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American League Two-a-Days: Minnesota Twins

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Minnesota Twins

2013 record: 66-96
2013 runs scored: 614
2013 runs against: 788
2013 pythag. record: 63-99

The Twins were a terrible team last year, a year in which everyone expected them to struggle.  In spite of a nice rebound year for Joe Mauer, a downballot MVP guy, the Twins bottomed out and finally sold off all their veteran pieces.  Trading Justin Morneau to the Pirates signaled the end of an era.  The Twins had been tied to that roster contractually ever since they won the division in 2010 and paid Joe Mauer the moon to stay in town.

Mauer’s contract still looks okay as he approaches the mid-way point.  He’s still one of the best players in baseball.  Credit the Twins for not pulling back on payroll, but going out to the free agent market and bringing in RHP Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to help out now.

Who is having a good spring?

2B Brian Dozier has picked up where he left off last season, flashing power in 2013 for the first time.  Dozier is in the conversation for second best 2B in the American League, after Robbie Cano.  He put up roughly the same slugging percentage as Ian Kinsler while playing 81 games at Target Field, a pitcher’s park.  German-born OF Max Keplar hasn’t played against the big leaguer’s much, but his prospect status makes his team-leading 6 hits notable.  Phil Hughes has been sensational in two spring starts.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Twins

There are lots of reasons for optimism.  The inefficient spending is finally off the books, although you can call into question giving $50 million to Ricky Nolasco.  Two years ago, the Twins were an unathletic group who swung too much, didn’t walk or hit for power, and was trying to play like this as defenses around the league were getting better positioned and more athletic.  Last year’s team was a much more athletic, patient bunch.  They were an injured group last year, so this year, the offense could be an actual asset.  It wouldn’t be terribly shocking if the Twins posted a league average or better runs scored.

At the same time, this is the best the Twins pitching has been in three seasons.  There’s no top end starter on this staff, but Hughes, Nolasco, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Scott Diamond, Sam Deduno, and Vance Worley are all mid-rotation types.  A lot went wrong for the Twins on the pitching end last year, and the five guys above who were on the team last year were surrounded by the worst fill in players imaginable.  The Twins are better across the board this year, and with the AL’s best farm system, more help is on the way soon.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Astros

Joe Mauer is on the back end of his career, and the first domino to fall is his full-time move to first base.  And just like that, the AL’s best catcher is no more.  Mauer is still a star at first base, but he’s replaced by Kurt Suzuki.  That’s not an upgrade.

Every pitcher in the Twins rotation is still going to get bombed from time to time.  They might not finish dead last in strikeouts in the AL again this year, but they won’t finish too much above last.

Ultimately, the Twins just have a long way to go.  They were -174 in run differential last year.  Even an 100 run improvement makes them just a 73-75 win team.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Twins is 25.3, 14th in the American League.  Their 12.9 Batters WAR projection is last in the AL. Their 12.4 Pitchers WAR projection is 14th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Twins to win 70 games, a 4 win improvement over last season.  Joe Mauer is the Twin with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.2.  Ricky Nolasco is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.8 WAR.

The Twins vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Minnesota Twins

The projections are really down on the Twins this year, but (spoiler alert) I’m going to go aggressively against the numbers on most of the AL Central teams this year.  The numbers view the Twins as a terrible team, and last year they were a terrible team.  But on the offensive end, the Twins aren’t as inept as the numbers are making them out to be.

The Twins haven’t made it by any stretch, but I’m going to pick them to approach .500 this year, and steal a bunch of wins that people are giving the Indians and Tigers.  We’ll go 78-84 for Minnesota this year, and I think they’ll be over .500 at some point after the all-star break.  Not all of that is one year improvement, but stripping out some factors (and players) who doomed the Twins last year should help in the long run.

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American League Two-a-Days: Seattle Mariners

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Seattle Mariners

2013 record: 71-91
2013 runs scored: 624
2013 runs against: 754
2013 pythag. record: 67-95

The Mariners underachieved relative expectations in 2013, and were labeled a dysfunctional organization in the process.  They did little to change that label this offseason, but did the next best thing, which is that they spent a crap ton of money on veteran players.  Quietly, the Mariners have a lot of talent in camp, but after years of underachieving, it’s on them to convince the world that this year will be different.

Who is having a good spring?

The Mariners finished second in the Cactus League last year, and are in first place on the morning of March 9th with a 7-3 record.  Standouts include OF Dustin Ackley, OF Michael Saunders, C Mike Zunino, 1B Justin Smoak, 2B Robinson Cano, 1B Jesus Montero, RHP Erasmo Ramirez, and LHP James Paxton.  Or basically, everyone the Mariners will rely on in 2014.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Mariners

This is the team that paid the $240 million to sign Robinson Cano.  But beyond that…

The team’s young pitching has arrived at the majors, and early returns last September were excellent.  The Mariners’ rotation could be excellent this year.  Very quietly last season, the Mariners lineup saw a power surge.  Although this lineup is still going to struggle to get on base consistently, it’s more than just Robinson Cano and the eight scrubs.  Smoak had a break out year last year, and Ackley and Saunders are at the ages where they’ll produce if they are capable.  Brad Miller is one of the game’s top young shortstops.  3B Kyle Seager is one of the best young players in the game at any position.  There’s not a lot of risk for inexperience-related struggles in the lineup: guys who don’t produce are going to lose playing time to cheaply acquired veterans.

The front of the rotation with Felix Hernandez and Hisachi Iwakuma is as good as any in baseball, including Detroit’s, and the prospects like Ramirez, Paxton, and Taijuan Walker at the back end are legit and can get major league hitters out today.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Mariners

For a team dominating spring training on March 9th, the Mariners are a banged up bunch.  Walker and Iwakuma are inactive right now with (relatively minor) injuries.  Starting OF Franklin Gutierrez is going to miss the entire 2014 season as will fireballing reliever Stephen Pryor.  Defensively, the Mariners better resemble the Washington Generals than the Harlem Globetrotters.  A starting projected outfield of CF Abraham Almonte, LF Ackley, and RF Saunders could look good defensively, but there is a good shot Almonte will begin in the minors in deference to Logan Morrison (Almonte is not established as a ML hitter and is struggling this spring).

The Mariners have a questionable roster construction that includes a lot of different 1B types.  They have Smoak, Morrison, Corey Hart, and Montero, all of whom either can’t play anywhere but first base, or won’t do it well.  They are only allowed one DH.  Meanwhile, reserve infielder and last year’s 2B Nick Franklin is blocked by Cano, and could be ticketed for AAA Tacoma to start the season.  The bench is going to be tough to construct, and won’t add any value to the lineup.  Robinson Cano thinks the team needs another bat or two in the lineup.

This is the team that paid $240 million for Robinson Cano.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Mariners is 35.8, 11th in the American League.  Their 19.2 Batters WAR projection is 12th in the AL. Their 16.6 Pitchers WAR projection is 5th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Mariners to win 84 games, a 13 win improvement over last season.  Felix Hernandez is the Mariner with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.7.  Robinson Cano is the position player with the best average projection at 4.7 WAR.

The Mariners vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an improved Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Seattle Mariners

The Mariners walk a very thin line between a total clown show and a legitimate playoff contender.  Based purely on talent as well as performance in the early spring, this Mariners roster should be pretty good and has the potential to improve considerably at the deadline.  However, if you underachieve four consecutive years like Seattle has, you don’t earn any benefit of the doubt.  Superficially, this is the best team Seattle has produced in years, but their organizational issues are problematic at the most fundamental level.  The LiveBall official prediction on the Mariners is optimistic: 87-75, but understands that the inverse of such a record is both very possible, and something the organization would try to spin as an improvement.

American League Two-a-Days: Chicago White Sox

March 9, 2014 1 comment

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Chicago White Sox

2013 record: 63-99
2013 runs scored: 598
2013 runs against: 723
2013 pythag. record: 67-95

In 2013, the Kansas City Royals led the AL in runs against with 601.  The Chicago White Sox did not score 600 runs in what can only be considered a total offensive collapse.

Who is having a good spring?

CF Jordan Danks, the team’s reserve outfielder, and LF Alejandro De Aza, who is leading Dayan Viciedo in the battle for the team’s starting LF job.  RHP Andre Rienzo has done well in five relief innings.  LHP Charlie Leesman has done well in his 4+ innings.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 White Sox

First of all, there’s no risk of the team being contracted.  The starting pitching has a chance to be very good.  The rotation is strong at the front, with LHP Chris Sale as the team’s ace, and at the back, where RHPs Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson replace Rienzo and LHP Hector Santiago, who was traded to the Angels in the offseason.  The outfield defense will be much improved in 2014, as the White Sox have improved their speed and athleticism across the board.  The White Sox acquired a bevy of young infielders to play this year, which should help define their direction for the future.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 White Sox

The team’s bullpen, it’s strength for the past decade, was gutted by trades last year and is very unsettled.  Closer Nate Jones is the one reliable arm in the pen, and the unit as a whole has a figure-it-out as you go feel.  The offense can’t be as bad as last season, but it really isn’t a lot better talent-wise.  It’s hard to put expectations on Cuban 1B Jose Abreu, who will need to adjust to facing major league pitching this year.  Veteran DHs Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn remind you what happens to your roster when 20% of your major league lineup walks up to Metallica.  Every offseason acquisition by the White Sox comes with the same caveat: we don’t know if they can hit at all.  No upgrade at catcher means more of the Josh Phegley/Tyler Flowers experience in 2014.  Everybody in this lineup except Dunn/Konerko is a hacker.

2B Gordon Beckham will never not be a reminder of why you need to be realistic about a team’s chances.

The projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 White Sox is 27.0, 13th in the American League.  Their 14.4 Batters WAR projection is 14th in the AL. Their 12.6 Pitchers WAR projection is 13th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 White Sox to win 74 games, an 11 win improvement over last season.  Chris Sale is the White Sox with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.7.  Jose Abreu is the position player with the best average projection at 3.3 WAR.

The White Sox vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox and Twins are neck and neck for the fourth best team in the division.

LiveBall Sports projection for the 2014 White Sox Season

I am expecting the White Sox to fall a bit short of their statistical projections for the season.  There are a lot of moving parts on this roster, and the Sox are at an abnormally high risk for sub-replacement performance across the roster.  This leads me to take them to finish 70-92.

Analyzing 2014 NFL Cap Situations: Washington Redskins

January 28, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a series in which we will take a look at some of the more obvious moves teams will be making when the calendar turns to March, and try to get out in front of a lot of cap analysis you will read.  This is more about setting the stage for free agency previews and the upcoming season than the actual hard numbers.  There will not be a lot of tables in this series, and a lot of the calculations will be back of the napkin type, rounded up to the closest million.  If you are into the hard numbers, check out OvertheCap.com.

2014 Washington Redskins

Critical talent (remaining contract):

– QB Robert Griffin (2 years, $5.6 million remaining, $12.5 million guaranteed)
– OT Trent Williams (2 years, $17.5 million remaining, $4.0 million guaranteed)
– RB Alfred Morris (2 years, $1.2 million remaining, $62 thousand guaranteed)
– WR Pierre Garcon (3 years, $23 million remaining, $6.6 million guaranteed)
– TE Jordan Reed (3 years, $1.8 million remaining, $412 thousand guaranteed)
– NT Barry Cofield (3 years, $16 million remaining, $6.2 million guaranteed)
– DE Stephen Bowen (2 years, $10 million remaining, $5.0 million guaranteed)
– LB Ryan Kerrigan (1 year, $1.6 million remaining, fully guaranteed + 2015 option decision due by 3/2014)

Robert Griffin has more guaranteed money left on his rookie deal than money left on his deal because of the way the NFL amortizes signing bonuses.  He signed a four year deal, and of the $22 million he got in the deal, the Redskins have paid off $9.5 million on prior caps, and still have to pay the $12.5 million on future caps.  However only $5.6 million of that $12.5 has yet to be given to Griffin in the form of a bonus or a past salary.

Current Cap Situation: $27 million under the cap

Washington is currently just a fraction over $15 million under the cap, but four different contracts on their roster will terminate prior to the start of the 2014, and those players are already considered to have expired contracts.  Functionally, Washington will be working with $27 million in cap space.

It’s the best cap situation Washington has been in since Dan Snyder became the owner.  They were in arguably a better situation in 2011, or at least they thought they were, but they were then penalized $36 million for violating a salary cap that did not exist.  The cap penalty was split in half over the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The Redskins still spent some money they didn’t have, but only to the tune of about eight million, which they will pay out this year in the form of deadcap.  It’s okay, the difference between having $27 million and $35 million in cap space is not going to make a huge difference.

The reason Washington’s cap situation is so good is because they’re are no ridiculous back loadedcontracts that they will have to pay off in future years.  The Washington cap situation actually gets better in 2015, as they’ll get (as of this moment) another eight million to spend in addition to what they will roll over in 2014.

Moves that will be made (90% certainty)

– Release DE Adam Carriker (saves $3.2 million)

Adam Carriker last played in Week 2.  Of the 2012 season.  Good work if you can get it.  The Redskins are now functionally working with 30 million in cap space.

Tough Decisions on Key Players

– NT Barry Cofield
– DE Stephen Bowen
– G Kory Lichtensteiger
– G Chris Chester
– C Will Montgomery
– T Tyler Polumbus

The Redskins have just seven players with contracts larger than their production (which is remarkable for a 3-13 team), and the largest contract, which belongs to Pierre Garcon, is safe.  The Redskins are just that weak at receiver.  Elsewhere, they are in a spot where freeing up space is a smart thing as they can be more aggressive for younger players in free agency.  More than that, they need to free up space in the lineup for new acquisitions.

Right Guard Chris Chester is the one guy on this list who is more likely than not to get released.  Releasing Chester would free up $2.7 million in salary cap space, pushing space for the Redskins north of $32 million.  Chester fought a knee injury sustained in 2012 throughout the last offseason and was ineffective in 2013 coming off the strongest two year stretch of his career in 2011-12.  The Redskins need to make a personnel move on the offensive line, and Chester’s release makes a lot of sense.

Center Will Montgomery, who isn’t particularly expensive to keep, is best suited as a backup.  But a $2.65 million salary makes him a really expensive backup.  He’s probably not going to be an early March release, but it’s not difficult to see him as a cut in training camp.

Barry Cofield is a borderline first-rate starter in this league and will almost certainly be retained as the nose tackle, but Stephen Bowen (offseason knee surgery), Kory Lichtensteiger (one year removed from offseason surgery), and Tyler Polumbus are all expendable players.  Expendable, but affordable.  And you can get away with all three of them as starters (Polumbus, in particular, makes a backup salary).  Expect the Redskins to leverage the free agent market for these guys’ successors, and release them only if they can sign younger players from other teams.

Other potential cap related casulties

After releases, Washington figures to be sitting around $35 million in cap space, though there’s no reason to have to create additional cap space for the first day of the league year.  The Redskins have to fill so many holes off last year’s team.  Both corners and both inside linebackers are free agents (including London Fletcher, headed for retirement).  The top safety is a free agent.  The top rush linebacker is a free agent.  His established, productive backup (Rob Jackson) is a free agent.  The backup nose tackle and versatile defensive line joker (Chris Baker) is a free agent.  The player who went into last season as the starting TE (Fred Davis) is a free agent.  The third and fourth receivers (Santana Moss and Josh Morgan) are free agents. They are naturally going to be hesitant to create a hole on the roster they have to fill because there are 11 contributors off last year’s team heading for free agency.

Top Unrestricted Free Agents

– OLB Brian Orakpo (age 28)
– CB DeAngelo Hall (age 31)
– CB Josh Wilson (age 29)
– LB Perry Riley (age 26)
– OLB Rob Jackson (age 29)
– TE Fred Davis (age 28)
– FS Brandon Meriweather (age 30)
– WR Josh Morgan (age 29)
– DL Chris Baker (age 27)
– LB Nick Barnett (age 33)
– WR Santana Moss (age 35)

Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley are going to be the main focuses for the Redskins in terms of retaining their own players.  They’ll want to keep Chris Bakers as well, particularly if either Cofield or Bowen isn’t retained.

Draft Needs Created by Cap Issues

More like draft needs created by free agency.  The Redskins will need to focus on:

– Offensive Line
– Wide Receiver
– Defensive back
– Defensive Line
– Linebacker

Analyzing 2014 NFL Cap Situations: Dallas Cowboys

January 27, 2014 1 comment

This is a series in which we will take a look at some of the more obvious moves teams will be making when the calendar turns to March, and try to get out in front of a lot of cap analysis you will read.  This is more about setting the stage for free agency previews and the upcoming season than the actual hard numbers.  There will not be a lot of tables in this series, and a lot of the calculations will be back of the napkin type, rounded up to the closest million.  If you are into the hard numbers, check out OvertheCap.com.

2014 Dallas Cowboys

Critical talent (remaining contract):

-QB Tony Romo (6 years, $93 million, $41.7 million guaranteed)
-LB Sean Lee (6 years, $32 million, $13.5 million guaranteed)
-TE Jason Witten (4 years, $24 million, $8.6 million guaranteed)
-DE DeMarcus Ware (4 years, $53 million, $8.6 million guaranteed)
-RB Demarco Murray (1 year, $1.4 million, $166 thousand guaranteed)
-WR Dez Bryant (1 year, $2.0 million, $1.9 million guaranteed)
-CB Brandon Carr (4 years, $33.6 million, $16.9 million guaranteed)
-OT Tyron Smith (1 year, $2.1 million fully guaranteed + 2015 contract option decision due by 3/2014)

Current Cap Situation: $24 million over the projected cap

The Dallas Cowboys are in the worst cap situation in the league.  And the real question that cap analysts have for this roster is exactly where the shoe will drop.  The Cowboys are completely capped out, and have three of their eight best players eligible for unrestricted free agency after the season.  They will not have the cap flexibility to use the franchise tag, so either they agree to extensions, or the teams running back, wide receiver, and left tackle all get to test free agency next season.  If this happens, the Cowboys are a 5 win rebuilding team with one of the three highest paid QBs in the NFL.

And that might be the best possible outcome.  Because things can always get worse.

Here’s the good news for the Cowboys: that cap deficit will be erased pretty easily.

Moves that will be made (90% certainty)

-Tony Romo Contract restructure (saves $10 million in exchange for $10 million in future guarantees)
-Sean Lee Contract restructure (saves $3.8 million in exchange for $3.8 million ” )
-Miles Austin release with 6/1 designation (saves $5.5 million in exchange for a $5.1 million deadcap hit in 2015)

The Romo and Lee contract restructures are virtual certainties because the flexibility to make such restructures were all but written into their 2013 contract extensions.  Romo has restructured his deal to play for the league minimum salary every year since 2009 except twice: the 2010 uncapped year, and last year, when he signed his extension post FA and post draft.  Terrence Wiliams rookie year makes Austin expendable, and he wasn’t productive in any way last season.  He will be gone.

These moves bring the Cowboys within $5 million of the expected cap number.  It’s an awful cap situation, but the awfulness of being $24 million over the cap will be overstated in coming months.  These three moves are no brainers and save the Cowboys more than $19 million on the 2014 cap.

Tough Cap Decisions on Key Players

-Jason Witten
-Brandon Carr
-DeMarcus Ware

There is nothing here to suggest that Jerry Jones is prepared to finally make a difficult decision on anyone on his roster.  With Carr and Witten, there is enough reason to believe in their future value to either restructure or extend.  Witten saw his numbers decline in 2013, but he’s going to be an effective player into his mid-thirties, so expect the Cowboys to add two years to his deal, and save $3.2 million on the cap.  This will likely lock Witten onto the roster through the 2016 season, but as far as investments go, that’s not a bad one.  It will also give flexibility to keep Witten and make extension offers to Bryant, Murray, and Smith.  Alternatively, Dallas can do a simple one-time restructure, save just under $3 million on the cap, and prepare for life without Witten in 2015 or 2016.

It’s still too costly both in terms of on the field production and cap ramifications to consider releasing Brandon Carr, so he is also a candidate for extension.  However, a simple restructure probably makes more sense.  It would save the Cowboys $5 million in 2014, and push an additional $5 million in guarantees into the future.

Here’s the litmus test on the Dallas offseason: DeMarcus Ware.  Based on cap factors and declining productivity, the Cowboys would be wise to release Ware so that they can be players in the free agent market.  Ware could be released with a post-June 1 designation, and the Cowboys would save a full $13 million on the cap, in exchange for a $5 million deadcap hit in 2015.  That would help the Cowboys cap situation both immediately, and in the future.  Alternatively, Dallas can save $7.5 million by releasing Ware in March.

But the reason the Cowboys are in this situation dictates that they are not likely to do the wise thing.  Ware still has sacks left in him, and Jones wants those sacks for the Cowboys, and they can save money on the Ware deal by pushing money out into future years and paying for it later.  With the other contracts on this list, it’s different.  Dallas doesn’t really save any money by releasing any of the other guys mentioned above, but this is a real point in the Ware contract where it isn’t expensive at all to move on, and it’s very expensive to keep him on the roster.  Ware will turn 32 during training camp.  70% of owners would move on at this point and thank him for nine great seasons.  Jones is probably going to keep him.

And it could cost him his best shot at re-signing Dez Bryant.

Other potential cap related casulties

One way or another, Dallas is going to be able to save something in the ballpark of $17 million on the Carr, Ware, and Witten contracts, which will give them a functional amount of cap space to work with this offseason.  It will put them about $12 million under the cap.  That is enough room to do a couple things.  It’s enough to sign the rookies they will draft.  And it’s enough to make some competitive extension offers to guys like Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray, although not all three.  If Dallas wants to retain any unrestricted free agents or make any moves on the free agent market, they’ll have to move on from some veterans who we haven’t talked about at this point.

-OT Doug Free (post 6/1 cap savings: $3.5 million)
-CB Orlando Scandrick (restructure to save $3 million)
-QB Kyle Orton (save $1 million upon release)
-G Mackenzie Bernadeau (save $1.4 million upon release)

Free is likely to go if the Cowboys keep Ware.  They don’t save any money on him cutting him prior to June 1 (but can designate up to two players on their roster prior to that).  The Scandrick contract is already a disaster, and Dallas is likely going to leave this one alone, but can save up to three million if they’re on the verge of an extension with someone like Bryant.

I don’t expect any additional moves here unless the Cowboys need some extra cash right before the season begins.  After accounting for Doug Free’s release or restructure, I project the Cowboys to work the offseason from a position of $15 million in cap space, which means that they can be very minor players in free agency, and could re-sign some some of their free agents if they are on the market a couple weeks.  Any contract the Cowboys offer would have to be very team friendly.  They’ll likely make a play for a safety in free agency.

Top Unrestricted Free Agents

-DT Jason Hatcher (age 32)
-DE Anthony Spencer (age 30)
-G Brian Waters (age 37)

None of these players are better than 25 percent to re-sign, and Waters is probably about to enter his second and final retirement.

Draft Needs Created by Cap Issues

-Defensive Line
-Offensive Tackle
-Offensive Guard

 

Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, and the NFL’s Player Development Issue

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

There was fairly big NFL news yesterday for a franchise in particular that has underachieved relative to expectations in 2013.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have pulled the plug on the Josh Freeman era.  Third round rookie, and non-prospect Mike Glennon replaces Freeman in the lineup.  The NFL is a sport that plays once a week and tries to feed a 24/7 sports news cycle off 15 hours a week of content, so big changes to the narrative of a season usually are limited to Sundays, but this is a significant move for the Buccaneers.

Josh Freeman was off to a dreadful start in 2013.  After having an excellent first 12 games to the 2012 season, showing all the signs of a young player on the rise, Freeman has looked lost dating back to December 2012.  Because this is likely a sample size blip in performance, I think Freeman’s value around the league isn’t going to be hurt too badly by his ouster in Tampa Bay.  He’s going to hit the market after this season and should get another chance to start (although without great job security) in his age 26 season.  That’s next year.  He’ll be 26 next year.

Freeman can explore a trade from the Buccaneers this year, but I can’t see very many fits for him around the league.  Houston would seem to be a fit — Freeman’s skills in particular seem like a great fit for that offense — but the Texans are a conservative franchise that is likely to show loyalty to Matt Schaub well past the point where it makes sense for them to show such loyalty.  Beyond Schaub, it’s unlikely that the Steelers are ready to pull the plug on Ben Roethlisberger, it’s equally unlikely that the Bengals are going to make a move with Andy Dalton (after the season, maybe?), and no quarterback has changed the narrative of his career quicker in the last three weeks than Philip Rivers (outside of Freeman, perhaps).

It doesn’t make sense for Jacksonville or Minnesota to go get Josh Freeman when those franchises are in line for a top three pick in the 2014 draft.  Perhaps the Rams feel the heat to make a switch at quarterback with Sam Bradford struggling, again, but there is no indication that the Rams have shorted Bradford’s leash any, let alone are prepared to make a change.  A quick run through the league suggests that there aren’t any teams in the market to trade for a quarterback, meaning that Freeman is likely to hit free agency at the end of the season.

Freeman, along with Jay Cutler and Michael Vick, will be the headline free agent quarterbacks.  Houston, Minnesota, and Jacksonville will head the list of teams looking for a veteran passer.  That’s not what this article is about, however.  The real issue here is the fourth team that will seemingly be in need of a veteran quarterback in free agency next year: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs will need to acquire a veteran QB next year because they were unable to turn Josh Freeman’s seemingly limitless potential and sporadically excellent single game performances into a top line player at the quarterback position.  They are not alone in their struggles.  The Jets badly botched Mark Sanchez’ development.  The Redskins screwed up Jason Campbell. The Bears very nearly ruined Jay Cutler.  The Vikings have not done anything of note with Christian Ponder.  The Browns managed to give up on Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden in the span of a year.  Bradford and Dalton are a little bit different, trying to max out the most of their talent.

It is one thing to struggle in the draft, where no team seems to have found a sustainable edge.  It is very costly to have poor drafts, but it is difficult to replicate draft success.  Developing players isn’t like that.  If you look at the track record of a guy like Andy Reid, or Jim Harbaugh, or Bruce Arians, or Mike McCoy, or Joe Philbin, you can see a history of competency in terms of developing the players on the roster, at the quarterback position in particular.  However, this is not a clear emphasis for every team.  Some teams spend 100% of their resources in player evaluation and don’t really conceptualize how valuable player development can be.

This is what the Buccaneers are guilty of, and it has become the defining difference between the Bucs and the Detroit Lions.  Remember, the Lions also selected a 21 year old blue chip quarterback in the 2009 draft, and Matthew Stafford was also overwhelmed early in his career by the demands of the quarterback position.  However, when Detroit hired Scott Linehan to be it’s offensive coordinator in 2009, they tasked him specifically with the development of Stafford.  And it was a really great hire by the Lions.  For one thing, Linehan was just disposed of as head coach of the Rams in the middle of the 2008 season, and so they did not have to concern themselves with the possibility that if Stafford developed as a passer, that Linehan would leave to get a head coaching position elsewhere.

The Detroit offense would not be the same without Stafford these days, but when he struggled with injuries early in his career, we saw Shaun Hill come off the Detroit bench and run that same offense even more efficiently.  The focus of the Detroit offense is collegiate in nature.  They use 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) a majority of the time, and they run fairly standard route concepts that are easy for the quarterback to read.  They also payed a ton of money to Calvin Johnson to continue to be one of the best in the business.  With Stafford pretty much getting to do largely the same stuff every week for the past five years, he has developed into a good, though not great, pro quarterback.

Although Freeman was given a top target in Vincent Jackson and another good receiver in Mike Williams to get the ball to, Tampa Bay never used their resources in a developmental fashion.  They’ve never really been a team that has been about letting passing routes develop.  You see a lot of slot receiver option routes and single side receiver isolation in the Bucs offense.  Those plays can work and keep the chains moving, but the lack of focus on repetition in the passing game is a major reason the Bucs could not get Freeman along as quickly as they would have liked.  Furthermore, the Tampa offense reminds me of the Dallas offense in that you see a lot of forced pass interceptions in real time, and then when you look at the plays on replay, the real blame for the interception falls equally on the receiver for his indecision as it does on the quarterback for being over aggressive.

It’s not that a quarterback absolutely cannot be developed this way, but it is a less intuitive way of doing things than what the Lions (and Eagles et al) do.  Not all basic passing games are created equal.  A simple approach works when it is easy for someone to understand.  It works a lot less well if the design is so that it doesn’t need to be understood.  When you run isolation routes in football, the quarterbacks’ timing and rhythm is paramount.  His ability to handle information — read defenses — isn’t.  And so on a high percentage of passing plays, if you have your quarterback not recognizing and reacting to coverage, then he’s not going to know out to do it, no matter how many snaps you give him.

The Bucs are the main culprits here in Josh Freeman’s failure to become the quarterback Tampa drafted him to be.  This doesn’t mean that the decision the Bucs made yesterday to turn the page is a bad one.  It’s just the first step of the Bucs Cover-Your-Ass, Save-Your-Job philosophy that we will see over the rest of the year.  And because all the talent the Bucs have, not just on defense, but at the skill positions as well, there is something here to be salvaged.  Benching Freeman is the first step in the Bucs trying to salvage their season.

It would have been far easier if they had just planned ahead to make Josh Freeman’s development the driving force behind a playoff push, instead of an obstacle they needed to move in order to push for the playoffs.

You’re up Mike Glennon.  I hope they’ve got a better plan for you.

Draft Reaction: Chicago selects DE Shea McClellan

About six days ago, a report from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun Times reported that the Bears had narrowed their selection down to six picks.  We now know that Joker Shea McClellan of Boise State was the highest rated of those six players.

It’s probable though that the Bears might have priced themselves out of a better player with how the first round ended up breaking.  Shea McClellan isn’t much of a reach with the 19th pick, and Chicago as a team is overall lacking depth on the edges of their defense.  But there were better players available to fill the need, as well as falling players on the offensive end which Chicago could have addressed.  Without a sequential move to trade back up into the first round, this feels like a slight overdraft.

The Bears are really the perfect landing spot from the player’s perspective.  Shea McClellan will carve out a nice seven plus year career with the Bears, and he’ll become a leading jersey seller in Chicago, and that’s all he could have hoped for.  The Bears are getting docked process points, but in the long run, that’s hardly an issue.

Chicago Bears Process Points: 2