jamaal Charles