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

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Grading James Hanna and Matt Johnson

My two latest faux draft grades are up at NBC. The first is on tight end James Hanna:

At 252 pounds, Hanna ran a 4.49 40-yard dash—a remarkably fast time for a tight end. Compare that to Escobar’s 4.84 40-yard dash. I’ve found that the 40-yard dash isn’t incredibly important for tight ends, but we’d never want someone who is slower if we can have a faster player. Plus, Hanna is so fast for his size that there aren’t a ton of comps out there for him. Good luck finding more than a handful of 250-pound players who run sub-4.5.

In addition, Hanna ran a 4.11 short shuttle—faster than most running backs. He also had a 36-inch vertical, 10-2 broad jump, and 6.76 three-cone drill. In comparison, Escobar had a 4.31 short shuttle, 32-inch vertical, 9-6 broad jump, and 7.07 three-cone drill. Simply put, Hanna is a better athlete in every sense of the word.

Re-Grade: Second Round

The other grade is for safety Matt Johnson:

The Cowboys have an enormous amount of confidence in safety Matt Johnson—so much so that fans have commented on numerous occasions that the team really knows nothing about him. Johnson—a rookie in 2012—has never played a snap in the NFL, yet he’s projected to be the Cowboys’ opening day starter at free safety.

Earlier this week, I broke down safety Barry Church as if he were a rookie and provided him with a fifth-round grade. Today, I’ll do the same for Johnson. Since Johnson has no NFL experience, however, the criteria on which I’m basing my grade are probably similar to those the Cowboys are using in assuming Johnson can play; he’s an athletic, explosive player with good size.

At 6-1, 215 pounds, Johnson is bulkier than the typical free safety. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, assuming Johnson can cover the deep middle. Based on his pre-draft measurables, there’s good reason to believe he can. Johnson ran as fast as a 4.52 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. Pro Day measurables aren’t standardized in the same way that they are for the NFL Scouting Combine, but it’s safe to say that Johnson is a sub-4.60 player. In addition, Johnson also recorded a 10-1 broad jump and 4.07 short shuttle. The latter number in particular is outstanding and shows that Johnson has short-area quickness.

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Star Magazine “On Air” Podcast, Episode 14: Predictive Stats

The latest episode of “On Air” is up at DallasCowboys.com. Jeff did a cool interview with rookie tight end Gavin Escobar, and we also discussed the difference between explanatory and predictive stats.

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100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 2: Money Management

For 100 days leading up to the 2013 football season, I’ll post a small sample from one of my three fantasy football books. This is Day 2.

You ever commit to something and then, soon after it begins, you realize you should have just shut the hell up? I’m not saying that’s how I feel on Day 2 of this overambitious “100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days” idea, but I’m not saying it’s not how I feel either.

Anyway, today’s sample is from my book How to Cash in on the Future of the Game:

Imagine a magical fantasy football genie has come to you and offered an enticing proposition: a guaranteed 80 percent winning percentage in weekly fantasy football. Um, sign me up. The offer comes with one caveat, though; you must bet 25 percent of your bankroll on each team, and you need to participate in a minimum of 500 leagues. Do you take the offer?

While an 80 percent winning percentage is likely unattainable over the long-run even for an expert owner, there’s still no way you can take the genie’s offer. Even with just a 20 percent chance of losing a game, it’s going to happen. And occasionally, it will happen twice in a row. And once in a while, you’ll lose three consecutive games. And, wait for it. . .over any four-game stretch (even with an incredible 80 percent expectation), you actually have a 0.16 percent chance of losing all four games—as in once in every 625 games, on average.

Would you go broke after the first four games? Probably not. But would it eventually happen? Yes. You’re basically playing Russian roulette with your bankroll when, if your goal is long-term profitability, you should take chance out of the equation as much as possible. Now consider that a more realistic expected long-term winning percentage of 60 percent would result in four straight losses at 16 times the rate of an 80 percent winning percentage, and you can see how money management starts to become the backbone of your weekly fantasy football strategy.

Buy the book for Kindle, as a PDF, or in paperback.

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100 Fantasy Football Tips in 100 Days, Day 1: The Best Draft Slot

With the release of my new books, I’ve decided to publish a small sample each day for the next 100 days. I’ll choose the most condensed, actionable content. Today’s blurb is from Section 1 of Fantasy Football for Smart People: What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know, and it deals with draft slots.

But just how good (or bad) is the general public? What’s the difference between the first draft position and the last, and what sort of return on investment might one expect with each? I wanted to answer those questions, so I spent some time tracking the relationship between fantasy draft slots and production. I included the top 20 picks from the past five seasons, analyzing fantasy points-per-game instead of overall points to correct for injuries that would throw off cumulative results.

A few points of interest:

  • No. 1 picks—all running backs—have provided 82.7 percent of the production of the top player at their position. The low was Chris Johnson in 2010, who scored 70.7 percent as many points as top-scorer Arian Foster. Amazingly, three of the top four backs from 2010—Foster, Peyton Hillis, and Jamaal Charles—weren’t drafted in the top 20.
  • No. 2 selections—again all running backs—have returned 80.3 percent of the production of the top-scoring back. The high was Foster in 2011, who led the league in fantasy points, and the low was Michael Turner in 2009 at 63.3 percent.
  • After the top two picks in fantasy drafts, there has been a significant drop in production. No. 3 picks have provided 71.4 percent of peak production, and No. 4 selections check in at just 65.0 percent.
  • Taking first-round selections in isolation, it appears superior to have a top two pick over any other. After No. 2, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between picks No. 3 and No. 12.
  • The true “cutoff” of talent over the years has been right around the 14/15 range. Since 2007, No. 14 overall picks have returned 72.4 percent of peak production. That number drops to 64.3 percent for No. 15 selections.

You can buy What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know on Kindle, as a PDF, or in paperback.

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    Ranking the NFL’s Top 15 Quarterbacks

    At Dallas Morning News, I took a shot at using stats to rank the league’s top quarterbacks. Here are my top eight:

    Pete Prisco recently released his top players at the four positions he considers to be most vital in the NFL: quarterback, pass-rusher, cornerback, and left tackle. Based solely on those positions, the Cowboys checked in as the second-best overall team with Tony Romo ranked at No. 9, DeMarcus Ware at No. 3, Brandon Carr at No. 11, and Tyron Smith at No. 8.

    For the most part, I think Prisco did a decent job with his rankings. Still, there are points of contention, so I wanted to propose my own “four-pronged” rankings from the perspective of a stat geek. Using advanced stats, I’ll put forth my top 15 players at each of the four positions, starting today with quarterback.

    To be clear, I’m ranking the players not based off of what they’ve done in the past, but rather how likely they are to succeed in the future. I don’t really care if Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl last year; that doesn’t affect his ability to win future championships all that much. The best stats or power rankings are the most predictive, so consider this list my prediction for the most likely quarterbacks to thrive in the future.

    1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

    • 7.8 YPA in 2012 and it was his worst mark in four years

    2. Tom Brady, Patriots

    • 0.29 WPA/game ranked him third in the NFL.

    3. Drew Brees, Saints

    • A down year and still top six in YPA

    4. Peyton Manning, Broncos

    • 7.49 net-YPA was first in NFL; would be higher if not for age

    5. Cam Newton, Panthers

    • Third in YPA, seventh in net-YPA; 1,447 yards and 22 TDs rushing in two seasons

    6. Robert Griffin III, Redskins

    • Health a concern, but best passer rating against the blitz in NFL history

    7. Matt Ryan, Falcons

    • Second-highest completion rate in NFL; top five in net-YPA

    8. Andrew Luck, Colts

    • Somewhat overrated rookie season; outside of top 15 in YPA and net-YPA

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    Talking Daily Fantasy Sports Strategy

    I recently did a little interview with GoProFantasySports.com regarding my new book How to Cash in on the Future of the Game and my background in fantasy sports. The full interview is here.

    What’s the most common mistake you see new players make when setting their daily fantasy football lineups?

    JB: The biggest mistake in terms of the actual lineup creation process would be choosing players independently of one another. If you’re in a tournament, it’s almost a necessity to stack (pairing a quarterback with his receiver, for example) because it creates a dependent relationship that increases your team’s upside. On the flip side, you shouldn’t consistently stack in heads-up leagues because you want to minimize volatility.

    Care to share where you go for the statistics that you use to set your lineups?

    JB: I use Vegas lines and props, FantasyProsRotoWirerotoVizAdvanced NFL StatsPro Football ReferencePro Football FocusFootball Outsiders, and numberFire.

    You’re a winning player, so you must be a gambler, what’s the craziest bet you’ve ever made?

    JB: Not really a crazy bet, but when I was a freshman in college, I had two MLB parlays running at one point. I had one game in each remaining that I needed to win a pretty large amount of money for me at the time (well into five figures). The games were close and both in the bottom of the 9th, and I remember sitting at my computer in my dorm watching the games update on MLB.com. One of them was the Braves game. I needed them to win, and they were down one with Jeff Francoeur at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. He ended up grounding into a double-play to lose the game, and within about 20 seconds I lost the other parlay as well in a similar heartbreaking fashion. So I went from thinking I was going to win a salary in a single night to actually losing $50. Losing $50 should have meant nothing, but it hurt pretty bad for a while.

    What is the key to dealing with losing streaks?

    JB: The key is really in your perception of your bankroll. When you put money into a daily fantasy sports site, think of it as gone. Now ideally you don’t want to lose your money, but if you start to think of how much you’re “winning” or “losing,” it can affect your decisions. You win and lose money all of the time playing daily fantasy sports, so you almost have to forget that the money is real. If you think of it is a sort of currency through which you can play fantasy sports, you won’t be chasing losses. People don’t realize that at almost every point, even the best fantasy owners are below a previous peak in bankroll. It’s not like you can always win and your bankroll never decreases; it drops all of the time. If you’re a long-term winner, just trust the process; the “luck” will even out if you can stay in the game.

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    Top 4 Numbers That Prove Tony Romo Isn’t an 8-8 Caliber Quarterback

    Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. He also has a 58.6 percent career completion rate and has averaged 18 interceptions in the eight seasons he’s been a starter.

    Drew Brees is widely considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He also tossed 19 interceptions last season—tying Tony Romo for the league-lead—and has thrown at least 15 interceptions seven times in his career.

    Coming off of the heels of a miraculous Super Bowl run in which he threw 11 touchdowns and no picks, Joe Flacco just received an exorbitant $120 million contract. He’s also never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season.

    And then there’s Romo. Deep down, we all know Romo isn’t truly an 8-8 quarterback, regardless of how the Cowboys finished in the past couple seasons. The love-him-or-hate-him quarterback is such a paradox because all of the signs for future success are there, but he doesn’t have the history of postseason accomplishments to lend credibility to his game. Until he and the Cowboys make a run deep into the playoffs, Romo’s brilliance will continue to go unrecognized.

    But there’s good evidence that Dallas won’t finish this season at or below .500. There’s even better evidence that Romo is much, much better than an average quarterback. Here are the top four numbers that back up that claim.

    7.94: Career YPA

    There’s no individual stat that better predicts team success than a quarterback’s YPA. Year in and year out, the best squads are those led by quarterbacks with great efficiency. We can talk about the Ravens’ offensive “balance” all day, but the fact is they won the Super Bowl because Flacco put together perhaps the best four-game run of his career, averaging a ridiculous 9.05 YPA, allowing Baltimore to overcome 3.64 YPC from Ray Rice.

    Romo has averaged 7.94 YPA over the course of his career. So what does that mean? Well, it means that only six players have ever been more efficient, three of whom played prior to 1950. Counting just modern-day quarterbacks, only Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, and Kurt Warner have posted higher YPA than Romo. The combined record of those passers is 213-124—a .632 winning percentage.

    So what’s more likely: Romo has somehow been able to record incredible efficiency but is still a mediocre quarterback, or he’s a superb quarterback whose postseason success doesn’t match the level of plays he’s sustained for years?

    Hint: it’s not the first one.

    52.0: Percentage of Romo’s 2012 plays that increased the Cowboys’ chances of scoring on a given drive

    By looking at historic game data, sites like Advanced NFL Stats are able to determine the exact number of points an offense can expect to score on a given drive or their chances of winning given specific game situations. That’s valuable for all kinds of reasons, one of which is it allows us to grade players based on their success rate: the percentage of plays on which they increase their team’s chances of scoring and winning. Romo ranked fifth in the NFL in success rate in 2012, behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

    33: Romo’s age

    Thirty-three is over-the-hill at most NFL positions, but not quarterback. Quarterbacks have proven to be capable of playing at a very high level well into their 30s, especially lately.

    Many quarterbacks see a drop in efficiency and total production in their late-30s. At age 33, however, the typical NFL quarterback has produced bulk numbers and efficiency metrics at right around 95 percent of his previous career-high. At least for a few more years, there’s no reason to worry about Romo’s age.

    99.9: Romo’s passer rating in the fourth quarter of close games (within seven points)

    Romo’s a choke artist. Just ask anyone in the national media. He buckles under the pressure in important situations.

    Of course, if that were true, we’d expect it to be reflected in the numbers. If Romo really plays poorly when the stakes are high, his stats should be worse in late-game and late-season situations. But they aren’t.

    Actually, in the fourth quarter of close games, Romo has actually raised his level of play. On 464 career passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, Romo has generated a gaudy 99.9 passer rating. Don’t like passer rating as a metric? You might like Romo’s 8.69 YPA. Or his 6.0 percent touchdown rate. Or his 2.6 percent interception rate. All of those numbers surpass Romo’s overall stats, suggesting he’s not really any worse in crunch time, but better.

    I’m not brushing some of Romo’s obvious late-season struggles under the rug. Romo will be the first to tell you that decisions like that which led to the late-game interception in Washington can’t happen. But a quarterback who truly “chokes” in high-pressure situations would never be able to sustain an all-time high passer rating in, well, high-pressure situations.

    If the argument boils down to a highly-impressive body of work over a large sample of games versus anecdotal evidence clouded by a recency bias, well, there’s really no argument at all.

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    Running the Numbers: 4 Reasons DeMarco Murray Will Break Out in 2013

    At DallasCowboys.com, I explored DeMarco Murray’s potential in 2013:

    1. Murray might not even be “injury prone.”

    A lot of what we view as “injury proneness” is just an illusion. Injuries are a low-frequency event and, for the most part, very random. That means we’d expect the distribution of injuries to be rather random as well, regardless of whether or not some players are more susceptible to injuries than others.

    Nonetheless, we’d still expect a few players to be more susceptible to injuries than others. It makes sense that some people’s genetic makeup is such that they’re unlikely to get injured and/or likely to heal quickly after getting injured. But that doesn’t mean we can predict future injuries with any sort of accuracy.

    Even if injury proneness does indeed exist, it would take quite a long time to discover whether or not a player is truly more susceptible to injuries than average. Imagine that the typical player has a 10 percent chance to get injured in a given season and an injury-prone player has a 20 percent chance to get hurt. Even if that’s the case, we’d still need a pretty substantial number of seasons to pass before we could claim with any sort of certainty whether or not a player’s injuries were because he’s injury-prone or if he just got unlucky.

    Predicting injuries is kind of like projecting fumble recoveries. The events are rare, and thus susceptible to randomness. And while important, using past fumble recoveries (or injuries) to predict future ones is basically useless. That means Murray might be injury prone, or he might not, but the nine games he’s missed in two seasons really can’t help us make that determination.

    2. He has game-breaking speed.

    I’ve talked quite a bit about how the most predictive trait for NFL running backs is speed. There will always be Emmitt Smith and Alfred Morris outliers, but on a pretty consistent basis, the best backs are the fastest ones. At 213 pounds, Murray turned in a blazing 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He also had a 4.18 short shuttle and 10-4 broad jump, suggesting he’s truly an explosive athlete. We saw that on Murray’s 91-yard touchdown run against the Rams as a rookie. He possesses outstanding and borderline elite speed, especially for someone his size, and that’s important.

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    Grading Barry Church, Dwayne Harris, and DeMarco Murray

    At NBC, I’ve been giving faux grades to young Cowboys players as if they were incoming rookies.

    When assessing prospects leading up to the NFL Draft, organizations obtain all sorts of measurements: height, weight, 40 time, vertical jump, short shuttle, and so on. Whether they admit it or not, teams value these metrics quite a bit, as they should; there’s a very strong correlation between certain numbers and NFL success—speed for running backs and arm length for pass-rushers, for example.

    When bringing in free agents, however, it seems as though teams value NFL production much, much more heavily than the measurables. It makes sense to weigh production into player evaluations, perhaps more so than measurables in certain cases. That’s particularly true for veterans, whose body of work should generally speak for itself. They’ve been playing in the league long enough that those stats mean something.

    For younger players, however, there are many circumstances when previous play doesn’t match expected future production. Even though Bills running back C.J. Spiller came into the 2012 season with 844 total rushing yards in two seasons, it wasn’t difficult to project Spiller for a breakout year; for the highly-efficient speedster, it would have been a mistake to value his past play over the measurables. There are all sorts of such cases; whether it’s due to workload, teammates, coaching, or just luck, young players often either underperform or overachieve when they come into the league. Many organizations write off these players too soon (or let them stick around for too long) based on a limited sample size of games when there were better predictors of future performance available.

    I started with Barry Church:

    Currently standing at 6-2, 218 pounds, Church has outstanding size for a safety. Due to his frame and lack of long speed, Church will only ever be able to play strong safety in the NFL. During the draft process, Church ran as low as a 4.64 40-yard dash, but he was said to have run in the 4.7s as well. That’s a poor time for a safety, although it doesn’t matter as much for someone who will be in the box and not in the back end too often.

    Despite a lack of long speed, there is explosiveness to Church’s game. He recorded a 10-1 broad jump and a really quick 4.17 short shuttle. That suggests Church possesses good short-area quickness—perfect for playing near the line-of-scrimmage.

    I also graded DeMarco Murray:

    From a physical standpoint alone, Murray is an above-average athlete. At 213 pounds, Murray ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. That’s an outstanding weight/speed combination—a trait that’s extremely predictive of NFL success for running backs. Actually, running backs in Murray’s range of speed have been around six times as productive as those below 4.50. That’s a remarkable difference and suggests Murray’s initial NFL efficiency isn’t a fluke.

    Murray also ran a 4.18 short shuttle, so he has short-area quickness. When you combine that with his 34.5-inch vertical and 10-4 broad jump, you have the makings of an explosive athlete. Perhaps Murray’s biggest weakness from a physical standpoint is his height; the best NFL running backs have actually been short and stocky. Murray’s 6-0 frame could be one of the primary reasons he hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

    And Dwayne Harris:

    Using his original NFL Combine numbers, I’m going to grade third-year receiver Dwayne Harris in the same way in an attempt to show you where I think he’d belong in this year’s rookie class. At the 2011 Scouting Combine, Harris checked in at 5-10, 203 pounds. That already puts him at a major disadvantage because there’s an extremely strong correlation between size and success for receivers. Wes Welker aside, the best wideouts are typically well over 6-0 and 210 pounds. Go ahead and take a look at the top 10 receivers from 2012. The average height and weight is 6-3 and 218 pounds. Even players like Welker are less valuable than people think because those sorts of slot receivers rarely score touchdowns.

    If a wide receiver stands below 6-0, he better be a burner. Harris isn’t; he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash. That’s hardly too slow to perform in the NFL, but it’s not what you’d like to see in someone so short. That means Harris is a guy who will have trouble separating even when given space, but also issues succeeding in the red zone when space is at a premium.

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    Can Anthony Spencer total 12 sacks in 2013?

    At Dallas News, I analyzed whether or not Anthony Spencer can reach his projected total of 12 sacks this season.

    The Numbers

    Spencer rushed the passer on 318 snaps in 2012. Compare that to 454 for DeMarcus Ware. Based on pass-rushing rates for other 4-3 defensive ends around the league, Spencer is probably in store for around 500 opportunities to bring down the quarterback in 2013—a substantial jump over previous years.

    In 2012, Spencer had 27 pressures and his 11 sacks represented 40.7 percent of that total. I’ve found that sack rates tend to hover closer to 25 percent over the long run, meaning Spencer got lucky to record 11 sacks last season.

    However, Spencer has traditionally pressured the quarterback more than 27 times. Over the last three seasons, Spencer’s pressure rate is 7.9 percent, i.e. he’s pressured the quarterback about once every 13 snaps that he’s rushed.

    With those numbers, it’s pretty easy to project Spencer’s 2013 sack total. With 500 snaps as a rusher, Spencer should pressure the quarterback around 40 times (500 * 7.9 percent). If he converts one-quarter of those pressures into sacks, he’s looking at 10 sacks.

    What I Like

    Spencer’s primary strength is his run defense. He’s been one of the league’s premiere run defenders for years, racking up 158 solo tackles since 2010. He played 1,122 snaps against the run, representing a 14.1 percent tackle rate.