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Some teams, like the Rams have done a good job of fielding a very young roster; others, like the Raiders, have made a conscious effort to head in the other direction. Overall, the Rams are more representative of the current trend. NFL teams have made a shift towards younger players in the last three years, although you might be surprised by just how dramatic and sudden the change has been. The drop in Approximate Value (AV)-weighted ages of NFL rosters in the last three years is more than 50% larger than in any other three-year period in NFL history.

healy 1

Looking at the graph, there are two seismic shifts that changed the age distribution of the NFL in the Super Bowl era: the increase that started in the late ‘80s and the decrease in the last five years. These changes tell us about how changes in the collective bargaining agreement can change the NFL landscape in both subtle and dramatic ways.

First, the increase in NFL roster age in the 1980s coincides pretty closely with the introduction of Plan B free agency in 1989. It looks like the increase maybe starts a year too early. Remember, though, that the 1987 age may be skewed a bit by the three games with replacement players. Taking that point in mind, the increase from 1988 through 1993 coincides exactly with the introduction of limited free agency. [click to continue…]

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Interesting tidbit from Peter King this week about how the Vikings nearly acquired Johnny Manziel:

As the picks went by, starting soon after the Rams chose at 13, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer worked the phones, trying to find a partner to move up from their second pick in the round (26th overall) to grab Manziel. He couldn’t find a fit. Finally, with less than three minutes to go in Philadelphia’s 22nd slot, Farmer heard this from an Eagles representative over the phone: “If you’re not gonna jump in here, we’re gonna trade the pick right now.” It’s cloudy what his offer had been to this point, but now he had to sweeten it, and he offered the 83rd pick overall, a third-rounder, in addition to their pick four slots lower than Philly. Done deal. The Eagles liked that offer better than an offer from Minnesota, because the Vikings would have been moving up from 40.

As discussed in my round 1 recap, the Eagles made out like bandits picking up the 83rd pick to move down four spots. Not only did Philadelphia received 137 cents on the dollar according to my trade chart, but the Jimmy Johnson trade chart — which overvalues high picks and therefore cautions against trading down — had the Eagles receiving 112 cents on the dollar. [click to continue…]

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Cap Space Versus Production For DEN/NE/SF/SEA

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, and are four of the best organizations in the NFL. Over the last two years, these four teams are the only to win 23 games in the regular season or 26 games if you include the playoffs. In the salary cap era, being an excellent team means managing the salary cap well. And, broadly speaking, managing the cap well means finding good values for cheap and making sure the players you spend a premium on deliver commensurate production.

So is that true for New England, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle? The invaluable Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has salary cap data for each team in the league, which can answer half the problem. But how do we measure production? I decided to use the ratings from Pro Football Focus, since the website provides a rating of every player on every team (although I excluded special teamers from my analysis today).

One note about PFF data, which comes from Nathan Jahnke, a writer at the website. As he explained to me, PFF’s ratings are not necessarily designed for comparisons across positions. For each position, zero is average, but the magnitude a player’s rating can get to is somewhat dependent on the position they play. For example, PFF has never had a safety over a grade of +30, while five 3-4 DEs hit that mark in 2013. For my purposes today, this is not a big concern — it just means view the graphs with an understand that these are not designed to be the perfect way to compare a player. But in general, I think they work well. (And, of course, don’t think that just because Brandon Mebane has a higher rating than Russell Wilson that it means PFF thinks Mebane is a more valuable player.)

To avoid people using my graphs to scrub data and steal the hard work put in by by Over The Cap and Pro Football Focus in assembling the salary cap data and player grades , I have decided not to label either axis with salary information or player ratings. Just know that the X-axis (that’s the horizontal one) is for salary, and players on the left are cheap and players on the right are expensive. The vertical or Y-axis shows the PFF grades from worst (on the bottom) to best on top). Note: to compare across teams, I have used the exact same dimensions for both axes across all four graphs. [click to continue…]

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Previously on the 2013 RSP Football Writers Project…

Introduction/My Picks in Rounds 1 and 2
My Pick in Round 3
My Picks in Rounds 4 and 5
My Picks in Rounds 6 through 11

You can also view every pick in this draft recap.

Rounds 12/13

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, TE Greg Olsen, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Alex Boone, 3-4 DE Desmond Bryant, 3-4 DE Cameron Heyward, 3-4 OLB DE Paul Kruger, 3-4 OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Vontae Davis
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We already know what the average draft pick is worth, thanks to the Football Perspective Draft Value Chart. If we assign the draft value associated with each pick to the college of that player, then we can determine which school had the most draft value in any given year. As it turns out, the best single draft since 1967 came courtesy of USC in 1968. Look at this pretty incredible draft for the Trojans, with five players in the top 24:

Pk   Team  Player               Pos  School
1    MIN   Ron  Yary             T    USC
10   PIT   Mike  Taylor          T    USC
14   PHI   Tim  Rossovich        LB   USC
16   CHI   Mike  Hull            RB   USC
24   DET   Earl  McCullouch      WR   USC
68   PHI   Adrian  Young         LB   USC
94   WAS   Dennis  Crane         DT   USC
101  NYJ   Gary Magner          DT   USC
298  OAK   Chip  Oliver          LB   USC
438  DEN   Steve Grady          RB   USC
439  NOR   James  Ferguson       C    USC

In modern times, the best draft class (in terms of draft pick value) by a single school came in 2004, when the Miami Hurricanes sent this impressive haul to the NFL:

Rk   Team  Player               Pos  School
5    WAS   Sean  Taylor	        DB   Miami (FL)
6    CLE   Kellen  Winslow  Jr.	TE   Miami (FL)
12   NYJ   Jonathan  Vilma	LB   Miami (FL)
17   DEN   D.J.  Williams	LB   Miami (FL)
19   MIA   Vernon  Carey        T    Miami (FL)
21   NWE   Vince  Wilfork	NT   Miami (FL)
213  NYJ   Darrell  McClover	LB   Miami (FL)
215  CHI   Alfonso  Marshall	DB   Miami (FL)
254  SDG   Carlos  Joseph	T    Miami (FL)

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Are some positions safer than others in the draft? Conventional wisdom tells us that quarterbacks are risky, while offensive linemen are safe. But is that true? Jason Lisk wrote a great article on bust rates three years ago at the old PFR Blog, and I’ve decided to update that article based on more recent data.

I looked at the first rounds of all drafts from 1990 to 2009. Over that time period, 46 quarterbacks were selected in the first round, and those quarterbacks were selected, on average, with the 9th or 10th pick. The table below breaks down each position, the number of players selected in the twenty-year period, and their average draft slot:

Pos
Count
Avg Pk
QB469.6
DE7414.1
OLB5114.6
T7014.9
DT5615
WR7315.9
RB6415.9
ILB1917.7
S2917.9
CB7418
TE2420.5
G1620.8
C922.4

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It’s been awhile since I’ve updated things on my team in the RSP Writers Project, so this post will explain what I was thinking on the six players I selected in rounds six through eleven.

Rounds 6/7

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, 3-4 OLB/4-3 DE Paul Kruger
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Here’s the introduction to an old fantasy football article by my fellow Footballguys staffer Maurile Tremblay:

In most fantasy football leagues, eligible players are divided into 6 different positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, placekicker, and special teams/defense. Imagine a league that includes a seventh position, team captain, which earns points each week based solely on the initial coin toss. For example, if you’ve got the Raiders as your starting TC and the Raiders win their coin toss, you get 30 points; if the Raiders lose their coin toss, you get nothing.

Under the current laws of probability, we can expect any particular team captain to win about 8 out of its 16 coin tosses over the course of the season, winding up with about 240 total fantasy points — so let’s use that as our VBD baseline. There will probably be one or two team captains, however, that win around 12 tosses, making them about 120 points better than average. That makes the top team captain pretty valuable!

So how long should we wait before drafting our TC1? Is the first round too early? The second?

Of course, anything before the final round is too early! Coin flips are random, so while some TCs will end up scoring many more points than others over the course of the season, there’s no way to know which ones. We should therefore be totally indifferent to which TC we end up with.

That’s not the case with, say, running backs. We may be fairly confident that Eddie George will score more points than Tim Biakabutuka. So while we have no good reason to prefer the Raiders’ team captain to the Chiefs’, we should quite rationally prefer George to Biak. And as it makes sense to spend our early draft choices filling positions where our preferences are strongest — indeed, that is the essence of VBD — we ought to generally draft our RBs before we draft our TCs.
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Kruger takes down Andrew Luck

Kruger takes down Andrew Luck.

Explanation of the RSP Writers Project and my picks in Round 1 and 2

After selecting Josh Freeman, Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall early in the draft, I needed to use my picks in rounds 4 and 5 to build the core of the rest of my team. The two most critical positions I had ignored were left tackle and pass rusher. Fortunately my need largely coincided with what was left: I didn’t see a true difference maker at corner or defensive tackle, so it was easy to focus on 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 ends.

On offense, my choice at left tackle was made easy once Jake Long, Trent Williams, and Tyron Smith went off the board at the end of round four. I had D’Brickashaw Ferguson with those four in my final tier of what I would consider above-average left tackles, and Ferguson ranked second to only Williams. His reputation took a bit of a hit with a a poor 2011 and the Jets general implosion since then, but Ferguson quietly had a nice rebound season last year. He allowed only two sacks in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, and came in as PFF’s #7 left tackle. He’ll only turn 30 in December, so I think my team can count on him for another five years at least. He’s got size and great athleticism, and keeps himself in good shape, so he seems unlikely to fall off a click as he ages. As the 14th offensive tackle off the board, I think Ferguson represents strong value this late in the draft. He’s capable of being a franchise left tackle, which makes him a pick I can feel comfortable about at the end of the fourth round.
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Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Happy New Year to the NFL, which opened for business at 4PM yesterday. It’s been a busy couple of days, as the Seahawks (Percy Harvin) and 49ers (Anquan Boldin) acquired veteran receivers a day before the floodgates opened. The Dolphins made the biggest waves yesterday by signing WR Mike Wallace and ILB Dannell Ellerbe from AFC North heavyweights, and then later released ILB Karlos Dansby and signed OLB Philip Wheeler from the Raiders. The Colts chose to go quantity over quality by signing four different players (G Donald Thomas from New England, OLB/Colin Kaepernick turnstile Erik Walden from Green Bay, T Gosder Cherilus from Detroit, and DE Lawrence Sidbury from Atlanta). The Ravens lost Paul Kruger to Cleveland but did sign former Giants DE Chris Canty.

Tennessee made some noise signing G Andy Levitre from Buffalo and TE Delanie Walker from San Francisco, while the Chiefs picked up 3-4 DE Mike DeVito and TE Anthony Fasano from the AFC East. Chicago helped out Jay Cutler by signing TE Martellus Bennett (Giants) and T Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans), while Sam Bradford will be happy to know that the Rams added TE Jared Cook from Tennessee. The Broncos added guard Louis Vasquez from division-rival San Diego to keep Peyton Manning upright, and are rumored to be after Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall. The Eagles won’t win the headlines, but made a couple of interesting signings in NT Isaac Sopoaga (San Francisco) and TE/HB/WR/FB/Chip Kelly chess piece James Casey from Houston. About an hour later, the Eagles added CB Bradley Fletcher (Rams), S Patrick Chung (Patriots) and LB Jason Phillips (Panthers). And there were some releases, with Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo), Nnamdi Asomugha (Philadelphia), Sione Pouha (Jets), and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Michael Huff (Oakland) among the more notable cuts. You can check out Pro-Football-Reference.com’s free agent tracker to stay up to date on the latest signings.

The first few days of the league year provide fans across the country with an opportunity to ring in the new year with a dash of optimism. But how often does adding a veteran or two via trade or free agency land a team in the Super Bowl? The table below lists every notable veteran acquisition1 by the 40 teams to make the Super Bowl since 1993, the start of the Free Agency era in the NFL. The “W/L” column shows whether the team won or lost in the Super Bowl, while the AV column shows how much Approximate Value the player provided in his first season with the new team. The N-1 Tm and N-1 AV columns show where the player came from and how valuable he was in the prior year; the table is sorted by the average of the player’s AV in Years N and N-1.
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  1. Here, notable means having an AV of 4 or greater in Year N. []
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My thoughts on trading Darrelle Revis

There are four things the Jets could do with Darrelle Revis.

Option 1: Trade him before the draft to the team (not in the AFC East or in New York) willing to offer the most.

Option 2: Trade him during the five-month period after the draft but before the trading deadline, under the assumption that Revis will be able to fetch more in return once he is healthy and playing at his old level (assumption #2). [Update: As pointed out to me on twitter, the Jets will also incur the $9M penalty discussed in Option 3 if Revis is traded after June 1st.]

Option 3: Have Revis play out his contract, and then watch him sign with another team in the off-season (or enter a bidding war and try to win Revis on the open market). In return, the Jets will receive a compensatory draft pick, roughly the 100th pick in the 2015 draft. And, since Revis was given an $18M bonus on a six-year deal in 2011 — a deal that Revis has the option of voiding after this season — the Jets will also incur a nine million dollar cap penalty in 2014.

Option 4: Re-sign Revis to a mega deal now. The Jets will get a slight discount off the enormous contract Revis would get on the open market based on the questions about his knee and the fact that he’s due to make “only” $9M in 2012.

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On Tuesday, I discussed the RSP Football Writers Project, a 32-team start-up draft of every player in the NFL.  I was assigned the 32nd pick, which does bring with it one advantage.  In order to balance the values assigned with the random draft order, the selection picks for the third round is “reversed”, a common fantasy football technique known as 3rd Round Reversal.  So while I picked last in round one after 18 quarterbacks had been drafted, I got to pick first in rounds two and three.

As you now know, I drafted Josh Freeman and Julio Jones with picks 32 and 33.  At 65, there were several ways I could go.

  • I think it’s hard to overestimate the value of a great passing game, so adding a receiver or tight end isan attractive option. That’s doubly true when Brandon Marshall and Aaron Hernandez were still available. Marshall was my highest-ranked receiver from last year and is relatively young; he turns 29 this month. Hernandez is 23 and is an incredible asset in the passing game.
  • If you think of the big positions in the NFL as quarterback, pass rusher, and left tackle, then you probably want to fill those slots as quickly as possible. At left tackle, Duane Brown, Joe Thomas, Matt Kalil, and Nate Solder are gone. Michael Roos is a solid pick, but at 31 in October, does he fit my model of fielding a young team? Ryan Clady was a player I might have taken, but he was selected just a few picks before I was up. I didn’t see an elite player available, so I crossed this off the list (a few picks later, Matt Waldman selected Russell Okung.)
  • On the pass-rusher front, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake, Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware, Charles Johnson are all gone, as are 3-4 defensive ends J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson and Justin Smith. While there were some attractive options out there, my hope is one of them will be around when I pick again. The most interesting option was Mario Williams, a player I really wanted to take, but his struggles in 2012 were too significant to overlook.

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Matt Waldman and Sigmund Bloom are once again running the RSP Football Writers Project this off-season. Last year, a salary cap value was assigned to each player and we were asked to assemble our team within the confines of a salary cap. You can see my team here, but my basic philosophy was to invest heavily in building an elite passing offense. One of the questions we had to answer was who were our stars and why did we pick them? I wrote:

Peyton Manning is the key. With an elite quarterback and competent weapons, you can just about pencil your team in for the playoffs. With Jimmy Graham and Victor Cruz, I’ve got one player who ranked in the top three in receptions and one in the top three in receiving yards in 2011. Those three can form the cornerstone of the offense for the next three-to-five years.

This year, the RSP Football Writers Project (you can see the draft recap here or follow the picks on twitter here) is being run as a 32-team start-up draft with fantasy football style serpentine order that includes a third-round reversal. Trades are not allowed and the player pool will consist of veterans only (i.e., no players available in the 2013 draft).

We were told the draft order was random, although I choose to believe that I was assigned pick #32 because of my performance in last year’s project. Having the 32nd and 33rd picks in the draft placed me in a unique position, and I figured I’d explain my team-building methods here.
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When you think about the Ravens under John Harbaugh — or just about any time in their existence — you think of a defensive team. Under Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, Baltimore has fielded dominant defenses for much of the last decade. Marvin Lewis, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001, was rewarded with the head coaching job in Cincinnati after his years of excellent service. He was replaced by Mike Nolan, who after coordinating the defense for three years in Baltimore, was tapped to revive the 49ers. His replacement, Rex Ryan, excelled for four years in Baltimore, and was then chosen by the Jets to be their next head coach. The Ravens replaced Ryan with Greg Mattison, who was lured by his friend Brady Hoke to take the DC job at Michigan in 2011. He was replaced by Chuck Pagano, who coordinated the Baltimore defense for only a year (after spending three as the defensive backs coach) before the Colts selected him to be their next head coach. Dean Pees is the current DC in Baltimore.

Suffice it to say, with so many prominent names roaming the sidelines and coordinating the defenses in Baltimore, there are few fingerprints from either John Harbaugh or his predecessor Brian Billick on the great Ravens defenses. When you look at Baltimore’s offense under Harbaugh, you immediately think of Cam Cameron, who excelled so much in his role as OC in San Diego that he was hired by the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Cameron’s Dolphins went 1-15 and he was fired after only one year, but Harbaugh chose Cameron to be his first offensive coordinator. Then, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, Harbaugh fired Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to OC.

That’s a long bit of background to say this: John Harbaugh isn’t in charge of the Baltimore offense or the Baltimore defense. At least when Brian Billick was around, you knew the offense would be crafted in his image, even if it wasn’t successful. But there’s a reason you don’t think of Harbaugh when you think of the specific offensive/defensive units in Baltimore: that’s because he made his name as a Special Teams coach.
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Yesterday, I reviewed how the Jets defense performed in 2012 and previewed the team’s outlook for 2013. Today, the heavy lifting begins, by looking at the offense. If you didn’t feel bad for Tony Sparano before this post, I can guarantee you will by the end of it.

Quarterback

There is no point in ignoring the elephant in the room, so let’s just get it out of the way: Mark Sanchez is a below-average starting quarterback and not the answer for the Jets. After committing 26 turnovers in 2011, Sanchez laughed in the face of regression to the mean and matched that number on fewer plays in 2012. Sanchez also turned the ball over 23 times in his rookie season, leaving 2010 (14 turnovers) as his only season with fewer than 20 turnovers. To be fair, every hand that touched the 2012 Jets passing game deserved criticism, as Sanchez received almost no support from his teammates or coaches.

The past, not the future.

The past, not the future.

Still, the quarterback gets the credit and the blame, and there’s no escaping the fact that Sanchez ranked 30th in Net Yards per Attempt over the last two seasons, a disproportionate performance compared to his bloated salary.1 There are some creative things the Jets could do to lessen his salary cap hit in 2013, but that just delays the bill to 2014. Currently, Sanchez will count for $12.9M against the cap next season, and would count for $17.2M (yes, that means $4.3M of dead money) if released. While it’s not impossible that the Jets could trade him, I’m going to ignore that option for this post. The other problem? His cap hits are $13.1M and $15.6M in 2014 and 2015. You probably didn’t know that — heck you probably thought he was a free agent after 2013 — because it’s so far out of the realm of possibility that Sanchez would be on the team in 2014 that no one mentions it. But as a technical matter, Sanchez is signed through 2016 at superstar quarterback money, and the most likely scenario is the Jets cut him after 2014 (leaving $4.8M in dead money but still saving $8.3M on the cap).

The fact that his contract runs through 2016 is more important than you might think. Even under the best case possible, pigs flying 2013 scenarios, Sanchez still won’t be worth $29M in 2014 and 2015. Sanchez would have to turn in a season like Aaron Rodgers in 2013 to make the Jets want to keep him at his current contract (which, if he played at such a level, he’d have no incentive to restructure) after this season.
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  1. Among Jets fans, there is some argument that Sanchez used to be good but now is struggling; that’s not really the case. In 2010, the year the Jets went 11-5 and made it to the AFC Championship Game, Sanchez ranked 29th out of 32 quarterbacks in Net Yards per Attempt and 24th in ANY/A. Now he tied Matt Ryan for the NFL lead with 6 game-winning drives that season — no asterisk there, this actually happened — but that only served to obfuscate the fact that Sanchez struggled on a play-by-play basis. Sanchez actually peaked in NY/A rank as a rookie in 2009, finishing 21st, although he ranked 27th in ANY/A. []
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Creating a NFL draft value chart, Part I

Nearly five years ago, I came out with my own draft value chart to replace the “Jimmy Johnson” draft chart commonly cited by draftniks. What I did then was assign the career approximate value grade to each slot for each player drafted over a 30-year period, smoothed the data, and came up with a chart that actually represented career production.

The chart was due for an update in any event, but I’m going to make a key change. Using each player’s career AV makes sense on some level, as the drafting team gets the chance to have a player for his entire career. But the real value in the draft –especially now thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement — is the ability to get a player for cheap on his rookie contract, which expires after (at most) five years. The Jets got a great deal with Darrelle Revis early in his career, but now that he’s the highest paid cornerback in the NFL, much of his value (even pre-injury) is gone.

There’s also another consideration. Of the 100 top-ten draft picks between 1998 and 2007, only 48 players1 were still on the same team entering their sixth season. From the perspective of the head coach, things look even bleaker. In only eleven instances were the head coach and the top-ten pick still on the same team after five years (i.e., in year six): Chris McAlister and Jamal Lewis with Brian Bilick in Baltimore, Donovan McNabb with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Richard Seymour with Bill Belichick in New England, Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross with John Fox in Carolina, Carson Palmer with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Eli Manning with Tom Coughlin in New York, A.J. Hawk with Mike McCarty in Green Bay, Mario Williams with Gary Kubiak in Houston, and Levi Brown with Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona.

If you’re a head coach — or a general manager — I’m not sure it makes sense to project any more than five years down the line. Therefore, I’m going to construct my draft value chart based on the amount of Approximate Value provided by that player in his first five years after being drafted.2 Using PFR’s AV as my guide, I graded each player drafted from 1980 to 2007 and counted how much AV they accumulated in each of their first five years. Below is a chart plotting the data along with a smoothed line:


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  1. counting Eli Manning and Philip Rivers as staying with the teams that drafted them []
  2. Note: I am giving the player credit for all of the AV he earned, regardless of whether or not it was accumulated with the team that selected him. []
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Gary Kubiak.

Gary Kubiak doesn’t have a personality like a Ryan or a Harbaugh. He hasn’t been profiled to death like Andy Reid or Norv Turner. He doesn’t have the rings of Mike Tomlin or Bill Belichick. If not for the simple fact that he’s been in Houston forever, I’m not sure if most NFL fans could even name the head coach of the Texans. But his coaching career has been a fascinating one that leaves me with more questions than answers.

In January 2011, I wrote that Kubiak and Jack Del Rio were given incredibly long leashes in the AFC South. From 1970 to 2010, only four head coaches had (a) finished with a .500 or worse record in four out of five seasons with the same team, (b) finished with a .500 or worse record in the fifth season, and (c) were retained to coach for a sixth season. The four head coaches — Marvin Lewis, Dan Reeves, Bart Starr, and John McKay — all had extenuating circumstances for their failures, which differentiated them from Del Rio and Kubiak, who were about to become the fifth and sixth such coaches.

Things have changed dramatically in 22 months. The Jaguars have changed owners, head coaches, and quarterbacks, and likely will have a new general manager soon, too. Meanwhile, the Texans still have the same four men — Bob McNair, Rick Smith, Kubiak and Matt Schaub — in the four most prominent roles in the organization. Houston’s one big move, hiring Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, has worked perfectly. Phillips has turned a dreadful Houston defense into one of the best units in the league.

The outlook is so promising in Houston that it’s easy to forget where things stood less than two years ago. Following a loss to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos — this was the year before Tebow-mania took the NFL by storm — most of the football world assumed the firing of Kubiak was a fait accompli. John McClain, a veteran writer in Houston for over 30 years, tweeted: “After the way the Texans blew Denver game leading 17-0 at halftime and 23-10 in the 4th quarter, I’ll be stunned if the staff isn’t fired.” McLain was so disgusted that he added, “I’ll say it again: The Texans have the worst pass defense in the history of football at any level since the beginning of time.”
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Like everything else, the rules disappear when Ogden is involved.

The game is won in the trenches, I know.

As we hit the halfway mark of the season, some teams are already thinking about next year, and in particular, the 2013 draft. If I was in charge of a bad team, and specifically, a bad passing team, I would try to avoid spending a lot of money or a high first round pick on a left tackle. This philosophy is more guideline than rule — if there is a can’t miss prospect there and/or you are underwhelmed with the other top prospects, then draft the tackle — but spending a high pick on an offensive lineman would be my move of last resort.

Let’s pretend for a few minutes that a top-five pick on a left tackle is going to give you Jake Long or Joe Thomas or Jonathan Ogden, and not Jason Smith or Levi Brown or Robert Gallery or Mike Williams. Now, why is having a star left tackle so valuable? The traditional theory goes that since the left tackle is response for protecting the quarterback’s blind side, he’s the most important member of your offensive line. The other corollary is that most star pass rushers play on the defense’s right side (and the offense’s left), amplifying the value of the left tackle.

When it comes to the running game, the left tackle is no more valuable than the right tackle, or (in some systems) any other members of the offensive line, for that matter. To make this a more straightforward analysis, let’s just stick to the passing game, even though obviously most elite left tackles are also very good at run blocking, which of course adds value.

On most passing plays, offensive linemen are basically the equivalent of fences, designed to prevent the opposition from getting to the quarterback. How useful is a fence that’s totally impenetrable on the left side but has a human-sized hole on the right? This isn’t just a snarky comment; an offensive line is often only as valuable as its weakest link. Which defense will get to the quarterback first: one facing five average linemen or one facing three average linemen, an All-Pro left tackle and the worst starting right tackle in the league? If you were a defensive coordinator, which group would you rather scheme against? To me, it’s a pretty simple question: you want to attack your opponent’s weakness, and an offensive line, like a fence or a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

Let’s put it another way. In what circumstances does an All-Pro left tackle add value over say, the 25th best starting left tackle in the league? I think those circumstances are basically limited to those plays where:

The All-Pro left tackle does his job, and the other four, five or six blockers do their job, and the quarterback makes the right read and an accurate throw, and the receiver makes the catch, and on this particularly play, the player(s) that was (were) blocked by the All-Pro left tackle would have gotten to the quarterback in time to prevent him from throwing and completing said pass had he (they) been blocked by a replacement-level tackle.

If you think there are a lot of ‘ands’ in that sentence, you’re right. If the other lineman don’t do their job, the star left tackle is meaningless. If the quarterback can’t make the right read or is inaccurate, the left tackle that blocks DeMarcus Ware doesn’t help his team (other than an incomplete pass being better than a sack or a rushed throw that turns into an interception). If the receiver drops the ball, the left tackle doesn’t provide any value. And if we’re talking about a player where the left tackle didn’t do anything that a replacement level linemen wouldn’t have done, then our star tackle has added no value, either.
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