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Three 2022 NFL free agents teams must keep; why Washington Football Team will upset Raiders

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 providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

In this weekly column, I will assess current trends through the lens of analytics, as well as spotlight a few of my favorite -- or least favorite -- projections for the coming week's action.

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 up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

This week I'm taking a look at three impending free agents whose production, especially this season, has given their value a major boost in 2021. Their current teams should be willing to do whatever it takes to re-sign them given the way they are performing, but as we all know, that doesn't necessarily mean they will stay put if they do indeed test the open market come 2022.

You might notice that I did not include Packers All-Pro Davante Adams below. His contract is due to expire after the season, but the goal of this exercise was to identify players who have elevated their value in 2021. Adams was in the elite tier before the season started, and he remains there now.

J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots · CB

This season Jackson has seven interceptions, which ranks second in the NFL (the Cowboys' Trevon Diggs leads the league with nine). Pro Football Focus credits Jackson with just a 38.1 passer rating allowed (best in the NFL) and 50.7 completion percentage allowed (fourth-best) among cornerbacks who have faced at least 25 targets this season. Computer Vision shows that Jackson's speed adjusting his hips in the direction of the ball (which correlates with being able to move toward the ball faster) ranks second-best among corners. It also shows that in man coverage (which the Pats use a lot) his ball-tracking skills on deep passes (defined by staying with his pass-catcher but adjusting to where the ball is thrown, even if he's not facing the QB when the ball leaves his hand) is third-best in the NFL. That helps explain why he's in the right position to make those interceptions. I could argue that the Patriots would still be getting a value if they made Jackson the highest-paid corner today.

Emmanuel Ogbah
Miami Dolphins · DE

Ogbah has batted down a pass in seven straight contests (he has nine total), the longest such streak for a defensive lineman since at least 2000. His pressure rate of 10.7 percent is not a fluke but rather a trend, as he posted a rate above 10.0 in each of the previous two seasons. Computer Vision shows that Ogbah has entered a three-foot radius around opposing QBs at the 10th-highest rate at his position this season. He's also faced double-teams at a higher rate than he did last season. The Dolphins will maximize the production of their excellent cornerbacks if they keep Ogbah's pressure potential up front.

Cordarrelle Patterson
Atlanta Falcons · RB

NGS shows that Patterson has +18 rushing yards over expected, which is by far the best mark among the Falcons' primary ball-carriers (Wayne Gallman: -31; Mike Davis: -103). However, the bigger story is how special he's been in the passing game, whether aligning in the backfield, slot or out wide. Patterson has been targeted 17 times out of the backfield, making 15 grabs for 135 yards and two touchdowns. He's caught eight of his nine targets from the slot for 84 yards and one touchdown. He's 17 of 24 out wide for 280 yards and two more touchdowns. The fun thing about tracking Patterson's progress is that we saw flashes of his ability on offense during his previous eight seasons, but Falcons coach Arthur Smith appears to have fully unlocked his potential in 2021. The versatility Patterson provides causes headaches for defenses and is especially complementary to a QB with more pocket-centric traits like Matt Ryan.

Projection Section

NOTE: The figures cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 1 p.m. ET on Friday, Dec, 3.

WEEK 13 UPSET PICK: Washington Football Team (+1) over Las Vegas Raiders

The most likely upset in my model this week is the Taylor Heinicke-led WFT against the Raiders. Part of the reason Las Vegas is favored is because they lead the league with a 35 percent QB pressure rate despite blitzing on just 14.8 percent of dropbacks (lowest in the NFL, per NGS). A good strategy for staying away from pressure is to run the football, an area in which Washington has been productive, especially recently. Entering Week 13, Antonio Gibson ranks fifth in the NFL in carries (183) and seventh in rush yards (712). He's earned 270 of his 712 since Week 10, which is the third-most across the league during that span. Not unrelated, Washington is on a three-game winning streak. Further, Gibson's success creates lanes for the always precise Terry McLaurin (Computer Vision shows he's fourth in route-running precision on routes where the ball is intended to travel more than 10 air yards). Another reason for this potential upset is the decrease in effectiveness by the Raiders' O-line over the past three games.

THING I LIKE: Lions WR Josh Reynolds to have more than 39.5 receiving yards against the Vikings.

In Reynolds' first start as a Lion, he hauled in three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. My models have the Lions scoring 20 points (the Vikings 26) and playing from behind, which suggests the need for more passing attempts. The Vikings rank 30th in total defense and 22nd against the pass (entering Week 13), so there's plenty of reason to think Reynolds will gain at least 40 yards through the air on Sunday, especially given the existing chemistry he and Jared Goff share as former Rams teammates.

THING I LOVE: Washington Football Team QB Taylor Heinicke to complete more than 22.5 passes against the Raiders.

In Washington's Week 12 win over the Seahawks on Monday night, Heinicke completed 27 of his 35 passes (77.1%) to mark his third consecutive game with a completion percentage of at least 72.1. It also was the fifth time in his last six games that he connected on at least 23 attempts. This week's matchup against the Raiders, who boast the NFL's top pressure percentage (35.0, per NGS), forecasts for an increase in shorter, quicker and more high-probability passes.

THING I DON'T LIKE: Chargers QB Justin Herbert to pass for more than 283.5 yards against the Bengals.

I realize that Herbert has eclipsed 284 passing yards in three of his past four games, but the Bengals unit he'll face on Sunday has held opposing QBs to fewer than 265 pass yards in each of its last three games. What gives? One of the big keys to this game is the run: Whichever team is more effective in that phase wins. Herbert's arm will still be impactful and impressive, but more rushing attempts from both teams means fewer possessions, and effective rushing means Herbert will be less likely to need as many attempts.

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