Now that NFL training camps have opened, it’s that wonderful time of year when every football fan has hope for the next season. For the players, they have just begun the grind of summer, hoping for a good season or just to make the roster. Right now each team will have roughly ninety players in camp, and with only 53 roster spots there are some tough decisions ahead, but then there always are when it comes to signing players.
Building an NFL roster is not an easy task; it is a complex balancing of player ability and maths. Spend too much on one player and you will have to sacrifice somewhere else on the team to keep under the salary cap. You might think that with the new wave of analytics that is being applied to sport, that finding value in the NFL would be getting easier, but there are several reasons that this doesn’t seem to be the case.
When it comes to American sports, the leader in the application of analytics is baseball, but there is a reason for this. Baseball, despite being a team sport, is in fact a sequence of individual actions that occur in specific and often quantifiable circumstance. As a consequence, it is a lot easier to say to give percentage for a right handed power hitter facing a left handed pitcher. However, football is built around the interaction of twenty-two moving parts for each player, so it is not always as easy to quantify.
One of the routine problems is that due to the variety of schemes in place in the NFL, a player that works brilliantly in one scheme will be no where near as effective in another. A classic example of this would be a favourite player of mine, the 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith who started his career on the Bengals. He was a first round selection (fourth overall) and set a rookie record with 8.5 sacks in his first season. However, there was always a lot of debate over him as a player for the Bengals, he never had the double digit sack numbers that people expected out of such an early draft pick. I always thought that this was little unfair as he had no control over where he was picked, and Justin was a three down player who routinely played a high percentage of snaps, and after his first year hold out never missed a game. Having been franchised for one year, in 2008 he finally left and signed with San Francisco, where he has gone to five consecutive pro bowls since 2009.
So what was the difference? Well if you look at his numbers, they haven’t really changed, but the role he is being asked to play has. With the Bengals he played as a 4-3 defensive end and was expected to get a lot of sacks and tackles. He was always a good player of the run, but never had the number of sacks you would want out of a high draft pick playing the end position. However, when he signed with the 49ers, Justin moved to a 3-4 defense where his role was more to take up space and occupy the opposition blockers so the linebackers behind him can make the tackles. He plays this role brilliantly, and has the type of personality where he doesn’t mind sacrificing himself for the team concept. One of my favourite things to watch is Justin Smith take on one or two linemen and manhandle them and often get the tackle or sack anyway. If you get a chance, make sure you watch number 94 for a series or two, it’s one of the great sights in football.
The relevance in all this value is that one team’s doesn’t quite make the grade is another’s pro bowler and this is something you find by looking at tape and understanding the scheme rather than numbers. But sometimes I wonder whether this value always makes sense.
One of the stories over the summer has been the contract situation of Jimmy Graham, tight end with the New Orleans Saints. Unable to come to an agreement over a long term contract earlier this year, the Saints placed their franchise tag on Jimmy Graham, guaranteeing they would have his services this season unless he chose to sit out and go unpaid. This in of itself was a relatively straight forward sequence of events, however the fun began when Graham filed a grievance that was taken to arbitration over whether he should be tagged as a receiver or a tight end. Now in mind, no matter that he spent 67% of his snaps last year in the slot or out wide as a receiver, Graham is a tight end, that’s one of the reasons that he so successful is the mismatch when he splits out to these positions.
The reason for grievance was money, the franchise tag for a tight end was roughly 5 million dollars less than a receiver, as it is generated from an average of the top players at that position and receivers get paid more than tight ends. The problem with this is that in terms of production as receiver, Graham’s numbers were comparable to those of a receiver and a damn good one at that. Thanks to the power of the franchise tag (something I’ll probably look at next offseason) the Saints had all the advantages in this negotiation and used this to get a pretty favourable deal for them despite making Graham the highest paid tight end in the league. The reason I think this is favourable, is that in the open market I think that Graham should and could get paid receiver money. Why? Because his production can justify it, and so the Saints have just saved themselves money for receiver production that they can spend elsewhere.
But what does this mean for us at this time of year? There are still extensions in the offing, players holding out, and a myriad of transactions happening at the bottom of rosters. But soon there will also be cuts, and what determines whether you make the team is complex equation based on what you can do on the field, your age, your potential, how much you cost, your scheme fit. In short does your value as a player on the filed stack up against your cost off the field? There will be more than one player who catches your eye in preseason, that through some combination of these factors will end up being more valuable for another team. It is usually these players that several seasons later people will wonder, how did everyone miss on them? The answer is that it is not always that easy to tell in a player’s early career, but that’s half the fun.