Moneyball Is Changing the Way NFL Teams Assemble Their Rosters

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 5, 2016

Carolina Panthers Josh Norman #24 is seen against the Denver Broncos during the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.  (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Are you ready to "embrace analytics"?

The phrase makes the marriage of research and scouting sound like a forbidden romance—a coach and a statistician locked in each other's arms on the cover of some sleazy beach paperback. You can almost hear the dismissive eye-roll when old-school types mention analytics. The Browns are a "Moneyball" team now. I don't know what that means, and I don't care; I just know what to blame when everything goes haywire.

Sneers and loaded buzzwords like "Moneyball" aside, football and analytics have been cohabiting for years. Some teams are openly analytical, such as the Browns and Jaguars, and some are more hush-hush, but everyone is using statistical research to shape their rosters, draft boards and salary-cap spreadsheets.

In the 10 years that I've been affiliated with Football Outsiders, I've seen analytic principles go from scoffed-at voice-in-the-wilderness theories (Running backs wear out quickly? Nonsense, nerd) to conventional wisdom (What kind of crazy Texas billionaire blows a top-five pick on a running back who will wear out quickly?). But this offseason and draft saw an explosion of analytics principles at work. "Moneyball," for want of a better term, is reshaping NFL rosters.

Here's the impact analytic principles had on some of the biggest transactions and most controversial decisions of the past few weeks—and what those same principles will mean for players and franchises in the months and years to come.

 

Bolder Draft-Day Deals

When the Cleveland Browns traded down twice in last week's draft to acquire a busload of additional picks, they were applying research published by Cade Massey and Richard H. Thaler from 2010. The scholarly examination of the NFL draft concludes: "Top draft picks are overvalued in a manner that is inconsistent with rational expectations and efficient markets and consistent with psychological research."

The Browns made five selections in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL draft.
The Browns made five selections in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL draft.Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

In layman's terms: Teams put too much stock in the value of shiny, big-name top prospects. In fact, the research indicates that draft results are so close to a lottery that the best course of action is to just buy a whole bunch of scratchers to increase your odds of getting lucky.

The Massey-Thaler research sounds like simple common sense for teams typically at the very top of the draft board, whose first-round picks are in demand and whose needs are many. It's hard to argue that the Browns would have been better off with one Carson Wentz or Joey Bosa instead of a sampler platter of Corey Coleman, Shon Coleman, Cody Kessler, the other players drafted with extra picks last week and the ones they will be able to draft next year.

It doesn't take a statistician to figure out that teams like the Browns and Titans should stock up on groceries instead of splurging on one luxury.

This becomes interesting when the Kansas City Chiefs trade out of the first round and down in the second round; or when the New England Patriots, already without a first round-pick, trade one of their second-rounders for a third- and fourth-rounder. These are strong teams (with quietly efficient analytics departments) stockpiling low-risk investments instead of looking for one "missing piece" of a Super Bowl puzzle.

So when stat geeks conquer the world, all 32 teams will trade out of the first round, right?

Wait, that's impossible!

What's more likely to happen is that motivated sellers of high picks will find a market full of increasingly judicious buyers. That will drive down demand. Hauls like what the Tennessee Titans and Browns received from the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles will be harder to come by. Some bargain hunter who is sold on a particular player might be able to move up over a dozen slots in the first round for some third-day stocking-stuffers in a bearish draft-trade environment.

The next time the Browns try to stockpile picks by trading down, they may find the Patriots waiting for them with a fourth-round pick, a cocky grin and a clear sense of how market corrections work.

 

Fringe Veterans in Jeopardy

All those rookie draft picks have to go somewhere. Veteran journeymen have always been in trouble when teams go into extreme-makeover mode. But cuts have gotten quicker and deeper as more teams begin to embrace the concept of replacement value, which represents the quality of play of the players in the readily available pool of talent: the late-round picks, practice-squad members and street free agents who show up for Tuesday tryouts.

According to old-school reasoning, seasoned veterans were superior to these raw recruits because of their experience, knowledge, leadership and the like. Leadership may not be calculable, but cap numbers, productivity and potential age decline are.

Analytics favor the cheap youngster with improvement potential over a veteran whose only advantage is that he has done the job before.

Veterans like Chris Culliver, Antrel Rolle, Matt Slauson and Jimmy Wilson have all been released in the days after the draft, with many more cuts likely by June 1. Will Moneyball teams miss all that veteran leadership? There will probably be some hiccups. But strong organizations have a habit of creating "leaders," not the other way around.

 

Running Back Equilibrium

No position in any professional sport has felt the brunt of analytics like running back has in the last decade. Major contracts have dried up. First-round selections are scarce. Analytics have spoken, perhaps a little too loudly, about how fragile and replaceable running backs are.

The good news is that research, perceptions, salaries and draft priorities have begun to stabilize. Contracts signed by Doug Martin (five years for $35.75 million, with $15 million guaranteed, per Spotrac) and Lamar Miller (four years for $26 million, with $14 million guaranteed) provide a template for the value of a mid-tier running back's second contract: rich enough to reflect the running back's potential impact, but modest enough to swallow if and when he hits the wall.

The Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick of the 2016 NFL draft.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick of the 2016 NFL draft.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The draft saw a similar equilibrium: Ezekiel Elliott's potential to be an Adrian Peterson-/LaDainian Tomlinson-level rarity pushed him into the high first round, but the more typical college superstars like Derrick Henry had to wait until later rounds. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens seeking inexpensive backfield solutions drafted running backs two or three at a time: part committee approach, part Massey-Thaler lottery theory.

There are now smart, cost-efficient ways for teams to draft and sign quality running backs. Then there are analytically dubious strategies, like the Titans backing up pricey DeMarco Murray with Henry. The Titans backfield may not pass the statistical sniff test, but that's an awful lot of talent in exchange for a second-round pick (Henry), an insignificant fourth-round swap (Murray) and cap space the Titans had in surplus.

Analytics is not about dogmas, but trends and markets. Some teams will zag when everyone zigs and could reap unexpected rewards.

 

Fewer Franchise Tags

The Carolina Panthers shocked the football world by cutting Josh Norman days before the draft. Then we all took a deep breath and realized the release was pure Moneyball.

Norman is a 28-year-old coming off a career year. Football Outsiders research shows that defensive backs begin to decline around age 29. His departure will almost certainly result in the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket of the NFL draft: a third-round compensatory pick. Teams like the Ravens have used the compensatory-pick/pricey-free-agent exchange to remain perennial contenders. The Panthers traded short-term impact for a wealth of long-term benefits.

After the Panthers released Norman, the Washington Redskins signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract.
After the Panthers released Norman, the Washington Redskins signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The franchise-tag-versus-compensatory-selection equation follows similar logic to trading down in the draft; a tag-worthy player may be more of a "sure thing" than the second pick in the draft, but he represents a larger investment in cash and cap space. A quarterback or Von Miller-caliber player will always be too good to not tag, but everyone else now has an increased chance to fall victim to (or benefit from) a cold, mathematical approach to player value.

 

More Measurables

Hate predraft measurables? Bad news! Analytics and sports-science departments both love them. Get ready to hear more about not just 40-yard-dash times, cone-drill results and vertical leaps, but stresses and loads on joints, body symmetries and other data that sounds like it comes from a Star Trek tricorder.

Analytic research has been discovering correlations between unlikely variables for years: broad-jump results and pass-rushing ability (the leap represents a defender's quick-twitch explosiveness), vertical-leap measurements and receiver success (same concept, plus the ability to haul in jump balls) and other indicators. Old tape-measure thresholds like eight-inch quarterback hands or a 4.6-second wide receiver sprint aren't being replaced; they are being joined by other indicators. 

As wearable technology and real-time analysis spreads among NFL and college training staffs, the next step will be measurements of a player's aerobic capacity, body symmetry and sleep-recovery profile.

If you hate hearing about a quarterback's hand size, you'll loathe hearing about a linebacker's respiratory capacity. But scan the list of the well-regarded 2016 draft prospects who were selected late (Kenny Lawler) or not at all (Eric Striker, Jeremy Cash) and you will find that the stopwatch overruled the on-field performance.

 

Complicated Kicker Questions

Those who dabble in football analytics will tell you to never, ever, EVER draft a kicker or punter, nor to invest one more free-agent penny than necessary in those positions.

Those who do the heavy-lifting research will tell you the situation is a little more nuanced than that.

The San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and New York Jets all drafted punters last week, and all three did so as a cost-cutting move. The Chargers released veteran Mike Scifres soon after the draft. The Jets entered the draft cap-strapped and punterless. The Broncos are near the cap ceiling and clearly have a pair of scissors poised next to Britton Colquitt's $4 million cap number.

If you are economizing at punter to pay for quarterbacks and pass-rushers, it's better to invest a late-round pick in the one you want than to try your luck on the free-agent market.

As for kickers, the best research dictates that teams pursue those who kick off effectively and demonstrate the leg strength to provide a reasonable success rate from 50-plus yards. A four-year contract for Stephen Gostkowski or a franchise tender for Justin Tucker makes sense. A second-round selection for Roberto Aguayo—whose kickoffs were wild and who wasn't very impressive from beyond 50 yards—has massive backfire potential.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The new touchback rules cloud the issue. The ideal kicker of tomorrow may be one who can flop high kickoffs that can only be returned to the 18-yard line. If you understand analytics, then you understand that a tiny rule change can have complicated consequences.

 

The House That Analytics Built

So a fully analytic approach to roster construction results in an NFL team full of size-speed specimens drafted in middle rounds who replace experienced veterans but are released the moment they become too expensive, and the roster contains no well-known running backs or kickers.

That sounds like a great way to put together a bad rugby team.

The truth is much subtler than that caricature. Analytics is a series of methods, not a series of rules. That may be why both Moneyball skeptics and some of the younger analytic zealots go into Twitter apoplexy when a team signs a veteran running back or punts on 4th-and-1 (another long analytic story).

The team built on analytics only pays premiums for premium talent. It recognizes replaceability and manages risk. It develops talent instead of trying to purchase it. It's a little more cold and calculating about how quickly a popular veteran might age into obsolescence, but it is also more optimistic about how fast it can turn a big/strong/fast/hungry no-name from the fifth round into the next popular veteran.

The team built on analytics looks a lot like the Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens, even though some of these perennial contenders appear to be much more old-fashioned than Moneyball oriented.

That's because analytics and conventional wisdom have more in common than you think, and many franchises have found ways to make them work hand in hand.

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.