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2013 NFL Draft Rankings: the Quarterbacks

I was reading last year’s draft article in preparation for writing this year’s draft article.  Overall, I felt I was pretty on-point in my evaluations, although I clearly did not believe in Russell Wilson as a starting NFL quarterback, which makes a pretty accurate year look a lot worse than maybe it really was.  Draftink protip: you don’t want to be giving a scouting report on an offensive rookie of the year candidate in the same paragraph as one on Jacory Harris.

This year is obviously not the class last year was, and it doesn’t need to be.  I’m making one main change this year, which is that I’m not going to give a single draft comparable for each quarterback because looking back on it, I feel like it detracted from what I had to say on them.

There are three quarterbacks receiving first round grades from me in the 2013 NFL Draft.  I don’t feel as great about my grades in this class as I did about last year’s, but considering I had six QBs with top two round grades last year and five this year, it’s really not the barren wasteland for quarterbacks that some are making it out to be.  It’s just a mediocre draft where you have to do your homework on prospects, starting at the top.

*Non-bolded player = film study not complete

1. Geno Smith, West Virginia, Top 10 Grade

Revisionist history says that Robert Griffin III is awesome and was always awesome, and in most ways that’s accurate, but I think there’s something of a double standard going on here.  The Leach/Holgorsen Air Raid QBs are getting dinged up in the evaluation process for the general lack of success they’ve had in the pros, and some of the backlash against Smith stems from the total distrust of statistics generated by those systems.  I think the criticism is rooted in merit, to an extent.

Now, Art Briles is not an Air Raid guy, but in so many more ways, the offense that Robert Griffin ran at Baylor (like the one that Kevin Kolb ran for Briles at Houston) is even less rooted in modern NFL concepts than the air raid is.  NFL teams are running all the air raid plays already, although 1) they typically save them for third down and long, and 2) they emphasize the tight end in a way you don’t see in college.  What Briles system did was put Griffin’s arm and deep ball ability on display on a week to week basis.

The “tricky” evaluation when it comes to Smith is a matter of nuance: football teams are not as unique and diverse in the passing attack as the NFL would like to have you believe.  However, in spite of this, it sure seemed like observers had come around to Griffin at this time last year in a way they simply have not on Smith.  With that said, their passing profiles are not dissimilar: they have many of the same comparables.  You see Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford, and Philip Rivers when they play with confidence.  You see a lot of scrambling and reliance on athleticism when they aren’t getting a clear picture of the defense.

Griffin is a cut above Geno Smith because Griffin’s got a number of rare traits in terms of his decision making.  Griffin is just as lethal in the read option game as he is spreading you out and throwing it and it makes him impossible to defend, because the Redskins can attack you out of two back base personnel in any down and distance just as easily as they can spread the field five wide.  Geno isn’t that kind of player who can line up in the two back pistol on 3rd and 7 and give you the whole playbook as an option to pick up the first down.  He’s not Griffin or Colin Kaepernick.  But as a thrower of the football, he’s pretty similar, and is probably more advanced in basic pocket mechanics.  And I think that’s getting lost at times in his evaluation: he’s going to be a top ten passer in the NFL relatively soon.

2. Zac Dysert, Miami (OH), mid-first round grade
3. Tyler Bray, Tennessee, mid-first round grade

Okay, this is not only where my player evaluation separates a bit from conventional wisdom, but it’s also where my idea of where this QB class will be in four years deviates from what people are expecting.  Most evaluators have maybe one or two quarterbacks who they project as starters and everyone else as deep-roster development projects.  But after watching Dysert and Bray in great detail over the last few months, I project them both as starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

Zac Dysert is more of a late riser for me based on the fact that I didn’t pay a ton of attention to him early in the draft evaluation process.  It wasn’t that I thought he was limited in any way, but like most prospects there was a clear upside and a clear downside, and there wasn’t a ton of rallying support around Dysert as a player you can invest your team’s future in.

The crazy thing was that the more I watched Dysert, the more I saw a player who simply hadn’t grown into an improving physical skill set.  Dysert was always an efficient MAC QB through his four years as a starter, but it’s easy to overrate prospects who fit that build and I’ve been guilty of it many times in the past (like supporting Dan Lefevour as a day two draft selection).  But what stuck out about Dysert in 2012 is that he rarely left plays on the field and even the couple of plays that were left on the field, Dysert has enough room for improvement to be one of the highest upside players in the 2013 draft at any position.  Is that enough to overcome a sack rate that was over 8% in the MAC? We’ll see.  Dysert is not an elite athlete, but he’s one of the more athletic QBs in this class, and used a lot of different types of footwork in the passing game.  The passes almost always came out on time, which is not what you expect from players with high sack rates.  He was better on a play by play basis than Ryan Nassib, who will also be high on this list on the strength of a strong senior campaign.

I think a lot of people feel deceived in their evaluation of Tyler Bray by the conundrum of a player whose overall college production never matched the physical skill set.  To some degree, Bray earned the underachiever title that has been thrust upon him by the masses, but the tag better belongs on the Tennessee program.  Now, Bray does have bad habits that defensive coordinators picked up on when playing against him, and were about to use to keep Bray from winning consistently at the college level.  So as Bray transitions to the pros, that will be the most important thing for the team that drafts him, break him of his bad, gunslinger habits — at least the ones that can be attacked by defenses.

The argument for Bray isn’t as complicated as his detractors want to make it out to be, and it’s rather Parcellsian in nature.  There’s a limited handful of people on the planet that can do what Tyler Bray can do on a football field, make it look as effortless as he does, and under the conditions he works under, have some of the best college games by a quarterback in recent college memory.  The argument against Bray is that there’s few — if any — examples of players with his statistical profile and bad college habits who go on to achieve success in the NFL.  But what can’t be disputed (so it doesn’t get brought up) is that if you’re championing other quarterbacks like Mike Glennon, Tyler Wilson, or EJ Manuel, you’re taking an ability hit in trade for either college production or coaching polish.  Bray leaves some easy plays on the field because his mechanics are inconsistent and he’s robotic in response to quick pressure (the ball is coming out blind), but his college numbers still come out stronger than other draft eligible quarterbacks.

The reason I can’t rank Bray any higher than this isn’t because he’s not talented enough, but because like a lot of the players who I rate below him, he’s always going to be somewhat dependent on his environment to turn his abilities into pro-bowl production.  We saw at Tennessee how he was unable to crack the 60% passing glass ceiling in that environment, which is generally a negative indicator of future success (though Bray isn’t that far off…he’s essentially NC State Russell Wilson as a passer).  Bray could play and win immediately in a great environment, but if he’s drafted into a circus, we’ve got three college seasons to foreshadow how his pro career will end.

4a. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse, second round grade
4b. Matt Barkley, USC, second round grade

Nassib and Barkley must both play early in their pro careers to have value.  If you project six, seven, eight years down the road, it’s not hard to see either of these guys as journeyman backup/starter swingman who offer quality quarterback play, the ability to learn new systems on the fly and mentor other players.  But to achieve that designation in the NFL, both players must first provide value to the teams that pick them in the short term.  And that means they both have to win their way onto the field quickly.  The longer either Nassib or Barkley stays buried on the depth chart, the shorter their overall NFL career will be.  That’s not necessarily true in the case of Geno, Bray, or Dysert.

I like Nassib just a bit more than Barkley, but it’s too close to say more than there’s a 4a and a 4b.  Nassib went on the map for me in the season opener against Northwestern, when he was just chucking the ball all over the field getting his team back into a game they would eventually lose.  He’s not necessarily consistent down the field, but I like his throwing ability more than I liked Ryan Tannehill’s from a year ago.  He makes really quick decisions, offers a running element to his game, and maybe most impressively, combines the two skills of running and passing really well.

Nassib is not an elite thrower, however, and is more the kind of prospect that does a bunch of things well rather than excelling in one area.  Andy Dalton comparisons are inevitable, but the player I see most with Nassib is the Notre Dame version of Brady Quinn, who had great feet and a quick release with a non-elite arm that ran hot and cold (the Quinn who played quarterback for the Chiefs had a much different throwing profile than Quinn the first round draft choice).

Matt Barkley would have likely been my fourth rated QB if he came out last year (after Luck, Griffin, and Foles), and it says something that he ranks in the same place in an overall weaker class.  I’m not entire sure what it says.  Barkley’s overall passing efficiency in terms of point and yard didn’t decline in any meaningful way in 2012 vs. 2011, but his turnover rate spiked, and maybe more concerning was how willing USC was to take the ball out of his hands on early downs.  That’s not what Barkley returned to school for.  There is a logical answer (which can’t be proven by an outsider — only suspected), which is that the Trojans were trying to compensate for a player who was playing hurt all year, even prior to the UCLA game where a hit ended his college career.  Barkley suffered a separated shoulder, but it’s unclear if he was 100% healthy prior to the UCLA hit, as well as it’s unclear if he’s 100% healthy now.

If/when Barkley is healthy enough where he can throw the ball like he did in 2011, then he’s really underrated throwing on the run, and makes really good decisions in throwing route concepts: that high turnover rate will regress in the pros — provided he will be healthy again.

6. Sean Renfree, Duke, third round grade

Renfree, a David Cutcliffe disciple at Duke, profiles best as an NFL backup quarterback, but should be drafted high enough where a QB needy team can start him in a pinch.  As a pure passer, he was excellent at Duke.  He lacks rare throwing traits, but makes up for it with sound accuracy, and performs well under pressure, which is what you want in a quarterback.  Lacks a couple of the characteristics in terms of growth of some of the players I have rated above him.  He’s likely not going to be a better thrower in the NFL than he was in college, where most of the players in this class at least have this potential.  The other risk factor here is he goes to the NFL and gets coached by someone who isn’t as detail-oriented as Cutcliffe, and his performance suffers.

7. Matt Scott, Arizona, third round grade

Sat the vast majority of his college career behind Nick Foles at Arizona on losing teams, so was very much off the radar heading into this season.  Was coached by Rich Rodriguez in his one season as a starter, and lead Arizona on a huge comeback against Nevada in their bowl game this year.  That performance may have put Scott on the radar of scouts, but it also was the top tape to grade Scott on: he’s not yet a consistent thrower of the football, but he’s got a lighting quick overhand release, and moves really well for a player of his slender build.  A true dual threat prospect in the NFL who has the arm to use the whole field.  He’s just an inconsistent down to down player with limited college tape to figure out why that may be.  Someone will take him in the middle rounds for his attributes.

8. Landry Jones, Oklahoma, fourth round grade

If Landry Jones had come out after his sophomore year, he would have been an interesting NFL projection at that point.  Right now, Jones’ flaws were too exposed over the last two years to put him squarely in someones future plans.  With that said, it’s worth pointing out that Jones has long been on the radars of NFL teams, and may go a lot higher than you would think.  He never showed the ability to make consistently good decisions with the football, which is perhaps emphasized by the fact that Oklahoma had a package to take him out on the goal line as a junior and senior.

Jones is heavily lacking in some of the movement-throwing skills that are a basic necessity for pro quarterbacks in the NFL…and really, Big 12 QBs to an extent.  From the pocket, he’s fine.  Not dynamic, necessarily, but does a good job seeing most of the field and throws down the field as well as he throws screen pass after screen past.  He’s not limited as a thrower, but his ability to handle pressure has long been questioned and probably emphasized by his inability to throw while moving.  Mechanically, he’s a bit inconsistent.  But three years from now, no one is going to remember his college career, at which point, you’re left with an interesting pro quarterback prospect who has the physical skill set to play at the next level and a ton of experience to go with it.

It may be ten years too late, but if you squint hard enough, you can see USC-era Carson Palmer here.

9. E.J. Manuel, Florida State, fourth round grade

Manuel has been a late faller for me, not because of anything on his tape, but just because I like a lot of other players a lot better.  Manuel throws the ball pretty well, but not as well as Matt Scott or Landry Jones.  He moves as well as anybody in this class, but this is overall a non-athletic QB class, and Manuel doesn’t move as well as some of the best prospects from other years like RG3 or Colin Kaepernick.  He has experience throwing NFL style route combinations, but overall is pretty cautious with the football.  He’s not a poor prospect, but he fits neatly into the concept of a NFL backup quarterback, where I think some of the other seconds and thirds in this draft show a trait here or there that reminds me of a pro starter.  Manuel’s calling card is his athleticism and NFL arm, and the NFL has a ton of those guys.  He might be the guy benefiting the most from the draft class hes in.

With that said, he should be employed as an NFL quarterback for 6-8 seasons, and the NFL is generally moving in a direction where his skill set is more valuable.  Can come off the bench and will complete passes in the NFL.

10. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas, fifth round grade
11. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, fifth round grade

After Manuel, we get to the part of this list where we’re looking at players whose upside is between a number two and number three on an NFL depth chart.  With Wilson and Gray, as well as a couple of other guys on this list, you are looking at prospects that will be 24 year old NFL rookies, and you will know within a year whether you have a player who can hang around on an NFL roster fighting and clawing to get a couple of NFL starts, or someone who spends a year or two on practice squads before moving on to do something else. Wilson and Gray are tragic figures at their universities, tough customers whose greatest attribute is their ability to pop right back up and keep throwing with hardly any performance dropoff.  That was mostly on display for Wilson against SEC opponents this year, as you had to find the Big Ten network to see Gray play this year.  I think Gray has the better arm, but Wilson might be the more athletic of the two in the functional mobility/throwing on the run category.  Gray added a running element in the open field, with some ability to make Big Ten defenders miss him when running.  Wilson throws a better ball, Gray’s offense asked him to run first.

Either Wilson or Gray would be stretched as an NFL starter, but both can handle the rigors of a long season at the position.

12. Colby Cameron, Lousiana Tech, fifth round grade
13. Mike Glennon, North Carolina State, fifth round grade
14. Collin Klein*, Kansas State, fifth round grade
15. Brad Sorenson, Southern Utah

I put an asterisk by Collin Klein because I think he’s a fifth round talent who will not play a single snap of quarterback in the NFL.  I think he’ll get drafted as a quarterback, but might spend a year listed as a quarterback (plus) on a roster before playing receiver or tight end in the NFL, and I think he’ll play well.  As an aside, I opted not to list Denard Robinson with the quarterbacks, but he’s on the fringe between third and fourth round prospect for me right now.  I really like him.

Colby Cameron is a bit lacking in terms of his physical stature, but understands his limitations and throws a very catchable ball.  He won’t have an issue completing passes in the NFL on command, but benefitted greatly from knowing where Quentin Patton was, and getting him the football based on the defenses look.

Glennon looks like a big time prospect based on his arm and throwing ability, but the more I watched of him, the bigger the gulf got between his raw abilities and those of Tyler Bray.  If you just watch their throwing highlights, they look like identical players.  Then you watch more, and more, and more, and Glennon looks less and less long for the NFL.  Now, with that said, down here in the fifth round, he rated near a bunch of players who lack his throwing ability, and it would mean that if he was drafted this low, there would be some real potential of outperforming his draft status and getting on the field early, not unlike Ryan Lindley with the Cardinals last year (for what its worth, Glennon is simply a better thrower than Lindley was last year).

16. Ryan Griffin, Tulane, priority undrafted free agent projection
17. Alex Carder, Western Michigan, priority undrafted free agent projection
18. Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt, priority undrafted free agent projection

I really like Alex Carder, but you have to go back a couple of years to find the film that I thought made him a legit pro prospect.  His profile as a MAC quarterback makes him a decent value on a full year tryout basis, but probably not quite enough to get him drafted.  He’s a dual-threat prospect in the NFL with a unique throwing motion and a competitive streak.

Jordan Rodgers is not really a pro prospect in most senses of the term.  He will be in an NFL camp, and perhaps a seventh round pick in the NFL because his brother is Aaron Rodgers, but there’s not a whole lot here to work with.  He might be a better prospect than Jordan Palmer was coming out of UTEP, however, and Carson’s brother was in the league longer than you remember him being in the league.

19. Ryan Katz, San Diego State, UDFA
20. Matt McGloin, Penn State, UDFA

21. Matt Brown, Illinois State, UDFA
22. Graham Wilbert, Florida Atlantic, UDFA
23. Ryan Radcliffe, Central Michigan, UDFA
24. James Vandenberg, Iowa, UDFA

Nick Foles and Robert Griffin III: A Statistical Comparison

If NFL prospects could be reduced to just the numbers they put up in college, I think people would look at this years’s NFL draft quarterback class much differently.  Luckily, we’ll never need to resort to using nothing but statistics to grade quarterback prospects, but if I were to tell you that Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden were the two best players in this draft, wouldn’t you believe me?

You wouldn’t?  Ah, well that’s okay.  Today I’m only looking to compare one prospect who is under first round consideration to another prospect who is under mid-second round consideration, using a statistical perspective.

The statlines of:

QB Name QB Starts QB Wins Completion % Attempts Sack Sack %
Robert Griffin III  41 23 67.11% 1192 79 6.22%
Nick Foles  33 15 66.86% 1403 57 3.90%
2012 QB Class Average 35.68
23.05 63.71% 1177 55.73 4.83%



 QB Name  Sacks as Incomplete  Negative  Play %  Consistent Play %  Sack Projection
 Robert Griffin III  62.94%  7.55%
59.56%
 7.73%
 Nick Foles  64.25%  6.16%
60.70%
 6.72%
 2012 QB Class Average 60.43%  7.18%  56.29%
7.12%
QB Name Year 1 Value Year 2 Value Year 3 Value Year 4 Value Variance Variance/PA
Robert Griffin III 2091 481 3501 4293 1676.01 1.41
Nick Foles 57 2486 3191 4334 1808.16 1.29
 
QB Name Total Yards YPA
Robert Griffin III 10366 8.7
Nick Foles 10068 7.2

Lets get the important stuff out of the way first.  The higher efficiency college quarterback is Griffin III, and it’s not all that close.  Griffin played quarterback for Baylor, so I’m not suggesting you pretend that he’s somehow just a product of his supporting cast.  But the Baylor offense was talent-loaded compared to the Arizona offense from this past season.

But what is more important is that we identify which college statistics best predict themselves at the pro level: completion percentage being the big one, but also yards per attempt, sack rate, and maybe the best predictor of overall success of highly drafted players, college games started.    Also, based off of success rate concepts, I created a couple of metric for college players: 1) an adjusted completion percentage that treats all QB sacks as incomplete passes, 2) negative play percentage, which combines the likelihood of a sack with that of an interception (killing a drive), and 3) consistency percentage, which takes that negative plays and adds in incompletion rate (1-completion percentage) to see how often a quarterback completes a pass that moves the change, and penalizes for incomplete passes that are also interceptions.  What consistency percentage aims to do is neutralize (as much as possible) the effect of the college players’ offense, although for quarterbacks who throw behind the line of scrimmage a lot, it necessarily will overrate them a bit because the denominator is passing attempts.

I also have plain old passing yard variance, which looks at how consistent a prospect was in college year to year in terms of total passing yards.  Finally in the bright gold and green Baylor Bears colors, you can see career college YPA and an NFL rookie sack rate projection based off a linear regression for every QB picked since 2005.  In all, we are analyzing the prospects by 9 different statistical passing categories, half of which were created for this comparison.  At the very end, I’ll go deeper and re-examine the effect of rushing stats on QB success rates, looking back at my Ryan Mallett article from last year as a guide.

Before we even get to analyzing the numbers, what stands out the most is how similar the passing career paths of Griffin and Foles are.  It’s why the variance edge flips when you divide by passing attempts.  There is no advantage in how they got where they are.  The only advantages as prospects from a stats perspective is who they are.

When you analyze that stats, you realize that it is still very close between the two, but a couple of clear trends emerge:

  • In stats that consider and project sacks, Foles comes out ahead, sometimes significantly ahead.
  • In stats that consider yards per passing attempt or vertical yards, Griffin usually comes out significantly ahead.
  • When we try to separate QB stats from the context of their college offenses, Foles advantages tend to stay while Griffin’s disappear
  • However, in composite categories that favor Foles, the difference is slight, sometimes very slight.

It is critical to remember that we’re not considering the impact of Griffin’s rushing ability on the college game or the pro game here, and considering the weaknesses of Foles as a runner, we cannot just ignore entirely Griffin’s speed and ball carrying ability.  It is critical to find a way to work it back into what we are doing above.

You might be surprised to learn that Robert Griffin III’s career high in rushing yards (843) and rushing YPC (4.9) at Baylor came in his Freshman Season of 2008.  He carried the ball 173 times that season.  Before you blame his 2009 ACL tear with a hesitancy to use his physical gifts, do consider that he rushed 149 and 179 times in 2010 and his Heisman winning 2011 respectively.  Griffin wasn’t running less often later in his Baylor career, nor was he running less effectively.  He just happened to set his career highs in rushing four years ago as an 18 year old Freshman quarterback in the Big XII.

Foles never posted positive rushing numbers, which essentially means that his career rushing attempts (105) total was comprised more than halfway by career sacks (57) and kneels.  Foles doesn’t have great athleticism, and may be destined to reprise the career of Kerry Collins in the pros: under-appreciated even if effective for 20 years.

The biggest problem here is that the quarterbacks who never ran in college (which would be a good way to define Nick Foles) have been drafted a lot lower than quarterbacks with requisite athleticism, and it’s hard to make a case that they’ve been under-drafted.  I can probably make a case that New England backup QBs Ryan Mallett (3rd) and Brian Hoyer (undrafted) were picked to the Patriots because they were underdrafted.  Chad Henne probably was underdrafted.    But Brian Brohm certainly wasn’t underdrafted, and neither were John Beck, Jimmy Clausen, Matt Leinart, Brody Croyle, or Andrew Walter.

The results of the Ryan Mallet case study haven’t changed in the last year, if anything, they’ve gotten stronger thanks to the rookie emergence of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, both of whom had strong college rushing numbers.  But in Foles’ case, he’s a rare prospect in that as good as he is at avoiding sacks, -2.8 YPC in college is tough to do for any quarterback.  Even Mallett came in at -1.1 YPC.  Brian Hoyer had a -2.2 YPC figure at Michigan State.  He went undrafted.  Henne had a -1.8 YPC.  Matt Moore had a -1.4 YPC.  Kellen Moore, the scrawniest guy in the draft class, only posted a -1.3 YPC at Boise.  Brodie Croyle a -1.0 YPC.  Dan Orlovsky: -1.5 YPC.  Tim Couch: -1.8 YPC.  Jimmy Clausen -2.0 YPC. Rex Grossman -1.1 YPC.  A lot of mixed results in this group of comps.  Not a whole lot of return on investment.  Then again: Tom Brady -1.7, Eli Manning -1.1, and Peyton Manning -1.2 YPC all turned out kind of alright.

Only a couple of other Pac-12 (nee 10) QBs, Andrew Walter (-2.7) and Derek Anderson (-2.9), offer a similar YPC average to Foles, at Arizona State and Oregon State respectively (although this puts Brandon Weeden’s -3.8 YPC at Oklahoma State into impressive context).

Foles passes the eye test in that I can say he does well throwing on the run and completing passes on the run even if he is never going to threaten the line of scrimmage as a rusher, a skill that neither Walter or Anderson had.  Obviously, he’s not like Robert Griffin when he breaks the pocket.  I think Foles plays well out of the pocket.  But his career passing yards per attempt figure is lower in every year of his career than Robert Griffin’s career figure.  If Griffin is a sensational player when he breaks the pocket, Foles is merely an average one.

There is no argument for preferring Foles over Griffin, and Griffin seems certain to justify being a high pick in the 2012 NFL Draft one way or another.  Foles’ passing statistics in college — at least the ones that predict NFL performance — are right at the level of Griffin’s.  He can make all the throws Griffin can from all the planes Griffin can.  He probably did what he did in college with less talent around him, even though Griffin was tasked with resurrecting a program.  Foles was tasked with saving a head coach’s job, and he did not succeed.

There are very few comparables for either.  Sam Bradford is one, but he lacked Griffins athleticism, and played with far more talent in college than Foles.  Foles’ college statistics are almost identical to those of Brian Brohm, who was an excellent draft prospect, and a terrible NFL quarterback.  Foles will almost certainly have more NFL success than Brohm, for no other reason than the amount of success that Brohm had. Eli Manning or Tim Couch are probably the best college comparables for Foles, though Manning had the advantage of being a Manning, something that Foles can never be.

Foles profiles better than pretty much any recent second round prospect this side of Andy Dalton, and Griffin profiles better than any player who didn’t go first overall.  The only difference between then is their legs.  And history shows that this alone might decide which of them is successful (or remains healthy) and which fails (or cannot stay on the field).

Does the way which Notre Dame competes in Recruiting represent a problem for the Fighting Irish football program?

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

With Arizona four-star Wide Receiver Davonte Neal committing to play college football at Notre Dame next year, Notre Dame has dodged a bullet from signing day when Deontay Greenberry flipped his commitment away from Notre Dame to Houston, creating a major offensive void in the Irish’s previously impressive recruiting haul.  While Neal isn’t as highly regarded as Greenberry was by recruitniks, his signature makes him the highest rated wide receiver in the Irish’s 2012 recruiting class.

That’s good.  Though the way Neal went about his commitment today doesn’t make it entirely clear that he’s doing what he thought would be best for him:

Reportedly, there is an ongoing “power struggle” over the decision.  The player apparently wants to stay near home and play for the Wildcats, while the father wants his son to play for the Irish.

Simply put, the entire Neal family should be embarrassed over and ashamed of what took place late Tuesday morning at the receiver’s former elementary school.

And this incident reminds me a little bit of this from a month ago:

“From what I have been told, [QB Gunner Kiel] is no longer coming to LSU,” recruiting expert Michael Scarborough of Rivals.com told the Times. “He wants to come to LSU, but his mother (Aleta Kiel) got very emotional Monday and did not want her son to leave. He plans to enroll in classes at Notre Dame on Tuesday.”

Scarborough went on to add that “[w]hat has been relayed to me is that he wants to come to LSU, but his parents want him at Notre Dame because it is closer to home.”

Sure, the takeaway here is that Brian Kelly is managing to compete with the big dogs in college recruiting using tactics that going back to the very beginning of his tenure at Notre Dame, has allowed him to routinely land 4 and 5 star recruits without enjoying the advantages of being an annual national championship contender and also without Notre Dame being the pro-football factory it once was.  And part of the reason Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame is so that he can modernize the Notre Dame football program and re-brand it as a modern football powerhouse, instead of the relic it’s detractors claim it to be.

It would be an issue if Notre Dame falls down the recruiting rankings because they can’t get the elite players to sign.  But the problem preceding Kelly’s administration wasn’t that they weren’t winning on signing day.

Notre Dame Rivals.com Recruiting Rankings 2002-2012

2012 – #22
2011 – #10
2010* – #14
2009 – #21
2008 – #2
2007 – #8
2006 – #8
2005* – #40
2004 – #32
2003 – #12
2002 – #24

Median recruiting ranking, by coach
Tyrone Willingham – 24th
Charlie Weis – 8th
Brian Kelly – 14th

Separated by coach, you can kind of see why there was reason to be concerned over the downward trend in recruiting under Ty Willingham, but after Charlie Weis put the Irish back in the BCS in his first two seasons, you can certainly see how recruiting simply hasn’t been an issue for the fighting Irish.  Since 2006, their mean ranking according to rivals is 12th, which is much higher than the average finish in the AP poll for Notre Dame over that timeframe.  Is is that the classes are overrated?

To a degree, sure, when you don’t win, anything that indicated future success is overrated.  But looking at Charlie Weis’ best three classes, most of the big name prospects panned out.  This is the second rated recruiting class according to Rivals in 2008.  Braxston Cave and Kapron Lewis-Moore are slotted as excellent fifth year seniors, who will combine to start 7 seasons for the fighting Irish, although both were injured and missed the end of last season.  Ethan Johnson was a three year starter.  Of course, Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd are going to be very significant NFL players over the next few years.  Rudolph profiles as one of the best in-line tight ends in football.  Floyd is projected to go in the first round of this draft.  Trevor Robinson has started for the Irish since 2009.  Darius Fleming could go on the second day of the upcoming NFL draft.  John Goodman and Jonas Gray were never starters, but bloomed late to contribute to Brian Kelly’s offense.  Robert Blanton was a four year starter.  If this class underachieved as the second best recruiting class as ranked by Rivals, it’s because Dayne Crist only provided ND with one injury-truncated season as a starter.

Both the 2006 and 2007 classes ranked and to list players who are in the NFL currently from those recruiting classes: Patriots DB Sergio Brown, Saints G Eric Olsen, 49ers TE Konrad Reuland, Cardinals G Chris Stewart, Dolphins TE Will Yeatman, Falcons CB Darrin Walls, Bills OL Sam Young, Bears RB Armando Allen, Browns LB Brian Smith, Seahawks WR Golden Tate, 49ers DT Ian Williams, and soon to be free agent Jimmy Clausen.  How did those recruiting classes result in Charlie Weis getting fired?

Unlike the 2008 class, there were some pretty significant recruiting busts and painful transfers.  Both Yeatman and Reuland transferred after they lost playing time to Rudolph.  Allen started for four years at RB, but didn’t break out until Kelly came in.  Darrin Walls was off the roster in 2008, perhaps when he was needed the most.  And the five stars from those classes really didn’t pan out.  Sam Young did not play like the best OL recruit of the last decade.  James Aldridge was a five star RB out of nearby Crown Point, IN, and finished his career as a fullback on a team that needed someone to stop its spiral.  And of course, Clausen didn’t stay long enough to achieve college immortality, instead giving way to another 5-star QB who never played like one (Dayne Crist).

But if it seems unfair to put the failures on an entire program on a couple of highly rated high school kids just to justify a theory about the Irish being unable to recruit elite athletes, it is only because it is unfair.  It is very clear that the issues for the Notre Dame football program run deeper than recruiting.  Perhaps a deeper examination of how Notre Dame is getting their recruits will show why they are struggling to consistently win with them.

Brian Kelly’s early success at Notre Dame was driven by the overachievement of Weis’ final recruiting class.  That 2009 class was perhaps Weis’ best, even though it wasn’t as highly rated as the others.  And over two years, Kelly changed the coaching  staff and put elite defensive talent on that side of the ball, fixing the single biggest problem of the Weis era, a leaky defense.

It is in spite of the great treasure trove of offensive talent Kelly stepped into that the Notre Dame offense hasn’t been all that good under Brian Kelly.  The quarterback play has been largely abysmal.  The rushing attack consistently good, though if the backs had been able to contribute even a little bit in the passing game, that would take pressure off the overmatched quarterbacks.  TE Tyler Eifert has developed great under Kelly and even considered leaving for the NFL draft this year with two years of eligibility remaining.  The offensive line has gone from a highly recruited weakness to an overall strength with lesser recruits.  But the receivers have been a largely frustrating group despite consistently high recruiting results.  Combined with the quarterback play, Notre Dame’s potentially explosive passing attack has never been particularly strong.

Two or three results, like those seen in the cases of Kiel, Greenberry, and now Neal is not necessarily indicative of a bigger problem, but all three mean comprise the future of the passing attack that has held the Fighting Irish back to date.  And it will be interesting to watch over the next few years: are the players who Notre Dame is signing going to help them compete on a national level, or are they specifically competing for ‘overrated’ high school recruits that SEC and Big XII schools are focusing elsewhere on.  Is it problematic that the talent that the Irish are relying on for the future are considering Houston and Arizona, and decommitting from LSU en route to Notre Dame?

It’s probably not a big deal so long as ND is able to win those recruiting battles.  It’s just something worth keeping an eye on if Brian Kelly’s recruiting classes don’t lead to more consistent winning.

Robert Griffin III Pre-Draft Value and Game Theory

February 15, 2012 1 comment

“I promise you he’ll be the second pick. Could even be first. I can’t promise you that, but Luck and Griffin are going 1-2 in some combination.”

–Mike Lombardi on the B.S. report, transciption via B/R

The NFL draft is more or less a strategic game.  It’s an important one, and the winner of it isn’t always rewarded with the best draft, because there are a lot of post-draft factors that determine the success of a class.  And winning this game is relative anyway.  Some battles are already won and lost on the day the players declare.

There are essentially just six players in the Robert Griffin game.  There are the potential sellers: the Rams and Vikings, there are the potential buyers: the Redskins, Seahawks, and Dolphins, and you have the most important player, the Cleveland Browns, the only team in position to both buy and sell.  The game could theoretically be expanded to include the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Washington Redskins as sellers, but then we’re getting into situations that have less than a 10% chance of occurring.  I will stick to the most likely six players in this discussion, and treat the Redskins as either a buyer or a non-player.

Michael Lombardi is typically wired into the inner-workings of teams’ thinking with regard to the NFL draft, but I believe I can use game theory and a couple of reasonable assumptions to prove that he’s not accurate in the above quote, and then I will be proven right as things break down.  I don’t think it is likely that Robert Griffin goes second overall after Andrew Luck goes first, but I think the Washington Redskins ultimately determine how able the Rams are to trade their pick.  And the story on the Redskins is that they want Griffin and are looking to name their price, but aren’t going to overpay for the Heisman trophy winner.

And even though Mike Shanahan has a tendency to go-it-alone on football decisions, I think his evaluation of Griffin as clearly the second best QB in the draft, but in a normal year, should be available at the 6th pick, is a lot closer — I think — than Lombardi’s assertion that he’s only not going to go no. 1 because Luck is going to force him to go no. 2.

This is relevant to the St. Louis Rams.  It makes sense for the Rams to begin with the assumption that everyone is going to trade up for RG3.  There are four potential buyers who are more likely to want RG3 than the Rams (or Colts): Cleveland, Washington, Miami, and Seattle.  Here’s the problem: Cleveland and Washington don’t really want to consider a trade up for RG3.  They certainly have the ammo to pull it off, but they talk, and Washington and Cleveland are not going to compete with each other for RG3.  Seattle remains an RG3 longshot because if you’re the Rams, you don’t really want to take a year where you “earned” the second overall pick, and end up not picking in the top ten.  The Rams are going to fall in love with a player they want, and even though they could pick up mulitple first round picks to move out of the top ten, the value of the 2012 first rounder declines so much with that move it is almost not worth doing.

If Miami wins the coin toss and picks 8th overall, things get really interesting.  I could see the Rams being willing to drop down six spots — thinking the draft might be deep enough to offer an elite talent at no. 8 (some are, most aren’t) — and pick up Miami’s first round pick next year plus multiple additional 2012 picks to do so, headlined by a third rounder.  There are multiple problems with the Miami scenario: Miami is going to be very active in the FA market as well as the trade market in the weeks leading up to the draft, and if they make a splashy move such as signing Peyton Manning, they will need their first round picks the next two years a lot more than they need RG3.

To recap: for Miami to be a serious player for the second overall pick, a couple of things need to happen.  Miami must fail to acquire a veteran who they feel would be a significant upgrade over Matt Moore in 2012.  St. Louis must feel that the draft is so deep with elite talent, that picking at no. 8 (or 9) would be preferable to reaching for someone they like at no. 2.  There is no doubt that St. Louis would much rather pick at no. 4 or no. 6.  I do think it is likely that if Miami doesn’t end up getting into the RG3 mix, someone else like Seattle or a mystery team (Denver? Kansas City? Philadelphia? New Orleans?) would be interested.  Let’s say Miami makes no acquisitions and that the end up being the third player in this game.

I’m not ruling out an aggressive move from the Seahawks, I just don’t think it’s likely.  So if the Rams are certain to trade the second pick to a team to take RG3, as Lombardi suggests, either the Dolphins are going to need to get really desperate (which is probably more likely than them not getting desperate in free agency first — this is where understanding game theory comes in), or there needs to be a Cleveland-Washington competition for RG3.

But if free agency eliminates all teams but Washington and Cleveland for Griffin (Flynn to Seattle; Manning to Miami; Alex Smith and Mark Sanchez stay), I don’t see how Lombardi’s position looks likely.

Let’s assume that Lombardi is completely correct, and Cleveland and Washington have both been hiding plans to give up an entire draft to the Rams and get RG3.  Well, now St. Louis opens the bidding at multiple first round picks plus a second and a third.  Neither franchise wants to pay that price and it’s an easy bluff to call.  Cleveland is (still hypothetically) willing to package both first round picks for RG3, and possibly throw in their third rounder.  That is both 1) a higher price than the Redskins can or will match, and 2) still significantly overpaying the market.  So Cleveland wins the bidding for Griffin.  That means the Rams get that price for Griffin, right?

Well, sure, according to Lombardi.  But unless Cleveland is wreckless, why would they overpay the market by so much?  There are no other bidders at that price.  The Rams cannot execute a trade if they don’t have any other offers.

If Cleveland holds out to not put the third rounder in, what collateral would they have that would allow them to hold the Rams hostage as the clock winds down?  Well, they have this: the Vikings pick third, and Cleveland picks fourth.  If Roger Goodell was to suddenly outlaw draft pick trading, there is a very high probability that Cleveland would be able to select Griffin at fourth overall.  That is the mock draft consensus.  And in actuality, that’s is the “true pre-draft” value, of Robert Griffin.  Competition can drive that price up, but as we’ve seen, free agency is going to limit the price of competition.

Back to the Rams.  Now let’s say Cleveland, knowing all of the above, is willing to fork over their two first rounders — no more — for RG3.  The Rams have three strategic plays: accept Cleveland’s deal, decline Cleveland’s deal and use the draft pick, or decline Cleveland’s deal and trade the pick to someone else.  Washington is probably willing to offer their first round pick next year (remember: the assumption is they really value the chance to pick RG3), but that by itself isn’t better than the price Cleveland will play.  The Redskins can probably throw in an additional 2012 pick to go over the top of Cleveland.  But ultimately, you’re looking at a couple versions of the same value for the pick, and declining Cleveland’s best offer to take someone else’s best offer is probably more spiteful than rational.

To be honest, if St. Louis can actually get both of Cleveland’s first round picks to move from second to fourth, I expect them to do it.  It would make the current talk of two first rounders and two thirds (or a second and a third) seem like hot air, but it is.  I just happen to think that two first rounders is a high water mark for what the second overall pick is worth to teams.  There won’t be fierce competition for it, and like every trade up in recent memory, the buyer is going to be able to name their price.

The biggest problem from the Rams perspective is that all of the analysis above is predicated on acceptance of Lombardi’s assertion that teams are truly willing to get the no. 2 pick and spend it on Robert Griffin.  If that’s not informed speculation, they have no actual trade offers for the second pick, and will just be using the pick on best available player.

The Minnesota Vikings are reportedly willing to trade the third overall pick, and that is incredibly problematic for the Rams.  If Cleveland was willing to trade two firsts for the second overall pick, and the Vikings are willing to give the third pick to them for just a first and a second rounder (or maybe a first and a third), then all they have to do in order to ensure getting RG3 is to make sure that they always have best offer for the no. 2 pick, and that the Rams can’t do business with someone else, in this case the Redskins.  They have a huge advantage there picking inside the top four.  The Rams, obviously, want the 4th overall pick, but can’t afford to part with the second pick without being adequately compensated for their trade down.  So the Rams want to do business with the Browns more than any other team.

But the Browns don’t want to actually trade anything of value to the Rams unless the Rams get a solid offer on the table that makes sense to them.  Right now, they don’t have such an offer.  And so the Browns, not the Rams, are in the driver’s seat on RG3.  If the Browns make a trade with the Vikings after the Rams pick Justin Blackmon, Matt Kalil, or whoever, then they are on the clock to take Griffin.  If they don’t trade, they are still the team best positioned to take Griffin.  Mike Mayock said in a conference call today that the Rams should be “thrilled” to get a package of the 4th and 27th overall picks for the second pick, which means they are unlikely to receive that.

In fact, the more digging into the situation you do, the more you realize that the entire plan for the Rams and the Vikings to trade down is predicated on two things: the Washington Redskins being interested, and competition from a desperate team somewhere else in the draft.  If one of those things doesn’t occur, then the highest Robert Griffin can go is 4th to either the Browns, or whoever the Browns select as their trading partner.  It is, actually, very safe to pencil Robert Griffin in as the 4th overall pick in the 2012 draft, because if the Browns do not take him, they will likely trade the pick to someone who will.  The Browns hold the key to who gets Robert Griffin (because the Browns hold all the cards and the first crack at him), but the Redskins are the team that determines how much the second and third picks are worth.

Lets do this exercise again with one assumption: let’s say that the Redskins have an identical grade on Robert Griffin and Ryan Tannehill, and therefore will give up nothing to go up from sixth overall, and would flip a coin to determine which to take at sixth.  In this exercise, we don’t assume the Browns will take him at fourth overall, but we know that the Browns determine who will get him.  This is just an example to show how the Redskins lack of interest would affect the value of picks 2 and 3 in this draft.

Without the Redskins, the ability to land two first round picks for pick no. 2 becomes something of a pipe dream for St. Louis.  Just like the last scenario, enough desperation from Miami could create a scenario like the one suggested by Lombardi where Griffin is definitely going to go second overall, and then it is just about weighing the value of Cleveland’s offer against Miami’s, but that desperation was always possible.  In the absence of a competitive trade offer from the Redskins, Cleveland’s pick at 4th remains the most viable landing spot for Griffin.  And Cleveland can let the board come to them, knowing that if the get overbid, they conceded the price to another suitor.

But now, without Washington trying to position itself in front of Cleveland, the Vikings and Rams are in direct competition for the right to field offers to jump Cleveland.  Without Washington involved, there is no reason for anyone but Cleveland to pay market rate to move up.  If St. Louis is being unreasonable, you can try to acquire Minnesota’s pick.  Or vice versa.  If St. Louis bows out, and takes Blackmon, Cleveland is still going to get action on RG3 at the 4th pick.  Minnesota might be able to leverage a cheap swap of picks and pick up a third or fourth rounder for their troubles, but with Washington out, it’s Cleveland’s show.  A one team show.

There’s still a good chance Robert Griffin winds up with someone else besides Cleveland.  It just means that teams that are going to jump Cleveland in order to get RG3 aren’t going to be able to do so on their own merits, because Cleveland can offer so much more.  The fact that teams are already negotiating trade up terms relative to what Cleveland can offer means that since the cost of RG3 is roughly equal to what Cleveland is willing to pay for him, it’s more cost efficient to cut out the middle man and assume that with Griffin likely to slide out of the top two or three picks, the most direct trade you can make is to compensate the Browns for not having Griffin on their team.  Essentially, the game theory suggests that whatever RG3 is worth to the Browns, teams will let the board come to them, and then any team can opt to pay the Browns THAT PRICE, and use the fourth overall pick on RG3.

The Browns hold all the cards anyway, and the Rams and Vikings have no choice but to involve the Redskins.  Griffin is likely to be the 4th overall pick in the draft.  It is anyone’s guess who will actually hand the card to Mr. Goodell with Griffin’s name on it.  But we can establish even two months out that Griffin isn’t likely to go until fourth overall, and that any team willing to trade a first rounder to jump the Browns in the 2012 draft is probably willing to give that price to the Browns as a means to the same end.

BCS Fail: Alabama, not Oklahoma State, heads to the BCS National Championship Game

December 5, 2011 4 comments

I thought it was pretty clear cut that the two best teams in college football this year were LSU and Oklahoma State.  That was really the case all year.  Oklahoma State consistently played top competition in the Big XII.  They beat all comers  Alabama played two of the top teams in college football in their own division.  They split.

Now, the important thing is we have a system that officially recognizes SEC champion LSU as the best team in the nation this season.  If we had stayed up all night arguing the injustice that is Alabama being ranked second overall in the nation, even though they are a clearly more qualified pick than Stanford, or Boise State, or Houston, or Oregon, we would have missed the fact that the BCS typically gets it right.  LSU is the best.  There’s no real competitor.  Having a championship game because of indecision is not necessary.  Everyone knows who no. 1 is.  They just happen to be contractually obligated to play it.

The game they got though is a particularly boring one.  LSU and Alabama play stylistically similar.  Both defenses are amongst the very best in the nation.  Alabama has one NFL starter among their skill positions, who is a true difference maker when he is in: Trent Richardson.  When he comes to the sideline, Alabama cannot move the ball.  They cannot kick the ball.  Their quarterback cannot run or throw the ball.  Alabama is a brutally efficient college team, they are not an interesting college team.  If LSU is any better, it’s because their dominance is almost artful in nature.  LSU has more talent at the receivers than in the backfield, and their offensive line is not great by SEC standards, but they choose to run it because it defines who they are as a team.  It doesn’t make LSU particularly interesting to watch, but they are an easy team to appreciate.

LSU-Oklahoma State might have been the best of all the BCS bowls.  As it is, LSU-Alabama will be the third best game of the series.  LSU should be expected to win comfortably.  They are the better team.  Furthermore, I don’t know how much Alabama can actually do to close the gap from last time, other than to run Trent Richardson on some type of Olympic distance running program so he never comes off the field.  Absent that, I think LSU wins very comfortably.

I feel like LSU would have won easily against Oklahoma State as well.  And no, I don’t think the score would have been 39-36.  I think LSU could have easily exposed Brandon Weeden in the first half, and in the second half would have dominated Oklahoma State with their depth.  I think OSU would have put up many touchdowns, but would have been chasing the whole game.  Alabama at least is unlikely to be put out to pasture int he second half.  Still, will the game be in doubt at any point?

More concerning to me is the fact that four of the top nine teams in the BCS standings will not play in BCS bowls.  What is the point of this charade?  One vs. Two?  I guess.  After doing an awful job of sorting out the top five teams, I’m not sure the BCS standings have a purpose.  Arkansas and South Carolina can’t make it by rule, which I suppose makes sense since if you are going to have automatic qualifiers, there has to be some system of making deep conferences ineligible past a point.  But the bigger issue is Boise State and Kansas State both didn’t make it.  Uh, what?  The B1G Ten and ACC both received at large berths?  REALLY?  A team that failed win the ACC is in the BCS?  I’ll go say the obvious: Virginia Tech is less qualified than Houston is to be in a BCS game this year.

The BCS failed to provide compelling or even fair match-ups in multiple games this year.  Is this specifically the fault of the BCS?  Perhaps not.  College football may be in danger of over-saturating the demand for its product in certain geographic regions of the United States.  They consistently must pander to the masses in order to defend the Bowl system.  Does that hurt the sport?  Probably.  Is that wrong? Unfortunately so.  Will any of this matter when LSU is holding the crystal ball?  The BCS executive committee is gambling that no, none of this will matter to anyone in a month.  Life will go on.  And history suggests: they are probably right.

There is no reason to have a two team playoff in college football this year

December 2, 2011 Leave a comment

I am someone who supported the BCS prior to the year 2006, and the genesis of the BCS National Championship Game.  Since then, I have become someone who advocates for the abolition of the system that the NCAA adopted to name its champion for college football in 1998.  To me, the BCS was something of a lateral move from the system we had prior to 1998 in college football.  College Football used to be special because there was no universally recognized “National Champion,” but rather a series of Bowl Game champions and a post-season AP poll vote to determine which school got rights to use the unofficial title “AP National Champion” for public events and for recruiting pitches.  This was always plenty adequate: for all the complaints about what computers and schedules would say, college programs pretty much got to control their own destiny, and the national champ was by definition a popular choice.

There was no requirement for consensus prior to 1998.  It was college football.  The goal was clear: schedule tough, win those tough games, get to a bowl, win the bowl.  Initially, I think the BCS may have added an element to that with their standings, because college football didn’t have inter-conference standings, and the Bowl Championship Series brought that, and plus with the proliferation of mid-tier bowl games as a revenue source, it did become relevant to differentiate between the prestige of certain bowls.  The BCS changed college football’s postseason forever.  But it wasn’t until 2006, and the advent of the college football playoff, that things got bad.

You may be wondering why I keep arguing that College Football has a playoff, but if you define playoffs as any postseason field where teams play for the exclusive right to eliminate one another on the playing field, this is exactly what the BCS National Championship Game is: a two team playoff.  And this is the worst possible ending to a college football season.  Prior to the BCS, it was obvious that playoffs were not necessary.  Just award the USA Today Coaches Poll National Championship to the team that finishes first overall in the BCS standings following the bowl games.  That would work great as a national champion.  In some years, I think the AP national champion could differ from the Coaches Poll champ.  But that, in my opinion would be a good thing.  You have standings and you have a poll, and because they use different methodology, they do not necessarily have to agree.  I think that makes perfect sense in the realm of college athletics.

The national championship worked great last year, as it pitted undefeated Oregon: the team with the most impressive regular season resume, against undefeated Auburn, who didn’t have quite the number of impressive wins, but had overcome the playoff field that was the SEC to get there.  That was a great match-up.  In any year, if you take the best undefeated team: the undefeated team that plays the toughest schedule (so either the SEC champ or the Big XII champ), and you pit them against the team with the largest margin of victory, so like an Oregon, Boise, TCU, or a Oklahoma/Oklahoma State type, I think having a BCS National Championship game makes great sense.

But in a year where the LSU Tigers so thoroughly dominated both criteria, there’s no point to even having the game.  You’ll either end up with a blowout (in all likelihood), or a close game where a far less qualified team can steal the title from LSU.  Such is the downside of having a playoff field at all, something the conference presidents are obviously trying to avoid.  LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma State would all be playing in BCS bowls this year in any system, but the idea that two must play each other at the end of the season to have a satisfying end to the college football season is pure lunacy.  And its a logical fallacy based on an awful premise: the two team playoff field.

Really, with the unbalanced schedule in college football, any type of playoff would be based on a dumb premise, but at least opening up the field to eight teams gives considerable margin for error (instead of screwing over the third best team in Oklahoma State, you screw over the ninth best team in Arkansas, or Boise State if you’re in the business of giving automatic qualifying bids).  But a two team field, particularly this season, is pointless.

LSU is college footballs best team by any measure, but the one loss teams are pretty indistingulishable, as are the two loss teams.  The computers basically say that Alabama and Oklahoma State are equal teams.  The pollsters do not think so, but polls are notoriously fickle.  Stanford’s last game against Notre Dame was a seemingly more impressive and complete win than anything that either Oklahoma State or Alabama has done this year, but Stanford other opponents were so generally weak that we went to the last week of their season without a good idea as if they should be ranked second or twenty second.  Boise State is having another really impressive one loss season, but Boise plays in a stronger conference now, and the pollsters have yet to adjust to that.  Oregon may once again be the most impressive team in college football.  Houston hasn’t lost.

I will make the argument below that Kansas State deserves to be in the national championship game as much as any team.  They are sixth in the computer ranking.  They would be playing in the Big XII title game this week, except that the conference no longer has one.  They dominated the state of Texas this year.  Their losses look good in hindsight, and I’m not sure any team’s wins look as good as KSU’s this year, exception of LSU.  They will lose the Big XII championship on tiebreaker no matter what, but stand a decent shot at a BCS bid if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma.

The biggest thing about Alabama this year is not that they aren’t a great program having a great year, but the LSU loss makes their resume totally indistinguishable from other programs having great, but not unblemished seasons.  If Oklahoma does go on the road and beat Oklahoma State (something I expect), no team is coming particularly close to Alabama in the BCS standings.  But I think that outcome flies in the face of the logic that the BCS was founded on.  It was founded to create and settle arguments at the top of the standings.  And the way things are calculated, unless the human, fallable polls have a significant change of heart, LSU and Alabama will play for the BCS national championship because they are the two best teams in college football.

I have no doubt that of all the random matchups of potential BCS pairings, LSU-Alabama remains more interesting and will be a higher level of football than Oregon-Michigan State, or Houston-Michigan, or Louisville-Virginia Tech, or Oklahoma-Stanford.  That’s not a particularly good draw of BCS games.  But don’t act like we couldn’t take those ten teams and create three or more compelling match-ups for generating bowl revenue simply by being willing to split up the deserving BCS teams.  I want to see Stanford-LSU, Alabama-Oregon, Michigan State-Virginia Tech, and Kansas State-Michigan.  Every one of those games is a more intriguing matchup than LSU-Alabama, which right now stands as the one BCS game to look forward to.

And the reasoning to justify this is incredibly specious.  The BCS is not helping college football, and that’s a shame because I think for five or six years after its inception, it did help college football.  But now, it’s combined with other well-funded ideals to become a highly-publicized justification for defending the continued dominance of certain conferences over other conferences, and if I’m not a Big Ten, Pac-12, or SEC fan, I can’t help but think that the BCS is hurting (both financially and competitively) the college football postseason.

The 2012 NFL Draft Quarterback Class is Unreal*

November 1, 2011 1 comment

In this January 28th article, I addressed the difference between the relative strengths of the upcoming quarterback classes.  I thought the 2011 QB class was one of the strongest in memory, but that perhaps there were some stronger, less-risky classes on the horizon to reward teams that waited on quarterbacks in 2010 and 2011 such as the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks.  To quote myself from January:

2012 NFL Draft Quarterback Class

The names: Andrew Luck (Stanford), Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State), Ryan Lindley (SDSU), Nick Foles (Arizona), Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M), Dominique Davis (ECU), Kirk Cousins (MSU), Stephen Garcia (South Carolina), Jacory Harris (Miami), Mike Paulus (William & Mary), Dan Persa (Northwestern).

This has all the makings of the strong class.  What it’s missing is a second big name QB prospect that scouts love that could get in line right behind Andrew Luck as a franchise type player worthy of top five consideration.  It could get that still from the ranks of the underclass (remember, even in 2012, Luck would be considered an underclassmen by draft standards — though he’ll be a Stanford graduate).  But even without another player worthy of top five consideration, this QB class offers plenty of depth.

You can toss Pryor out of this discussion now.  Mike Paulus is not having much of a season for DI-FCS William & Mary, so he’s out.  Ryan Lindley is falling at SD State.  Stephen Garcia was having an awful year and has been kicked off of the team at South Carolina.  He won’t be drafted.  But Jacory Harris is enjoying his best season under Al Golden and could be back into mid-round discussion.  Now we need to add projected first round senior Robert Griffin III of Baylor, even though like Luck, Barkley, and Jones, he has a year of eligibility left.  Russell Wilson has been so unreal for Wisconsin this year that he needs to be in the discussion.  And my list pretty egregiously left off Boise State senior Kellen Moore, who is going to get a big boost in his draft prospects thanks to the early success of Andy Dalton.  Another guy who should be added to this list is G.J. Kinne of Tulsa.  And finally, despite his advanced age, some team is going to draft Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden in the second or third round to be their starting quarterback.

So from the January discussion, five more names are in draft consideration, and three are out, a positive net gain.  Now, we need to address the possibility that Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Robert Griffin, and Landry Jones all stay in school through the 2012 college football season.  With Luck, this would obviously just be a power play based on a certain team holding the first overall pick: the fact that the Dolphins and the Colts have the best chance of getting the first overall pick makes it moot.  But even if Barkley, Jones, and Griffin all decide to stay in school, Luck headlines a very impressive class.  The remarkable thing is that all three of those underclassman would likely be first rounders if they come out (but not necessarily if they all come out, thanks to supply and demand).

Here are some early projections on the 2012 NFL Draft QB Class:

First Overall Types: Andrew Luck, Stanford; Matt Barkley, USC

It has been a long time since any draft has had a first overall type: Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger being the last four quarterbacks worthy of justifying the first overall pick.  All of those guys came from the 2004 and 2005 drafts.   This draft could have two guys in it stronger as prospects than anyone taken in the last five drafts.

If we were to rank all quarterbacks drafted between 2006 and 2011 in terms of how they are perceived today nationally, we would probably get something like Cam Newton first, followed by Matt Ryan second, and then either Sam Bradford or Joe Flacco fourth, then Josh Freeman, then Matt Stafford or Colt McCoy or Jay Cutler, and then Kevin Kolb, Mark Sanchez, and Tim Tebow around guys such as Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder and Jake Locker (these aren’t my rankings, mind you).  On draft day, either Luck or Barkley would propel ahead of anyone except Newton and Ryan before they play a snap.  Which tells you that QB output over the last six drafts or so hasn’t been very good beyond the performance of first overall picks.  When we limit the sample to quarterbacks who aren’t the first guy taken in their draft after 2005, Matt Barkley is being compared to guys like Sanchez, Cutler, McCoy, Flacco, and Freeman.  You have to like those odds that if there’s a true “first-overall” type in that group, it’s Barkley.

Top 15 types: Landry Jones, Oklahoma; Nick Foles, Arizona

This is a class where, even after the first overall types, there are two “franchise” quarterback prospects out there to draft early with little chance of failure.  Foles has been a production machine ever since 2010, and although he’s a fifth year senior who will be a 23 year old rookie, he is physically as built for the position as for anyone in this class.  Jones is a top ten prospect in any year, whether he decides to come out in 2012 or 2013 will not change that.  He has already broken most of Sam Bradford’s records, and though he lacks the raw college efficiency of his predecessor, he has been running an offense that is specifically more rooted in pro style concepts than what Bradford was running three years ago.  He also comes to the NFL with a cleaner bill of health.

Mid to Late First Rounders: Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M; Robert Griffin III, Baylor; Kellen Moore, Boise State; Kirk Cousins, Michigan State

If you’ll count them up, that’s EIGHT guys I have a preliminary first round grade on.  There are not eight teams that would consider spending a first rounder on a quarterback, and it doesn’t consider another guy, Weeden, who performs like a first rounder at the college level, but is 28 years old. He’ll be in the NFL, but I don’t think he’ll be particularly successful there.  Tannehill has to be the most fascinating prospect in this draft, because he played receiver at Texas A&M for the first two years of his career.  That makes him really a four year player, but one who has only been playing the QB position for two seasons.  There are no comparables for that kind of career path, only in the other direction.  Griffin could stay in school or he could come out, either way, he’s one of an impressive class of quarterbacks the Big XII is producing at the current moment.

Second rounders: Jacory Harris, Miami (Fl.); Dominique Davis, ECU

I’m just helping to frame the depth of the class another way: with these two rising quarterbacks coming off of great seasons, the draft goes 10 players deep with potential starters.

Combined with the quality of the free agent class, any team that wants a quarterback will be able to get one cheaply.  This might be a year where the top names (non-Luck division) consider staying in school for promise of future riches.

Why I still think Notre Dame, Oregon will win 10 games

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I didn’t see more than a half of either the Oregon-LSU or the Notre Dame-USF games, but I was engaged enough to note that both Fightin’ Kelly’s suffered one of the more frustrating losses of their respective coaching careers.  The teams combined for 9 turnovers in 120 minutes of football.  I have that as “way too many.”

Oregon at least can step back, attribute the turnover silliness to injury, and move on.  This is a little more difficult for Notre Dame.  Weather was a factor for the Irish, sure, but their wounds were painfully self-inflicted.  The Notre Dame defense more or less stifled USF QB B.J. Daniels all game, and even given the fact that the Irish went into half down a fortunate 16-0, I still feel underwhelmed at the second half effort that saw them outscore the Bulls by a margin of 20-7 with two additional turnovers.  Even if you give Notre Dame a complete mulligan for the first half, 20-7 is probably not the margin at home they should be beating a team like USF by.  The offensive performance under Tommy Rees in the second half left plenty to be desired, which is something to keep in mind before Brian Kelly announces his quarterback for a really big game in his tenure at Michigan.  With that said, even an underwhelming performance as such should be enough for ND to win at least 75% of its games going forward.  Going 9-3 or better will require wholesale offensive improvement.

Notre Dame’s blessing is that they get another hyped, national game in just a Saturday.  Oregon won’t be so lucky.  Their next four opponents: Nevada, Missouri State, Arizona, California.  Then after a fairly interesting Pac-12 matchup with Arizona State, they get Colorado, Washington State, and Washington.  Oregon will not play another nationally ranked opponent (in all likelihood) until November 12th in Palo Alto, California, where Andrew Luck and the Stanford Cardinal play.  The Ducks will be punished by national pollsters for not running through this schedule in a series of blowouts leading to an 8-1 record.  Fortunately, they are more than capable of exactly this kind of run.  But there’s no question that Oregon’s season has a different feel if they had knocked off an LSU team that they certainly felt was inferior to them in many ways.

It’s never easy to stomach a loss in college football when the other team absolutely lacks the ability to attack you through the air, since FBS offenses have long played a schematic game well ahead of their defensive counterparts, a lot of guys who are just now catching up to the days of read option.  But Oregon and Notre Dame both gave their opponents enough short fields to make exactly this a reality.  But their ability to be stingy to opposing passing games is exactly why the Irish and Ducks merit belief going forward instead of scorn.  An offense that coughs up the ball too much is one of the easiest things to correct during the practice week, and it goes without saying that each team will make this a point of emphasis.  For Notre Dame, who only gave up 15 first downs, and Oregon, who gave up just 16, defensive strength must overshadow their offensive ineptitude going forward.

Notre Dame has a tough schedule the rest of the way, and a 10-1 finish will make this loss look more fluky than anything, but that’s the mentality they should take to Michigan next week.  Oregon plays a very soft Pac-12 schedule until they end with at Stanford, vs. USC in consecutive weeks.  10-2 or better should be the Ducks’ expectation at this point.  It would be easy to lose faith in a positive preseason prediction for either team after not just an upset loss to open the season, but one where neither team appeared to be impersonating a BCS-bound team, but upon a deeper examination of what went wrong in the opener for Notre Dame and for Oregon, it’s probably an overreaction to the first game to jump off the bandwagon right now.

The SEC vs the Miami Hurricanes

June 29, 2011 1 comment

The SEC is a power football conference.  Historically, draft picks out of the SEC have typically been good investments for NFL clubs.  The last five years, the college football title has been won by an SEC team.  To date, none of those programs have been caught breaking a rule that would jepordize their accomplishments.  It may just be a matter of time, but in the interim, it must be assumed that these programs are clean, however foolish that may sound.  To recap, SEC programs are, on average, great at football, and great at not being caught for expressly illegal NCAA violations.  They have also been good at putting their stars at the next level.

But are SEC players somehow less inclined to be superstars than players from the ACC or the Pac 10 12.  The SEC and the Big Ten, the historically dominant football conferences, didn’t place a whole bunch of players on the NFL players Top 100 list.  Just 13% of the list came out of the SEC, which is the exact same number that came out of the Big Ten.  I think it was assumed that the Big Ten has been down of recent, and that’s a conference that dominated the list of lineman (Jake Long, Nick Mangold, Joe Thomas…I didn’t put Carl Nicks of Nebraska on the Big Ten ledger, but I suppose you could…as long as you also give Mike Vick to the ACC), and lineman are generally underrepresented on this list.  This list could have included any of the following: David Diehl, Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus, Matt Light, Kareem McKenzie, Uche Nwaneri, etc, and the Big Ten would have had better representation on this list.

So this is pretty interesting, in the “rather unimportant” way.

The list is far from perfect, and thus this point is far from perfect — and I’ll poke a few holes in it in a minute — but lets put some context around how rough the SEC did.  Here is the entire list of players who made the NFL top 100 list and played in the SEC Conference:

Tennessee (6): Peyton Manning, Top 10; Arian Foster, 25; Jason Witten, 36;
Jerod Mayo, 62; Eric Berry, 93; Chad Clifton, 99
Mississippi (1): Patrick Willis, 23
LSU (1): Dwayne Bowe, 45
Georgia (2): Champ Bailey, 48; Richard Seymour, 66
South Carolina (1): John Abraham, 69
Auburn (1): Jay Ratliff, 75
Arkanas (1): Darren McFadden, 98
Total: 13

And here is complete list of just one team — the Miami Hurricanes — on the same list:

The University of Miami, Top Rated Players on NFL Top 100 List:

Andre Johnson, Top 10
Ray Lewis, Top 10
Ed Reed, Top 10
Reggie Wayne, 31
Devin Hester, 32
Vince Wilfork, 35
Jonathon Vilma, 37
Antrel Rolle, 68
Frank Gore, 94
Jon Beason, 95
Total: 10

Furthermore, the distribution of the list works against the SEC.  Here’s your comparison, which someone savvier than me would have put into a histogram:

  • Top 10: ‘Canes 3, SEC 1*
  • 11-25: SEC 2, ‘Canes 0
  • 26-50: ‘Canes 4, SEC 3
  • 51-75: SEC 4, ‘Canes 1
  • 76-100: SEC 3, ‘Canes 2

*The SEC is likely to have the highest rated player in the comparison (Peyton Manning).

Maybe the most embarassing part for the SEC is that, very legitimately, if this had been a Top 50 NFL Players list, Miami actually does better in terms of both total number of occurances (7-6), and distribution (40% of occurances in the top 10).  Now, obviously, by increasing the sample size to be more meaningful, eventually 12 football powerhouses are going to dwarf the U in terms of NFL contribution, making this comparison relatively meaningless.

Then there’s the fact that Ray Lewis, who is still probably a top 100 player, is heavily overrated in the top 10.  Antrel Rolle shouldn’t be on a Top 500 list considering that he’s probably the third best safety on a team that had a weakness against the deep pass in 2010.  Vilma is a very good linebacker, though probably not a top 50 (or even top 100) NFL player.  There are better LBs than Jon Beason who didn’t make this list.  There would seemingly be a pro-Hurricane bias in the player voting.

The SEC is better than is represented here, and it’s certainly not the only large college conference that didn’t do as well as it would have hoped.  Outside of the ACC and Pac 12, I don’t know if any conference had a particularly impressive showing.  But it’s not just the bottom of the SEC that had the problem here (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Kentucky have no representation).  Alabama and Florida don’t have a player on the list.  LSU, who has been running a pro style scheme since the Saban days, has one player (Bowe), and he’s one of many questionable receiver picks.  I can’t even say with confidence that Dwayne Bowe is the best LSU player currently in the NFL (that’s probably LaRon Landry or Andrew Whitworth).  He’s just the only one on the list.

Florida, I believe, will be on the board within the next year or so as players like Aaron Hernandez and Joe Haden get more notoriety.  But basically, Phillip Fulmer is personally responsible for pretty much all of the SEC’s contribution to the NFL Top 100 list.  It’s hardly conclusive from this list, but despite the ability of SEC Coaches to recruit the best athletes in the world to play football for them, and their ability to prepare them to be solid NFL draft picks, it’s worth wondering if something in their college development is preventing the SEC from producing Patrick Willis’ and Jerod Mayo’s with regularity.  Because in the last ten years, Corey Webster and Carlos Rogers types have proved far more common for teams using high picks on SEC talents.


								

Drew Rosenhaus’ Belief that Terrelle Pryor Will be a 1st Round Pick Isn’t Crazy

June 14, 2011 1 comment

Two weeks ago, I evaluated a Big Ten quarterback who didn’t get taken in the first five rounds despite college passing statistics that looked pretty good overall, and particularly so in his era.  Yesterday, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor signed with superagent Drew Rosenhaus, and will prepare for the NFL supplemental draft.  Most draft analysts have ripped Pryor’s NFL candidacy based on limitations that have showed up on film with regards to making certain throws that a NFL passer needs to have in his arsenal.

Taken at it’s most basic level, such scouting conclusions are valuable.  Pryor cannot be reasonably expected to succeed if he is thrown into a pro huddle on labor day weekend and told to run stuff he never did at Ohio State.  He’s going to be terrible of that’s what he’s being asked to do.  The tape bears this out.

But the numbers suggest that a team that adjusts similarly to how Ohio State adapted Terrelle Pryor’s skill set into their pro style system will get a very effective pocket passer.  If pro offense means the same thing to you that it means to me, that means that Pryor’s first couple of seasons, he should be utilized exclusively off of the run action and play action, selling a believable play action game, and using the intermediate and deep fields to attack.  Use of his athleticism should be reserved for trying to convert third downs through any means necessary.

If that sounds like a system quarterback who doesn’t deserved to be drafted with the elite, transcendental prospects such as Matt Ryan who can play in year one, then that’s exactly what I’m asserting.  No player taken in the top ten picks of the NFL draft to play the QB position, maybe not even Michael Vick, was as raw and unfinished a quarterback as Terrelle Pryor looks like.  A recent assertion by Rosenhaus that he expects Pryor to be picked in the first round seems preposterous on its face.

Except perhaps you weren’t paying attention to the NFL Draft from 2008 through 2011, when the first round became the round of the unpolished product.  From Joe Flacco to Mark Sanchez to Tim Tebow to Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, and high second rounder Andy Dalton, there really isn’t such a thing as a traditional prospect anymore.  And Pryor fits in this mold of non-traditional passing NFL hopefuls.  He actually fits better than most.

Terrelle Pryor completed 62% of his college passes, which is really good when you figure his pro-gun offense and where that number was likely to be had he played his senior season.  Three years as the starter at Ohio State is nothing to spit on, leading a very successful program, and achieving plenty of personal success.  The differences between Pryor at Ohio State and some other *also* highly rated HS recruit at QB such as Jimmy Clausen at Notre Dame is hardly any difference at all.  It may just be the coaching, because that 28-4 TD/INT rate sported by Clausen (the only meaningful difference between the Pryor and Clausen stats in three years) looks a lot like numbers put up by Matt Cassel of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010.

The problem with game film evaluations is that you get to see very little of what a player is not asked to do by his college offense, and saying that the player cannot make such plays is not a proper evaluation.  Pryor is getting dinged in scouting circles for bad decisions at critical moments in games, and perhaps rightfully so, because a lot of Pryor’s INTs have been of the unforced variety.  Concerns that he flushes the pocket before he has to are also legitimate.  He’s a lot like Blaine Gabbert in that sense.  Gabbert also went in the first round.  There are plenty of reasons to not like Terrelle Pryor’s opportunity for success in the pros, if your goal is to doubt Pryor’s ability to succeed in the pros.

For organizations that have the goal of winning football games, a more important task re: Pryor is to evaluate the man who helped create the mess that Ohio State is currently trying to keep from crushing the pride of the Buckeye program.  A first round pick at quarterback is almost NEVER saddled with the kind of off-field questions that surround Pryor and his inner circle right now.  The only thing scarier than a high-risk early round draft pick, is a high-risk early round pick when the organization cannot accurately assess the true level of risk.  Pryor is a major gamble, and it’s safe to say that teams aren’t going to gamble first or second round picks on him.

That doesn’t mean that Rosenhaus is off his rocker though in trying to market his client.  He may have just picked up a risk in taking on a client like Pryor, but that also gives the young quarterback a bit of legitimacy that a guy like Rosenhaus would represent him.  And while Rosenhaus’ rhetoric may not directly reflect the reality of the situation, he’s right that if there wasn’t a flaming landfill nearby — with Pryor’s steps easily traceable from it — that Pryor makes about as much sense in the first round as many of the guys who are actually picked there every year.  Who has more NFL type ability, 8th overall pick Jake Locker (a great kid), or supplemental draft prospect Pryor?  The college production suggests that it’s not close.  You always take Pryor and give yourself a fighting chance.

Ultimately, Pryor wasn’t going to get picked in the first round of the NFL Supplemental Draft.  Because it’s the Supplemental Draft.  It isn’t the amateur draft.  The demand for quarterbacks isn’t quite what it was before the draft, because a whole class of QBs just got drafted.  Pryor would have been well off throwing his hat into the ring earlier and trying to impress his way up to first round level then.  But that ship has sailed, and if Pryor’s playing the hand he’s been dealt, and that hand involves Rosenhaus’ support, then chances are that Pryor is going a lot higher than anyone is expecting.

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