We are nearing the start of the NFL season, and that means it's time for our annual Q and A with the folks from Football Outsiders. Once again they have produced a season preview almanac. You can buy it on their website and on Amazon. It is an incredibly detailed look at the NFL. They talk X's and O's and connect them will all kinds of informative stats. They also have projections for skill players that are a must have for any fantasy football player. I highly recommend buying this publication.
I had five questions for them about their Jets preview chapter. They had five answers for me. See below.
1. The Jets had perhaps the least talented group of receivers in the league last years. It’s always difficult to separate quarterback and receiver play, but could you describe a few things Geno Smith showed either positive or negative that had to be independent of his targets’ quality. What is his most likely career trajectory after one year in the league?
The list of quarterbacks with similar numbers to Smith last season is fascinating. The closest match is Timm Rosenbach in 1990 with Arizona, but three of the top seven matches—Joe Flacco, Jim McMahon, and Trent Dilfer—were future Super Bowl champions in their first years as starters. If we look only at rookie quarterbacks similar to Smith, we get Flacco and McMahon at the top, followed by Rick Mirer, Byron Leftwich, Andy Dalton, and, yes, Mark Sanchez. That’s an awfully wide range of possibilities.
That’s all just a look at Smith’s basic totals, though, and doesn’t do much to separate Smith’s performance from that of his receivers. That’s a very hard thing to do from a numbers standpoint. Jason Lisk of the Pro Football Reference blog looked at quarterbacks who changed teams (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=4152) and found that the most consistent statistics were sack rate and completion percentage, which suggests those are the stats that tell us most about the quarterback independent of the talent around him. That’s bad news for Smith—among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts last year, Smith had the worst completion percentage, and the third-worst sack rate. On the other hand, the worst sack rate belonged to Russell Wilson, who won a Super Bowl anyway, so maybe taking a lot of sacks isn’t the end of the world. Moreover, Lisk’s piece was written five years ago, and if we looked at what has happened since then we might get different results.
2. One thing that surprised me was seeing the Jets on defense had the fourth highest average per play of men in the box last year. This surprises me both because of the run stopping talent they have and the struggles they had in the back of their defense. To what extent does this suggest the team’s success stopping the run and troubles defending the pass were schematic?
You may be on to something here. With six or fewer men in the box, the Jets’ defense gave up 5.8 yards per pass (11th in the NFL) and 5.0 yards per rush (13th). With seven or more in the box, they gave up 7.4 yards per pass (26th) but only 2.9 yards per rush (1st). We all know that Rex Ryan likes aggressive blitz schemes, but it looks like sometimes those schemes are leaving his team too vulnerable to big pass plays, even if they’re successful in stone-walling the run.
3. How much do you believe newly signed Jason Babin still has in the tank?
Potentially, quite a bit. He had 7.5 sacks last season, 40th in the league, and was tied for 45th with 21 hurries. When you consider that each of the 32 teams has multiple pass rushers, those rankings are pretty significant. Meanwhile, he was tied for fifth with 17 QB hits (knocking down a quarterback who was still able to get a pass away).
4. Is there a third day pick who stands out about the others as a potential surprise contributor as a rookie?
Projecting rookies is really, really hard, but there’s a lot to like about Tajh Boyd. From a purely statistical standpoint, our Long-term Career Forecast (explained here: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/nfl-draft/2014/lcf-2014-year-it-means-nothing) thinks Boyd is a better prospect than Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, or Johnny Manziel. As Aaron Schatz explained in that link, though, this is a very weird year for quarterbacks, and there’s reason to believe that the LCF is pretty meaningless. There’s a good chance the Jets got a good backup QB with a sixth-rounder, which really is a great value pick, but Boyd isn’t likely to be a franchise savior or anything.
Update from FO: We're sorry for giving the wrong answer there about Tajh Boyd. The person who was answering the questions ended up misreading a list that was supposed to only apply to quarterbacks chosen in the top rounds. Our LCF system isn't supposed to be used on sixth-rounders like Boyd. In addition, the projection systems that are built to handle the lower-round picks aren't high on the Jets' picks either. Playmaker Score doesn't like any of those three receivers, and SackSEER doesn't like Enemkpali. The other players aren't guys that we really know much about either way, so honestly, nobody from the Jets' lower rounds stands out to us as a particularly good sleeper pick.
5. What are the hopes 2012 second round pick Stephen Hill can finally put things together this year?
Our earlier version of Playmaker (the system we use to project the success of NCAA receivers in the NFL) was a big fan of Hill, but he’s done little to justify that optimism, and we’ve pretty much given up on him. We’re projecting him to post career-worst numbers with 16 catches for 228 yards, while scoring only two touchdowns.