Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Mar 2007

March 1 is the New June 1

Remember when we all used to wait for June 1, when all kinds of veterans would be cut for salary cap purposes? Teams waited for that day so they could postpone the cap charges by a year. Nowadays teams are doing a much better job of managing the cap, so nobody really needs to push things back by waiting until June 1 to cut someone. Instead, teams seem to be using March 1 as the deadline, so they can officially open up room in the budget before free agency starts on March 2. As an added bonus, cutting a veteran now is just a nicer thing to do, because it is easier to find another job in March than to find another job in June.

So a lot of players were cut over the last couple days. Some of them were surprising, some not. I thought I would take a look at Football Outsiders similarity scores to see what they suggest about these players in the future, should they sign with new teams. Unfortunately, similarity scores are limited to "skill players" on offense. In my opinion, the best player cut over the last couple of days is clearly linebacker Joey Porter, but we can't do one of these for him.

Similarity scores were first created for baseball by Bill James. (Honestly, what wasn't first created for baseball by Bill James?) The basic idea is that we compare players by subtracting a certain amount of points from 1000 based on the differences between statistics: receptions, yards, carries, passes, completion percentage, you name it. The football similarity scores also subtract points for every year difference in age and every year difference in NFL experience. (One player might come out as a redshirt senior, another as a non-redshirt junior, so these can be different.) The goal there is to get a list of similar players at a similar point in their careers. But even better, you can get a list of similar career paths by looking at two or three years in a row.

Obviously, we're using standard stats, so nothing is adjusted for opponent and we don't consider whether a receiver had to suffer with a bad quarterback in a particular year, or anything like that. This is not for hard research, but it's a fun little tool, and it does prove useful. (For example, the list of running backs similar to Shaun Alexander from 2003-2005 includes a lot of guys who got injured the next year.)

My database for similarity scores goes from 1978-2006. (We start in 1978 because of the liberalization of passing rules that year.) 1982 and 1987 get pro-rated for the strike. I'll list the top 10 most similar players for each guy, not counting other players from 2004-2006 -- those guys are listed, but not counted in the top 10. I'm only listing the third year for each guy.

Joe Horn

1) Yancey Thigpen, 1999 Oilers
2) Alfred Jenkins, 1983 Falcons
3) John Stallworth, 1986 Steelers
4) Stanley Morgan, 1988 Patriots
5) Frank Lewis, 1983 Bills
6) Steve Largent, 1989 Seahawks
7) Fred Barnett, 1996 Dolphins
8) Jimmy Smith, 2003 Jaguars
9) Rob Moore, 1999 Cardinals
X) Muhsin Muhammad, 2006 Bears
10) Curtis Conway, 2003 Jets

This is a list of great veteran receivers, like Horn. You've got a couple Hall of Famers, and some franchise legends like Morgan and Smith. But four of these guys didn't play the next year. Five of them were part-time players the next year, which is also true of the next couple players on the list (J.T. Smith, Roy Green, Terance Mathis). Only Jimmy Smith rebounded to his prior level of play with 1,172 yards and six touchdowns. Joe Horn may be useful next year, but after two down years and lots of nagging injuries, I don't think you can trust him to be more than your third option.

Eric Moulds

1) Terance Mathis, 2001 Falcons
2) Curtis Conway, 2003 Jets
3) Andre Reed, 1999 Bills
4) Anthony Carter, 1991 Vikings
X) Rod Smith, 2006 Broncos
5) Tim Brown, 2003 Raiders
X) Keyshawn Johnson, 2006 Panthers
6) Drew Hill, 1992 Falcons
7) Keenan McCardell, 2002 Bucs
8) Troy Brown, 2003 Patriots
9) Webster Slaughter, 1995 Chiefs
10) Ahmad Rashad, 1982 Vikings

This is another list of good veteran receivers, although not as good as the list for Horn, which makes sense, since Moulds in general was not as good as Horn. Like the list for Horn, one player on the list did continue to play at a high level, Keenan McCardell. Troy Brown became a two-way player the next year, but I don't think Eric Moulds will be doing that. In general, this is the same deal as above: most of these guys were part-time receivers the next season. The difference is that fewer of these guys retired, maybe because when you play at the level of Steve Largent, it's easier to quit knowing you have nothing else to prove.

Keenan McCardell

X) Joe Jurevicius, 2006 Browns
1) Ricky Proehl, 2002 Rams
2) Nat Moore, 1986 Dolphins
3) Roy Green, 1991 Eagles
4) John Taylor, 1994 49ers
5) Mike Sherrard, 1995 Giants
6) Mark Clayton, 1992 Dolphins
7) Ed McCaffrey, 2003 Broncos
8) Roger Carr, 1981 Colts
9) Qadry Ismail, 2002 Colts
10) Mel Gray, 1981 Cardinals

Yes, the most similar player to Keenan McCardell is another active player. Frankly, none of these players is really that similar to McCardell. For example, McCardell was 36 last season, older than all 11 players listed above. McCardell has one of the strangest career patterns in NFL history. The Browns goofed around with him for three years, playing him mostly on special teams. They finally had him start in 1995, and he put up a good but not great year of 709 yards and four touchdowns. Then he signed a free agent contract with Jacksonville, and managed at least 1,100 yards in four of the next six years -- even though he was the number two receiver on the team behind Jimmy Smith.

So at 32, he signs with Tampa Bay. Personally, he has a decline year, only 670 yards, but he also wins a Super Bowl title. Looks like a guy who finally got a ring just as his career was about to hit the same place Joe Horn has been in the last two years, right? Except McCardell then goes and has the best season of his entire career at age 33. When Keyshawn Johnson threw his little hissy fit, McCardell became the number one receiver on his team for the first time in his entire career -- in his TWELFTH season.

Wait, there's more! He takes this positive momentum and holds out for half a season. He wins out, gets traded to San Diego, plays okay in a few games, then the next year at age 35 he has another great year including a career-high 9 touchdowns. Who the hell else has a career high in touchdowns at the age of 35? One year later, in 2006, he finally collapsed, and by the end of the year he was barely on the field.

What's really strange is that if I listed every appearance by a player, rather than just the most similar season, 4 of the top 14 most similar three-year spans to Keenan McCardell 2004-2006 belong to Ricky Proehl in any three-year period between 2000 and 2005. So if McCardell wants to sign somewhere next year and play in the Ricky Proehl role, it's there for the taking. I hear the Colts need a Ricky Proehl to replace, you know, the actual Ricky Proehl. Otherwise, it's retirement time.

Jamal Lewis

1) Rodney Hampton, 1995 Giants
2) Jerome Bettis, 1999 Steelers
3) Mike Pruitt, 1983 Browns
4) Adrian Murrell, 1998 Cardinals
5) Sammy Winder, 1987 Broncos
6) Joe Morris, 1988 Giants
X) Thomas Jones, 2006 Bears
7) Mike Rozier, 1988 Oilers
8) Thurman Thomas, 1996 Bills
9) George Rogers, 1985 Redskins
10) Earl Campbell, 1983 Oilers

You look at that list, and you say, "Wow. Jamal Lewis has a future. Jerome Bettis? Jerome Bettis had some great years since 1999." Well, don't be quite so optimistic. Like Keenan McCardell, Jerome Bettis has had a particularly unique career. Very few players have been burnt out by a high number of carries, then worked their way back to their previous level of performance. Bettis did it TWICE, in 2001 and then again in 2004. Could Jamal Lewis do that? Well, he was great back when he was great, right? But so were the other guys on this list.

Other than Bettis, what you have here is a list of a lot of players who were great in their youth and then declined in their late 20s, but kept on plugging along with 200-carry years at 3.6-3.8 yards per carry. George Rogers is the only one of these players to average more than 4.1 yards per carry the next season. You've got the aborted Joe Morris Cleveland comeback, Earl Campbell getting traded to New Orleans... ah, memories. If you want to be relevant in 2007, Jamal, get on the phone to Jerome Bettis immediately and ask for training tips.

Drew Bledsoe

1) Ron Jaworski, 1986 Eagles
2) Jim Plunkett, 1984 Raiders
3) Bobby Hebert, 1994 Falcons
X) Kerry Collins, 2006 Titans
4) Phil Simms, 1991 Giants
5) Brad Johnson, 2004 Bucs
6) Danny White, 1986 Cowboys
7) Tommy Maddox, 2004 Steelers
X) Trent Green, 2006 Chiefs
8) Ken O'Brien, 1992 Jets
9) Archie Manning, 1981 Saints
10) Jeff Hostetler, 1997 Redskins

Dude, it's over.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 01 Mar 2007

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