Projecting 2019's NFL win share leaders on offense, defense

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Inspired by the idea of wins above replacement in baseball and 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 in an NFL season. I'm calling it win share. (I had been calling it win contribution, but win share makes more sense, especially because in the NFL, with 11 players working together on the field for each team at any given time, the "share" part is a really big factor -- and the interconnectedness took a lot of time to model out.)

The metric is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense. On-ball impact (as when a wide receiver is targeted directly) and off-ball impact (as when a wide receiver draws coverage away from other players on the field, resulting in a better matchup for a different pass-catcher) are both measured. Win share adds up all of the positive on- and off-ball plays and subtracts the negative ones in order to help attribute a value to each player and phase of the game, as represented by the number of wins each player is responsible for on an individual level in a given season. Personnel on the field, game situations and matchups are all factored in, to the degree that it's possible.

Now the important part: Who will lead the NFL in win share in 2019? Below, you'll find the top five projected win share leaders among quarterbacks, non-quarterback offensive players and defensive players, listed along with their projected win shares for the 2019 NFL season. I have added some notes about units, too. Let me know what you think! You can reach me on Twitter @cfrelund.

QUARTERBACKS

1) Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chief: 5.5 wins

Last year's MVP and realized win share leader (with 5.9, based on his 2018 stats) projects to repeat as the win share leader in 2019. Mahomes' total is projected to decrease by 0.4 games because the Chiefs' defense is projected to improve, meaning Mahomes should get a slightly smaller slice of the win share pie. But don't take that to mean we won't see fireworks, as Mahomes' projected win share total is still the highest for any player at any position in my model. Before we move on, consider one of my favorite notes on Mahomes: Last season, Next Gen Stats credited him with 13 passing TDs outside the pocket, which is FIVE more than any other QB. He also logged 122 passing attempts outside of the pocket, 29 more than the next-closest player, Russell Wilson.

2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 5.1 wins

New coach? No preseason snaps? No problem. Modeling Rodgers reveals how elite and versatile he has been and projects to be. No player has had a higher realized average win share over the past five seasons (5.5). (Reminder: Rodgers only played in seven games in 2017 due to injury.) One element of Rodgers' game that really stands out as a crucial potential element of coach Matt LaFleur's play-calling tool box is the QB's deep-passing success. Next Gen Stats shows that last season, Rodgers threw 10 TDs and zero INTs on deep passes -- the most for any player without an interception.

3) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 5.0 wins

I can break down win share for quarterbacks by rushing and passing separately, and in my 10-season sample, Wilson ranks in the top five among QBs in both categories. And here's something you can use for fantasy drafts: Last season, Wilson had the highest passer rating when targeting the slot, per Next Gen Stats (it was 138.9, with 16 TDs and 1 INT). Adjust your post-Doug Baldwin expectations accordingly; for me, Baldwin's retirement netted Tyler Lockett the biggest boost among Seahawks receivers.

4) Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: 4.8 wins

Watson's skill set helps offset the presence of an offensive line that my model ranked third-worst in the league ... until the Texans added Laremy Tunsil in a weekend trade. A significant upgrade at left tackle obviously improves Watson's potential to avoid pressure for longer in the pocket. Last season, defenders entered Watson's 5-foot disruption halo (my computer vision measurement to approximate defensive pressure) when coming from the left tackle side 0.3 seconds faster than any other team. This starts to add context to Watson's league-high 62 sacks taken. Tunsil will slow opposing defenders, which will help keep Watson upright and allow the offensive playbook to include more diversity. Since we often see Watson in pressure situations, I want to make sure and point out how he performs when not under pressure. Per Next Gen Stats, when Watson was kept clean in 2018, his passer rating was 122.0, the fourth-highest in the NFL (behind Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees). Watson also recorded 24 TDs against just three picks when not throwing under pressure last season.

5) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: 4.7 wins

One thing really stands out about Rivers: his consistency. When most quarterbacks are playing from behind, they have to make riskier passes under more disruptive conditions, which causes their efficiency to decrease. But Rivers keeps his team in the game regardless of the situation. Using computer vision, I can track what happens when a defender comes within 5 feet of the quarterback in a relevant direction (thus disrupting the play). Playoff quarterbacks over the past three seasons have averaged about a 22-point decrease in passer rating per route when disrupted, but Rivers' passer rating in this time span drops less than 15 points per route when disrupted. Further, questions at the running back position, with Melvin Gordon holding out as part of his quest for a new contract, drive Rivers' individual win share value higher.

NON-QB OFFENSIVE PLAYERS

1) Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants: 1.6 wins

En route to claiming the Offensive Rookie of the Year award last season, Barkley saw a loaded box (when more defenders than blockers are in the box) on 93 attempts, fourth-most in the NFL, and averaged 2.5 yards per rush in those situations. On attempts when the box was not loaded, giving Barkley the luxury of space, he averaged 6.4 yards per rush, which led the NFL among those with 100-plus such carries, per Next Gen Stats. I bring this up because, despite the preseason offering a very limited sample size, the Giants' O-line forecasts to take a big step forward in 2019, with Kevin Zeitler joining the team and Will Hernandez having a year of experience, meaning there is a great opportunity for Barkley to be even more impactful in his second season.

2) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers: 1.4 wins

Guess who had the most rushes of 10-plus yards between the tackles last season? McCaffrey, with 19, per Next Gen Stats. Combine this with McCaffrey's pass-catching ability (he led all running backs with 107 catches for 867 yards in 2018), and you can understand why he drives a ton of value.

3) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: 1.3 wins

When you scour NGS to assess Nuk, you're hard-pressed to find any category in which he doesn't rate in the top five. Last season, Hopkins led all pass-catchers in receiving first downs with 81. Hopkins' off-ball impact -- he drew top-rated CBs and double-coverages at the second highest rate among WRs -- adds even more context to his value.

4) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: 1.1 wins

My model projects Zeke to -- again -- lead the league in rushing. He's also in line to lead the NFL in rushing yards per game for the FOURTH consecutive season. Note that this projection assumes the running back, who is currently staying away from the team while seeking a new contract, plays in 16 games.

5) Le'Veon Bell, RB, New York Jets: 0.73 wins

If you were to measure the number of times a running back changed direction behind the line of scrimmage and then ended up earning a first down (either on a hand-off or a quick pitch), you'd see that Bell has earned 289 such first downs since 2014 -- this is more than any other back in that span, despite the fact that Bell missed the entire 2018 season. (Frank Gore is in second with 188.)

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: 1.9 wins

My model projects Donald to again lead the NFL in sacks (with 18), making him the first player since Reggie White in 1987-88 to do so in consecutive seasons. Next Gen Stats credits Donald with 72 QB pressures last season, the most by a player in any one of the past three seasons. When I use computer vision to track pressures, I focus on pressures that disrupt passes -- that is, when defenders come within 5 feet of an opposing quarterback. Donald is able to enter that 5-foot halo in 1.17 seconds on average, about 0.5 seconds faster than the next-closest interior defender. This is an element of his attack that forecasts for continued success.

2) Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears: 1.3 wins

I was pretty surprised to see Mack ranked this high -- not because I disagree with his value, but because many in the surrounding cast of Bears defenders are close to the top of the NFL at their respective positions. (Playing with so many talented individuals can sometimes take away from one's own individual value.) Over the past three seasons, Mack has ranked in the top three in disruptions (my computer vision metric that shows when a defender got within 5 feet of an opposing quarterback, thus changing the QB's ability to pass) AND in the top three in edge defenders limiting the rushing yards earned in their coverage. These elements of his game forecast to continue this season. Per Next Gen Stats, Mack's pressures last season directly led to seven takeaways, second-most in the NFL.

3) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles: 1.2 wins

Next Gen Stats attributes 60 pressures to Cox when he was lined up as an interior defender (second-most among all interior defenders, behind only Aaron Donald's 65). My computer vision shows Cox also ranked second in disruptions as an interior defender last season.

4) Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks: 1.1 wins

No inside linebacker has a higher coverage AND run-stopping win share addition than Wagner. The Seahawks' defense relies on this multiple linebacker to change the space opposing offenses get to work with. Pro Football Focus counted only one missed tackle in 140 attempts in 2018. My model shows that no inside linebacker was more associated with stopping first downs than Wagner last season.

5) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: 1.1 wins

According to Next Gen Stats, over the past three seasons, only one other defender earned more than Miller's 183 pressures (Aaron Donald had 198 in that span). The fact that Miller and Bradley Chubb have to share pass-rushing opportunities might keep their individual disruption totals lower than they might be if they were on separate teams, but the net impact -- especially with former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now in the head coach's spot -- is greater than the sum of the parts for Denver.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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