Game Theory

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Week 1 stats to trust, question: Beware of Tom Brady hot takes

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.

Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season has produced a glut of overreactions, as you might expect, but there are some meaningful notes to track despite the small sample size. You'll find my observations below; let's see which turn into trends and which end up as outliers.

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

STAT TO TRUST

Rushing-threat QBs gave teams a bigger Week 1 edge this season than they have in the past five seasons.

  • Looking at the top five quarterbacks who have demonstrated the ability to execute designed rushes (excluding rookies due to the limited sample size) from each opening weekend since 2015 shows that this year's group earned about a 20 percent higher win share -- a metric that measures the contribution of each player, position group and side of the ball for every snap in an NFL season -- than those of the five seasons prior. The Cardinals' Kyler Murray, Patriots' Cam Newton, Ravens' Lamar Jackson, Bills' Josh Allen and Texans' Deshaun Watson made up the 2020 group. All but Jackson rushed for at least one touchdown in Week 1, and they combined for five scores. I determined the top five by examining plays executed in Week 1 of this season and comparing them with successful designed runs from prior seasons as defenses had to honor the run from a spacing perspective. Then I used the same methodology to determine the top five in each year from 2015 to 2019. The top five rushing-threat QBs in the five seasons prior to 2020 averaged a win share of 0.29. However, this season's average for the top five is 0.35. This is worth monitoring to see if it becomes a trend. When I asked NFL coaches about my observation, they noted that the Seahawks' Russell Wilson didn't make the top five in Week 1, which could reflect a couple things: 1) There are more rushing-threat QBs starting in the NFL now and 2) Teams are making more use of their rushing talents than in the past. This development could also be result of defenses getting caught more flat-footed than normal due to an abbreviated offseason amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

STAT TO QUESTION

Tom Brady's two INTs prove he's a turnover machine who's not good anymore.

  • There are many reasons that this is a totally ridiculous assertion, in my humble opinion. Yes, he had a rough debut for the Bucs vs. the Saints, throwing two interceptions (including a pick-six) in a 34-23 loss, but one thing that doesn't seem to be included in the hot takes I've heard coming out of that game is that New Orleans' defense is better than some people estimated prior to Sunday. That's an aside, though. As for insights on Brady, Next Gen Stats shows that he was far more effective vs. the Saints when he had a time to throw of 2.5-plus seconds. He had a passer rating of 61.4 and threw both of his INTs when he had less than 2.5 seconds to throw. When he had 2.5-plus seconds to throw, he passed for a touchdown, averaged 2.7 more yards per attempt (7.8 versus 5.1 when he had less than 2.5 seconds) and his passer rating was 101.9. Efficiency on quick passes has been a hallmark of Brady's career to date, which leads me to believe this one game will go down as an anomaly that time and reps with his new teammates will cure. Further, both INTs occurred when the Saints dropped seven or more defenders into coverage, per NGS. Brady has a long track record of diagnosing and beating coverage, further cementing my belief that we're witnessing a learning curve as opposed to a real trend.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 2

Mike Williams
Mike Williams
Los Angeles Chargers · WR

I was deciding between the Steelers' Diontae Johnson and Williams for this note, as they were the most targeted players on their respective teams in Week 1 (10 targets for Johnson; nine for Williams). Both have Flex fantasy value, at minimum, in Week 2, but something pretty cool stands out about Williams heading into his matchup with the Chiefs. As tracked and measured by computer vision, Williams' ability to create separation on routes when he wasn't targeted ranked sixth-best in the NFL in Week 1. He was five feet or more from the closest defender at the sixth-highest rate on passing downs, whether he was targeted or not. Think of this as a way to measure the potential to earn big gains, especially on deep and intermediate routes. With a game that projects to include a high number of passes and Kansas City still leaning on some inexperienced players at cornerback, targets plus space means there’s a high ceiling for Williams this week.

Logan Thomas
Logan Thomas
Washington Football Team · TE

My model likes both Logan Thomas and the Panthers' Ian Thomas (my model really likes the potential return on investment Ian Thomas offers for his very inexpensive price), but I wanted to focus on the Washington Football Team here. Logan Thomas led Washington in Week 1 targets (eight), and his rapport with QB Dwayne Haskins will be key against Arizona in another game that figures to include a lot of passes. The Cardinals' defense has been the most generous when it comes to touchdowns surrendered to tight ends since 2019 (16 allowed, most in NFL). That said, safety Budda Baker and rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons forecast to improve the D in this area, so make the most of the situation this week with Thomas and keep an eye on how tight ends fare against Arizona going forward.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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