Introducing Snap-Weighted Size: Seahawks, Ravens Among Biggest Teams
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."
—Mark Twain, the father of American literature
"Hey fellas! This is what you work all offseason for! This is why you lift all them weights! This is why you do all that sh*t!"
—Bill Parcells, who has written several books and also won two Super Bowls
There are a lot of reasons teams win football games—speed, technique, teamwork, strategy, etc.—but sometimes the difference between victory and defeat is simply being bigger and stronger than the guys on the other side of the line. At Football Outsiders, we have been calculating snap-weighted age for several seasons, measuring which teams were oldest and youngest, accounting for how often each player was actually on the field. The idea is the same here, but we're analyzing inches and pounds rather than years.
The difference between gauging size and age is that size actually has three factors: height, weight, and the relationship between the two. So we calculated each team's snap-weighted height (SWH) and snap-weighted weight (SWW), and using those numbers calculated their snap-weighted body mass index (SWBMI). It's also important to note that for most players, height and weight are measured at the combine and then rarely changed in our database. Obviously players will gain and lose weight throughout the season, but there are no weight limits in the NFL, so nobody's updating that info.
When we looked at the results, we found that there was much more difference in weight than in height. The NFL's SWH last year was 74.23 inches, while the standard deviation from team to team was 0.24 inches, 0.3% of that average. The league-wide SWW was 247.7 pounds with a standard deviation of 2.2 pounds, about 0.9% of the average. This was true for offensive players, defensive players, and special teamers, and at every position on the field. At a few positions (specifically, tight end and offensive line), there was actually more variance in BMI than in weight, but they were the exception. So while we'll talk a lot about height and BMI today, all of our tables will be sorted by weight. And when it comes to weight, the biggest team in pro football in 2020 was the Seattle Seahawks.
|Snap-Weighted Size, Team Totals, 2020|
The Seahawks tipped the scales at a league-high SWW of 251.9 pounds. They were only 14th in special teams (217.0), but fourth on offense (265.7). That may surprise you, since their most famous player is notoriously undersized, but the players around Russell Wilson are mostly heavyweights. The Seahawks ranked exactly ninth in SWW by running backs (217.5), wide receivers (205.4), and tight ends (256.1). On top of that, Seattle used a lot of multiple-tight end sets, skewing that average even higher—Seattle's backs, wideouts, and tight ends had a collective SWW of 224.7 pounds, third-most in the league. They were also third in SWW on the offensive line (323.2).
Meanwhile, the Seahawks defense was the biggest in the league (240.6), but it's hard to figure out why on first glance. They failed to make the top 10 in SWW at defensive line (293.6, 11th), linebacker (241.5, 16th), or defensive back (200.4, 13th). It's true that they played more base defense than most teams (38% of all defensive plays), but not nearly as much as they had the year before (69%). There were seven other clubs in 2020 whose defensive backs saw a smaller share of defensive player snaps (including special teams and, rarely, offensive plays). Seattle's defensive linemen were 14th in percentage of defensive player snaps; their linebackers were 16th. This is the profile of the league's biggest defense? What's going on here?
None of this made sense, so we checked our numbers again and again, looking for where we made an error. Then we looked at this chart, showing each team's total snaps by defensive linemen and the SWW of those players.
There is a very strong negative correlation (-0.803!) between the number of snaps a team gives to its defensive linemen and the weight of those players—in other words, the more linemen a team uses, the smaller those linemen tend to be. (As a result of this, there was virtually no difference between the snap-weighted size numbers of defenses that used more linemen than linebackers and those who used more linebackers than linemen.) And for a defense that used as many linemen as Seattle did, those Seahawks linemen were enormous. Seattle was one of 17 teams who used linemen on at least 30% of their defensive player snaps. The cumulative SWW of the linemen on the other 16 teams was 284.2 pounds, while Seattle's linemen had a SWW of 293.6 pounds—nearly 10 pounds per man bigger! Take that average and multiply it by 4,856 snaps and you get more than 1.4 million snap-pounds; only four lines had more total tonnage. The Seahawks had three defensive linemen—Jarran Reed, Poona Ford, and L.J. Collier—who each racked up 600-plus snaps at 290-plus pounds. Only three other teams (the Dolphins, Jets, and Giants) pulled that off, and none of those teams used defensive linemen nearly as often as Seattle did. With all those big linemen on the field and fairly few defensive backs, you get the NFL's biggest defense.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Seattle's division rivals put together the NFL's smallest team at 243.2 pounds. That includes a bottom-10 defense (231.4) and the league's smallest offense (253.4)—surprising for an attack built around tight ends and fullbacks. But they were small tight ends and fullbacks, with San Francisco ranking 30th in SWW at the former position and 12th (of the 17 teams that listed a fullback) at the latter. They were also next to last at running back and dead last on the offensive line. Kyle Shanahan's offense is built around speed and mobility from all his players, whether they're carrying the ball or throwing blocks.
The Los Angeles Chargers were the NFL's tallest team in 2020, ranking third on offense, 12th on defense, and 23rd on special teams. That starts with Justin Herbert, the league's tallest starting quarterback at 6-foot-6, but L.A. was also third in SWH at RB, fourth at wide receiver, and 10th at tight end. They were below average at most other positions, save for defensive back, where they ranked eighth.
Cam Newton is just an inch shorter than Herbert, but his Patriots still finished last in overall and offensive SWH. New England failed to make the top 20 at running back, wide receiver, or tight end, and they were shortest by a mile on the offensive line. The next shortest offensive line, the Bears, was closer to the Chargers in 20th place than they were to the Patriots. New England also finished 24th in SWH on defense, 11th in special teams.
Remember when we said the Seahawks were first in SWW? Well, they were big, but not tall—they were next to last in snap-weighted height, 30th on offense, 27th on defense. That includes a 31st-place ranking at quarterback (this is Russell Wilson's team, after all) and a 30th-place ranking at defensive line. They also ranked in the bottom 10 at tight end, offensive line, linebacker, and special teams. Obviously, then, the Seahawks led the NFL in SWBMI, ranking second on offense and first by a wide margin on defense. The Seahawks ranked (appropriately) 12th or higher in SWBMI at every position group, including a first-place ranking at quarterback.
The league's skinniest team, by SWBMI, was the Minnesota Vikings, who were dead last in this category on defense, 29th on offense, and 24th on special teams. They were quite thick at tight end (sixth), but 19th or worse at every other position group, including 30th at defensive line, 31st at offensive line, and dead last at both quarterback and defensive back.
|Snap-Weighted Size, Offenses, 2020|
The Baltimore Ravens had the league's heaviest offense by quite a bit, and that's mostly due to their blockers—they were second in SWW at offensive line and first at tight end. On top of that, they gave more than 400 snaps to their fullback … and that fullback was enormous, the 311-pound Patrick Ricard. (Ricard used to split his time between fullback and defensive tackle, but he didn't play any defensive snaps in 2020). Having Ricard was like using an extra lineman on more than 40% of the Ravens snaps. The players carrying the ball were awfully big too—Baltimore's running backs ranked 10th in SWW.
The league's lightest offense, as previously noted, was the San Francisco 49ers. They were followed by the Minnesota Vikings, who had a tiny offense even though C.J. Ham led all fullbacks with 620 snaps (404 on offense, 216 on special teams). But the Vikings were among the bottom five at running back (28th), offensive line (31st), and quarterback (last).
The Washington Football Team's offense wasn't very good, but it was quite tall, with the highest SWH in football. That's interesting because they weren't especially tall at any one position group, but they were in the top six at wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line. They were in the middle of the pack at quarterback and running back, and that was good enough to make them tallest in the league, given how tightly clustered most offenses were in that department.
The shortest offense was that of the Patriots; the next-shortest belonged to the Cardinals, who were obviously last at quarterback and also below average at wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line.
The three thickest offenses were the Ravens, Seahawks, and Patriots, but since we've covered those teams already, let's look at the fourth-place team, Las Vegas. The Raiders were below average in SWBMI at quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end, but they were seventh at offensive line and third at running back. They were also sixth in fullback snaps. The Patriots were third, the Ravens fourth, and the Seahawks 12th; it's no surprise that offenses that use a lot of fullbacks usually end up ranking high in SWBMI.
The L.A. Rams almost never use a fullback, and so it's no surprise to see their offense last in SWBMI. They were actually quite thick at offensive line, ranking third there, but they were below average everywhere else, including ranking last at wide receiver.
|Snap-Weighted Size, Defenses, 2020|
In second place behind the Seahawks in defensive SWW were the New York Giants, whose general manager, Dave Gettleman, has a notorious obsession with "hog mollies"—and his preference for monster linemen is no myth. The Giants were the only team with three defenders (Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Leonard Williams) to play at least 700 snaps at 300-plus pounds. Big Blue finished third in SWW at defensive line, 13th at linebacker, and 10th at defensive back.
New York's divisional rivals in Philadelphia had the league's lightest defense … and while we're talking about the Eagles, let's mention that they were the league's shortest defense too. Philadelphia's diminutive secondary was last in the league in both SWW and SWH, their defensive linemen ranked 26th in both categories, and their linebackers were 25th in the former and 26th in the latter.
The Vikings defense was very tall, ranking first in SWH, but also very skinny, ranking last in SWBMI. Their first-place ranking in height is entirely due to their secondary, which finished second; they were just 13th at defensive line and 28th (!) at linebacker. However, they were skinny everywhere, ranking 23rd at linebacker, 30th at defensive line, and last at defensive back.
The second-shortest defense behind Philadelphia belonged to the Tennessee Titans, who were actually tall at defensive line (sixth in SWH), but short at linebacker (25th) and defensive back (31st).
We have already mentioned the two teams at the extremes here—the Seahawks and Eagles—so let's touch on the runners-up at each end of the spectrum. For the thick teams, that's the Chicago Bears, who were just 17th at defensive back, but seventh at linebacker and second on the defensive line. For the skinny teams, that's the Buffalo Bills, who were 17th at linebacker but next to last in the secondary and dead last on the defensive line.
|Snap-Weighted Size, Special Teams, 2020|
There's not a ton to analyze here, so let's just hit some bullet points:
- Clearly, the key to winning the Super Bowl is to get the biggest kickers you can find. At 240 pounds, Tampa Bay's Bradley Pinion was the heaviest player to attempt a punt in 2020; at 218 pounds, Ryan Succop was the third-heaviest player to attempt a field goal.
- The Bears had the lightest special teams mainly because 160-pound Cairo Santos was the smallest full-time kicker in the league. (Taylor Russolino—a 31-year-old rookie who missed his only field goal try and two of his three extra point attempts for Denver—was also 160 pounds.)
- At 6-foot-5, Daniel Carlson of the Raiders was the league's tallest kicker. His teammate AJ Cole was one of 11 punters to stand 6-foot-4 or taller. Long snapper Trent Sieg was shorter than either of them, but still stood 6-foot-3.
- Contrast that with the situation in Atlanta, where 5-foot-9 Sterling Hofrichter was the shortest full-time punter in the league. Falcons placekicker Younghoe Koo stands just 5-foot-10, and even long snapper Josh Harris goes only 6-foot-1.
- The thicker the kicker, the more the Lions like them. Among players who played in all 16 games, Detroit's Jack Fox (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) had the second-highest BMI among punters, and his teammate Matt Prater (5-foot-10, 201) was second-highest among placekickers.
- You may not be familiar with Tommy Townsend, because the Chiefs don't punt very often, but with 176 pounds stretched out over 6 feet, 2 inches, he had the second-lowest BMI among punters. Harrison Butker (6-foot-4, 205) was in the bottom 10 among placekickers.
What Does This All Mean?
So that's a lot of fun data, but does it mean anything? As it turns out, not much. There is virtually no correlation between snap-weighted size (in terms of height, weight, or BMI) and overall DVOA.
There are a few very weak correlations that pop up when looking at BMI on offense and defense. Thick offenses tend to run more often (0.242 correlation between SWBMI and run rate), and they tend to do it more effectively (0.226 correlation with rush offense DVOA). On the other side of the ball, thicker defenses tend to play better against the run (-0.254 correlation with run defense DVOA—remember, low DVOA means better defense) than they do against the pass (0.282 correlation with pass defense DVOA). Again, those are weak correlations, but they do make intuitive sense, so there's probably a little bit of fire behind this smoke.
We'll be back next Wednesday with a look at snap-weighted size by position, and see if that tells us anything about team performance.
14 comments, Last at 24 May 2021, 7:54am
#2 by TimK // May 19, 2021 - 11:38am
Of course, that could mean, that no-one every wants to ghost-write a second book with/for Bill Parcells. Given the likely control-freakery, attention to detail, and ego of successful NFL head coaches it might not be so weird that people don't want to co-write more than one book with any particular coach ;)
#7 by TomC // May 19, 2021 - 1:48pm
Also, the attribution of that quote to Twain is almost certainly bogus. See, e.g., http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2015-October/139250.html .
#6 by Raiderfan // May 19, 2021 - 1:32pm
...” 1.4 million snap-pounds”. Undoubtedly to become the new, hot analytics metric.
“ Philadelphia's diminutive secondary”. Eagle fans may have other adjectives in mind.
“ Bradley Pinion was the third-heaviest player to attempt a punt in 2020”. The chart you link to actually shows him to be the heaviest. When I read the quote line I thought to myself how in the world can there be three 240+ pound punters?
#12 by CVBoot // May 20, 2021 - 9:58am
" They were followed by the Minnesota Vikings, who had a tiny offense even though C.J. Ham led all fullbacks with 620 snaps (404 on offense, 216 on defense)."
The Vikings were pretty desperate for defensive players last year, between injuries and opt-outs, but they were not so desperate that they put their fullback in on defense for 20% of their defensive plays. Those are almost certainly Ham's special teams snaps (pfr lists him as having 220 ST snaps).
#14 by thok // May 24, 2021 - 7:54am
Does this really just cover the 2020 data? Because I assume there's a nontrivial relationship between games lost to injuries and snap-weighted size, and that really needs multiyear data to tease out that effect.
In particular, I wouldn't be shocked to learn that injury replacements are smaller on average than the people they replace.