It’s not hyperbole to say I probably wouldn’t be writing about the NFL today if it wasn’t for Football Outsiders. Way back in the summer of 2004, I had just bought my first Al Wilson jersey and spent the summer at the local bookstore gobbling up every single about football I could get my hands on. Calling it obsessed doesn’t do my frenzy justice.
Which is how I first stumbled upon Football Outsiders’ Pro Football Prospectus.
It took me a week to read it cover to cover and the pages got dog eared as I went back over all of the different analysis leading up to training camp. Some of the conclusions blew me away: running the ball didn’t lead to victory so much as it was what you did to ice a win, gaining 2 yards on 3rd and 1 was more valuable than 4 yards on 2nd and 10.
To say Aaron Schatz and his team at FO have impacted my entire outlook on football is merely a fact. So to have a chance to speak with Schatz and Brian Knowles about this year’s NFL preview and the upcoming season was a true joy.
Our interview has been lightly edited. You can find the PDF of Football Outsider’s Broncos Preview here.
1st and 10
MHR: In the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, Bryan Knowles mentions how Fangio’s defense utilizes a 3 technique. I was wondering if he/you had any thoughts on Shelby Harris, who Sports Info Solutions credited with 11.5 pressures last year in just 390 total snaps. What are the odds he can maintain or surpass his pass rush productivity in a bigger role?
Knowles: Harris’ chances of improving on his raw production numbers kind of depends on how well Derek Wolfe and especially Adam Gotsis performs early on. Assuming they hold out well, most of Harris’ snaps will likely come at the 0- or 1-tech role, and that’s not a spot that comes with a ton of pass-rush productivity potential in a Fangio scheme.
Last year, that was Eddie Goldman’s role in Chicago; a very good pass rusher on the inside. He had 13 pressures in 552 total snaps. The year before, he had 15 on 609. If you go back to Fangio’s San Francisco days, you’re talking guys like Ian Williams and Isaac Sopoaga clogging up the middle; they didn’t have huge pressure totals, either.
That doesn’t mean Harris won’t be effective; he’s going to be serious trouble for teams to handle up the middle. He should have more than his 1.5 sacks from a year ago; he’s too talented not to. It just seems more likely that he’ll create opportunities for Wolfe, Gotsis and Dre’Mont Jones rather than becoming more productive himself.
Now, if there’s problems with one of those ends, Harris can take that role and do well in it, but seems more like a plan B at the moment.
I still can't believe Shelby Harris didn't play 400 snaps last season. Dude is going to feast this year. pic.twitter.com/AcbRhBw6hn— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) August 20, 2019
2nd and 6
MHR: One of the big reasons FO seems to be down on the Broncos this year is the expected regression by the defense. But when I looked into the numbers, Chicago is the only time Fangio’s D regressed in his first year compared to the previous seasons.
- In 1995 he took over the Carolina Panthers in their first year of existence. The team finished 5th in DVOA.
- In 1999 he took over the Indianapolis Colts and they improved from 29th to 26th in DVOA.
- In 2002 the expansion Texans finished 21st in DVOA.
- In 2011 with the 49ers, Fangio’s D finished 3rd in total DVOA, an improvement from 15th the year prior.
- Even the Bears finished Fangio’s first year with a DVOA of 11.3% whereas the 2010 Bears finished 10.6%. Hardly a big regression.
If the Broncos D remain a top 5 defense in 2019 what happens to their expected win total?
Schatz: When we put the Broncos into our projection system as a top five defense, their mean wins total went up from 6.6 to 7.4. It’s still below 8-8 for a couple of reasons.
The fifth-best defense in the league (we went with a -10.0% DVOA, which would have been fifth just ahead of Denver’s actual rating last year) would still be not quite as good as the mean projection for the Denver offense is bad (-11.0%). Plus, the Broncos have one of the hardest schedules in the league, third by average DVOA of opponents.
3rd and 3
MHR: One of the big questions facing the Broncos appears to be their inside linebackers. Football Outsiders cited it as Denver’s biggest need after the draft and in the Almanac Knowles mentions they’re a huge question mark, even mentioning Su’a Cravens as a possible fill in if they can’t hold up. What are your thoughts on Will Parks potentially logging snaps in a dimebacker role like he did last year to offset some of the LB coverage limitations?
Knowles: Parks is certainly a better cover option than either Jewell or Davis, or Cravens for that matter. In pure cover situations – in dime packages, like you suggest – Parks might well be Denver’s best option at “linebacker” for the moment.
The trouble is, Fangio doesn’t really use dime.
The Bears were in dime+ packages only 5% of the time in 2018, compared to 28% for Denver. If you’re going to play as a linebacker for Vic Fangio, even as a part-time replacement, you need to be able to play on first and second down as well; Parks isn’t as much of a thumper as Cravens is.
If you could smushed Cravens and Parks together into one player, you’d have a nice backup option behind Jewell and Davis. As it stands, they’re both sort of specialists in a role where Fangio really wants an all-around type of player. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Parks replacing Davis when Fangio does go to six defensive backs; it’s just not something he does particularly often.
4th and inches
MHR: You say Chubbs had the most pressures by any rookie you’ve ever charted. Who else comes close?
Knowles: Over the past four years, since we started using SIS’s charting numbers, there’s been a couple challengers to Chubb’s 34.5 quarterback hurries – Carl Lawson had 30.5, Myles Garrett and Genard Avery had 28.5 apiece and Joey Bosa had 26. Chubb’s got a decent lead on all of them, however.
Going back earlier than 2015, we used different charting methods, so it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison. Chubb leads everyone here, too, however – Aldon Smith had 31, Adrian Clayborn had 29.5 and Ryan Kerrigan had 28 as the closest comparisons. Von Miller, just for reference, had 17.5.
MHR: Given your thoughts on the Flacco trade, what would need to be present for Flacco or the Broncos offense to improve over last year? If Lock is average as QBase predicts, would the Broncos be better to settle on that next year in order to get Flacco’s salary back in cap space?
Knowles: There’s plenty of possibilities for improvement on offense, starting with playcalling and overall offensive design.
It never felt like Bill Musgrave adapted his scheme to Denver’s specific personnel, nor like Vance Joseph could be trusted to make the right strategic calls in crucial moments, in regards to timeouts and field goal attempts and whatnot. An upgrade in the coaching staff probably will go a longer way than the quarterback in making Denver’s offense watchable in 2019.
The offensive line looks improved and there’s plenty of potential, if not yet finished products, in the receiving corps. There are plenty of reasons to hold out hope for a solid offensive performance this year, even ignoring the quarterback position.
It’s unlikely Flacco will improve on his last season’s numbers. Our current projections have him with the fifth-worst DVOA of any expected starter, and the lowest DVOA for any veteran quarterback, below the Mannings and Foleses of the world. Flacco’s 5.5% DVOA ranked 16th last season, and was his best finish since 2014. He’s not getting any younger. His absolute ceiling is meh.
And that’s the best argument for starting Lock over Flacco (eventually, once Lock recovers from injury and gets enough practice reps in). QBASE, our rookie quarterback projection system, doesn’t see Lock as top-tier prospect; his average result is more in that Nick Foles-Marcus Mariota range; an above-average backup, but not an ideal long-term starter. But that’s just the average projection; QBASE gives probabilities for a range of outcomes.
It gives Lock a 42% chance to become at least an adequate starter (think Matthew Stafford), a 14% chance to become at least an upper-tier passer (think Carson Wentz) and a 3% chance to become an elite, top-of-the line player.
Joe Flacco is not going to be even an adequate starter in, say, 2021; I’ll be a little surprised if he’s still in the league at all. There is more long-term (and even medium-term) potential with Lock than there is with Flacco. If the Broncos are not going to be competitive in a very tough AFC West division, they would be better off in the long term finding out just what Lock can do rather than sticking with Flacco, even if Flacco might produce better results in 2019.