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.
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.
TRADE DEADLINE: 3 deals that would drive value
With the Nov. 2 trade deadline approaching, I wanted to use my models to look at three potential trade candidates and identify the potential postseason contender to which they would bring the most added value, as measured by win share for this season. In other words, while trade partners consider the long term in the real world, I'm focusing on short-term impact in this exercise.
WINS ADDED: 0.56
We know Mack wants a new home -- and it's hard to imagine a better one than Baltimore. Decimated by injuries, the Ravens' running back corps has struggled in 2021. The team's running backs rank 17th in the NFL in rushing yards over expected (RYOE), per Next Gen Stats, with -19. Mack, on the other hand, posted +45 RYOE in 2019, the last time he was a regular starter, which is slightly above average but still shows he can help. Part of the fit here lies in Mack's ability to break tackles inside; computer vision shows that on inside runs where he has at least 2 yards of space before being contacted, he creates an average of 0.4 yards more than the average back (he ranked 10th in this metric in 2019). Mack also collected the majority of his 1,091 rushing yards in 2019 after contact (about 63.5%), and ranked 12th in the NFL in that category, with 693, per Pro Football Focus. Mack's ability to break tackles on inside zone attempts would pair nicely with what quarterback Lamar Jackson can do running outside the tackles, creating more problems for Baltimore's opponents, complementing the passing game -- and driving the greatest ROI on Mack's skill set.
WINS ADDED: 0.51
Titans cornerbacks have struggled this season, ranking 15th in coverage as a unit, per PFF -- and that's generous compared to where they rank in win share (18th). Yes, Tennessee managed to log a pair of marquee victories over the Bills and Chiefs, with the defensive front essentially masking problems in the back end against Kansas City. Luckily for the Titans, their safeties have significantly outperformed their corners, ranking second best in coverage, per PFF, which means adding a corner like Fuller could significantly drive up the performance of the secondary as a whole. Denver has a surplus of talent at the position, and the Broncos could be looking to acquire future equity. Notably, Fuller has fared far better when working with other high-value players in the secondary; if he's added to Tennessee, it's conceivable he'll play like he did alongside Eddie Jackson in Chicago in 2018, when he led the NFL in picks (seven) and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors as part of a Bears secondary that was ranked second-best overall by PFF.
WINS ADDED: 0.47
I know the Chiefs already used a ton of resources to try to get better up front this offseason, trading for Orlando Brown, signing Joe Thuney and drafting Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Conventional wisdom might hold that K.C. should sit tight at this position. But the fact is, the offensive line is contributing to the Chiefs' problems in 2021, and rather than falling prey to the sunk-cost fallacy, they should try to fix it. Per NGS, when Patrick Mahomes is under pressure but not blitzed, he has a 34 percent completion rate -- the lowest rate in the NFL -- along with a TD-to-INT ratio of 3:3 and a passer rating of 46.7. Opponents are having success on such plays in part because defenders who would be blitzing are being used to bracket Travis Kelce instead. But the strategy only really works for opponents if the offensive line fails to do its job. This season, defenders are getting to Mahomes 0.58 seconds faster, on average, than they did in 2020. This contextualizes Mahomes' turnovers -- and it also means adding even more help to the O-line could drive big gains, quickly. Dillard has been a better pass-blocker than run-blocker in his career, which would help drive the fit. Whether Dillard is slotted into a starting role (perhaps moving to the right side) or used as a rotational piece, the former first-rounder could help improve that time-to-pressure figure. Forcing opponents to rethink their pressure strategy would open up more space for skill players -- giving Mahomes 0.15 seconds more, on average, would translate to a 30 percent increase in plays where receivers like Kelce or Tyreek Hill have at least 3 feet of separation. This would decrease turnover odds and significantly increase first-down and touchdown odds.
NOTE: The figures cited below are provided by Caesars, current as of 3 p.m. ET on Friday, Oct. 29.
WEEK 8 UPSET PICK: Detroit Lions (+3.5) over Philadelphia Eagles
I am a long-suffering Lions fan (there is no other kind) who has been waiting for them to Restore the Roar since birth. Or at least since Barry Sanders retired in 1999, save for a few Megatron-dominated games, including one on Thanksgiving 2015 against the Eagles! My heart's been broken by the team enough that I protect it by never believing that Detroit will win, but I can't argue with my model for projecting this one.
The Lions have the edge on Sunday due to their commitment to, and just enough projected production from, their running backs. Detroit's RBs are on an upward trajectory such that they create a higher probability of reliably earning first downs and touchdowns than those of the Eagles, who rely primarily on QB Jalen Hurts for their run game production. Lions RBs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams each have posted 250-plus rushing yards and at least two rushing touchdowns, making Detroit the only team other than Cleveland to have more than one running back reach these totals. Keep an eye on the status for both backs, as they are questionable for Sunday's game.
The Lions might still be searching for their first win, but keep in mind that they've played four games against teams who now have five or more wins, the second-most such games in the NFL. In fact, they've played five teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today (tied for second-most such games). You get my gist: Their schedule has been punishing.
It's worth mentioning that the Lions have the league's worst red zone defense, and Eagles WR DeVonta Smith, who has the third-most receiving yards among rookies (406), can break open big plays. However, with the historical precedent of teams with production and players like these two squads providing context, my model projects this game as the most likely upset of the week.
THING I LIKE: Rams RB Darrell Henderson Jr. rushing for more than 80.5 yards against the Texans.
Henderson has rushed for 81 yards or more just twice this season, but the Texans' defense ranks 31st against the run (they allow 145.7 yards per game) and 30th in big plays allowed. The Rams are likely to be playing with a sizable lead in this game, which should lead to an abundance of rushing opportunities, and Henderson has shown his explosiveness with 11 rushes of 10-plus yards this season (tied for 10th-most). He has also earned 21 first downs on first and second down combined (tied for sixth-most) and averages 4.63 yards per rush on first down. This goes to show he offers reliability as well as big-play upside, which helps explain why he earns more than 80.5 yards in the majority of simulations. The only concern here is the possibility that he will be targeted with short passes that end up limiting his rushing total.
THING I LOVE: Bengals QB Joe Burrow passing for more than 262.5 yards against the Jets.
Burrow has amassed at least 263 passing yards in four of his seven games (he threw for 261 in another) and he averages 279.4 per game. That said, the Bengals are heavily favored in this matchup (-10.5 as of this writing) and a big lead generally leads to fewer passing attempts. But the Bengals' highest probable path to victory (ahem, getting the ball to Ja'Marr Chase) drives why oddsmakers are so keen on Cincinnati and why my model likes the over for Burrow here. Chase has at least one deep reception in each game this season. He's posted four receiving touchdowns on targets of 20-plus air yards through seven games, which ties a rookie full season record in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). No rookie in the NGS era has led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards or touchdowns on deep passes over an entire season. Right now, Chase is leading in all but the deep receptions category (Cooper Kupp has one more than him).
THING I DON'T LIKE: Steelers RB Najee Harris rushing for more than 69.5 yards against the Browns.
There are a couple things driving this projection. First off, Harris will face a stingier light-box (six or fewer defenders) run defense than the ones he's lined up against in recent weeks. NGS shows that Harris saw light boxes on 59.6 percent of attempts in the last two games. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry in those contests. Prior to that, he saw light boxes on 45.5 percent of attempts for a 3.4-yard average. The Browns have gone with a light box on 53.4 percent of rushes, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL, but they allow a league-low 3.8 yards per rush when playing with a light box.
The other driver for this projection is Harris' pass-catching production. He has 34 receptions this season (most among rookie running backs and third-most among all rookies). He's averaging nearly 5.7 catches per game. Harris is a great fantasy play (especially if you get rewarded for catches) but he earns fewer than 69.5 rushing yards in most simulations.