NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful … or the most misunderstood.
In this week’s rundown, I’m gonna sideline the standard “Stat To Trust/Stat To Question” format. As we approach midseason — and kind of playing off Kirk Cousins’ recent comments about being benched if he doesn’t stop throwing interceptions — let’s look at some players who aren’t living up to expectations.
Below, I’ve spotlighted five high-profile starters who, as you’ll see from the statistical evidence, are becoming liabilities for their respective teams. Can they turn it around? What’s the forecast, given upcoming matchups?
As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there’s a stat/trend you’d like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
So far this season, Cousins has thrown an NFL-high 10 interceptions — four more than he logged across the entire 2019 campaign, when he earned his second Pro Bowl nod. According to Next Gen Stats, eight of Cousins’ 10 picks this season have occurred on passes where his time to throw was 2.5-plus seconds — also an NFL-high, two more picks in this area than the next-closest QB, Carson Wentz.
This isn’t all on Cousins, though, as he’s been under pressure at the third-highest rate in the NFL this season: 33.3 percent of dropbacks, per NGS. However, that number isn’t that significant an increase from 2019, when Cousins was under pressure on 30.8 percent of dropbacks. That said, his receivers have not been as open as last season, when Stefon Diggs was around to stretch the field. Computer vision shows that with Diggs in 2019, all receivers had more than 3 feet of separation more often (about 20 percent) and faster (by an average of 0.4 seconds). And that brings us back to Cousins’ time-to-throw numbers. On passes delivered in under 2.5 seconds, the Vikings QB is completing 71.6 percent of passes with a 103.1 passer rating, while facing pressure on just 20.9 percent of dropbacks. But on throws that take 2.5-plus seconds to make, Cousins has a 60.7 completion percentage, 79.6 passer rating and 40.5 percent pressure rate. Suddenly, the cause of those eight interceptions really comes into focus.
This week’s bye is a key moment to correct this trend, especially with the Week 8 trip to Green Bay on the horizon. The likelihood of Cousins actually getting benched this season is low, but the long-term opportunity at the position in Minnesota could very well be up for grabs if his production doesn’t change.
Over the past eight seasons, QBs who are accurate throwing up the seams have completed more passes, earned more first downs and won more games. In 2020, Next Gen Stats show Mayfield is struggling to connect on such throws, with a 64.9 completion percentage (fourth-lowest), 3:4 TD-to-INT ratio and 72.2 passer rating (only Wentz’s mark is lower). Baker’s also wilting under pressure, with just a 23.6 passer rating against the blitz in his past two games.
Given that Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, expectations are obviously sky high. But to be fair, he’s gone through a number of coaching changes and systems in a very short amount of time, without the benefit of a preseason following the latest Cleveland overall. That’s important context to keep in mind. And he has a nice opportunity to turn his season around, with the Browns facing suspect pass defenses over the next five games. When it comes to respective rankings in Football Outsiders’ Passing DVOA metric, forthcoming dates with the Bengals (16th), Raiders (26th), Texans (20th), Eagles (27th) and Jaguars (32nd) appear dreamy for a slumping quarterback. The Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack (169.5 yards per game) creates the opportunity for strategic passing and the potential for very effective play-action. Look for first-year coach Kevin Stefanski to exploit this more and more as he continues to get comfortable with this roster.
Mayfield definitely has a shorter leash than Cousins. Cleveland backup Case Keenum has ample starting experience, and he enjoyed the best season of his career with Stefanski as his quarterback coach in Minnesota. Also, given the Browns’ current 4-2 record, staying in playoff contention has to be a higher priority than Mayfield’s long-term development, should the starter continue to falter.
How can I possibly include Drake — an RB who just ran for 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-10 beatdown of Dallas on Monday Night Football — on this list? Well, let’s look at the whole season to date, and not just the second half of the Cowboys route.
In Weeks 1 through 5, Next Gen Stats had Drake averaging 3.3 yards per rush inside the tackles, which was the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL among backs with at least 20 such rushes. In Week 6, he netted 8.8 per clip. Drake’s passing-game usage has been diminished this year, so his work on first and second down is crucial. How has that been going? Well, in Weeks 1 through 5, he averaged an unremarkable 3.85 yards per rush on early downs. In Week 6, that figure jumped to 5.11 — but when the game was still somewhat competitive in the first half, he averaged just 2.7 yards per early-down attempt. My point is, that situation has dictated results for Drake. The favorable one in Dallas made him blow up, but that’s been an outlier.
Drake’s benching potential is probably the highest of these five players. Chase Edmonds, who has served as a change-of-pace tool, could potentially best Drakes’ output.
In the Week 6 win over Cincinnati, Philip Rivers passed for a season-high 371 yards … and Hilton ended up with just 11. One catch on five targets. He still has yet to reach the end zone in 2020.
Using computer vision to track Hilton’s routes and assess the situation, I find that the 30-year-old is not getting open — i.e., separating by more than 3 feet — as often as he used to. He’s been open on just 17 percent of pass plays in 2020, as opposed to 40 percent in 2019. (Note: The league average is 31 percent.) Furthermore, Hilton’s deep receiving production, once a strength of his game, is lackluster — at best. Since the beginning of 2019, Hilton has managed just three grabs on 14 targets of 20-plus air yards.
The Colts are off this week, but in Week 8, Hilton has a fine opportunity to get back on track against a shaky Lions defense. And he better, because the stifling Ravens defense awaits in Week 9.
I could have chosen a number of defensive players for this list, but I wanted to narrow it down to someone on a contender with realistic aims at a deep postseason run. And I wanted it to be a defender whose lack of production could completely undermine the complementary aspects and strategies implemented by his team. Enter Mr. Lattimore …
According to Pro Football Focus, Lattimore is allowing a perfect passer rating in coverage this season, yielding 15 catches (on 19 targets) for 254 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. Computer vision backs this up, telling me Lattimore’s effectiveness in man coverage has significantly declined this season. In 2020, he’s within 3 feet of his man at the catch point on 22 percent fewer targets than in 2019. Strategically, this is quite problematic, as the Saints have been leading at halftime in three of their games, tied in one and only playing from behind in one. So, with New Orleans’ offense in the power position, opposing teams have to throw more to attempt the comeback.
The division rival Panthers are visiting the Big Easy this week. If Lattimore can’t rediscover the coverage skills that made him the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year and a two-time Pro Bowler, New Orleans could look to bring in a new cornerback before the Nov. 3 trade deadline.
Wait, why did Ryan Fitzpatrick just lose his job?
While we’re talking about players who could be demoted, might as well touch on the guy who just was. The 3-3 Dolphins surprised many on Tuesday with a quarterback switch that, objectively, wasn’t made due to a lack of performance. So let’s look at the circumstances here …
According to Next Gen Stats, Fitzpatrick has only been under pressure on 23.7 percent of dropbacks. Think of average as 25.4 percent for QBs with a minimum of 50 dropbacks. That puts the 37-year-old journeyman in the lower third of the league in QB pressures. Seeing how my models rank Miami’s offensive line at 26th on passing downs this season, the relative lack of pressure is both a testament to Fitz’s pocket mobility/escapability and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s game plan.
In my models, the switch to first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa did lower the 2020 Dolphins’ playoff potential by about 3.3 percent (from 43.3 with Fitz to 40 with Tua). Which, given the expanded playoff format, means the Fins are currently in a race with the Raiders for the AFC’s seventh postseason berth. However, making the change to serve the franchise’s future is a sound strategy: Over the past 10 seasons, there are more examples of positive benchings yielding higher two-season win totals, as opposed to negative benchings. There are other circumstances that can’t be reasonably decoupled from this action, but the trend arrow is more positive than negative.
If Tua can quickly learn to read and react to defenses in a way that keeps his pressure rate low (like Fitzpatrick’s), the playoffs are a very real possibility for the Dolphins.
Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.
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