Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
21 Apr 2010
by Bill Connelly
Chances are, most college football fans had their "it's time" moment in the last couple of weeks. Maybe it was when Gordon Hayward's half-court heave rimmed out in the NCAA basketball title game. Maybe it was when Phil Mickelson's putt rolled in on the 18th at the Masters. Maybe it was when they spent a couple of hours in (hopefully) the sun watching their team's spring game.
No matter when it happened, however, the switch has been flipped for the hardcore among us, and it is officially college football season once again. Yes, there are still more than four months before the first game of the 2010 season, but ... no matter. Football season has begun!
To celebrate football's return, and to discuss some players who will be drafted this weekend, we're going to revisit a concept we discussed last summer. Back in July, we discussed a measure for properly evaluating running backs' output from a given season. It was called POE (Points Over Expected).
Meet POE (Points Over Expected), the collegiate stepchild of DYAR. Whereas a rusher's PPP+ (Adjusted EqPts Per Play) would compare his EqPts output to what would be expected, and is therefore great for measuring an offense's overall effectiveness, POE is cumulative. It is a comparison of a rusher's total EqPts to the Expected EqPt total, subtracting the latter from the former.
POE = EqPts - Expected EqPts.
Sheer durability and longevity are important characteristics in a rusher, so simply looking at PPP+ doesn't tell the whole story. A runner can come in as a change-of-pace back for 5-6 carries per game and put up a drastically high PPP+, but that doesn't mean he would put up those high rates over the course of a game or season. A runner posts a high POE by showing both a successful PPP+ level and the ability to carry the ball many times. Some (Florida's Jeffrey Demps, North Carolina's Greg Little) proved they could post high PPP+ numbers, while Michigan State's Javon Ringer (30 carries per game) proved he could be a workhorse, but the names at the top of the POE list did both.
Since that column, we have further explored the rushing measurements possible with play-by-play data, and there is now a potentially more useful version of POE called Adjusted POE. The adjustment is based on the Adjusted Line Yards rating of a runner's offensive line. If a good portion of your POE success is attributable to your offensive line, then your overall Adjusted POE will not be nearly as high.
On my Twitter account (follow @billconnelly1), I posted the top five Adjusted POE lists for every year, 2005-09. There are some pretty big-time names on those lists -- Jahvid Best (No. 1 in 2008), Reggie Bush (No. 1 in 2005), Jamaal Charles (No. 5 in 2007), Ian Johnson (No. 4 in 2006), Felix Jones (No. 4 in 2007), LeSean McCoy (No. 5 in 2008), JacQuizz Rodgers (No. 5 in 2009), Kevin Smith (No. 1 in 2007), LenDale White (No. 5 in 2005), DeAngelo Williams (No. 4 in 2005).
However, the top of the 2009 list is surprisingly low on well-known, major-conference runners. Apparently it was the season for the mid-major running back. Seven of the top 10 came from mid-major conferences, and I am willing to bet that even few hardcore fans have heard of the top four names on the list (yes, there is a Boise State player on the list, but not even the one you would expect). Has the "running back by committee" style that has taken over quite a few NFL teams (and done irreparable damage to quite a few Fantasy teams) bled into the collegiate level? Was this a one-year aberration? We will see in 2010.
|Top 20 Collegiate Running Backs According to Adj. POE, 2009|
|Lance Dunbar||North Texas||Sophomore||39.6||2||34.9||1||13|
|Chad Spann||Northern Illinois||Junior||28.2||12||30.6||2||47|
|Doug Martin||Boise State||Sophomore||22.5||18||27.3||4||81|
|Jacquizz Rodgers||Oregon State||Sophomore||26.5||13||26.9||5||12|
|Ryan Mathews||Fresno State||Junior**||30.2||9||26.8||6||2|
|Ryan Williams||Virginia Tech||RS Freshman||42.3||1||25.2||8||5|
|Jonathan Dwyer||Georgia Tech||Junior**||34.7||5||21.3||12||19|
|LaMichael James||Oregon||RS Freshman||33.2||7||20.1||14||8|
|Noel Devine||West Virginia||Junior||25.6||14||20.0||17||10|
|Randall Cobb (WR)||Kentucky||Sophomore||20.8||23||15.3||24||134|
|** Declared early for NFL Draft.|
There was not as much star power at the top of this year's list as there was last year, when Jahvid Best, LeSean McCoy, and Knowshon Moreno all ranked among the toppermost of the poppermost. But that's the way the list of national rushing leaders sometimes falls. Sometimes, Darren Sproles or Ricky Williams leads the country in rushing, sometimes Chance Kretschmer or LeShon Johnson does.
Comparing POE to Adj. POE, it is pretty clear which runners appeared to benefit most from a good offensive line. Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams was first overall in raw POE, but he falls to eighth overall after the adjustment. Jonathan Dwyer falls from fifth to 12th, Mark Ingram from fourth to 18th, and Toby Gerhart from third all the way to 37th.
Other notable falls between POE and Adj. POE: Pitt's Dion Lewis (eighth to 21st), Wisconsin's John Clay (28th to 110th), Florida's Tim Tebow (31st to 134th), Connecticut's Jordan Todman (38th to 99th) and Andre Dixon (45th to 122nd), Houston's Charles Sims (41st to 91st), and Florida State's Jermaine Thomas (43rd to 121st).
Who benefited the most from the Line Yards adjustment? Kent State's Jacquise Terry had the biggest rise, from 359th all the way to 26th. Also: Boston College's Montel Harris (342nd to 81st), Boise State's Jeremy Avery (115th to 40th), Rice's Charles Ross (100th to 36th), Iowa's Adam Robinson (105th to 54th), and, notably, the Oklahoma combo of Chris Brown (304th to 126th) and DeMarco Murray (183rd to 72nd). The Oklahoma offensive line was a known weakness for the Sooners all season, but the inclusion of rushers from Boise State and Iowa is kind of interesting.
There were a few players (some referenced above) who ranked high on the list of overall rushing leaders, but who did not see the top of the Adj. POE list. They include Toby Gerhart (yardage rank: first, Adj. POE rank: 37th), John Clay (yardage rank: ninth, Adj. POE rank: 110th), Montel Harris (yardage rank: 11th, Adj. POE rank: 81st) and Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon (yardage rank: 14th, Adj. POE rank: 111th).
To be sure, the Adj. POE formula favors explosive backs over the "grind it out over 25-35 carries per game" style, so it should not be surprising to see that Gerhart, Clay, and Harris all suffered. There is a skill to being able to carry the ball that much, punish your opponent and wear them down. At the same time, if you are not a breakaway threat, then your margin for error shrinks considerably. Wearing out defenses down the stretch with your power running is only effective if you are able to stay close or ahead, and big plays are the best way to get close or ahead.
|Top 5 Rushing Quarterbacks According to Adj. POE, 2009|
|Dwight Dasher||Middle Tennessee||Junior||79.1||123.9||15.3||37||26.7||7|
|B.J. Daniels||South Florida||RS Freshman||66.4||158.7||24.6||16||20.1||15|
Because of the element of surprise (and the removal of sacks from rushing measures -- it is a bit of a travesty that sacks are counted against rushing at the collegiate level), even mediocre rushing quarterbacks tend to have pretty strong PPP+ averages. For instance, Florida State's Christian Ponder PPP+ (107.9) was higher than that of Oklahoma's Chris Brown (107.7) and Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon (107.5). But to make the Adj. POE Top 25, you still have to carry the ball quite a bit. As you can see, five quarterbacks were able to turn the threat of their legs into stronger weapons than others.
For the 12 of us who watched December's New Orleans Bowl, it's not even remotely surprising that Middle Tennessee's Dwight Dasher not only led the way for rushing quarterbacks last year, but landed just 0.2 EqPts away from the overall Adj. POE Top 5. Middle Tennessee had a very enjoyable offense last year -- the appropriately named Dasher was all over the field, and the threat of his feet opened up a nice, deep passing game. Receivers Garrett Andrews and Chris McClover combined for 70 receptions, 1,071 yards (15.3 per catch) and nine touchdowns. Dasher returns for 2010 and will be a threat to make this list again.
Be on the lookout for B.J. Daniels in 2010 as well. He did not start for a large portion of the season, and he still made the Adj. POE Top 15. He clearly needs to continue working on his passing -- his peripheral numbers (139.5 passer rating, 8.7 yards per pass, 14:9 TD:INT ratio) were solid, but USF's overall passing ratings were still only average. He could be a fun player to watch, and he's only entering his sophomore season.
A few months ago, FO introduced the idea of "Second Level Yards" and "Open Field Yards" for NFL running backs. These were the remaining yards that were left after each break in the baselines for Adjusted Line Yards. I've done the same thing here for college backs, with two differences. First, we're adding together both "Second Level" Yards (5-10 past the line) and "Open Field" Yards (11+ past the line). Second, we're counting only half the Second Level Yards, just as the line gets half credit for these yards. We'll call this stat "Highlight Yards," because these longer runs are the ones that show up on the highlight shows. A three-yard run gets zero Highlight Yards. A 70-yard run gets 63 Highlight Yards. The more Highlight Yards, the more explosive the runner was, and the less his overall yardage and POE totals were due to the offensive line blocking for him.
Instead of looking at all runners here, we're going to lead into the next topic by looking only at prospects for this weekend's NFL Draft.
|Top 2010 NFL Draft Prospects According to Hlt. Yards per Carry|
|Player||School||Rushes||Hlt Yds||Hlt Yds/Car|
|Ryan Mathews||Fresno State||276||893.4||3.24|
|Jonathan Dwyer||Georgia Tech||212||602.0||2.84|
|Anthony Dixon||Mississippi State||257||563.3||2.19|
Highlight Yards are clearly a measure of explosiveness above all, and thus will undervalue runners like Gerhart just as Adj. POE does. The stat also clearly points out how Gerhart might be a perfect fit in one offense and an absolutely wretched one in others. For those offenses out there still interested in power running and conservative playcalling (and in possession of a pretty decent offensive line), Gerhart could be a fantastic get. It doesn't appear that he will take much more than the offensive line gives him, but he will take every inch of it without complaint, and he can clearly take a beating. If a team is looking for Mike Alstott or Jerome Bettis, he could be a success. But if a team wants a playmaker, it most likely has crossed his name off the list.
Along with Adj. POE and Highlight Yards, Football Outsiders also has the wonderful and by now well-established Speed Score concept. With all three of these tools at our disposal, can we come up with an even better way to predict NFL success (or lack thereof) for running backs?
To address this question, of course, we have to first define success and its opposite. Since the data below deals with players who have anywhere between one and four years of experience, we will tentatively define "successful" as averaging 100.0 DYAR per season in the pros. Eighteen players drafted in the last four years have averaged that, which is about 20 percent of the rushers sampled in the four years of draft classes. That is a pretty good, semi-elite sample. Meanwhile, 39 players (42 percent of the sample) either averaged fewer than 10.0 DYAR per season or never got carries at all. We will use that as the definition of "not successful."
Here are the pre-draft Highlight Yards, Adj. POE and Speed Score averages for players in both categories:
So, to analyze a sample of almost 100 rushers, we are going to set up a series of arbitrary points.
Using this broad system, a player can end up with somewhere between 3 and -3 points. Broken into the four tiers below, you can see defined distance from one tier to another.
Of all 92 players analyzed, only three ended up with +3 in these categories, and all three have been relative successes. And as you see below, breaking backs into categories (+3, +1/+2, -1/0, and -2/-3) creates a very strong set of tiers. Those in the "+3" group averaged +204.0 DYAR per season (albeit in a three-man sample size), while those in the "+1" or "+2" tier averaged 87.6. Further down, those in the "-1" or "0" tier averaged 40.4, while those at the bottom "-2" or "-3" averaged 20.2.
|+3||3||204.0||Chris Johnson (East Carolina, 2008)
Jamaal Charles (Texas, 2008)
Jerious Norwood (Mississippi St., 2006)
|+1 or +2||18||87.6||Maurice Jones-Drew (UCLA, 2006)
DeAngelo Williams (Memphis, 2006)
Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma, 2007)
Jonathan Stewart (Oregon, 2008)
Reggie Bush (USC, 2006)
|Garrett Wolfe (N. Illinois, 2007)|
|0 or -1||36||40.4||Joseph Addai (LSU, 2006)
Pierre Thomas (Illinois, 2007)
Ray Rice (Rutgers, 2008)
Chris Wells (Ohio State, 2009)
Tashard Choice (Georgia Tech, 2008)
|Chris Henry (Arizona, 2007)
Antonio Pittman (Ohio State, 2007)
Brian Calhoun (Wisconsin, 2006)
Michael Robinson (Penn State, 2006)
Mike Goodson (Texas A&M, 2009)
Glen Coffee (Alabama, 2009)
|-2 or -3||34||20.2||None (Steve Slaton is the closest at 124.2)||Tony Hunt (Penn State, 2007)
Dwayne Wright (Fresno State, 2007)
Gartrell Johnson (Colorado State, 2009)
Kenny Irons (Auburn, 2007)
It should be noted that teams don't slip up often in terms of drafting somebody in the "-2 or -3" category. Of the 34 names on the list, only five were picked before the fourth round (Irons, Brandon Jackson, Lorenzo Booker, Hunt, Slaton). However, only Slaton and Arian Foster (109.9), and Leon Washington (99.7) have averaged even as much as 50.0 DYAR/season. It is very hard to succeed when you are in the "-2 or -3" range with this points system.
So how do the current draft prospects grade out? Below are the 20 running backs most likely to be drafted this weekend, along with their FO measurables and "points."
|2010 Draft Prospects and FO Measurables
(ordered by common pre-draft rankings)
|Ryan Mathews||Fresno State||Senior||3.24||+26.8||111.2||+3|
|Jonathan Dwyer||Georgia Tech||Junior*||2.84||+21.3||103.2||+2|
|Anthony Dixon||Mississippi State||Senior||2.19||+5.2||99.7||-1|
|Keith Toston||Oklahoma State||Senior||1.83||+14.4||87.3||-1|
|* H-Yds/car and Adj. POE are from 2008, as neither Blount nor Johnson got many
carries this year (Blount got only 22 carries due to suspension, Johnson 32 carries
due to freak injury).
In the four years of data at hand, only three runners have managed a +3 score. There are two in just this class -- Mathews and Best. Though we should be conservative in drawing conclusions with such a small sample size, the experiences of Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, and Jerious Norwood suggest these two backs are (injuries aside) as close to sure things as there are in the draft. Meanwhile, two more backs had a score of +2 from their 2009 data. Blount also scored +2, but that was using the 2008 data he put together before his Boise falcon punch in 2009. His sample size was too small in 2009 to draw any conclusions, so we will see what impact the year off has on his production. Character issues will prevent him from being drafted too high, but he might have good value in later rounds.
Also providing potentially good value: Gerhart (with the aforementioned correct team) and potentially Brandon Minor.
Of the top backs on the list, teams probably want to avoid Montario Hardesty and potentially Joe McKnight and Ben Tate. Tate is a Speed Score darling, but he does very poorly in our other two "FO measureables."
What a great move this is by Ndamukong Suh. My Heisman pick (somehow my ballot never came in the mail), who matured significantly on the field his senior season, showed how mature he is off the field by donating $2.6 million to his alma mater -- $2 million to the athletic department and $600,000 to the College of Engineering (intended to help out-of-state students, perhaps from his high school, Portland (OR) Grant, in attending Nebraska). He has made an impact on the Huskers' program in many different ways, and he deserves some serious kudos for it.
Call this a preemptive rant. As most teams' spring games come and go, we are entering the portion of the offseason where we overreact to the smallest of sample sizes, bumping our opinions of certain schools significantly up or down because a quarterback succeeded against his team's second-team defense, or because a team's previously shaky defense looked great against a second-team offense. My father attended his first spring game this weekend in Columbia, and afterward he asked what I actually took away from it. My response: "Very, very little." Spring games are a wonderful opportunity to soak in nice weather and pretend that it's football season for a couple of hours on a spring afternoon, but basing conclusions on its results are an almost entirely pointless affair. But we do it anyway.
Does any sport stay in the offseason news better than college football? The season ends, and we engage in 6-8 weeks of recruiting obsession. A couple of weeks after that, spring football starts, and we commence overreacting to news and performances from practices. Now it's draft week. Plus, in a move more unique to this particular offseason, we have once again engaged in full-speed conference expansion talk. This will last for a quite a while, just in time for everybody's preseason Top 25s to roll in. And just like that, it's time for two-a-days, and Labor Day weekend before you know it.
Spring has sprung, etc. Unfortunately, there aren't 10 songs on my iPod dealing with horrific pollen allergies, so we'll go for a different spring feature.
"Apple Suckling Tree," by Bob Dylan & The Band
"Cypress Tree," by Black Crowes
"The Dreaming Tree," by Dave Matthews Band
"Family Tree," by TV On the Radio
"The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree," by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
"Hanging Tree," by Counting Crows
"In My Tree," by Pearl Jam
"Lime Tree," by Bright Eyes
"Treefingers," by Radiohead
"Up in the Treehouse," by Cody ChesnuTT
And of course, every song from the semi-overrated (yeah, I said it) The Joshua Tree as well.
The Big Ten expansion talk has made for a lot of conversation, hasn't it? We've got the same analysts making the same predictions they were making three months ago (Stewart Mandel still loves himself some Nebraska), but with the Big Ten dropping hints of an accelerated timetable for making decisions and offers this week, the discussion exploded. Of course, this may have been one giant tease, but that's fine. We'll just have the same conversation in another couple of months when it comes up again. It makes for a mighty fast offseason, doesn't it?
44 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2010, 11:47pm by nightowl