Quick Reads: 2016 in Review
by Vincent Verhei
Let's all harken back to the halcyon days of 2016, when representatives of all 32 NFL teams gathered in Chicago to restock their rosters with fresh talent. A few weeks prior, the Los Angeles Rams had made sure they would take center stage when they acquired the very first pick of the draft from the Tennessee Titans. They paid a hefty price to make the move -- nine picks in total, including three first-rounders, two seconds, and two thirds -- but after several years floundering under quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum, the Rams were desperate for stability in their offense. The Rams opened the draft by taking California quarterback Jared Goff, hoping he would be their shining star as they returned to Hollywood. Kevin Weidl of ESPN praised Goff's "excellent pocket presence" and the way he "feels pressure naturally to buy time while going through progressions," though he did concede that Goff "might need time adjusting to an NFL playbook coming from a wide-open system." This proved to be a remarkable understatement.
The Rams weren't the only team looking for a quarterback in the first round. The Dallas Cowboys had a solid starter in Tony Romo, but they were looking for a young prospect to develop. They wanted to move up for Memphis signal-caller Paxton Lynch, but were ultimately outbid by the Denver Broncos. With Lynch off the table, they would consider another trade up to take Connor Cook, but were caught off guard when the Raiders made their own trade to jump the Cowboys and take the Michigan State passer. Two days after the Rams had selected Goff, The Cowboys went with Plan C: Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, whom they took in the fourth round, pick 135 overall. Prescott had slipped due in part to a DUI arrest in March, but scouts were lukewarm about his potential even before that incident. "Prescott is a developmental prospect," wrote Steve Muench of ESPN, "but he has enough raw talent to push Kellen Moore for the backup job and potentially develop into an effective starter under the tutelage of Jason Garrett."
Neither young passer was supposed to start right away, and when the Rams kicked off their first season back in L.A., it was Keenum taking snaps. Things in Dallas, though, had not gone so smoothly. Veteran backup Kellen Moore broke his leg in training camp, and then Romo suffered a broken bone in his back in a preseason game against Seattle. Once again, the Cowboys tried to make a trade, but Cleveland refused to part with Josh McCown. Instead it was Prescott under center when the Cowboys took on the Giants in Week 1. The Cowboys had a narrow lead going into the fourth quarter, but gave up a touchdown to Eli Manning. Prescott and the Cowboys had two chances to regain the lead, but couldn't get into the end zone and ultimately lost.
They wouldn't lose again until December, winning 11 games in a row. Romo's back healed, but by then he had been Wally Pipped, and had to publicly concede that Prescott had earned the starting job. Prescott and the Cowboys stumbled again in a rematch against the Giants, but otherwise didn't lose a meaningful game all year, and they are the NFC's top seed as the playoffs are about to begin.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Keenum and the Rams won three of their first four games, including victories over 2015 playoff teams Seattle and Arizona. That fast start turned out to be a mirage, though, and was followed by a four-game losing streak in which the Rams scored a total of five touchdowns. A week later they failed to score a touchdown at all, and though the Rams defense played well enough to beat the Jets 9-6, it was clear that Keenum's time as a starter had come to an end. At 4-5, the Rams announced that Goff would start in Week 11 against Miami. In a best-case scenario. Goff would kick-start the offense and rally the team to a playoff berth -- worst case, Goff would gain valuable experience that would benefit him in 2017 and beyond. At least, the Rams thought that would be the worst-case scenario. What actually happened was actually much, much worse than that, as the Rams' already-terrible offense plummeted even further. The Rams lost each of Goff's seven starts, averaging 12.1 points per game along the way.
None of this will be news to regular Quick Readers, but now that the season is done, we can finally nail down Prescott's accomplishments and Goff's failures in the record books. Even a month ago, it was clear that Prescott was going to break several records, and in fact he did.
|Dak Prescott's Rookie Records|
|Category||Former Record-Holder||Old Record||New Record|
|Completion Rate||Ben Roethlisberger (2004)||66.4%||67.8%|
|Interception Rate||Robert Griffin (2012)||1.27%||0.87%|
|NFL Passer Rating||Robert Griffin (2012)||102.4||104.9|
|Passing DYAR||Matt Ryan (2008)||1,012||1,301|
|Pass + Rush DYAR||Russell Wilson (2012)||1,019||1,422|
|Minimum 200 pass attempts|
With 23 touchdowns in the air and six more on the ground, Prescott also threatened the rookie records of Peyton Manning (26 passes) and Russell Wilson (26 passing, four rushing). And though his DVOA of 31.5% was short of Ben Roethlisberger's 31.7% in 2004, the difference is slight enough that Prescott could leapfrog Roethlisberger should we tweak the DVOA formula in the future.
While Prescott's numbers shattered rookie thresholds, some of Goff's stats are unprecedented among all quarterbacks, young, old, or in-between. Goff completed 112 of 205 passes for 1,089 yards this season, while losing 222 yards on 26 sacks. That's a net average of 3.75 yards per pass play. That is not the worst such mark on record -- Dan Darragh averaged 2.92 yards per passing play with the Bills in 1968. It is, however, the worst since Akili Smith in 2000, and just the 12th time we've found that a player who was that inefficient with at least 200 passes. Coincidentally, three of those 12 seasons were produced by Philadelphia quarterbacks, which explains why Mike Tanier drinks whiskey. The good news for Goff and the Rams is that Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb went on to become very successful quarterbacks. The bad news is that Bobby Hoying didn't.
So that's all quite bad, but keep in mind that Goff is playing in the most passer-friendly era in league history. This means that as bad as Goff's numbers appear on the surface, they are in fact even worse on close inspection. DVOA and DYAR account for that sort of thing, and as you would imagine, they are quite unkind to Mr. Goff. Goff's passing DYAR of minus-880 is not the worst season on record, but it is in the bottom five. The record still belongs to David Carr's minus-1,130 with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. But remember that Goff only had 231 pass plays this year. Carr had 520 in 2002. Goff got three-quarters of the way to Carr's record in only seven starts.
This brings us to DVOA, which measures quarterbacks on a per-play basis. Goff's DVOA of minus-74.7% this year was very, very, very, very, very bad. How bad? Consider that the second-worst quarterback this year, Brock Osweiler -- you know, the guy who was so bad that his team benched him for a third-year pro with zero career starts in the middle of a playoff race -- had a DVOA of minus-27.1%. That means Osweiler was closer to the sixth-ranked quarterback (Derek Carr, 19.9%) than he was to Goff. Keenum, the quarterback who kept Goff on the bench for half a season, had a DVOA of minus-19.6% -- closer to second-ranked Tom Brady than he was to Goff.
So is Goff's DVOA the worst we have ever seen? Well, it depends. For most of Football Outsiders' existence, we have used 100 pass plays as a minimum threshold for our quarterback tables, and there have been a handful of 100-pass seasons with DVOAs worse than Goff's, led by Alex Smith's minus-88.6% as a rookie in 2005. As time has gone on, though, we have come to realize that 200 passes is a more logical minimum. After all, Bryce Petty had 145 pass plays this season. Would you consider Bryce Petty a full-time quarterback this year? So these days we only look at quarterbacks with at least 200 passes -- and we have never found a quarterback with a worse DVOA than Jared Goff had this year with at least 200 passes in a season. Goff broke the record of Kelly Stouffer, who had a minus-72.7% DVOA with the 1992 Seahawks. That season, Stouffer completed less than half his passes while getting sacked on 12 percent of his dropbacks, with less than 5 yards per pass, three touchdowns, and nine interceptions. That, adjusting for era, is still a better stat line than what Goff produced this year.
(Ed. Note: By the way, all the QB stat pages are going to be updated to require a minimum of 200 pass attempts for the main ranking table, sometime in February or March. We'll also be updating our listing of ESPN QBR at that point to reflect their new opponent-adjusted formula. -- Aaron Schatz)
By now I hope we've made it clear who the best and worst rookies have been this year. Here's a look at the best and worst players at all positions, regardless of position. Don't worry, Rams fans, we have a lot more to say about your team!
|Best Quarterbacks, 2016|
|Name||Team||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Matt Ryan never finished higher than fourth in either DYAR or DVOA until leading the league in both categories this year. He also led the league with 9.26 yards per pass. That's not the all-time record, but it's the most since Kurt Warner averaged 9.88 in 2000, and it's also the most of anyone with even 350 passes in a season. (Ryan had 534.) Drew Brees led the league in attempts, completions, and yards. He broke his own record for completions (he is now in first, second, third, sixth, seventh, and eighth place on the leaderboards), and enjoyed his fifth 5,000-yard season (all other quarterbacks ever have produced four). This was his highest finish in DYAR since he led the league in 2011. Kirk Cousins is starting to quietly become a regular in these parts -- he was seventh in DYAR and sixth in DVOA last year, and is third and fifth in the same categories this year. Aaron Rodgers was short of his earlier career highs, but still had a strong rebound season after a mediocre 2015.
We should mention that Tom Brady was fifth with 1,295 passing DYAR, but fell short of Rodgers' totals due to rushing value. Considering Brady missed four games, it might be tempting to subconsciously bump him up the rankings, but by DYAR he was clearly not the best quarterback in football this year. He averaged 108 passing DYAR per game this year to Ryan's 120. In fact, even if you took away Ryan's best four games this year, he would still have 1,149 DYAR -- comparable to what Brady did in 12 contests. Now add four A-plus games on top of that, and it's clear who the better quarterback was.
Dak Prescott was also pretty good.
|Worst Quarterbacks, 2016|
|Name||Team||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
|* Total includes minus-20 DYAR receiving.|
Analysis: None of these quarterbacks played a full season -- in fact, you'll find three of them didn't even qualify for our final quarterback tables. But with the exception of Goff, Osweiler, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, none of the quarterbacks at the bottom of the DYAR standings was able to stay healthy and active for the majority of the season. If we take out Petty and McCown, we're just replacing them with other journeymen and reliever types such as Robert Griffin, Case Keenum, Blaine Gabbert, or Drew Stanton. So we'll just leave our bottom five as it is and not worry about minimum plays this year.
Did we mention that Jared Goff was really bad?
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Kirk Cousins, WAS
[ad placeholder 3]
Among qualifying quarterbacks, Cousins ranked fifth in DVOA, but seventh in NFL passer rating -- not a huge discrepancy, but there weren't really any passers this year who fell too much when going from one stat to the other. Derek Carr and Jameis Winston (who was also better than standard stats made him look last year) would also be good options. Carr had the lowest sack rate in the league this year, and Cousins was fifth, and while sacks are not a part of passer rating, they are a part of DVOA. Winston was just 15th in sack rate, so I'm not sure why he is consistently underrated by conventional stats.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Colin Kaepernick, SF
Kaepernick was in the middle of the pack in passer rating, but 30th in DVOA. In a related note, he had a higher sack rate than anyone except…. Jared Goff. It was a similar story for Ryan Tannehill -- 12th in passer rating, 25th in DYAR, sixth-highest sack rate.
Most Improved: Matt Ryan, ATL
Hard to believe, but Ryan was just 19th in DYAR, 18th in DVOA last year. It appears working with Kyle Shanahan has been a good thing for Ryan in 2016.
Biggest Decline: Carson Palmer, ARI
Palmer led the NFL in passing DVOA and DYAR last year. He was outside the top 20 in both categories this year, the second-worst rankings of his career, and the worst since he played for Cincinnati in 2008.
|Best Running Backs, 2016|
|Name||Team||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
|* Total includes minus-2 DYAR passing|
Analysis: As the rest of the Cardinals offense fell apart around him, David Johnson just kept on making plays. He finished with 15 games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, and likely would have made it 16 had he not left last week's game with a knee injury. It was a similar story for LeSean McCoy, who was outstanding for the Bills, but all anyone wanted to talk about in Buffalo was the status of the coach and quarterback. Le'veon Bell, like Brady, missed four games due to suspension, but returned and was still one of the very best players in the league. Ezekiel Elliott led all players in rushing DYAR and would be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year were it not for his own quarterback. Obviously, that's quite a dropoff from the top four to Devonta Freeman, but he might have ranked higher had he not split time with Tevin Coleman, who was 11th in total DYAR himself.
|Worst Running Backs, 2016|
|Name||Team||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: The offenses in both Denver and Jacksonville were pretty bad last year, and running backs like this were a big part of the reason why. Justin Forsett kept getting released, picked up by a desperate team, and released again. Rashad Jennings is the only player in this table to make the playoffs. Green Bay's defense had its ups and downs this year, but Jennings doesn't seem to offer much of a threat.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Mike Gillislee, BUF
LeSean McCoy may not have even been the best running back on his own team. Mike Gillislee had 101 carries for the Bills this year, putting him just over the 100-carry minimum needed to qualify for our record books. And qualify he did -- his DVOA of 45.0% destroyed the old record of 36.6%, set by Marshall Faulk in 2000. Gillislee also set a record with a success rate of 66 percent, breaking the old mark of 63 percent set by Gary Brown of the Houston Oilers way back in 1993. He finished with 238 total DYAR on only 627 yards from scrimmage.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Todd Gurley, LARM
[ad placeholder 4]
There are other candidates we could pick here -- DeMarco Murray, Lamar Miller, and Devontae Booker all would have been fine choices -- but selecting Gurley lets us keep picking on the Rams. Gurley was 15th among running backs in yards from scrimmage, but just because he got the ball often does not mean he played well -- he was among the bottom ten running backs in rushing DYAR, though his receiving DYAR did hit positive numbers. That was quite an achievement in Los Angeles this year, as we shall explain shortly.
Most Improved: Le'veon Bell, PIT
Bell might have played only 12 games this year, but that's still twice as many as he played last year. It wasn't just volume, though -- Bell set a career high with 105.7 rushing yards per game, and added 51.3 yards per game as a receiver to boot.
Biggest Decline: Matt Forte, NYJ
A year ago, Forte was still a very efficient if not explosive runner and receiver for the Bears. This year, at age 31, Forte looked to have been beaten by Father Time -- and by his teammate Bilal Powell, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry compared to Forte's 3.7.
|Best Wide Receivers, 2016|
|* Total includes 340 DYAR receiving, minus-4 DYAR passing.|
Analysis: Four of these receivers played with top-five quarterbacks. That's probably not a coincidence. Julio Jones led all wide receivers in DYAR and finished second in DVOA -- to his own teammate, Taylor Gabriel, who finished with exactly 50 targets, the bare minimum required to qualify for our leaderboards. Jones' totals were down from his 2015 season, but his yards per catch soared from 13.8 to 17.0. Michael Thomas was everything the Saints could have hoped for as a second-round rookie out of Ohio State, though playing with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback no doubt helped. Jordy Nelson wasn't quite as good as he was pre-injury, but he still had an amazing season after missing all of 2015. The Colts didn't win many games this season, but T.Y. Hilton did all he could, including 100-yard games against the Bears, Titans, Jets, Texans, and Raiders. Cole Beasley was actually leading the league in DYAR early in the season. His numbers regressed once Dez Bryant returned to the lineup, but he remained one of the NFL's best No. 2 receivers.
|Worst Wide Receivers, 2016|
|* Total includes minus-220 DYAR receiving, 46 DYAR rushing
** Total includes minus-79 DYAR receiving, minus-9 DYAR rushing
Analysis: So, uh, how about that NFC West, huh? At least the 49ers receivers were out there trying to catch passes from Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. What was Jermaine Kearse's excuse? Russell Wilson, in the worst year of his career, was still 15th in DVOA, worlds better than anything San Francisco had to offer.
And then there's Tavon Austin. Though his kick return and rushing value make him a dangerous weapon, Austin has now finished dead-last among wideouts in receiving DYAR in back-to-back seasons. That brings his career total to minus-354 -- which means Austin has surpassed Dez White's total of minus-312 to become The Worst Wide Receiver of the DVOA Era. And this can't all be blamed on Jared Goff -- Kenny Britt played with the same quarterbacks Austin did this season and finished with a better DYAR than Odell Beckham, and we'll repeat that Austin was also worst last year when Goff was still with the Golden Bears.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Julio Jones, ATL
Fourteen wide receivers had more catches than Jones this season. There were not four wideouts better than Jones this year, let alone 14.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Tavon Austin, LARM
Austin had 58 catches this year, not a bad total for a secondary slot receiver type. He was tied for 60th among all players in receptions, but 99th with 509 receiving yards -- a total that was bested by four running backs and 20 tight ends.
Most Improved: Davante Adams, GB
In 2015, Adams had the worst receiving DYAR of any non-Rams wide receiver and was well on his way to becoming the biggest bust in Green Bay since Tony Mandarich. But after catching only 88 passes for 928 yards and four touchdowns in his first two seasons combined, we're happy to say that Adams finally put it together in his third season, catching 75 passes for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Biggest Decline: Jermaine Kearse, SEA
Kearse was a top-five wide receiver in DVOA in 2015, but fell to the bottom five this year. At times a valuable blocker in the run-based Seahawks offenses of days gone by, Kearse's physicality was often a detriment in 2016. He led the NFL with five accepted offensive pass interference violations. Seattle was one of only five teams that committed OPI five or more times.
|Best Tight Ends, 2016|
|Name||Team||Rec DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Yes, there was a lot of rushing value among the top tight ends this year, though it's likely that postseason cleanup will show that most of these "runs" were actually receptions on backwards passes. Travis Kelce's appearance at the top was no fluke -- he has finished in the top ten in both DVOA and DYAR for three seasons in a row. In his second season in Seattle, Jimmy Graham was everything the Seahawks had hoped he would have been in his first season. After 27 games in a Seahawks uniform, he needs 53 catches, 215 yards, and seven touchdowns to become Seattle's all-time leading tight end in all three categories. Eric Ebron's career started with a thud in 2014, but he improved considerably in his second year, and improved again this season to become one of the NFL's best players at his position. And finally, one can only imagine how effective New England's offense would have been with a full season of both Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski.
|Worst Tight Ends, 2016|
Yes, that's two more Rams in the "worst of" section. In this way, they are sort of the opposite of the Patriots. (Come to think of it, there are many ways in which they are the opposite of the Patriots.) Tyler Higbee warrants special mention -- the fourth-round rookie out of Western Kentucky had a receiving DVOA of minus-68.5%. That's the second worst on record of any tight end with at least 25 targets in a season, and the worst since Howard Cross had a minus-77.8% with the Giants in 1998. Dennis Pitta, as we shall get to, is now the patron saint of the high-volume, low-value player. Trey Burton caught 37 passes in his third season, but averaged just 8.8 yards per catch, showing why he spent his first two years buried on the Philadelphia bench. Ryan Griffin actually finished among the top 15 tight ends in DVOA in both 2013 and 2015, but nosedived with the rest of the Texans offense when Sheriff Osweiler moseyed into town.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Martellus Bennett, NE
Though Bennett was third among tight ends in DYAR, he was 15th in receptions. We're confident that the former number is a more accurate reflection of his skills and abilities.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Dennis Pitta, BAL
Never before has there been such an easy selection in this space, and never again will there be such an easy selection in this space. Pitta had the most receptions of any tight end in the league, but was still next to last in receiving value. This will happen when you average 8.5 yards per catch and score only two touchdowns. Pitta played 16 games this year after playing only seven from 2013 to 2015. Here's hoping the Ravens will have a better option for 16 games in 2017.
Most Improved: Dwayne Allen, IND
Allen was almost impossibly bad in 2015, with a 6.8 yards-per-catch average and just one touchdown in 13 games. This year, those numbers jumped to 11.6 yards per catch with six touchdowns in 14 games. Allen was 49th among tight ends in DYAR in 2015; he has been in the top ten in each of his other four NFL seasons.
Biggest Decline: Tyler Eifert, CIN
One year after leading all tight ends in DYAR and DVOA, Eifert ranked 18th and 14th in those categories this year. It didn't help that injuries limited him to only eight games and two starts.