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Who are the cornerstone pieces? How much work is there to do?
In his introductory press conference as the Washington Commanders’ new GM, Adam Peters was asked about the state of the Commanders’ roster. His reply: “I believe there are a few cornerstone pieces on this roster, I believe we have a lot of work to do”.
The Commanders rebuild.
New GM Adam Peters was asked about the current roster.
He said, “I believe that are a few cornerstone pieces on this roster, I believe we have a lot of work to do” pic.twitter.com/GA2DJE91t4
— Scott Abraham (@Scott7news) January 16, 2024
In the first edition of the Armchair GM, I had a look at the rosters of the previous 10 Super Bowl teams to identify the common elements of a championship contender. In this instalment, I had a look at the roster that Peters inherited to see how it compares to the profile of a conference champion.
Approach: Grading Commanders’ Players Against the Rest of the League
In this and the following article, I used a broad range of statistics to compare the Commanders’ starting players to other players around the league. For consistency with the previous article, I graded the Commanders’ players using three categories:
Blue – an elite player at the position
Red – a player in the range from better than average starter to nearly elite
JAG – Just A Guy. This moniker might be a little unfair to certain players, because this category includes average NFL starters, who are good football players. It extends from there all the way down to the worst starter in the league at a position.
I also added a new category. “Pinks” are early-career players who have flashed potential to develop into Reds.
Because I only had to rate a little over 22 players this time, I was able to do a deeper dive into the statistics for each player. My general approach was to use a range of statistics that capture the most important aspects of play in each position group.
Productivity vs. Production Stats
Usual statistical rankings of players are mostly based on production statistics. Cumulative totals are ingrained in our thinking about players at certain positions. For example, a 1,000 yard season is a common benchmark for a good running back or receiver. The problem with cumulative totals is that they can be very misleading, because they are influenced by the number of opportunities a player is given as well as what he does with his opportunities, which is what we really want to measure.
Productivity statistics correct gross production for differences in numbers of opportunities to provide a truer indication of how good a player is at making use of his opportunities.
To illustrate what I mean, consider two running backs, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Smith is the NFL’s all time rushing leader. In a 15 year career, he rushed for 18,355 yards. Sanders only ranks fourth on the rushing leaders’ list, with a15,269 rushing yards. The main thing that those cumulative totals tell you is that Smith had a longer career than Sanders.
If you want to know which running back would be more likely to get you a first down on third and five it is more informative to compare their rushing productivity stats, in this case yards per rushing attempt (Y/A). Over 10 years, Sanders averaged 5.0 Y/A compared to Smith at 4.2 Y/A. Sanders was close to 20% more productive on a per touch basis. He was a much better running back than Smith. Smith only gets the rushing title because his career was 50% longer.
For this reason, I have emphasized productivity stats and other metrics that are independent of numbers of opportunities, such as Passer Rating and Total QBR, in grading players. Cumulative totals are provided in several sections, because people are used to seeing them. But I didn’t rank or rate any players based on uncorrected total production stats.
Grades and Rankings
The player grades are based on an assessment across a range of productivity stats to determine how the Commanders’ starters compare to the average starter at their position. For this purpose, I used the median value of the stat within the N players at the position who played the most snaps in 2023, where N was set to approximate the number of starters at the position. The reason I did that, instead of using players with the most “starts” is often fairly arbitrary and this method better reflects who contributed the most at each position. The only exceptions were QB, where it was easier to identify the actual “starters” based on number of starts and WRs which are a bit of a special case.
To give an alternative perspective on how our players stacked up, I also ranked them within a larger number of players at their position, set to take in all the starters and additional major contributors. Often, I set the snap count threshold at level just high enough to include a Commanders’ player who didn’t get much playing time in the ranking cohort. Commanders’ players rankings at their position are shown in parentheses in the tables.
How the Commanders’ Players Stack Up
Super Bowl Team Profile: An elite QB, or an above average starting QB who is capable of elevating his play in a playoff season
2023 Starter: Sam Howell
Age 23, 3rd year, 18 career starts, 2024 cap hit $1.075 M, under contract through 2025
Sam Howell began his first full season as a starter flashing promise, but also displayed some flaws which he worked to correct. Around game 11, his performance cratered. Howell’s regression did not happen in isolation. The entire team seemed to collapse around the time of the second Giants’ game.
Howell is quite likely the most challenging evaluation on Peters’ plate. Quality starting QBs often struggle in their first seasons starting. Peters will have to ask himself whether he is working with the QB we saw early in the season or down the stretch, and if there is something salvageable, are the remaining deficiencies correctable. For this evaluation only, I compared Howell’s 2023 stats to the rest of the league in two parts: Games 1-9 and Games 10-17.
I compared Howell to all NFL QBs who started 8 or more games in 2023. By pure coincidence, there were exactly 32 starters, thus defined, which simplifies interpreting the league rankings. The numbers in parentheses show where Howell’s partial season stats would rank amongst the full season stats of NFL starters with his full season stats removed. The two stats where it is bad to have a high ranking are segregated on the right and shown in bright red font.
Commanders fans seem to have developed an over-inflated sense of how well Howell was doing early in the season based on the fact that he was leading the league in passing yards. That was merely a reflection of the fact he was being asked to throw more passes than any other QB.
The productivity stats paint a different picture. When Howell was playing at his best, early in the season, he was only ever better than league average in one opportunity-adjusted category: Completion percentage. Even at his best, Howell ranked among the bottom 13 QBs in Total QBR, TD Rate, Yards per Attempt and Passer Rating. Through Game 10, he also had the 14th highest Interception Rate and the 4th highest sack rate.
While those figures indicate a below average starting QB, some leeway has to be given to first year starting QBs. They often improve with more development time. The problem for Peters is how Howell ended the season, ranked close to or last in the league in all the categories on the left (ESPN’s Total QBR Leaders Board only lists the top 30 QBs – 29.9 was off the bottom), and leading the league in interception rate (next highest Mac Jones 3.5%).
My final grade of Pink reflects an optimistic assessment that, in the right situation, it might be possible to take Howell back to where he started the season and build from there.
Depth: Jake Fromm, 2023 Practice Squad
Age 26, 5th year, 2 career starts, 2024 cap hit $985 K, under contract through 2024
Fromm played in 3 games and started 2 for the Giants in 2021. In his NFL career he has completed 27 of 60 passing attempts (45% completion rate) for 210 yards, 1 TD to 3 INT, good for a Passer Rating of 38.9 and a Total QBR of 15.4 (out of 100). In the 2023 Preseason, Fromm looked better than those stats might suggest, earning PFF’s 3rd highest offensive grade (85.0) among QBs with a minimum of 25 dropbacks, while completing 68.3% of passes for 262 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Of course, that was just in preseason.
Position Group Summary: In his first year starting, Sam Howell was worse than the NFL average in most important categories, and his numbers trended in the wrong direction through the season. The team will have to get much better performance from its QB to compete for championships. Relying on Howell to become that guy would be a major gamble for the new GM. Howell and Fromm are inexpensive and likely represent good value to keep as depth.
Offensive Skill Positions
Super Bowl Team Profile: At least one elite playmaker OR above average starters at all offensive skill positions
Wide receivers present a challenge to rank against the rest of the league. In today’s NFL, most teams have at least three WRs who play enough snaps to count as starters, and some have up to four who are significant contributors on offense. But the three starting WRs on a team usually get different amounts of playing time. Therefore, rather than providing a single league average, I calculated average stats (medians) for the WRs who ranked in the top 32, 64 and 96 in offensive snap counts in 2023. These figures provide three different “league average” performance benchmarks against which we can compare the Commanders’ receivers who got varying amounts of playing time.
I chose a variety of stats which measure different aspects of a WR’s productivity and playing ability.
Receiving Yards is the most familiar way that receivers are ranked. It is heavily confounded by playing time so I also included Yards/Game and Yards/Target (Y/Tgt), which correct for those factors to increasing degrees. Touchdown Rate measures scoring, corrected for numbers of receiving opportunities.
The six stats in the middle of the table, including Yards/Target, are properly adjusted for numbers of opportunities. Targets/Pass Play measures the proportion of a team’s passes that go to a particular receiver. It is influenced by play calling, but also reflects a receiver’s ability to get open and draw targets from his QB. Catch Rate and Drop Rate measure different aspects of catching ability. Drop Rate is in red font to remind you that it is the only stat in the table where it is better to be ranked below the median than above it. Yards After the Catch/Reception measures the WR’s ability to make plays with the ball in his hand.
The last two stats provide composite measures of receiving productivity. Passer Rating when targeted (Rating) is the familiar NFL passer rating stat, based on completion rate, receiving yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Receiving Success Rate measures the percentage of a receiver’s targets that gain at least 40% of yards to go on 1st down, 60% of yards to go on 2nd down and 100% of yards to go on 3rd or 4th down.
Commanders’ players were ranked (figures in parentheses) among all WRs who played a minimum of 250 offensive snaps. That minimum was set to include WRs who got about as much or more playing time as Washington’s WR4, Dyami Brown. The ranking sample included 134 players, which comes to a little over four WRs per NFL team.
Age 28, 6th year, 2023 17 starts, 2024 cap hit $24.1 M, under contract through 2025
A lot was made about the fact that McLaurin broke the 1,000 yd receiving mark for the fourth time this season. I am afraid to say, that figure isn’t as special as it used to be. At 1,002 receiving yards, McLaurin ranked just 27th in the league, near the bottom of the WR1 cohort. The only metric in which he was better than the median of the top 32 WRs was Drop Rate. Based on 2023 stats, McLaurin looks more like a WR2 than a WR1.
However, 2023 was the worst season of McLaurin’s career in just about every statistical category but total receiving yards. In his worst season since his rookie year, McLaurin still exceeded the average of the top 64 WRs in Target Rate (Tgt/Pass Play) and Yards After Catch/Reception and performed near the median in Receiving Yards & Yards/Game. In every other season he was above average in most categories.
Therefore, despite the off year, McLaurin rates in the Red range. It is tempting to speculate that he could step up to the Blue range with a high-end QB, but he has never produced near elite levels in his career to date.
Age 23, 3rd year, 2023 16 starts, 2024 cap hit $4.1 M, under contract through 2025
Dotson got nearly as much playing time as McLaurin and produced fewer total receiving yards than Curtis Samuel, who played 37% fewer snaps. The only category in which he ranked better than median of the top 64 WRs was TD Rate. He had a very low Target Rate (Tgt/Pass Play). He also ranked near the bottom of the 134 WRs with a minimum of 250 offensive snaps in Yards After Catch/Reception, Passer Rating when targeted and Success Rate.
*FREE AGENT* Age 27, 5th year, 2023 13 starts, Spotrac Market Valuation $11.5M AAV
Despite getting much less playing time than McLaurin and Dotson, when he was on the field he was targeted at a higher rate than the team’s WR1 and WR2. He also had the highest Catch Rate and lowest Drop Rate of the WR and was second in TD rate. As a result, he led the WRs in Passer Rating when targeted and Success Rate.
Based on playing time, Samuel was the Commanders’ WR3. He got less playing time than the median of the NFL’s Top 96 WRs, but still exceeded their median performance in Target Rate, Catch Rate, Drop Rate and Yards After Catch/Reception. He ranked among the top 32 WRs (min 250 snaps) in Catch Rate and Yards After Catch/Reception, and just missed out in Target Rate. Samuel was above average as a WR3 and, with more playing time, might even achieve better than average performance as a WR2. Unfortunately, he’s a free agent.
Age 24, 4th year, 2023 1 start, 2024 cap hit $1.6 M, under contract through 2024
Brown got the 4th most snaps of the WRs. He was targeted at a higher rate than Dotson, but his productivity was let down by an exceptionally low catch rate and a very high drop rate. Part of his struggles with catching the ball may have to do with the fact that he was used mainly on deep routes and had the highest Average Depth of Target on the team at 16.8 yards (7th highest in the NFL), since catch rate declines with depth of target. However, 5/6 WRs with higher ADOT had lower drop rates than Dyami and 4/6 had higher catch rates. He had good Yards After Catch, but had very low Passer Rating when targeted and Success Rate.
Dax Milne (IR, 2 career starts), Mitchell Tinsley (RFA), Brycen Tremayne (ERFA), Davion Davis (ERFA)
Position Group Summary: The Commanders have two WRs who would not be out of place on a championship contender. Whether you look at last year’s production, or career production to date, the WR corps lacks elite talent. Could Terry McLaurin lift his play to Blue level with a high-end QB? If 2023 was an anomaly, then it’s possible. But he has yet to establish that he is capable of playing at an elite level.
The Commanders’ tight ends were ranked against all TEs with a minimum of 250 offensive snaps. There were 73 in total. Cole Turner missed the cut, with only 142 snaps, so he was Not Ranked (NR).
The Commanders’ TEs were graded against the average (median) of the 32 TEs who got the most playing time. I used most of the same receiving stats as the WRs and added Pro Football Focus Pass Blocking and Run Blocking grades.
Age 32, 9th year, 2023 15 starts, 2024 cap hit $8.3 M, under contract through 2024
Grade: JAG – Thomas was below average for a starting TE in total Receiving Yards and even further below average in target-adjusted receiving yards (T/Tgt). He was also below the median of the top 32 TEs in every other receiving category. The only receiving category where he was significantly better than the average starting TE was Drop Rate. His PFF Blocking Grades were right on the median.
Age 26, 4th year, 2023 4 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.2 M, under contract through 2024
Grading Bates as a receiver might be a little unfair, because his main role was blocking. Of course, there might be a reason for that. He, he did not rank in the top 40 TEs in any receiving category. His Drop Rate was the 8th highest among 73 TEs with a minimum of 250 offensive snaps. He graded very well in Pass Blocking and close to average for a starter in Run Blocking.
Age 23, 3rd year, 2023 1 start, 2024 cap hit $1.1 M, under contract through 2025
Turner did not play enough snaps to qualify for ranking. Consequently, his receiving total was low. However, when he did get snaps, he outperformed his teammates in most opportunity-adjusted receiving categories and in Run Blocking. He only played two pass blocking snaps, so it wouldn’t be meaningful to grade him in that category. Turner was above average for a starting TE in Yards/Target, Catch Rate, receiving Success Rate and Run Blocking grade. He performed around the average for NFL starters in Target Rate and Passer Rating when targeted. His 2023 stats flash promise to develop into an above-average starter with more playing time.
Armani Rogers (IR)
Position Group Summary: The top two TEs on the Commanders’ depth chart are below average receivers for their position. Thomas and Bates both offer value as blockers, but neither stands out as a dynamic playmaker. Cole Turner got very little playing time in his first two seasons. He had a very shaky rookie season, and quietly put up impressive numbers in limited opportunities in 2023. He is a promising depth player at this point in his career.
Running backs were ranked and graded based on 2023 rushing and receiving stats as well as fumble rate and PFF overall blocking grades. Receiving stats were a subset of those used to grade WRs and TEs. Opportunity-adjusted rushing stats included Yards/Attempt, TD Rate (percent of attempts) and rushing Success Rate. The ranking set was all RBs, including fullbacks, who played a minimum of 200 snaps (n = 70).
Brian Robinson Jr
Age 24, 3rd year, 2023 15 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.4 M, under contract through 2025
Robinson played 102 fewer snaps than the average of the top 32 RBs, yet still achieved near average total production (Yards from Scrimmage) for that group. He was around average for a RB1 in Yards/Attempt and Success Rate and above average in Scoring Rate (TD%) on the ground.
Where Robinson excelled was as receiver out of the backfield. He was well above average for RB1s in total Receiving Yards, and even more so in all opportunity-adjusted receiving metrics (Catch Rate, Yards/Target, TD Rate, Success Rate).
Like all of Washington’s RBs, Robinson showed poorly in ball security, ranking 8th in fumble rate among RBs (min 200 snaps). He was better than average for a RB1 in overall blocking grade.
While Robinson doesn’t fit the usual profile of a third down back, he was one of the NFLs best receiving backs when he got the opportunity in 2023. He could be a very useful complementary piece in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
Chris Rodriguez Jr
Age 24, 2nd year, 2023 0 starts, 2024 cap hit $959 K, under contract through 2026
Rodriguez was only allowed on the field for 97 offensive snaps as a rookie, resulting in low total production stats. His productivity in limited opportunities suggests he should have got more playing time. He was well above average of the top 32 RBs in Yards/Attempt and Scoring Rate and was close to average in Success Rate. He was only targeted twice in the passing game, so his receiving stats aren’t really meaningful.
Rodriguez graded similarly to Robinson in blocking. His Fumble Rate was similar to Robinson’s. But that was only based on a single fumble, so it is difficult to tell how representative it really is.
*FREE AGENT* Age 25, 5th year, 2023 2 starts, market valuation $3.6 M AAV
Gibson graded at or below average of the top 64 RBs in all opportunity-adjusted rushing stats (Y/A, TD%, Success Rate). He had more production as receiver than as a rusher. In opportunity adjusted receiving stats, he was above average of the top 32 RBs in Catch Rate and Yards/Target, on average in Success Rate and below average in Scoring Rate.
Gibson’s biggest weakness was ball security. He fumbled 4 times in 113 touches, resulting in a fumble rate of 3.54%, which ranked 2nd among all RBs with a minimum of 200 offensive snaps.
His blocking was below average of the top 32 and top 64 RBs.
Gibson is arguably on the lower margin of being a Red, due to his above average receiving stats. However, his lower than average rushing and ball security stats knock him down to JAG status.
Position Group Summary: Brian Robinson is around average in rushing for a starting RB, but excelled when used as a receiver out of the backfield. The only potential blemish in his game is ball security. Rodriguez was used sparingly as a rookie. In limited opportunities, he flashed the productivity of a quality starter. Gibson is a free agent in 2024, and his productivity in 2023 should be replaceable at lower price.
Super Bowl Team Profile: Red or Blue players at 4 or 5 positions, no JAGs at OT
There are not many good, objective performance stats available for OL play. The Commanders’ offensive linemen were ranked and graded against the rest of the league based on the best available metrics. These included PFF grades for pass blocking (PFF Pass) and run blocking (PFF Run). I have concluded that PFF player grades are a coarse metric. An individual player with a PFF grade of 65 might not necessarily be better than one with a grade of 55. But a group of 10 players with grades of 65 is likely to be better on average than a group of 10 players with grades of 55. So you have to take them with a grain of salt.
As a quality check on the pass blocking grades, I also rolled my own stat Non-Pressure rate (Non-Press. %). This is the percentage of pass blocking snaps on which an OL did not allow a pressure. There is no equivalent available for run blocking.
I also included Penalty Rate, which is the percentage of offensive snaps on which an OL committed a penalty. Penalty Rate is shown in rate to remind you that it is better to be below the median of starters and rank as low as possible, unlike the other stats in the table.
Commanders’ OTs were ranked against all Ots who played more than 230 offensive snaps (n = 92). That cutoff was set to include Cornelius Lucas in the ranking set. Commanders’ iOL were rated against all guards and centers who played a minimum of 430 snaps, just below Chris Paul’s snap count (n = 108).
LT Charles Leno Jr
Age 32, 11th year, 2023 13 starts, 2024 cap hit $15.5 M, under contract through 2025
Grade: JAG (borderline Red)
Leno is a tough call. His pass blocking grade is well above the median of the top 64 OTs. That is backed up to some extent by his Non-Pressure rate, which also puts him above the median, but not by as much. His run blocking, on the other hand, grades below median for starting OTs. He also had the 14th highest Penalty Rate out of 92 OTs who played a minimum of 230 snaps, and was well above median of starting OTs. I’m tempted to mark him up to a bottom-end Red, because pass blocking is more important than run blocking. On balance, however, he grades as an average starter at OT.
RT Andrew Wylie
Age 29, 7th year, 2023 15 starts, 2024 cap hit $9.4 M, under contract through 2025
Grade: JAG – Wylie is a much easier call. He grades below median in all the blocking stats. His one saving grace is that he was penalized at a lower rate than average. But that won’t save him.
LT Cornelius Lucas
Age 32, 11th year, 2023 4 starts, valuation ?
Lucas has a somewhat similar profile to Leno, except he doesn’t grade quite as high in pass blocking and grades much worse in run blocking. He does have a much better penalty rate.
OT Trent Scott
Age 30, 7th year, 2023 2 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.4 M, under contract through 2024
Scott only played 138 snaps at RT. When he got on the field he excelled at run blocking but was terrible in pass protection and gave up a ton of pressures and penalties.
RG Sam Cosmi
Age 24, 4th year, 2023 17 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.2 M, under contract through 2026
Cosmi is the Commanders’ only very good offensive lineman. He rated well above the median of starting iOL in every category measured, except Penalty Rate, where he was well below the mean, as it should be.
LG Saahdiq Charles
*FREE AGENT* Age 24, 5th year, 2023 10 starts, valuation ?
The grading system needs a category below JAG to do Charles justice. He graded very poorly in run blocking and was one of the worst iOL in the NFL at pass blocking. He ranked 104th out of 108 iOL (min 430 snaps) at keeping his QB free from pressures.
C Nick Gates
Age 28, 7th year, 2023 10 starts, 2024 cap hit $5.6 M, under contract through 2025
Gates grades slightly above the median of the top 96 iOL in pass blocking. However, his Non-Pressure percentage, which is a more objective measure of keeping his QB clean was below median. His run blocking grade was significantly above median, as was his penalty rate. Unfortunately for Nick, pass blocking is more important than run blocking in today’s NFL. I can see the argument to slide him into the bottom end of the Red range, but weighting pass blocking more heavily tips the balance to JAG.
LG Chris Paul
Age 25, 3rd year, 2023 7 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.0 M, under contract through 2025
Paul grades even worse than Charles in every category except Penalty Rate.
C Ricky Stromberg
Age 23, 2nd year, 2023 0 starts, 2024 cap hit $1.2 M, under contract through 2026
Stromberg only played 26 snaps before going on season ending IR. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions from an offensive lineman’s first 26 snaps.
OT Julian Good-Jones, OT Alex Akingbulu, OT Braeden Daniels
Position Group Summary: Sam Cosmi is the only offensive lineman who would not be out of place on a Super Bowl roster. Charles Leno is marginally good enough at LT to get by until the position can be upgraded. All other starting positions require upgrades sooner rather than later if the team hopes to compete for a Division title, let alone a Conference championship.
To sum up, the following table compares the Commanders’ current roster to the profile of a Super Bowl team. Only players currently under contract are included.
In round numbers, the average Super Bowl team over the past five years had nine above average to elite starting players on offense. The Commanders enter the 2024 offseason with just two above average starters on offense and no elite players.
Giving the benefit of the doubt to QB Sam Howell, they have three more players on the offensive depth chart who have flashed potential to develop into above average starters.
To get the offensive roster into shape to compete for championships, Peters should aim to add a Blue player to each position group and upgrade at least four starting positions from JAGs to Reds.
Three positions that will need to be upgraded to at least Red players are QB and both OTs. Nine out of ten conference champions in the past five seasons had Blue players at QB and the other had a Red. No team made it to the Super Bowl in that period with a JAG at OT.
Originally posted on Hogs Haven