San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

by Aaron Schatz

Last year, the San Francisco 49ers fell to 8-8 after three straight seasons where they went 11-4-1 or better. Conventional wisdom says the 49ers are going to get even worse this year, and this is one place where Football Outsiders is in agreement with the conventional wisdom. In the new Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, our season simulation has the 49ers averaging just 6.8 wins and making the playoffs just 20 percent of the time.

The 49ers were one of five teams listed in this ESPN Insider piece I wrote yesterday about teams we believe are likely to decline in 2015. One of the elements I mentioned in the ESPN piece was a new variable that we're using in this year's improved team projection system. We used Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value stat to get the value of defensive players leaving and joining each team going back to 2003. We analyzed value over replacement, which we found worked best as each player's AV over 3. Obviously, there are ways to improve this metric by looking at more than just every player's AV from the previous season, and we'll be playing with those ideas in the future. But this is what we used for now, and it definitely improved our projection system by catching teams where major personnel overhaul helped teams to play better or worse than would be expected by simple regression towards the mean.

The New York Jets chapter of FOA 2015 notes that the Jets are tied with the 2009 Lions for the biggest positive change in this metric of any team going back to 2003. It has a table showing the teams with the biggest positive values, with a list of which players were involved. (Washington's 2015 offseason is also on this list, a bit of a surprise.)

I meant to put a similar table in the San Francisco chapter, and then forgot. (Part of the reason is that we finalized the four NFC West chapters first so that Vince Verhei, who wrote those teams, could concentrate on book layout from that point on.) So I wanted to share the table here for everyone to see one of the reasons we have the San Francisco defense likely to get worse in 2015.

The teams are listed here with defensive DVOA and rank, both before and after losing the offseason listed. We're also listing the players being counted with their AV over replacement. While these teams did not tend to decline quite as much as the teams which added talent tended to improve, they did decline more than we would expect from simple regression towards the mean.

Highest Net AV over Replacement Loss of Defensive Talent, 2003-2015
Team Year Net AV
Players Added Players Lost
TB 2009 -32 -10.7% 6 8.0% 25 +18.6% NONE D.Brooks (8), G.Adams (6), P.Buchanon (5), K.Carter (5), J.Haye (4), C.June (4)
NYJ 2013 -24 -4.2% 9 -5.6% 12 -1.3% D.Landry (3) B.Scott (7), L.Landry (5), Y.Bell (4), S.Pouha (4), B.Thomas (4), M.Devito (3)
CAR 2010 -23 -12.8% 6 -1.1% 16 +11.7% NONE J.Peppers (12), D.Lewis (5), C.Harris (4), N.Diggs (2)
PHI 2003 -20 -11.2% 4 3.0% 17 +14.2% M.Coleman (4), N.Wayne (6) H.Douglas (14), S.Barber (8), L.Kirkland (6), B.Bishop (2)
SF 2015 -20 -10.1% 5 -- -- -- S.Wright (2) J.Smith (5), P.Cox (4), C.Culliver (4), R.McDonald (4), C.Borland (3), D.Skuta (2)
CAR 2006 -18 -14.2% 2 -10.9% 4 +3.3% M.Kemoeatu (5), R.Howard (1) W.Witherspoon (7), B.Buckner (6), M.McCree (5), B.Short (5), R.Manning (1)
SD 2013 -17 2.0% 18 17.5% 32 +15.5% D.Freeney (3), D.Cox (2) Q.Jammer (5), S.Phillips (5), T.Spikes (4), A.Cason (3), V.Martin (2), A.Bigby (1), A.Franklin (1), D.Williams (1)
CLE 2011 -17 1.7% 18 4.2% 22 +2.6% D.Patterson (1) K.Coleman (5), A.Elam (4), M.Roth (4), E.Barton (3), D.Bowens (1), E.Wright (1)
CLE 2003 -17 -5.1% 10 -1.9% 14 +3.2% NONE E.Holmes (5), D.Hambrick (4), D.Rudd (4), D.Bush (2), C.Fuller (2)
HOU 2013 -16 -14.2% 4 2.5% 18 +16.7% NONE C.Barwin (5), B.James (5), G.Quin (4), S.Cody (2)
SEA 2011 -16 12.0% 29 -7.1% 10 -19.1% NONE L.Tatupu (4), A.Curry (3), L.Milloy (3), K.Balmer (2), C.Cole (2), K.Jennings (2)
NE 2009 -16 3.6% 17 -1.1% 14 -4.7% L.Bodden (2), D.Burgess (1), S.Springs (1) E.Hobbs (6), R.Seymour (5), M.Vrabel (4), T.Bruschi (3), D.O'Neal (2)
NYJ 2005 -16 -3.7% 14 1.0% 18 +4.7% L.Legree (1) D.Abraham (7), J.Ferguson (5), R.Tongue (5)
KC 2008 -15 -3.8% 14 13.3% 28 +17.1% D.Williams (4), R.Boiman (2) J.Allen (13), N.Harris (4), T.Law (4)
SD 2003 -15 2.4% 22 12.0% 30 +9.6% K.Lassiter (2) J.Seau (5), R.McNeil (4), A.Molden (4), R.Harrison (2), R.Beckett (1), L.Carson (1)
STL 2003 -15 -4.5% 11 -11.4% 6 -6.9% J.Sehorn (1) D.Bly (6), J.Zgonina (5), K.Herring (4), D.Davis (1)
AVERAGE (without SF) -4.2% 12.3 1.5% 17.7 +5.7%  

A few further notes about this table.

1) Do you notice which names are missing? Because replacement value is 3 AV, neither Patrick Willis nor Aldon Smith counts as "lost talent" for the 49ers. Both players only had 3 AV because of playing partial seasons in 2014. The 49ers come out with one of the strongest net losses in defensive talent even without counting arguably the two most talented players they are losing. If we do a future version of this metric where we consider "expected AV" of players rather than just "last year's AV," the 2015 49ers might rank even lower.

2) On the other hand, the metric we used in building our projection system did not include the return of injured players. That's something we'll need to work on for next year's projection system. Nonetheless, I decided to try to account for these players anyway while doing 2015 projections. So, for example, I gave Dallas some credit based on Greg Hardy and Sean Lee's AV values from 2013. I gave Philadelphia some credit based on Kiko Alonso's AV value from 2013. And... I gave San Francisco some credit based on NaVorro Bowman and Darnell Dockett's AV values from 2013. If I had not done that, our San Francisco projection would have actually come out even worse.

3) Once I added in those values for players who were injured in 2014, the team that actually ended up last in this metric was New England at minus-12. However, the San Francisco defense is projected to decline more than the New England defense because of a number of other variables. The 49ers have a new head coach/defensive coordinator combination, which tends to lead to defensive decline. They also ranked second in the league by ending 17.1 percent of opponent drives with takeaways, a stat that tends to heavily regress towards the mean from year to year. This is another place where the 49ers and Jets represent opposites in 2015, as the Jets were dead last in that stat and thus are likely to have more takeaways this season.


34 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2015, 11:39am

1 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

I could see all kinds of seasons out of the 49ers. Their not as talented as they once were, but there are pockets here and there you can almost convince yourself are strong enough. The defense has people like Eric Reid, Bowman, Docket, and Ian Williams. The offense got Smith and Davis.

Still, I worry about the secondary and Kaepernick. Its two years removed from his sterling 2012 season. He's still a very up and down player and I wonder what he ultimately is as a qb.

4 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

2011 Seattle is the clear outlier here. Although they go down as not adding anyone with above-replacement AV, in reality they signed Browner (11 AV in 2011), drafted Wright and Sherman who were starters by the second half of the season (7 AV and 5 AV), and made Chancellor a starter (went from 1 AV to 9 AV). For the 49ers, I think their first two defensive draft picks are both projects and not expected to start, especially with Reid and Dockett in front of them, so it's up to Harold (their only other defensive draft pick, who I think will start after Smith's dismissal), Dorsey, Williams, Lynch, Brock and Wright.

5 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Certainly worth noting that the 49ers defense Was second worst in Adjusted Games lost due to injury last year. A lot of that is coming back. Guys like Glenn Dorsey - very good 2013, missed all of 2014. Lots of D line depth they've been developing or have acquired like Tank Carradine, who looked great in two starts after Ray McDonald was cut.

Only real dropoff is the loss of Culliver, but he looked like hot garbage at times, so...

6 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

It would be interesting to try to account for coaching turnover as well with this. All of the teams on the list that improved the following year did so under the same head coach as the previous year. It's worth noting that San Francisco has lost a lot of coaching talent in addition to playing talent.

8 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

This whole article is about DEFENSE, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departed for Chicago this year. He has been replaced by Eric Mangini, I'm not sure how much he's going to change their scheme. There is a distinct trend that the three teams from the last ten years on the list that improved their defensive DVOA (NYJ 2013, SEA 2011, and NE 2009) all did so under a defensive-minded head coach who presided over both seasons, so that gives me some reason to think that the 49ers aren't going to defy the overall trend that defenses that lose this much talent perform worse the following season.

Also, I find it interesting that in a single sentence you're trying to call the Niners' change in offensive coordinator both an upgrade and no change at all. And I think it takes some seriously red-and-gold tinted glasses to view the Niners' coaching turnover from last year as anything but a sharp downgrade.

9 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Yeah I was struck by that as well.

The 49ers have gone through a dramatic change in both coaching and personnel. That pretty much means no one can be certain about what this team will look like, but given that the prior pieces that left were all very good, its natural to be skeptical about the replacements being as good/better.

Finally - if this team was headed by some elite qb, I could be willing to overlook even changes this dramatic. But since it isn't, I would be super concerned about what type of team they are going to be.

Finally - count me in as one of the people who feels like Tomasula is a Singletary like hire.

24 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Singletary had a single year as a LB coach before coming to SF, and no prior coaching experience of any kind. Tomsula has been a coach since 1989, including stints as DC and head coach in NFL Europe.

I'm not saying he's a star, but at least he has a coaching resume. Singletary had...a forceful personality.

34 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Singletary was a LB coach for two years in Baltimore before going to SF, where he held the same position for 3-1/2 years before becoming the head coach.

Tomsula certainly has a much longer coaching history (one year as a college strength and conditioning coach, one year coaching DL in high school,* six years coaching DL in college, six years coaching DL in NFL Europe, two years as DC in NFL Europe, one year as HC in NFL Europe, and eight years coaching the DL in SF**), so your point that Singletary really didn't have a coaching resume is valid.

They both have odd resumes as head coaching hires.

*The idea that there are high schools with defensive line coaches scares me in so many ways, most of which are not allowed to be discussed here. However, that was also something I learned from looking up Tomsula's coaching history.
**He also was the head coach for one game. His teams average scoring 38 ppg and giving up 7. Small sample sizes are hilarious.

12 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Having young replacements ready or drafting successful rookies to replace the roster turnover seems really important too. The Jets in 2013 replace Pouha with Snacks, and drafted Richardson; the Seahawks by 2011 had drafted the entire Legion of Boom. I'm not sure if the Niners have done this well enough to replace everyone they lost.

13 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Right, and I think that's another benefit of coaching continuity. With an established regime in place, those teams allowed defensive talent to leave because they had replacements on hand in a plan that spanned multiple drafts. When a new regime comes in, they often get rid of a lot of talented players that don't properly fit in the new coach's scheme, so you're typically getting rid of players before you have the right replacements on hand. The Niners are a little bit of a weird example since the new coaches are almost all internal promotions; they aren't necessarily guys who will deviate from the previously established plan, but I think it's pretty clear that they don't have enough young talent ready to step into all the voids this offseason has left for them.

17 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Yes I was addressing the overall team coaching change that's a big media narrative.

Also worth noting that Fangio was quite vanilla, so I don't know how much play calling mattered all that much. I think 49er brass thought the same thing, promoting a Defensive position coach?

28 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

It does look like Mangini will do things quite differently, much more blitzing and more disguised coverages. Fangio basically had so much talent that he could control the run with his front seven and consistently pressure the qb with only four rushers, this allowed him to keep seven men in coverage with two safeties back. It was ideal for a DC, Mangini has less to work with.

They still have some talent though: Dial, Williams, Carrradine on the DL, Brooks and Lynch at OLB, very good safeties and a bunch of young corners that were all injured last year but seem to be healthy through training camp.

I'm more worried about the right tackle than the defense.

30 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

Carradine looked awful against Houston. I'm also not sold on how good their safeties are--what they definitely have are very highly-drafted safeties. But agree about Pears at RT.

Why, why, why do they insist on playing Boone as a guard? The guy is a legitimately good tackle, and they're starting Eric Pears?

31 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

I think Carradine might be playing out of position, but he has some rush ability with three sacks in the last three weeks last season. Don't you think Reid and Bethea are a good starting pair? Tartt showed some things too.

The Boone thing seems really weird to me, all I can think of is that they're planning to use a 2-jet, half slide to the right protection, on a regular basis and that leaves the left hand side of the line isolated but helps the right. Either that or the coaches are out of their depth, that remains a possibility.

32 Re: San Francisco and Losing Defensive Players

There's still a question of unknowns in a lot of the players you are listing. One hallmark of having a Willis and Aldon was being elite players, you knew they were going to be consistent every week(more or less).

Lynch may very well get there(I watched him closely after my friends mentioned him - definitely was good), but he could suffer a sophmore slump. The players mentioned on the defense could all go through weird swings. The secondary is still a question mark with regards to the corners.

My point was, given how variable defenses are year to year,. the one's who inspire trust have a solid core of very reliable players you can expect week to week. Do the niners have anyone like that aside from maybe their safeties?

Finally - yes the receivers were all one dimension, but I'm not convinced torrey smith and boldin with a healthy davis automatically transforms the passing game. Again, more questions about.

Plus I have very little faith in Tomasula.