Rumors of Drew Brees' demise have been greatly exaggerated; two fantasy sleepers

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.

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.

STAT TO TRUST

Want to be more successful? Average 5-plus yards per first down.

What do the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team all have in common? Definitely not winning: These eight organizations have a combined record of 2-20-2 over the first three weeks of the 2020 season, with the Football Team and the Chargers nabbing the only two Ws.

The correct answer is that all of these teams average fewer than 5 yards per play on first down. When it comes to evaluating offensive — and, inherently, team — success over time, this is a good benchmark to monitor. Obviously, the more manageable subsequent downs are, the better chance a team has to move the sticks or reach the end zone. For a long time, success on first down generally boiled down to earning 4-plus yards a pop. But with teams throwing more on first down in today’s pass-happy NFL, the measuring-stick number has crept up.

Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll see that two more related elements tie the aforementioned teams together. First, there’s an extreme lack of QB protection. Six of the eight teams listed above fill the bottom six slots when it comes to disruptive pressures allowed. Disruptive pressures are those where a defender comes within 3 feet of the quarterback in his field of vision. All eight teams rank in the bottom 13 when measuring disruptive pressures allowed by percentage of dropbacks.

Second, rushing scheme matters. All eight of these teams have inconsistent O-line run blocking. Using computer vision to map run blocking and gap width/space for the back’s intended path, these eight teams rank in the bottom 10 on first down and bottom 11 on every down.

Here’s one quick example, courtesy of Next Gen Stats. On drives where the Bengals have scored a touchdown, they called outside runs on 66.7 percent of rushing plays and inside runs on 33.3 percent. On non-scoring drives, Cincinnati has called inside runs on 61.8 percent of rushing plays and outside runs on 35.2 percent. (Those last two percentages don’t add up 100 because I’ve excluded Burrow kneeldowns.) Using computer vision to map the offensive line on each of these running plays, I’m able to see that the RB’s path on inside rushing plays was blocked by at least one defender on 77 percent more plays in non-scoring drives than in scoring marches. When it comes to outside rushes, the RB’s path was blocked by at least one defender on 61 percent more plays in non-scoring drives than scoring. This helps illustrate the fact that outside runs are less reliant on O-line play and more about a playmaker’s ability to make people miss — i.e., you can mitigate an offensive line’s poor run blocking by sending the rusher to the perimeter. The same trend holds true for all eight of these teams, though it’s worth noting that there are differences based on type of QB. For example, Deshaun Watson’s mobility gives Houston more of an advantage than the other teams.

At the end of the day, first down really sets the tone for everything. And on that front, 5 is the new 4. If you can’t average 5 yards a pop with a fresh set of downs, wins are extremely hard to come by.

STAT TO QUESTION

The sense of doom surrounding Drew Brees’ 4.8 air yards per attempt.

At first blush, that extremely low figure in air yards per attempt seemingly supports a growing concern around the 1-2 New Orleans Saints: that the 41-year-old quarterback’s arm strength has deteriorated to the point of futility. My contextualized math refutes this sentiment — pretty strongly.

First, look at the recent history of this offense: launching the ball downfield just hasn’t been the strategy for Brees or the Saints. Last season, Brees’ 6.7-yard average in air yards per attempt was the third-lowest figure of the 27 quarterbacks who threw enough passes to qualify. In 2018, his 7.1-yard average ranked fifth-lowest amongst 30 qualified quarterbacks. And in 2017, he ranked dead last among 29 qualified QBs at 6.4 air yards per attempt. If you have routinely watched New Orleans, you’ve seen this with your own eyes. But it’s important to understand why you’re seeing it.

The Saints’ personnel packages, play-calling (routes run) and protections are all geared toward supporting a foundation of quick throws has been quite effective and productive. One way to show that: New Orleans has ranked among the top four teams in touchdowns per game in each of the past three seasons. Another piece of evidence: Brees has set the single-season record for completion percentage in two of the past three seasons, leading the league in the category in all three. And of course, the most important data point comes in the win-loss column: The Saints have taken the NFC South in each of the past three campaigns, finishing with 13, 13 and 11 wins.

The bottom line is that the most successful teams have a cohesive approach where their personnel and play-calling are strategically aligned. The Saints have executed their game plan to great effect. Unfortunately, a couple of factors have conspired against New Orleans in 2020.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, offseason activities were extremely limited and the preseason was canceled altogether. This prevented Sean Payton, Brees and Co. from really getting their creative juices flowing on new scheme developments. That said, this is something the entire league’s had to deal with. Michael Thomas’ absence, though, has clearly hit the Saints hard.

A first-team All-Pro receiver two years running, Thomas suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 1. The 27-year-old, of course, set a single-season record with 149 catches in 2019. He was targeted on over 33 percent of the Saints’ passes last season (and over 30 percent in the red zone), earning the most air yards among all NFL receivers (1,175, per Next Gen Stats). Oh, and Thomas racked up all those gaudy numbers while lining up in the slot on about 21 percent of plays — an alignment that’s often is associated with shorter routes. When a quarterback loses a piece this integral, isn’t a lapse in production understandable?

Furthermore, at various points over Brees’ past eight seasons, he’s experienced similar dips in average depth of target over short stretches. I looked for a correlation between those dips and losses, and measured that against all other QBs across the league. Guess what? Comparing Brees’ numbers to the average of all quarterbacks — and more specifically, QBs who use quick passes at a similar rate to Brees — the Saints are less correlated with losses when the signal-caller’s air-yards-per-attempt figure decreases.

My math suggests two things about this offense. First, Thomas is indeed one of the most valuable weapons in football, given his ability to create the blend of quick passes and strategic deep plays that this group is optimized to execute. And secondly, if the Saints can increase the efficiency of the other pass catchers in Thomas’ absence, it could be even harder to stop the all-world receiver upon his return.

Brees projects to significantly increase his passing depth this Sunday in Detroit.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 4

Over the last two weeks, the first pick of the 2020 draft’s second round has been targeted 15 times, including nine last Sunday in Philadelphia, with Higgins catching five balls for 40 yards and two touchdowns in the 23-23 tie. Next Gen Stats show that Higgins has caught two of his nine targets of 10-plus air yards. This may seem like a small and somewhat irrelevant sample size now, but an increasing volume of deep targets provides opportunity for success. Layer that with the two touchdowns and red-zone opportunities against the Eagles, and we get a fuller picture about how trust and chemistry is forming between the rookie wideout and his rookie QB, Joe Burrow. And while Tyler Boyd has cashed in more frequently on his deep targets than Higgins (SEE: 8 for 10 on passes of 10-plus air yards), A.J. Green has not (3 for 15). Lastly, it’s notable that former first-round pick John Ross was a healthy scratch against Philly.

This one is definitely a true sleeper, but why not really test out the indicators in my models and see what happens? (Shameless plug: If you want safer streaming options, we have a ton of great ones each weeknight on NFL Network’s Fantasy Live. Tune in!) The fourth-round pick out of UCF has caught all seven of his targets this season, with his most productive game coming in this past Sunday’s 35-32 win over the Rams: four targets, four catches, 81 yards. Another interesting tidbit: Next Gen Stats show that Davis’ 11.8 air yards per target exceeds the typical threshold that is correlated with viable flex fantasy WRs. Lastly, NGS also tells us that he has three receptions when he was aligned wide and four from the slot. Versatility is an indicator for fantasy success, as well. John Brown’s exit from the game on Sunday due to a calf injury clearly created opportunity, but Davis capitalized. And with Brown limited this week and questionable for Sunday’s game in Las Vegas, Davis has another chance to shine.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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