ProFootballFocus

Saints should target linebacker in draft

Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com

Considering they’re the defending Super Bowl champs, the Saints have a surprising number of holes to fill. The one I’d like to focus on, however, is their need for a linebacker.

Unfortunately for the Saints, they could use not one, but two, new starting outside linebackers. The deficiencies of starters Scott Shanle (weak-side) and Scott Fujita (strong-side) were masked by the stellar play of the Saints defense line, but both are below-average NFL starters.

The first issue the Saints need to address at linebacker is their coverage. Due to the nature of their 4-3 defense, weak-side linebacker Scott Shanle is the one primarily dropping into zone coverage or manning up against tight ends. Unfortunately for the Saints, there are few linebackers in the league who more more ill-suited for this role than Shanle.

Given the fact that they’re typically covering much shorter routes, linebackers allow a fairly high percentage of catches when they drop into coverage. Shanle’s numbers, however, are well above average. Among linebackers who were targeted at least 20 times, Shanle’s 82.2 catch percentage allowed ranked as the 6th highest in the league. In a division which features Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow, he is a major liability.

As for the Saints pass rush, it doesn’t get much better. Among their linebackers, Fujita is the one relied upon most in this area. Fujita was on the field for 309 pass plays in 2009 (playoffs included) and was used as a pass rusher roughly half the time (153 plays).

Of those 153 plays, Fujita recorded just one sack. He did, however, hit the quarterback seven times and record a nine pressures. In total, that’s 17 impact plays out of 153 pass rush situations – a rate of 11.1 percent. Among the 51 linebackers with at least 100 pass rush attempts, Fujita’s 11.1 “impact percentage” ranked right in the middle of the pack at 26th.

While Fujita, who is an unrestricted free agent, was the Saints primary pass rusher at linebacker in terms of percentage of plays, Shanle was actually used more often. Shanle rushed the quarterback 173 times out of the 690 pass plays in which he was on the field. In those 173 plays Shanle recorded zero sacks, zero hits and just eight pressures – that’s an astoundingly low 4.6 “impact percentage” which ranked him dead last among linebackers with 100 attempts.

Super Bowl XLIV

Shanle (58) tries to bring down Dallas Clark in the Super Bowl

Its a wonder the Saints even made the playoffs with a performance from their outside linebackers such as this. In the tables provided, Shanle and Jarret Johnson (Ravens) are the only ones from playoff teams.

Its widely assumed that the Saints will target a linebacker with the 32nd pick in the 1st round. Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon would be the ideal fit for their 4-3 defense. Penn State’s Navorro Bowman is another option.

Both Bowman and Weatherspoon would be good fits at weak-side linebacker as a replacement for Shanle. However, if Scott Fujita does not re-sign, the strong-side position could actually be the greater need. Journeyman Troy Evans is Fujita’s backup and is not suited for a starting role.

Obviously the Saints have proven they can win with a below-average corps of linebackers. But if they’re going to repeat, they would be well served to upgrade the unit.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in Saints 4 Comments

Texans Need a Power Running Back

Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com

texansSteve Slaton burst onto the scene late in 2008, rushing for 737 yards over the final seven games of the season. As a result the Texans, and numerous fantasy owners who drafted him in the 1st round, entered 2009 with lofty expectations.

The results were underwhelming. In 11 games prior to a season-ending neck injury, Slaton rushed for just 437 yards at a dismal rate of 3.3 yards per carry.

New Orleans Saints v Houston TexansThe reason behind the decline is fairly simple. Slaton just doesn’t have the body of an NFL running back. Year after year we see impressive late-season statistics posted by backups plugged into starting roles. Last year it was Slaton, this year it was Jerome Harrison Harrison and Jamal Charles. Occasionally these backups prove to be the real deal. But more often than not they simply capitalizing on being fresh from having not been worn down as the workhorse for the majority of the season and are playing with extra motivation to win the starting job for the following season.

In Slaton’s case, both factors could have played a role in his 2008 heroics. There’s no denying his ability as a big-play running back, but like others such as Reggie Bush and Leon Washinngton, he doesn’t have the strength to carry the load.

To demonstrate his inability to be a feature back, consider the stat “yards after contact” which is tracked by the guys at ProFootballFocus. Among running backs with at least 100 attempts, Slaton averaged the 4th-fewest yards after contact per attempt this season at just 2.12.

yardsaftercontact

From the view of an opposing defensive coordinator, these are the ideal running backs to face. Yes, Slaton could hurt you by breaking off a big run, but you don’t feel the need to stack the box in order to slow him down. As a result, Slaton’s inability to force defenses to game-plan for him allows defenses to focus their attention on Andre Johnson and their potent passing attack.

Down the stretch the Texans used the more physically imposing Arian Foster (6’1″, 217 lbs) as the feature back. He did an adequate job, but the Texas likely won’t feel comfortable handing him the starting job for 2010.

Given the limited number of running backs available in free agency, this is likely a position the Texans will need to address in the draft. In the 1st round Jonathan Dwyer and Ryan Mathews are both options, but would it would be considered a reach by many to select either one in the top 20. The safer route may be to select a player such as Anthony Dixon or Montario Hardesty in the 2nd or 3rd round to share the load with Slaton in 2010.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2010 NFL Draft, Texans Comments Off

Rams Should Target a WR in the 2nd Round

Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com

ramsThe Rams obviously have more than a few needs to address this offseason. I’m sure I and everyone else covering the NFL Draft will spend more than enough time analyzing their decision with the No. 1 overall selection, so for this feature I’d like to focus on their need for a No. 1 receiver.

In 2007 the Rams inexplicably made Donnie Avery the first wide receiver chosen in that year’s draft. It was a decision that ranks among the more underrated draft blunders of all time. Since it happened in the early 2nd round the baffling decision didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. It wasn’t the greatest draft for receivers, but wouldn’t DeSean Jackson look good in a Rams uniform right about now?

Two years later the Rams are left with a depleted receiving corps and nothing resembling a No. 1 receiver. For all intents and purposes Avery was their go-to-guy, but at 5’11″, 186 pounds he just isn’t cut out for the role.

Among receivers that were targeted as least 90 times this season, only the Lions’ Calvin Johnson and the Raiders’ Louis Murphy caught a fewer percentage of balls thrown their way.

lowestcatchpct

On the surface, the one thing that these three receivers have in common is poor quarterback play. Its fair to say that each of these players would have an increased catch percentage had they played in Indianapolis or New England. In Avery’s case, however, much of the blame has to fall on his shoulders.

Arizona Cardinals v St. Louis RamsIts tough to grade Avery in games quarterbacked by Kyle Boller or Keith Null, but Avery wasn’t any better with Marc Bulger throwing him the football. In games started by Bulger, Avery caught just 27 of 51 balls thrown his direction (52.9 pct).

To be fair, Avery should never have been put in this position. As I mentioned, this was a hole the Rams dug for themselves. Each of their top three receivers – Avery, Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola – are 6’0″ or shorter. Rams quarterbacks need a big receiver that can go up and make plays. Smaller receivers rely on their speed and route running ability to get open and only the elite can be truly effective week-in and week-out with that skill set.

So how does this apply to the Rams draft?

In the second round there should be a number of receivers that would fit perfectly into the Rams offseason. In my current mock draft I have the Rams selecting Arrelious Benn. Benn is 6’2″ and has the speed to stretch the field. He was somewhat inconsistent at Illinois, but was often at the mercy of some truly terrible quarterback play by Juice Williams and others. Other options include Brandon LaFell, Demaryius Thomas and Damian Williams – all of whom are 6’1″ or taller and have the ability to make their presence felt immediately in St. Louis.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2010 NFL Draft, Rams 1 Comment

Do The Redskins Really Need a Quarterback?

Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com

redskinsNew Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has said he’s willing to give Jason Campbell a chance, but we all know Daniel Snyder will be pushing hard for either Jimmy Clausen or Sam Bradford in the draft. For all intents and purposes, Campbell’s career in Washington would appear to be over. But do the Redskins really need a new quarterback?

There’s no question that Campbell isn’t a franchise quarterback. He isn’t on the level of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and never will be. But the stats seam to indicate that Campbell can be a winning quarterback in this league.

Using the stats at ProFootballFocus I tried to go beyond the box score to examine just how effective Campbell was in 2009, independent of those around him.

NFL Bucs Defensive End Gaines Adams 1983-2010 dies at 26 - Heart FailureThe first thing I looked at was how much Campbell was hurt by his offensive line. Once Chris Samuels went down with a potential career-ending injury in Week 5, the Redskins suddenly had one of the worst offensive lines in the game. Levi Jones was picked up midseason to play left tackle, but was just a shell of his former self. The result was a battered and bruised quarterback.

Campbell was sacked 42 times, tied for the third most in the league. But that doesn’t really tell us how much his linemen impacted his stats. To do this, I looked up which quarterbacks where hit while throwing most often and which ones had the most balls batted down or tipped at the line of scrimmage – the two stats that best quantify the offensive line’s impact on the quarterback’s stats. As expected, Campbell ranked near the top in each category.

jasoncampbell_hit
It wasn’t just the offensive line that gave Campbell trouble though. His receiver’s didn’t help much either. If you remove the times Campbell threw the ball away or spiked the ball, he made 483 pass attempts this past season. 30 of those, or 6.2 percent, were dropped. It isn’t a horrendous percentage, but still high enough to rank him 18th among quarterbacks that took at least 25 percent of their teams snaps.Washington Redskins v Arizona Cardinals

To expand upon this, I added the drops to the balls thrown away and spiked and removed them from his pass attempts. I then divided his completions by this new pass attempts number to find his “true completion percentage”.

The top 10 in this category reads like a who’s who of the game’s top quarterbacks… plus Jason Campbell.

jasoncampbell_truecomppct

I would be remiss if I didn’t also throw some blame in the direction of the coaching staff. Over the first 13 games of the season, Campbell threw the ball on 58.4 percent of his snaps – a high, but not out of the ordinary percentage. Over the final three weeks – during which he averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt, down from 7.4 through the first 13 weeks – Campbell threw the ball 69.4 percent of the time. With an offensive line as porous as the Redskins, that’s an inexcusable percentage for their coaches to call. Quite simply, they put Campbell in a position to fail.

After looking at these stats I see no reason why Jason Campbell couldn’t eventually be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Rather than rebuild with a rookie quarterback, the smarter move may actually be to draft a player such as Russell Okung and attempt to acquire a proven receiver such as Anquan Boldin in the offseason. That said, it sounds as though the end of this book has already been written. Too many bridges have been burnt for Campbell to revive his career in Washington.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2010 NFL Draft, Redskins 1 Comment

Fixing The Steelers Offensive Line

Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com

The most difficult teams to judge in the offseason are the teams that fell short of expectations. You are constantly faced with the issue of weighing this year versus last year, and trying to sort out who can bounce back and who is on the decline. Perhaps no team will have as many such questions to answer this offseason as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The one question sure to arise in Pittsburgh ‘s front office is the issue of protecting Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben was sacked 50 times this season, tied with Aaron Rodgers for the most in the NFL. At first glace, the issue lies with the Steelers tackles. Max Starks ranked second in the league with nine sacks allowed and Willie Colon wasn’t far behind with six of his own.

A closer look, however, reveals that the Steelers interior line may actually be the problem.

Using the data supplied by ProFootballFocus.com, I analyzed the effectiveness of the Steelers offensive line in passing situations. The guys at ProFootballFocus track each offensive lineman’s sacks allowed, hits allowed and pressures allowed. To compare linemen, I added up these totals and divided by the number of passing plays each lineman was involved in to create a stat I labeled “pressure percentage.”

The results churn out a number of the usual suspects at the top of the list. However, you may be surprised at who’s number one. Among offensive tackles involved in at least 250 pass plays, Steelers right tackle Willie Colon led the way with an impressive pressure percentage of 2.5.

Max Starks ranked in the middle of the pack (18th among offensive tackles) with a 5.7 pressure percentage, ahead of such respected linemen as Michael Oher, Michael Roos, Marcus McNeill and Matt Light.

While the Steelers appear to be in good hands at tackle, guard is another story. Chris Kemoeatu ranked a respectable 22 nd amongst guards (3.5 pct) but Trai Essex (6.0 pct) ranked among the worst linemen in the game – regardless of position.

Ramon Foster, who split time with Essex , fell short of the 250 passing plays to qualify for my initial ranking. However, if you lower the qualifications to 150 pass plays Foster ranks as the 9 th worst lineman in the league with a 9.8 pressure percentage. In other words, once every 10 times Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, Foster’s man got to him – an incredibly high percentage for an interior lineman.

From the perspective of the NFL draft, this is an area the Steelers could address in the 1st round with their 18th overall selection. Mike Iupati is the consensus top-rated guard in this year’s draft class and would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh . The Steelers value run blocking on the interior line, which has led them to such massive linemen as Kemoeatu (344 lbs), Essex (324 lbs) and Foster (325 lbs). In Iupati they can have their dominant run blocker, but also upgrade their pass protection.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2010 NFL Draft, Steelers 1 Comment