The lead NFL analyst for Pro Football Focus talks about how teams can use analytics to improve, and which stats/players are overvalued or undervalued.
At Super Bowl week in Phoenix, Boardroom chatted with Pro Football Focus lead analyst Sam Monson about how analytics has changed the NFL and the merits of the draft scouting combine. Monson also had plenty of thoughts on NFL free agency, which kicks off this week with the start of the new league year, how rebuilding teams can use analytics to improve, and which stats and players are overvalued or undervalued.
Let’s get into it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SHLOMO SPRUNG: How would a rebuilding team use analytics to improve?
SAM MONSON: It’s one of the areas that if you make a mistake, particularly in free agency, that’s essentially millions of dollars not flushed away, but it can harm your cap and constrain you. Using data to understand what a player is going to project into your system is huge.
And the same thing is true with the draft. Some smart teams have a player projection model that can project how these guys are going to do statistically at the NFL level based off all the information that they have, and use those data points to understand better how this guy fits into your system. Not just “here’s a really good player playing on another team, let’s just get him without factoring in how that looks in your system with your scheme with the players around him.” All that information adds to a better safeguarding of those kinds of decisions.
SS: Who are some free agents on the board that you think analytics value more than their value on the open market?
SM: It’s a tough one because I don’t think this is a particularly good free-agent group. One area where teams still overpay for free agents relative to the statistics and analytics is where sacks are involved. Sacks are one of these shiny objects, a gaudy statistic that people still overpay for.
We know for a fact that pressures are a more important data point to look at for a couple of reasons. It’s a much bigger sample size, right? Instead of 15 sacks, you can look at 80 pressures over a course of a season, and you get a much better idea of how a guy has actually done. They’re a lot more predictive of future sacks, and a large number of sacks come and go. They can be lucky plays or down to other guys making a play and creating an opportunity for you. But the NFL still pays for guys that are shown they can get sacks. There’s still a sort of shine to that, where the league will still pay a premium for you.
Interceptions are still another one. If you get a guy that can get a big total of interceptions in a season, it’s seen as the cause of making huge plays. Trevon Diggs was a great example when he led the NFL in interceptions, but he also led the NFL in yards allowed that year and the balance between those two things is important. One of those things is more predictive than the other in terms of how he’ll do going forward. So interceptions is still a big one where I think teams and everybody can get a little bit caught up in the positive play in the moment without looking at the broader context. How often you made a pass breakup, how often you made a hit that dislodged the ball in coverage is more indicative.
The biggest thing is understanding scheme fit because those are where the biggest mistakes in free agency are made. It’s not necessarily taking a player who had a weird statistical profile and didn’t back it up the next year. It’s signing a player that was doing really well in one system and for whatever reason won’t do as well in your system.
SS: Who are some undervalued or overvalued free agents based on PFF metrics compared to their value on the open market?
SM: I don’t know that there’s a ton of those overrated guys this year because this free-agent class isn’t rated that highly. I think Javon Hargrave [who agreed to a four-year, $84 million deal Monday with the San Francisco 49ers, including $40 million guaranteed] is a guy that’s going to be one of the top free agents on the board, and he probably deserves to be there. He’s had this weird career arc where he started off as a run-stuffing nose tackle and almost morphed into a single-gap penetrating pass rush specialist who’s been not quite a liability against the run, but definitely weaker in that area. He’s a guy where projecting him into your system will be important.
And the cornerback market is a very strange one because there’s not a group of superstars there, but there are players that can come in and be solid over the course of the year and be capable in your system. For example, Patrick Peterson for the Vikings [agreed to a two-year, $14 million deal Monday with the Pittsburgh Steelers, including $5.85 million guaranteed] has reached this point in his career where he can’t be the man-to-man specialist he was earlier, but he’s become a really good zone corner. So if you’re a team that runs a lot of zone coverage, Peterson can still be a high-level player for you.
Troy Hill is a guy that, in the right system, has shown pretty high-level play but often gets miscast because of the size and dimensions. And then James Bradberry coming off his Pro Bowl season with the Eagles. He can be a great corner as a second player, as a complimentary piece, but the previous year with the Giants, when he was your No. 1 guy and went up against the NFL’s best receivers, maybe it won’t look as good. So there are a lot of players that can be successful if the situation makes sense.
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