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NFL training camp primer: Sleeper team, breakout players, more

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NFL teams use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to unearth a distinct edge, clubs need to use the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for their personnel, their opponent and their evolving game situations.

My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or misunderstood.

Let's start with this league-wide training camp primer, touching on a number of topics -- both individual and team-based -- while incorporating fantasy angles along the way. Let me know what you think and what you'd want to know. (Hit me up on Twitter @cfrelund.) As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Sleeper team: San Francisco 49ers

With the return of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from an ACL injury and the splashy defensive additions of Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander and Nick Bosa, my model puts the 49ers in contention for a playoff spot.

Last season, San Francisco's defense manufactured a grand total of seven takeaways, the lowest figure in NFL history. While the D allowed 35 passing touchdowns (second-most in the league), the 49ers snagged just two interceptions (yes, obviously an NFL low). For context, 98 different individual players had at least two interceptions in 2018. I measure defensive pressure on passing downs with computer vision by tracking every time a defender gets five feet or closer to a quarterback while traveling in a relevant direction. These disruptions are strongly correlated with defenses limiting first downs and scoring. No team has a greater positive change in this metric for 2019 than the Niners: They go from dead last in 2018 to a projected no. 12 as of right now. Their secondary is more of a question mark and is what limits them from cracking the top 10 at the moment, since the back and front of a defense have to work together.

I'll give you my full win projections for every team before the regular season kicks off, but at the start of training camp, my model projects nine or more wins for San Francisco in 54.1 percent of my simulations.

Two sleeper players

1) David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears. Combining the Bears' O-line with the rookie running back's ability to create yards after contact, my model forecasts Chicago to go from averaging 3.97 yards per rush on first down (which ranked 30th) to a projected range of 4.45-4.55 (which would rank 14th). I'm going to keep repeating that I promise to update my team and player rankings after the preseason, but Montgomery currently cracks my top 20 projected fantasy running backs (PPR scoring). And he's not the only breakout candidate on the roster. Second-year wideout Anthony Miller is another Bear to watch, currently ranking in my 45-50 range for fantasy receivers (PPR).

2) Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Projecting quarterback potential for fantasy purposes becomes more interesting when a proven coach comes to a new team where he and his signal-caller have a big overlapping trait. Bruce Arians has shown that his offenses create deep passing opportunities and Winston averaged the league's second-most air yards per attempt last season (10.8). My projections for Winston's yards and touchdowns (again, it's the beginning of training camp) place him in the draftable range (currently 12th among QBs). Another takeaway from this data: Do NOT undervalue pass catchers Mike Evans, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin.

Analytics you should trust

1) Everyone's exploiting the slot. Inspired by WAR (wins above replacement) in baseball and RPM (real plus-minus) in basketball, I have created a metric that measures the contribution of each player, position group and side of the ball for every snap on the gridiron. I call it win contribution (at least for now). Each player's contribution to first downs and touchdowns includes on-ball (like when a WR is targeted) and off-ball (think of a top WR drawing coverage away, leaving a better matchup for a different pass catcher) measurements.

Win contribution helps illuminate NFL coaches' increasing utilization of the slot position to leverage mismatches and create imbalances, both when a slot player is targeted and when he is a decoy. In fact, last year provided the highest overall win contribution from the position in my 15-year sample. And 2018 also saw the greatest number of different pass catchers (tight ends, outside receivers, running backs) in the slot during this span. This trend should continue into 2019, with the forecasted growth of slot receivers' on-ball impact. Check out my article projecting the top 10 slot receivers for more analysis on this front.

2) The difference between making and missing the playoffs? 1.2 seconds. Playoff team O-lines kept opposing defenders five or more feet from the quarterback for an average of 1.2 seconds longer than non-playoff teams on passing plays last season. Digging deeper, I measured this across routes, personnel groupings and play-action vs. non-play-action. The results? Playoff teams maintained this space around the signal-caller 20 to 25 percent longer than non-playoff teams, even on quicker-tempo attempts. My two top-rated O-lines: Philadelphia in the NFC, Indianapolis in the AFC.

3) The dynamism of Dallas' young linebacker duo. The Cowboys' defense allowed the third-fewest yards per play on first down at 4.86. Tracking the run and pass-limiting impact athletic linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch had on opposing offenses, especially between the numbers, shows how defending the middle of the defense makes an enormous difference. I spent a lot of time this offseason on between-the-numbers defensive analysis and one initial takeaway is that defenses with linebackers and safeties who limit pass-catching running backs and middle-of-the-field passes (usually originating out of the slot) produce more third-and-6-plus situations (unfavorable third downs for offenses). I am still working on adding to this study, but that correlation matters for game-planning purposes.

Analytics you should question

1) The ground game's demise. Last season, passing plays were used on more first-down snaps (50.1 percent, to be exact) than rushing plays for the first time since at least 1991. Tempo attacks and play-action passes helped drive this trend. This stat is obviously valid, and I do project the high-volume passing to continue, but I put this in the "Analytics you should question" section because it's really important to consider personnel and situation. Contract value for running backs and the use of play-action have been hot topics over the past few weeks, but remember: Football's a constantly evolving game of chess. I performed a very informal survey among NFL folks asking who teams are least excited to prep for this season. Among AFC teams, the Ravens were by far the No. 1 answer. And obviously, Baltimore's style of play, with Lamar Jackson as the triggerman, runs counter to all pass-happy league averages. Furthermore, without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys' offense changes considerably, while many RB1s on other teams do not have that same impact. My point is to avoid thinking in absolutes. Look at the team strategy, the personnel available and opponents faces. The teams with the most cohesive and executable strategies to earn first downs and touchdowns are the ones that win. Also, just when everyone else is passing on first down, the Patriots start running more: New England averaged a whopping 23.7 rushing attempts per game on first down in last season's playoffs. And yeah, the Pats ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy (again), so ...

2) Chicago's insane pick rate. Let me be clear: I am very, very high on the Bears this season. What I am pointing out here is that they are unlikely to repeat their crazy-high interception rate. Last season, Chicago produced 36 total takeaways, with 27 of them (or 75 percent) being interceptions. In the past 15 seasons, no defense has repeated as takeaway king, and earning 75 percent of your turnovers from interceptions in back-to-back years is also highly unlikely. The Bears currently project as my top-rated overall defense, so don't be worried if they don't have as many picks. My model forecasts an increase in Chicago's level of complementary football this season (i.e., the offense will hold up its end of the bargain better, thus giving the defense a break), which helps drive the team's NFC North-winning projection.

3) First-down concerns for the Rams. The Rams averaged the most rushing yards per game on first down in 2018 (86.4), which helped drive their NFL-best 6.82 yards per play on first down and allowed them to average the most first-down conversions on first down (8.8 per game, tied for No. 1). There has been a lot of concern around Todd Gurley's health this offseason, leading some to speculate this first-down offense will be an area of concern for the Rams. My model shows that their team efficiency on this down forecasts to stay near the top of the league, even if derived more from passing plays or a different running back. In other words, Sean McVay will be able to adapt his system and maintain high first-down impact.

Things I'm tracking in training camp

1) Cam Newton's shoulder. There's a lot of upside on this Panthers' roster. In fact, Carolina could turn into a "sleeper" for me, depending on what we learn during training camp and the preseason. The Panthers play the entire NFC West -- another division, like Carolina's own NFC South, that has the depth to produce a pair of wild-card teams. Therefore, Cam's health could have ripple effects that end up shaping the entire postseason.

2) Kansas City Chiefs' defensive overhaul. The Chiefs are switching to a different base defense (4-3) under a new defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo). They also added (defensive end Frank Clark, as well as safeties Tyrann Mathieu and second-rounder Juan Thornhill) and subtracted (pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston) a bunch of key players. All of this means a number of new looks for Kansas City. While I have tracked Spagnuolo for a long time, the personnel and strategy changes -- and how complementary the defense can be to Patrick Mahomes' high-flying attack -- projects to be a big factor in my AFC playoff predictions.

3) Philadelphia Eagles' backup quarterback battle. I'm not suggesting that Carson Wentz is compromised right now in any way, and I think last month's four-year, $128 million extension was a smart, pre-emptive move for the Eagles. My model projects the Eagles to have Super Bowl upside, but flags a concern at backup QB. Nate Sudfeld and Clayton Thorson are Nos. 2 and 3 on the depth chart, so I'll be very interested to track them throughout the preseason.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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