Can Positional Value Pyramids Predict the 2019 Season?
Justin Penik (@JPenik74) & Jimmy Crowell
There have been tons of questions racing through my mind since I have started this podcast and "covering" the Giants on my own. Being fed up with mediocre football and what seems to be a lack of leadership and accountability from ownership on down has inspired me to look at ways NFL teams are building their rosters. Combined with the fact the Giants have ignored their quarterback problem for years and most notably, ignored that problem in April of 2018 by taking a running back with the second pick. Instead of embracing a rebuild, Dave Gettleman doubled down and went into last season thinking his roster can compete. Consequently, he duped the team's fans into thinking the roster could go out and win football games and of course, Eli Manning has not lost a step. We all know how that played out.
Ever since then, I have been on a mission to dissect how the Giants do not understand value and I have been trying to find how to get the most value out of certain roster decisions. The 2018 draft most notably in my opinion is the most glaring example of this. The running back position in today's NFL holds little value, and if you look at the trends of successful teams in the NFL, what you see is solid running backs acquired and drafted in a multitude of ways. Combine this with the fact we are in a passing league, there is literally zero excuse to take a running back with a top five pick in a draft where the quarterback question was growing mightily (I know, I'm still not over it, roast me on twitter for it @JPenik74).
The 2018 draft and how it went down inspired me to look at other teams that have had long stretches of success during the last few years in the NFL. I asked; what are some things they have in common? I'm thinking of teams like the Eagles, Chiefs, Bears, Seahawks (during their great run), and the Rams. Additionally, you can include teams on the rise like the Browns, Jets, Ravens who all are expecting big years and leaps. What do they have in common? Quarterbacks under their rookie deals! Of course, the outlier in this scenario are the Patriots but they have always been the exception to the norm. However, the trend of success in the NFL has been draft your quarterback, play him right away, spend, spend, spend in free agency while the QB contract is cheap, then go out and win. Knowing this and knowing the teams I have listed above are arguably some of the most forward thinking teams in the league, I have taken a deep dive into positional value this offseason. I am attempting to find out how forward thinking successful teams are building their rosters compared to the rest of the league.
Over on Twitter, I used a positional value pyramid and analyzed all 32 teams. You can see some explanation of what I did on there and I'll leave a link below as well (I really do encourage you spend some time over there, then come on back). Here is a short explanation of what I did and how it was carried out: The thread takes an NFL Positional Value Pyramid and splits up positions into six tiers, the QB being the first tier, the most valuable position in all of sports, all the way down to the sixth tier with positions like fullback, #2 inside linebacker, interior lineman etc. Using this pyramid, I analyzed every single team, looking at Pro Football Focus grades for every player from the previous season. Afterwards, I found the average grade per tier. The theory is, good forward thinking teams will have higher average grades towards the top, lower grades towards the bottom. Meaning, the first tier should be the highest average (even though it's only one number/player), the second tier should be the second highest average etc... For forward thinking teams, you should be able to see how they build their rosters by valuing positions towards the top of the pyramid and for teams that are not so forward thinking, the averages will be in a haphazard order.
Before we go forward there are obvious limitations to the pyramid: first, I was using OurLads and CBS Sports projected 2019 Depth Charts therefore, there are errors with multiple teams in terms of who will be starting in certain positions. This unfortunately, impacts the PFF grades I used for averages. I will say as a defense to this error, usually, the difference between missing who is a Free Safety, who is a Slot Corner and who is a 3 or a 5 technique D-Lineman would not significantly alter the averages per tier. Ultimately, I did my best on this aspect, I am more familiar with certain rosters than I am with others, with the help of more fans from other teams, maybe we can improve on this next year!
Second limitation: the Positional Value Pyramid is arguably a bit out of date. It was created by Matt McGuire from the Walter Football Draft Report in 2010. Positions like Slot Corner, Tight End and Right Tackle all have legitimate cases for being bumped up in tiers. I plan on creating my own pyramid with the help of all of your input that is more modern, so we will be sure to use that next offseason when we do this again.
Analysis: I was very pleased with how well my initial theory panned out. The Cardinals and the Jaguars were the only two teams that fit my initial theory perfectly however, I was never aiming for perfection. I was still very happy with the results from the other teams I was basing this whole theory of value off of. I encourage you to look at all 32 teams, using the link I posted above. Below are some teams I consider to be forward thinking and are most in line with my initial theory. I'll also outline some other trends and themes I found as well.
Patriots: I would say the overall theory holds true as the fifth tier is the only tier that falls out of the perfect decreasing order. We know how successful and forward thinking they are, I don't need to convince you of that. Frankly, they have been the league's exception as they have remained consistently elite in a league that sees so much turmoil year after year.
Eagles: I would say my theory holds true with the Eagles as well. The only exception being the third tier, which is higher than the second. This exception is actually a very common trend amongst the league as there are 5 other teams that have this same exact exception (Vikings, Seahawks, Browns, Texans, Chargers; where the only two tiers that stray from decreasing order are the second and the third). Since Wentz is signed to a long term deal, one can speculate the Eagles have approximately two years left to capitalize on the players they acquired under Wentz's rookie deal. Once they lose some key pieces because the QB will be taking up a lot of cap space, it'll be interesting to see how this pyramid changes and if they can still be as competitive.
Colts: It has taken them a while to get a fully balanced roster but it seems they've gotten it right. They have invested in their offensive line and Andrew Luck was PFF's third best graded QB from last year. My initial theory is in tact with the Colts as well. Their third, fourth and fifth tiers are all very close to each other and the only exception here is the 1.32 difference between the fifth and fourth tiers.
Rams: When you think forward thinking, the Rams lead by Shawn McVay are one of the first teams to come to mind. This is one of the teams where my initial theory falls short. The third tier is greater than the second and the fifth tier is greater than the fourth. This is where a limitation I described above is in full swing, the Rams clearly value certain positions in lower tiers that reflect more current league trends.
Covering these four teams briefly serves to simply give you a glimpse into my mindset when analyzing these numbers and trends. So with all this data, I turned to my friend and Bleeding Blue Contributor, Jimmy Crowell. I wanted to somehow predict the winners of each division and in what order they will finish in. However, I ran into an issue. I wanted to account for the fact the first tier should be more valuable than the rest of the tiers. Meaning, when we calculate team averages to predict division results, the number accounted for the left tackle position should not weigh the same as the free safety. Another example being, a team's primary pass rusher should be valued more than a slot receiver... I think you get the idea.
We were able to take the averages from the six tier pyramid, created one team average and also found a way to create a weighted team average. We will be relying on the weighted team average numbers for predicting the results of each division in 2019. The highest weighted average, we predict will finish in first, lowest weighted average will finish in last etc...
LEAGUE-WIDE WEIGHTED AVERAGE = 55.50
Here is another limitation: At least to our knowledge, there is no way to quantitatively measure exactly how much more valuable one position is over another. For this instance, Jimmy calculated a weighted average for each team by first multiplying the grade for each tier of the pyramid by its weight. For example, the weight for the first tier was 100%, followed by 90% for the second tier, 80% for the third tier and so on. Once the weighted grade for each tier was complete, Jimmy found the average for all six weighted grades to come up with the teams weighted average. Additionally, we understand that when college PFF grades are used for rookies, it ultimately skews the results we get. Especially when you look at the Cardinals and how Kyler Murray received a 94, that helps give the Cardinals the 16th highest average in the league. Who knows! Kyler and the Cardinals could put together an average year and we look like geniuses but I am going to venture and say the Cardinals will not do that in 2019. Consequently, using players college grades because certain rookies are projected to be starters can have a significant impact on the final results.
Moving forward, we would love to evolve this and make it better. I am a fan who is always looking to learn about the game of football and how we all could be more informed fans. The game of football is evolving before our eyes in many different ways. It is a goal of mine to embrace the aspects of the league that are evolving, analyze how successful football teams are being built and embrace analytics as a way to help better understand how teams are formed. I plan on redesigning this Positional Value Pyramid with the help of everyone on social media. Once we do this, we will use that for the offseason in 2020 and see how that alters the results from there. For now, I am extremely excited to see how our results will play out in 2019 and more importantly, excited to hear from you on what you think of this whole idea we have cooked up.