Just in case Sunday night did not make it clear, defense rules the NFL in 2016. The best teams in overall DVOA all combine top-five defenses with below-average offenses. The Eagles now lead the league in both defense and special teams and are back to No. 1 overall.
03 Mar 2016
by Scott Kacsmar
In the first part of this year's adjusted games lost (AGL) study, we looked at team results and found that the 2013-15 Giants have the three highest AGL totals in our database going back to 2002. By looking at each unit we can see where the Giants (and other teams) were impacted the most by injuries.
For those unfamiliar with this metric, with AGL we are able to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries based on two principles: (1) Injuries to starters, injury replacements and important situational reserves matter more than injuries to bench warmers; and (2) Injured players who do take the field are usually playing with reduced ability, which is why AGL is based not strictly on whether the player is active for the game or not, but instead is based on the player's listed status that week (IR/PUP, out, doubtful, questionable or probable).
The following data only includes regular-season games.
Here are the 2015 AGL splits for offense and defense:
The Falcons, Bengals and Seahawks are the only teams to rank in the top 10 for AGL on offense and defense. The Redskins and Giants were the only teams to rank in the bottom 10 on both sides of the ball with the Giants finishing in the bottom two in each category. We figured the Ravens would rank last on offense with more than half of their starters ending the season on injured reserve. Ryan Kerrigan was the only defender to start all 16 games for Washington, while rookie safety Landon Collins was New York's only 16-game defensive starter.
The four healthiest defenses all finished in the top eight in DVOA. St. Louis and Arizona maintained top-eight DVOA rankings despite bottom-eight AGL rankings. By season's end, the Rams had Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, T.J. McDonald, E.J. Gaines and Nick Fairley on injured reserve, which may have been a bigger story if the team did not start 4-8 before Jeff Fisher kept false hope alive with a winning streak to finish 7-9 again.
Good health allowed for Denver to remain the best defense in the league all season as all 11 primary starters made at least 10 starts. Denver's defense actually lost six starts to suspension (four for Derek Wolfe and one each for Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward), but suspensions, especially ones for really stupid eye pokes, do not count towards AGL. The only game in which Denver allowed 30 points was in Pittsburgh (Week 15) when both safeties were out and backup David Bruton played most of the game with a broken leg.
In Tuesday's AGL article, we mentioned the unfortunate timing for injuries to Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert, but Cincinnati did have the healthiest offense for the regular season as a whole. In 2014, the four healthiest offenses were Pittsburgh (4.1 AGL), Dallas (9.3), Green Bay (11.0) and Denver (11.7). Regression was swift and cruel to those offenses in 2015. Ryan Clady tore his ACL in a May OTA session. Jordy Nelson and Maurkice Pouncey both went down in the same meaningless preseason game in August. By the end of Week 2, Dallas was missing the Tony Romo to Dez Bryant connection. All four offenses surpassed their 2014 AGL on those injuries alone.
If something like that were to happen again in 2016, the Cardinals are a strong possibility, with the ages of Carson Palmer (37 in December) and Larry Fitzgerald (33 in August) getting up there. Unlike the Cardinals, the Falcons (Roddy White), Saints (Marques Colston) and Lions (Calvin Johnson, presumably retired) have all said goodbye to their franchise-leading receivers this offseason.
Since quarterback is the one position where you usually get at least a handful of injury-free teams, we list every team.
We mentioned last year that five times since 2009, the team hosting the Super Bowl suffered a significant quarterback injury. San Francisco did end up putting Colin Kaepernick on injured reserve, but that was only after he was benched for Blaine Gabbert, so a damaged psyche might be the only significant injury here. But that is why the 49ers are one of 15 teams with barely a nick at quarterback.
Obviously, the Cowboys (Tony Romo) and Colts (Andrew Luck) had the worst quarterback injuries of 2015 in what essentially became lost seasons for both teams. Expectations were high too, but things got as bleak as Dallas starting Kellen Moore and the Colts turning to Josh Freeman in Week 17. Luck and Romo had rough seasons when active, but health had to be a contributing factor to that. The NFC East was not a strong division at all, so a healthy Romo could have gone a long way in changing Dallas' fortune.
Luck played arguably the best game anyone had against Denver's defense all year, but that was the last we saw of him because of a lacerated kidney. The real shame of it all was that the Colts finally had a decent year on the overall injury front, but were unable to take advantage since the quarterback was the big injury this time. Peyton Manning and Luck were able to consistently lead the Colts to double-digit win seasons with a bottom-eight AGL ranking, but the two years the Colts have missed the playoffs since 2002 were the years those quarterbacks were seriously injured.
These totals include fullbacks, though not a single fullback in the injury reports was deemed more than a reserve in our counting for 2015 AGL.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
The Giants managed another ridiculous AGL total despite not having anything from the quarterback or running back positions. Orleans Darkwa was New York's only back to make an injury report, but he was the team's No. 4 back at best behind Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Shane Vereen (receiver role).
Similarly, Washington went early unscathed at this position. Production was another story. The Colts managed a full season from 32-year-old Frank Gore, while Lamar Miller should have been pretty fresh in eighth-ranked Miami since he was rarely used.
When we get to the bottom, we are reminded of all the big-name injuries at the position this year with Jamaal Charles, Le'veon Bell, Arian Foster, Justin Forsett, LeGarrette Blount and Marshawn Lynch all going down. Dion Lewis was also a big loss for the Patriots given the quality of his receiving work. Seattle even lost Thomas Rawls, who looked like a dark horse to become an undrafted Offensive Rookie of the Year had he not been injured. If you can believe it, Rawls led the league in rushing DYAR this season and was second in DVOA.
Like Seattle and New England, Pittsburgh also had some serious running back depth issues down the stretch. While DeAngelo Williams was excellent in filling in for Bell, he too was lost late in the season, making him unavailable for the team's playoff run. Fitzgerald Toussaint's big fumble in the fourth quarter in Denver led to the Broncos' game-winning drive in Pittsburgh's 23-16 AFC divisional loss.
But if you want to talk about injury density, no team was hit harder at running back than the 49ers. Carlos Hyde stepped out of Gore's shadow and into the spotlight with 168 yards and two scores against the Vikings in Week 1. He only played six more games, rushing for 302 yards and one score before injury ended his season. Reggie Bush was the next man up, but in his first start, he tore his ACL after slipping on the concrete of St. Louis' sideline. Fourth-round rookie Mike Davis had his turn, but he too was injured against the Rams, heading to the short-term IR list and not returning until Week 17. That is how you end up with Shaun Draughn as lead back, and even he was out for the Week 16 game in Detroit. With the 49ers rolling out a RB 5-7 trio of DuJuan Harris, Jarryd Hayne and Kendall Gaskins, they still combined for 112 rushing yards on 22 carries -- one of San Francisco's best rushing games of the season.
While teams want to have all of their players healthy, running back continues to be that position where you can get by with almost anyone if the other components of your team are fine.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
We all knew the losses of Jordy Nelson and Kelvin Benjamin before the season even started were going to be big, but two teams were hurt even more at the position. Chicago's 35.3 AGL is the worst of any team in our database for wide receivers. One of the season's biggest disappointments was that Kevin White (Bears) and Breshad Perriman (Ravens), two first-round picks pencilled in as No. 2 wide receivers, did not get to play a single snap in their rookie seasons due to injuries. Not to take away from what Amari Cooper did in Oakland, but he had very little competition for the title of "best rookie wide receiver" due to those injuries.
The problem was exacerbated for both teams when veterans Steve Smith and Alshon Jeffery missed a considerable number of games as well. In Chicago's case, Eddie Royal (seven) and Marquess Wilson (five) also missed significant time in an Adam Gase offense that loved to use three wide receivers. Gase is gone now, but we should finally get to see Jeffery and White in action together in 2016.
The Giants also factor in strongly here with Victor Cruz missing the entire season after experiencing a setback in his recovery from 2014's PCL injury. If healthy, he would have to be considered one of the best No. 2 wide receivers in the league, if not the best. At heart, Ben McAdoo also loves multi-receiver sets, but that is hard to go to when you have to trot out Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
Green Bay has been looking for Jermichael Finley's replacement for a couple of years now. Richard Rodgers may not be as athletic, but he had a solid year, highlighted by a certain Hail Mary in Detroit. That makes Green Bay the only team without any AGL at the tight end position, although the Packers did lose backup Andrew Quarless to injuries for most of the year.
Some teams without strong tight end play are in the bottom, though look out for Austin Seferian-Jenkins in Tampa Bay in 2016. He had a Hail Mary touchdown himself in December, albeit irrelevant to the outcome, but he could be a big-play threat for Jameis Winston in this young offense. He opened the season with 110 yards and two scores against the Titans, but a Week 2 injury knocked him out of action for nine games.
Similarly, do not forget about Jace Amaro, a 2014 second-round pick for the Jets. After he was lost before the regular season, the Jets did not even bother trying to replace him in the passing game. New York had a league-low 8 completions to the tight end position, opting to play a myriad of wide receivers behind Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.
Tight end certainly contributed to the Giants and Redskins leading the league in AGL. Both offenses liked to use two tight ends, but the Giants lost Daniel Fells (MRSA) and Larry Donnell for the season. The Redskins eventually placed Derek Carrier, Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen on injured reserve. It helped that Jordan Reed played most of the season, but he is basically a slot receiver in this offense. Carrier started 11 games and played at least 44 percent of the offensive snaps in eight of them.
Our numbers for San Diego are already going to decrease by 7.0 from part I as we discovered an error involving Chris Watt. The 31.8 AGL for the offensive line here is correct, but the team's total AGL is now 81.5.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
A year ago, San Diego (52.6) and Atlanta (52.6) practically tied for the worst offensive line AGL in our database. This season, the Chargers were still a mess, but Atlanta improved to first in the league. Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder combined to only miss 36 snaps on the season. Center Mike Person, who won the job in the preseason, missed two games, but this offensive line had as much continuity as any in 2015. With Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman staying relatively healthy, this just adds to the general feel of disappointment over why the Falcons did not do more offensively this season. Atlanta ranked only 16th in points per drive, despite ranking first in average plays run and time of possession per drive.
Dallas and Cincinnati, usually regarded among the best lines in the league, also had very healthy years. Carolina's offensive line was a big surprise, but obviously the tackles suffered a meltdown in the Super Bowl. Denver's offensive line was a big weakness all year, but most of the team's AGL is centered on the left tackle position with Ryan Clady and rookie Ty Sambrailo combining for just three starts. You never want to go to a third left tackle, but that is why the Broncos moved Ryan Harris over and had to start Michael Schofield.
It is kind of amusing to see the last three teams in the AFC playoffs have such a high AGL here. It sure helps to have a future Hall of Fame quarterback getting rid of the ball. Pittsburgh lost Pouncey for the season and left tackle Kelvin Beachum for the last 10 games, yet Ben Roethlisberger was still the least-pressured quarterback in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Minnesota's offense was nowhere near as good, but the Vikings did a solid job in overcoming the preseason losses of two starters in Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan to win 11 games and the NFC North division title.
Checking in on those Giants, we mentioned the Will Beatty injury in part I, which forced rookie Ereck Flowers into the left tackle position and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. Guard Geoff Schwartz also missed five games and ended another season with the team on injured reserve. All five of New York's starting linemen missed at least one game.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
Tampa Bay (26.8) had the worst defensive line AGL in 2014, and things did not get much better this season. Not to make excuses for Lovie Smith, but it was not a healthy year for Clinton McDonald, George Johnson, Jacques Smith or Akeem Spence.
We have full Florida representation here with Cameron Wake being the big injury in Miami. For Jacksonville, it was another one of the season's big disappointments with Dante Fowler tearing his ACL in May on the first day of minicamp. You hope the No. 3 overall pick can recover from that and be everything he was intended to be, but we will have no frame of reference for how well Fowler would have played in the NFL before a major knee injury. It was also a lost year for Sen'Derrick Marks, who only managed four appearances after a breakout year in 2014.
Tom Coughlin's New York defenses were always built around the defensive line, but 2015 was another tough year for that group with Jason Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins basically missing half the season each. Cullen Jenkins (two), Markus Kuhn (six) and Robert Ayers (four) also missed several games.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
This is pretty uncommon, but the Raiders did not have any significant linebacker injuries this season. Aldon Smith's suspension in mid-November cost this unit some games, but that does not get counted here.
Some early losses sting hard here with Sam Barrington (Packers), DeAndre Levy (Lions) and Terrell Suggs (Ravens). With Washington, we waffled a little on what role Junior Galette would have after being signed in the summer, but it seemed rather clear it was going to be significant. If he wasn't the flat-out starter opposite of Ryan Kerrigan, then he would have been a key pass-rusher in place of Trent Murphy, who had to take over the job this year. Galette hopes to return with a one-year "prove it" deal in Washington.
For the Giants, does it even surprise anyone that Jon Beason missed 11 games? He has played five or fewer games in four of the last five seasons. Retirement was a wise decision this offseason for the 31-year-old linebacker. You may not know New York's other linebackers that well, but Devon Kennard missed seven games and J.T. Thomas missed four games as well.
|Top 8||AGL||Bottom 8||AGL|
Well, the Ravens placed six defensive backs on injured reserve in 2014, so the lowest AGL here looks good until you remember how banged up the rest of the team was. Denver, Philadelphia, Houston and Green Bay actually ranked in the top eight last year as well, so it was another healthy year in the secondary for those defenses.
Dallas was dealt that huge blow in the preseason when Orlando Scandrick, the team's best defensive back, tore his ACL. Cleveland got a lost year from Joe Haden, who was limited to five games. Not only were the Saints bad with Brandon Browner starting every game, but they were unhealthy too.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson took advantage of his team's situation. He was not even poised to start ahead of Janoris Jenkins and E.J. Gaines, but once Gaines was lost for the season with an injury, Johnson took over and played his way into a franchise tag this month.
Not every story is as positive. One of the scariest situations I found this year was what happened to Buffalo starting safety Aaron Williams, who injured his neck while attempting a tackle against Julian Edelman in Week 2. Williams was motionless on the ground and could not feel the left side of his body. He did not feel anything until arriving at the hospital. Incredibly, or perhaps inexplicably, Williams was back on the playing field for a Week 5 game against the Titans. He made a tackle on the second play of the game, but his first hit told him something wasn't right. Still, Williams ended up playing 60 snaps that day despite the fact that his arm was numb in the second half. He required neck surgery and has not played since Week 5. His future playing career is up in the air, and you have to wonder if he was rushed back to the field too quickly.
Finally, we end with our beat-up NFC East teams. The biggest problem the Giants had was figuring out who to start at safety. In a short period of time in August, the team placed four safeties on injured reserve: Nat Berhe, Mykkele Thompson, Justin Currie and Bennett Jackson. It was a very open competition, so we are only giving the Giants 16 AGL for that safety position. Veteran Brandon Meriweather ultimately won the job, but he was only signed in mid-August because of the injury situation.
In Washington, Duke Ihenacho won a starting safety job, but was lost in Week 1 for the season. Chris Culliver missed 10 games and DeAngelo Hall, who switched to safety with the mess in this secondary, missed five games as well. Things got so bad even Will Blackmon -- yes, the guy Green Bay drafted in 2006 with14 career starts before 2015 -- ended up starting 10 games at cornerback. You like that?
Maybe paying Kirk Cousins big money after guiding this team to a division title is not so crazy after all.
6 comments, Last at 27 May 2016, 9:56am by Senkan