The Risk and Reward of Deshaun Watson

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Using STATS X-Info and Research to describe how Deshaun Watson’s electric – and sometimes erratic – play affects the Houston Texans’ offense

Deshaun Watson’s name didn’t occupy national headlines leading up to or during Week 7. No praise, no staggering statistical line unusual for a rookie quarterback, no gushing praise that’s become the norm during his brief NFL career.

Watson finally gave the rest of the NFL a break. And he finally got one of his own – in the form of a Houston Texans bye. That’s seemingly the only thing keep Watson from continuing his rise to NFL stardom.

Watson has becoming the new face of the Texans with J.J. Watt suffering a season-ending injury, putting him at a total of eight games played over the last two years. But can Watson’s electric play help the Texans reach the playoffs for a third straight season?

It didn’t take long for Watson to get an opportunity to show his potential, replacing starter Tom Savage to begin the second half of the season opener. Watson promptly led a 14-play, 75-yard march on his first drive and finished it with a touchdown pass – the first of his NFL co-leading 15 TD tosses. Two other players in league history have thrown for 15 touchdowns in their first six games – Redskins Super Bowl winner Mark Rypien and Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. Five of Watson’s came in a Week 5 loss to Kansas City, and STATS Research shows that made Watson the third-youngest player ever (22 years, 24 days) behind Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston to throw for five TDs in a game.

None of this seems to shock coach Bill O’Brien and the Texans, who traded up to select Watson with the 12th pick and in doing so parted with their 2018 first-round selection. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist entered the draft with a long list of accolades, including becoming the only player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in one season, accomplishing the feat in 2015 before leading Clemson to the national title the following year.

Choosing Watson – and deciding to play him almost immediately – has changed the direction of Houston’s offense and the mentality of O’Brien, who did not hire an offensive coordinator this season and calls all of the Texans’ plays. According to STATS X-Info data, Houston threw the ball 65.9 percent of the time last season with the statuesque Brock Osweiler, who finished with only 30 rushing attempts, very few of which were designed.

Watson already has run 28 times and is second behind Cam Newton among NFL quarterbacks with 202 rushing yards, the sixth-most for a QB through his first six games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He’d need to average 4.6 rushes over his final 10 games to break David Carr’s team record of 73 set in 2004 after averaging 5.2 in the five games he’s started. Watson’s versatility stands as the main reason Houston is throwing the ball more than 10 percent less than last year (55.6 percent) and why the Texans rank fifth in the NFL in percentage of runs designed for the quarterback at 7.5, according to STATS X-Info.

And there’s little reason to contain Watson to the pocket when he’s capable of things like this.

Watson’s unique skill set has helped open up the Texans’ offense. Watson leads the NFL in touchdown pass percentage at 8.6 when no one else has cracked 7 percent, he’s tied for eighth with 15 explosive pass plays (25+ yards) and ninth with 24 big plays (20+ pass, 10+ run). However, Watson ranked fourth and sixth in those categories, respectively, heading into his bye week.

Watson’s play has contributed to Houston having 21 explosive plays – after finishing with 37 all of last season – and ranking seventh with a 49 successful play percentage this year. The Texans also have improved from -11 to +5 in toxic differential, which is the sum of turnover differential and explosive play differential.

But with all that success will come some growing pains, and there’s no doubt Watson has made and will continue to make mistakes. He’s thrown five picks, his 2.9 interception percentage is 10th-highest in the league and he’s lost a fumble. Watson tossed 32 interceptions in 38 games at Clemson and still is capable of highly questionable decisions, as seen here against New England in Week 3.

Watson stared down DeAndre Hopkins immediately following the faked handoff, then threw a designed deep ball short when pressed with the rush. Instead of moving up into the pocket away from the defender, Watson tossed an errant pass that he wasn’t able to step into and it went for a pick. Plays like this will happen every so often, and some harsher criticisms could come later with Watson being a victim of his instant success.

Watson’s thrilling plays have outweighed any disappointment so far, though, and his offensive supporting cast of Hopkins, Will Fuller V and Lamar Miller have helped along the way. Now Watson has to take this success to date and run with it – sometimes literally – if the Texans are to succeed as they expect.

Is Jet Motion Sweeping the NFL?

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Jon Gruden consistently makes bold claims during Monday Night Football broadcasts while using his fiery personality to drive his points home. Not surprisingly, his emphatic delivery often prompts viewers to poke around for holes in those boasts.

So when Gruden claimed the jet motion offense has been on the rise across the NFL during last week’s Monday night matchup between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, it became only natural to do some digging. After all, a play like the jet sweep still feels a bit gimmicky and unusual.

As it turns out, Gruden was right all along.

According to STATS X-Info data, use of the jet motion offense is up 36 percent league-wide from last season. Using jet motion simply means an in-motion player is heading toward the quarterback at the snap. The ball does not have to be handed off to that player – usually a wide receiver – meaning fakes and screens or even regular handoffs to the running back still end up being results from jet motion formations.

The jet sweep is the play most associated with that type of motion. Here’s an example from the New England-New Orleans matchup in Week 2. Brandin Cooks runs for a big gain to help set up Tom Brady’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead.

The jet motion the Patriots used on the Cooks run no longer is that uncommon. NFL teams used jet motion an average of 1.71 percent of the time in 2016, but that average is up to 2.33 percent this year. That might not seem like a big jump on the surface, but take a look at the chart below. Only 11 teams are using jet motion less on average than last year, and even then the percentage points are not that far off.

Jet Motion Percentage - NFL Teams

According to STATS X-Info data
Team20162017
Arizona0.801.89
Atlanta1.512.61
Baltimore2.593.94
Buffalo1.850.33
Carolina3.246.01
Chicago0.310.78
Cincinnati0.870.99
Cleveland0.000.30
Dallas3.962.39
Denver0.202.04
Detroit2.492.17
Green Bay0.002.03
Houston0.500.89
Indianapolis1.081.29
Jacksonville2.010.00
Kansas City7.115.21
Los Angeles Chargers0.360.66
Los Angeles Rams4.938.32
Miami1.120.86
Minnesota3.642.52
New England2.285.34
New Orleans4.185.65
New York Giants0.441.99
New York Jets0.461.78
Oakland0.270.00
Philadelphia2.071.47
Pittsburgh0.630.61
Seattle1.812.09
San Francisco2.521.80
Tampa Bay0.254.67
Tennessee0.504.26
Washington1.180.41

Some numbers jump out immediately. Green Bay is using jet motion a decent amount after not using it at all in 2016. Denver’s percentage is up considerably from last season, and New England is using jet motion almost double the amount of plays on average.

Last season, Washington used jet motion on 1.18 percent of its plays under then-offensive coordinator Sean McVay. That’s what makes the Los Angeles Rams’ league-leading 8.32 percent jet motion use so stunning in the 31-year-old McVay’s first year as the Rams’ head coach this season.

The presence of the versatile Tavon Austin likely has plenty to do with that significant jump under McVay’s watch. Originally, McVay admitted having trouble implementing Austin into L.A.’s scheme other than to return punts – something he no longer will be doing after losing his third fumble of the season on a muffed punt in last week’s 16-10 loss to Seattle. He muffed another, but the Rams recovered.

But Austin has added a dangerous dimension to the Rams’ offense, which ranks fifth in the NFL averaging 382 yards per game after finishing dead last in total offense last season. STATS X-Info data reveals Austin has lined up in four different positions on his 60 snaps – 23 at slot receiver, 19 at running back, 16 at outside receiver and two at tight end.

“I might not be producing that much with the ball in my hands, but my fakes, my jet sweeps, it’s doing numbers, and that’s the main thing about it,” Austin said earlier this season.

Todd Gurley explained that Austin’s use in the jet motion as a decoy has helped him drastically improve in the running game. Gurley is averaging 4.1 yards per carry compared to 3.2 last year, and his seven touchdowns (four rushing, three receiving) have already surpassed his total scores from 2016.

Quarterback Jared Goff also is succeeding after a very difficult seven games as a rookie last year, completing 61 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions – two of which came just last week against Seattle’s tough defense.

The scheme implementing jet motion – specifically Austin’s role in it – by McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has provided more space and opportunities for each of the Rams’ main offensive players. And even the threat of a jet motion play creates other chances.

Here’s Austin’s 27-yard touchdown run from last week, when Austin lined up at running back and remained stationary until the snap.

“A lot of times you talk about keeping your gap integrity as a defense, and it’s predicated on where guys are aligned,” McVay said earlier. “When you’re flying a guy fast across the field, it causes some conflicts in your run fits and guys get out of gaps, or they’re looking at it or you might regulate some different things that you’re doing. You don’t know if it’s coming, and there’s some complements off that.”

Scoring is down in 2017 – teams have combined for 368 offensive touchdowns compared to 389 through five weeks last season – as defenses adjust to tired schemes coming from recycled offensive coordinators. And to McVay’s point, running an offense that keeps multiple defensive players thinking is paramount to moving the ball with regularity.

Installing more jet motion appears to be a major reason for the Rams’ 3-2 start after they went a dismal 4-12 last season, when their solid defense performed even better than it has this year. It’s only logical to attribute the addition of jet motion to the basis for the Rams’ turnaround, and other teams have implemented it more often.

Looks like Chucky was right after all.

Week 3 NFL Spreads: STATS vs. Las Vegas

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Using STATS X-Info metrics and roster rankings to project favorites vs. the Vegas standard odds.

Any projection models forecasting Ezekiel Elliott running for eight yards on nine carries against Denver’s defense and Trevor Siemian tossing four touchdowns in last week’s blowout of Dallas only could’ve been found in the minds of irrationally positive Broncos fans.

It’s true STATS didn’t necessarily expect either of those crazy statistical lines to become reality, but X-Info knew Denver’s chances of winning exceeded those of Dallas and correctly projected the favorite – unlike the consensus in Las Vegas.

STATS uses proprietary data to project spreads for each NFL game. STATS X-Info calculates roster rankings based on injuries, statistical data and depth at each position, then compares that to an opponent and arrives at a conclusion – the projected spread.

None of these spread projections mean you should empty your account and follow the STATS model to riches. X-Info simply takes into account factors Vegas may not, hence some differing views. And if you’re looking for fantasy advice, you’re still best suited to follow best-in-the-business Sean Koerner and his weekly tiers.

Have a look at how STATS projects the spreads in Week 3 against those coming out of Las Vegas as of Thursday afternoon. Note that the Tampa Bay-Minnesota game is absent from this list, as Vegas hasn’t yet released a line while waiting to find out more on Sam Bradford’s status.

Group 1: Occasionally, STATS and Vegas agree – for the most part – as noted in the games below:

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco

STATS: Rams -4.3
Vegas: Rams -2.5

The 49ers have scored 12 points in the first two weeks. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Rams cover the spread with only a field goal.

Atlanta at Detroit

STATS: Falcons -4.4
Vegas: Falcons -3

This battle of 2-0 teams in Detroit could be a high-scoring affair and one of the best – and most unpredictable – games of the week.

Baltimore at Jacksonville

STATS: Ravens -3.3
Vegas: Ravens -3.5

New Orleans at Carolina

STATS: Panthers -4
Vegas: Panthers -5.5

Miami at New York Jets

STATS: Dolphins -5.5
Vegas: Dolphins -6

Group 2: There are games in which STATS and Vegas at least agree on the favorite, but there is a pretty decent margin between the STATS spread and the Vegas spread:

Houston at New England

STATS: Patriots -19.9
Vegas: Patriots -13.5

Neither STATS or Vegas has much confidence in the Texans’ defense against Tom Brady and Co.

Denver at Buffalo

STATS: Broncos -13.4
Vegas: Broncos -3

New York Giants at Philadelphia

STATS: Eagles -18.2
Vegas: Eagles -6

Eli Manning has completed 72.9 percent of his passes. Unfortunately, only one of his 51 completions have resulted in a touchdown.

Cincinnati at Green Bay

STATS: Packers -13.3
Vegas: Packers -9

Choosing Aaron Rodgers over Andy Dalton isn’t rocket science.

Pittsburgh at Chicago

STATS: Steelers -3.1
Vegas: Steelers -7.5

Dallas at Arizona

STATS: Cowboys -6.5
Vegas: Cowboys -3

Group 3: Then there are games where STATS and Vegas don’t agree at all:

Cleveland at Indianapolis

STATS: Colts -7
Vegas: Browns -1.5

The Browns being a road favorite for the first time in what seems like decades is fun and all, but the STATS model isn’t believing any of the hype. After all, the Colts took Arizona to overtime last week at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Seattle at Tennessee

STATS: Seahawks -9.8
Vegas: Titans -2.5

Kansas City at Los Angeles Chargers

STATS: Chargers -2.2
Vegas: Chiefs -3

Kareem Hunt vs. Melvin Gordon could be very exciting. Or this could be a defensive slog.

Oakland at Washington

STATS: Redskins -2.3
Vegas: Raiders -3

This is a rare matchup between two teams with quarterbacks ready to air it out. A Derek Carr vs. Kirk Cousins showdown could result in some exciting Sunday Night Football.

Week 2 NFL Spreads: STATS vs. Las Vegas

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Using STATS X-Info metrics and roster rankings to project favorites vs. the Vegas standard odds.

The unpredictability of the NFL showed in true form during Week 1, with Hurricane Irma postponing Tampa Bay-Miami, the Chiefs routing defending Super Bowl champion New England and Philadelphia earning a comfortable victory at Washington.

Well, the first two occurrences were tough to predict anyway.

STATS’ X-Info metrics labeled the Eagles as a 7.88-point favorite over the Redskins last week, compared to the Las Vegas consensus spread that foresaw a close game with Philly favored by just a single point. The Eagles went on to win 30-17.

STATS uses proprietary data to project spreads for each NFL game. STATS X-Info calculates roster rankings based on injuries, statistical data and depth at each position, then compares that to an opponent and arrives at a conclusion – the projected spread.

The data last week also had Baltimore favored over Cincinnati and Jacksonville a favorite against Houston despite Vegas seeing it differently. The Ravens and Jaguars both won convincingly.

The Texans and Bengals will try to bounce back on Thursday Night Football. Let’s have a look at the STATS vs. Vegas spreads for the entire Week 2 slate, as of Thursday afternoon.

Group 1: STATS’ projection doesn’t always line up with the Vegas consensus. In some cases, the spreads are very far apart:

Houston at Cincinnati

STATS: Texans -0.03
Vegas: Bengals -6

Neither team looked very good in Week 1. Looks like the Vegas oddsmakers have plenty of confidence Andy Dalton can be a serviceable quarterback Thursday night.

Chicago at Tampa Bay

STATS: Bears -0.04
Vegas: Buccaneers -7

Chicago played defending NFC champion Atlanta tough at home before falling short on the final drive. The Bucs were displaced by Irma and now begin a stretch of playing 16 consecutive weeks. STATS is depending on the Bears’ solid showing to carry over and Tampa to still have some rust.

Minnesota at Pittsburgh

STATS: Vikings -0.96
Vegas: Steelers -5.5

Minnesota pulled away for a 10-point win over New Orleans on Monday with help from rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Pittsburgh had to hold on to beat lowly Cleveland. Vegas doesn’t seem too worried about the Steelers recovering for a tougher opponent.

Philadelphia at Kansas City

STATS: Eagles -2.43
Vegas: Chiefs -5.5

Once again, STATS’ model has Philadelphia with the second-best roster rank in the NFL and is high on the Eagles to beat their former head coach, Andy Reid. Vegas? Not so much after the Chiefs handled the Patriots rather easily.

Dallas at Denver

STATS: Broncos -3.89
Vegas: Cowboys -2

Maybe Vegas is putting too much confidence in the Dallas defense that looked good against the Odell Beckham Jr.-less Giants last week.

Group 2: Occasionally, STATS and Vegas agree – for the most part – as noted in the games below:

Buffalo at Carolina

STATS: Panthers -5.23
Vegas: Panthers -7

Cleveland at Baltimore

STATS: Ravens -6.86
Vegas: Ravens -8

Green Bay at Atlanta

STATS: Falcons -2.54
Vegas: Falcons -3

Detroit at New York Giants

STATS: Giants -1.02
Vegas: Giants -3

Miami at Los Angeles Chargers

STATS: Chargers -1.44
Vegas: Chargers -4

Group 3: There are moments STATS and Vegas at least agree on the favorite, but there is a pretty decent margin between the STATS spread and the Vegas spread:

San Francisco at Seattle

STATS: Seattle -5.93
Vegas: Seattle -14

Washington at Los Angeles Rams

STATS: Rams -6.75
Vegas: Rams -2.75

New England at New Orleans

STATS: Patriots -2.1
Vegas: Patriots -6.5

Group 4: Then there are games when STATS and Vegas don’t agree even in the slightest bit:

New York Jets at Oakland

STATS: Jets -0.64
Vegas: Raiders -13.5

Tennessee at Jacksonville

STATS: Jaguars -7.3
Vegas: Titans -1.5

STATS’ projection model absolutely loves Jacksonville’s defense, which sacked Texans quarterbacks 10 times in Week 1.

Arizona at Indianapolis

STATS: Colts -1.38
Vegas: Cardinals -7

The Colts are considering starting the newly acquired Jacoby Brissett with Andrew Luck still hurting, and that might be enough to change their fortunes after being routed by the Rams last week.

Eagles’ WR Overhaul Should Give Wentz Productive Week 1 Weapons

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Among the Week 1 matchups is a clash of the two NFC East teams that failed to make the playoffs last year, Philadelphia and Washington. Whereas the Redskins were just a Week 17 win away from qualifying, the Eagles’ 2-9 slump from Weeks 5 to 15 included two defeats to Washington and took them out of the hunt.

Going into this season, however, not only do the Eagles have a big edge on the Redskins according to STATS’ production metrics – a 7.88-point spread despite being on the road – but they have the NFL’s second-ranked roster based on projected personnel.

So why the esteem for a last-place team? Look no further than Carson Wentz’s new weapons – Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. STATS’ X-Info data, which provides detailed insights on statistical events not captured via traditional data collection methods, tells us why.

Wentz set an NFL rookie record with 379 completions, but less than half went to his wideouts. Among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts, his completion percentage to wide receivers was a league-worst 44.9. No NFC team had fewer explosive plays receiving – 25 yards or more – than the Eagles with 18, while Washington led the league with 45. Philadelphia was at the other end because Wentz didn’t have any game-breaking wideouts at his disposal. Jeffery and Smith change all of that.

Jeffery had 16 explosive plays in 17 games over the last two years, while the departed Jordan Matthews had 17 in 30. Jeffery’s last full season in 2014, he has 12 explosive plays. Give Smith a pass for those forgettable years in San Francisco and go back to his time with Joe Flacco, and he had 44 explosive plays in 64 games. Since he entered the NFL in 2011, Smith ranks 12th among all players in explosive plays receiving with 54, and he’s seventh in average yards at catch (11.8).

Before resorting to blaming Wentz’s inaccuracy or penchant for dumping off to a back or a tight end, let’s delve even deeper into X-Info to see why his wideouts may have been more at fault.

Last year’s combination of Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor so often failed to create separation that Wentz had trouble completing balls downfield. The Eagles were 28th of 32 teams in yards at catch – yards the ball traveled in the air relative to the line of scrimmage on completions – at 5.04 per reception. The Eagles’ top player in that category was Matthews at 7.5, which ranked 68th in the league last season, while his replacement as Philly’s No. 1 receiver ranked ninth – Jeffery averaged 11.7.

Washington led that category, a number that will likely drop with the offseason departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

Earning extra yards once the ball was completed also didn’t go in Wentz’s favor, as Philadelphia ranked 26th with 4.95 yards after catch per reception. Matthews ranked tied for 89th at 3.6, while Jeffery was exactly a half yard better.

The Eagles could make a big jump because Jeffery is known as an adept route runner who can beat defensive backs for 50-50 balls, and Smith is a better deep threat than Wentz has ever had. Plus, two established sets of hands should help – Wentz’s dropped passes quarterback rating last year was 20th of 27 qualifying QBs. Jeffery had one drop in 94 targets.

It’s easy to see why Matthews went from being top dog to the doghouse in Philly’s wide receiving corps, leading to his trade to the Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby. Criticized by the harsh Eagles’ faithful for having alligator arms, Matthews often failed to come up with key catches or get the extra yards needed. His clutch reception percentage – catches resulting in a first down or a touchdown – failed to surpass 52 in either of the past two seasons. Jeffery hasn’t been below 70 percent in the last three seasons, including 78.8 last year, which ranked fifth. Additionally, Agholor was at 41.7 percent last year and 47.8 in 2015.

Smith was at 70 percent last year and has averaged even more throughout his career. He’s just 28 years old and not far removed from being one of Flacco’s favorite targets. Wentz didn’t have that kind of home run-ball receiver as a rookie, so Smith could help spread the field given his ability to blow by defenders.

This week, Smith has the advantage of going against an extremely inexperienced safety in Deshazor Everett. The special-teams ace rarely saw the field on defense during his first two NFL seasons but was recently thrown into the starting role after 22-year-old Su’a Cravens shockingly announced he was considering retirement.

The prime-time matchup, though, will be Josh Norman on Jeffery. Norman had a solid first season with Washington, but it wasn’t exactly spectacular. The five touchdown passes he allowed were a career high, and of the 40 passes completed when he was the defensive target, the yards per burn was 13.6.

That was his worst mark since 2013 and about 2 1/2 yards worse than fellow Redskins corner Bashaud Breeland. In fact, Jeffery got the better of Norman last season when still with the Bears. He caught five passes for 92 yards largely with Norman shadowing him, and the former All-Pro corner was burned for a total of 81 yards on the day – his second-worst game total of 2016.

Despite the presence of Norman, the blossoming Kirk Cousins and the addition of new No. 1 wideout Terrelle Pryor, STATS’ production metrics have Washington with only the NFL’s 28th-ranked roster. That certainly doesn’t mean the Redskins can’t handle the Eagles on Sunday, but completing a third straight season sweep of their division rivals will be far from child’s play now that Wentz has some new toys at his disposal.

 

Dig deeper into X-Info data with STATS’ NFL 2017:

Dig deeper into X-Info data with STATS' NFL 2017.

Alabama vs. FSU: Jalen Hurts, Deondre Francois Possess More Similarities Than People Think

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The Seminoles know Jalen Hurts will run, but X-Info data shows the Crimson Tide should prepare to see Francois use his feet nearly as much as his counterpart Saturday night.

It seems crazy to believe now, but Jalen Hurts wasn’t supposed to see the field in last season’s opener. Alabama coach Nick Saban pegged Blake Barnett the starter and Cooper Bateman the backup prior to the matchup with USC.

That plan didn’t even last a full quarter before the then-true freshman Hurts threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores in a 52-6 thrashing of the Trojans. It’s those rushing stats from the quarterback spot that helped Hurts secure the starting job and made him so dangerous last season, and they’re also part of the reason many are picking Alabama to beat Florida State and its fellow sophomore Deondre Francois.

Saturday night’s showdown in Atlanta is being billed as a matchup of two completely opposite QBs – Hurts and his read-option abilities vs. Francois and his pocket-passing approach. Basic statistics present little argument.

Hurts ran for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns last season compared to Francois’ 198 rushing yards and five TDs. Francois tossed for 3,350 yards, which were 570 more than Hurts. And that margin likely would’ve been greater if Florida State’s offensive line didn’t allow Francois to be sacked 34 times, tied for the most among Power 5 quarterbacks.

But there’s a reason Alabama has been open about preparing for Francois’ running ability, his paltry rushing numbers from last season aside. STATS X-Info helps dig deeper beyond the simple numbers to see that Francois’ efficiency running the ball isn’t far off from Hurts’.

Ignore Francois’ 1.8 yards per carry on a very-misleading 108 rushes, a number that counts sacks as rushing attempts in the college game. Check out last year’s numbers compared to Hurts’ when Francois took the ball on a designed running play in the chart below, which only accounts for plays designed for QB runs.

Francois’ averages were better than Hurts’ across the board, along with him running for half the touchdowns on fewer than half the carries. Hole percentage, which calculates the percentage of rushes a player gained at least two yards prior to contact, is nearly identical.

Yes, it’s still true that Francois would rather pick apart defenses from the pocket, and Florida State coach – and former Saban assistant – Jimbo Fisher will have Francois throw plenty. But if the Seminoles’ offensive line springs some leaks, Francois is more than capable of escaping and gaining yardage.

Below is a STATS X-Info chart separating scrambles from any other type of rush.

It’s no wonder the Crimson Tide have some concern about an overzealous pass rush. Francois averaged nearly 10 yards every time he pulled the ball down and took off. Just because basic statistics make it appear Francois is a one-dimensional quarterback doesn’t make it so. Advanced metrics tell the true tale.

They similarly complicate the notion of Hurts being the most dangerous on the ground. That’s right – Hurts can throw the ball extremely efficiently, too.

STATS X-Info divides the field into five sections – left sideline, left, middle, right, right sideline. Hurts finished with a better QB rating than Francois in three of those sections last season. It should be noted that Hurts threw 128 passes behind the line of scrimmage compared to Francois’ 63, but Hurts also completed 4 of 7 deep balls (21-plus yards) to the left side and 7 of 10 intermediate passes (11-20 yards) over the middle.

Although Alabama must be aware of Francois’ ability to run, that’s not going to make the Tide play conservatively on the defensive side. They’ll be coming full force at Francois and attempt to blanket the Seminoles’ receivers to make the redshirt sophomore uncomfortable.

As the next graphic indicates, Francois was not as his best when throwing short, quick passes. His 60 percent completion rate in the range of 0-10 yards was below the national average by more than two percent, and he also tossed four of his seven interceptions within that range.

Rather than forcing a short throw under pressure, Francois appears to be best served pulling the ball down and running for yardage, especially given his success in those situations last season. And if he produces results on the ground, it’ll make clear that Hurts and Francois shouldn’t be pigeonholed to their perceived strengths when they each have more to offer than previously thought.

Michigan vs. Florida: Who’s Back, Who’s Gone, and Why it Has the Makings of a Defensive Showdown

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Using STATS X-Info to analyze lost and returning production from two of the nation’s top defenses as the Wolverines and Gators open their season at Jerry World.

Jabrill Peppers won’t be strutting onto the field at AT&T Stadium when “Hail to the Victors” blares to introduce the Michigan Wolverines. You won’t find Caleb Brantley wearing a Florida Gators uniform anywhere in Arlington on Saturday, either.

In fact, plenty of the standouts from two of 2016’s best defenses won’t be on the field when the storied programs kick off their seasons. But after using STATS X-Info to analyze the production lost and returning on both offense and defense for the Wolverines and Gators, there are still plenty of reasons to believe a low-scoring duel awaits.

Proprietary STATS X-Info data provides detailed insights on statistical events not captured via traditional data collection methods. STATS integrates this data with conventional play-by-play information to create exclusive metrics for unrivaled football player analysis in NFL and NCAA competitions.

Take, for example, adjusted completion percentage, which eliminates screen passes and calculates accuracy based only from downfield throws. Michigan’s defense was the nation’s stingiest last season, allowing a measly 39.8 adjusted completion percentage. Of course, Florida’s unit ranked second with a 43.5 ACP against.

The Gators’ defense made life difficult for plenty of quarterbacks in 2016, as opposing passers finished with a combined 93.2 rating – the lowest in the country. As for Michigan’s defense? Third, with a 94.6 QB rating against.

Initial data shows we shouldn’t expect the same from either unit in 2017. And while the production might indicate a dip by season’s end, the opener could provide a solid matchup for both Michigan’s and Florida’s pass defenses when judging quarterback trends.

STATS X-Info calculates the Wolverines are losing 83 percent of their defensive targets with only one returning starter on defense, and the losses of cornerbacks Channing Stribling (46 percent of CB targets) and Jourdan Lewis (26 percent) especially could hurt.

A burn target is defined as a pass intended for a receiver who a player is defending. A burn is marked against a defender when the receiver makes a catch. Dividing burns against burn targets gives the percentage of times a defender was burned in the passing game. Lewis finished second in the nation for lowest burn percentage (26.3) while Stribling was third (28.8).

Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson finished in the top 20 with a burn percentage of 34 after receiving 37 percent of the team’s cornerback targets last season. He’s off to the NFL, but the Gators return a CB with an even better 31.3 burn percentage – senior Duke Dawson, who could make Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight’s afternoon troubling, should Speight beat out John O’Korn for the starting job.

That’s correct – we still don’t know who will be starting under center for Michigan as coach Jim Harbaugh and Florida coach Jim McElwain continue their stalemate. But as far as the Wolverines go, it’s safe to assume Speight has the upper hand to get the nod.

Last season, Speight threw 211 of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, compared to 120 at 11 yards or more. He completed 72.5 percent of his short passes and just 42.5 of his intermediate and deep balls. Speight did throw five TDs on deep balls (21+ yards), but he completed only 15 of 45 total passes of at least 21 air yards .

Coincidently, Dawson is at his best when defending passes at 10 yards or under. He was burned only six times on 24 targets in that range while adding an interception.

Although Speight isn’t extremely accurate on deep balls, he might want to go after Dawson on the right side. Dawson was burned three times on four targets to the deep right for a total of 93 yards. Speight finished 3 for 16 on right-side deep balls last season.

Predicting how Michigan’s secondary will fare against the Gators is a bit more difficult given the Wolverines’ losses, but that’s mainly because McElwain named redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks his starter for Saturday. However, there’s still a good chance last year’s starter Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire see time against the Wolverines.

Del Rio went 5-1 as a starter in 2016 but missed eight games – including Florida’s final five – because of injury. If McElwain gives Del Rio some reps as expected, the junior likely will be keeping the passes short while staying in the pocket – and that’s not just because top receiving target Antonio Callaway is suspended for the opener.

Not only did Del Rio finish 5 for 26 on deep balls last season, he completed only 41.7 percent of his passes from 11 to 20 air yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Those numbers are a bit surprising considering Del Rio made 85 percent of his attempts in the pocket and 72 percent under zero pressure at all.

Del Rio’s numbers drop when he’s forced outside the pocket and under pressure, and it’ll be up to the Michigan defensive line to make him uncomfortable. Losing players like Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow certainly presents an issue for the Wolverines, but sophomore Rashan Gary, a former No. 1 overall recruit, will get a chance to shine on the edge as a full-time starter, and senior Maurice Hurst might be one of the best tackles in the country.

Hurst finished with 4.5 sacks last season, with 3.5 coming on third down. Three of his 7.5 run stuffs were in the red zone.

Stuffing the run might not be much of a problem for Michigan going up against a Florida offensive line that was among the worst in the Power 5 last season. The Gators will need to make great strides towards improvement if they plan to keep the Wolverines off both Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson, who are likely to split carries following the suspension of projected starting running back Jordan Scarlett.

Perine put up solid numbers as a true freshman in limited action last season, running most frequently and efficiently to the left with a quality rush percentage of 68 to that side. That included 4.4 yards before contact when going left, but it’s natural to wonder how those numbers would look with a larger sample size. Florida’s offensive line had an extreme amount of trouble last season as the Gators finished dead last in the SEC in rushing.

That group loses starters Cam Dillard (67 percent of center snaps) and David Sharpe, who took nearly every left tackle snap. Right guard Fred Johnson and right tackle Jawaan Taylor return, but that’s not exactly something to boast considering Florida backs averaged just 2.7 yards per carry running to the right side. That average would’ve been even worse had it not been for Thompson.

The now-senior averaged nearly five yards before being touched and ran his best to the right. Could McElwain juggle his two running backs based on any developing weaknesses from the Michigan defensive line?

 

Michigan will have its own challenges in the running game, although not because of a suspension. The Gators did lose Brantley and Joey Ivie from their defensive front, but standout ends Jabari Zuniga, CeCe Jefferson and Jordan Sherit all return and are prepared to take on the Wolverines’ inexperienced offensive line.

Michigan lost three starters, although Mason Cole is one of the best and most versatile linemen in the Big Ten. Sophomore Ben Bredeson should be joining Cole on the left side at guard and, coincidentally, the left side was the best side for sophomore running back Chris Evans last season.

Evans, who takes over as Michigan’s feature back with De’Veon Smith gone, averaged 11.2 yards on 15 carries to the left and also had impressive numbers running up the middle.

It’s a mystery what Michigan will get from the right side of its line, though, as Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. all try to take steps forward. Unfortunately, the right side was an issue last season, too, as Evans averaged just 2.0 yards per carry on 13 attempts to the right, with an average of 0.7 yards before contact.

Whew, that was a lot of words and numbers. But when you dive into STATS X-Info to preview one of the biggest showdowns during college football’s first full weekend, the metrics begin to tell a more detailed and in-depth story.

Reintroducing J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ Modern Day Ballhawk

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How STATS’ X-Info Data Shows The NFL’s Most Complete Defender Makes the Texans the Right Kind of Toxic

Bring up the term ballhawk, and some people think of those guys who spend their lives chasing foul balls at baseball stadiums. Specify it in a football context, and there’s a bit more money in the unofficial profession.

Names of safeties like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu start to come up, but even that might not be making the best use of the word in today’s NFL. STATS measures such production with a combination of interceptions, passes defensed, forced and recovered fumbles, and tackles for a loss. Ballhawk is one of the simpler metrics in STATS ICE, which uses STATS X-Info data to provide teams and media with an advanced and engaging analytics platform.

With J.J. Watt playing three games in 2016, Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David led the NFL with 27 ballhawks, which is not unlike running the 100 meters while Usain Bolt sleeps through his alarm. Watt had 41 in 2015 – 12 more than the next-best, Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. That’s a comparatively tame gap when considering 2013 when Watt (48) led Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston by 16.

Even this is probably selling Watt short in terms of defensive value.

Everyone knows Watt gets to the quarterback. His 76 career sacks lead football over the past six seasons regardless of that three-game 2016. Dating to the start of 2013 – his first Defensive Player of the Year-winning season – Watt has 50 sacks, but those account for 1.67 percent of his 3,011 snaps, so there must be better ways to measure a defensive end’s production. Dig a bit deeper into X-Info data to consider pressures and stuffs.

Watt led football in pressures in 2015 – by no small margin. His 83 were 21 better than the second-place finisher, Oakland linebacker Khalil Mack. To give an idea of the disparity, Mack (62) and tied-for-10th Muhammad Wilkerson and Everson Griffen (57) were separated by five pressures. In 2014, Watt’s 95 dwarfed Justin Houston’s 57. Add up fourth-place Carlos Dunlap (47) and fifth-place Von Miller (46), and you’re still short of Watt’s pressures.

For stuffs, Watt led the league in 2015 with 21.5, which was three ahead of next-best Ndamukong Suh. For another gap of that size, you have to look down to seventh. You get the idea. But how does it all quantifiably help the Houston Texans win games?

Peruse STATS’ 2017 NFL white paper, and you’ll see the Texans struggled with toxic differential – a telltale metric of success for teams in 2016. Toxic differential defines balance, weighing takeaways and giveaways while tying it to explosive-play ability and the amount of explosive plays allowed. Essentially, it’s balancing turnovers and big plays that have the potential to be game-changing moments.

New England finished atop the NFL with a plus-32 toxic differential. The Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent, Atlanta, finished second at plus-30. See a trend? The Raiders went from tied for last in 2014 (minus-34) to 14th in 2015 (plus-1) to tie for fifth in 2016 (+18) and improved their record from 3-13 to 7-9 to 12-4.

Of last year’s 12 playoff teams, only three had a negative toxic differential. Houston’s -11 was the worst, followed by Detroit (-4) and Miami (-2), and those teams had the three worst records among playoff teams. Making the playoffs from the AFC South didn’t mean much.

It’s conservative to say Watt eliminates big plays from opposing offenses and accounts for takeaways, so things might have come a bit easier in the extremely winnable division had Watt been around for more than three games.

There’s measurably no better player in football on the defensive side of the ball to help that number.

STATS NFL 2017: An Innovative Look into the 2017 Season

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Why did Bill Belichick spend money on a running back? How does toxic differential explain the Patriots’ latest Super Bowl victory? And – hold on a second – what is toxic differential? How valuable was Mike Evans? What does DeSean Jackson do for him and Jameis Winston? What makes Aaron Rodgers – well – Aaron Rodgers?

These are questions that used to only be addressed with inadequate and antiquated metrics. They left those asking the questions with unquantifiable answers that essentially amounted to a pass-fail grade from the expert’s eye test. With STATS ICE and X-Info, anyone settling for that eye test isn’t completing the job.

STATS 2017 Fantasy Football Preview: Utilizing Schedules to Maximize QB Value

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The quarterback position is much easier to plan for in fantasy drafts than a skill position like running back. Injuries come into play much less often, and relevant starters rarely get demoted. Because of this, we often can optimize our QB position by looking at team schedules.

First, I recommend you check out my colleague Sean Koerner’s QB Tiers article. You can see Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are in tiers by themselves, while Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, and Russell Wilson also distinguish themselves from the pack. To get any of these players, however, you’ll have to spend a draft pick within the first six rounds, and this year you may be better served drafting skill position players in those early rounds.

Why? Because we project only a 16-point difference between our No. 8 and No. 19 QBs – less than the difference between Rodgers and Brady, for example. After the run on the initial QB1 types, other managers will scramble to draft remaining guys that are “QB1s” in their eyes, and you can sit tight and get good value. Further, you can look at the NFL schedule, using it to your advantage to pair certain borderline QBs together and patch together the equivalent of a solid QB1.

I’ll be looking at pairings of QBs with ADPs outside of the first six rounds. This excludes Derek Carr, who has a sixth-round ADP. Also, please note that we are quite high on Jameis Winston. We view him as better than Carr, but he is being taken a round and a half later. I’ll be trying to snag Winston on the cheap, but all it takes is one other owner to ruin that plan.

Here are some pairings to serve as backup plans:

Cam Newton (7th round ADP) and Tyrod Taylor (12th round ADP)

We aren’t particularly high on Newton, in part due to his schedule. Atlanta and Tampa should both have very solid pass defenses, and he sees Minnesota outside the division. If you do insist on drafting Newton, I really like pairing him with Taylor to mitigate the tough schedule.

In Week 8 when Cam plays Tampa, Taylor and the Bills play Oakland in what could be a high-scoring affair, relatively speaking. Newton’s Panthers have a bye Week 11, and Taylor has a decent matchup against the Chargers. Then in Week 14 when Carolina faces the Vikings, the Bills go up against Indianapolis.

We project starting Newton or Taylor based on the more favorable matchup each week would lead to productivity roughly equal to that of Matt Ryan, who’s a consensus Top 5 QB.

Marcus Mariota (7th round ADP) and Andy Dalton (13th round ADP)

We really like Mariota with just about any backup, given natural career progression and the number of weapons at his disposal. When it comes to his cheap backup, I love Dalton.

During Mariota’s Week 8 bye, Dalton has a matchup with the Colts (notice we’re targeting them quite a bit). The weeks of Mariota’s two toughest road games – Houston in Week 4 and Arizona in Week 14 – Dalton has two of his easiest matchups against Cleveland and Chicago, respectively.

Together, if you play the guy with the better matchup each week, they equate to about Russell Wilson, who’s going in the fourth or fifth round.

Matthew Stafford (9th round ADP) and Tyrod Taylor (12th round ADP)

There’s no doubt that Taylor is a great QB2 to draft in fantasy, so of course I’d love a duo of Newton and Tyrod, as discussed above. But Newton is relatively expensive, and you can get almost as much value by waiting and drafting Stafford later with Taylor in mind as a backup.

Taylor has an uninspiring matchup against Tampa during Stafford’s Week 7 bye, but when Stafford plays at Green Bay (in cold weather) in Week 9 and at Baltimore in Week 13, Taylor faces the Jets – I dare you to name one of their cornerbacks – and New England in a game that could feature a nice script. What makes this pairing even juicier is that when the Bills have a bye in Week 6, Stafford has perhaps his best matchup of the season at New Orleans.

These two are both cheap and quite complimentary, adding up to just about Russell Wilson’s value if you play your cards right.

Philip Rivers (10th round ADP) and Eli Manning (12th round ADP)

These two will forever be linked after being traded for each other on draft day 2004. They’re also linked here as, in my opinion, the best duo you can find after the first 100 picks.

Rivers is the clear-cut starter here, but he has some tough division games, particularly against Denver in Week 1, and against Kansas City in Weeks 3 and 15. Manning, on the other hand, has a much easier division, with none of his three opponents ranking in the top 10 in any meaningful pass defense category last season.

During Rivers’ three toughest division games, Manning has division games of his own (one against Philadelphia, two against Dallas). Also, during Rivers’ Week 9 bye, Eli gets a nice matchup against the Rams.

These two, if utilized correctly, add up to the overall QB8, though neither is considered a QB1 on his own.

Note that I do like Carson Palmer as a late option. He’s just two years removed from elite status, has a healthier John Brown at his disposal, and he’s being taken in the 13th or 14th round. He has a brutal schedule, however, when paired with any of the non-elite options.

Palmer has the same bye week as Manning, Mariota, and Bortles, and his worst matchup (at Houston) comes during both Winston’s and Newton’s byes. He also plays against Seattle during Carr’s bye. As a result, it’s tough to pair Palmer with anybody but the elite, weekly QB1s.