Wednesday, August 13, 2008
The Vikings have now lost special teams ace Heath Farwell and backup defensive end Jayme Mitchell for the season and are unsure about whether Brian Robison will be able to play in the season opener. Mitchell's injury likely hurts the most, since it robs the Vikings of depth at defensive end, a position the Purple need depth at in order to be able to rotate linemen like they want to. And there have been a lot of players skipping practices to rest nagging injuries, including Bernard Berrian and, most importantly, Tyrell Johnson, who has had problems with his abdominal muscles.
There's really only thing that can derail this season (outside of Tarvaris Jackson playing like he did his rookie year) and that's injuries to the Vikings' crucial players. While injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, it sure seems like the Purple have had more than their fair share already, but thankfully, they've only lost one starter so far and only for three games. And yes, I know I just jinxed the Vikings. Still--there have been a lot of injuries.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
Yeah, I know, it's the preseason, but it's nice to have Tarvaris back up my optimism in the first preseason game, especially in the wake of the Vikings' (intelligent) decision not to pursue Brett Favre. It's only going to get harder from here, but I'm confident that he can turn into the league average quarterback the Vikings need him to be if they want to contend for the Super Bowl.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
With the Favre Fiasco finally resolved through a trade with the Jets, we now know that Tarvaris Jackson is going to be the starting quarterback. And that means that the success of the Vikings will rest largely on his ability to be a league average quarterback. There’s good news on that front, however, as one of the surprising things that this edition of the Pro Football Prospectus has done is reinforce my confidence in Tarvaris Jackson’s ability to be a league average quarterback. To be fair, I’m probably interpreting the stats as optimistically as possible, but I reserve the right not to let the Vikings’ long history of failure prevent me from being optimistic. So, without further ado, the Pro Football Prospectus’ reasons to be confident about Brad Childress’ decision to trust a Super Bowl caliber team in Tarvaris Jackson:
- Tarvaris Jackson had a better DVOA and DYAR last year than Marc Bulger, 2005 first overall pick Alex Smith, three of the five other quarterbacks selected in the first three rounds of the 2006 draft, all of which the experts consider to be better quarterback prospects (Kellen Clemens of the Jets, Brodie Croyle of the Chiefs and #3 pick Vince Young) and last, but not least, Super Bowl Champion Eli Manning, who was, without any question, a worse quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson last year. Manning’s DVOA was -13.1%, Tarvaris’ was -5.8%. Manning had -70 DYAR, Tarvaris had 107 DYAR. Manning completed 56.1% of his passes while averaging 5.6 Net Yards per Pass, while Tarvaris completed 58.7% of his passes while averaging 6.0 NY/P.
- Tarvaris’ was a lot more accurate than his stats show. According to PFP’s game charters, he had the 9th highest drop rate, as Vikings’ receivers dropped 20 passes, a full 6.9% of his throws. That rate should go down now that Troy Williamson is gone, and the offense now features Sidney Rice (projected catch percentage of 57%), Bobby Wade (projected catch percentage of 57%) and Bernard Berrian (projected catch percentage of 54%). He also had the 7th lowest rate of underthrown passes and the 3rd fewest passes defensed, where he slots right in right after Tom Brady, but ahead of Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisburger and David Garrard.
- Tarvaris is good at avoiding sacks. The Vikings’ line had an adjusted sack rate (ASR) of 8.6%, the fifth highest in the NFL. Tarvaris’ was 6.5%. That low rate doesn’t mean he wasn’t hit a lot though, as he was knocked down (sacked or hit) 17.4% of the time he dropped back, the fourth highest rate of quarterback’s with at least 200 attempts. What’s striking is the ASR of the other quarterbacks in the top ten of that list—six of the nine had ASR higher than 8.0%.
- David Garrard was 29 in 2006, one year before his breakout (Tarvaris will be 25 this year), but aside from his age, his advanced statistics are close enough to Tarvaris’ last year to believe that some tweaking of Tarvaris’ arm angle and footwork, combined with better receivers, could lead to a similar breakout.
- Garrard’s line: 11 games, 60.2% Completion Percentage, -4.8% DVOA, 107 DYAR, 6.6 NY/P, 8.3% ASR, 7.0% Rushing DVOA, 56 Rushing DYAR.
- Tarvaris’ line: 12 games, 58.2% Completion Percentage, -5.8% DVOA, 107 DYAR, 6.0 NY/P, 6.5% ASR, 25.4% Rushing DVOA, 80 Rushing DYAR.
- Ok, I know that’s something of a stretch, but remember, we’re being optimistic here. Garrard’s line doesn’t foretell a 4% increase in Completion Percentage, a 42.2% increase in DVOA, an increase of 981 DYAR, a 7.0 NY/P, a 1.4% decrease in ASR and a complete lack of scrambling the next year (Garrard only ran 5 times last year, down from 47 in 2006).
Is that enough to convince me that Tarvaris Jackson can lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl (or at least not get in the way of the rest of the team)? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it enough to convince me that the Vikings made the right choice in not trading for Derek Anderson or Chad Pennington, and in the process giving away the draft picks they used to obtain Jared Allen? Yes. And is it enough to convince me that I’d rather have Tarvaris than Favre and all the cognitive issues he would have created? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Can Cam Cameron and John Harbough create the competent offense that Brian Billick never could?
PFP: Not this year. The Ravens lack the skill players to field a competent offense, which combined with their youth at quarterback and the hole created by the retirement of Jonathon Ogden, means they won’t be fielding a competent offense just yet. Troy Smith looks like he might turn into a league average quarterback (which would mean he’d be the second best quarterback to play for Baltimore since Vinny Testaverde in 1995), but he’s not ready to do it yet, and his projection has him putting up an awful -29.5% DVOA. He isn’t the only Raven that the projection system is down on, though. Only two of the Ravens skill players, Derrick Mason and Demetrius Williams are projected to post a positive DVOA next year and neither one is projected to have a DVOA over 1%. To put that in context, the Vikings are projected to have five players with positive DVOAs next year (all of which are projected to have DVOAs over 1%). That being said, Smith and rookies Joe Flacco and Ray Rice offer hope that the offense could become decent at some point in the near future.
Who’s the best linebacker on the team?
PFP: To be honest, the only thing that’s obvious about this answer is that Ray Lewis is no longer the obvious answer. Last year, Terrell Suggs was the best of the group at rushing the passer and the best at stopping the run, finishing with 5 sacks and was 2nd overall in Run Stop Percentage. It’s hard to declare him the best overall, however, when his role was more similar to that of a defensive end than a linebacker, and he didn’t drop back into coverage enough to qualify for the rankings. Jarrett Jones was #1 in Run Stop Percentage, but he only had 2 sacks, and was awful in coverage, with a Success Rate of 38%, 77th overall among linebackers. Bart Scott was equally good against the run, finishing 3rd overall, but he was equally bad in coverage, finishing 71st overall in Success Rate among linebackers. And while he’s getting older, Lewis was still very good, making 19.2% of his team’s plays, the 3rd highest percentage by a linebacker and he was very good in coverage, with a 57% Success Rate, the 18th highest total by a linebacker. He fell off against the run though, coming in 51st. Lewis is also the only one of the four over the age of 30, which means that Ravens’ fans will get to debate this question for a long time.
Can the Ravens’ defense return to form against the pass?
PFP: The Ravens’ defense finished 22nd overall against the pass last year, their worst showing since 1998 and which was the last time they had a positive defensive DVOA in either defensive category. The problem is, they’re likely to have the same problem again this year. The Ravens secondary was plagued by injuries last year, but when your starting corner backs are 31 (Chris McAlister) and 32 (Samari Rolle), that’s what tends to happen. The Ravens did attempt to address the issue by bringing in Fabian Washington in a trade with the Raiders, but there’s nothing in his track record to suggest that he’ll be able to handle being on an island, like the Ravens’ scheme requires of its corners. The Ravens did draft two college safeties, however, which they’ll be thankful for if thirty year old Ed Reed gets hurt, but neither Tom Zbikowski nor Haruki Nakamura will be any help if McAlister or Rolle get injured again.
How hard is the Steelers schedule going to be?
PFP: Really, really hard. The Steelers have the hardest schedule in 2008, based on projected opponents DVOA. And it’s no surprise when you consider they only play three teams projected to win less than 8 games (Cleveland, Cincinnati and Tennessee) and all three of those teams face similarly hard schedules that lowered their projections below .500. There isn’t a single person that’d be surprised to see Cleveland or Tennessee make the playoffs, and the only reason people would be surprised to see the Bengals in the playoffs is due to their off-field issues, not their talent. The Steelers also get to face 7 teams that have a better than 1 in 5 chance of winning 11 or more games (Houston, New England, San Diego, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and the New York Giants). Then again, it’s only fair, considering they went 10-6, won the AFC North and lost in the first round of the playoffs last year.
Will Big Ben survive the season?
PFP: Maybe, but only because he’s shown remarkable durability. The Steelers had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 10.1%, the 2nd worst in the NFL. They addressed this issue by letting their best lineman, left guard Alan Faneca, leave via Free Agency and by replacing their center and right tackle. One of the keys to a good line is consistency, which makes sense when you consider how much of a line’s success is based on working together, something that takes some time to figure out. Replacing three of your linemen does not help with your linemen’s comfort level with each other. That all being said, Big Ben’s ability to stand up to tremendous punishment (his average ASR is 9.2%) means he’ll either continue to be effective against all odds or he’ll come apart at the seams after getting pounded by the five teams on the schedule that had ASRs in the top ten last year (the Eagles, Giants, Patriots, Jaguars and Cowboys). And if they don’t do him in, he’ll also have to survive the Chargers and Ravens, who were 12th and 14th, respectively, in ASR last year.
Are the Browns going to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Cleveland?
PFP: Probably not. Like the Steelers, they have to face a ridiculously hard schedule (it’s the 4th hardest by projected opponent DVOA). They also have to deal with question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end. Odds are Derek Anderson is going to regress after a career year (more on this later), and while Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow both look like they finally had their break out seasons, both are still massive injury concerns, considering 2007 was the first season in either one’s career in which they didn’t get hurt. Combine all of that with their reliance on Jamal “D-U-N Done” Lewis, and even a defense improved by the additions of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams (assuming they return to their 2006 form and avoid overeating/getting hurt) and a dominant offensive line won’t be enough to get them in.
Who should start-Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn?
PFP: It depends a lot on their performance in training camp. Anderson had the breakout season last year, his projection is a lot better than Quinn’s (a 1.3% DVOA to a -22.7% DVOA , and a 6/6 NY/P to a 4.6 NY/P ) and the Browns didn’t resign him with the idea of sitting him behind Quinn (though they did structure his contract to make it a lot easier to replace him with Quinn in 2009). Anderson’s breakout wasn’t all it’s been made out to be though. He started out scalding hot, with 20 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions in his first 10 games, but he finished by throwing 10 picks and only 9 touchdowns in the final five games of the season (something I covered when the Browns were shopping Anderson early this offseason). If Anderson falters in the preseason and Quinn excels, don’t be surprised to see Quinn under center when the Browns open the season against Dallas.
Who’s to blame for the hubbub surrounding Chad Johnson?
PFP: While Johnson isn’t innocent, it’s startling how little support Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer and the rest of the organization offered him once the media went into attack mode during the season. While they all were likely tired of his antics, some support by the leaders of the team could have cut the “scandal” off at the pass and even been used as a way to rally the team. Instead Lewis, Palmer and the rest of the organization leadership looked the other way while the media went after Johnson, leading to situation quickly and predictably spiraling out of control when Johnson tried to keep from being lumped in with Pacman Jones, T.O., Chris Henry and other real troublemakers. The man likes celebrating—it’s not like he was involved in a crime or threw his teammates under the bus while doing sit ups during a protracted hold out. The thing is, Johnson was a very good receiver in 2007 (he was 6th in DYAR by a wide receiver) and is likely to be very good again in 2008 (he has a projected DVOA of 13.8%), something the Bengals likely realized when they chose not to trade him to the Redskins. The lack of a trade was a surprise, considering the clubhouse issues created this offseason, but it was also a smart move by the Bengals, provided Lewis can keep the team’s chemistry from going south, since the Bengals need Johnson’s production for at least another year, when the three receivers the Bengals took in the draft might be ready. Whether or not Johnson is gone after this year, the way Lewis handled the situation (and all the other off the field issues) means he should be, especially considering his inability to get them back to the playoffs since 2005.
Will Antwan Odom live up to his big contract?
PFP: Probably not. Odom’s coming from a line that featured the best defensive tackle in football (Albert Haynesworth) and a defensive end that had 12 sacks and 18 hurries (Kyle Vanden Bosch). He will get some support, however, so offensive lines won’t be able to concentrate solely on him. New teammate, Robert Geathers had 19 hurries from the outside linebacker position last year. Odom will still be the defender that offenses plan on double teaming, however, which will be a new experience for him.
How much will the loss of Madieu Williams hurt the Bengals’ secondary?
PFP: They’ll miss him a lot. Williams made 18.2% of the team’s plays while he was in, the highest of anyone in the secondary, and he had the second highest Success Rate (45%, 51st best by a safety) and the third highest Run Stop Rate (53%, 16th best by a safety) on the team. He was also the only play in the secondary that couldn’t be described as “old” or “inexperienced”. Without him, the Bengals will have five players in their secondary under the age of 25 and will also start two 31 year olds entering their decline. Expect any improvement by the youngsters to be offset by the decline of Deltha O’Neal and Dexter Jackson, who were 1st and 3rd in Success Rate on the team last year.
Monday, August 04, 2008
Over the next two weeks or so, I’m going to be previewing the upcoming season, using a bit that Joe Posnanski came up with on his blog (and really, if you haven’t gone over to his site and read his stuff, you are missing out. He is, quite simply, the best sports writer in America. I don’t care if you hate Kansas City, baseball and apple pie—his stuff is so good, you’ll still enjoy it. Also, buy his book on Buck O’Neill—it’s an amazing read). The basic idea is this—I’ll ask two or three questions about each team (some of which will be Vikings related) and the Pro Football Prospectus, written by the great folks over at Football Outsiders, will answer them (and yes, you should buy the Prospectus. It’s a great book for NFL fans and Fantasy Football players, and it will help you understand and enjoy the game a lot more). And now that I’m done plugging books for which I receive no compensation, onto today’s preview—the AFC South, home of four teams on the Vikings schedule and four teams that finished .500 or better last year. I’m not going to try and predict their record, but I am going to put them in the order I expect them to finish.Indianapolis Colts
Is Marvin Harrison going to be Marvin Harrison again?
PFP: Nope, but it won’t matter. And that’s before you factor in that no one outside of the RCA Dome knows the truth about the knee injury he suffered against the Broncos. The Prospectus has him catching only 52 passes for 741 yards and 5 touchdowns, which would be his worst statistics in a full season ever. The thing is, it won’t matter. Not only is Reggie Wayne the best receiver on the Colts, and has been the last two years, eclipsing Harrison in DVOA and DYAR in 2006 and 2007, but Anthony Gonzalez is poised to become the next great Colts receiver after having the best DVOA of wide receivers with a minimum of 50 passes thrown to them. He showed up in the playoffs too. If Gonzalez matches his projection of 1085 yards and 10 touchdowns, the Colts won’t even notice if Harrison never steps on the field.
Can the Colts hold off the Jaguars again and challenge the Patriots for the AFC Championship?
PFP: Depends on whether the Defense can stay healthy. Last year, the Colts lost 53.9 worth of games from their defensive starters, the highest total by far in the NFL. Of course, that’s what happens when your two best defensive players are injury prone, though last year, safety Bob Sanders missing games wasn’t the problem (he only missed on game)—everyone else was. When either Sanders is healthy, the Colts have one of the best pass defenses in the league; they were 3rd in 2005, the last time Dwight Freeney and Sanders were both healthy, and 4th last year, when Sanders was healthy. When Sanders was hurt in 2006, the Colts were only 19th against the pass, though Sanders return for the playoffs helped shore up their defense and propelled them to their Super Bowl win.
Can David Gerrard repeat his amazing 2007 season?
PFP: Yes, though he’s going to throw more than 3 interceptions this year. His coaches are the same, his line is the same, he’ll have the same support from the running game and the Jaguars brought in Jerry Porter to catch his passes. PFP has him throwing for 3898 yards with a 23:13 TD to INT ratio and completing 61.3% of his passes. While it seems like a big jump in interceptions, maintaining an interception per attempt rate of less than one percent isn’t realistic. All of the fifteen quarterbacks with the lowest interception per attempts in a season since 1978 saw their INT/Att percentage increase the next year (excluding Tom Brady and David Gerrard, who obviously haven’t played their next year yet) and all but two threw double digit interceptions the next year.
Is the Jaguars defensive line as good as the Vikings’ defensive line?
PFP: Not anymore. Prior to the addition of the Jared Allen, one could argue that the Jaguars line, while not as good against the run as the Vikings, was so much better at getting to the passer that they were the superior defensive line, though injuries were starting to diminish their effectiveness. Now, with defensive tackle Marcus Stroud gone in a trade that yielded the picks the Jaguars used to move up to select Derrick Harvey and defensive end Paul Spicer, who lead the team in sacks, turning 33, they’re a line in transition. Derrick Harvey will be good (and I will be comparing him with Jared Allen as long as I possibly can as a way to evaluate the Vikings’ decision making) and second round pick Quentin Groves should help at end as well, but the fact they’re counting on rookies means that they can’t compete with the new Purple People Eaters.
Can anyone on the Jaguars catch the ball?
PFP: Yes—Jerry Porter and Mercedes Lewis. Maybe Dennis Northcutt. That’s it. Every other receiver on the team combines stone hands, butter fingers, alligator arms and poor eyesight into the perfect maelstrom of pass dropping (basically, Troy Williamson prior to his Lasik). And if David Gerrard's performance takes a step back, Troy Williamson will likely have played a role in it. I’d also like to point out that Randy Moss had the second best season by a receiver since 1995 last year. Heck of a trade by the Vikings in 2005.
Can the Texans make the playoffs for the first time in their history?
PFP: Definitely. The Texans are projected to win 8.9 games this year, the fifth highest total in the AFC, behind only the Colts (9.9 projected wins) and Jaguars (9.2 projected wins) in their division and the Patriots (12.4 projected wins) and Chargers (12.0 projected wins) outside the AFC South. Their schedule isn’t particularly hard either, ranked 15th in the NFL in opponents' projected DVOA. That being said, their three hardest games out of their division are on the road (@ PIT, @ MIN, @ GB), so they don’t have a lot of wiggle room if they want to get the final Wild Card spot.
Was Mario Williams the right choice in 2006?
PFP: Looks like it. Williams broke out in the final six games of last year, racking up 10 sacks, and finishing with 14 for the season. That kind of production from a defensive end is worth the #1 overall pick in the pass happy NFL. And in a division that contains two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, having someone who can put pressure on them is priceless. That being said, one of the things holding back the Texans’ offense last year was the lack of a home run threat in the backfield. The Texans offensive line was had the lowest Stuff percentage in the NFL last year, which shows they were great at opening holes on the line. They were only 22nd in the NFL in runs of 10+ yards though, which means that Ron Dayne, Ahman Green and Darius Walker weren’t able to make things happen once they were through the line, something Reggie Bush specializes in. The Texans brought in Chris Brown this year to compete for the starting job in the backfield, but odds are he won’t be the answer. Unlike good defensive ends, good running backs can be found relatively easily in the draft, though, which means that Williams was the right choice, even if he’s only above average at getting to the quarterback.
What’s the difference between Vince Young and Tarvaris Jackson’s NFL Careers?
PFP: The 2006 Rose Bowl. Young was drafted third overall in 2006, and Tarvaris went late in the second round. Since then, they’ve been roughly comparable, though Young has played in 14 more games. Tarvaris has an INT/Att of 4.3%, while Young’s INT/Att is 4.1%. Both threw 9 touchdowns last year, had a similar net yards per pass attempt average (6.0 for Tarvaris and 5.9 for Young), similar adjusted sack rates (6.5% to 6.7%) and both have the ability to scramble, though Tarvaris had a higher rushing DVOA (25.4% to -9.7%)and more rushing DYAR (80 to 9) than Young last year. He also had a higher passing DVOA (-5.8% to -8.4%)and more DYAR (107 to 74) as well. Jackson’s projection is better than Young's this year as well, with more passing yards (3376 to 2783), a higher net yards per attempt (5.8 to 4.7), a better TD:INT ratio (21:18 to 13:15) and a better passing DVOA (-7.0% to-15.3%). How much of this is due to the fact that Tarvaris plays in a much better offense is up for debate, but his receivers weren’t much better than Young’s last year (Tavaris had his receivers drop 6.9% of his passes, the ninth highest percentage in the NFL, while Young’s receiver's drop percentage didn’t crack the top ten) and he still had better statistics.
Is Albert Haynesworth the best defensive tackle in the NFL?
PFP: Yes, and he just might be the best defensive lineman in the NFL, even though he’s penalty prone (something I was shocked, I say SHOCKED, to find out). Haynesworth had 9 penalties called on him last year, the fourth most on a defender in the NFL and the most of any defensive tackle (his partner at defensive tackle, Tony Brown, was tied for fifth with 8). Haynesworth was the only player to finish in the top ten in Percentage of Team Plays Made (9th overall), Stop Percentage (5th overall) and Average Yards Against (3rd overall) among defensive tackles. Pat Williams just missed out, finishing 3rd, 9th and 11th respectively. Justin Tuck of the Giants was the only player to finish that high amongst defense ends, finishing 10th, 7th and 10th in the three categories.
The Titans are basically the 2006 Vikings, right?
PFP: Yup. Bad offenses (the Titans were 21st in offensive DVOA last year, while the Vikings were 29th in 2006) combined with good defenses (the Titans were 1st in defensive DVOA last year, while the 2006 Vikings were 4th overall), leading to mediocre seasons. The Titans were a little better on offense and defense last year than the 2006 Vikings, which was the difference between the Vikings’ 6-10 finish and the Titans’ 10-6 finish. The thing is, the Titans didn’t improve the quality of the players Vince Young has to throw to (excluding a 33 year old Alge Crumpler, who is coming off his worst season), so unless Young plans on playing like the #3 pick should play in his third year (something he showed no signs of doing last year), the passing game isn’t going to improve. Without any improvement, the Titans will continue to rely on their rushing game and defense to generate points, neither of which is likely to improve their offensive DVOA (partially because defensive points obviously aren’t factored into the statistic). And then you factor in the loss of defensive end Antwan Odom, who had 8 sacks, and a small step back from players like Kyle Vanden Bosch (12 sacks last year) and 34 year old cornerback Nick Harper and the 6th hardest projected schedule and all of sudden, it isn’t that hard to see the Titans matching their Mean Win projection and finishing with the same 6-10 record as the 2006 Vikings.
Friday, August 01, 2008
Anyway, if you're interested, I wrote a post for Twinkietown analyzing the schedules for the three AL Central contenders over the final two months. And while the Twins have more road games than the Tigers or White Sox, they still have the easiest schedule. I don't know if it'll be enough to make the difference in the race, but its more than enough to give you hope that the Twins might just pull out the AL Central.
I'm going to sit down this weekend and start writing up my previews for the upcoming NFL season, so check back on Monday, when, barring something crazy happening, I'll have my first preview up. Let's hope nothing too crazy happens.