Game Theory  

 

Daniel Jones poised to make more noise? Plus, three sleepers

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NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ 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 opponents and their evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @cfrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

Now, let's dig into the relevant data in Week 4 of the 2019 NFL season:

IMPACTFUL DEVELOPMENT: Quick update on four new starting QBs

As a follow-up to last week's look at the sudden quarterback carousel, here's how four of the freshly minted starting signal-callers performed last week -- with analysis on what to look for in Week 4.

Note: These are the new QBs who are playing again this week (Luke Falk and the Jets are on a bye).

Kyle Allen, Carolina Panthers: In the lead-up to Panthers-Cardinals, if you had told me one quarterback would complete 10 of his 12 intermediate passes (10-19 air yards, per Next Gen Stats) for 191 yards and three touchdowns, I would have 100 percent bet it'd be Kyler Murray. I mean, Larry Fitzgerald is the best intermediate receiver in the NFL (maybe of all time). But nope, NGS counts that -- as well as 11 of 13 for 169 yards and a touchdown when targeting the seams -- to Allen. Pro Football Focus adds that the Panthers' second-year QB connected on seven of his 10 play-action passes for 119 yards and score. With Carolina visiting Houston on Sunday, a key to the game will be how Allen does when disrupted. Next Gen Stats had him excelling this past Sunday while under pressure (4 of 6 for 84 yards with two TDs) and against the blitz (7 of 10 for 80 yards and two scores). My computer vision reveals that, despite all of the heat Arizona sent at Allen, his O-line and blockers helped him a lot, only allowing the QB to be disrupted (defender gets within five feet of him in a relevant position) on five dropbacks.

Teddy Bridgewater, New Orleans Saints: In New Orleans' inspired win at Seattle, Next Gen Stats shows Bridgewater enjoyed great success targeting the seams (14 of 18 for 136 yards and two touchdowns) and fared just fine against the blitz (3 of 4 for 51 yards and a score). The game plan included lots of shorter throws to dynamic running back Alvin Kamara, who earned 108 yards after the catch (tops in the NFL in Week 3) on nine receptions. New Orleans also capitalized on mismatches favoring Michael Thomas, who had four first downs and a touchdown on five receptions. Bridgewater's average passing yards per target sat at just 4.4 (the league's lowest mark this past week; Drew Brees averaged 7.8 last season). Playing host to the Cowboys this week on "Sunday Night Football," the Saints will likely need to stay on schedule and increase intermediate and deep passing completions.

Daniel Jones, New York Giants: Next Gen Stats provides a lot of good notes here. The No. 6 overall pick flourished on intermediate throws (7 of 8 for 199 yards and two TDs). And while the rookie was pressured on 51.2 percent of dropbacks (21 of 41), he completed 12 of his 16 passes for 192 yards and a TD on those plays. Those 192 yards under pressure represent the second-highest single-game total in the NGS database, which goes back to 2016. (Tom Brady's 239 yards vs. Houston in Week 3 of 2017 take the cake.) Maintaining a high level of performance against pressure will be crucial in Sunday's game against the Redskins, especially without Saquon Barkley in the backfield. If the O-line and Jones can hold up against heat, Washington's suspect secondary will provide ample opportunity for more great stats. If the Redskins' front is able to disrupt Jones -- Ryan Kerrigan has years of high-level sack production on his resume, while Montez Sweat has shown flashes in his brief NFL career -- then we could see more rookie-like results from the Giants' new QB1. I don't know what you thought about Jones before last week -- while many initially questioned the Giants' decision to take the Duke product so high in the draft, the QB won some folks over with a strong preseason -- but that was unquestionably an excellent start.

Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh Steelers: Next Gen Stats show that, in a tight loss to the 49ers, the Steelers quarterback went just 2 for 13 on passes of 2-plus air yards. Both of his touchdowns and an interception were included there. San Francisco's defensive front was ferocious, continually disrupting Rudolph's passes. While the Niners logged just two sacks, they were able to get within five feet of the second-year quarterback in a position that disrupted his field of vision on nine of his 27 passing attempts. That's 33 percent --- a.k.a., a lot. The good news for Allen and the Steelers: My numbers predict the Bengals' front to be much less imposing on Monday night. James Conner projects to nearly double his season per-carry average to over 5 yards per rush, while the Bengals' disruption rate on passing attempts projects to be under 20 percent.

SLEEPER TEAM

Los Angeles Chargers: Right now, at 1-2, the Chargers still make the playoffs in 50 percent of my model's outputs. I have run 200,000 simulations for every remaining game this week due to all of the new quarterbacks who still have small sample sizes of on-field NFL data. That 50 percent figure makes the Bolts the fifth-most-likely AFC team to make the playoffs, so right now, they are slated to be a wild card in my model. In each of the Chargers' next two matchups, they win in at least 68.8 percent of the simulations. In fact, in Miami this week, that number is 82 percent. These next two games also help provide some time to make adjustments to their secondary. With both Derwin James and Adrian Phillips on IR, Los Angeles has been forced to alter its approach in the back end. Remember, September can serve as an extension of the preseason, with players jelling amongst each other and getting into rhythm, and that's especially true if a team suffers significant injuries. The Chargers' defense has increased its disruption rate each week, hitting 21 percent in this past Sunday's loss to the Texans. That was L.A.'s second close loss in as many weeks. Throw in the fact that kicker Michael Badgley has missed all three games with injury, something which can greatly impact possession strategy, and there is a high future ceiling here. Furthermore, combine the team's rushing average of 5.23 yards per carry (fifth-best for now, but it's really being over 5 yards per attempt that stands out to me) with Keenan Allen pacing the league with 20 receiving first downs (five clear of the next-best figure) and the formula for wins is there.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS

Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: It's really cool to think that the Chiefs rookie posted the fastest speed for a ball carrier so far this season, per Next Gen Stats. Part of reaching a top speed of 21.74 mph means having space (and little to no resistance), which Hardman had on that 83-yarder against the Ravens. NGS calculates 8.3 yards of separation when that pass arrives, and my computer vision adds that no defender got within 5 feet of him at any point after the catch all the way to the end zone. What's more helpful in terms of strategy and predictive capacity: Hardman's fit in Andy Reid's offense, with Patrick Mahomes throwing him the ball. I don't know what play was called on that touchdown, and there is no way for me to assess how much of the playbook the rookie knows. But from what he's shown in just over 150 snaps -- logging at least 63 percent of offensive snaps in each of K.C.'s three games -- Hardman has a lot of perfect-fit upside. On routes run more than 10 yards downfield, he's had at least 5 feet of separation from the nearest defender when the ball reaches the target 27.5 percent of the time -- the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. And that doesn't even include his holding-penalty-negated 72-yard TD against the Raiders (a defender was too close for that to count). In other words, Reid's usage of Hardman is a coach creating and calling optimal plays to maximize the player's strengths -- and the player is executing.

Justin Jackson, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: No running back with at least 15 attempts has a higher per-carry average than the Chargers' second-year back at 7.9 (18 rushes for 142 yards). With 10 rushes of 5 or more yards, eight of over 8 yards and five of his 18 attempts netting first downs (27.8 percent), it's logical to think that his participation could be an even bigger factor against both of L.A.'s next two opponents: at Miami and vs. Denver. NGS calculates his participation in each game as increasing from 25.4 percent in Week 1 to 39.1 percent in Week 3. Even if Melvin Gordon ends his holdout soon, Jackson and Austin Ekeler have built up plenty of currency as a stout 1-2 punch.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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