Draft Thoughts Part 4 of 4: Winning Is Not The Incentive

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

At the end of part 3, I said I’d attempt to address why teams don’t examine their processes more closely, why they don’t try to refine or improve them. I think the answer comes down to how decisions are made in the NFL.

I think the NFL has a corporate culture that incentivizes not making waves and not going off the beaten path.

Continue reading

Draft Thoughts Part 3 of 4: These Are Not The Traits You’re Looking For

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

I’ve made notes throughout the first few parts of this mega-post regarding players who fell in the draft despite their obvious talent, notes that said I would address in part 3.

Well, I apologize. Part 3 ran over 4500 words, so I broke it into two parts as well. This will be a four-part post.

Onward:

In both previous sections, I highlighted players and factors that I think speak to why the NFL struggles to master the draft. I wanted to delve into those factors in detail, and perhaps more importantly, attempt to answer the question of why this continues to happen. Here’s how I see it, in short: Teams worry about the wrong things and have too many incentives against changing.

Continue reading

Draft Thoughts Part 2 of 4: On the Cleveland Browns and Analytics

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

I was quite excited for what the Cleveland Browns might do in this year’s draft. I watched a lot more baseball in the 1990s and 2000s, and was well aware of (and paid close attention to) Billy Beane’s work with the Oakland A’s. (I also haven’t forgotten how old-school scouts derided it as nerd nonsense by people who had never played the game and didn’t understand the arcane complexities of their sport. That’ll come up later.)

As someone who believes the NFL, both on a league-wide and on the individual team level, is in many ways run by backward, ossified processes that seem to have all the scientific rigor of bloodletting or the Ptolemaic system, I was intrigued by the thought of a team applying real analysis and big data to their front-office processes. This draft was the first chance to see the new front office in action.

Continue reading

Draft Thoughts Part 1 of 4: A Handful of Team Observations

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

So it turns out I have a lot more to say about this year’s NFL Draft than I thought I did. In my first draft of this article, this was my opening paragraph:

When enough is said before the draft– and I’ve been saying a lot, at least on Twitter if not on the blog– there’s not much to say afterward. Just a collection of observations from me, some about certain teams or their executives, others about general trends:

Well, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. By the time I got somewhere north of six thousand words, I decided I was going to need to break up my draft posting into multiple entries, to cover the several major topics I intended to cover.

Part 2 will be a deeper look at the Cleveland Browns draft and the idea of analytics in football. Part 3 will be some thoughts on the NFL’s processes as a whole. For part 1, here are some observations I made about a handful of teams’ drafts.

Continue reading

The worst owner in the NFL

Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.

Continue reading

Draft Review of the New Orleans Saints in the Payton-Loomis era, 2006-2014

With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).

I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.

The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).

In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.

Continue reading

The Third Coast Sainted Texans

Earlier this week, I posited the question on Twitter for two nearby teams that were having poor years: What if the Saints and Texans merged rosters?

They seemed to have rosters that would fit together well, with each team having a strength where the other hand a hole, and vice versa. To make it more interesting (and also realistic), I decided to look up the 2015 cap hits for every player and build the team under the salary cap (listed on spotrac.com as $146,025,476). My goal here was to create the best 53-man roster possible while remaining under the salary cap.

I’m only considering players who were on the team as of this week, when I wrote this– not players who were on the team earlier in the year (like, say, Akiem Hicks or Kenny Phillips for the Saints).

And here we go. Texans fans are likely to be unhappy for a little while.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

  • Drew Brees (age: 36, 2015 cap hit: $23,800,000)
  • Luke McCown (34, $665,000)
  • Garrett Grayson (24, $618,291)
  • Total: $25,083,291

This one is fairly straightforward. Brees is the only NFL-caliber starting quarterback on either roster, so he has to make the team, even at his age and cap hit. McCown is by far the cheapest of the next three options (Brian Hoyer’s cap hit starts with a 5, which would be fine if it were one digit fewer). And Garrett Grayson is the best prospect for the future. (Tom Savage is on injured reserve; we’ll get to IR at the end of the roster, but frankly, Grayson is the best prospect irrespective of Savage’s presence.)

RUNNING BACK

  • Mark Ingram (25, $2,000,000)
  • C.J. Spiller (28, $2,000,000)
  • Khiry Robinson (25, $585,334)
  • Marcus Murphy (24, $452,322)
  • Austin Johnson (FB) (26, $510,000)
  • Total: $5,547,656

know this one will make Texans fans unhappy. It’s pretty straight-forward: Arian Foster is a 29-year-old running back with a significant injury history and a cap hit of over $8.7M. You might be able to justify paying Foster and carrying one fewer running back if he could still reliably perform at his peak level, but at his age, you can’t count on that.

With Foster too expensive to risk, I think the rest of the Texans running backs are pretty bad, so this was fairly easy. No one besides Foster on Houston’s roster is even as good as Khiry Robinson, let alone Ingram and Spiller. Marcus Murphy adds value as a kick and punt returner. I went with Austin Johnson over Jay Prosch, knowing little about fullbacks, because he’s cheaper (and I don’t know how much Prosch plays, if at all).

WIDE RECEIVER

  • DeAndre Hopkins (23, $2,080,010)
  • Brandin Cooks (22, $1,905,330)
  • Willie Snead (22, $435,000)
  • Jaelen Strong (21, $627,995)
  • Nate Washington (32, $615,000)
  • Total: $5,663,335

DeAndre Hopkins is a budding superstar, an obvious choice for our #1 receiver and a must-have even at five times the cost. Brandin Cooks hasn’t turned into the star the Saints envisioned, but at his current age and cap number, he’s still a bargain– and he’s more suited to this role, the #2 to Hopkins’ #1. Willie Snead has come on strong as arguably the Saints’ most reliable receiver. Jaelen Strong is very young and a fine prospect to ease along in a fourth or fifth wide receiver role. I chose Nate Washington as the “cagey veteran mentor” to round out the bunch. Marques Colston is too expensive and has seemingly lost it. You could argue for Cecil Shorts, but Washington is on a one-year minimum deal and Shorts is being paid $6 million for two years. Even though he’s younger, I’m not sure he adds much value to the team at all, let alone over Washington. Cooks, Snead, and Strong can contribute on special teams, so I wasn’t worried about finding a player to fit that type.

TIGHT END

  • Ben Watson (34, $1,900,000)
  • Josh Hill (25, $586,668)
  • C.J. Fiedorowicz (23, $730,826)
  • Total: $3,217,494

It was a lot easier to justify Watson for the top spot after the game he had Thursday night against Atlanta. He’s the best do-it-all guy on either roster. Hill has the most athleticism; Fiedorowicz is a guy I don’t think is all that special, but is young, cheap, and has a relatively high draft pedigree (then again, I’m not sure if the Texans understand the draft).

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

  • Duane Brown (30, $9,500,000)
  • Terron Armstead (24, $769,359)
  • Andrus Peat (21, $2,071,544)
  • Total: $12,340,903

A no-brainer. This might be the best trio of tackles in the league.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

  • Jahri Evans (32, $7,000,000)
  • Brandon Brooks (26, $1,696,359)
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo (24, $1,261,727)
  • Total: $9,958,086

Evans is on the decline at 32, but he’s still the best guard on either team. Brooks is not someone I know much about, but I’ve generally seen his play well-graded and spoken fairly well of– or at least well enough to be the team’s other starter. Su’a-Filo is on this team for roughly the same reason C.J. Fiedorowicz is.

CENTER

  • Max Unger (29, $3,000,000)
  • Ben Jones (26, $1,662,362)
  • Total: $4,662,362

It’s easy to pick both starting centers when they come this cheaply.

TOTAL OFFENSE: 24 players, $66,473,127

DEFENSE

I’ve listed the team in a base 3-4, which made the most sense to me with the personnel I had to work with.

ENDS

  • J.J. Watt (26, $13,969,000)
  • Cameron Jordan (26, $4,169,000)
  • Bobby Richardson (22, $436,666)
  • Jared Crick (26, $1,639,875)
  • Total: $20,214,541

Watt and Jordan are a fantastic duo to have here and well worth the money. Bobby Richardson has played well so far his rookie season, particularly against the run. I don’t know much about Crick, but he’s cheap and he plays a lot of snaps for Houston, so he makes the team.

TACKLES

  • John Jenkins (26, $746,890)
  • Tyeler Davison (23, $489,306)
  • Christian Covington (21, $457,621)
  • Kaleb Eulls (24, $438,333)
  • Total: $2,132,150

One of the weakest groups on the team, but a very young one with lots of chance to improve playing between Jordan and Watt. Jenkins has the size to be a true nose tackle, so he’s the starter in the run-stuffing role. The word is that Vince Wilfork has looked ordinary, and even if he hasn’t, 2 years and $9 million is a lot for a 33-year-old nose tackle. (Though it’s not out of line with the kind of deals the Texans like to hand out– see “Reed, Ed.”) The other three are all rookies with varying talent level and skill sets; Davison is the most explosive of the bunch.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Jadeveon Clowney (22, $5,062,045)
  • Hau’oli Kikaha (23, $957,511)
  • Whitney Mercilus (25, $2,979,030)
  • Kasim Edebali (26, $512,000)
  • Total: $9,510,586

Clowney hasn’t produced the big numbers yet, but he’s shown the flashes of greatness that made him the top pick in the draft. Kikaha now leads all rookies with four sacks (in six games); he’s been less flashy but steadily productive. Mercilus is a fine player, although nothing special, and Edebali has shown some signs of life as a rotational pass-rusher.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Stephone Anthony (23, $1,404,766)
  • Dannell Ellerbe (29, $1,900,000)
  • Bernardrick McKinney (22, $971,840)
  • Justin Tuggle (25, $585,834)
  • Michael Mauti (25, $585,000)
  • Total: $5,448,440

I hate to say it, but Brian Cushing might be done. He looks like a shell of his former self out there– and to make matters worse, he’s on the second year of a six-year deal, one where his cap hit each year is higher than the entire ILB crew I’ve assembled here.

Anthony is the star of the bunch, but Ellerbe has been surprisingly good, surpassing my expectations. McKinney is a long-term player there, though he’s more of a run-stopper. I had no idea whom to go with for the fourth ILB spot; Tuggle beat out Akeem Dent based on age, salary, and slightly higher PFF grade. Feel free to replace him if you like someone better. Mauti won the special teams roster spot with his blocked punt Thursday night.

CORNERBACK

  • Keenan Lewis (29, $4,500,000)
  • Johnathan Joseph (31, $11,750,000)
  • Kevin Johnson (23, $1,827,166)
  • Delvin Breaux (25, $439,000)
  • Damian Swann (22, $481,807)
  • Total: $18,997,973

Another difficult decision I had to make was Joseph vs. Kareem Jackson. I was initially on Jackson because he’s younger and had a lower cap hit, but upon further research, I discovered he’s graded out really poorly this year, and he’s in the first year of a four-year contract extension; he’ll be 31 when it ends. Joseph is 31 now, but his cap hit is lower for the next two years than it is now, and the team can cut bait after 2016 with no further penalty. With the play so far of youngsters Johnson and Breaux, that is likely to happen. Also, Lewis has proven himself a fine #1 corner, even if he is exiting his prime, and Swann has performed solidly so far after winning the Saints’ nickel job as a rookie.

SAFETY

  • Jairus Byrd (29, $5,500,000)
  • Kenny Vaccaro (24, $2,570,376)
  • Rahim Moore (26, $3,000,000)
  • Andre Hal (23, $527, 281)
  • Total: $11,597,657

The Saints structured Byrd’s contract such that his cap hit makes him an affordable risk here– and even allows us to spend $3 million on Moore for when Byrd is inevitably injured. Vaccaro seems like an obvious choice, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Hal so far.

TOTAL DEFENSE: 26 players, $67,901,347

SPECIAL TEAMS

  • Kicker: Zach Hocker (24, $435,000)
  • Punter: Thomas Morstead (29, $3,400,000)
  • Long Snapper: Justin Drescher (27, $875,000)

I chose Hocker before Thursday night, but he’ll probably be fired after that game. Well, the Texans already fired Randy Bullock this year, so I decided to go with the guy who stuck around the longest.

Morstead is more expensive than Shane Lechler, but he’s also twelve years younger and has a lifetime pass for hitting the greatest onside kick in NFL history.

Drescher is cheaper and younger than Jon Weeks.

TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 players, $4,710,000

TOTAL 53-MAN ROSTER: $139,084,474

We’re still nearly $7 million under the cap, so I decided to add some players to our Injured Reserve list (who do not count against the 53-man roster, but do count against the salary cap):

  • CB P.J. Williams (22, $494,651)
  • SS Vinnie Suneri (22, $377,125)
  • OLB Davis Tull (23, $373,433)
  • TE Ryan Griffin (designated for return) (25, $381,611)
  • OL David Quessenberry (25, $613,363)
  • OLB Reshard Cliett (23, $340,621)
  • QB Tom Savage (25, $408,146)
  • OLB Anthony Spencer (31, $665,000)
  • FS Rafael Bush (28, $1,900,000)
  • Total Injured Reserve: $5,553,950

That brings the entire roster, 53-man and injured reserve, to a GRAND TOTAL of $144,638,424Still close to $1.5 million and change to work with; if you’re not comfortable cutting it that close, I totally understand removing Bush from IR. The team’s only contracts that are both long and expensive going to legitimate stars like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, leaving money to extend key players currently on their rookie deals, such as DeAndre Hopkins and Terron Armstead, when the time comes. Not a bad spot to be in. Of course, it’s easy when you get to pick and choose from two rosters.