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One of them needs to go
There has been some curious communication suggesting that trouble is brewing within the Commanders’ defensive ranks through the first two weeks of the 2022 season. Following the first week win against the Jaguars, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio took the unusual step of singling out second-year linebacker Jamin Davis for criticism for sub-standard play in a press conference.
Del Rio’s remarks drew attention for several reasons, none of them good. First, it is unusual for a coach to openly criticize a single player on his own team that way. Second, he is hardly in a strong position to be pointing fingers elsewhere, given how poorly his defense has performed since 2020. Third, his comments, against that backdrop, raise obvious questions about how much his poor coaching performance may be responsible for Davis’ failure to live up to expectations, if indeed he has.
For the second time in a few months, Del Rio’s comments have brought new attention to a team that was already not short of negative, off-the-field publicity. It did not help that, instead of correcting Del Rio’s misstep, Ron Rivera seems to have backed him up.
It is unclear at this point whether Del Rio’s comments, and the reaction from players, is indicative of any deeper tensions within the locker room and, if so, whether that is escalating. There have been some worrying signs. On Monday Jamin Davis posted an ominous film clip on Instagram, which seemed to be directed at his coach and was liked by at least one senior defensive player before being quickly taken down. Davis quickly took the post down and has since walked it back as just a joke that Del Rio is OK with.
Whether is was all just a dust-up in the media over a good natured, but poorly judged social media post by a young player, or quick work by Jason Wright’s PR team remains to be seen. Whatever the real situation in the Commanders’ locker room might be, I thought it would be fun to have a look at the stats to see who is the bigger problem for Washington’s defense, Jamin Davis or Jack Del Rio.
Before we jump into the statistics to see who is worse at their respective jobs, a little context is needed to set the scene on our two contestants.
Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Commanders
Jamin Davis was the Washington Football Team’s first-round draft pick in 2021. Heading into the draft, linebacker was generally regarded as a major need. The team’s selection of Davis 19th overall raised a few eyebrows because he was a one-year starter and was considered a raw prospect at the position with tremendous upside based on freakish athletic traits. While we may never know how other NFL teams ranked Davis on their draft boards, the consensus ratings of 71 draft experts ranked him 38th in the draft class, well behind available linebacker classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (17th, picked 52nd), who was the player most frequently mocked to Washington.
Davis struggled to adjust to the speed of the NFL when he was asked to play middle linebacker in eight starts during his rookie season. Nevertheless, he still managed to outperform the linebacker picked before him at 16th overall, Zaven Collins. In 16 games played to Collins’ 17, Davis had three times the production in tackles (76 vs 25), tackles for loss (3 vs 1) and passes defended (3 vs 1). However, Davis was somewhat outperformed by the player that a lot of people thought that Washington should have drafted, Jeremiah Owusu-Koromah, who was selected 33 picks later and achieved similar tackling production with superior pass defense (opposing Passer Rating 70.2 vs. Davis 107.1) despite missing three games to injury.
Entering the 2022 season, there were questions about whether Davis could adjust to the speed of the NFL. However, reports from training camp indicated that he had improved dramatically with the switch to the weakside linebacker role.
Jack Del Rio, Defensive Coordinator, Washington Commanders
Jack Del Rio came to Washington with 16 years of experience as an NFL head coach and defensive coordinator. In his previous job as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he achieved a 25-23 W-L regular season record with one winning season out of three. Overall, in his career as a head coach he is 93-94, with four winning seasons out of 12 coached.
Del Rio’s most recent job as defensive coordinator in Denver, from 2012 to 2014 might be more directly relevant to his job in DC. Del Rio took over a defense which had ranked 23rd in the league in points allowed and 19th in total yardage allowed in 2011. In his first year in Denver, the defense improved to 2nd in points allowed and 4th in yardage. In 2013, however, the defense slipped backward to 19th in yardage and 23rd in scoring. In his final season in Denver, his defense improved to 3rd in total yardage allowed, but only 16th in opponents’ scoring.
Del Rio’s first two years in Washington have some disturbing parallels with his tenure as DC in Denver. As in Denver, he presided over a massive improvement in 2020, with the defensive rankings climbing from 27th yardage and scoring allowed in 2019 to 2nd in yardage and 4th in scoring in his debut season. However, the improvement was short lived and, just as in Denver, his defense had a massive regression in his second year as DC in 2020, falling to 25th in points allowed and 22nd in total yardage.
Who is Worse at their Job: Davis or Del Rio?
Both contestants entered the 2022 season facing major questions about their performance in their roles with the Commanders. Davis needed to demonstrate that he had developed in his role as starting linebacker, which was to be expected of a traits-based, raw prospect transitioning to the NFL. Del Rio needed to demonstrate that he could turn around a defense that showed substantial regression in his second year at the helm.
Let’s see how the two of them stack up to their peers through the first two games of 2022, and how well each one has answered the questions hanging over his head. I’ll start with Davis.
To make the appropriate comparison, I ranked Jamin Davis against the league’s primary starting off-ball linebackers. Like Washington, most teams that run a nominal 4-3 base defense spend so much time in sub-packages that their third “starting” linebacker gets much fewer snaps than the other two, which I’m calling the primary starters. The exceptions were Dallas and the Jets, whose second and third linebackers get about the same playing time, and were both counted as primary starters. Davis is one of two primary starters for Washington, so I ranked him against the primary starting off-ball linebackers on the 4-3 teams and the starting inside linebackers on 3-4 teams.
I ranked Davis against his peers in the two areas of his main responsibilities as a linebacker for which statistics are available: tackling and pass defense. Unfortunately, there are no readily available statistics on “being out of position”, which have been a concern with the Commanders defense in general, as well as Davis in particular. While the purely statistical approach I’m taking here is not perfect, since it doesn’t capture the whole picture, one would hope that missed assignments would be reflected to some extent, at least, in missed tackles and blown coverages.
As far as total tackle production goes, Jamin Davis has not exactly blown up the league in the first two games of his second season, ranking 60th out of 66 comparable starting off-ball linebackers with 7 combined tackles, and 46th with 6 solo tackles. His combined tackle total falls well short of teammate Cole Holcomb, who ranked 24th with 15; but his solo tackle count is actually higher than Holcomb who has only registered 5. The league leaders through two games are Kamu Grugier-Hill (HOU), Jordyn Brooks (SEA) and Myles Jack (PIT) with 23 combined tackles each, and Pete Werner (NO) all alone with 18 solo tackles (Brooks and Grugier-Hill tied for 2nd with 17).
Hogs Haven readers might know I am not a big fan of total cumulative statistics, and prefer productivity and efficiency stats, which provide better measures of players’ abilities and contributions relative to opportunity. To rank players’ tackling relative to opportunities, I therefore used percentage of missed tackles (MTkl%). To rank pass coverage abilities, I used opponent quarterback’s Passer Rating, when throwing into a player’s coverage (OPR; sourced from Pro Football Reference).
While Davis ranks near the bottom of primary starting linebackers in total tackles, he does much better in Missed Tackle Percentage. After two games in 2022, he is one of 27 primary starting linebackers (along with teammate Cole Holcomb) who has not registered a missed tackle. To this point in the season, at least, his percentage of missed tackles appears to be significantly improved relative to 2021, when he missed 12.6%. At the other end of the spectrum in 2022, 21 of Davis’ peers have Missed Tackle Percentages greater than 10%, with the highest being New England’s Mack Wilson at 40%.
In pass coverage, Davis ranked 24th out of 66 primary starting linebackers, with a fairly stingy OPR of 74.3 on 9 targets. Thus far in 2022, Davis has only allowed 5 completions on 9 targets for 56 yards and no TDs. To put that in perspective, it means that opposing QBs throwing into his coverage perform slightly better than Justin Fields did in 2021. Davis’ pass coverage appears to show signs of improvement so far this season compared to 2021, when he registered an OPR of 107.1, making opposing QBs look like Joe Burrow. The top ranked coverage linebacker to this point in the season is Buffalo’s Matt Milano, with an OPR of 24.6 on 10 targets, allowing a completion rate of 50% for 49 yds, no TDs, an interception and 2 passes defended.
Jack Del Rio
Jack Del Rio came into the 2022 season needing to demonstrate that he can turn around a defence that dramatically underperformed in 2021 relative to the stellar 2020 season. Through the first two games in 2022, his defense has achieved the following rankings:
- 4th worst in points allowed (58 pts) – 3 rank places worse than 2021
- 6th worst in total yards allowed (808 yds), 3-way tie with Tennessee and Pittsburgh – 4 ranks worse than 2021
- 2nd worst in yards per play allowed (6.6), tied with Tennessee – 5 ranks worse than 2021
- 13th worst in passing yards allowed (494 yds) – 9 rank improvement over 2021
- 3rd worst in passing TDs allowed (5), 5-way tie with CLE, ATL, KC, LAR – 2 rank improvement over 2021 worst-in-league performance
- 5th worst in rushing yards allowed (314 yds) – 20 place increase in ranking (in the wrong direction) from 2021
- Worst overall in yards per rushing attempt allowed (7.5 yds !!!) – regressing from a 24th place tie with Carolina in 2021
- 9th worst in defensive penalties (14), tied with Ravens – 11 ranking places worse than 2021
- 5th worst in % of offensive drives ending in a score (44%) – 2 place decline from 2021
- 3rd worst in % of offensive drives ending in a turnover (4%), tie with Colts – 10 rank decline from 2021
- 9th worst in defensive takeaways (1), 10-way tie – 2 rank improvement from 2021
Furthermore, his defense in 2022 is ranked 28th in DVOA, 26th in PFF grade (for those of you who rely on PFF ratings), and 24th in EPA/play.
In summary, Del Rio’s defense has continued to regress in most major statistical categories in 2022, highlighted by a sharp decline in run defense through the first two games of the season. He has done nothing to prove his doubters wrong.
Entering his second season, Jamin Davis is showing signs of improvement following a rookie season in which he was over-drafted, setting up unreasonable expectations, and put in a bad position to learn his role at the NFL level. While his total tackles are fairly low, he has not been missing tackles like he did in 2021 and his pass coverage is also showing signs of improvement.
Jack Del Rio came to Washington following a long career of mediocrity as a head coach and underperforming as a defensive coordinator. His career win rate as a head coach is 0.497. His career highlights in team leadership roles are 12-4 season in Jacksonville, which ended in a Wildcard playoff loss to the Patriots, an 11-5 season ending in a divisional round loss to the Patriots two years later, a 12-4 season in Oakland ending in a Wildcard loss to Houston, the 2013 AFC Championship season in Denver, in which his defense experienced a significant regression from the previous season. The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015 after Del Rio was hired by the Raiders, and experienced a rebound in defensive performance under new DC Wade Phillips.
In his two extended stints as a Defensive Coordinator in Denver and Washington, his defenses have experienced dramatic improvements in performance during his first year, followed by declining performance in subsequent years. Two games into the 2022 season, his defense is showing no signs of returning to its 2020 form and ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in 10 of 11 major statistical categories, including points (29th) and yardage (27th) allowed.
Del Rio is in no position to publicly criticize any of his young players, particularly one whose development he may have impaired. He needs to move on to allow Washington’s defense to get back on a winning track. While he is still with the Commanders, he would do well to look in the mirror, rather than pointing the finger at his players as the cause of his defense’s underperformance.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to James Dorsett for speedy editing and for providing some additional stats on JDR. Unless otherwise specified or linked, all data are from Pro Football Reference.
Originally posted on Hogs Haven