Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Draft Review Take 1

The draft of 2016 is history now and the experts, god bless them, have actually come out with their first mock drafts for 2017. That's pretty crazy because, of course, you don't know what order the teams will be drafting and what needs they will have. I am a little ambivalent about the draft results this year - so i  will try to take both the pessimistic and optimistic views and try to be objective about the draft bounty this year. On the surface, this was a very good draft, if we look at the players that were added. Eli Apple looks like he will be a very good CB in this league. He has excellent cover skills, good size and great hips and footwork. In the pass happy NFL, with most teams running out 3 WRs and pass receiving capable TEs, you need 3 good CBs, not 2. So the idea of drafting a CB is fine. The fact that nearly every draft expert had Hargreaves rated ahead of Apple should give us pause, especially with some spotty player evaluations that the personnel evaluators have brought in recent past. But Giants had both CBs available to them and obviously gave Apple higher grades, so i can't beat them up for that. The questionable side of this pick is that there was Myles Jack and Tunsil available for the taking at positions of need, LB and OL. It's clear that after the Damontre Moore and Marvin Austin disasters of last couple of years, Giants were being extra conservative and taking players that were squeaky clean. They also were taking players that performed well on the football field and were not taking players only because of their performance at the combine. The other factor shaping their decision making was the injury bug, so I can understand backing away from Jack. When Reese tells us Apple was the best player on the board ---- well maybe so, but this was clearly a need pick. You just have to hope that they did not reach too far and that Apple will develop into a star CB. You don't pick in the top 10 hoping for the player to just make the team and be a rotation player - you want excellence.

In the second round, Shepard is a terrific pick at WR. He has excellent route running skills, great hands and if he is playing opposite OBJ, enough speed to burn the DBs and make some plays. Everyone says he is a slot type WR and reminds them of the second coming of Victor Cruz. That may be his size and his style, but I think he can be a throwback to Steve Smith, who was an excellent WR for NYG until he suffered bad knee injury. The S in the third round from Boise State, Darian Thompson is someone who will definitely compete for a starting S job. With all the young talented athletes Giants have at that position - we can expect at least one of them to step forward and grow into a solid starting S.

In summary - Giants got good talent in these three picks, but may have overshot and reached for their first round pick Apple. My big worry from these first three picks and from the draft overall is that Giants did not get any help for that right side of the OL. That has to be addressed before the season with some veteran FA.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mocking Mock Drafts

These mock drafts are hilarious, really. They're fun and they get eyeballs on the screen or perusing the newspaper, I understand that part. But they are seriously flawed from two important perspectives. First - the mock drafters put their draft together purely on the basis of the need of the team, or at least their perceived need of the team. The teams on the other hand, at least pay lip service to the philosophy of drafting the BPA, best player available. On the surface, these approaches directly conflict with each other. Occasionally at the top end of the draft, the team's needs coincide with the BPA and everyone is happy. On the other hand, I think the teams always tint their player evaluations with team need, or with some other subjective measure. For example, the best QB in the draft will be more important and will have a higher grade than the best LG in the draft. But player evaluations are more complex than that, because it is not only a question of who is the best player, or what is the ranking of all the players at a particular position. It is also a question of whether the player is NFL ready. In one year it could be a very weak draft for WR, for example. Obviously, the best WR in that draft may not warrant a high first round pick. Each team puts together their draft board based on quality of player, importance of position, overall grade compared to the ideal player at the position and they must sprinkle in at least some part of team need. In the early rounds of the draft, the contribution of team need plays less into the decision making, because the team really is looking for a star, regardless (almost) of position. In the later rounds, when the players are more bunched together in talent and the team is less likely to find a star, team need will factor more into the selection. If you believe the teams, they use these factors to calculate a score for each player and list them in order from highest to lowest. They take the best player left on their board whenever their turn comes up. Last year, Giants needed a S and they loved Collins, who was high on their board. It was a moment when need coincided with the draft board, so they traded up to get him in the 2nd round.

Two great stories about drafting BPA vs. team need.

In 1980, Giants were coming off an awful season and had the second overall pick in the draft, behind New Orleans Saints. The Giants were just an awful team, no offensive talent to speak of - they did have Phil Simms at QB, though he was going through his early career injury period, but their OL and skill position talent was really poor. On defense they had a player or two on the DL and in the secondary, George Martin and Mark Haynes to be specific, but that's it. What they did have was three outstanding LBs in Harry Carson, Brian Kelly and Brad Van Pelt, which was the only strong unit on the team. With that second overall pick, the fans, the TV/radio media and the print media were campaigning for the Giants to pick some offensive talent or perhaps some defensive players on the DL and in the DB-field, but not a LB. The first pick was by Bum Phillips, newly appointed coach / GM of the Saints and he took George Rogers, Heisman Trophy winner, RB out of South Carolina. George Young picked Lawrence Taylor and the rest is history. George Young said that the fastest he has ever run was to get the pick of Taylor up to the podium.  LT was clearly the BPA and Young picked him despite having the only real talent on the team at his LB position. Phillips, on the other hand, made a need pick with Rogers - he believed that the RB was the most important position on the team, having just coached Earl Campbell in Houston. How'd that work out for those teams?

Second story is about the Dallas Cowboys and their legendary HC, Tom Landry. He was famous for drafting good players and for being faithful to the best player available philosophy. He said that he deviated from this strategy just once - in the 1979 draft - and it cost him greatly. He had an aging Roger Staubach at QB on the roster, who would retire after the 1979 season. He also had the QB in waiting, the QB of the future on the roster, a young good QB named Danny White. Consequently, he deviated from his BPA philosophy just this once and drafted some nondescript players in first few rounds. The BPA, the player he passed up because he had his QB of the future already on the roster was Joe Montana. 'Nuff said.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Statistics and Injuries

Those of you who know me know that I am interested in mathematics and statistics and will occasionally look at them in order to prove a point or guide a discussion. In the e-world, many Giants fans have been pointing to the strength and conditioning program and how the many injuries that the Giants have had are entirely the fault of the S&C program not keeping up with modern training techniques. The flip side is the Coughlin perspective who said over and over again that the piling up of injuries is just bad luck. The truth probably lies somewhere in between - you certainly cannot blame every injury that occurred on a flawed S&C program. Football is a violent sport, with heavy collisions that put a medical and orthopedic strain on the body. No doubt injuries will occur no matter how well conditioned the athletes are. Having said that, there are certainly training programs that can limit or contain some of the injuries, especially those that are not direct result of collisions and are more muscular and soft tissue injuries. Last year, after Beatty tore his pectoral muscle while working in the weight room, Coughlin instituted some changes in the program. There were "spa days" or recovery days, they used GPS devices to track the number of hits and the force of the collisions that each player experienced during practice, but still the injuries continued. (Note: later Beatty tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder while rehabbing from his pectoral injury.) The changes that Coughlin instituted after the Beatty injury, I believe were effective in reducing injuries. But they didn't address the core problem - a strength and conditioning program that was mostly focused on the "strength" part of the program and not enough on the "conditioning" part. Core strength, balance, flexibility, long lean muscles, efficiency of movement and pure conditioning are more important than how much weight the player can lift. Strength is important, but not at the expense of conditioning. Better conditioning contributes not only to reduced injuries but also to more effective play on the field.

Now to my statistical analysis of why this injury bug just can't be luck. Football Outsiders tracks a statistic called adjusted games lost (AGL) for each team. The reason it is adjusted games lost and not just total games lost is that they adjust the number on basis of which player was lost. They value loss of a starter or regular rotation player more than a bench player, rendering the statistic a little more meaningful. The Giants finished last of all 32 teams in the league in this AGL statistic for the last 3 years, something that's very hard to do. But it's too easy to simply say, it's unlikely and that this could happen by chance without putting some hard measurements around it. Here goes.

I looked at the AGL statistics for the last two years, 2015 and 2014. I made the fairly safe assumption that the  AGL sample for each year was normally distributed. I then calculated the average and standard deviation for each year. The standard deviation is a measure for how widely spread the measurements are around the mean. For example, if a student's average score on two tests that he took is 80, he may have gotten 75 and 85 on his two tests or may have gotten scores of 100 and 60. In both cases the average is 80, but in the second case the standard deviation is greater because the scores are more widely spread around the mean. For a "normal distribution" 99.7% of all the possible measurements are within 3 standard deviations of the mean. In 2015 the Giants' AGL was more than 3 standard deviations away from the mean and in 2014 it was slightly less than that, about 2.59 standard deviations away. Using these statistics and the normal distribution, you can calculate the probability that a team will get a sample score less than (or greater than) a particular number.

OK ---- for those of you whose eyes are glazed over with these boring statistics, let me turn this into English. The probability that by pure chance a number would be less than or equal to the Giants AGL for year 2015 is 99.88%. The same probability for year 2014 is 99.5%.
Looking at it another way, the probability that a random score would be greater than the Giants for 2015 and 2014 are respectively: .119% and .482%

Putting these together - the probability that any team could do as badly as the Giants in both years together is .000574%

Understanding this better - that is 5.7 chances out of a million.
(With apologies to D&D, quoting Lloyd Christmas... " so you're saying there's a chance")

Looking at the second worst team in the two year period, the Washington Redskins were .38%

In other words, Giants were roughly 1,000 times worse than the second worst team in the league over the 2 year period.

Here's hoping the new S&C coach does a little better than the last one.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Team Building Strategy

Coming into the off season, Giants were sitting on a boatload of salary cap space and when they cut Beatty and Schwartz, they opened up even more cap space. As fans, we all looked at the enormous number - estimated at around $57M and salivated like Pavlov's dogs at feeding time imagining all the players NYG could "buy" with all that cap space. In the first wave of FA buying, the Giants didn't sit idle; Reese went out and bought four premium (we hope) players for the defense. After those acquisitions, the Giants still had somewhere around $22-25M in cap space to spend. That's a fairly hefty upper limit on the credit card, and we fans were hoping that they would bring in a S, one or two OL-men, a WR and maybe even a LB. Just some back of the envelope calculations - NYG needs to save about $6M for the rookie pool, so for that approximately remaining $16-19M we could have filled some of those needs with some pretty good players. What's the point of having the salary cap space if you're not going to use it?

I think the takeaway from this approach and from the fact that NYG did not spend all the cap money they had is that this was an organizational decision coming directly from the owners. They imposed a strategy on the team as an organization and are clearly adding a business filter on player acquisition. When I say business approach, I am not just talking about saving money and limiting its spending; I am referring to organic growth of the team and the organization as a business over a several year time frame, not just tactical, immediate success in one particular year. While we as fans only care about win-now, the owners care about sustained success.

Mara very famously and publicly said the roster was deficient of talent and it's up to Jerry Reese to fix it. This is clearly a make or break year for Reese. Mara gave him some rope to play with and let him sign some players to jump start the reload, but Mara wants to see the full body of work and the overall roster construction before he gives Reese all $57M in cap space to spend. Mara wants to save some cash and cap space for next year. If Giants under-spend this year, they can carry some of the unused cap space over to next year. If Reese's FA players don't work out and if his draft is not good, that unused, carried-over cap space will be available for the next GM to use. I think that also is the reason Giants did not sign a veteran S and are whispering that the roster currently has three young S on it, one of who they expect to emerge as an NFL caliber starter. That seems rather hopeful and not necessarily practical, doesn't it? Let's not forget - this is a test for Reese and Mara may be genuinely unsure if Reese is the long term GM. He wants him to succeed of course. But if he fails, he needs to have an alternative plan so the franchise doesn't go down in flames next year also, if Reese's acquisitions this year prove flawed. It is likely that Reese had told Mara that his drafts were good and were hurt by injuries, some of whom were the S that were drafted last 2 years: Berhe, Taylor, Jackson and Thompson. No doubt, Mara is responding - if your drafts were so good and if you think one of these S will emerge, then don't sign one now and let's see if they really do work out as you promised. If they do - great for NYG and Reese. If they don't work out, it might be another black mark on the debit side of Reese's ledger.

Obviously, this upcoming draft is really important for Reese.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Roster

I have written here a few times about the need to get some S help for this defense. Giants invested in the defensive front and in a CB. To me, it doesn't make sense to expose the back end of the defense with a weak S to undercut the investment elsewhere. Even if they acquire  a young S talent that they think will be good, we don't want him learning on the job. There should be a veteran, solid S to manage things and control things until a new younger player comes along - so goes my logic.  Giants apparently don't completely agree. Word creeping out of NFL team meetings and coaches' meetings is that the Giants feel that they have enough talent at the S position on the current roster so that one of them will emerge as the starter. Between Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykelle Thompson and Cooper Taylor, one will step up and show the talent to play. I have no doubt that one or maybe two of them will show more ability and will beat out the others for a starting position. But just because one is better than the others, that doesn't mean that without any NFL experience they will demonstrate the ability to be a starting level quality NFL safety. These players were on the roster last year, and in Berhe's case, the year before that as well. So the Giants did get a good look at them in NFL environment. But they did not play in  an NFL game (again except for a precious few snaps by Berhe) and  there is absolutely no evidence that they can play S at the pro level. The S  position is one of the positions on defense where play is not formulaic - there are reads, instincts and intuition that the S has to rely on to make decisions on where to run, where to give help, whether to charge up and support a run play, drop into pass coverage on a play  fake, give help on the right side or left side, etc. While speed and athleticism are important, experience greatly plays into this decision making, perhaps more than any other position on defense with possible exception of MLB.

Let's hope the Giants are right and one S will emerge as a good quality NFL starter. But let's also hope the Giants have a backup plan and they can bring in a veteran, perhaps low cost,  S as a "hold-the-fort-guy" (Parcells-ism) until they develop.

Giants have said that they are not finished with FA and they will add more players. but it seems apparent that they are going to wait and try to get lower priced players later in FA, maybe after they see how the draft settles out. There are too many openings to presume that they will all be filled in the draft. In the past, the Giants would fill their obvious openings early with FA so that they could go into the draft with the ability to pick the best player available, without regard to position. The Ernie Accorsi-ism was always: "don't take your depth chart into the draft room". It looks like NYG is taking a slightly different approach now. They brought in lots of FA talent on defense but are clearly not filling ALL of their holes. My guess is that the they will see what they need after the draft, and finish constructing the roster after that. They may add some low cost, low risk players before the draft, but the roster is far from complete. Even if they decide that they don't need to pursue a S, they need to do something on the OL and at WR. We'll see.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Brinkley

Giants signed Brinkley as a backup MLB. That's the topper, the final piece - make your Super Bowl LI reservations, 'cuz NYG is on the way.

What was this about? I think it speaks volumes for their intentions for the year, their view of the team and their road map for the rest of the FA signing period. First: Brinkley isn't awful; he played OK last year. Not great, but not terrible either. Of course on this Giants defense, he stood out somehow as a beacon of mediocrity on a team that had the worst defense in the league last year and moreover, was the 3rd worst defense in the history of the NFL. NYG signed a designated MLB starter in Keenan Robinson and we needed a backup, so we signed Brinkley. We're not in love with either player, obviously, else we would have signed one of them for more than one year. We also picekd these guys off the bargain rack -  we didn't exactly have to outbid anyone to get them. In fact, Reese was quoted as saying "we hope it will be a bounce back year for Robinson". Maybe one or the other of them will surprise us, but in any case we will more than likely have a new MLB in the starting line up come 2017. Nice to rebuild the defense with DL help and with a new CB, but it certainly shows that Reese hasn't changed his mind about the limited value of LBs in today's NFL.

The other thing it shows is that the Giants ownership hasn't given Reese a blank checkbook to buy FAs. Rather, after the first rush of expensive signings, NYG is being much more prudent in throwing money around, even though we have enough cap space to sign 1 or 2 more premium FAs. NYG did not sign OL help, WR or S. I guess when Mara said it's on Reese, he wants to test him in the draft as well as get fat on the FA market. It's almost as if owners are willing to have a "pretty good" yea in 2016 instead of reaching for the brass ring. Instead they will go for it next year with Reese or some other FA driving the bus.

Why wouldn't the Giants make a play for Penn, Okung or one of the other OL FAs. Neither one signed for big money and Okung did not even demand a signing bonus. It's one thing to go into the season with an average right side of the OL and hope to improve in the draft or later in the preseason with other teams' cuts. But it's not the same when you don't have any players at all on the OL.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Salary Cap I

With a few days to catch a breath and evaluate the shopping spree that our GM Reese just went on, it is interesting to consider what an enormous change this was for NYG. The accepted, long standing wisdom is that sustained success comes in the NFL primarily from the draft. Free agency is for plugging some holes, for making short term acquisitions at specific positions that you may not be able to fill in the draft, but the core of your team needs to come from the draft. Giants have always been strong proponents of that philosophy. But in truth, Giants have made key FA acquisitions in the past that led to championships; specifically I am thinking of Kareem MacKenzie, Shaun O'Hara, Antonio Pierce and Plaxico Burress, to name a few, all major FA signings for big money (at the time) that jump started the team and primed them for a title run. In addition, there were some short term acquisitions that really helped - I am thinking here of Kawika Mitchell who had a huge, highly effective, if somewhat forgotten season in 2007. Even Sam Madison contributed greatly. These last two, Mitchell and Madison were more of the fill-in style FA that we are used to seeing from the Giants. But the others mentioned earlier were big ticket acquisitions. What makes this year's FA class different is that they all came in the same year, in the same day actually, and the money seems way higher. But - you really have to compare the salaries not to what other players, who signed pre-2016 have gotten, rather what the players are getting this year. It is really not enough to just say - this is what the market is today, without looking a little deeper at to why there is so much money to throw around today. The temptation is to look at it with a simple ratio of contract versus salary cap. As a simple example, Plaxico Burress signed a FA contract with the Giants in March 2005. The contract was for 6 years and valued at $25 million. I won't go into the details of what the signing bonus was, what was guaranteed, etc., let's just say that the average annual value of the contract was around $4.16M per year. The salary cap in 2005 was around $85.5 million; translating Burress' contract with a simple ratio to the 2016 salary cap of $155.27 M would make that 4.16 M be equivalent to $7.5 M in today's adjusted salary cap dollars. Not a bad haul, but not near what the top receivers and top players are getting today.

A more sophisticated look considers not just the ratio of salary cap from one year to another, but rather the trend in growth over a 2 or 3 year period. Take a look at the following graph:




As you can see above, in the period between 2009 and 2013 the salary cap was relatively flat, hovering at around $120M per year. This included one year, 2010 which technically was uncapped when the league and NFLPA were negotiating their contract. But the uncapped year was in name only - teams knew that they could not overreach in the uncapped year, because when the cap was re-instituted the following year, 2011, they would be in salary cap hell, with lots of players to dump. In fact the Cowboys and Redskins tried to evade the rules and were penalized by the NFL. My point is that during this 5 year period of 2009-2013 where the salary cap was flat, teams had to manage their cap carefully and had to keep player salaries controlled. Now look at the tail of the curve, the period from 2014-2016 where the salary cap grew by $32 M in those 3 years. It's not just the growth this year in 2016 - it's the sustained growth over last 3 years, compared to no growth for the 5 years before that. If you're a mathematics nerd like me, you talk about the derivative, or rate of change of the graph. The derivative was essentially 0 for 4 years and now the rate of change is approximately 8% per year, which when compounded over last 3 years is around 26% growth. The key factor that is encouraging teams to throw around money is that there are no indications that this rate of change will end. We can't be sure or course that it will be 8% again next year, but as TV rights continue to grow, we can be confident that it will go up. In the period of no growth of salary cap, if players salaries would rise as their contracts progressed, the teams would be more strapped cap-wise and unable to make moves. Now however, if teams back-load a contract, they can have confidence that the salary cap will continue to rise and they will have cap money to cover their outlays. In fact, it makes sense to sign top players to long term contracts, because natural growth in the cap will make their annual salaries seem small compared to cap growth in future years. It's kind of like borrowing money today in a period of high inflation - you're paying it back tomorrow in cheaper dollars.

Teams still don't love to shell out huge FA contracts, because the expensive FA contracts take cash out of the team coffers for signing bonuses. But when you're desperate like the Giants were this year, spending the money to get good players is an investment. When the team wins, the value of the franchise is increased. More on salary cap management in later posts.