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Happy Football Friday.
Week 18 brought a few surprises, with the Jaguars losing as 5.5-point favorites to the Titans, which opened the door for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers to make the playoffs for the third time in four years. The Bills, down three games with five games to play, completed the comeback while sweeping the Dolphins and winning their fourth-straight AFC East. The Packers took care of business to secure their playoff spot in their first season with Jordan Love, while the Eagles continued to lose football games.
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. Programming Note: I know we said we would go over predictions, but since some have not matured yet, we will put that off for another week or weeks.
Super Wild Card Weekend Comes with a ton of intrigue, not the least of which will be Matthew Stafford finally getting to play a playoff game in Detroit. The Packers and the Cowboys renew a playoff rivalry that has lasted for decades, while the Chiefs try to beat the Dolphins for the first time in the postseason. The Bills are the only double-digit favorites, and we have three games that are lined at a field goal or less. Should be a great time.
Let’s dig in.
One Thing I’m Monitoring
This one is obvious this week, but it’s the coaching and GM carousel. In what has been the wildest start to an offseason in recent memory, Bill Belichick’s tenure as the New England Patriots coach, which included six Super Bowls and nine Super Bowl appearances, ended, while Pete Carroll, who brought Seattle their first ever title, is out as Head Coach. Mike Vrabel, who had Tennessee punching well above their weight class during much of his tenure there, is also a new addition to the list of coaching free agents. There were already openings in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington, Carolina, and Atlanta. Oh, and maybe the greatest college football coach of all time, Nick Saban, retired Wednesday.
So, what’s next?
A lot of people are tying Belichick’s name to Atlanta, where Arthur Blank has previously tried, and failed, to land big names like Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells. Belichick’s former employer was immediately linked to Vrabel but seems to have a ready-made candidate in Jerod Mayo. Washington, who many thought would try to land arguably the best coach of all time, have narrowed their executive search to Ian Cunningham and Adam Peters, which would seem to suggest that they are not in the running for Belichick, who would probably command full control.
Young, sought-after candidates like Ben Johnson, Mike Macdonald, and others are getting their interview requests, while previous head coaches like Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris, and even former 49ers coach, and current coach of the national championship Michigan Wolverines Jim Harbaugh, are up for consideration. A lot may hinge on what happens this weekend, as it’s not necessarily a lock that all of the six teams that lose this weekend (or in subsequent weekends) will retain their coach for the 2024 seasons, for a myriad of reasons.
Buckle up, we’re in for a ride.
One Thing I’m Buying
I’m buying into Sean McVay’s Hall of Fame case.
Prior to the season, I gave out some tiers for the NFC:
These were mostly good, except the bottom, where the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defied the odds and made the playoffs in a weak NFC. In the case of the Rams, they did so with the benefit of great roster depth. Their highest snap earners on defense were Ahkello Witherspoon, who has a cap number of $940,000 this year, Jordan Fuller, who is a former sixth-round pick out of Ohio State, Byron Young, a third-round pick this year, and Michael Hoecht, who is also making $940,000.
Middle linebacker Ernest Jones and superstar Aaron Donald are their next highest snap earners, after which Derion Kendrick (6th rounder), Russ Yest (7th rounder), Kobie Turner (3rd rounder), and Cobie Durant (4th rounder) all earned over 600 snaps. They haven’t been a great defense (20th in EPA allowed per play), but you can see why coordinator Raheem Morris is getting looks as a head coaching candidate.
On offense, Stafford, rebounding from a poor and injury-plagued 2022 season, started the season without Cooper Kupp and turned fifth-round pick Puka Nacua into a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year. Nacua averaged an absurd 2.59 yards per route run, catching 105 passes and six touchdowns in the process. When Kupp returned, he added 59 more catches at a respectable 1.86 yards per route run.
But maybe the biggest testament to McVay genius was the blossoming of running back Kyren Williams. After years of subpar performance from second-round pick Cam Akers, the Rams shipped Akers to Minnesota and gave Williams the reigns, and he rewarded them with probably the second-best running back season in the league this year. In our metric, yards created, he was fourth among running backs, generating three-fourths of a yard more than what one would expect from the average ball carrier given the same circumstances. This is despite the fact that the offensive line for the Rams includes zero first round picks and two undrafted players.
Sean McVay won’t win coach of the year this year, in large part because he’s too good of a coach, and Kevin Stefanski is also very deserving. But when he retires, the 2023 season should make his case every bit as much as his Super Bowl season of 2021.
One Thing I’m Selling
I’m selling the idea that linebacker is suddenly a premium position because of the success of the league’s two one seeds, the Ravens and the 49ers.
This tweet has made the rounds recently:
Fun to look at how SF/BAL built their teams. One thing that stood out to me is the commitment to off the ball LB’s. So many teams have de-valued that spot and they’ve invested in it. Those 4 dudes are incredible players and they shut down the middle of the field run & pass.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 2, 2024
And while there’s no denying that the 49ers and Ravens defenses are brilliant, and Smith, Warner, Greenlaw, and Queen contribute to those defenses, I think this is more of a descriptive statement than a prescriptive one if we look at the history.
For one, we’re still bad at measuring linebacker play. My colleague at Sumer, Tej Seth, and I’s paper brought us a long way, showing the limitations of PFF grades in the evaluation process, but we only really looked at play action discernment versus chasing down ball carriers in the run game. There is so much more to playing the position, as evidenced by the league’s success rate in picking linebackers in the draft: Since the 2011 CBA, NFL teams have exercised the fifth-year option on linebackers at a rate of 47.8%, which is the second worst to running backs, and fourth worst after adjusting for draft slot. So, even if we linebacker was something that we valued at an increasing level, we wouldn’t know what we were picking (and it’s not getting any better, as evidenced by the linebackers whose fifth-year options are pending: Jamin Davis, Zaven Collins, Quay Walker, Devin Lloyd, and Jack Campbell).
There’s also the important fact that they are still relatively accessible in the marketplace. Below are the highest-paid players at the position, per our friends at OverTheCap. These players have already been through the evaluation process; we already know they are good. Unlike quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, etc., teams don’t have to pay and arm and a leg in terms of draft capital and the like to acquire these players, they just have to pay up in free agency. Six of the top 10 highest-paid linebackers below are not with the team that drafted them. Furthermore, Warner, Foye Oluokun (a SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff draft pick), Matt Milano, Jerome Baker, Bobby Okereke, De’Vondre Campbell (another Dimitroff draft pick), and Demario Davis were all picked after the first round, again demonstrating the point above.
Thus, if you’re a team in the draft and you’re looking to the 49ers or the Ravens for what to do with your high draft picks, look at Trent Williams or Ronnie Stanley, Zay Flowers or Brandon Aiyuk, Nick Bosa or Arik Armstead. That is, of course, if you already have a quarterback. If you don’t have a quarterback, please, look there.