Game Theory  

 

Baker Mayfield isn't alone in blame; two sleeper wide receivers

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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 heading into Week 10 of the 2019 NFL season:

DATA TO QUESTION

Baker Mayfield's clean-pocket ineptitude.

OK, well ... don't fully question this data.

Next Gen Stats reveal Mayfield has the lowest passer rating when NOT under pressure this season (75.1). He's the only quarterback with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (six) in a pressure-free environment. Drilling down a bit more, the Cleveland Browns' second-year signal-caller ranks dead last in passer rating from a clean pocket on second (66.0 passer rating, 0 TD, 5 INT) and third down (62.1 passer rating, 2 TD, 3 INT).

These are all true numbers, and they are all bad. Passing from a clean pocket is, generally speaking, the best situation a QB can throw in. No pressure, no need to scramble -- just pure pocket passing. This is an area where Mayfield enjoyed success last season and throughout his college career. And that's why some additional context must be considered. It's reasonable to assume Baker's poor performance from a clean pocket is only temporary for two reasons:

1) Mayfield has been put in horrible throwing situations. Right now, Baker is tied for most attempts (30) on second and third down when the yards-to-go are 15 or more. He has thrown the most passes (14) when facing 20 or more yards-to-go on these downs. These situations make defensive play-calling easier, because the offensive approach is more obvious (highly likely to pass).

2) Mayfield's receivers just haven't been getting open. The QB's pass-catching options have had defenders within a 5-foot halo of them along their routes 34 percent more often this season than last, making the difficulty of completion harder.

So ... Baker routinely finds himself in adverse down-and-distance circumstances, throwing to receivers who aren't open.

Finally, I tracked formations on the clean-pocket attempts last year and compared them to this year's scheming, just to look a little deeper in an attempt to understand what's happening. One thing that has accompanied the increase in receivers being covered up is the use of similar formations and plays in unfavorable situations on second and third down. While I can't know exactly what Freddie Kitchens calls on these plays, it's easy to notice some predictability arising here. Changing up calls a bit more on these unfavorable downs would seem to help Mayfield and his pass catchers, in terms of creating more separation and not tipping off the defense.

Long story short: Mayfield's stock is as low as it's been in his brief NFL career, but I'd load up on it right now, especially as a long-term play. He's bound to bounce back on these critical downs.

DATA TO TRUST

Win disruption, win the game.

Defensive pressure is a strategic decision -- for example, whether a coordinator chooses to blitz or not. However, teams that have effectively disrupted opposing quarterbacks ("disrupted" is defined by computer vision measuring when defenders get within 5 feet of a passer in his 135-degree visual field) at least 5 percent more often than they've allowed their quarterback to be disrupted have a 70.3 percent win rate over the past 15 years.

Some quick model notes I used to make this study reflect reality. First, I only considered games where the total number of pass attempts exceeded 20 for both teams. The NFL coaches who advise me on these kinds of things agreed that this would be a number they would listen to if I presented it to them in a real team setting. Secondly, as we all know, different offensive alignments and plays change defensive formations and assignments. I'm keeping things surface-level for this article, but personnel and matchups -- meaning who, when and where disruptions come from -- do matter. Over the 15-year sample in my model, there is enough data to create some cool specific contextual notes that look at the who, when and where. But the purpose of these paragraphs is to verify that the thing you're seeing with your own eyes passes the data test, too.

So far this season, one team has produced at least 5 percent more disruptions than it has allowed in 87 games. Of these teams, 61 have won the game. That equals 70.1 percent. How's that for trend alignment?!

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS

Hunter Renfrow, WR, Oakland Raiders: Renfrow has been targeted at least three times in every game this season, indicating that the fifth-round pick has been a trusted part of the game plan from Day 1. In fact, Renfrow leads all Raider receivers in targets (37) and receptions (24). Only tight end Darren Waller has more in each category (48 receptions on 60 targets). Over the past two games, though, the rookie slot's ability to separate and earn yards after the catch has helped change the shape of opposing defenses, creating a big uptick in efficiency (increased first downs) and resulting in touchdowns for Renfrow in consecutive games. Here's the figure to remember: On average in 2019, receivers running similar routes to Renfrow earn more than 3 yards after the catch about 33 percent of the time (min. 10 targets); Renfrow accomplishes this 60 percent of the time, with a 65-yard touchdown in Week 8. One key to this week? The Chargers are missing their starting safeties. If Tyrell Williams draws the majority of the coverage from top Bolts CB Casey Hayward, this could be a great opportunity for Renfrow (and Waller).

Zach Pascal, WR, Indianapolis Colts: With Frank Reich stating Wednesday that he doesn't expect to have T.Y. Hilton available against the Dolphins, Pascal has another opportunity to flourish on Sunday. Pro Football Focus credits Pascal with a staggering 141.0 passer rating when targeted this season. Of the 24 passes thrown his way, Pascal has caught 19, earning a first down on 14 and scoring four touchdowns. That kind of first-down and touchdown creation is a good indicator of play-calling/quarterbacking trust in the third-year receiver out of Old Dominion. Here's what sticks out to me about Pascal: Receivers who boast averages near his 16.9 yards per reception (with 5.3 coming after the catch) typically experience more defenders coming within 5 feet of them in the second half. Pascal has the opposite phenomenon occur -- and this includes when Hilton is not there. Pascal is able to get away from defenders more as the game progress. Usually route-runners like Pascal show a lower reception average in the second half, as well. But Pascal's 21.2-yard average after the break is higher than his first-half figure of 13.0 -- though three of his four TDs have come in the first half. Bottom line: If you're looking for an upside play in fantasy this week, Pascal has plenty to offer, going up against Miami's Xavien Howard-less secondary.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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