NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.
As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
STAT TO TRUST
Cam Newton has a 0:5 TD-to-INT ratio over the past two games.
In Weeks 6 and 7, Cam Newton has thrown zero touchdowns compared with five interceptions, the worst TD-to-INT ratio in the league in that span. Jarrett Stidham also threw a pick in Week 7 after Newton was benched against the Niners, bringing the team's season-long TD-to-INT ratio to an NFL-worst 3:11. The Patriots' passing offense has a problem -- and there is now enough data to support saying this is a negative trend.
This season, Next Gen Stats shows Pats pass-catchers are averaging 2.8 yards of separation per route run, which ranks 21st in the NFL. This is actually the same number as New England pass-catchers averaged last season, which ranked 14th in the NFL then -- but it's a lot less cushion than they were working with in 2018, when they led the league with a 3.3-yard average. If you look at average separation on receiving targets (and not on all routes run), the Pats' pass-catchers are averaging 3.4 yards of separation (ranking 13th in the NFL), which is better than last season's average (3.2, which ranked 23rd) but still well behind 2018's average of 3.5 (which ranked seventh best).
Now, there are a number of ways that context needs to be factored into this number, including score, routes and situations (like being in obvious passing downs, e.g., third-and-long) in order to more accurately compare the seasons. When adjusting for route and situation, Newton and the receivers (as a group) are tracking at a full 2.2 yards of separation worse for the rest of the season than 2019 and 4.0 from 2018.
Despite a strong start to the season, the past two weeks have created a troubling balance of inaccurate passing from Newton and unsuccessful circumstances to catch passes from the receivers. There are three factors that share responsibility here: passer, receivers and play-caller. It will be imperative that all three balance out if the Pats are going to take advantage of a Bills defense this week that is ranked 30th on third down and 15th in passing.
STAT TO QUESTION
Baker Mayfield has thrown 27 interceptions with Odell Beckham Jr. on the field.
Baker Mayfield has thrown 27 picks against just 29 touchdowns with Odell Beckham Jr. on the field since OBJ joined the Browns in 2019, compared to just one pick (against eight touchdowns) when the receiver has been off the field in that span. This NGS stat might lead you to believe that Mayfield is more likely to throw a pick with OBJ on the field than off, perhaps indicating he was trying to feed the three-time Pro Bowler even when the pass wasn't there. And you might then assume Mayfield and the Browns' offense could potentially be more effective without Beckham, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Sunday.
Here's the main reason this is something I am questioning: So much has changed about the Browns' offense since the start of the 2019 season, from the play-caller to the available weapons to the offensive line, that it's tough to draw many solid conclusions from those numbers.
Just look at how Cleveland's run-pass balance has shifted. This season, no team is rushing for more yards on first and second downs (146.9 rushing yards per game, 5.35 rushing yards per carry), and only the Ravens call run on a higher number of early downs (55.8% versus 55.3%). Consequently, the Browns have earned 107 first downs on early downs, which is already more than halfway to their season total of 211 in 2019.
Last season, the Browns ranked 11th in rushing average and 18th in run play-calling percentage. One observable trend this season before Beckham's injury was that rather than relying on Beckham, Cleveland was able to be strategic about his use on a greater number of passes. The win share of the Browns' receiver unit will undoubtedly decrease without him. This is especially clear when evaluating the off-ball metric that says the opponent's best defenders have had to account for OBJ at the seventh-highest rate in the NFL this season. (This stat reflects the frequency with which two or more defenders come within a 5-foot halo of a receiver between the time that the ball is released and caught on a given play, even if the receiver isn't the intended target.) Based on this metric, which helps measure the opportunity other pass catchers enjoy with Beckham on the field, the loss of Beckham is definitely something the rest of the Browns receivers will have to contend with going forward.
The good news for Browns fans is that Mayfield seems to have quickly adapted to coach Kevin Stefanski's game plan, with a diversity of successful catches (and for touchdowns) from all of the pre-snap alignments, as well as in varying circumstances (under pressure, no pressure, facing the blitz, no blitz, etc.). Targeting the Raiders' secondary this week should give the receivers who have to step up, like Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, an opportunity to find their rhythm.
FOUR SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 8
Let's dig deeper into the potential of Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. It's easier to make an argument in Higgins' favor, based on his target share against the Bengals (he caught six of six targets for 110 yards), but don't forget Peoples-Jones, who caught three of the three targets that came his way. NGS shows Peoples-Jones had a 17.8 air-yards-per-target mark and earned Baker Mayfield a perfect passer rating on throws targeting him.
Bonus here, because of the air yards: NGS shows that on Darnell Mooney's seven targets against the Rams, he averaged 22.1 air yards per target. Now, do I love recommending someone who only caught three of those seven passes, with one intended pass earning an interception? Yeah, actually, I do. Because this is forward-looking analysis, and the Bears' upcoming matchup with the Saints will likely create more space for Mooney to work with than he had against the Rams on Monday. Thus, I value the targets as a signal for volume going forward, as opposed to over-weighting last week's catch rate.
I love a good rookie running back recommendation, and this week, the Jets' La'Mical Perine has the opportunity to flex into your lineup and add value. First, the Chiefs' defense ranks as the third-most generous to opposing rushing attacks, giving up 149.9 yards per game, and they also rank third in yards allowed per play on early downs (5.1). Jets QB Sam Darnold was sacked SIX times in Week 7, meanwhile. In order to keep pressure -- like, say, from Chris Jones -- away from Darnold this week, the Jets will have to establish the run game on early downs. Even if the game script in this one does not necessarily favor a running back, Perine received the red-zone call in Week 7, which helps drive a lot of upside here. (He scored his first NFL touchdown, a 5-yard rush.)