NFL teams use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an 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 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.
After Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season, we only have a small sample size to draw from, but some meaningful notes and potential trends to track do stand out already. As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something, or if there's a stat or trend you'd like me to look more deeply into. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
SLEEPER TEAM FOR WEEK 2: Cleveland Browns
Let's start with the obvious: The Browns committed 18 penalties for 182 yards in their 43-13 Week 1 loss to the Titans, good for 75 yards more than the next closest team for the week (the Bears, who racked up 107 penalty yards). No team converted a lower percentage of third downs (10%). Extremely low efficiency on first down led to extremely difficult third downs; 76 of their 81 offensive penalty yards and three of quarterback Baker Mayfield's five sacks all came on first down, both the most on the week. On defense, the Browns allowed 8.54 yards per play on first down (ranking 29th) which set up difficulties on later downs, as well.
The good news for Cleveland is, there are plenty of positive indicators going forward, especially considering their personnel. Starting with the defense: It's a very good sign that the Browns allowed just 2.3 yards per third-down play to the Titans (ranking second best in the league in Week 1), and that Cleveland held Tennessee to a 20% third-down conversion rate (tied for fourth best). Effective pressure from the defensive front is strongly correlated with wins for NFL teams, and that will be a strength of this defense going forward. The Browns' defense blitzed and brought pressure packages on first down on over half their plays in the first half, when the Titans were held to just 12 points. In the second half, Cleveland's pressure rate dropped by more than 50% (falling from 29% to 13.5%), a contributing factor in their yards-allowed-per-play figure ballooning from 4.44 to 8.55, with Tennessee also scoring 31 points in that half.
Increased discipline, especially along the left side of the offensive line and at the tight end position, will increase the impact of an efficient rushing attack and allow Mayfield to look more like what we all expected coming into the season. The fact that the Browns averaged 5.1 yards per rush and recorded four rushes of 10-plus yards (tied for seventh-most on the week) stands out in a positive way, especially given the state of an O-line that struggled and had to shuffle pieces to make up for left tackle Greg Robinson's ejection. I have to add that the offensive line is the main unit that stands out as a limiting factor for the team's overall potential, but Week 1 may have left outside observers with a too negative assessment of how much danger the line is putting Mayfield in. Though he averaged just 7.5 yards per pass against the Titans, Mayfield is projected to earn about 10 yards per passing attempt against the Jets in Week 2.
THREE SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 2
Danny Amendola, WR, Detroit Lions: Next Gen Stats counted 10 of Amendola's 13 targets last week against the Cardinals as coming from the slot. Slot use figures to be a much more valuable tool in this Darrell Bevell-led Lions offense than it was last season, when Jim Bob Cooter was offensive coordinator; in 2018, the Lions targeted the slot on just 27.2 percent of targets (fifth fewest in the NFL). Amendola's combined on- and off-ball impact projects to add more total receiver position value (adding together the win share for all of the WRs on the Lions' roster) than last season.
Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Redskins: I think I got the most What the? looks when I suggested McLaurin as a fantasy sleeper. Next Gen Stats show that against the Eagles on Sunday, of his seven total targets, five were at a depth of 10-plus air yards, and he caught three of those for 104 yards and a touchdown. One of the reasons why my model liked him so much in college was because at Ohio State, he was able to find so much space to work with. That is to say, though defenders would get within 6 feet of him at some point when he was traveling along his route (two or more seconds after the snap), McLaurin would still generally manage to secure a cushion of more than 6 feet at the point when the ball arrived. In his debut, four of his five catches looked like that. And on his one catch in tight coverage, McLaurin showed body control and used his hands to make the play.
Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens: As far as win share is concerned, no team has a higher total group projected output for its tight ends than the Ravens. I got a chance to hear Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman be asked, in person, if quarterback Lamar Jackson would attempt more than 420 passes this season, and Roman emphatically said he'd attempt more. Given the feeling behind Roman's answer, I'm going to take his word here. The thing about scoring 59 points in a game, as the Ravens did Sunday, is that now a more average score (like one in the mid-20s) is going to seem less exciting (at least, for your fantasy team). What my model projects to get more exciting is the potential for Andrews to earn even more yards after the catch than what we saw against the Dolphins in Week 1, when Andrews averaged 4.2 yards after the catch (Andrews finished the day with eight catches on eight targets for 108 yards and a score). Andrews' projection going forward is between 8 and 10 YAC per reception in most games.
ONE NUMBER TO TRUST
29%: Packers' rate of defensive disruption (ranking eighth for Week 1). Next Gen Stats show that in last Thursday's win over the Bears, the Packers pressured Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on 38% of dropbacks, up from 13.2% in the teams' two games last season. Further, my computer vision tracks 13 times where the Packers got into a 5-foot halo in Trubisky's field of vision (what I count as defensive disruption, compared to NGS' definition of disruption as occurring when a player is within 2 yards of the QB when he throws the ball) for a rate of 29%. For context, think of about a 16% disruption rate as being very good.
TWO NUMBERS TO DISTRUST
2.84 seconds: Cardinals QB Kyler Murray's average time to throw (10th slowest for the week). In the first three quarters of Arizona's tie with Detroit, Murray averaged 3.11 seconds from snap to throw. In the fourth quarter and overtime, this sped up to 2.61 seconds, and it projects to keep getting quicker. In the first three quarters, Murray scrambled for 8.8 yards per passing attempt and in the fourth quarter plus overtime he only averaged 5.5 scramble yards per attempt. In-game, we've already seen the seeds of this slow time to throw changing, and my model strongly indicates this number will continue to decrease as Murray takes more snaps and first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury calls more plays that are designed to get the ball out more quickly, with both quarterback and coach adjusting to the learning curve of life in the NFL.
0-4: Falcons QB Matt Ryan on deep passing attempts against the Vikings (per Next Gen Stats). Last season, Ryan earned eight touchdowns against just two interceptions with a 115.4 passer rating on passes of 20-plus air yards. Ryan ranked fourth in passer rating on such passes in the NFL among players with 40-plus such attempts (behind only Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins). In Week 1, two of the Falcons' three turnovers against the Vikings occurred in the first half and on first down. Partially as a result of that, Atlanta did not reach the red zone until after halftime -- and after Minnesota had already built a 21-0 lead. Thus, Ryan's ability to be strategic with his deep passes was severely limited. This was likely more of a one-off game than a sign of a broader trend.