Game Theory

Why the Cowboys remain NFC East favorites; two fantasy sleepers for Week 6

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 personnel, opponents and 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.

STAT TO TRUST

+2: Deep passing execution (20+ air yards) is worth about two more earned first downs per game, up from about 1.3 over the past eight seasons.

In this season of record-breaking offense, NFL Research points out that the current gap of 23.0 points per game between 2020's highest-scoring team (Packers, 38.0 points per game) and lowest-scoring team (Jets, 15.0) would be the largest in a season since 2007, when the Patriots finished first (36.8 ppg) and the 49ers last (13.7). Entering Week 6, individual teams have reached 30 points in a single game 64 times, the most in the first five weeks of a season in the Super Bowl era. The next-closest total through five weeks was 44 (in both 2013 and '18). That's a difference of TWENTY! Part of the reason why teams are lighting up the scoreboard? Offenses across the league are flourishing downfield. According to Next Gen Stats, the 38 percent completion rate on deep passes (20-plus air yards) league-wide is the highest figure through five weeks in any season since NGS began tracking this figure in 2016.

I toyed with the phrasing above -- deep passing execution -- because what I'm looking to explore is more complex than just the teams that are able to connect on deep shots. Everyone saw rookie burner Henry Ruggs III play a huge part in the Raiders' upset of the Chiefs this past Sunday, but I wanted to dig deeper into the high-flying, back-and-forth action of today's NFL. So, my study doesn't just examine a team's capability to hit home runs, but take them away, as well.

This is an oversimplification, but the structural gist of my math equation is: (deep passing threat when targeted) + (deep passing threat when not targeted/changing defensive formation) - (defensive potential to surrender a deep reception) - (defensive consequence of defending deep routes).

I won't bore you with additional details, but essentially, through that equation, I'm able to separate teams into two different categories when it comes to deep passing execution: successful and unsuccessful. From 2012 through 2019, teams that were successful in this area averaged 1.3 more first downs per game. But this season, the successful teams are averaging two more first downs per game. That's a dramatic increase. And two additional first downs is no small figure -- since winning teams usually earn between 21 and 25 first downs per game, this is nearly a 10 percent boost. And this is before factoring in defensive pass interference.

Still a little unclear? How about an example, then some logic?

Through four games, Green Bay only has one three-and-out (2.5 percent of drives, lowest rate in the NFL). Also, 18 of the Packers' 36 big plays (passes of 20-plus yards + runs of 10-plus yards) are of the passing variety, which is tied for sixth -- and remember, they've played one less game than most other teams. On defense, Green Bay has surrendered just 19 total big plays, 11 of the passing variety. The Packers' defense also boasts the highest rate of forced three-and-outs (27.6 percent of drives). This starts to show how they're able to use deep passes -- and stop them -- to earn their 3.58 points per drive average, as opposed to their opponents' 2.53 mark. The Pack gain 2.8 more first downs per game through deep passing execution -- the highest average in the league.

The teams that can most say that this trend is not their friend? Currently, the Jets, Falcons and Jaguars. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have been able to buck negative influences from their defense with exceptional offense.

Quick Shameless Plug: Because there's a lot more meat on this offensive explosion bone, please check out my video version of this type of analysis on NFL GameDay Morning this Sunday (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET). I'm researching the impact of increased pre-snap motion, increased penalties and decreased defensive pressure rate.

Because you sat through that, here are a few fantasy sleepers to consider this week who rate highly in the deep-passing department and have matchups (or volume situations) worth exploiting: the Ravens' Marquise Brown, Dolphins' Preston Williams, Lions' Kenny Golladay, Jets' Jeff Smith, Packers' Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chiefs' Mecole Hardman.

STAT TO QUESTION

2021: As in, please question anyone who tells you that 2021 is the next time the Dallas Cowboys could be relevant.

There is no math that suggests the most probable outcome for Dallas (2-3) is to completely fall apart following Dak Prescott's devastating injury. Let me be clear: This is not a negative opinion about Dak, but rather a note about the importance of having a starter-level backup quarterback -- especially in this year's NFC East. Having a QB2 of Andy Dalton's caliber drives a projected 2.9 wins through the rest of the season. This ranks 18th among current starting quarterbacks.

Now, it's very important to note that the offensive line for any team is a very big deal -- maybe you've heard me mention this before. Losing as many pieces as the Cowboys have, especially left tackle Tyron Smith, would make life difficult for any signal caller. But it helps to have an experienced backup, especially one who's had to deal with steady pressure in the past. Next Gen Stats show that Dalton is very comfortable in game plans that utilize quick passes (under 2.5 seconds) to evade pressure.

Dalton's played in 135 NFL games (133 starts) over 10 seasons (the first nine coming with the Bengals). In the Next Gen Stats era -- 2016 to present -- Dalton's played in 58 games (56 starts). These are pertinent numbers to compare during this NGS-era span:

Dalton on passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds: 67.6 percent completions, 12.9 percent pressure rate.
Dalton on passes thrown in 2.5-plus seconds: 54.4 percent completions, 41 percent pressure rate.

So, the veteran QB is clearly comfortable operating in a quick-rhythm system.

After accounting for the personnel and play-calling in Dallas, the data supports Dalton doing just fine as the Cowboys' new starting quarterback. Despite the injury-riddled offensive line, the 32-year-old signal-caller is flanked by three talented wide receivers who can all stretch the field (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and emerging rookie star CeeDee Lamb) and a stellar running back who balances out the offense (Ezekiel Elliott). All of this gives Dalton high odds for connecting on not just quick passes, but also intermediate and deep throws.

And here's the bottom line: In my model, the Cowboys win the NFC East in 47.2 percent of simulations, which -- yes -- remains the highest figure in the division.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 6

Laviska Shenault Jr.
Laviska Shenault Jr.
Jacksonville Jaguars · WR

Shenault's a special player with the ball in his hands. Yards after catch? Check! Yards after contact? Check! And when it comes to this Sunday's opponent -- the Detroit Lions -- tackling is not a strong suit.

Justin Jefferson
Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

I know last week was disappointing; after posting back-to-back 100-yard games against the Titans and Texans, the rookie managed just three catches for 23 yards versus a suspect Seahawks defense. But no defense has allowed more big-play catches (20-plus yards) or first downs than this week's visitors to U.S. Bank Stadium, the Falcons.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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