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29 Oct 2015

Scramble for the Ball: The Diggs Dilemma

by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie

Andrew: A few weeks ago, I was watching Vikings-Broncos when this fast, fluid receiver caught a deep in on a perfect route. My buddy said, "Who the heck is No. 14 on the Vikings?" We looked him up and saw that it was Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round draft pick out of Maryland who was getting his first NFL action. Then more evidence came later in the game that Diggs was nothing like a receiver playing his first NFL game. It's easy to say in hindsight, but it was weird to think that a guy that obviously talented was sitting around in the fifth round of the draft.

Then on Sunday, he made one of the catches of the season on one of the routes of the season and racked up his second 100-yard game in just his third NFL start. He's averaging 108 yards receiving per game, which is almost exactly what Odell Beckham averaged last year (and Beckham didn't hit 100 yards until his fourth game). Yes, three games is a tiny sample and we need more returns to come in, but Diggs has looked like Baby Beckham so far, and his numbers have certainly not been aided by great quarterback play. That catch last week should have been simple with Diggs getting himself open by 10 yards, but Bridgewater gave him a layout-inducing throw.

Here's what I don't get. Diggs fought injuries in college, but it's not like his success was entirely unpredictable. Our Playmaker Score suggested Diggs at least had the potential to be much more than a fifth-round pick usually is. He was the second-ranked receiver in the nation coming out of high school. He ran a 4.43 in the 40 while still in high school. He had the crazy competitiveness to play through a lacerated kidney in college. To be clear, some guys will always slip through the cracks, but maybe we'd expect talent evaluation to work a little more smoothly. With all the numbers and all the film available now, how surprised are you that can teams still miss on a guy like Diggs? I mean, he even has the perfect name. It's both a route and inspiration for an awesome touchdown celebration that doesn't draw a flag. Let's call that "The Diggie."

Sterling: I'm sure the NFL is already in the process of pre-emptively banning that celebration. No celebration capable of generating a nickname can be allowed, right?

Anyways, in researching him for the Vikings portion of FOA 2015, I remember thinking that Diggs could replicate what Minnesota had with Percy Harvin, before injuries and locker room clashes submarined Harvin's value. That Odell Beckham pace is obviously a partial byproduct of his small three-game sample size, but Diggs only needs to average 67.6 receiving yards per game the rest of the season to reach 1,000 yards. It's kind of hard to believe, but only 11 rookie receivers have topped that barrier, and apart from the memorable mirage that was Michael Clayton, the list is pretty impressive. Maybe Diggs doesn't carry your fantasy team like Beckham did for so many down the stretch in 2014, but it's pretty clear that an unspectacular Minnesota receiving corps has found its alpha dog.

I think a lot of the problems that caused Diggs to slip down the board were indeed a byproduct of his size, and I'm wondering if that's a fair way to evaluate wide receivers anymore. There's a lot of talk that "true" No. 1 receivers can not only win over the middle, but outside the numbers and deep, a la Calvin Johnson. Smaller receivers whom the mainstream public has accepted as elite, such as Beckham and Brown, still possess this quality. Diggs' scouting reports from NFL.com and NFL Draft Scout both portray size as his biggest disadvantage, even while praising his quickness, ball skills, toughness, and just about every other trait you'd want in a receiving prospect.

So in a league where more and more offenses are spreading the field to create space underneath for their best athletes, I wonder what people consider the most important traits for receivers. Far be it for us to toss out the entire NFL scouting notebook, but change happens slowly, and until a widespread adjustment has occurred, there are bound to be inefficiencies. Is size the wide receiver inefficiency right now?

Andrew: First, some of these inefficiencies aren't small, like they are in baseball at this point. I know that the standard now is to be circumspect about what stats can say and how suboptimal some football decision-making is, but let's just call a spade a spade. In a league where top-ten picks still get spent on quarterbacks with big arms and problems directing their cannons towards their teammates, the inefficiencies are surprising when the incentives to do better should be so large.

But Diggs lasting until the fifth round is a more interesting case than a player going too early. One team making a mistake is all we need for Jake Locker to go in the top ten despite having a 54 percent college completion percentage. All the teams passed on Diggs for four rounds. All the teams passed on Antonio Brown for five rounds.

Size is seemingly part of that inefficiency, but I think more so for Brown (who is 5-foot-10) and Russell Wilson than for Diggs (6 feet even, but also a little light at 195 pounds). Smaller receivers such as Beckham and Tavon Austin have gone high in the last few drafts. What separates those guys is getting to play on college offenses that showcased all they could do. Brown went to Central Michigan and Diggs played on mediocre Maryland teams. I suspect that Diggs is a first-round pick if he goes to one of the elite programs he could have chosen instead of staying home. I've written before about how some of the big bargains in the middle rounds of the draft come from smaller schools, and Maryland lately is little better. I would have guessed that this inefficiency would have disappeared with a bunch of smart people with miles of film at their fingertips, but I think it hasn't entirely happened yet.

Sterling: It also doesn't help that college is an almost fundamentally different game than what we see at the NFL. There just isn't necessarily a ton of scheme overlap on either side of the ball. Even the hashmarks are wider apart, which, for a wide receiver, affects the spacing and design of the routes they're running. If we're talking about Diggs and receivers in particular, I'm not too surprised that evaluators miss so often.

I would balk at the idea that size (or anything else like small-school prospects) are a clear inefficiency. Don't forget that the Gene Smith era in Jacksonville was ridiculed due to Smith's proclivity for small-school prospects.

Andrew: OK, good point. Any one case is certainly not evidence of a larger inefficiency. And the inefficiency doesn't have to be, as someone in the news would say, yuuuuge. My evidence on this suggests that were a few more diamonds in the rough to be found from small schools, but only in the middle rounds of the draft. And the vast majority of middle-round picks even from small schools miss. The hit rate is somewhat higher, but it's not like Antonio Browns are waiting out there all over the place.

One of the best parts of Moneyball is when Billy Beane gets all excited about drafting Jeremy Brown, a tubby catcher who performed in college and then amounted to nothing. But just as Diggs or any player can't show the presence of inefficiency, the failure of a guy like Brown doesn't show that Beane is wrong. By identifying market inefficiencies, he increased his hit rate by a little bit and by enough that it made a difference over all the decisions he had to make. Teams have loved big, rocket-armed quarterbacks forever, so I think it's pretty likely the market undervalued Russell Wilson for being too small. Antonio Brown also didn't quite fit the mold. It seems like there's something there in general with middle-round small-school players, too.

I totally ascribe to the idea of the draft as a lottery, but I think it's one where you can increase your odds by looking for the guys who have been undervalued. Stats certainly don't have all the answers. But in a league that still doesn't do something as obviously optimal as going for it on fourth down, it seems pretty likely that they might get draft valuation not quite right, either.

Sterling: I almost think draft valuation matters less than player development. I'm sure teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Bengals are better at identifying draft prospects, but it seems unlikely to me that they're so far superior that they just happen to be siphoning off all the superior talent from the draft pool. And remember, how a prospect pans out is almost as much about which team he ends up on as it is about his natural skill set coming out of college. We talk about transcendent talents, but how many players do you really think could have succeeded regardless of what system and environment they entered? Robert Griffin III is the quintessential example of that right now; I would love to see an alternate universe where RG3 and Russell Wilson were drafted onto opposite teams.

Andrew: I don't think it's possible to settle the debate between where a prospect winds up versus his natural skill set. Both matter. I guess I'd argue skill set matters more most of the time. It seems awfully hard to think that Antonio Brown or Jamie Collins would not have succeeded most places. But RG3 shows that context certainly can dominate. (I would still love to trade for him if I ran a quarterback-hungry team.)

By the way, I'm not that sure the Patriots are better at identifying draft prospects. They've gotten just about the Approximate Value that you'd expect from all their picks over the Belichick years. They've just exploited the clear inefficiency in how the market values draft picks, both future draft picks and high picks relative to those in later rounds. I do think the Patriots would never make certain mistakes in talent evaluation. Hard to picture Jake Locker in a Patriots uniform, for example.

But draft pick evaluation is another good illustration of the general idea that inefficiencies still abound in football. In baseball, you can think of inefficiencies that have been largely eradicated. In football, can you name an inefficiency that has been mostly eliminated?

Sterling: Maybe the decrease in rushing attempts? But that's mostly a function of how passing schemes and rules have changed. There was a time where running the ball made more sense, and even though teams were slow to adjust their offenses to the changing reality, it's not as though running the ball is an inherently inefficient exercise.

Andrew: The revolution has a long way to go. While we're waiting for that, I'm going to enjoy watching Stefon Diggs play football. We have to get out of here, but it doesn't seem like we have a bet to end on. I know that must break your heart, given that you still haven't seen Trading Places.

Sterling: Given that the name "Mortimer" makes me think of from the Disney universe, I think I'm OK not being called that for a week.

Advanced Stat O' The Week

Miami's Offensive DVOA in Weeks 6 and 7: 69.9% and 68.1%

The best team in football each of the last two weeks has been the team that ranked 29th over its first four games. By way of comparison, the Patriots (ranked first in DVOA overall) have not had a single-game performance as good as Miami's efforts the last two weeks.

G.O.A.T. of the Week

Maybe Dan Campbell just happens to have Lamar Miller on his own fantasy team. After an incredibly disappointing opening month to open his fourth season, the slippery Miller has picked up where he left off from his 2014 breakout to become fantasy football's most valuable running back over the past two weeks. Miller only needed 30 minutes against the woebegone Texans to post a 35-point outing (236 scrimmage yards, 2 touchdowns), the second-highest by any running back this season, trailing only Devonta Freeman's Week 3 37-point showing.

Miller won't run wild over corpses disguised as Brian Cushing and John Simon every week, but that won't matter if he receives 19 touches per game, as he has each of the past two weeks. He'll face a tricky month-long stretch starting in mid-November that sees Miami face three teams currently in the top 10 of run defense DVOA (the Jets, Eagles, and Ravens), but he also gets to feast on three of the 10 worst run defenses (the Bills, Chargers, and Cowboys). With at least 20 receiving yards in four of his six games this season, Miller also adds modest receiving value which helps raise his floor. He has the upside of an RB1 the rest of the year, though he'll most likely settle in his a mid-to-high level RB2.

Goat of the Week

No one's recommending sticking Adrian Peterson on the bench, and the 30-year-old has remained a borderline RB1 this year, ranking 11th among running backs in total points even though Minnesota has already had its bye week. Of course, Peterson owners didn't invest a top-five pick expecting borderline RB1 production, but over the past two weeks, the Vikings' star has failed to reach the end zone and posted a combined 17 fantasy points against the Chiefs and Lions, a pair of middling run defenses (13th and 18th in run defense DVOA, respectively).

The more concerning trend is Peterson's boom-or-bust running style -- as Vince Verhei highlighted in this week's Quick Reads, Peterson was the week's least valuable running back by DYAR despite posting an ostensibly solid stat line of 19 carries for 98 yards. In the past two weeks, Peterson's two longest runs have gone for 98 yards, but his other 43 rushing attempts have totaled 60 yards, an impossibly low 1.4 yards per carry average. This isn't just a fluky fortnight either; among the 42 running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts this year, Peterson has been stuffed for no gain or negative yardage on 30 percent of his carries, the worst rate in that group. It doesn't look like the former MVP is able to compensate anymore for his subpar offensive line, which sports a pair of journeyman starters at center and right guard (Joe Berger and Mike Harris), a fourth-round rookie at right tackle (T.J. Clemmings), and a borderline former first-round bust at left tackle (Matt Kalil). While you shouldn't necessarily look to move Peterson given the guaranteed volume, it might be wise to consider flipping him to someone else who still views him as a true elite RB1.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: For the second time this season, Colin Kaepernick was the Loser League leader among quarterbacks, finishing with 6 points after passing for just 124 yards against Seattle on Thursday night. It certainly didn't help that Kaepernick didn't even have a single rushing attempt, the first time that's ever happened in a game he started.

Running Back: No C.J. Anderson update this week with Denver on its bye, but this week's best Loser League backs were basically the usual suspects. A week after tying for the Loser League lead with three points, Isaiah Crowell posted a goose egg with 9 rushing yards on eight attempts, leaving him all alone atop (at the bottom?) of the leaderboard.

Wide Receiver: Loser League MVP candidate Marlon Brown had a respectable two-point outing, but it was his teammate Kamar Aiken who stole the show with a goose egg, his second of the season. There were only four wide receiver goose eggs this week, with Aiken joining Josh Huff, Malcom Floyd, and Quinton Patton.

Kicker: Jason Myers is the new Kyle Brindza, again ending up in the red with -1 Loser League points after missing an extra point and failing to receive a field goal attempt in London. Myers would be an automatic must-start again in Week 8, but with the Jaguars on bye, Loser League owners will need a fill-in for the overmatched rookie.

You can see the full Week 5 results and season standings here.

Super Mega Lock of the Week

Over 42.5 points in Vikings-vs.-Bears

We had last week's pick all the way. We almost even predicted that Nick Folk would provide the back-door cover with a 55-yard field goal to pull the Jets within seven inside of 0:20 left in the fourth quarter. This week, we look forward to getting a Jay Cutler pick-six with even less time left that pushes the total over the number.

42.5 points is the third-lowest total in Week 8. Maybe that low total comes from the fact that two poor offenses are involved. The Vikings' offense ranks 28th in DVOA, and the Bears rank 22nd. But each offense faces a defense that is no better (the Bears' defense ranks 29th and the Vikings' defense ranks 23rd). Since it's not clear that the defenses should dominate, we think the over/under should be a couple of points higher.

Record: 3-4

Cinemax Presents Exotic Propositions

Dan Campbell for Coach of the Year at 20/1

We are not recommending this one, but you can certainly make a case for Campbell as an intriguing candidate based on the DVOA split above. If the Dolphins beat the Patriots on Thursday, a drumbeat could develop for this one. Campbell would be the second interim coach in four years to take home the award, following Bruce Arians in 2012.

John Fox Award

Jim Tomsula worked overtime last Thursday to take home this prestigious award. Usually, we reward one decision, but Tomsula's ineptitude was more of the steady-as-she-goes variety. First, Tomsula ran an unnecessary draw on second-and-24 right before the half. Then he kicked a 35-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 to make it 17-3 near the end of the third quarter.

OK, that one's debatable, but Tomsula's fourth quarter would have made the fellow white-flag waver for whom this award is named very proud. On third-and-26 with 7:52 left, trailing 20-3, the 49ers ran a Reggie Bush draw and then proceeded to let the clock run to 7:14 before punting. Then, on the next possession, Tomsula punted on fourth-and-4 with 4:22 left and the score still 20-3. Tomsula then used his two timeouts to set up another punt on fourth-and-3 just a minute later. He might be a little upset that he came up one short of Fox's ten-punt standard.

Keep Choppin' Wood

It's too hard to choose between Josh McCown and Ryan Mallett this week. Mallett, whose pouty faces after getting benched in Houston's Thursday night game against Indy would have made Eli Manning proud, finally got himself one too many time-out sessions for Bill O'Brien's liking. As someone who once made his flight despite relying on a timorous old bus driver moving along snow-laden Syracuse roads at the speed of a horse and buggy, I can assure you it's not that difficult to be on time if you do even a little planning. That Texans general manager Rick Smith reportedly balked at O'Brien's request to cut Mallett immediately illustrates the instability atop Houston's organization, one that has to result in either Smith or O'Brien (or maybe both) losing his job.

Then again, at least Mallett managed to stay healthy on the sidelines. KCW wouldn't be KCW without Cleveland Browns' shenanigans, but it's too bad that McCown's sideline gaffe is basically a knockoff of Gus Frerotte's original masterpiece. Then again, with McCown's shoulder hurting and Johnny Manziel's bizarre off-field saga with his girlfriend, maybe Cleveland can sign Mallett to provide them some new material.

Posted by: Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie on 29 Oct 2015

20 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2015, 11:44pm by LionInAZ


by jklps :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 1:30pm

I am a Maryland fan. Maryland's biggest flaw beyond coaching in the last few years is the inability to have an even average level college quarterback play. That would be a major reason why Diggs didn't have big numbers coming out of college.

by Guido Merkens :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 2:40pm

Agreed re: Maryland's QBs, but Diggs' numbers weren't even that bad. Last year he averaged almost 80 receiving yards per game, which is better than a lot of guys who were drafted more highly than he was. The infamous example is another Maryland guy, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who averaged just over 50 receiving yards per game in his final year in college.

by jds :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 2:47pm

"but it's pretty clear that an unspectacular Minnesota receiving corps...."

This. I expect Diggs is showing who he is, and his ability, because of the dreck that competes with him for balls. Other than Rudolph, I don't have much regard for any of those pass catchers, and its no shock to me that Bridgewater is developing some kind of connection with him.

by Sakic :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:06pm

Glad to see that I am not the only one that would love to see what Bobby 3 Sticks could do in a different offense. The guy has obviously shown he can be a successful quarterback in the right offense (just not in Gruden's.)

I'm assuming he gets cut after the season and I would be shocked if there aren't multiple teams interested in giving him a shot.

by JimZipCode :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 7:01pm

would love to see what Bobby 3 Sticks could do in a different offense. ... I would be shocked if there aren't multiple teams interested in giving him a shot.

I assume Chip Kelly has an eye on him.

by nath :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:07pm

Draft valuation is inefficient and will continue to be inefficient because:

A)There's no financial incentive for teams to get better at it; the NFL is a massively profitable enterprise for every franchise, even terrible ones that consistently lose...
B)...because there's no incentive for teams to get better at it, teams usually devote a pittance to scouting resources...
C)...and fully 3/4 of the teams use one of the two national scouting services, which means they're all more or less working from the same evaluations, which means they're more or less all making the same mistakes. And there's no incentive for them to change; see A).

by fb29 :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 4:20pm

This is close. I think it's more that incentives are aligned so that NFL personnel optimize to avoid being fired. If you draft WAY better than all the other teams, you don't get a giant bonus. You just keep your job. Since the upside is capped for NFL management, it makes way more sense to avoid any huge gaffes that get you fired. #1 huge gaffe to get fired is passing on a premium QB prospect and then have him excel at another organization.

by Dan_L :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 9:13pm

"A)There's no financial incentive for teams to get better at it; the NFL is a massively profitable enterprise for every franchise, even terrible ones that consistently lose..."

OK, I'm not buying this part at all.

1. It is true that all owners make good money on their investments, but it is still much MORE financially advantageous to have a successful organization rather than a unsuccessful one. In other words, 1 billion > 750 million.

2. Financial incentives are not the only incentives that people value. Ask Robert Kraft how New Englanders react to meeting him. Then ask Randy Learner how Clevelanders react to meeting him. Being hated by the people does matter. It can be hard to sleep, no matter how expensive the sheets on your bed are.

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 10/30/2015 - 12:06pm

All good points. I would also add: the owner(s) may not really have the incentive to win - or at least, it's not nearly as important to them as making money - but the scouts, front office, etc, *do* have the incentive to win because in their jobs, winning equates to success.

Thus, teams might not have the incentive to build the best scouting teams, etc, but individual scouts and evaluators are definitely focused on winning.

by justanothersteve :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:58pm

I had thought the draft issue with Diggs wasn't talent, but staying healthy.

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 5:45pm

Was surlsied Diggs was 5th round pick. Thought he was 3dr round talent. Maybe even 2nd

by JimZipCode :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 7:00pm

I'm a Ravens fan. Many of us on the Ravens discussion board were dismayed on draft night, and continue to be dismayed, that the Ravens let Diggs leave the state of Maryland. Esp with Perriman and Waller not contributing at all.

by Jerry :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 5:54pm


Loser League owners will need a fill-in for the overmatched rookie.

Since Loser League has been part of this site from the beginning, these references to it working like a normal fantasy league are like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard. Rosters are chosen at the beginning of each half-season, and that's it. They can't be changed. If Kai Forbath gets cut, or Jason Myers is on bye, or C.J. Anderson becomes a great choice, there's nothing anyone can do.

by DEW :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 10:22pm

And the undertones of "the people writing the only column that talks about the Loser League don't know how it actually works" are those nails in stereo, particularly when it's a new writing team handling the column this year.

by Sterling Xie :: Fri, 10/30/2015 - 8:47pm

Yikes guys, I'm really sorry about this. Total oversight on my part, and I should do better. Will issue a correction/apology in next week's Scramble. Hey, even Peyton made rookie mistakes, right? Or maybe this rookie is just the next Blaine Gabbert, in which case, at least you'll get some funny memes before I go out the door!

by El Miriodor :: Thu, 10/29/2015 - 8:30pm

Diggs is not a surprise to anyone who follows market share and age adjusted production metrics. The NFL hit rate (top 30 fantasy WR) for an 18 or 19 year old cresting 30% of his team's market share is 2x greater than receivers doing the same for the first time at 20 or 21. It's pretty much the same thing for running backs. Todd Gurley isn't freakish because he's doing what he's doing, he's freakish because he's doing it at 21.

by ChrisS :: Fri, 10/30/2015 - 11:50am

"KCW wouldn't be KCW without Cleveland Browns' shenanigans, but it's too bad that McCown's sideline gaffe is basically a knockoff of Gus Frerotte's original masterpiece." What did McCown do?

by jtr :: Fri, 10/30/2015 - 12:06pm

>It seems awfully hard to think that Antonio Brown or Jamie Collins would not have succeeded most places

It is worth noting that the Steelers under Tomlin have done an excellent job in recent years of developing WRs. Brown was a fifth round pick; Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Markus Wheaton were third rounders; breakout star Martavis Bryant was a fourth rounder. Wallace also shows that they're pretty good at playing to their guys' strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. Tomlin's background is coaching WRs and DBs, so perhaps he's taking extra personal interest in scouting and developing young WRs.

This is my long winded way of saying that the Steelers' coaching may have played enough of a role in developing Brown that he wouldn't necessarily be a star on other teams. Or perhaps he would have been but the Steelers have a particularly good eye to pick him when other teams don't notice him.

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 10/31/2015 - 11:44pm

Guys: media bias notwithstanding, Maryland is not a "small school".