Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

15 Jul 2009

FOA 09 MEDIA: Fisking Football Outsiders (49ers)

The superb Niners Nation blog is going to be fisking our chapter from FOA 09 on the Niners this week, looking at some of the statistical analysis we did in the chapter and whether it's actually applicable. (From their opening paragraph, I would gather that the writer of the piece(s), Florida Danny, does not.)

In their opening piece on the chapter, Florida Danny analyzes a claim I made about Manny Lawson's future in the chapter; namely, that his poor production as a pass rusher up to this point virtually precludes his ability to be a successful pass rusher in the future.

Manny Lawson, the 22nd overall pick, missed most of his second season with a torn ACL, but over three years he has just 5.5 sacks in 32 games. That's not what a team desperate for a pass rusher was hoping for. When the team went to a nickel package as their defensive base last year, Lawson went to the bench, a sign of his lack of development. Even if we pretend that those 32 games only came over two seasons, there's not a lot of hope for Lawson; of the last 32 linebackers to be drafted in the first round and produce fewer than six sacks in their first two years, only two - LaVar Arrington and Jamir Miller - have produced a ten-sack season afterwards.

Florida Danny then makes the point that comparing Lawson to all other first-round linebackers is holding up apples to oranges, by virtue of the fact that the only linebackers who really accrue significant sack totals are 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 ends. He uses 2008 data to prove his point, and it's very well done -- certainly worth reading by anyone who's a fan of this site, which is why I've linked the article as opposed to just replying to Florida Danny privately.

I agree that by comparing Lawson to all other linebackers, to an extent, I'm comparing apples to oranges -- Florida Danny's research makes that clearer. Where I feel he went wrong, though, is in the following statement:

Namely, Lawson has been a 4-3 OLB his entire career save the latter part of last season when Singletary and Manusky moved to a base 3-4.

Florida Danny bases his conclusion -- that Lawson hasn't been given a fair shake as a pass rusher, and will improve his sack totals this year as a full-time 3-4 linebacker -- on that statement.

Although I run the risk of opposing a dedicated fan of a team who knows more about them than I do here, I have to say that I can't agree.

If we look at the gamelogs available at NFL.com, Lawson's started in a pure 3-4 alignment 10 times in his career: Weeks 1 and 3 of the 2006 season, the first two weeks of the 2007 season (after which Lawson tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season), and the final six weeks of the 2008 season.

Furthermore, Lawson spent most of 2008 starting as part of a non-traditional scheme where the other linebackers were two inside linebackers (Patrick Willis and Jeff Ulbrich) while Justin Smith was listed as an "end". Realistically, he played his fair share of linebacker, and Lawson played his fair share of snaps in a 3-4 during those games. Although the team moved away from the 3-4 after the first few games of 2006, they still spent some time in a 3-4 alignment during that season.

Danny suggests that no linebacker in the group I mentioned in the above quote has ever gone from a 4-3 alignment during their first two years to a 3-4 in their third year, but that's a disingenuous usage of the two schemes. Suggesting Lawson was a full-time 4-3 linebacker is unrealistic; in reality, he was a hybrid linebacker who moved to the 3-4 full-time in 2007, only to get hurt, and then played a hybrid role in 2008 before moving to the 3-4 full-time. We don't have the snap-by-snap data of what alignment the Niners were in, but I suspect Lawson has seen a full season's worth of snaps as a 3-4 linebacker in his career, not just the handful of games from the end of 2008 that Danny implies.

Furthermore -- and I should have made this clearer in the essay -- it's not like the Niners have been using Lawson out of position and are finally going to put him in the right role. The reason why the Niners haven't been able to adopt the 3-4 as a full-time scheme is precisely because their pass rush hasn't been able to get any pressure, and that's been because of Lawson's lack of development as a player. One of those things is his weight; Lawson weighed 235 pounds at the end of last season. There's not a successful 3-4 pass rusher in the league under 245. (Lawson has gotten up to 250 this offseason, but from what it sounds like in his blog, it's not muscle.) Although I don't speak to any of the Niners coaches on a regular basis, PFW reports that his technique isn't what the team is looking for.

Furthermore, the selection of Lawson in the first round of the '06 Draft was supposed to be the impetus for the Niners to move to a 3-4 on something approaching a full-time basis; Lawson, along with Tully Banta-Cain, was supposed to give the team the pass rusher they needed on the outside. Instead, Lawson's lack of development (and Banta-Cain's Banta-Cainosity) forced the team to go out and sign Justin Smith in the hopes that he could become their pass-rushing outside linebacker.

It's not really apples and oranges, in my opinion; it's more like Granny Smith to Red Delicious.

Interestingly enough -- and I don't say this to imply that it refutes Danny's points, but merely that it's a strange coincidence -- of Lawson's 5.5 career sacks, only one came when Lawson was starting in a 3-4 alignment, during Week 12 of last year.

Niners Nation will be going over other parts of the chapter as the week goes along, so check back there for more details.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 15 Jul 2009

16 comments, Last at 18 Jul 2009, 5:47pm by spenczar


by Nathan Forster :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 1:09am

I think part of the issue is the linguistic problem of referring to what should be collectively called "4-3 DE/3-4 OLB's." The point is well taken that DeMarcus Ware has a lot more in common with a player like Jared Allen than a player like Jerod Mayo.

However, I think that, although perhaps Bill could have been more clear with his word choice, Florida Danny misses the point to some extent. To say that we're being unfair to Manny Lawson because a high percentage of "linebackers" don't hit certain sack totals is highly misleading because Jerod Mayo and A.J. Hawk, due to scheme and skillset, are never going to be confused with Terrell Suggs. The bottom line (as Bill notes) is that Manny Lawson was drafted to rush the passer, and he has failed to do so to such an extent that it seems unlikely that he will ever be considered anything but a bust.

There are no analogues for a Manny Lawson success story (at least that I'm aware of) in at least the last ten years. Sure, there are players who have had 5.5 sacks by year three that became successful sack artists (Kyle VandenBosch, Leonard Little, Bertrand Berry) but they were all mid-round-ish picks who had to claw their way up into the line-up. The list of first-round 4-3 DE's/3-4 OLB's with 5.5 or less sacks after three years is short and not particularly illustrious.

The "Goodbye, Ladies" Draft Report

by CBPodge :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 1:53pm

Really good site you have there. If I was a Lions fan it would almost make it worth it. Well, no, it wouldn't, but it would make it slightly less bad.

by Benjamin Light (not verified) :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 2:38am

The Moral of this story: Lawson's only had 2 years, and Mike Nolan was a really bad coach. And Singletary? Eh, Nolan hired him first, after all. Lawson is meant to fill the Julian Peterson role for the niners. If you actually watch the games, you'll see he doesn't rush the passer very often, so a low sack total is not a surprise. He was actually looking great in 2007 before the ACL injury (in the Peterson, cover-the-TE role). As ACLs usually take 2 years to fully recover, we'll see this year if he has something or not.

Sorry Bill, but this is one of those situations where you know not what you speak of. The niners switched to 3-4 because the hired Mike Nolan, not because of Manny Lawson. If the niners' past history is any indication, Lawson will go elsewhere when his rookie contract is gone and then flourish in a scheme that makes use of his talents.

by Vasilii :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 8:50am

Odd thing is, from the 9ers blog post and comments, this seems to quickly devolve into a chicken-and-egg story.

Read the comments there. These are fans and they obviously have a good idea of where and how Lawson was utilized (something Bill admits to not having an equal grasp on), and they note such important details as him being taken out on 3rd downs, or him not playing on a rushing position very much. Those are statements that'd have to be checked statistically...

But assuming it's true, one thing is hard to answer and that's the chicken-and-egg thing: you say Lawson is underutilized as a pass rusher because he's not that good at it, the 9ers say he's not a good pass rusher because he's underutilized.

The coming year might provide an answer, but until then this seems to me something that only the coaching staff really knows.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 10:19am

Whilst Lawson may have played some games as a 3-4 OLB he rarely was assigned pass rushing responsibilities. Mike Nolan normally used a larger DE/OLB tweener to rush the passer from the weakside (eg Banta-Cain, Justin Smith) using 3 down linemen with an elephant rather than a more conventional 3-4. Even after Justin Smith was moved back to end after Singletary took over last season the team mainly used Harylson as the weakside pass rusher (who is inexperienced as a coverage player).

Despite the Niners playing a '3-4' for quite a few games Lawson they were mainly using a hybrid scheme of Nolan's own design in which Lawson was mainly tasked with coverage responsibilities due to the complete lack of such skills from other players in the formation. The fact that this has been a problem for the 49ers for so long is a bigger indictment of the coaching staff and front office than picking Lawson.

There are noises coming from the Niners organisation that Harylson has greatly improved his coverage skills (if you can ever trust a word that coaches say in the offseason, or ever) then Lawson might finally be let loose to get after the QB.

by Keith (not verified) :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 10:23am

Much to my vexation, this reads just like a piece from a fan. I felt the same way about the Texans article response. Sure, it is good analysis, but it is littered with "Take that, you silly FO writers!" sort of wording.

There is a lot of good research, yes, but none of it really flows with the points that are being made -- why total every position together for an average? If the point is that each position is different, than adding their totals together is silly.

by redding (not verified) :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 1:29pm

the response from niners nation was from a fan's perspective, one of hopes and wishes. FO's research and analysis is an attempt to elucidate the truth...therefore, it is not shocking that there is such a wide gulf between these opinions.

i find it very dubious that the niners (who have clearly been searching for a pass rush) have simply overlooked lawson, as his draft position alone brings him to the forefront in any discussion of the pass rush.

i find it equally dubious that the niners would have pushed aside lawson for banta-cain and haralson, a mediocre FA signing and a mid-round pick. lawson has shown little aptitude for pass rushing in practice and in games, and the niners have been forced to keep looking for a pass rusher.

in the mean time, i wish them luck in hoping and wishing that lawson can become a pass rusher.

by sfckoski :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 1:32pm

Watching the 49ers as close as a fan can without jumping off the Golden Gate through the Nolan years has the extra frustration of trying to figure out what was really real and what wasn't.

Nolan was supposed to implement the 3-4 defense, especially after adding Justin Smith, but instead ended up using a 3-4 4-3 hybrid that was big time FAIL. Singletary's switch to a more simplified 3-4 is cited as one of the reasons for the more consistent play by the defense after his promotion to head coach.

In re:the Lawson argument, I think the truth lies somewhere between Bill and Danny's arguments, but leaning towards Bill. The 49ers traded back into the first round to draft Lawson (Vernon Davis was first pick) and he has not produced to those expectations, regardless of the reasons.

Whether it was scheme, injuries or lack of NFL talent, Lawson is about run out of chances to prove himself. Lawson is not the only first round pick facing unmet expectations heading into this season, which lends credibility to FO's pessimistic outlook for the 2009 49ers. Alex Smith has one more shot to prove he can be an effective starter when he's surrounded by "enough talent" and not injured. Vernon Davis needs to prove he is a playmaker when used properly. Manny Lawson needs to start sacking the quarterback. Joe Staley has performed well, but he needs to show he can be a elite LT. 2008 first rounder, Kentwan Blamer, needs to get on the field. His page on pro-ffotball-reference is devoid of any defensive stats and only has his five returns as part of kickoff return team.

by cjfarls :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 4:07pm

Reading both the FO content, and the 9er response, I get this impression.

1) The 9ers are right on in that the FO comment really has no statistical relevance because the 5.5+ sack total is a horribly non-predictive number of future success... Few LB's picks got that, and of those, few of them hit the next arbitrary number of 10+ sacks.

2) However, all they really prove is that it is highly unlikely for Lawson to hit 10+, so any hopes for that to him to be a pass-rush savior in the future seem far-fetched. He apprently hasn't been used in such a role, either for lack of aptitude and/or bad coaching. Likely some of both. If Lawson "emerged" as a pass-rushing freak this year, everyone should be completely surprised.

So basically, the point Bill made about him being an unlikely pass-rush beast is correct... the stat he used to back it up was questionable.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 4:56pm

The scariest thing in the post is not Lawson's success or failure, but that SF is starting only 1 player drafted after the 2nd round in McCloughan's tenure (Haralson).


THAT is Detroit-level drafting quality.

by bignerd (not verified) :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 5:14pm

I guy named 'snowweasel30' brought this up on the NinersNation forum.

Day 2 picks: Indicates SF will only start 1 player they drafted after the second round under McCloughan (Haralson)

I can name at least one other player who will start that they drafted after the second round.

Frank Gore. Drafted in 3rd Round. He at least was a steal :)

If I remember correctly Dashon Goldson who is slated to start this year was a later round pick also.

It was then pointed out that maybe FO considers Gore a Nolan pick or in that year's draft the 3rd round was held in the 1st day. It's interesting where FO draws the line on McCloughan tenure. You don't expect 2nd Day picks to develop into starters right away, nor is the overall success rate high on those picks.

by David :: Fri, 07/17/2009 - 7:12am

Yup, totally agree. There was an article a while back here on FO (I think last offseason) pointing out that the niners were awful at drafting - producing Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and other first-round busts as evidence.

My feeling, and my response at the time, was that the niners' drafting at the top of the draft was no worse than most other times (about a fifty per cent hit rate), but that they had consistently missed on second day prospects. Teams tend to need at least a couple of outright starters from the second day, as well as a number of contributors (nickel backs, 3rd down RBs, etc.) - and this was pretty much a dead area for the niners (honourable exception, as one of my favourite players - Arnaz Battle, drafted in the sixth round and a pretty consistent contributor at 3rd receiver)

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 07/17/2009 - 7:25am

The niners are intending to start Dashon Goldson at free safety, he'd almost certainly have started last year if he'd been healthy. I'd expect Tarell Brown to beat Dre Bly out at corner too.

The player you're really overlooking is Josh Morgan, who will be one of the niners' starting recievers.

The whole Millen comparison is pretty weak; the Lions were playoff calibre when Millen arrived while the niners that McCloughan inherited were 'historically' terrible and it wouldn't have helped him that he didn't hire Nolan or have authority over him.

by Benjamin Light (not verified) :: Thu, 07/16/2009 - 9:30pm

I could be mis-remembering, but I don't really recall and of the Niners Front Office making a big deal about Lawson as a pass-rusher when they drafted him. My impression has always been that they viewed him more as an all-around versatile OLB like Julian Peterson, rather than a pass rushing monster. Haralson has always been mentioned as the pass-rusher from that 49ers draft class. I think this may be a case of: Manny Lawson was never intended by the Niners to be a pass-rushing demon, QED he's not one.

When I read this article, I was like "yeah, no shit. He's not a monster pass rusher, I thought we already knew this?"

by David :: Fri, 07/17/2009 - 7:07am

My recollection is that as Lawson was a DE in college, the niner management made noises along the lines of "He was a great pass-rusher in college, he'll do more than that, he'll be great", which inevitably got re-parsed into "He'll be a great pass-rusher"

As ever, it's hard to tell what team management are thinking from their public remarks. Certainly, my feeling was that, with the selection of Parys Haralson in the same draft (fifth round?), to play basically the same position (3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker) and having come from the same role as a college DE, that was the defense that the niners wanted to play

by spenczar (not verified) :: Sat, 07/18/2009 - 5:47pm

Bill, you are simply incorrect about Lawson's uses in the hybrid 3-4. He was used as a coverage linebacker over the tight end or the slot receiver because of his speed and because he just has got the best coverage abilities in the linebacker corps in San Francisco. Tully Banta-Cain and Ray McDonald were the primary pass rushers in that hybrid system; it had similar statistical effects to being in a 4-3 with the ROLB (Banta-Cain) lined up at end.