Sunday, July 21, 2013

QB or not QB: Some thoughts about drafting the most important position

I have a confession to make...I like math.  This seems par for the course, seeing as I am a math teacher, but I wanted to forewarn you: the next paragraph will involve math.

We have been led to believe that the NFL is becoming a more pass-heavy league, which is true (trust me, I did the math) but the change hasn't been as drastic as we've been led to believe.  Ready, here come some numbers and stuff:

I wanted to see how the league has changed over the past 5 years, so I looked up the yardage stats of the top 30 QBs from 2008-2012.  I calculated the mean (average) as well as the standard deviation (for those unfamiliar, the standard deviation is simply the average amount by which data points in a set vary).  So, let's say for a given season, the mean is 3500 yards passing with a standard deviation of 500 yards.  That means if you were to select a QB at random, there is a good chance that the yardage stats for that QB would fall anywhere within 3000-4000 yards.

I also calculated the z-scores for these top 30 QBs.  A z-score is a convenient way of normalizing data into a singular context.  It is somewhat similar to WAR or VORP, advanced baseball statistics that are used to compare a player's effectiveness relative to those of a different era, except way less mathematically complex.  For instance, lets say someone passed for 4000 yards, which used to be a rarity (only 5 people passed for 4000 or more yards in 2010, and by 2012, that total had already risen to 11).  A z-score helps us relate that player's 4000 yard season relative to his peers from that season. 

So, how does one calculate a z-score?  You simply take a data point (in our case, passing yards), subtract the mean from this data point, and divide the different by the standard deviation.  That's it.  The answer you get will always be a small number, usually anywhere from -3 to 3.  What this small number standards for is the number of standard deviations above average that person's yardage total was in relation to other QBs that season.  So, if we use our example from 2 paragraphs above, in which the mean is 3500 yards with a standard deviation of 500 yards, and a player throws for 4000 yards, they would have a z-score of 1.  If they threw for 3000 yards, they would have a z-score of -1. 

Why did I do all this?  Mainly, I wanted to see just how much above average some QBs were in relation to one another.  We all make the mistake of falling into biases, whether from the media or our own viewing of football, about who we think are effective players.  If a player annoys us (such as Tony Romo, who will be making an appearance very soon) we tend to think they are worse than they actually are, whereas if a player wins games dramatically or wins Super Bowls, we tend to think they are better than some of their fantasy peers (Super Bowl victories do not make a great fantasy football QB necessarily). 

So, here come some numbers.  First, let me show you the passing yardage totals from 2008-2012, complete with means and standard deviations.

2008: Mean = 3,236.3 yards, Standard Deviation = 812.8 yards
2009:  Mean = 3,330.8 yards, Standard Deviation = 996.7 yards
2010:  Mean = 3321.8 yards, Standard Deviation = 762.9 yards
2011:  Mean = 3449.5 yards, Standard Deviation = 1044.5 yards
2012:  Mean = 3652.4 yards, Standard Deviation = 885.8 yards

What can we conclude from this?  Well, the mean has certainly risen each year, aside from a nine yard fall from 2009 to 2010.  What also stood out to me was the standard deviation for 2012.  The lower the standard deviation, the less one QB's yardage totals vary from their peers.  So, in a year in which the mean passing yardage was at a five-year high, we also saw the third lowest standard deviation; meaning more quarterbacks were performing at a higher level than in previous years (again, 11 passers exceeding 4000 yards).

Now, as mentioned before, I calculated the z-scores for all of the top 30 QBs over these seasons as well, and I identified which quarterbacks had a z-score of 1 or greater (again, meaning they exceeded the mean by at least the standard deviation amount).  Some people were close with z-scores of 0.9, but no partial credit for this exam.  Also, I highlighted which quarterbacks had seasons of 4000 yards passing, because I think it's fair to say that if your starting fantasy QB hits the 4000 yard threshold, you probably had a productive season.  So, below I have listed only the QBs that fit one or both of the two proposed criteria and have labeled the number of seasons in the past five years in which they have achieved (z-score of 1 or greater, 4000 yards passing).

Drew Bress: (5, 5)
Peyton Manning: (4, 3) *(did not play in 2011)
Tom Brady: (3, 3) *(did not play in 2008 - has it really been five years since Cassel fever?)
Aaron Rodgers: (4, 2)
Philip Rivers (4, 2) *(Remember when Philip Rivers didn't suck?)
Tony Romo (3,2) *(Played minimally in 2010 due to injury, replaced by the immortal Jon Kitna)
Matt Schaub (3, 2) *(was injured for second half of 2011 season, replaced by the more immortal fumbling machine known as Sage Rosenfels, who was then replaced by T.J. Yates)
Matthew Stafford (2,2) *(both of those happened in the past two years because this dude was the Glass Jaw Joe of the NFL for awhile getting injured immediately for 2 straight seasons)
Matt Ryan (2,1)
Ben Roethlisberger (2, 1)
Eli Manning (3, 1)
Jay Cutler (1, 1) *(holy crap, Jay Cutler had the third most yards thrown in 2008?  Ever since Peyton Manning jokingly threw him into a pool at the Pro Bowl and messed up his diabetes monitor, he hasn't been the same)
Josh Freeman/Andrew Luck/Carson Palmer/Cam Newton (1,0)

What does this tell us?  First of all, Drew Brees is by far the most consistent fantasy QB.  He has led the league in yardage three of the past five seasons.  Sure, Manning (the Peyton variety) and Brady were completely out for one season apiece, but they still mathematically would not hit 5,5 like Brees.  Either way, if you have the chance to draft anyone of those three, you're in good shape.

Aaron Rodgers didn't have as many high z-score seasons, but he also adds stats and value with his legs.  And while some people will have crazy awesome games, followed by a dud (that means you Matt Schaub), Rodgers is consistent in getting at least 200 yards and 2 TDs per game.

I was surprised how consistent Rivers had been until last season.  He had a horrid year, and doesn't have the cache of targets he once had, so I'm hesitant to draft him high, but I guarantee some people will sleep on him or forget about him and you could possibly get him as a back-up or mid-round draft steal if you're willing to gamble.

Ah, Tony Romo, everyone's favorite player to hate.  Tony Romo reminds me of my children: you are excited to pick them up and give them a hug, so you lean down, extend your arms towards them, and as you are lifting them up to you shoulders, they inadvertently swing their legs and kick you in the junk.  This is what owning Tony Romo in a fantasy league is like.  You will love him when he throws for 400 yards and 3 TDs in a game.  You will then be immediately nut-punched by some bone-headed play he makes the next week, leading to a 3 interception, multiple fumble debacle.  My all time I can't believe how Tony Romo dicked me over this week story is as follows:  I had been playing my brother-in-law in a highly anticipated match-up.  He was in first place at the time, and I was hoping to score a victory over him.  Our match-up remains tight going into Monday Night Football.  We each have players on the Cowboys, me having Romo, him having either Miles Austin or Dez Bryant.  Well, the fourth quarter rolls around, and there is about a minute left to play, and we are tied.  I've never actually seen a tie in fantasy football because I use fractional points (I love fractional points and I will never understand why people don't use them.  Are you really that afraid of decimals?  You mean to tell me that if a guy runs for 97 yards in a game, he should only get credit for 90 of them, and be rewarded 9, and not 9.7 points?  Fantasy football ain't no Greatest Integer Function (boom, math reference, go look it up kids!).

Anyhow, so there is a minute left, score tied, and my bro-in-law messages me to say it looks like we're going to have our first ever fantasy tie, good game, etc.  Well then, as the game is winding down and most normal humans will take a knee, Tony Romo decided he is no ordinary human.  He is Tony Romo, ex-beau of Jessica Simpson, guy who botched a snap and cost the Cowboys a chance to beat the Seahawks in the playoffs, what could possibly be worse than either of those two things?  He decided that he will do the super-protective kneel down in which he will walk backwards a few yards and THEN take a knee.  Well what does that mean for me?  It means Tony Romo ran for NEGATIVE 1 yard!  That's right, because Tony Romo decided he needed to be extra safe to take a knee, I lost a point and lost the game. 

Yet, as I mentioned, Tony Romo is like my children.  No matter how much Tony disappoints me or gets on my nerves, I still love the guy.  Now don't get me wrong, in terms of actual football, I wouldn't want the guy leading my team at all, he always seems to botch things at the worst possible time.  But in terms of fantasy?  He actually produces!  He has people to throw to (Dez Bryant, who I think will really break out this year, Jason Witten, most prolific tight end last season, Miles Austin (I think he's still on the team) and DeMarco Murray, who if healthy, is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield).  We all hate on Mr. Romo because real life Tony Romo annoys us.  Hell, I was in a league where people left him out there until the 10th round.  10th round!  That's nuts.  Then again, I believe alcohol may have played a role in some people's draft decisions that day, seeing as how one man set out to  make a team of nothing but Johnson's (He actually had a fantastic draft, somehow landing Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Stevie Johnson in successive rounds.  I'm sure we threw in Rudi Johnson and Brad Johnson as all-star Johnson's at their respective positions). 

So, moral of the story: Tony Romo doesn't suck as much as you think.  Look at the numbers. 

Stafford set an NFL record for attempts last season, yet wasn't even the yardage leader, weird.  However, this team definitely wants to pass the ball, there is know way Calvin Johnson only gets 4 TDs againt next year, and with Reggie Bush able to catch balls out of the backfield, he is a solid pickup for QB next year.

Eli Manning wins the Charles Dickens award for performing like the opening lines of "A Tale of Two Cities;" "I played the best first/second half of the season, I played the worst first/second half of the season."  Seriously, I feel like I can never predict when this guy is going to be consistently good.  Eli is anti-Romo; a player who I would much rather have, and has more value, in real life as opposed to fantasy life.

Matt Ryan has been getting better, he has three amazing targets, he's solid, Big Ben is always just outside the top 10 in fantasy QB stats, I would pass on him.

The bottom row is intriguing: I would pass on Palmer, he may put up some numbers throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, but I don't know who else he will be throwing to, and Rashard Mendenhall isn't even a pass-catching back who could help raise his yardage totals.

I like Freeman a lot, I have for a few years now.  The Bucs do have Vincent Jackson now, and Doug Martin, who IS a pass-catching back.  I have been hurt by taking a chance on Freeman in the past, but I think the Bucs will be decent, Freeman does run too, yet I still worry about consistency.  I would use him as a backup.

And now on to Newton and Luck.  While we're at it, let's throw in RGIII, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.  These guys only have one (and in Newton's case) two NFL seasons to their names, so obviously they aren't going to show up in the numbers I did above.  However, any one of these guys I feel is worth taking a gamble on.  They all have crazy upside.  All can actually run with the ball well (Luck is a better runner than people give him credit, akin to Aaron Rodgers).  But which one do you draft?  Bill Barnwell of has coined the phrase 'The Gang of Four' when discussing the four breakouts from last year (no Newton), and has his rankings here.

Since there is not much of a body of work, much of our ranking of these players is on our own speculation about their potential, but also, about their team's potential.  Barnwell also wrote a fantastic piece about some statistical indicators of success in the NFL, and the one that stood out to me like a sore thumb was a team's win-loss record in games decided by one touchdown or less.  The Colts had a 9-1 record in games decided by one touchdown or less.  To summarize Barnwell, most teams regress to the mean the following season, meaning the Colts statistically won't have so many lucky bounces next year.  Additionally, teams with bad records in games decided by one touchdown or less tend to improve their record in these types of games the following season.  Among the lowest in one touchdown or less losses last year (nice alliteration huh?) were the Chargers, Panthers, Lions and Buccaneers (may make you think twice about some doubts surrounding Rivers, Stafford or Freeman).  I have already previously discussed my love of the Panthers for next season, and I think this is yet another stat in favor of my opinion, and in favor of Cam Newton.

Although I love RGIII, I don't see the Redskins making the playoffs next year.  Same with the Colts.  A lot of people love Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, but I can't bring myself to drink the Seattle Kool-Aid just yet.  I think Wilson will be consistent, but not as flashy or have the chance for as much upside as a Kaepernick or Newton.  I would opt for Kaepernick first, then Newton.  The 49ers are legit, I expect them to make the playoffs, and Kaepernick is so much more than a gimmick.  Yes, he runs ridiculously fast, but he throws a beautiful ball (and accurate too).  Again, you really can't go wrong with these guys, but don't forget about the old fogies (gotta love that being 30-ish makes you on the verge of AARP in the NFL) mentioned above who have shown themselves to be consistent for several years running.

Until Next Time,

Davey Dave

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