Eager's Football Friday - Week 17

by Eric Eager|December 28, 2023

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Happy Football Friday. 

Week 16 brought us some clarity, as Brock Purdy’s MVP case went kaput at the hands of the Ravens, who now boast the market’s favorite in Lamar Jackson. The Dolphins won a game against a team with a winning record, while the Cowboys continued their struggles away from Dallas. The Bills hung on for dear life against the Chargers and now need to win out and for the Dolphins to lose out to secure their fourth-straight division title. Detroit secured their first division title in 30 years, while the Chiefs will have to wait to secure their eighth-straight AFC West title after they were downed 20-14 by the upstart Raiders. The Buccaneers and Baker Mayfield continued their hot streak and can win their third-straight division title this week with a win over the Saints at home, while the Jaguars, who were -160 preseason to repeat in the AFC South, pick up the pieces. 

Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.  

Week 17 offers some more compelling matchups, starting with the Lions and Cowboys in a 2014 playoff rematch in Dallas Saturday night. DolphinsRavens has huge implications for both the one seed and the MVP market, while BengalsChiefs, once a battle of titans, has surprising playoff implications now relative to predictions a few weeks ago. PackersVikings is a rare matchup of teams below 0.500, but both could still be alive in the playoff race by Sunday night if they get some luck. 

Let’s dig in. 

One Thing I’m Monitoring 

I’m monitoring how the Broncos, having benched Russell Wilson so that they don’t have to risk injury guarantees, handle their quarterback situation moving forward. As the owners of the 14th pick coming into the week, they are not in a great position to take or trade up for one of the top prospects, Drake Maye or Caleb Williams, as they hold only six picks as of now.  

For a time a franchise with competence at the position with Brian Griese, Jake “The Snake” Plummer, and Jay Cutler bookended by Hall of Famers John Elway and Peyton Manning, the Broncos have fallen on hard times at quarterback. Manning gave way to Trevor Siemian, and later Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, and Teddy Bridgewater, with failed draft picks Paxton Lynch and Drew Lock. Wilson was supposed to be the elixir to what ailed them at the position, having earned PFF’s most valuable player (using my PFF WAR metric) in 2019 and a Super Bowl ring in 2013.  

What is PFF WAR and why it shows Russell Wilson is the MVP | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

It has instead been a nightmare, with Nathaniel Hackett shown the door after a 5-12 season in which Wilson finished 34th (of 36) among passers in expected points added. Sean Payton took over with the hope that he could make something out of what remained of Wilson’s form, but the former Wisconsin Badger has been basically league average (18th) in that same metric in 2023, despite Payton deploying some very quarterback-friendly responsibilities over the past few months.

Thus, the Broncos are going to post-June 1 designate Russell Wilson’s release before the fifth day of the 2024 season so that his 2025 base salary will not be guaranteed. I hope you followed that (you probably shouldn’t be allowed to post-June 1 something because of a pre-June 1 date, alas). This means that the Broncos will incur a $35.4 million dead cap hit (saving $0) in 2024, which is the sum of one year of his prorated signing bonuses and his 2024 guaranteed base salary. In 2025 they take on the remaining portion of the prorated signing bonuses, which is $49.6 million. If he were not designated post-June 1, the full $85 million would be dead in 2024. If they waited until after the fifth day of the league year, his $37 million base salary for 2025 would be guaranteed and part of the dead cap charge as well (and not eligible for post-June 1 privileges). 

Examining Post-June 1st Cuts | SumerSports 

The Broncos are around $18 million over the 2024 cap even without Wilson’s dead charge, which goes to $27 million over in effective cap after filling in the roster with replacement players. Thus, there will not be much in the way of options for them in free agency, in addition to the draft. Some free agent options who could turn in Geno Smith 2022 or Baker Mayfield 2023 seasons at a similar price (Mayfield makes $4 million) are Tyrod Taylor, Sam Darnold, Jameis Winston, or Drew Lock. In the draft, players like Michael Penix Jr. or Bo Nix would be available at a reasonable range.  

Sean Payton, one of the best offensive minds in the history of the game, has his work cut out for him. 

One Thing I’m Buying 

I wish I could buy Josh Allen MVP again. It’s good. Do it. 

I’m buying, 100%, the inclusion of interior defensive lineman as a premium position in today’s NFL. Never mind the fact that they are being paid almost commensurate with their counterparts on the edge, with nine interior players making $20 million or more APY and 11 such edges holding that distinction. Both interior (Aaron Donald) and edge (Nick Bosa) have the same number of $30 million APY players. Edge pressure has been shown by several studies to be more valuable than interior pressure, and for obvious reasons (strip sacks, quicker pressure, etc.), while interior run defense has been shown to change the math for a defense, even before the shift to two-high shells the last few years.  

Edge vs Interior: Which pass-rusher reigns supreme | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

The latter is where I want to focus this week, though. In 2023 we’ve seen a league-wide scoring environment that has been … suppressed to say the least. While many people will look to the loss of quarterbacks (only 12 have started every game this year), the big culprit has been the running game. In 2022, rushing was an efficient means of offense, relatively, earning an EPA per rush of -0.01, with a success rate of 43.1%. These aren’t as good as passing, but they are approaching it. In 2023, this has fallen to -0.04 EPA per rush, and a success rate of 40.9%. These are paltry numbers, and they are consistent across different box counts.  

Box Count  2022 EPA (Success Rate)  2023 EPA (Success Rate) 
Light (six or fewer)  0.03 (44.0%)  0.00 (42.5%) 
Medium (seven)  -0.05 (41.6%)  -0.07 (38.7%) 
Heavy (eight or more)  -0.05 (42.8%)  -0.09 (41.0%) 

In fact, NFL defenses are able to do with light boxes essentially what all run defenses were able to do in 2022, hold a team to roughly 0.00 EPA per play. The drop off against seven-man, normal sized, boxes has been just as big. All this is to say that there are defensive linemen who are winning on early downs against offenses that have historically had an advantage against them. Guys like Quinnen Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Derrick Brown, and Alim McNeill have been especially brilliant individual players here, with the top two earning big contract extension while Brown remains a big draft miss for me (although a lot of this is due to the topic here, that run defense has become more valuable).  

Projecting Auburn DI Derrick Brown’s impact as an NFL player | NFL Draft | PFF 

Almost two decades ago, when the Tampa Two defenses were making their way through the NFL, winning championships in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, the three-tech was thought of as a pivotal player along the defensive line. This makes sense, since a key component of the Tampa Two was getting pressure with four rushers, and such a player – often modeled after the Vikings’ John Randle – could tip the scales in the defense’s favor.  

In the modern, two-high shell defenses, I think the pivotal player is the defensive lineman that can be the team’s one-tech (between the center and the guard) whenever needed, while also kicking out over the guard. This player is largely a unicorn of the Donald or Williams type, so I amend the statement to: the pivotal player in the modern NFL defense is the nose tackle. As I wrote about in 2020, there’s evidence that early-down brilliance against the run and with lighter boxes translates into better pass defense situations on late downs, and so while such a player may not directly affect the passing game, he truly does affect both the run and the pass through changing the math against which an offense has to operate (light boxes but stout on early downs, coverage on late downs).  

Interior Run Defenders Matter: Why players like Quinnen Williams and Daron Payne add more value to a defense than previously thought | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

One Thing I’m Selling 

I’m selling the idea that Caleb Williams is a lock to be the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Look, Williams is an incredible talent, with movement skills and arm talent that rival some of the best passers that are already in the league. The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner followed up a great season that year with a pretty good one in 2023, throwing 30 touchdown passes to just five interceptions and completing 68% of his passes for 9.3 yards a pass attempt. The latter two numbers are improvements from 2022 to 2023, which was a surprise to me. 

Yet, there are some things that were not quite as good. For example, Williams’ pressure to sack ratio went from 16.0% in 2022 to 23.2% in 2023. For comparison, the recently benched Sam Howell’s career pressure-to-sack rate at North Carolina was 26.7% over the course of his career and has largely been his issue in the pros. Some will point to a lack of support as an excuse for Williams, but given that we are looking at plays where a pressure occurred, this is generally a quarterback stat, and one that generally sticks from college to pro.  

Williams also doubled the rate at which he produced interceptable passes from 2022 to 2023, and simply got lucky that the same number of his passes were intercepted this year and last. Much of his passing efficiency bump in 2023 can be attributed to the fact that his receivers cut their drop rate by more than double.  

These things have some pretty smart people coalescing on the idea that North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is a) the best prospect in the draft and b) will actually be taken first. For example, here’s the Athletic and Yahoo Sports’ Nate Tice: 

The NFL generally, and rightly, prizes all the traits Williams possesses. It’s still likely he will be the first pick in the draft when it is all said and done, either because the Bears take him or, for the second straight year, they trade the pick to a team that is in love with Williams, like the Panthers were in love with Bryce Young. That being said, Maye also has strong traits, and is a good value at 4-1 in the current markets. 

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