Your team's statistical wire hangers: NFC edition
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 20, 2009
The draft is just days away and by now you've read all the "expert" reports on draft, and this is what you've learned so far:
Nobody knows which player is going where. Nobody knows what kind of back-room deals are going to be made that will re-shape the big board and instantly throw those mock drafts into chaos before they've even had a chance to fail on their own. And, most importantly (and this is the dirty little secret of all the energy wasted on draft analysis), nobody knows which players are going to succeed in the NFL and which players are going to fail.
So all the speculation to date has been, almost quite literally, for nothing.
As you know, we only tepidly play the speculation game, treating it with the same general disdain we have for weight-loss programs or non-alcoholic beer. Instead, we prefer to weigh the concrete evidence first and then drink it in with the lusty passion of a Viking raiding party.
And, in the relatively baseless realm of draft analysis, there's only our way and the wrong way.
Our way is to look at each team's statistical needs and statistical weak links from the previous year – their statistical wire hangers, as we're calling them this year. A statistical wire hanger is the one part of your team likely to snap in a critical situation, much like Joan Crawford snapped in a closet full of wire hangers in the classic Hollywood rip-job "Mommie Dearest." The fewer statistical wire hangers, the less likely your team is going to snap in a critical situation and the more likely it will be successful.
So, putting aside all the pre-draft hype and speculation, there's really only one thing that matters: is your team working to eliminate its statistical wire hangers from the previous season? If not, your team is wasting its time.
We find a team's statistical wire hangers below by highlighting each team's performance across the board last year in our Quality Stats. It makes it very easy to figure out not what a team MIGHT do during the draft this weekend, but what it SHOULD do. And at the end of the day, that's all that really matters.
(Here's the first wave of NFC teams. We'll post the AFC ASAP.)
Arizona's statistical wire hangers, as we noted yesterday, are pretty obvious: defense, defense, defense. If the Cardinals pass defense could have made a single stop on the final drive of Super Bowl XLIII, they'd be world champions today.
Even with quarterback Kurt Warner banged up, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin pouting in the press, the Cardinals need to devote their draft resources to shoring up a defense that was 32nd in Bendability and 30th in Defensive Passer Rating.
But that's not the only thing they need: the Cardinals were really not dominant in any single area (except passing the ball) and they could definitely use beef on both sides of the line to become a consistent winner. Both their Offensive Hogs and Defensive Hogs were just the other side of mediocrity last year.
The Cardinals have been largely quiet in the free-agent market so far, mostly re-signing players already on their roster. They did in bring in tight end Anthony Becht, who played last year for St. Louis. But their only move that represents anything close to an upgrade on defense was signing CB Bryant McFadden, who started eight games and picked off two passes with Pittsburgh last year.
McFadden is not the solution to shoring up one of the league's worst pass defenses.
The surprise team of 2008 did a lot of things well with the ball last year. They were third on our Offensive Hog Index and third in Passing Yards per Attempt – a shocking figure for a team led by a rookie quarterback. But they were merely mediocre in terms of efficiency, as evidenced by its No. 17 ranking in our Scoreability Index.
The biggest need, however, is on the defensive front. Atlanta was a mere 23rd on our Defensive Hog Index, and teams shredded it on the ground, averaging 4.92 yards per rush attempt. That's not championship football. So this is a team that needs some beef up front in the draft. The only move to this effect so far in the off-season has been the signing of former Jacksonville linebacker Mike Peterson. But he's not the solution to what ails the Falcons beef-less defense.
The Panthers were incredibly solid across the board last year. One statistical wire hanger leaps out, though, and it's the same challenge facing the Falcons: a lack of strength on the defensive front (19th on our Defensive Hog Index). The Panthers fared only slightly better elsewhere on defense, as evidenced by the fact that it was only mediocre (15th) in the all-important Defensive Passer Rating category.
Carolina had a championship-caliber offense in 2008, one that was even dominant at times. And so far the team has been very, very quiet in the free-agent market. So look for the team to invest heavily in defense on Draft Day. After all, it's hard to win football games, especially in January, when you can't stop the run or the pass – the Panthers learned that the hard way when they suffered a 33-13 shellacking at home in the playoffs to the Cardinals after a promising 12-4 season.
The Bears have already made the free-agent power play of the 2009 off-season when they acquired Jay Cutler from the Broncos. The problem, of course, is the high price they paid: a first-round pick this year, a first-round pick in 2010 and a third-round pick this year. Chicago did receive a fifth-round pick here in 2009 in the deal.
The loss of those two high 2009 picks will obviously impact its ability to do some damage this weekend.
The acquisition of Cutler addresses Chicago's most obvious statistical wire hanger: an offensive attack that ranked 25th in Passing Yards per Attempt (and that has pretty much sucked for more than 50 years, as we outlined in great detail a few weeks ago). But it may create another statistical wire hanger: the Bears last year scored more efficiently than any team in football last year (No. 1 in Scoreability). The team that Cutler led last year, Denver, ranked No. 28 in Scoreability.
In either case, there's no major news here – the Bears need to beef up its offensive line and continue to find ways to improve its historically moribund passing game. Good luck with that, Chicago.
The 2008 Cowboys as hailed by a sports media in love with the organization were a team filled by big stars and playmakers – at least in terms of reputation.
The 2008 Cowboys as measured by the Cold, Hard Football Facts, that is, the 2008 Cowboys as they actually existed, woefully lacked big-time playmakers: just look at their No. 27 ranking in our Big Play Index. This team needs talent, folks. It really does. And, as is often the case with America's Team and America's media darling, the actual team is not as good as the press clippings.
Cutting Terrell Owens obviously hurts the team's big play-making capabilities, but it should aid the team in so many other ways.
But that's not the problem that Dallas faces this weekend. In particular, the Cowboys need to draft game-breaking defensive and special teams players, of which they have virtually none. Dallas was a meager 20th in Defensive Passer Rating and, even worse, 29th in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency. Essentially, teams found it very easy to find ways to punch the ball in the end zone when playing the Cowboys.
It's a disturbing trend for a team that has devoted so many high picks to defense in recent years.
The Cowboys have already made efforts to improve this problem, picking up potential defensive contributors like linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive tackle Igor Olshansky in free agency. But more help is needed come draft day, especially in the perpetually under-achieving secondary, for the Dallas defense to live up to the organization's bigger-than-life reputation.
We learned Monday that the post-Matt Millen Era Lions have made great strides toward reshaping the organization. They have a new official team font!!!
Once a joke of an organization, always a joke of an organization.
New GM Marty Mayhew and new coach Jim Schwartz, however, have an easy go of it this weekend. The Lions were so bad last year in so many areas, they had so many statistical wire hangers, that no matter what the new mismanagement does on Draft Day it's bound to improve the team.
The Lions last year were dead last on our Offensive Hog Index, dead last in Defensive Passer Rating and dead last on our Big Play Index. They were 31st in Bendability and Relativity (bless those spunkless Rams!) and 30th on our Defensive Hog Index.
The biggest problem, though, is the pass defense. In 2007, the Lions became the first team in history to allow opponents to complete more than 70 percent of their passes over the course of an entire season. In 2008, the Lions surrendered a truly stunning 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating – the worst pass defense in NFL history. Not so coincidentally, they were the first 0-16 team in NFL history, further evidence of the all-governing importance of pass defense.
The Lions have made some tepid moves to sure up the pass defense in free agency. But they desperately need big-time help in the draft everywhere along the defense.
The thing NOT to do this weekend ... again, the thing NOT to do this weekend ... is to draft a high-priced quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. Playing on a team so desperately devoid of talent will only ruin his career, and the money that the No. 1-overall quarterback will demand will sap the team of resources so desperately needed in so many other areas.
The smart move would be to trade the top pick to somebody else (assuming somebody would be willing to take it given inherent lack of value that typically comes with the No. 1 pick), and try to stock up on picks and build a solid foundation of building-block players like left tackles and cover corners and game-breaking defenders. Then the Lions should try to muscle through the 2009 and maybe 2010 seasoons with a solid veteran QB – like the 2008 Dolphins did with so much success with Chad Pennington. And then, only then, when a better foundation is in place should they then put the final piece in place: a franchise quarterback.
But they're a long way from that day.
And this being the Lions, they're probably going to blow the No. 1 pick on Matt Stafford. And he'll find it impossible to do anything as long as the team possesses the worst pass defenses in NFL history. Just ask Joey Harrington.
The departure of Brett Favre before the 2008 season was supposed to cause irreparable harm to the Packers offense.
Instead, it was the performance of the defense that declined compared with the form it showed in 2007, when the Packers hosted the NFC title game.
Green Bay was fairly solid across the board offensively last year under Aaron Rodgers and the two greatest statistical wire hangers were found on defense. The Packers ranked a mediocre 14th in our Defensive Hog Index (low-lighted by a defense that surrendered 4.6 yards per attempt on the ground, 26th in the league). They also ranked 23rd in Bendability, meaning they made it pretty easy for opponents to score points.
The Packers have made few if any moves to solidify its defense in free agency. So they need to make those moves in the draft, specifically acquiring a big-time player on the defensive front.
The Vikings might be the team with the most difficult decisions to make this weekend.
If the Lions are a team in desperate need of everything but a quarterback, the Vikings of the past two years have appeared to be a team that has everything it needs BUT a quarterback. So you think they'd be the team that would be interested in moving up the board to grab a Matt Stafford or other top QB prospect.
But then a funny thing happened over the final quarter of the 2008 season: Tarvaris Jackson played like a legit NFL quarterback. He tossed eight TDs to just 1 INT and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt. Sure, he crashed and burned against the Eagles in the playoffs. But so did Eli Manning, and nobody's ready to run him out of town.
So the Vikings are either going roll the dice with Jackson again in 2009, committing to him as the quarterback of the future, or they're going to have to find a way to shore up one of its statistical wire hangers from last year: an offense that ranked 19th in Passing Yards per Attempt last year. Either way, it will be a pivotal decision for the organization.
Elsewhere, the Vikings absolutely need help on the offensive line. Their Offensive Hogs ranked 21st in the league, despite the benefit of playing in front of the game's most explosive ball carrier, Adrian Peterson.
One wonders what Peterson might do if he has first-class talent in front of him. Of course, none of it matters if the Vikings don't make the right decision at quarterback. We'll extremely interested in the outcome, though we anticipate that they'll forgo the QB in this draft and put their money into the OL.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to identify the statistical wire hangers for the Saints last year. Hell, it doesn't even take an overweight football-obsessed troll to figure it out.
The Saints excelled on offense. They failed on defense. The 2008 Saints were:
- 12th in Scoreability but 25th in Bendability
- 4th on our Offensive Hog Index but 19th on our Defensive Hog Index
- 2nd in Passing Yards per Attempt but 14th in Defensive Passer Rating
The result was an 8-8 season and a last-place finish in the tough NFC South.
The No. 1 problem is to find a stud on the defensive line, which will not only boost the team's capabilities in the all-important Defensive Hog Index category, it will likely yield a far more efficient defense as measured by our Bendability Index, the area where the Saints truly suffered last year.
The other key is a gamebreaker in the defensive secondary. The Saints were not terrible, merely mediocre, on pass defense last year, as measured both by ranking in Defensive Passer Rating (14th) and by their contemporarily average rating of 80.3. But New Orleans did not size up as well when measured by the yards per pass attempt they surrendered – chiming in on the wrong side of the breakwater 7.0 YPA mark (7.05). That's simply not champion-caliber defense – the kind needed to match the champion caliber offensive pass production the Saints displayed last season. That stud up front will help improve that pass-defense number, as well, by putting more pressure on opposing QBs, pressure that was hard to come by last year.
If not for a single drive – hell, if not for a single desperate pass that somehow attached itself to a reserve receiver's helmet – we might be wondering today which quarterback the Giants are going to target in the 2009 draft.
After all, the passing game remains the statistical wire hanger for what was otherwise a rock-solid Giants team. The G-Men ranked a mere 14th in Passing Yards per Attempt last season, but in the top 10 in almost every other category. In some cases they were dominant, especially on the offensive line.
The Plaxico Burress Saga certainly played a role. Eli Manning simply fell apart when Burress left the field at the end of November. In fact, over New York's final five games (including playoffs), Manning did not produce 200 yards through the air in any game and averaged just 5.7 YPA. Adjusted for sacks (including the eight he suffered in a single game against the Cowboys) he averaged just 4.8 YPA – a woeful average by any measure.
Not so coincidentally, the Giants went 1-4 over those final five games.
Of course, the Giants do have that single drive and that single desperate pass to recall just 15 months ago. So a big-time move at QB is just a pigskin pipe dream.
What is not a pipe dream is the need to find a game-breaking wide out. Normally, wide receivers are a poor selection in the first round, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have shown many times over the years. Teams should devote a great deal of resources (such as high draft picks) to the wide receiver position only when they're solid in every other area. Well, the Giants certainly fit that bill.
One other position of need, though: the Giants were No. 1 on our Defensive Hog Index in their Super Bowl championship season of 2007. They fell to No. 9 last year. Clearly, Michael Strahan's retirement had an impact on the production of the team's Defensive Hogs and a high pick here could go a long way toward restoring the team's ability to compete for a championship despite its limitations at quarterback.
The Keystone State has long been affiliated with the old-school smash-mouth football forged in the hardscrabble leagues that sprung up around its foundries and coal mines 100 years ago and ultimately led to pro football as we know it today.
But that smash-mouth football was woefully lacking from the state's two NFL entries in 2008 – both of which were among the worst running teams in football last year.
Yet both teams were fairly successful, providing further evidence that the "establish the run" theory is foggy football myth. The Eagles played in the NFC title game. The Steelers won the Super Bowl.
In the case of the Eagles, though, the lack of run game represents the team's statistical wire hanger as we enter the draft. The Eagles ranked 14th in our Offensive Hog Index, and would have been more highly considered in this area if not for a ground game that averaged 3.97 YPA last year (24th). It tells us that the team should target some earth movers to balance an offense that, for the past several years, has relied so heavily on the passing game.
Philly's other statistical wire hanger was a fairly mediocre defense in terms of efficiency (16th in Bendability). It's curious because the Eagles were a stout defensive club by other measures: 2nd on our Defensive Hog Index and 5th in Defensive Passer Rating. They were even 6th in our Big Play Index. So, given all those factors, the mediocre Bendability Index remains a statistical curiosity that the organization is probably not able to address in the draft.
So big-time offensive hogs in the draft, and a cap-tip to the smash-mouth football of Pennsylvania past, will go a long way toward helping the Eagles win a championship for the first time since its best player was a two-way center and linebacker.
Few teams have more hinging on this one draft than the 49ers.
It's hard to believe that San Francisco won seven games last year when you dissect the team statistically. Of course, when you play in the laughably weak NFC West, and play a quarter of your schedule against the likes of the Seahawks and Rams, and another game against the Lions, it's easy to see how a bad team could compile a few wins despite its statistical unwillingness to actually compete.
The good news, though, is that a decent draft this year, one that yields two playmakers, could quickly turn the 49ers into division champs in 2009.
The statistical wire hangers the team must address are 1) the lack of playmakers on offense or on defense, and 2) one of the worst groups of Offensive Hogs in the NFL.
Look for a bold move to attract a player with big-time explosive skills (Percy Harvin, anyone?) and efforts to solidify a weak and pathetic offensive line. The 2008 49ers suffered negative pass plays on a dreadful 12.3 percent of drop backs last year (31st). If the 2009 49ers can keep defenders out of the face of their quarterback – whoever that might be – it's easy to see a scenario in which this team with a relatively competitive defense in a weak division can return to its rightful place in the postseason.
The Seahawks stand as poster children for the speed with which life changes in the NFL.
In 2005, the Seahawks were led by league MVP and TD-record setting running back Shaun Alexander, they boasted a fairly prolific passing attack under Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and they had a potential Hall of Fame coach in Mike Holmgren working the sidelines at the peak of his powers. Seattle went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl.
In 2008, Alexander was essentially out of football after a cup of coffee with the Redskins, Hasselbeck missed most of the season with an injury and played poorly when he was under center and Holmgren essentially packed it during his final season as a head coach. Seattle went 4-12.
Fortunately for new coach Jim Mora Jr., the offense should get an injection of life thanks to the acquisition of free agent wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh from Cincy and the return of a healthy Hasselbeck. That pair will go a long way toward improving an attack that ranked 30th last year in Passing Yards per Attempt. But the team still needs upgrades on the offensive line (25th on our Offensive Hog Index) and in the offensive backfield, which they should target in the draft.
However, the first needs in the draft lay on the defensive side of the ball, where the Seahawks could do almost nothing right last year – it's shocking, really, considering they played in a division so weak offensively (with the exception of the Cardinals).
First, they need a big-time impact player in the secondary to improve a unit that ranked a dreadful 29th in Defensive Passer Rating, while surrendering 25 TDs and picking off just nine passes. Second, they need a big-time pass-rushing impact player up front. Seattle's 28th-ranked Defensive Hogs were OK against the run (16th, allowing 4.2 YPA), but forced opponents into negative pass plays on just 6.5 percent of dropbacks (29th). That latter category needs to improve dramatically before Seattle becomes competitive again.
Of course, as the Seahawks proved from 2005 to 2008, sometimes these turnabouts happen very quickly in the NFL. And the fastest way to rise is with key draft picks that specifically address a team's statistical wire hangers.
Wow, did this team suck last year. In fact, there's an argument to be made that they were worse than the 0-16 Lions. We're not going to make that argument. We're just pointing out that such an argument exists.
The main factor to consider should you choose to make this argument is that the 2008 Rams finished dead last in our Relativity Index, which measures how teams perform relative to the quality of their opponents.
The good news for new St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo is that he gets a very high pick (second overall) and that no matter what the organization does in the draft – beside draft a big-time Tony Mandarich-style bust – is bound to improve the team.
The impact a quality pick can have is evident in the lone aspect of the team that wasn't completely embarrassing last year: their 21st-ranked Defensive Hogs. The Rams selected defensive end Chris Long with the second overall pick of the 2008 draft and he played like a potential future Pro Bowler. That's a good building block for Spagnuolo who, as defensive coordinator with the Giants, rode the league's top Defensive Hogs of 2007 to an epic uspet in Super Bowl XLII over the Patriots and the best offense in modern NFL history.
But all other things being equal (as in equally as poor), the most obvious need to address in the draft is a building-block offensive lineman to replace Orlando Pace, who was released by the Rams last month and signed by the Bears a few weeks ago. The Rams need help just about everywhere, and its 30th-ranked Offensive Hogs are the most obvious place to start the rebuilding program.
This is a watershed year for the Tampa organization, after longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left for the University of Tennessee, where his son Lane is the new head coach.
The senior Kiffin, of course, was the architect of some of the most consistently successful defenses in NFL history. These defenses included the 2002 Tampa unit that surrendered an awesome 48.4 Defensive Passer Rating – the stingiest mark of the past 20 seasons – and carried the team to the organization's first and only Super Bowl title.
His departure means that new head coach Raheem Morris and Bucs management have some very difficult decisions to make this weekend.
The most obvious statistical wire hangers sit, as usual in Tampa, with the offense. And the team has already started to address these needs in free agency, grabbing players like QB Byron Leftwich, who was a back-up in Pittsburgh last year and was considered a relatively high-quality NFL starter as recently as 2006. They also grabbed running back Derrick Ward from the Giants, who is fresh off a 1,025-yard season in which he averaged an explosive 5.6 YPA.
The Bucs could still use help on the offensive line, considering that their Offensive Hogs were a sub-standard 19th in the NFL last year. That would be the most obvious place to devote draft resources.
But given the free-agent moves made on offense, and the fact that the defense will certainly be a question mark in wake of the Kiffin departure, it's easy to see, and even support, a scenario in which Tampa ignores its statistical wire hangers and focuses instead on defense in the draft.
The Redskins could have won a Super Bowl with the defense it fielded last year: 7th in Defensive Passer Rating, 12th in Bendability and 12th in Defensive Hog Index make for a solid if unspectacular unit.
That unit will certainly improve with the off-season acquisition of high-priced DT Albert Haynesworth, perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL.
So the needs couldn't be more obvious: the Redskins must, must, must devote the bulk of its draft resources to dragging their offense out of its ineffective and inefficient (31st in Scoreability) quagmire.
Don't be shocked to see the team grab a quarterback with its No. 1 pick. Jason Campbell has been a serviceable NFL quarterback, but does not have the look of a champion – as evidenced by his 6.4 YPA and meager 13 TD tosses last year in 506 attempts. You expect much more from a first-round draft pick after four years in the NFL.
Clearly, the Redskins are not happy with his production, or they would not have made such a public power play for Jay Cutler. You cannot reasonably expect to make a title run in the NFL with an offense that ranks 24th in Passing Yards per Attempt and 31st in Scoreability. And the improvements in these areas start with the guy taking the snaps.
The problem with rebuilding the offense, though, is made more difficult by the salary-cap soaking money the team devoted to Haynesworth. So this should be interesting.
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