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First, here are the numbers on Bethea. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; all averages and rankings are position specific; and a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average.

Age: 29 (30 on July 27th)
Old Team: Indianapolis Colts
Old Contract: 4 years/$26 million, $6.5 million average (9th highest of 85 safeties)
2013 PFF Grade: -2.9 (52nd)
2013 Contract Quality: -2.08 (81st)
New Team: San Francisco 49ers
New Contract: 4 years/$23 million, $5.75 million average (projected 12th highest)

Last season, Bethea’s below-average on-field contributions were worth about two million. It is worth mentioning that his performance was not just below the league average, but below his personal career average. In 2007 (his second year in the NFL) he was PFF’s seventh highest graded safety (6.4 grade) of the 80 who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps; in 2008 he was 17th (5.7) of 83; in 2009 25th (3.5) of 88; in 2010 16th (7.2) of 85; in 2011 21st (3.7) of 87; and in 2012 69th (-4.2) of 88. These numbers suggest his play has fallen off, but they do not say why.

Perhaps Bethea lost a step as he neared 30; perhaps he did not fit as well in Coach Pagano’s system. Regardless, his decline in play does not necessarily mean he has lost a lot of his value. Through his previous contract Bethea’s on-field worth averaged roughly $4 million. The Colts paid him $6.5 million, and the 49ers just decided to pay him $5.75 million on the other side of 30. Why would they do that?

A recent article by 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco hints at the answer. Maiocco’s post, “Bethea provides ‘smart, steady’ leadership in 49ers secondary“, notes that in addition to eight years of NFL experience:

“Bethea is viewed as a ‘good locker room guy’ and great in the community.”

General manager Trent Baalke has demonstrated a reluctance to chase the high-priced free agent who may disrupt team chemistry. Baalke’s signing of Bethea not only underscores Baalke’s philosophy, but indicates just how much the 49ers value teamwork, isolated from talent. Bethea’s professional demeanor and strong character are seemingly worth $2-4 million or so, at least to some NFL front offices.

As always, it is likely other considerations play into his value. With two prior Pro Bowl appearances Bethea may emerge as a fan favorite, or at least a recognizable presence in the defensive backfield. And, though his talent may be slipping, Bethea has not had injury problems. Nor has he stooped to committing penalties; Maiocco reports that he was not called for a single infraction last season. That, at least, would be a welcome change from Whitner, who was whistled eight times.

The bottom line for Whitner ended up being the $7 million a year the Cleveland Browns were willing to give him. The 49ers, meanwhile, will be paying his replacement more than $1 million fewer each season. Perhaps best of all, 49ers games will finally be rid of out-of-date stories discussing a potential name change to Donte Hitner. Oh, and we have another million and change for a few years to maybe work out a deal with Colin Kaepernick. And if the intangibles of an NFL safety cost into the millions, surely a team needs every cent for a quarterback’s.

On April 28th, 2011, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded two draft picks–the 16th and 49th overall–to the Washington D.C. Football Team and moved up six spots in the first round to select quarterback Blaine Gabbert tenth overall. Using Kevin Meers’ (president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective) draft pick approximate value, did this look like a good trade at the time? No.

Meers’ chart, pictured below, uses the career approximate value statistic from Pro Football Reference going back through the last 20-plus drafts to estimate relative pick worth, and answer the question: what is a fair deal when trading draft picks for draft picks?

 

Using Meer’s valuation, you can see this never looked like a good deal for the Jaguars. On average the tenth overall pick is 39.9 (units1) more than the 16th pick, or 15 percent better. In giving up their second round, 49th overall pick worth 148.4, the Jaguars seemingly overpaid substantially. The difference between how much moving up was worth and what Jacksonville actually gave up–110 units–is worth the 82nd overall pick, in the middle of the third round. The trade would have been reasonable for a top-three pick; but, even just seven spots later down at tenth, the numbers indicate it was a bad idea.

The numbers do not tell everything. Meers’ valuation does not reveal that Gabbert was rushed into starting prematurely after presumed starting quarterback David Gerrard bizarrely left football, or that he played behind a below-average offensive line in each of his three seasons, including the third-worst league-wide his second year (per Pro Football Focus). These factors cannot be forgot. But after three years of awful play from Gabbert, yesterday the Jaguars traded him to the San Francisco 49ers, for the current fourth-to-last pick of the sixth round, worth about 45 points in Meers’ system.2 Ironic how that is the sort of pick the Jaguars should have traded to move up in the first place.

The good news for Jaguars fans is that it is over. Well, almost, as Gabbert will still count $1.807 million against Jacksonville’s salary cap this season in dead money. The good news for 49ers fans is that we have obtained a 24-year-old backup quarterback, whom our organization once thought highly of (and still somewhat does, apparently), for a very late draft pick unlikely to contribute to our current roster, and the well-documented quarterback whisperer Jim Harbaugh is still our head coach. (Yup, gotta’ save the best for last.)


  1. These particular numbers do not mean anything outside the chart; they are used to rank picks in a simple way. They are derived from real numbers, the career approximate value figures of Pro Football Reference. 
  2. The 49ers gave up the current fourth-to-last pick of the sixth round for Gabbert. That pick will not be 189th overall, as the league has a handful of compensatory selections to award between some of the rounds, but it should be close. 

Player performance grades from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; contract quality is the number of standard deviations a player’s performance is above/below the average, minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average; all rankings are positional; Michael Johnson is a 4-3 defensive end.

Numbers

Age: 27 (28 on February 7th, 2015)
Old Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Old Contract: 1 year/$11.175 million, $11.175 million average (5th highest paid of 62)
2013 PFF Grade: 25.9 (4th)
2013 Contract Quality: -0.53 (39th)
New Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Contract: 5 years/$43.75 million, $8.75 million average (projected 7th highest paid)

* indicates a franchise tag contract

Notes

Yesterday I wrote how the Carolina Panthers will likely regret using the franchise tag on Greg Hardy (who is also a 4-3 defensive end) this season. Michael Johnson shows exactly why. Unable to lock Johnson down long-term, the Bengals seemingly overpaid him by $2 million last year to keep him for one season.1 Cincinnati could not workout a long-term deal again this year, and unable to franchise Johnson again he took his talent to Tampa Bay. Ta-da!

But hey, last season the salary cap was $123 million. What could an additional $2 million (or $11 million if they had let Johnson walk) have bought the Bengals anyway? In 2013, average NFL tight ends, fullbacks, and guards (who played 75% or more of their teams’ snaps) earned average annual salaries of less than $2.5 million. The average starting NFL offensive line last season cost a team $14.691 million. True, good, even average players are not necessarily available for the signing, in which case seemingly overspending to keep a player that is attainable is less harmful. Nonetheless, the Bengals likely could have put the money spent on Johnson last year to better use.

But that is all in the past. How do things look from the perspective of Johnson’s new team? Tampa Bay fans should like this signing. Last season Johnson’s approximate worth was $9.206 million; the Bucs will pay him a little less than that for five years, most of which will come before Johnson turns 30. There may be an adjustment period with a new team, but he seems well in his prime.

Though Johnson will no longer have Geno Atkins to assist him along the line, the equally freakish Gerald McCoy will be with him in Tampa through 2015. The Bucs defensive front looks set. If they get a deal or two of Johnson’s quality on the offensive side, just maybe they can challenge in the NFC South.


  1. Johnson did earn the fourth-highest PFF grade while making the fifth-most money at his position, which seems like a steal. But based on the performances and salaries of all 4-3 defensive ends last year, only Robert Quinn’s outlying expertise is worthy of $10 million-plus annually; Johnson was not the only player overpaid last season. And while there are factors to consider besides on-field performance, Johnson likely would not win an NFL fan popularity contest. 

Using the same method as my other posts about various good and bad NFL contracts, these are the best, best-paid, worst, worst-paid, and–most importantly–most over and underpaid punters based on their average annual salary and their play in the 2013 season.

A player’s contract quality is determined by the number of standard deviations their performance grade is above/below the average at their position, minus the number of standard deviations their average annual salary is above/below the average at their position. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary details come from Spotrac.com.

Teams presumably pay players based not only on their on-field ability, but on their skill at attracting fans and sponsorships, their locker room mentality, and other intangibles. But then again, presumably not many fans watch an NFL game to see a punter.

These are the results. In particular, note where Johnny Hekker, an undrafted free agent signed by the Rams in 2012, pops up throughout the various measures.

The Best 5 Punters of the 2013 NFL Season (PFF Grade in Parentheses)

  • 1. Shane Lechler, HOU (40.9)
  • 2. Johnny Hekker, STL (36.1)
  • 3. Brad Nortman, CAR (23.5)
  • 4. Britton Colquitt, DEN (16.2)
  • 5. Chris Jones, DAL (15.2)

The Worst 5 Punters of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Ryan Quigley, NYJ (1.6)
  • 22. Spencer Lanning, CLE (-1.8)
  • 23. Marquette King, OAK (-8.3)
  • 24. Jeff Locke, MIN (-10.6)
  • 25. Adam Podlesh, CHI (-10.8)

The 5 Highest Average Punter Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season (millions of $)

  • 1. Britton Colquitt, DEN ($3.892 million)
  • 2. Dustin Colquitt, KC ($3.75m)
  • 3. Mike Scifres, SD ($3.625m)
  • 4. Andy Lee, SF ($3.4m)
  • 5. Brandon Fields, MIA ($2.895m)

The 5 Lowest Average Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Ryan Quigley, NYJ & Ryan Allen, NE ($0.495m)
  • 22. Johnny Hekker, STL ($0.483m)
  • 23. Marquette King, OAK ($0.48m)
  • 24. Chris Jones, DAL ($0.465m)
  • 25. Spencer Lanning, CLE ($0.45m)

The 5 Best Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season (CQ in parentheses)

  • 1. Johnny Hekker, STL (3.24)
  • 2. Shane Lechler, HOU (2.48)
  • 3. Brad Nortman, CAR (2.12)
  • 4. Chris Jones, DAL (1.48)
  • 5. Ryan Allen, NE (0.85)

The 5 Worst Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Andy Lee, SF (-1.07)
  • 22. Mike Scifres, SD (-1.26)
  • 23. Britton Colquitt, DEN (-1.39)
  • 24. Dustin Colquitt, KC (-1.79)
  • 25. Adam Podlesh, CHI (-2.06)

Way back in early September, before the NFL season began, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, staff writers at Grantland, ran a podcast in which they made numerous preseason predictions for fun. At the suggestion of one of them during the podcast, I took down their predictions, but then never sent them in to Grantland, and the notes have just been sitting in my Gmail drafts folder for months. No more!

While Bill Barnwell posted an excellent feature about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, quarterback Russell Wilson, and the best contract in football (click here for my own analysis of the best contracts in football; Wilson is certainly up there), I thought it would be fun to analyze Barnwell, and Mays, to determine who made the better predictions this season. Is one more expert than the other? Check it out!

Player Props

Adrian Peterson: 5.1 Yards per Carry
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (4.5)

Say it with me now: regression to the mean. Not just to the league average (about four yards) but to Peterson’s own. Peterson has now had two seasons over 5.1 yards per carry and five seasons under it; among those five seasons, even the highest clip is only 4.8.

J.J. Watt: 15.5 Sacks
Mays: Under
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (10.5)

Regression scores again! J.J. Watt still put up the best season of any defensive player (highest graded by Pro Football Focus on the season), but 16 sacks is a lot for anyone, especially a 3-4 defensive end whose primary job is not rushing the passer.

John Abraham: 8.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (11.5)

A surprisingly impressive season from the 35-year-old.

Andrew Luck: 4,200 Passing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: No bet, agrees with logic, no strong feelings.
Result: Under (3,822)

This result is even more impressive given that Trent Richardson was so completely ineffective (averaged 2.9 yards per carry) this season.

Andrew Luck: 15.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Agree? Recognizes similar logic.
Result: Under (9)

The kid is good. Although he did rank 20th among 27 quarterbacks in accuracy percentage (per PFF). Maybe something to consider next season.

Geno Atkins: 9.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (6)

Atkins went down on Halloween against the Dolphins and that was it for his season. He only played in seven games. Injury risk is always something to consider.

Greg Olsen: 775.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (816)

Curious. Prior to 2012, Olsen’s most receiving yards in a season were his 612 with the Bears in 2009. But with Cam Newton he has now gone over 800 twice.

Matt Forte: 1,000.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under, later SWITCHES to Over
Result: Over (1,339)

A wise move as Forte put together his first back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons. Staying healthy, and amassing the most rushing attempts since his rookie season, certainly helped.

Charles Tillman: 4.5 Forced Fumbles
Barnwell: Under
Mays: No bet (“HOW DARE YOU?”)
Result: Under (3)

Injury cashes Barnwell in again, as Tillman went down only halfway through the season. But this merely underscores that a lot of things have to go right for a corner, or really anyone, to force five fumbles in one season.

Doug Martin: 8.5 Touchdowns
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Pressed by Mays, only says “8 or 9”
Result: Under (1)
Poor Doug Martin’s fate was sealed the instant I drafted him in the first round of my fantasy draft, as he went out for the season in Week 6. Still, a low total nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers: 38.5 Touchdown Passes
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (17)

More injuries, more problems for the over bets. Although in the eight games in which he played more than a few snaps, he only threw 17, not quite on pace for over. Presumably offensive rookie of the year running back Eddie Lacy had something to do with this.

Robert Griffin III: 575.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (489)
Washington never seemed to recover from their opening day track meet against the Eagles, and Griffin missing the final three games while “sort-of-injured-but-healthy-enough-to-play-but-what’s-the-point” was pretty hard to predict.
Jason Babin: 9.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under (Barnwell’s lock)
Mays: Under
Result: Under (7.5)

Barnwell’s lock comes through, although this must have been a little exciting as Babin came on and posted 5.5 in December.

Brian Orakpo: 7.5 Sacks
Mays: Over (Mays’ lock)
Barnwell: Over
Result: Over (10)

Mays’ lock comes through, as Orakpo went over on December 1st against the New York Giants. He is pretty good when healthy, it would seem.

Alex Smith: 3,350 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (3,313)

This was about Andy Reid being allergic to running backs in Philadelphia and Alex Smith having Dwayne Bowe to throw to, and, uh, hold that thought…

***BONUS BET***
Dwayne Bowe: 1,000.5 Receiving Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (673)

Ouch.

Dez Bryant: 92.5 Catches
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Over (93)

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Grantland staff writer Robert Mays! Really must have sweat it too, with Bryant needing eight receptions in Week 17 against Philadelphia, without Kyle Orton at quarterback. But he eked it out!

Danny Amendola: 950.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (633)

Ouch. Injuries, injuries, injuries… Amendola missed four games.

Tavon Austin: 7.5 Touchdowns (Rushing, Receiving, & Return)
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (6)

To be fair, Austin would likely have gone over if it had not taken the Rams coaching staff to realize that Austin was on their team (and/or the Rams special teams return unit had not felt the need to hold or block in the back on approximately 371% of their returns).

Richard Sherman: 4.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (8)

An incredible result. Among corners who played half or more of their teams’ snaps, Sherman was targeted only 58 times in the regular season, the sixth-fewest. He led the league with eight interceptions. Sherman grabbed a pick every 7.25 throws into his coverage, easily tops in the league. Goodness.

***Mays’ Prediction***
Jonathan Banks leads the league in interceptions.

Very, very difficult to predict; Banks finished tied for 15th with several players, having recorded three interceptions.

Chris Long: 10 sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (8.5)

Maybe next year; PFF awarded him 10 sacks, as they do not punish players by awarding only a half-sack when another teammate also gets to the quarterback. Also Long’s 46 quarterback hurries were tied for fourth at his position this season. He generated pressure, but sometimes it takes a little luck (or a bad opponent quarterback) to get the sack numbers.

Josh Freeman: 16.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Under (4)

What a year for Freeman, in all the bad ways. Ugh. And he actually was right about on pace, throwing one in every game he played.

Clay Mathews: 11.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (7.5)

Injuries, oh the injuries…

Russell Wilson: 3,400 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: No bet
Result: Under (3,357)

Yeeesh. Perhaps if Percy Harvin had played more than 40 snaps…

Division Winners & Playoffs

First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: OAK
Mays: OAK
Result: HOU
AFC East
Barnwell: NE
Mays: NE
Result: NE
AFC North
Barnwell: PIT
Mays: CIN (PIT last!)
Result: CIN (PIT actually 2nd, 8-8 and ahead of the 8-8 Ravens)
AFC South
Barnwell: HOU
Mays: HOU
Result: IND
AFC West
Barnwell: KC
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
AFC Wildcards
Barnwell: DEN, CIN
Mays: KC, BAL
Result: KC, SD
NFC East
Barnwell: NYG
Mays: DAL
Result: PHI
NFC North
Barnwell: GB
Mays: GB
Result: GB
NFC South
Barnwell: TB
Mays: TB
Result: CAR
NFC West
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: SF
Result: SEA
NFC Wildcards
Barnwell: SF, DET
Mays: CHI, SEA
Result: SF, NO
AFC Champion
Barnwell: DEN
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
NFC Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: GB
Result: SEA
Super Bowl Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: DEN
Result: SEA

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Grantland staff writer Bill Barnwell! Correctly predicting BOTH conference champions AND the Super Bowl champions! Barnwell would be the very first one to tell you that this result is due to his prodigious SKILL and not at all due to luck…oh right, he is Bill Barnwell. He is not foolish.

Player & Coach Statistical Leaders and Awards

Defensive Player of the Year
Barnwell: Clay Matthews
Mays: Geno Atkins (15 sacks!)
Result: Luke Kuechly

To be fair, Kuechly totally did not deserve this award at all. (Maybe more on that later.) But then with injuries, neither did their selections.

Passing Leader
Barnwell: Peyton Manning
Mays: Andrew Luck
Result: Peyton Manning
Rushing Leader
Barnwell: Trent Richardson
Mays: LeSean McCoy
Result: LeSean McCoy
Receiving Leader
Barnwell: Calvin Johnson
Mays: Dez Bryant
Result: Josh Gordon (in only 14 games!)
First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: Jadeveon Clowney
Mays: Teddy Bridgewater
Result: TBD
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Tavon Austin
Mays: Eddie Lacey
Result: Eddie Lacey
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Kenny Vaccaro
Mays: Alec Ogletree
Result: Sheldon Richardson
Coach of the Year
Barnwell: Andy Reid
Mays: Greg Schiano
Result: “Riverboat” Ron Rivera
Most Valuable Player
Barnwell: Russell Wilson
Mays: Aaron Rodgers
Result: Peyton Manning

Final Scorecards

Overall, Mr. Mays went a respectable 15/44, 34% on his picks. In pure props he was 6/20, while going 2/9 on individual awards and statistics and 7/15 on team predictions. Mr. Barnwell edged him slightly, going 17/46, 37%. Barnwell went 9/22 on player props, 1/9 on individual awards and statistics, and 7/15 on team predictions. When both Mays and Barnwell agreed, they went 8/21, 38%; 5/15 on props, 0/1 on awards, and 3/5 on teams.

The lesson? Predictions are not easy, and your gut feeling will not take you very far, even if you know a lot. Consider that among their player predictions, designed to have a 50-50 chance, both Mays and Barnwell did worse than a coin flip. This is not because they do not know about football (they know a great deal), but because this stuff is hard, and luck plays a bigger role than anything else. Nonetheless, one can see why a comprehensive examination of numbers might come in handy.

If you see a supposed pundit make a prediction, remember to think twice before buying in. Okay, that is not news. But remember to ALWAYS think twice (and a third time, a fourth, etc), even when the pundits are quite knowledgeable, even when the predictors tell a story that you find logically sound, and perhaps most importantly, even when you already agree with them (and especially when they are not being 100% serious, à la Mays and Barnwell). Or at the very least, think twice before you put any money down.

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