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FNQB: The Raiders and Quarterback Carson Palmer: A Fact-Based Debate

October 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Today’s Carson Palmer article features guest blogger Jason Hirschhorn of One Thirty BPM. You can find his work here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JBHirschhorn.

Head Coach Hue Jackson with Palmer

The NFL trade deadline is typically not a place to find blockbuster transactions, but the 2011 NFL season has been a such crazy year that it felt somewhat expected when the Oakland Raiders leveraged the timing of the trade deadline to acquire QB Carson Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals at the cost of a 2012 first round pick, and a 2013 second round pick.  The 2013 pick will upgrade to a first round selection if the Raiders win in the divisional round of the playoffs in either of the next two seasons, and are one of the NFL’s final four teams.

From the Bengals’ perspective, this trade is money in the bank.  The Palmer saga ends amicably, and they get a whole lot of draft pick value for which to rebuild their already young roster.  In return, their probability of winning the AFC Wild Card goes down a bit with the Raiders getting stronger in the short term. Potentially. LiveBall’s primary writer brings in a guest blogger in order to determine what, exactly, this trade really means to the Oakland Raiders in 2011 and beyond.

<INFO: Carson Palmer Career Statistics (PFR link)>

Jason Hirschhorn: Let’s not bury the lead: the Raiders will regret the Carson Palmer acquisition.

The closest trade comparison available is the 2002 trade of Drew Bledsoe from New England to Buffalo. Both players were in their early 30s at the time of their respective trades (30 Bledsoe / 31 Palmer), were coming off a series of disappointing but reasonable seasons (combined 34 starts, 57.8% pass completion, 6.8 YPA, 7676 yards, 38-36 TD:INT for Bledsoe / 36 starts, 60.9% pass completion, 6.6 YPA, 7795 yards, 50-37 TD:INT). From this we can gather than Palmer was a slightly more accurate when we account for league wide rises in pass completion, and he threw for more TDs. That said, the skill sets for both players were remarkably similar, and consequently their trade values should not differ too significantly. Bledsoe went for Buffalo’s 2003 first round pick, a cost that was thought at the time to be inflated due to the trade being within the AFC East. The trade was also done during the offseason, giving Buffalo time to acclimate Bledsoe into their offense. Palmer on the other hand will possibly be starting with less than a week back from retirement. His cost is at best an additional 2nd round pick, and at worse double the cost of Bledsoe. From this perspective we can conclude that Oakland massively overpaid for Palmer. Given that injured starting QB Jason Campbell could have returned in 5-7 weeks, a far smarter and cost effective approach would have been to acquire Kyle Orton (widely rumored to be available). Considering the price of fellow Bronco Brandon Lloyd (a 6th round pick that could become a 5th), Orton could probably also have been acquired for a 5th or 6th round pick: a far more reasonable price for a rental player than Palmer was as a permanent Campbell replacement. The efficiency numbers even suggest that 5-7 weeks of Orton plus the return of Campbell would be similar or better than Palmer. Quite the value, considering Orton would cost less than 3% of the price of the 2012 first round pick shipped for Palmer, not to mention the 2013 pick that could be a first rounder as well.*

Bledsoe’s tenure in Buffalo was a moderate success from an individual standpoint as he had a career year in 2002 in which he was Pro-Bowl selection and for a time chased Dan Marino’s single season yardage record. This followed by two mediocre campaigns in 2003 and 2004, and Buffalo made the playoffs 0 times during the Bledsoe era. Oakland may make the playoffs this year, but that was already their trajectory before the Palmer trade. Obviously, losing Campbell created a vacuum the team felt they could not fill internally. However, by trading those high picks for Palmer, Oakland is banking on this and next season being championship contending years.

This is where the trade really falls apart for the Raiders. As it currently stands, they are a half game behind San Diego, a team that by season’s end should prove themselves to be a top flight offense with a quality defense. More importantly, San Diego should have more wins than Oakland. The Palmer trade did not solve any of Oakland’s pass defense woes. For those familiar with defensive passer rating (possibly the best single metric in football for predicting success), Oakland currently is allowing opposing offenses a passer rating of 81.1. No team that made their conference championship last season had a defensive passer rating higher than 77.1. Since this strongly suggests Oakland will not be making the AFC championship this year, and Oakland’s limited 2012 draft picks and cap situation suggest that they will not likely improve going into next year, we can predict two things. First, Cincinnati will receive only Oakland’s 2012 first rounder and 2013 second rounder, and also that the Raiders will not be making any AFC championship game with Palmer at QB. Should this happen, the trade can only be viewed as a colossal failure.

* = value based on average trade chart value for a first round pick (1158.28125) and the average cost of a fifth round pick (34.171875)

Greg Trippiedi: I was delighted to see that you mentioned the San Diego Chargers, because at the heart of this trade for the Oakland Raiders, the only thing that truly matters is that they are better than the Chargers now and in the future.  The Carson Palmer trade makes a heck of a lot of sense for the Raiders if they can become the dominant team in the AFC West from now through 2013 or 2014.  It would be a fundamentally anti-competitive position to argue that the if the Raiders made a trade that set them up to dominate the division during the prime of Philip Rivers’ career, that they should actually be more concerned with their ability to compete with potentially rebuilt rosters from the Chiefs and Broncos over the rest of the next decade or so.  If Oakland becomes an 8-10 win/year team in the short term, as they appear to be now, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the teams in their division who are drafting far higher than they are.  Essentially, dealing a first and delayed second round pick for a starting quarterback is an admission that they aren’t going to compete with rebuilding teams in terms of acquiring low-cost, high upside talent in the 2012 and part of the 2013 NFL drafts.  And it ensures that a day will come where they fall behind teams that are building through those means.

I am plenty familiar with statistics that measure a team’s ability to defend the pass adjusted for the context of the situation and opponent, though I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the predictive ability of defensive passer rating.  I can affirm that the Raiders pass defense has been poor, though both film analysis and an understanding of statistical metrics such as DVOA, GWP, YPA, etc.  I noticed you didn’t spend a whole lot of time writing about the Chargers weaknesses or frankly, how every team the Raiders play the rest of the year is remarkably weak at defending the pass save one: the Detroit Lions.  If the Raiders were going to take advantage of the weakness of every opponent in their division, they needed to decide if they could do so with Kyle Boller.  They came to the conclusion that they were just biding time until Campbell returned from injury.

I do not think the efficiency numbers at all support the notion that 1 game of Kyle Boller + 5 games of Kyle Orton + 4 games of Jason Campbell = 10 games of Carson Palmer.  I think in the most pessimistic assessment of Carson Palmer (i.e. the problems with the 2009-10 Cincinnati offenses were totally his fault), you’re expecting maybe a player who replaces Jason Campbell, doesn’t run for as many first downs, but throws the ball a tad better, and roughly keeps the Raiders as the same team they were before the Campbell injury.  I don’t think that alone justifies the price tag on the trade, but the efficiency numbers absolutely do suggest that the Raiders are a 3 to 2 favorite to take the AFC West Title over the Chargers.  And that three to two figure makes the assumption that the Raiders don’t improve (or decline) as a result of this trade.

I might be accurately termed a Jason Campbell apologist from his Washington days, and I am one who believes that Campbell might have gotten to the Raiders to the playoffs anyway, but he unfortunately fractured his collarbone two days before the trade deadline.  It would be inaccurate to say the Raiders HAD to do something.  They would have been excused had they done nothing at the deadline.  The media would have given them a pass if they had dealt for Kyle Orton, even though that’s not a good trade for them.  If anything, Orton is the Bledsoe comparable here.  He’s the in-the-division trade candidate who lost his job this year after playing five poor games.  If your point was that the Raiders should have been looking to buy low, I couldn’t disagree more.  They already had Kyle Boller on the roster.  The point of a trade should be to avoid poor QB play.  I know this will be a point of contention, but with the Palmer trade, the Raiders did exactly that.  And this story will have a happy ending for Jason Campbell as well, who lines up as the prize jewel of the 2012 NFL free agency class, and he might be the best QB to hit the market since Drew Brees did so back in 2006.  Or at least since Brett Favre in 2009.

JH: I think we can both agree that if the Raiders do not play deep into the playoffs this year and next, the Carson Palmer trade will be a failure. As I’ve mentioned before, defensive passer rating is a powerful tool for predicting playoff success. Last season was an especially strong case, as the top two teams in DPR were the NFC and AFC Super Bowl representatives. While it will not always be the case that the top two DPR teams will make the Super Bowl, the 2009 champion Saints were ranked 5th, the 2008 champion Steelers were ranked 2nd and so on. The one noticeable exception was the 2007 Giants who were dead middle of the league with a DPR of 83.4. The Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLII remains the greatest statistical upset in NFL championship history.

As I’ve pointed out, Oakland currently sports a DPR of 81.1. If they were to win a championship this year, it would fall just short of the 2007 Giants in terms of improbability. Obviously, Carson Palmer won’t do much to aid the Oakland pass defense, meaning that while he’s a significant upgrade over Kyle Boller, the chances of the Raiders capitalizing on this short-sighted trade are remote. And the Oakland DPR stands to worsen as the season progresses. If we assume that all their scheduled opponents play their current starters, their average passer rating is 88.8. Keep in mind that’s not accounting for the likelihood that division rival Philip Rivers, who the Raiders will see in week 10 and 17, will return to his Pro-Bowl form.

I think you’ve made a crucial error in your assessment that 10 games of Carson Palmer > 1 game of Kyle Boller + 5 games of Kyle Orton + 4 games of Jason Campbell. It assumes without warrant that Carson can step in and play at or better than his 2010 form. This seems to me an utterly unrealistic expectation. Palmer last played competitively January 2, 2011; he has not practiced in an NFL facility since. To expect him to step in with less than half a week of practice, in an offense he hasn’t played in before (while Hue Jackson has coached Palmer previously, Palmer has never had to learn Al Saunders’ infamous 700 page playbook) suggests Palmer won’t have any real grasp on the offense for several weeks. Even Kyle Boller, limited a player though he may be, has over a year in the system and is likely the more capable Raider QB until Palmer is finally acclimated to the Raiders both mentally and physically. What also must be accounted for is the amount of time it will take Palmer to build timing and trust with his receivers. This is a difficult task even for veterans in their prime, but the Raiders receivers average only 24.3 years of age. They’re young, prone to making route running mistakes, and their new starting quarterback has absolutely zero experience throwing to them.

Had he been acquired instead, Kyle Orton also would have had some (though not all) of those issues. However, we already know he is in football shape, and he has more recently been in an NFL environment learning an offense. The amount of unknowns with Orton is less than that of Palmer. Given all of that, and the significantly lower price tag for Orton, renting Orton until Jason Campbell would have returned would have been the smarter move. I’m also not convinced that Palmer is a better quarterback for Oakland than Campbell. Campbell is a less risky passer, as he’s statistically far less likely to throw an interception compared to Palmer (2.3 vs. 3.1 interception % respectively) and is far more of a running threat (4.3 vs. 1.8 yards per carry, again respectively). Considering that Oakland runs more than it passes (190 rushing attempts against 180 passing), the importance of the QB in the Raider offense is mitigated, even if only by a little. The idea that Palmer will propel this team deep into playoffs is far-fetched at its best, Lou Holtz crazy at its worst.

GT: I don’t know if I can make a sound argument that Carson Palmer can lead the Raiders deep into the playoffs.  It’s not that this doesn’t seem plausible, as it actually seems rather plausible.  I just can’t make an argument that it’s definitely going to be Palmer propelling the Raiders to victory as opposed to the Raiders propelling Palmer to victory.  To separate the two perspectives would result in resorting to dishonesty.  A healthy Jason Campbell likely directs the Raiders to the playoffs, but the Raiders had to act one way or the other in the absence of their most prudent option.

There is a business term used primarily in evaluating derivative trades known as a “hubris-motivated” swap, which essentially means what it sounds like: to pull even on (not lose) this trade, the Raiders will need to receive more out of Palmer than he was actually worth to the Bengals (none of this should matter to the Bengals, who sold high).  And the Raiders had a big problem if the Bengals were not accurately assessing Carson Palmer’s value to the Bengals, which is that they weren’t in a position to talk down the Bengals’ high asking price to a fair deal.  They had to pay on prospects, motivated by the Hubris that Carson Palmer can be one of the ten best quarterbacks in football. But the thing is, I don’t know if there are warning signs to point to in order to suggest that the Raiders aren’t going to be right.

If there are signs, they likely revolve around Palmer’s declining statistical record, something I addressed in this December 31st article following Palmer’s explosive passing performance for the Bengals throwing to the youngest players on the Bengals roster against the San Diego Chargers pass defense.  That’s the loss that knocked San Diego out of the playoff race last year.  And now this year they will have to beat Palmer and the Raiders. Twice.

While there may not be enough of a sample to even hint that the Raiders pass defense is likely to be as poor in December as it is right now, there is definitely enough of a sample to evaluate Palmer against a team that was rated incredibly well on offense with Jason Campbell over it’s last 16 games.  I’m not crass enough to say the Raiders are definitely better now that their starting quarterback is injured, but if the NFL Lockout taught us anything, it’s that plays (particularly on offense) will run just as smoothly following close to a year of down time as those plays would have if teams or players had enjoyed the benefits of a full offseason.  Palmer shouldn’t be considered an exception to this rule.  The Raiders should be skeptical that Palmer will be able to come in and take every snap the rest of the year: he’ll be very sore on Monday.  But I don’t see why the team would (or should) think he would be otherwise limited.  He’s not studying to try to earn a law degree prior to Sunday’s game; it is still just football.

The Raiders didn’t pay a first and delayed second round pick for just some quarterback like Kyle Orton or Drew Bledsoe as has been done in the recent past, they did it to acquire a specific player who they wanted to bring in over the offseason.  Did the leverage equation change in favor of the Bengals when Jason Campbell got hurt?  Sure it did.  But between the Bengals, who “won” this trade, and the Raiders who “lost” it, only one team is going to win a division as a result.  And that’s not the Cincinnati Bengals.  It’s the Oakland Raiders.

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part III

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that week one is more or less in the books, I’m still rolling out the projections.  Here are the final two divisions, saved because half of the remaining teams play tonight.  Here is part I and part II of the preview.

AFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Patriots 10.9 wins
Jets 7.8 wins
Dolphins 7.3 wins
Bills 6.9 wins

Like the NFC North and the AFC West alike, the AFC East is a division where there is a “winner”, and then there’s everybody else.  As fans, we do not think of the New York Jets as an afterthought, but a lot of systems do.  Whether or not a system that involves an inconsistent passing game can lead the Jets to a title remains to be seen, but it’s hard to act like it’s likely they’ll be able to win 9 or more games on a year to year basis.  What the Patriots can do with Tom Brady allows them to be much more stable team atop the division year to year.  Rex Ryan’s public call to beat the Patriots is a good example of why the Jets aren’t ever likely to go and win the super bowl despite the fact that they’ve been to two straight AFC Championships: they can hang with anybody, but no game is too easy.

The Dolphins and Bills each have interesting longshots at being the second best team in the division.  The Bills are a much improved team, as yesterday’s massacre of the Chiefs showed.  The Dolphins will play tonight, and they’re better than their record (particularly their home record) showed last year.  I don’t know how much they actually improved in the offseason, most of the time they seemed to be shooting themselves in the foot with their personnel moves.  Either would be a full on even match for the Jets in their four head to head games.

Are the Patriots a true super bowl contender?  Well, they are not as good as the Steelers, but I’d take even odds between the Chargers and Pats as the second best team in the conference, with the Texans a not-so-distant fourth.  And so through that lens, the Patriots look really good as a super bowl pick, which I suppose is why they are so popular.  People have memories long enough to remember 2006 when the Pats used to have success in the playoffs and 2004, when they last won the super bowl.  The Chargers (and really, to be blunt, Steelers) are not getting the benefit of the doubt the way the Patriots are.

AFC West

Chargers 10.0 wins
Raiders 7.5 wins
Broncos 7.1 wins
Chiefs 6.4 wins

Norv Turner seems to take a lot of flak for the way the Chargers are treated by random fluctuations of luck: this is still a really good team after all — one that many are taking to win the super bowl.  But because the Chargers have Turner in tow, its more difficult to view their week one nailbiter with the Vikings at home as something that should have happened in a football season.  Instead it feels like the same old Chargers, a notion bolstered by the images of Philip Rivers screaming at his head coach in the first half trailing by ten points.

Of course, if we ignore the images of failure that seem to stick to Turner better than other coaches, we can see that Donovan McNabb, who was on pace to break the Redskins single season passing yardage record before being benched last season, was held to 39 yards passing in this game on 15 attempts.  Greg Manusky is going to be just fine as Chargers defensive coordinator.  With that said, the special teams, which could not have possibly started off this season worse than they finished last year, managed to allow a kick return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and have their kicker, Nate Kaeding, knocked out for the rest of the game.  So basically, the impossible task of getting worse on special teams…it may have only been one play, but the Chargers were able to do it.

I like the Raiders and Broncos a lot more than the Chiefs this year.  Kansas City looked worse than expected yesterday at home against the Bills, and I didn’t expect very much at all from them.  Sure, the Bills may have something going, but this particular result had far more to do with the Chiefs being a dreadful team.  Even with competition like the Raiders and Broncos, this is a last place team.

We will learn plenty about the Raiders and Broncos tonight.  The Broncos will need to transition from a team that threw it around under Josh McDaniels to a team that is balanced under John Fox, and Kyle Orton looked very comfortable in going back to his roots from his Chicago days.  It’s a nice start, but it’s just that, a start.  And the longer the Broncos keep Tim Tebow on their roster, the hotter Orton’s seat will get when the team doesn’t win.  And Orton’s defense still isn’t very good.

Jason Campbell might not have much of a defense either in Oakland, I guess we’ll know more after tonight.  The Raiders will need to exploit Broncos rookie RT Orlando Franklin with DE Lamarr Houston, really the only strong match-up they have on defense.  The Raiders could have a great defensive year with the talent on their front seven, but it relies almost exclusively on the ability of second year players Houston and LB Rolando McClain.  The offense could shine this year, if only they can keep Campbell upright against speed rushers.  But with that running game, head coach Hue Jackson should be able to scheme around his offensive weakpoints on the line.  There’s a lot of ifs in Oakland to project a great season, but a return to last year’s mark of 8-8 should not be entirely unexpected.

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part II

September 11, 2011 1 comment

Part 1 of the NFL preview can be seen here.

NFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Eagles 10.0 wins
Giants 9.5 wins
Cowboys 8.1 wins
Redskins 7.1 wins

As stated in part one, the win projections on this entire division feel inflated because I’m using an equation instead of a simulation based projection.  And so, yes, saying the Giants are going to challenge for 10 wins seems foolish given the premises.  But they’re one of the favorites for this division.  The half win projection difference between the Giants and Eagles is almost entirely a strength of schedule thing.  I’d bet a one-win under on each of these teams for the year: 6 for the Redskins, 7 for the Cowboys, 9 for the Giants, and 9 for the Eagles, which would put the NFC East a game under .500 this year.

The preseason struggles of the Eagles and Giants might not mean a lot, but its a nice development for the Redskins and Cowboys, two teams who wouldn’t have much of a chance to win a strong division in a standard year, but with the NFC East a bit down this year, the Redskins and the Cowboys have hope this year that they might not otherwise have.  In particular, the Redskins projection is up a bit over the pre-free agency projection thanks to improvements made on the defensive line.

NFC West

Cardinals 7.8 wins
49ers 6.8 wins
Rams 6.2 wins
Seahawks 5.5 wins

The Cardinals expectation for 8-8 is not based off of an offseason acquisition, but off of recent history: above .500 in both 2008 and 2009, making them by far the class of this division.  The Rams should be better on defense this year, but 6.2 wins may be pushing the limits of an offense where Sam Bradford is working with C+ players.

I like the Seahawks a lot more than 5.5 wins suggests, and I think they’ll be back atop this division before long.  For the Cardinals, it’s nice that they made an aggressive trade to strike while the division is there for the taking.  I don’t think the 49ers will be quite as good as 7 wins this year, but if you throw last season out of the results (6 wins, mind you), they’ve been the most consistent team in the division over the last few years.  Predicting 4-12 or worse for the 49ers just wouldn’t follow from the premises.

The only team that figures to decline from last season is St. Louis, the team which most observers expect to improve.  The Seahawks are the easy money pick for last because they have very little upside at the QB position or on defense.  And as usual, this division will struggle yet again.

AFC South

Texans 10.1 wins
Titans 8.2 wins
Colts 8.0 wins
Jaguars 5.3 wins

Observers are far too down on the Colts this season.  This is not going to be “their year,” quite clearly, but this is an offensive unit that could make Kerry Collins look similar to Brett Favre at the end of his career.  And with Mathis and Freeney healthy and rushing the passer, the Colts are going to be in every game they play this year.  The Texans won’t be able to cakewalk them in Week 1.

Now, I don’t think anyone is particularly shocked by that Jags projection, which is even not penalizing the Jags for dumping David Garrard (there is no mechanism by which they would be preemptively punished for Luke McCown being a below replacement QB, something we just don’t know he is), but doesn’t see a bounceback year for the defense, and mostly sees the Jags much as the same team they were last season, but without the luck, and with a tough second place schedule.

The Titans on the other hand are really highly projected, not independent of the fact that this was a 13-3 team just three years ago, and could rebound to just below that level.  With that said, this roster does not project to rebound.  Chris Johnson is maybe the best in the league at what he does, and a last place schedule will fit the Titans well, but I don’t see 8 wins (or even a competitive year).  Of course, the reason for running the numbers in the first place is to get a couple results that make you go, “huh?” and rethink my position on a team.  Even after reflection, I’m not a buyer on the Titans.

AFC North

Steelers 13.1 wins
Ravens 9.7 wins
Browns 6.6 wins
Bengals 5.0 wins

My impression from the preseason was that the Ravens just aren’t going to be in it at all this year.  Their offensive line is a sieve.  I expect regression from their quarterback position this year.  The receiving corps may be new, but it’s just not very good.  Ray Rice has one good season in three as a pro.   Todd Heap is out at TE, and who knows how Ed Dickson will fit into that offense?  With the offense looking like that and the defense in full on age decline, this has the potential to be a disaster season for the Ravens.

A horrible year for Baltimore would open a door for Cleveland.  These projections are not high on Cleveland, particularly looking at their defense as a major work in progress and not seeing the impact from the rookie class typically expected in a surprise team.  But Cleveland can throw it around on offense, and they have the balance to run the ball and close out the clock in close games, something they struggled with at the beginning of last season.  With strong special teams, this offense will be the best friend of that defense.

And I don’t think I would write off Dick Jauron’s defense either.  It’s clearly understaffed at two of the three levels (the secondary is the lone exception), but Jauron’s simple execution schemes can lead to quick turnarounds, and DT Phil Taylor has looked better than I expected on the interior.  The Browns have a really good shot to be a winning team this year for only the third time since coming in as an expansion team in 1999.

But the Steelers will run away with the AFC North, if not the entire conference.  13 wins isn’t a misprint, it’s a baseline expectation for how much winning the Steelers should do against one of the weakest schedules in memory.  The Steelers have won more against harder schedules, and with a full year of Ben Roethlisberger and enough time to sort through considerable OL issues, the Steelers should be right back in the mix to win the AFC this season.

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part I

September 8, 2011 2 comments

We’re going to start with the NFC South and NFC North predictions, to ensure that those picks are out by the time the Saints and Packers play this evening.  By Friday, the rest of the season preview will be written.

NFC South

Liveball Sports QDS Projections:

Saints 10.0 wins
Falcons 8.7 wins
Panthers 7.2 wins
Bucs 7.2 wins

The NFC South is one of the better divisions out there, but tonight’s game is going to mean a lot.  Consider: I have the Saints finishing far enough ahead of the Falcons where head to head and divisional tiebreakers should not be a major issue in the outcome of the division.  Should the Saints lose tonight, that would drop their season projection by about half a win, and now they’re close enough to the Falcons where a tiebreaker could mean the difference between division champs and the wild card.  Of course, if the Bears beat the Falcons on Sunday, their projection drops by over a third of a game, and then the Falcons might just be an 8-8 team.

Of course a loss for the Falcons has perhaps even larger ramifications.  They are the sixth playoff team in right now in the NFC according to the QDS probabilities (which are equation based, not simulation based, in terms of how the factor in strength of schedule).  The difference is going to be mostly reflected in the NFC East win probabilities, because the division expectation for the NFC West is so low this year.  The equation gives a solid win boost to all four NFC East teams, which is really a .500 division in terms of talent, I have them going a combined 34-30, which has a large affect on the NFC playoff projections versus a simulation which would likely pick just one playoff team from the NFC East and not project the NFC West to have four teams finish below .500 again.

If the Falcons lose to the Bears on opening day, the Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Falcons for the rest of the year, giving them a legitimate shot to make the playoffs at 8-8 by merely knocking off the Cowboys and the Falcons.  It also opens up a spot for the Bucs or even Panthers to make a run.

This is maybe a bit optimistic on the chances of the Panthers to be a factor in the NFC South this year, projecting them within 3 wins of the division title, that is, but the drivers behind this prediction is that the Panthers have strong recent history, averaging 7.33 wins per year while being quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, and Jimmy Clausen.  The expectation that the Panthers can win an average of as many games as they have averaged over the past three years with a fourth place schedule even with Cam Newton at quarterback is not all that optimistic.  It would be a surprise if Carolina won 8+ games, just like it would be a surprise if Atlanta won 11 games.  The Panthers have a pretty good team, outside of the quarterback.

Tampa Bay’s projection is really just the play of quarterback Josh Freeman staving off a lot of regression factors from a team that won 4 games two years ago.  This is a young team that could classically go from 10 wins to 5 wins in the blink of ones eye, but because of Freeman as a stabilizing presence, the Bucs are likely to fall out of playoff contention early, but will be able to rally and win games late.  I have them at seven wins, but a margin of at least two on either side would be nice because the team is so young.

How can the Falcons and Bucs make the playoffs?  The Bucs have the most room to improve from last year on the defensive side of the ball while the Panthers are not expected to have an above average offense.  It would be a surprise if those units led the NFC in a bunch of categories, and would probably drive a playoff run for either team.

NFC North

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Packers 11.3 wins
Vikings 7.8 wins
Bears 7.5 wins
Lions 6.2 wins

I would bet a lot of money on the Lions exceeding my win projection for them of 6.2 wins, because the primary factor dragging them down is their recent performance: 2.67 wins per year, lowest among any team of the last three years.  While the predictive value of this is useful for determining that this is probably not the year the Lions will Restore the Roar (3 years removed from an 0-16 season), it’s not fair to the Lions to assume that just because they’ve been the NFL’s worst team over the last three seasons, that the gains they made last season cannot be real.  I think they’ll get closer to 8 wins this year than 5.  And if Matt Stafford really is as good as he appears when healthy, they have no limits on offense (which, of course, makes 8-8 the target given the weaknesses in their secondary.

The Vikings in second place is a big surprise, but there’s no real difference in the projection between the Vikings and the Bears.  Recent history is pretty much identical, and even though the Bears have a first place schedule and the Vikings have a fourth place schedule, the Bears will draw the Seahawks because of it while the Vikings get the Cardinals.  The Bears and Vikings will be able to play it out on the field as relative equals this year.  And the Lions will be more in the mix than my projections suggest.

If all three teams are in a bitter fight for second place and a potential wild card, it is only because the Packers figure to be so far ahead of the rest of the, er, division.  The Pack is poised for a repeat run at the title, and should get better positioning via a division championship.  The expectation is because of a tough schedule early for the Bears and Vikings, the Lions and Packers will run stride by stride for eight or ten weeks, but then the roster weaknesses of the Lions will slowly get exposed while the Packers should finish strong, drawing the Lions twice at the end of the season, beginning with Thanksgiving day.

The race to keep an eye on in the division, barring an early season Aaron Rodgers injury (or late season, given the ease of the Lions early schedule) is the one for second place.  The Lions will have the upper hand early, but the gap will close late.  A playoff spot rests in the balance.  And my money, all else equal, is on the Chicago Bears for second place in the NFC North.

The NFL and the Critical Importance of Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the AFC

May 27, 2011 1 comment

As clear as it was last week that both late round picks and recent undrafted free agents form the core of contending NFC teams, such as the Packers, we’ll look at a couple of the dynasties that dominate the AFC and examine the role of the cost-free acquisition on building a consistent winner…and challenging the consistently dominant teams in the AFC.

Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the AFC

An asterisk denotes a player who is no longer cheap because he is on his second (or third) contract, but was acquired via the means discussed in this article.

AFC South

Best undrafted players: WR Jason Hill (waivers from SF), FB Vonta Leach (expiring contract), G Mike Brisiel, S Bernard Pollard (waivers from KC), FB Ahmard Hall, DT Tony Brown*, C Jeff Saturday*, LB Gary Brackett*, CB Jacob Lacey

Best late round draft picks: QB David Garrard*, RB Rashad Jennings, TE Zach Miller, OL Uche Nwaneri*, DE Austen Lane, WR Kevin Walter* (signed as RFA from Cincinnati), TE Owen Daniels*, TE Joel Dreessen (by NYJ), CB Glover Quin, RB Javon Ringer, TE Bo Scaife* (expiring contract), C Eugene Amano*, G Leroy Harris, CB Cortland Finnegan*, CB Alterraun Verner, WR Austin Collie, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, OT Ryan Diem*, LB Clint Session, LB Kavell Conner, CB Justin Tryon (by Washington), S Antoine Bethea*

Analysis: The Jaguars are an excellent example of a team that hardly ever uses cost-free competition for its draft picks, as both the offense and the defense are littered with second and third rounders everywhere.  Sometimes, the draft works well right from the first season (Maurice Jones-Drew), sometimes you get a huge return a few years down the road (David Garrard, Marcedes Lewis, Daryl Smith).  Sometimes, you draft a really good player, but he signs a big contract and with no competition, he loses effectiveness entirely and is still in the starting lineup because “he’s all you’ve got” (Rashean Mathis).  And then sometimes you draft a total bust (Reggie Nelson), and four years later you don’t have any starter at the position.  If the Jags were better with UDFAs than they have been, they would have won multiple AFC South’s over the last few years, but their roster has always had an underachiever problem, even when it was young.

The Texans don’t have a lot to show for it, but there are elements of intelligent design in their offense.  FB Vonta Leach was a cost-free pickup from Green Bay in the middle of the 2006 season, Gary Kubiak’s first year, and he’s served an entire contract length with the Texans.

The Colts are the opposite of the Jags: they find undrafted free agent contributors every season, and more than just that, they aren’t afraid to play them.

Overall the AFC South appears to be the one division that has had far more success in the late rounds of the NFL draft against undrafted free agent signings.  But the Colts, who use both, often have the strongest and deepest roster of the entire group.

AFC North

Best Undrafted Players: WR/KR Josh Cribbs*, TE Evan Moore, DE Matt Roth (waivers from Miami), LB Chris Gocong (S. Brown trade throw-in from Philadelphia), RB Cedric Benson* (cost-free UFA), RB Brian Leonard (contract swap w/St. Louis), WR Quan Cosby, G Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook, RB Isaac Redman, LB James Harrison*, DL Kelly Gregg* (signed to BAL practice squad in 2000), LB Jameel McClain

Best late round draft picks: RB Peyton Hillis (by Denver), FB Lawrence Vickers, DT Ahtyba Rubin, RB Bernard Scott, DT Domata Peko, OT Willie Colon, DE Aaron Smith*, DE Brett Keisel*, CB Ike Taylor* (contract expiring), FB Le’Ron McClain, OT Jared Gaither, LB Jarret Johnson*,

Analysis: One of the more loaded NFL divisions now that the Browns have decided to join the party.  And there a significant undrafted flavor in this division, although not so much recently, so if you’re looking for the decline of the Steelers and Ravens soon, you can look at the inefficiency in the cost structure of their (still very loaded) respective rosters.  Look at the Steelers for example.  You have two pro bowl 3-4 ends who were developmental draft picks.  They are now being paid like starters.  Also being paid like starters are their future replacements, first round picks Ziggy Hood (2009) and Cam Heyward (2011).  Casey Hampton is a nose tackle entering his mid-thirties on an expensive contract he signed in 2010.  Longtime backup Chris Hoke is an unrestricted free agent, and highly undervalued.  Then at the linebacker level, James Harrison is still elite, but in the middle of a mega deal.  Lamarr Woodley has the franchise tag, and figures to sign a mega deal to offer Pittsburgh cap relief (whenever there is a cap again).  Where does that leave Lawrence Timmons, an elite interior linebacker in the last year of his rookie contract?  Pittsburgh will likely resign him too, but likely will have to release Aaron Smith to free up that salary.  They got a discount on Ryan Clark (thanks, rest of the NFL), but can’t afford depth behind him and Polamalu.  And Ike Taylor is probably walking because the Steelers feel can win without him.  If you look at the cost structure of the Steelers, you can maybe see the business reason for dealing Santonio Holmes when they did: they couldn’t have afforded him anyway.  That’s a terrible cost structure, and we just covered the defense.  The Ravens aren’t a lot better, except that they haven’t tied 100 million up in a quarterback yet.

This is a good division for UDFAs, and no franchise is an obvious leader in terms of efficiency.  The teams that have the most talent are also paying the most to keep their talent.  That means the Browns and Bengals will have every chance to rise as the Steelers and Ravens age, but must continue to add talent to play a meaningful role in the future.

AFC East

Best undrafted free agents: RB Fred Jackson, WR Davone Bess*, WR Brian Hartline, LB Cameron Wake, RB BenJarvus Green Ellis, RB Danny Woodhead, DE Mike Wright*, G Brandon Moore*, DE Mike DeVito

Best late round draft picks: WR Stevie Johnson, OT Demetrius Bell, DT Kyle Williams*, CB Terrence McGee*, NT Paul Soliai, S Yeremiah Bell*, TE Aaron Hernandez, C Dan Koppen*, LB Rob Ninkovich (by New Orleans), WR Jericho Cotchery*, WR Brad Smith (expired contract), G Matt Slauson

Analysis: Few teams have been able to extract more value out of undrafted free agents than have the Miami Dolphins, who built most of their receiving corps from college UDFAs, and went to the CFL to find Cameron Wake, one of the NFL’s most terrifying pass rushers.  One of the teams that may have the Dolphins bested, unsurprisingly, is the New England Patriots if only because they can turn BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead into household names, and people are so generally unimpressed that the number one surprise about the Patriots’ undrafted free agent tactics is who they will find this year.  The Pats have not been nearly as successful at receiver as they have been at running back in finding cost-free, winning options.  As far as cost structure goes, it’s still the Dolphins world in the AFC East.  Of course, that was before they brought Brandon Marshall on board.  We will see where he takes them.

The Bills have little to speak of.  Kyle Williams is on a team friendly deal: he earned his extension through 2012, and he’s due even more money from someone when that deal runs out.  Fantasy owners know all about the Bills one undrafted contributor, RB Fred Jackson.  His undrafted contributions are limited by the fact that he is almost 30 years old, and that the Bills have spent two first round picks on RBs since he’s been on the team.  WR Stevie Johnson was a big time draft steal, but that’s all the Bills have done in the late rounds to date.

The Jets have always done a good job finding cheap players to plug their holes, although they have long preferred (even prior to Eric Mangini) the veteran free agent route to going with undrafted players and developing them.

AFC West

Best undrafted free agents: G Brian Waters*, G Ryan Lilja (waivers from Indianapolis), DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Jovan Belcher, FB Marcell Reese, DT Tommy Kelly*, CB Chris Johnson*, RB Mike Tolbert, WR Malcolm Floyd (expiring contract), TE Antonio Gates*, G Kris Dielman*, NT Antonio Garay (waivers from Chicago), LB Antwaan Applewhite

Best late round draft picks: OT Barry Richardson, CB Brandon Carr, WR Louis Murphy, WR Jacoby Ford, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, S Tyvon Branch, DE Elvis Dumerville*, CB Perrish Cox, RB Darren Sproles, FB Jacob Hester, NT Cam Thomas, DE Jacques Cesaire*, LB Shaun Phillips*

Analysis: Really, the only place in which Scott Pioli has outperformed the Patriots since he took over in Kansas City is in terms of undrafted free agents, on the backs of which the Chiefs have successfully rebuilt their defense.  But if we’re giving credit to the Chiefs for rebuilding their defense on the cheap, what do you say about the Raiders, who have given Jason Campbell more weapons than he ever had in Washington and they spent: a 7th rounder in 2008, 4th rounder in 2009, a 4th rounder in 2010, and now in Denarius Moore works out, a 6th rounder in 2011.  If only their mid round picks spent on protecting Campbell could work out as well.  Both the Chiefs and Raiders are vastly outpacing the Denver Broncos in undrafted free agent contribution.  In fact, Denver does not have an undrafted, cost-effective player who is in the starting lineup right now.

The San Diego Chargers are the gold standard for this exercise.  No team in the last decade has done a better job finding talent from all sources, particularly those sources which do not cost the Chargers might to take a look see.  Tolbert, Floyd, and Gates could start for nearly any team in the league, and have helped to keep the Chargers near the top of the league leaderboards.  Kris Dielman has long been the leader on the Chargers OL.  Did you know he too was undrafted?  He was.  What about young Antwaan Appelwhite?  He was undrafted as well.

And the Chargers deserve credit for how they attack the late rounds of the NFL Draft as well.  Jacques Cesaire has been a contributer on the DL of the Chargers since they’ve been playing a 3-4.  Stephen Cooper, Brandon Siler, and Kevin Burnett make this LB corps a strength.  And this team is still loaded with plenty of prospects.

The Chargers have had some difficult drafts since 2009.  They haven’t gotten a lot of return on their picks in the first two rounds, notably LB Larry English, RB Ryan Mathews, and LB Donald Butler didn’t play last year.  But this team is still a good pick, annually, to reach the super bowl, and it’s because of excellent roster construction on the cheap.  No team has been better at building resource-free than the San Diego Chargers, a great bet to be the team of the 2010’s.

The NFL and the Critical Importance of Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the NFC

May 22, 2011 2 comments

NFL teams are built though the NFL Draft.  This is a truth that we hold self evident.  It’s also misleading.

The more-accurate truth is that the successful teams are built through the scrap heap in some way or form.  The 2010 Packers, an almost completely homegrown team, are the anomaly.  But even the SB champion packers wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without something that I will refer to here as an “unexpected” contribution from fourth year CB Tramon Williams and rookie CB Sam Shields, both of whom combined to help Charles Woodson extend the effective portion of his career at cornerback.  Williams and Shields have something else in common: both went undrafted by NFL teams in their respective draft years.

It is impossible to compete in the current NFL environment without the ability to find a number of “cost-free” players who can provide competition for — or in many cases, outright win a job from — a recent draft pick.  The nature of the draft does not allow for risk-free selections.  Even the wisest drafting teams will still have to make a choice at some point in the draft between a player they believe in based on their own evaluations, and a consensus “best available” player who they could not have done their due diligence on.  Sometimes, the best player available in the draft is not a player who fits perfectly in the scheme, but if a team doesn’t step outside its comfort zone to draft the best players, it’s hurting itself in the long run.

Which is one of the many reasons why finding a supply of UDFA talent is so critical, especially in the salary cap era.  You’ll find that after round 3 of the NFL draft, the players who end up being the very best professionals typically slip through the cracks of the third day of the NFL draft.  Why is this?

To answer that question, I compared the value of the best UDFA starters in a given division against the value of the best late round draft picks in a given division to see which teams are optimizing undrafted free agents against late round draft picks. Only players on their rookie contracts are being considered in this case study.  Then, I will discuss the effects of this lockout on NFL teams and undrafted players alike.

Players marked with an asterisk (*) are players who have received contract extensions from their teams, but are listed here because they would still be under team control in absence of a contract extension.

NFC South

Best undrafted players: RB Legarette Blount, FB Earnest Graham, OT Donald Penn, OT James Lee, G Ted Larsen, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Chris Ivory, WR Lance Moore (contact expired), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Remi Ayodele, G Harvey Dahl (expired contract), T Tyson Clabo (expired contract), CB Brent Grimes

Best late round draft picks: WR Mike Williams, LB Geno Hayes, S Tanard Jackson, CB E.J. Biggers, WR Marques Colston, G Jahri Evans*, G Carl Nicks, T Jermon Bushrod, DE Kroy Biermann, DE Charles Johnson, CB Captain Munnerlyn, WR David Gettis

Analysis: Perhaps one of the best examples of the UDFA phenomenon is the waste of resources between the Falcons and their defensive tackle situation.  GM Thomas Dimitroff extended DT Jonathon Babineaux in his first year on the job prior to Babineaux becoming a free agent.  The next year, the team drafted Peria Jerry to play next to him.  Jerry missed all of 2009 with an injury, and then in 2010, the Falcons spent a third round pick on Corey Peters, who beat out the recovering Jerry as a rookie.  That’s a lot of money and draft selections invested to make a position a relative strength…and ultimately, the Falcons ranked 12th, below the league average,  in 2010 defensive DVOA, although they were above average in run defense.

You could argue that the best three players on the list above are on the late round draft picks list: Mike Williams, Marques Colston, and Jahri Evans are all on the NFL Top 100 list.  But Donald Penn would be on a list of the top 200 players (top 15% of NFL players), as well as Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, and it’s fascinating how the competitive teams in this division built mauling, man blocking OLs without using high draft picks (the Saints used lower round picks, while the Falcons and Bucs are almost entirely undrafted at the key positions), versus where the Panthers spent their resources: two first round tackles, a second round center, and two first round running backs.

That’s not to rip on the Carolina running game, which is very effective in and of itself, but have you seen it’s passing game?  Ignoring the pass protection units for a second, you have a second round QB throwing to a pair of third round receivers (of course, one of those is Steve Smith) and a 6th round rookie, David Gettis, who was the most effective receiver in the rotation last year.  The Panthers have almost no impact undrafted free agents who are still cheap, and it’s costing them.  Matt Moore still might be the best QB on that roster, but he’s buried beneath the hope of Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton, and was dreadful last year anyhow.

Beyond Moore, the closest thing the Panthers have enjoyed to a UDFA success is OT Garry Williams, who started 11 games at RT for Jeff Otah last year in a lost season.  This is why it could be a while before the Panthers compete again.  On the bright side, the Panthers have done pretty well in the 7th round all things considered the last few years (G Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Geoff Schwartz, CB Captain Munnerlyn).

NFC North

Best Undrafted Players: DE Israel Idonije, S Husain Abdullah, CB Sam Shields, CB Tramon Williams, DE Cullen Jenkins (expiring contract), DL Johnny Jolly, RB Ryan Grant*, LB Frank Zombo

Best late round draft picks: DT Matt Toeaina (by Cincinnati), CB Zack Bowman, OT J’Marcus Webb, WR Johnnie Knox, DT Sammie Lee Hill, C John Sullivan, DE Ray Edwards (expiring contract), RB James Starks, G Josh Sitton, TE Andrew Quarless, DE C.J. Wilson

Analysis: The Detroit Lions may deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done since firing Matt Millen in 2008, but there’s an underlying reason that a playoff berth in 2011 is unlikely, and it’s a reason that has little to do with Matt Stafford.  The Lions have done an excellent job on the waiver wire, essentially picking up a first round pick when they snatched Alphonso Smith off waivers from the Broncos after Denver gave up on him after a year.  What the Lions haven’t done is found any late round or undrafted help for their team.  That 2010 draft class is looking very top heavy a year later and the 2011 class was top-heavy (three picks in top two rounds, just two picks after that).  Where are the undrafted players to supplement what Detroit has been doing in the top rounds?  They will have to leverage waiver priority again in 2011 to build the depth to contend.

The Vikings are in trouble for a different reason which is that they spent a lot of money on free agents to build their core instead of finding cheap UDFAs to do the same jobs.  Wash. St. S Husain Abdullah is the lone exception for HC Leslie Frasier, who oversaw Abdullah beating out 2008 second rounder Tyrell Johnson for the starting safety position in 2010.

The Packers on the other hand, are now set to dominate this division for the next ten years, and they’ve done it with a fair share of draft busts.  It will be interesting to see what the young Lions become, but right now now it looks like they will be the equivalent of Jim Schwartz’ 2003-08 Titans to the 2003-08 Tony Dungy Colts (the Packers).  It comes as no surprise that almost all of the successful UDFAs from this division are Green Bay Packers, though I certainly expected to see the Lions and Bears with a larger presence in that category.

NFC East

Best undrafted free agents: RB Keiland Williams, WR/KR Brandon Banks, OT Stephon Heyer, WR Anthony Armstrong, LB Lorenzo Alexander, LB Chris Wilson, S Quintin Mikell* (expiring contract), DT Antonio Dixon, QB Tony Romo*, WR Miles Austin*, DE Stephen Bowen (expiring contract), G Phil Costa

Best late round draft picks: RB Ryan Torain (by Denver), LB HB Blades, S, Reed Doughty, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, TE Kevin Boss, DT Barry Cofield (expiring contract), LB Jon Goff, LB Zak Deossie, FB Owen Schmitt (by Seattle), WR Jason Avant, OL Todd Herremans, OL King Dunlap, LB Moise Fokou, RB Tashard Choice, RB Marion Barber, OT Doug Free, NT Jay Ratliff*, CB Orlando Scandrick, S Alan Ball

Analysis: I figured for sure that the Redskins would come up behind the Giants and Eagles in terms of undrafted free agent contribution, but in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the guess that best fit the evidence.  The Redskins were incredible at finding UDFA contributors to fit Gregg Williams defense from 2004-07, and then did a great job last year at finding cost free contributors on offense under Mike Shanahan.  The Vinny Cerrato/Jim Zorn years were a lost period in terms of adding cost free talent, as the only starting caliber players adding during that period of Redskins history were TE Fred Davis (second round pick), G Will Montgomery (7th round pick of the Panthers), WR Anthony Armstrong (UDFA, who didn’t get a shot to play until Shanahan came in), LB Brian Orakpo (1st round pick), CB Kevin Barnes (3rd round pick), CB DeAngelo Hall (cost-free pickup who was immediately paid like a top five CB), and some guy named Haynesworth (Unrestricted FA; Brinks truck).  So yeah, in two years as GM, Vinny Cerrato acquired just seven players capable of making the 2010 roster, and guaranteed more than $55 million to two of them.  But between the 2007 season and the 2010 season alone, the Redskins have still acquired more key UDFAs than other NFC East teams.

But the whaa?  It’s the Cowboys who have dominated the NFC East in finding undrafted free agent talent (led, most notably, by Tony Romo and Miles Austin), and have done just as well as the Giants in finding talent to contibute in the late rounds.  The knock on the Cowboys, who have typically made great roster construction decisions, is that the 2009 draft is now a completely lost year.  Two players from that draft are still with the Cowboys: LB Victor Butler, and K David Buehler.  That was the year of the Roy Williams trade with Detroit, and now that it’s 2011, its officially time to see who won that trade: the Cowboys and Lions figure to be direct competitors for the NFC Wild Card, and play each other early in the season.

NFC West

Best undrafted free agents: WR Danny Amendola, TE Daniel Fells (expiring contract), DT Gary Gibson, S Craig Dahl, LB David Hawthorne

Best late round draft picks: WR Brandon Gibson (by Philadelphia), DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Vobora, RB Justin Forsett, WR Ben Obomanu*, G Mike Gibson (by Philadelphia), RB Tim Hightower, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Steve Breaston, WR Andre Roberts, QB Troy Smith (by Baltimore), WR Josh Morgan, LB Parys Haralson*, CB Tarell Brown, S Dashon Goldson

Analysis: You can file WR Mike Williams under a cost-free pickup as well for the Seattle Seahawks, as both the Seahawks and the Rams fought each other with waiver pickups and the like for the 2010 NFC West crown, won by Pete Caroll’s experience over Steve Spagnuolo’s tactical expertise.

Meanwhile, you can see just as easily why the 49ers and Cardinals are struggling with such talent deficiency.  Both teams are drafting pretty well, but both have almost no cost free contribution anywhere on their roster.  And both teams are doing pretty well in the late rounds of the draft.  Better possibly, than division winner Seattle.  But cost free free agents are the engine of the NFL today, and San Francisco and Arizona trail well behind in finding good players and getting them to sign and excel in their systems.  Not coincidentally, they also trail in the standings year after year.

NFL Draft 2011: QB Class a lot of Things, but Weak isn’t One

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 11: Quarterback Matt Ryan  of the Atlanta Falcons converses with quarterback Joe Flacco  of the Baltimore Ravens after the Falcons 26-21 win at Georgia Dome on November 11, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It’s been said a couple of different ways, but most experts seem to believe that we’re looking at one of the weaker quarterback classes in recent memory.  But until more people get comfortable accurately projecting quarterbacks at the top of the NFL Draft, I don’t think that you can possibly look at a QB class where up to seven names could be called in the first round and conclude that the position is weak.

There are many ways to look at a QB class.  A year ago, it appeared that this class was going to be headlined by Jake Locker.  Locker is still a story (if not a great prospect), but no matter what you think about him, he’s not a headlining player in this QB class.  A couple reasons for that: early entries by Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett, and Cam Newton, and teams falling in love with Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, and Andy Dalton.  Locker could be the third QB off the board or the seventh.  For the teams that like Locker, it’s likely they’ll have a crack at a higher rated quarterback on their board the first time they pick.

Even with no obvious first overall guy, this is a much deeper class (both inside and outside of the first round) than last year’s class, which was leaps and bounds better than the 2009 group in depth and first round ability.

Here’s a fun exercise.  I am going to go all the way back to 2007 and use only my pre-draft quarterback grades to determine which class I would have picked out of given the choice to find a franchise QB somewhere.  Only players I graded as a top three rounder will qualify here (so there won’t be a Mark Sanchez, JaMarcus Russell, or a Jake Locker here).

Greg Trippiedi’s Highest Rated QBs (2007-2011)

  • Brady Quinn (3rd overall, 2007)
  • Brian Brohm (7th overall, 2008)
  • Chad Henne (9th overall, 2008)
  • Blaine Gabbert (10th overall, 2011)
  • Colt McCoy (mid-first round, 2010)
  • Matt Ryan (mid-first round, 2008)
  • Sam Bradford (mid-first round, 2010)
  • Christian Ponder (late-first round, 2011)
  • Kevin Kolb (late-first round, 2007)
  • Tim Tebow (late-first round, 2010)
  • Ryan Mallett (late-first round, 2011)
  • Jimmy Clausen (late-first round, 2010)
  • Pat Devlin (second round, 2011)
  • Nate Davis (second round, 2009)
  • Josh Freeman (second round, 2009)
  • Josh Johnson (second round, 2008)
  • Matt Stafford (second round, 2009)
  • Graham Harrell (second round, 2009)
  • Dan Lefevour (second round, 2010)
  • Colin Kaepernick (second round, 2011)
  • John Beck (third round, 2007)
  • Andy Dalton (third round, 2011)
  • Tony Pike (third round, 2010)
  • Cam Newton (third round, 2011)
  • Joe Flacco (third round, 2008)
  • Scott Tolzien (third round, 2011)
  • Ricky Stanzi (third round, 2011)
  • Drew Stanton (third round, 2007)
  • Trent Edwards (third round, 2007)

That’s not exactly a who’s who list of well-graded QB prospects, and you can maybe understand the perspective of some who see a dwindling effect in terms of the quarterbacks entering the draft: quarterbacks who got the top ten grade from me don’t have a great track record of success compared to all other first rounders.  I’d put my list of first rounders up against anyone else in recent memory, but when my eggs have gone in a single basket, it hasn’t always been a good call.  Still, Blaine Gabbert grabs one of the five best grades I’ve given to a quarterback in the last five years.

It would be inaccurate then for me to argue there’s “no top guy in this class.”  Gabbert is a top guy, compared to any other year.  He’s more accurate (particularly downfield) than Matt Ryan, and he’s a better athlete than either Ryan or Henne, and is as good an athlete as Quinn.  He didn’t set records in college like Quinn or Brohm, but exhibits better professionalism as a draft prospect than either.  He offers more prototypical size than McCoy or Bradford, two guys he went toe to toe with in the BigXII (knowing what we do now about McCoy and Bradford as second year players, I don’t expect Gabbert to exceed their level of production; some draft risk is mitigated by early success).

Gabbert isn’t Andrew Luck.  But he would have been my top QB prospect in 2009, and because he’s healthy coming out of college, perhaps 2010 as well.

Looking down that list gives you Christian Ponder and Ryan Mallett as first round players, and then Pat Devlin falls in right below them.  Only one of the past five years did I not have multiple prospects from a class in this range (the weak 2009 class), and one other year I didn’t have at least two prospects from a class ahead of Christian Ponder (no. 2 QB this year) (2007, where Kolb and Ponder had essentially the same grade from me).

However, the relative indecision I have in rating Ponder, Mallett, and Devlin creates a situation similar to the last three years at the top.  That is to say since we can look back at the picks that haven’t worked out (despite high ratings from me): Jimmy Clausen, Graham Harrell, Nate Davis, possibly Stafford, Brian Brohm, possibly Henne, and Brady Quinn; as long as one of Ponder, Mallett, and Devlin turn out as NFL starters, this class will slot in somewhere between 2008 and 2010 as one of the better classes in the last few years.

But all that does is ignore the most intriguing element of this class, it’s unprecedented depth.  Sure, we could look back at the 2010 and 2008 classes as years where three teams found franchise quarterbacks each (pending Henne in Miami, and Tebow/Clausen in Denver/Carolina).  But in this class, why not more than three franchise QBs.

Suppose Devlin is drafted low and never gets a chance, and Tolzien, McElroy, and Stanzi all suffer the same fate.  Say Jake Locker does get a chance, but busts.  There are still six players in play at the quarterback position who could end up getting opportunities to succeed as NFL franchise quarterbacks in a desperation period for teams: Gabbert, Ponder, Mallett, Dalton, Kaepernick, and Newton.  If even half of those players get second contracts from their current teams, the 2011 class ranks among the best classes out there.  If 4 of those 6 get in good situations and start winning games, this becomes the best QB draft class since 2005 at least, and probably 2004.

Unless a team ends up taking two of the above prospects in their class, the 2011 NFL quarterback class is going to have an unprecedented level of opportunities to make its mark on the NFL.  Compare that to the 2010 class.  Colt McCoy is a third round pick who is the starter in Cleveland, but has a long way to go to achieve success by way of a second contract.  A great prospect, sure, but he remains a longshot.  Tim Tebow’s coaching staff changed after one year, and now his future is up in the air.  And Jimmy Clausen might have a week left as the “future” of the Panthers.  Sam Bradford’s first year was widely overrated (he impressed with moxy, but the season was light on actual results, compared to say, McCoy’s), but his path to franchise QB at least is all clear.  This year, you could have six or seven guys starting off as the future of their franchises, and at least five should make it to 2012 as their teams’ starting quarterback.  Even if, worst case scenario, four or more of the quarterbacks bust, this is STILL a quality class.

It’s hard to identify the number two guy behind Blaine Gabbert in this class (which is why Newton is so appealing: he stands out when no one else does).  And it could be Cam Newton.  But just because Andrew Luck isn’t in this class doesn’t mean it won’t be the strongest group we’ve seen in years at the quarterback position.