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June, 2012 | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football


Fantasy: Robert Griffin III vs Andrew Luck

Jonathan Bales

So Fantasy Football for Smart People was rising steadily, becoming the top fantasy football book on Amazon, when I noticed zero Kindle sales for the past two days. I had been selling about infinity percent more than that, so I knew something was up. Somehow I changed the status of the e-book version from “Live” to “Draft” and it wasn’t selling. There goes literally TENS of dollars.

Anyway, I’m continuing to promote the book through various outlets, and I will continue to post links to my guest posts here. My latest is a comparison of RGIII and Andrew Luck over at Fantasy Football Starters. Make no mistake about it; I think RGIII is set up for the bigger fantasy impact in 2012, but that doesn’t mean I’d take him ahead of Luck. Luck’s average draft position is far lower than that of Griffin, meaning he’s probably a superior value.

On the contrary, here’s the case for RGIII:

Robert Griffin III is a dynamic football player who can beat defenses in a multitude of ways. Some say he’s Michael Vick with more accuracy, and while RGIII’s legs might not stack up, he’s a more complete rookie than Vick.

The primary reason RGIII has a shot at putting up solid fantasy numbers is his running ability. I’ve written in the past about how fantasy owners can leverage quarterback rushing yards into championships; they’re the most predictable stat in all of fantasy football and often overlooked. If Griffin posts just 2,500 passing yards and 15 touchdowns through the air, he would need only 360 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to match a rookie campaign of 3,500 yards and 20 scores for Luck (assuming the former-Stanford Cardinal doesn’t do anything on the ground).

You better believe I’ll be projecting RGIII higher than 360 yards and four scores on the ground, so the margin for error in the passing game is much greater than with Luck.

Check back later today for my latest ‘Running the Numbers’ post.


Running the Numbers: Romo Versus the Blitz

Jonathan Bales

I’ve talked about Tony Romo’s ability to succeed against the blitz in the past, primarily when he posted a 113.9 passer rating against the blitz in 2010. Overall, however, Romo is about equal against the blitz as against a four-man rush. As I point out in my latest Running the Numbers post, Romo really excels when the defense doesn’t disguise their intentions:

Romo’s passer rating when the defense sticks with its pre-snap alignment is remarkable. When the defense shows a blitz pre-snap and then actually blitzes, Romo’s passer rating is 120.9. If the defense doesn’t show blitz and then sits back in coverage, Romo’s rating is still outstanding at 110.4. When Romo anticipates the defense doing one thing and they do another, however, his passer rating is far lower.

Note that although both passer ratings against the blitz are higher than those when the defense doesn’t blitz, the overall non-blitz passer rating is slightly higher because defenses generally fail to show blitz and then sit back in coverage. Actually, defenses have lined up in a standard alignment and then not blitzed on 48 percent of the Cowboys’ plays over the past three years. In comparison, defenses have lined up in a traditional alignment and then blitzed only 13.9 percent of the time.

You might think this phenomenon would be the case for all quarterbacks, but it isn’t because disguising blitzes puts defenses in a sub-optimal position before the snap.


Fantasy Football: Why You Shouldn’t Draft a Wide Receiver Early

Jonathan Bales

One of the major themes of my book is utilizing season-to-season consistency in your fantasy football draft. I’m not a big believer in week-to-week consistency (actually, stats show it is an illusion), but all other things being equal, you should seek as little volatility as possible with your draft choices. There are times to take on risk in an effort to increase upside, but obtaining players with high ceilings and consistent year-to-year play is optimal.

I just posted an article on the consistency of various positions over at Roto Info. The numbers are pretty shocking. In my book, I wrote that quarterback and tight end are the most consistent positions in fantasy football. Running back is next, and wide receiver is actually quite volatile. These stats back up that idea. . .

The top five quarterbacks are projected to move just a single spot each. It’s barely more at 1.4 spots per player for the running backs. In practical terms, it means both quarterbacks and running backs are very consistent, and thus safe, near the start of the draft.

This idea fits with common sense; we see the same signal-callers—Aaron Rodgers, Tom BradyDrew Brees—at the top of the quarterback rankings each season. The running back position, although relatively unstable as a whole, has the same sort of top-tier consistency. We often see the workhorse backs like Ray Rice and Arian Foster dominate the top of drafts each year.

Even more startling than the quarterback and running back consistency is the volatility of the top fantasy receivers. The top five receivers from 2011 are projected to move an average 5.6 spots each in 2012. The risk associated with early wide receivers is so great that the top 10 and top 20 receivers are actually projected to move fewer spots in the rankings than the top five players at the position.

Also note the consistency of the running back position diminishes outside of the top tier. With more and more teams switching to “running back by committee” attacks, the value of the position, although lower in general, is ironically higher than ever at the beginning of drafts.

For fantasy owners, this means you should target a top-tier running back or quarterback early. If you miss out on Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, or another stud back, wait it out. The player you can get in the fifth round will be rather comparable to the back you can get in the third.


Dallas Cowboys News and Notes, 6/11/12: Cowboys Most Improved in NFL?

Jonathan Bales

With the upgrade at cornerback and inside linebacker, I think you can make a case. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will be light years ahead of Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman. For the first time in a long time, the ‘Boys have depth at the cornerback position. The signing of Dan Connor was huge, and don’t forget Bruce Carter is basically a new contributor as well.

According to Pete Prisco, the Cowboys have the top pass-rusher in the NFL, a top 10 quarterback, the No. 3 offensive tackle, and the sixth-best cornerback in Carr. He’s surely right about DeMarcus Ware and I’d put Tony Romo a bit higher, but I think he’s a little too high on Tyron Smith and Carr.

Smith is one of my favorite players and I think he’ll be perhaps the best offensive tackle in the league within a couple of years, but he’s not there yet. I don’t think you can rank him ahead of Jake Long right now. Similarly, I’d put Nnamdi Asomugha, Brent Grimes, Ladarius Webb, and perhaps Leon Hall ahead of Carr at this point.

I’m inclined to say yes. Vickers was sensational in Houston last season. Although the Cowboys had a lot of success with Fiammetta last season, he still played only 227 snaps. That’s hardly an outstanding sample size. While you all know I’m a proponent of a “pass to set up the pass” mentality, your fullback doesn’t need catch passes. He needs to destroy people, especially in short-yardage situations. The best way for the Cowboys to improve their running game, in my estimation, is to win those 3rd and 4th and 1s. Vickers will help with that.

**Side note: Am I the only one who thinks Vickers looks like a much larger version of Kanye West? Google it and get back to me.

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The Xtra Point: Philip Rivers’ Probable 2012 Fantasy Football Rebound

Jonathan Bales

I’ve been posting over at Roto Experts for a couple months now, and with the NFL Draft over, I will turn my focus toward fantasy football analysis. Starting today, I will be posting a Monday blog called “The Xtra Point.” In it, I will take an in-depth look at fantasy football draft strategy, player projections, and so on.

Today’s post is on Philip Rivers. For fantasy owners out there, I think Rivers is one of the more undervalued players in drafts this season. I recently projected Rivers to throw for the second-most yards in the NFL in my quarterback YPA regression at Pro Football Focus. He’s currently getting selected over a round behind Tony Romo, even though I think Rivers actually possesses more fantasy upside and less risk. Rivers could potentially throw the ball nearly 600 times this season; Romo is highly unlikely to do that.

Here are a couple other reasons I like Rivers this season:

  • His yards-per-attempt will be much higher.

I recently did a post on quarterback yards-per-attempt. In that article, I regressed quarterbacks’ YPA to match their average over the previous three seasons in order to obtain a number that was more representative of their true ability than 2011 stats alone. Rivers was one of the biggest risers.

In 2011, Rivers threw for 7.9 YPA. He threw for 8.7, 8.8, and 8.4 YPA the previous three seasons, however, meaning he really underachieved last year. With 8.5 YPA in 2012, Rivers would likely finish in the top two or three for quarterbacks in terms of total passing yards. Yes, that takes into account Rivers’ probable drop in attempts.

  • Rivers’ completion percentage will be higher.

Like his YPA, Rivers’ completion percentage of 62.9 percent was below his career mark. Over the three prior seasons, Rivers completed 65.5 percent of his passes. If we project Rivers to attempt just 520 passes in 2012—62 fewer than last season and 21 fewer than in 2010—he’d still connect on 341 passes with a completion rate of 65.5 percent.

Rivers’ yards-per-completion over the past three seasons has been 13.1. Even with 4,624 passing yards last year, Rivers’ YPC was only 12.5. With an increase in completion percentage and YPC toward “normality,” Rivers figures to throw for nearly 4,500 yards, even assuming a larger dip in attempts. If Rivers is closer to his 582 attempts from 2011, he could approach 5,000 yards and lead the league in passing.

Overall, I think Rivers is one of the few players with an extremely high ceiling and minimal risk. That’s really what fantasy football owners seek, but rarely find, with every pick.

Cowboys fans. . .I’m about to begin my next “Running the Numbers” post. It will deal with Romo’s ability to beat the blitz, and it should be posted at the team site tomorrow.

Don’t forget to pick up Fantasy Football for Smart People, which you can now buy in paperback at Amazon.


Q&A With CBS Sports Fantasy Expert Dave Richard

Jonathan Bales

With the launch of my book Fantasy Football for Smart People, I’ve gotten to speak to a lot of experts in the fantasy football field. The latest is Dave Richard over at CBS Sports. Dave is a smart guy and has a keen fantasy football mind. You can read some of his stuff at CBS here.

Tell me a little about your background and how you got into fantasy writing for CBS Sports.

To make a long story short, I got a job with SportsLine back in 2000 covering pro wrestling, which I liked almost as much as football. A year and a half later they moved me over to work on NFL.com as part of an agreement they had with the league. I did that for four seasons, writing a bunch of Q&As and doing fantasy stuff for them; I was their first fantasy writer. In 2005, I moved back over to CBSSports.com to cover fantasy football full-time. I learned more about football than I ever thought I could working at NFL.com thanks to guys like Gil Brandt and Pat Kirwan, and it’s been that education that’s helped me today.

You labeled Robert Griffin III as the draft’s top “winner” from a fantasy perspective. How would you compare his long-term value to Andrew Luck?

I think Luck is the genuine article. He looks and plays the part of a franchise quarterback. I watched him play a lot and mostly loved what he did. He’s ready for this. I can’t commit to the same sentiments for Griffin, though I do think he’s an excellent quarterback. He’s got a solid arm, his mobility is great, etc. If I had to pick one for the rest of my life in fantasy it’s Luck. If I had to pick one for this year, it’s Griffin.

Which player at each position do you see as the most undervalued? Overvalued?

At quarterback, Matt Ryan is undervalued. I really don’t see anyone as overvalued to be honest. I think the top five quarterbacks are worth the price. I think the guys after that are worth the third- and fourth-round picks. I can’t really complain about how the quarterbacks are shaping up.

I think the only people on the Michael Turner bandwagon are me and Turner’s family. The guy has been productive for years and isn’t near breaking down according to my own research on when running backs start to break. Even if he gets 260 carries, I bet he still tops 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Defenses will have no way to defend against him with White, Jones and Gonzalez roaming on every play. I think everyone’s reaching for Roy Helu; I can’t trust the Redskins’ backfield now that Tim Hightower is back in the fold. It’s going to be ugly for fantasy owners.

At receiver, I like a lot of guys, but if I had to pick one it would be Reggie Wayne. A lot of people think he’s toast. His stats stunk last year because he played with Curtis Painter for much of the year, and he’ll make anyone look bad. Wayne will get an improvement with Andrew Luck, and the Colts are going to play from behind a lot this year because their defense will stink.

I’ll go with a fellow Cane as overrated, for fantasy purposes, in Andre Johnson. Some people like him as the No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. I can’t trust his legs to stay healthy, not to mention his quarterback. Plus, the Texans are shifting toward being balanced, if not more run-oriented.

Jacob Tamme and Coby Fleener are underrated as tight ends. I don’t know if there’s an overrated tight end.

In my book, I noted owners seem to have the most success landing a top-tier quarterback early because their play is so consistent from year-to-year. You grabbed Drew Brees with the eighth overall pick in a recent CBS Sports mock draft. What was your thought process with the selection and why did you grab Brees over Tom Brady?

I’m just looking for safe and steady with my first pick this year. Brees can give me that. And I think he’ll keep passing like crazy because his defense will regress and it’ll force the Saints to throw, and I bet he’ll call a lot of the shots on offense. If he’s doing that, the Saints will throw way more than they run. Plus, he could have a contract to play for. Never hurts.

In doing research on season-to-season consistency, I noted tight end is actually the most predictable position in fantasy football. What are your thoughts on taking one of the top tight ends in the late second or early third round?

That’s the right time to do it. I don’t see tight ends as that consistent unless they’re elite. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten. . .those guys have been big parts of their offense for a long time. It’s because they’re big, strong, durable receivers for their quarterbacks. It only makes sense that Gronkowski and Graham will follow suit, though I don’t know if Aaron Hernandez or Jermichael Finley qualify since they’re more receiver than blocker.

I think a major mistake a lot of owners make is trying to maximize projected points with each selection as opposed to minimizing the points they “lose” in bypassing one position over another. Do you adhere to a “best player available” draft strategy at all times, or another draft philosophy?

Once I’m six or seven rounds into my draft I probably go with best player available. But I also want good value with my picks, and that goes for every round. If you base your draft solely on projections, then you’re taking quarterbacks (plural) earlier than anyone else since they score the most points.

You know how NFL teams say they never draft for need? They don’t if they can help it, but otherwise you bet they’re drafting on need. Fantasy is the same way (Editor’s Note: I’ve been saying this for years). If you need a receiver and a good one is available based on where you’re picking, you should take him. Kind of obvious, right?

For the best fantasy football analysis around, check me out at FantasyNews.CBSSports.com, and find me on Twitter and Facebook.


Running the Numbers: Things Looking Up in Cowboys’ Backfield

Jonathan Bales

My latest post at DallasCowboys.com deals with rookie running backs. I broke down some of the numbers of the top rookie running backs since 2000 to determine which stats are the best predictors of future success. It turns out rookie yards-per-carry is highly predictive of overall career value, more so than carries and yards. From the post:

When looking at the numbers of the other top 40 rookie running backs, I saw the same trend: Rookie YPC was a solid predictor of future success. In the graph below, I used Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value as a measure for NFL success. At a position like running back where players prosper by racking up stats, I think AV (or in the case of this study, AV per season) is an accurate judge of value. Since 2000, the top five running backs in terms of AV per season are Chris Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, and LeSean McCoy.

You can see that rookie YPC is just behind total yards in terms of how accurately it can predict future NFL value. The AV per season of the top 20 running backs (in terms of yards) was 7.0. It was just 0.1 point lower for the top 20 backs in terms of YPC. Meanwhile, the number of carries received by the top 40 rookie running backs had little impact on their future success.

I have another one of those “horrible, slide rule, team-colored graphics” at the site, but hopefully the bright colors won’t distract you from the content. You can head here to check out the rest of the article and see why DeMarco Murray has both statistics and the eye test on his side.

You have to be excited about the Murray-Jones combination in 2012.

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Fantasy Football for Smart People Available in Paperback

Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football for Smart People is now available as a paperback. It is in pre-order stages and will ship on June 16. It costs $13.99. You can also buy it as a PDF or on Kindle (both $7.99). I’ve been writing the book since January, and if you play fantasy football, I’m confident you’ll find it useful this season. From the book:

The most important reason we need to make projections, though, ties back in with the idea of VORP.  Remember, VORP, or Value Over Replacement Player, suggests we should identify the biggest gap in points between current draft considerations and replacement players at their respective positions who could be drafted later.

The example between wide receivers and tight ends that I used in the tight end section of my analysis of season-to-season consistency is an example of an employment of VORP.  In effect, VORP is the temporary bypassing of maximum points for greater overall points down the road.  Remember, since fantasy football requires the selection of players from multiple positions, any worthwhile draft strategy must possess an overarching vision; draft strategies like “Best Player Available” are too shortsighted, necessary limiting the projected points you can acquire down the road in favor of more now.

Without projections (or some sort of rating system), VORP draft strategy is impossible.  A value system is necessary to decipher the “worth” of a player.  We can rank players all day to help us compare players within particular positions, but a comparison of players that play different positions is worthless without a rating system.

How to Add Positional Consistency Into Projections

One quick and easy method to implement positional consistency into player ratings is to multiply projected points for a position by the correlational strength of consistency.  That is:

C(P), where C is correlational strength and P is projected points

As I stated earlier, these correlations are 0.62 for tight ends, 0.60 for quarterbacks, 0.48 for running backs, and 0.42 for wide receivers.

Thus, if we project a quarterback to score 300 points and a wide receiver to score 200, those value shift to 0.60(300)=180 and 0.42(200)=84, respectively.  Note that those numbers aren’t projected points, but rather weighted values that make comparisons of various players easier.

The primary problem with this method, in my view, is it values the consistent positions too greatly, widening the “scarcity” gap at these spots.  For example, if we assume the 300-point quarterback and 200-point receiver are the top players at their respective positions and that our second-ranked players were projected to score 285 (QB) and 190 (WR), the above formula would change those projections to 171 and 79.

Whereas the second-ranked players were projected to score five percent less than their top-ranked counterparts in the original projections, the new consistency-infused projections have the second quarterback still at five percent behind the top signal-caller, but the second receiver 6.0 percent behind the top pass-catcher.  In effect, multiplying position correlation strength by projected points increases the “scarcity” of the most consistent positions, improperly inflating their worth.

To compensate for this effect on scarcity, we can use a new formula that incorporates average points for each position.  To obtain better projections, we can multiply the difference in projected points and average points by the aforementioned correlational strength of each position, then add that number to the average points.  That is:

C(P-A) + A, where C is correlational strength, P is projected points, and A is average points for fantasy starters at the position

Let’s assume we project a tight end to score 200 points and a wide receiver to score 220 points, with the average at the positions being 150 and 180, respectively.  We could factor positional consistency into those projections by multiplying the difference between the projection and the average by 0.62 and 0.42, respectively.  Our new projections would be:

Tight End: 0.62(200-150) + 150 = 181
Wide Receiver: 0.42(220-180) + 180 = 197

Since the positional scoring mean is incorporated into the formula, we can effectively control the effect of inflated scarcity that plagued the initial formula.

Also, I’m giving away some pretty cool prizes to those who purchase the book.


Dallas Cowboys News and Notes, 6/7/12: DeMarco, Lissemore, and Jenkins

Jonathan Bales

I have a new post over at the Cowboys’ team site coming soon, but I wanted to discuss a few of the hot topics surrounding the Cowboys. . .

It’s a good choice. Lissemore had PFF’s highest run defense grade, and he was very efficient all season. We’ll see what he can do with more snaps. My choices might surprise: Anthony Spencer on defense and Martellus Bennett on offense (with Montrae Holland a close second). I talked about Bennett here and Holland here.

Although it sounds like a horrible injury, a broken ankle is a lot better than tearing a ligament or (gasp) an Achilles. The ankle should be just fine by now, and Murray is poised for a big year in 2012. I recently submitted an article to the Cowboys on projecting running backs’ careers based on their efficiency as rookies, and Murray has the fourth-highest YPC of any rookie with 100-plus carries since 2000.

A whole lot, in my opinion. I think a major mistake made in that article is thinking the secondary and pass rush are separate units. The success of the secondary is highly dependent on an effective pass rush. Actually, I’d say cornerbacks and safeties need an effective pass rush far more than the pass-rushers need great cornerbacks. Don’t get me wrong; cornerbacks are certainly important. But how many times do you see a “coverage sack” as opposed to an open receiver who can’t get the ball because of effective pressure?

I think so. A lot is made about the difference between playing in the slot and playing outside. While there are certainly differences, I don’t think cornerback and “cornerback-who-plays-five-yards-inside” are as different as people make them to be. It is true you need a specific sort of skill set to play inside, but I think Jenkins has the quickness to do it. Plus, you want your best players on the field. Jenkins is a starting-caliber cornerback who would be one of the league’s premiere slot cornerbacks.

No comments. Just do it.


Running the Numbers: Deep Passing Stats

Jonathan Bales

My latest submission to DallasCowboys.com deals with the Cowboys’ deep passing stats over the past three seasons. In it, I discuss when I think possessing an efficient running game is important. Regulars here know I often dismiss the idea that offenses need to be balanced (they don’t), but a strong running game is important in short-yardage situations and to set up big plays in the passing game. As I write in the article:

The biggest reason a formidable ground attack can be valuable, however, is that it sets up big plays via the passing game. It’s a whole lot easier for an offense to move downfield from a single deep pass than from a handful of successful runs, but those six- and eight-yard rushes can alter a defense’s strategy and leave them susceptible to a deep passing play. Thus, although rushing frequently is unnecessary, running efficiently can have positive offensive effects that often manifest themselves in passing statistics.

And the Cowboys have had quite a bit of success throwing deep lately. Last season, Romo turned in a ridiculous 125.4 passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards.

One of the reasons I think we see this is (and one I didn’t discuss in the article) is that Romo buys time in the pocket to allow receivers to get wide open, making a lot of his deep throws “easy.” Jason Garrett really dials up a low percentage of deep passes (well below the league average in every season he’s been offensive coordinator), so there’s a bit of a selection bias at work toward these “easy” deep passes. More designed deep throws would result in a lower passer rating, I think.

Nonetheless, the ‘Boys really could benefit from more throws down the field. Dez Bryant has unbelievable ball skills, and I’d sure be throwing it up to him anytime he doesn’t have a safety over top.

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