Happy football Friday everyone.
As we enter Week 3 of the 2023 NFL season, some things are starting to take shape around the league. The NFC South is feasting on an easy schedule, with a combined record of 6-2 (with the only two losses by Carolina within the division). The 1-1 Kansas City Chiefs defense is eighth in the NFL in EPA per play despite playing opening night without Chris Jones, while they are just 19th in EPA per play on offense. The Bills, after struggling in Week 1 against the Jets, exploded against the Raiders to even their record. Cincinnati fell to 0-2 against the Ravens at home and now are just three-point favorites in Week 3 against the Rams with Joe Burrow’s health in doubt.
In the NFC, the Eagles haven’t exactly been impressive, but are 2-0 after wins against the Patriots and the Vikings. The 49ers and the Cowboys are dominating early and account for a combined 43% chance to win the NFC.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I had a week ago, along with some for this coming week.
Week 3’s slate is solid in the 1pm hour, with the Chargers and Vikings the most watchable game. The 4pm slate has two spreads of 12 or more points, and a game between the Panthers and Seahawks that will likely include Carolina’s backup quarterback. Monday Night Football will include two games for the second straight week, including the aforementioned must win for Cincinnati. Let’s dig in.
Review of NYG @ SF
The 49ers, who at one point were only six-point favorites over the Giants this offseason, closed as double-digit favorites Thursday en route to a 30-12 win. Kyle Shanahan and Brock Purdy engineered efficient offense, generating +0.21 EPA per play, including a 47% success rate. In the passing game, Purdy and co. generated +0.41 EPA per play, despite an average depth of target of just 4.7 yards.
Deebo Samuel turned 12 targets into 129 yards and a touchdown, while Christian McCaffrey turned 23 touches into 119 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers defense sacked Daniel Jones, who could only muster 137 passing yards, twice and intercepted him once. New York, without star Andrew Thomas and Saquon Barkley, fell to 1-2 in a division where the Eagles, Cowboys, and Commanders are all 2-0.
A Trend I’m Monitoring
Last week I was in the stands for Thursday Night Football, and I caught myself thinking about situations wherein the trailing team couldn’t expect to stop the other team en route to a comeback. In essence, the assignment in trying to come back is to score touchdowns while your opponent sometimes scores field goals.
But then I caught myself. Scoring is down in the league this year, and the last few years. Was I simply more afraid than I should have been of modern-day offenses? I dug into the data and found some interesting trends.
Indeed, expected points added (coming into Thursday Night Football) is at -0.033 per play, which is the worst mark for the first two weeks of an NFL season since 2017 and the second worst since 2010. It’s down from -0.00 a season ago. However, success rate – e.g., the percentage of plays in which a team earns positive expected points – is at 42.9%, which is down from last season’s 43.3% through two weeks, but by only a fraction of the amount that EPA is down. Series success rate, the rate at which an offense turns a first down into eventually another first down, is at 67.9% through two weeks, down only slightly from 69.1% last year and on par with the marks from 2018 and 2019.
Thus, while offenses in the NFL are more error prone and less explosive than they’ve been in the past, they are largely maintaining play-for-play and series success rates on par with non-pandemic seasons. Thus, in situations where – to the trailing team – giving up first downs and bleeding clock is almost as bad as simply giving up a touchdown, our comparisons to some of the high-flying offensive seasons of years past are warranted.
With the increase in two-high (and even some three-high) shells, defenses are optimizing for making opposing offenses make the right decision over and over down the field. If the offense slips up with a mistake, or the defense makes a big play, modern defenses get a victory. That, however, leaves them vulnerable when they need to get one definitive stop – in many cases a three and out – to come back from behind.
Something I’m Buying
I’m buying the idea that the Cardinals should take two quarterbacks high in the 2024 NFL draft.
Per our simulation at SumerSports.com, the Cardinals have a 47.2% chance of obtaining the first-overall pick, either through their own record (30.3%) or that of Houston (16.9%) due to the Will Anderson trade in April. This is probably an underestimation, as while the Cardinals can compete – they were up three touchdowns at one point to the Giants last Sunday – there is a bigger incentive for them to obtain the first-overall pick than can likely be ascertained in a simulation.
Couple the likelihood that the Cardinals have two picks in the top five of the draft with the fact that such picks would likely also mean the trade of Kyler Murray, who has missed the first two games of this season rehabbing from a torn ACL, and it’s likely that the Cardinals will have three first round picks in the 2024 NFL draft.
Kyler Murray’s contract, per OverTheCap
Those three first round picks can be used to offset the roughly $46 million in dead money that is going to be incurred through a Murray trade through cheap and hopefully premium position talent. If Houston’s pick is high enough, they could trade that pick to a team that is desperate for Drake Maye or another high-end quarterback and move back into the back half of the top 10, likely gaining future additional capital.
Which leads to my conclusion: the Cardinals should use one of the later first-round picks on another quarterback.
Not since the Cowboys in 1989 has a team used multiple first-round picks in the same offseason to draft quarterbacks – and in the case of the Cowboys they used a supplemental pick on Steve Walsh, who played for Jimmy Johnson in Miami. That pick ended up being the first-overall pick in the 1990 draft, as the 1989 Cowboys went 1-15. The Cowboys, like the Cardinals today, held an asset in Herschel Walker that they were able to trade so that they, despite taking two quarterbacks high, could still stock up the roster well enough that by 1991 they were back in the playoffs and by 1992, they were world champions.
Steve Walsh, who started five unimpressive games for Dallas, was shipped to the Saints in 1990 for a first, second, and third-round pick when New Orleans quarterback Bobby Hebert was holding out in a contract dispute. There is rarely a season that goes by where a team isn’t desperate for a starter at some point during the season (this year it’s the Jets).
Thus, the door is open for the Cardinals to build back their roster while also lifting the floor on their quarterback outcome. Hopefully they will consider such a sequence of actions.
Something I’m Selling
Kyle Pitts is off to a slow start returning from an MCL injury last season.
Pitts, the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft – the highest a tight end has ever been selected – has been targeted just eight times in the season’s first two games, a year after being targeted 59 times in 10 games. The Falcons, since selecting Pitts in the top five in 2021, have spent two additional top-10 picks on skill position players in Drake London and Bijan Robinson, which is a lot of mouths to feed for Desmond Ridder, whose cooking abilities are very much in question through six career starts.
In recent seasons, the selection of Pitts has strengthened our collective ability to understand positional value. Pitts, making just $8 million a season as the fourth-overall pick, has a salary roughly half that of the highest-paid player at his position, and hence a limited surplus value even in the best-case scenario. On the other hand, the player chosen right after Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase of LSU, earns roughly the same amount as Pitts, which is roughly four times less than that of the highest-paid player at his position. This represents a humongous surplus now that he’s one of the top wide receivers in football.
Thus, this is why I’m out on Pitts. The financial facts above should be enough to budge any regime into featuring him – if they have a non-zero desire to do so. The fact that the Falcons know that they need to get other-worldly performance out the third-year pro to have made the pick – the first of the regime – worth it, and don’t seem interested in doing so, means to me they are committed to not featuring him.