The 2016 NFL Draft is behind us and as training camps approach, rosters will begin to finalize. Player evaluators will need to make tough choices based on limited information, but is there a better way for those without inside knowledge to evaluate rosters? Jeffrey Feyerer presents a new look at player and team evaluation that is clear and concise.
My fascination for the game of football began at an early age, but my more focused interest in the area of the way teams are constructed and how players’ talent is harnessed and developed began shortly afterward. For whatever reason, I could sit for hours watching and evaluating game footage, but it was something as relatively unexciting as the NFL Draft and the alteration of team rosters during the offseason that really piqued my interest. Drawing up depth charts on the back of my homework during class was commonplace.
As anyone can attest by the continual and growing interest in the NFL Draft, plus the fact there is now no true NFL offseason, I am not alone. But interest in the process of melding rosters together shouldn’t be confused with the ability to do so effectively. Attempting to isolate the performance of one player among the 22 on the field – each with a different task and skill level – is an unenviable job, one that remains difficult even for the most experienced of football professionals. But teams don’t just have to do this for one player, they must find 53 puzzle pieces that fit together to carry with them through the regular season. Variables upon variables exist that make it impossible to do this with 100% accuracy.
However, as information and advanced data becomes more readily available, more people attempt to assess and predict the performance of players and teams with some hope they have cracked the code. While no one can be correct about player evaluation all of the time, it is possible to have the process and components in place to give someone the best chance to do so. Looking at one game or even one season in a vacuum and placing a concrete value on a player is wholly inaccurate and ignores other important factors. Player valuation is not binary. Nothing is as simple as “X player performed poorly last season so X player is bad.” Like player development, player valuation should be a fluid process, constantly changing as information becomes available.
Included below is my player valuation and rating scaled based on my core beliefs. It is modeled to include variables that are integral to any good assessment of football players and teams as a whole.
I have divided player traits into two main categories, Skill Traits and Organizational Traits, and then three sub-categories under each category with accompanying questions to assist in evaluating:
- Potential – What does scouting tell us? What skills does the player possess?
- Performance – How did the player perform during the most recent season? If good, is it sustainable? If bad, is there a reason?
- Development – What stage of his career is the player in? Has there been progress? Is there further development needed?
- Investment – How much is the player being paid? What draft pick was invested? How much time has the organization invested in the player?
- Fit – What is the player’s role? Does the player have an opportunity to succeed? Does the player fit the scheme OR can the team tailor a scheme around the player?
- Intangibles – Are there any off-field issues? Does the player possess leadership qualities on and off the field?
Many of these questions don’t have absolute, concrete answers, but if they are the right questions, the right answers will come about and the right information will be evaluated.
Taking into account all of these traits, I developed an extremely simple rating scale from which to assign a value to each player on a team’s roster. The available ratings for each player depends on their experience in the league. Early in a player’s career, there is so much uncertainty that labeling a young player a “star” or a “bust” would be troublesome. Players have struggled at the start of their careers only to bounce back while others have come out and played like stars, only to fade. As a player progresses through their career, more data becomes available to accurately place each player in the correct category.
The player’s rating also depends on what role they are currently assigned to play on that team. While most will use the two-deep, three-deep, or entire depth chart to characterize roster depth and strength, I prefer to use an abbreviated depth chart which consists of starters and players commonly used in sub packages. This weeds out the evaluation of players that see a large number of their snaps on special teams, a highly volatile piece of team performance.
Ratings can be summarized as follows:
- Star – A proven top-10 performer at their position
- Next Tier – A starter still on the upward trajectory of their career with a chance to become a star or a player who was once a star now on the downside of their career
- Good Veteran – A player that would start for many teams at the position
- Average Veteran – A league-average starter who fits their role, but nothing more
- Below-Average Veteran – A player with experience, but little else to offer
- High-Expectation Youth – A player in their first three years with high expectation based around team investment (picks or dollars) or performance early in their career
- Low-Investment Youth – A low-risk, low-investment player who has potential, but is not being counted on; main category for potential surprises that are given an opportunity
- Roster Hole – An area where no veteran or player with potential exists on the roster
Once each player is placed on the abbreviated depth chart, evaluated, valued, and rated, there are three scores given to each team to describe the quality and type of the roster.
- Talent Score – The sum of all 30 individual talent ratings
- Stability Score – The percentage of talent score derived from stars, next tiers, and good veterans
- Volatility Score – The percentage of talent score derived from high-expectation and low-investment youth
The presence of three scores gives an easy summary for the quality and depth of each team’s roster. To illustrate this point, I’ve included the abbreviated depth charts and scores for two teams below. First, the Green Bay Packers:
The Packers roster is a good balance of veterans and youth with two proven stars, but a number of players near the middle of the roster and very few holes to be found. Before arriving at the total team score, here’s a brief rundown at how I analyzed and rated a few Packers using the methodology touched on above.
Stars – It would be hard finding anyone that doesn’t believe Aaron Rodgers is one of the top players at the quarterback position. It may be harder to justify Clay Matthews’ rating, given his bouncing around between OLB and ILB and the glut of other outstanding 3-4 OLB. But given his track record, his importance to the team, and the fact he remains in the prime of his career, I’m confident this rating is justified.
Next Tier – The Packers have four players in this category with Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Josh Sitton, and Mike Daniels. Nelson and Cobb should be mentioned together because Nelson’s return to the field will ultimately make the Packers better at two positions with Cobb not being relied on to carry the load. This is the piece of the evaluation where a player’s role is encompassed. Sitton remains one of the best guards in the league, but the general value of the guard position makes it hard to justify a “Star” rating. Daniels is the least well-known to the average fan, but has emerged as one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
High-Expectation Youth – Kenny Clark and Jason Spriggs as early drafted rookies should see time, at least rotationally, immediately. Spriggs’s development is further necessitated by the fact three Packers lineman will hit free agency next offseason. Davante Adams, Damarious Randall, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Corey Linsley are all young players that have played pivotal roles already, but have yet to cement themselves into a veteran tier. Clinton-Dix appears to be closest to moving toward a Next Tier rating while this will be very much a turning point season for Adams.
Low-Investment Youth – Jeff Janis and Jake Ryan find their way into this category based on their low draft investment by the team and the value of the position they play by the Packers. Janis is playing a position that has decent depth for a team with a high success rate in developing wide receivers making his potential breakout less imperative to team success. Inside linebacker has been labeled a need for the Packers for close to five years, but they have never felt the need to invest heavily in the draft or in free agency to improve the position. Ryan is someone they’re gambling on filling the role based on his collegiate productivity, but whose development may be deemed less important by the team given their ability to succeed with mediocre production at the position. Rollins was a 2nd round pick, but is currently slotted in as the 6th defensive back and has young players in front of him that have either had more money invested in them by the team or have shown greater promise than Rollins. Rodgers has shown promise as the #1 tight end. However, the team’s acquisition of Jared Cook and the relative lack of urgency in replacing Jermichael Finley again begs the question as to how highly the team values the position.
Good Veterans – Most of the players labeled here are easily identifiable, but how I arrived at the ratings for Eddie Lacy and James Starks may give a clearer sense at my process. Lacy’s production through three years has fluctuated along with his weight. When he’s in the right condition, Lacy is a game-changer. But 2015 was not that time. Head coach Mike McCarthy’s post-season commentary about his conditioning has apparently lit a fire under Lacy. Reports suggest he has been dedicated to shedding the pounds in an attempt to return to his Pro-Bowl level. My rating here is based on his return to a production level somewhere between the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Starks’ rating is role specific as the #2 running back. If he was the #1, there would be more question marks and thus a lower rating.
Average Veterans – David Bakhtiari’s inclusion in this category may cause the most questions given his youth and the important role he plays on the team. However, through three years as the starting left tackle, there has been little evidence that he ready to make a jump to the next level. The drafting of Spriggs, while most likely due to his place as the best available on the Packers board, does open up questions as to how much longer Bakhtiari will be in Green Bay.
On the whole for the Packers, the talent score is above average (88, or +28, which means 28 points above a team full of average veterans), the stability score is high due to the number of proven and dependable veterans and the volatility score indicates there are some young players that open up potential for performance fluctuation. This look at the Packers provides just one example of how viewing the abbreviated depth chart and player ratings as a whole can open up the conversation and shine a light on how teams value players and positions differently than others.
A team in a different position is the Los Angeles Rams:
The Rams clearly have a lower talent level than the Packers. Additionally, when it comes to the stability and volatility score, the Rams are basically the inverse of the Packers. Over 50% of the Rams’ talent is derived from young players and only one-fifth of the roster is manned by stable veterans. That leaves a lot of room for internal roster improvement and development, but may not lead to much success next year unless many of the unknowns see an expedited rise up the rating ladder.
While the method presented isn’t revolutionary, I believe it is a comprehensive approach to player valuation and roster analysis that leaves no stone unturned. As the countdown to the season continues, I hope to present a roster analysis on each team using this very method. Accurately valuing the performance of football players and discovering how each fits in the team scheme of football is the holy grail. For now, the answer is unknown, but the discussion and the quest continues.