Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

11 Aug 2004

Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

by Michael David Smith

We all love to spend our time in the off-season speculating about which teams improved or which teams got worse, but we very rarely hear any objective measures. These discussions almost always follow along the lines of, "I think that veteran they added is going to improve team chemistry," or "How could they let the heart and soul of their defense go in free agency?"

What we really need to do is assign a numerical value to every single player in the league. If we could do that we could then just add up the value of the new players on a team, subtract the value of the players who have left via free agency or retirement or injury or any other reason, and come up with the difference. If we were analyzing baseball, it would be easy to do this with win shares. In football, alas, we're a long way from having any such all-encompassing statistic for every player.

But if we're willing to simplify things a bit, I'd like to propose a decent measurement of a team's talent: Games started. I've gone through every team's roster and added up how many games the players on its current roster started last year.

Round Starts
1 8
2 6
3 3
4 2
5 2
6 1
7 1

That covers the additions and subtractions of veterans, but what about rookies? I'm going to assign values to rookies according to the table on the right.  A team with one pick in each round could expect 23 starts from rookies. These numbers represent the average games started by rookies taken in each round, according to this NFL.com article.

Simple math tells us that 22 starters for 16 games equals 352 starts per team per year, so figure that 352 is the baseline. A team with more than 352 games started in the chart below has probably improved, whereas a team with fewer than 352 games started has probably gotten worse. Let me admit (and this should be obvious) that all of this is intended only as a rough approximation of a team's level of talent. Last year Clinton Portis and Shawn Bryson each started 13 games. I'm in no way suggesting that their merits as running backs are equal. But a team that loses a lot of its starters can fairly be described as having lost out in the free agency game, whereas a team that adds a lot of starters from other teams has probably done well in free agency. It's also possible, with how often rosters change in August, that I've missed a player here or there. And finally, let's remember that rosters will continue to change throughout the off-season (and, for that matter, during the regular season).

Having said all that, on with the numbers:



Team 2003 Starts by Current Roster Projected Rookie Starts Total Projected Starts
JAC 372 32 404
KAN 373 21 394
TAM 375 19 394
WAS 372 14 386
ATL 358 25 383
NOR 356 25 381
CLE 358 20 378
GNB 349 19 368
NWE 333 32 365
DEN 332 30 362
PIT 335 23 358
DET 330 28 358
OAK 332 25 357
CIN 320 36 356
MIN 331 25 356
BUF 332 23 355


Team 2003 Starts by Current Roster Projected Rookie Starts Total Projected Starts
ARI 328 23 351
BAL 332 15 347
NYJ 324 22 346
SEA 322 23 345
HOU 316 24 340
NYG 318 21 339
STL 320 18 338
CHI 300 26 326
PHI 304 22 326
TEN 284 36 320
SDG 285 29 314
CAR 292 21 313
MIA 298 15 313
DAL 286 22 308
IND 287 20 307
SFO 258 30 288

Thoughts on a few teams:

  • By these numbers the Falcons appear in good shape, but it won't mean anything if Mike Vick gets hurt and Ty Detmer (who couldn't even be a second-stringer with the Lions) becomes their starter.
  • Philadelphia looks good if it can put together a secondary; that unit has only 44 games started from last year.
  • Despite losing Champ Bailey, Washington is deep in the secondary with additions of Ralph Brown (seven starts last year), Walt Harris (15) and Shawn Springs (eight). Add in Mike Barrow (16), Phillip Daniels (16) and Cornelius Griffin (14), and I like their defense, particularly if Gregg Williams can find someone to rush the passer.
  • The Packers will probably be the league's most unchanged team, with the same five guys who started 16 games apiece along the offensive line blocking for Ahman Green and Brett Favre, not to mention a virtually unchanged defense.
  • Carolina has only one returning offensive lineman -- Jordan Gross -- who started 16 games last year. I like Gross and center Jeff Mitchell, but I have serious doubts about the rest of the Panthers' offensive line.
  • Most of the headlines out of Tampa Bay were about the losses of Keyshawn Johnson, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, but the Bucs made a lot of additions, including Todd Steussie and Mario Edwards (16 starts apiece), plus Ken Dilger (15), Joey Galloway (14), Derrick Deese (11) and Charlie Garner (nine).
  • The Rams have only five returning 16-game starters, but all five are on the offensive line. That should mean the unit will be strong, but Orlando Pace is a holdout and Kyle Turley's health is a concern.
  • Where to start in discussing the 49ers? On defense I think they'll be OK if Julius Peterson signs and Brandon Whiting makes it through the season healthy, but their offense is a catastrophe.  (More on this in an article coming Thursday.)
  • I still like Miami's defense, but their offense was a mess even before they lost Ricky Williams and David Boston. They don't know who their quarterback will be, and their offensive line depth chart reads, from left to right: Wade Smith, Jeno James, Seth McKinney, Greg Jerman, John St. Clair.
  • The Browns hardly lost anyone and gained several starters, including Kelvin Garmon (16 starts), Warrick Holdman (14), Ebenezer Ekuban (14), Jeff Garcia (13) and Terrelle Smith (10). Then again, they gave up their top two draft picks to get Kellen Winslow, who hasn't signed and scoffed at a contract that would have made him the highest-paid tight end in league history.
  • Indianapolis felt confident enough in its roster that it signed literally no one to replace linebacker Marcus Washington and defensive backs Walt Harris and David Macklin.
  • Jack Del Rio signed brought two of his old Carolina starters (Greg Favors and Deon Grant) to Jacksonville. Leading the league in this category should be yet another reason that the Jags are considered a trendy pick.
  • Tennessee used four of its first six picks on defensive linemen and will desperately need rookies on defense. Fourth-round rookie Bo Schobel projects as the starting left end and fifth-round rookie Robert Reynolds could start behind him at linebacker.
  • The Chiefs return 19 guys who started 16 games last year, the most in the league.
  • The Raiders return only three guys who started 16 games last year, the fewest in the league.
  • And, finally, I asked this a year ago and I'll ask it again. Who the hell are these guys starting on the offensive line for the Chargers? Phil Bogle? Isn't that my plumber's name? Courtney Van Buren? Didn't she go to my high school? The Chargers have the best young running back in the league and they want these guys opening holes for him?

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 11 Aug 2004

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