15 Jul 2009
The superb Niners Nation blog is going to be fisking our chapter from FOA 09 on the Niners this week, looking at some of the statistical analysis we did in the chapter and whether it's actually applicable. (From their opening paragraph, I would gather that the writer of the piece(s), Florida Danny, does not.)
In their opening piece on the chapter, Florida Danny analyzes a claim I made about Manny Lawson's future in the chapter; namely, that his poor production as a pass rusher up to this point virtually precludes his ability to be a successful pass rusher in the future.
Manny Lawson, the 22nd overall pick, missed most of his second season with a torn ACL, but over three years he has just 5.5 sacks in 32 games. That's not what a team desperate for a pass rusher was hoping for. When the team went to a nickel package as their defensive base last year, Lawson went to the bench, a sign of his lack of development. Even if we pretend that those 32 games only came over two seasons, there's not a lot of hope for Lawson; of the last 32 linebackers to be drafted in the first round and produce fewer than six sacks in their first two years, only two - LaVar Arrington and Jamir Miller - have produced a ten-sack season afterwards.
Florida Danny then makes the point that comparing Lawson to all other first-round linebackers is holding up apples to oranges, by virtue of the fact that the only linebackers who really accrue significant sack totals are 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 ends. He uses 2008 data to prove his point, and it's very well done -- certainly worth reading by anyone who's a fan of this site, which is why I've linked the article as opposed to just replying to Florida Danny privately.
I agree that by comparing Lawson to all other linebackers, to an extent, I'm comparing apples to oranges -- Florida Danny's research makes that clearer. Where I feel he went wrong, though, is in the following statement:
Namely, Lawson has been a 4-3 OLB his entire career save the latter part of last season when Singletary and Manusky moved to a base 3-4.
Florida Danny bases his conclusion -- that Lawson hasn't been given a fair shake as a pass rusher, and will improve his sack totals this year as a full-time 3-4 linebacker -- on that statement.
Although I run the risk of opposing a dedicated fan of a team who knows more about them than I do here, I have to say that I can't agree.
If we look at the gamelogs available at NFL.com, Lawson's started in a pure 3-4 alignment 10 times in his career: Weeks 1 and 3 of the 2006 season, the first two weeks of the 2007 season (after which Lawson tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season), and the final six weeks of the 2008 season.
Furthermore, Lawson spent most of 2008 starting as part of a non-traditional scheme where the other linebackers were two inside linebackers (Patrick Willis and Jeff Ulbrich) while Justin Smith was listed as an "end". Realistically, he played his fair share of linebacker, and Lawson played his fair share of snaps in a 3-4 during those games. Although the team moved away from the 3-4 after the first few games of 2006, they still spent some time in a 3-4 alignment during that season.
Danny suggests that no linebacker in the group I mentioned in the above quote has ever gone from a 4-3 alignment during their first two years to a 3-4 in their third year, but that's a disingenuous usage of the two schemes. Suggesting Lawson was a full-time 4-3 linebacker is unrealistic; in reality, he was a hybrid linebacker who moved to the 3-4 full-time in 2007, only to get hurt, and then played a hybrid role in 2008 before moving to the 3-4 full-time. We don't have the snap-by-snap data of what alignment the Niners were in, but I suspect Lawson has seen a full season's worth of snaps as a 3-4 linebacker in his career, not just the handful of games from the end of 2008 that Danny implies.
Furthermore -- and I should have made this clearer in the essay -- it's not like the Niners have been using Lawson out of position and are finally going to put him in the right role. The reason why the Niners haven't been able to adopt the 3-4 as a full-time scheme is precisely because their pass rush hasn't been able to get any pressure, and that's been because of Lawson's lack of development as a player. One of those things is his weight; Lawson weighed 235 pounds at the end of last season. There's not a successful 3-4 pass rusher in the league under 245. (Lawson has gotten up to 250 this offseason, but from what it sounds like in his blog, it's not muscle.) Although I don't speak to any of the Niners coaches on a regular basis, PFW reports that his technique isn't what the team is looking for.
Furthermore, the selection of Lawson in the first round of the '06 Draft was supposed to be the impetus for the Niners to move to a 3-4 on something approaching a full-time basis; Lawson, along with Tully Banta-Cain, was supposed to give the team the pass rusher they needed on the outside. Instead, Lawson's lack of development (and Banta-Cain's Banta-Cainosity) forced the team to go out and sign Justin Smith in the hopes that he could become their pass-rushing outside linebacker.
It's not really apples and oranges, in my opinion; it's more like Granny Smith to Red Delicious.
Interestingly enough -- and I don't say this to imply that it refutes Danny's points, but merely that it's a strange coincidence -- of Lawson's 5.5 career sacks, only one came when Lawson was starting in a 3-4 alignment, during Week 12 of last year.
Niners Nation will be going over other parts of the chapter as the week goes along, so check back there for more details.
16 comments, Last at 18 Jul 2009, 5:47pm by spenczar
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?