Aaron Schatz: Football Outsiders

Aaron Schatz goes with the most transcendent player available. Photo by Mike Morbeck.
Aaron Schatz goes with the most transcendent player available. Photo by Mike Morbeck.

Twitter: @FO_ASchatz

Pick Summary

  • Round 1: WR Calvin Johnson
  • Round 2: LB Patrick Willis
  • Round 3: CB Morris Claiborne
  • Round 4: DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan
  • Round 5: LG Mike Iupati
  • Round 6: DE/OLB Nick Perry
  • Round 7: OT Riley Reiff
  • Round 8:WR Justin Blackmon
  • Round 9: TE Jermichael Finley
  • Round 10: DT Devon Still
  • Round 11: OT Michael Oher
  • Round 12: CB Alfonzo Dennard
  • Round 13: OLB/DE Shea McClellin
  • Round 14: S Louis Delmas
  • Round 15: S Brandon Hardin
  • Round 16: G Amini Silatolu
  • Round 17:
  • Round 18:
  • Round 19:
  • Round 20:
  • Round 21:
  • Round 22:

Pick Details

Round 1, Pick 18: Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver

This is hard. There is a reason why the NFL doesn’t just cut everybody and have a draft of this type. The talent curve at quarterback, the most important position, is so steep that there’s a huge advantage for the folks to drafted at the top of the first round. I was hoping Matt Ryan or Eli Manning would fall to me, and they didn’t. I probably would have taken Flacco next, but he went. While quarterback is the most important position, here’s what I feel I’m left with:

  • Very good quarterbacks about to hit their mid-30’s and decline. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this weekend, I referred to Tony Romo as possibly the most underrated player in the NFL. He’s actually one of the top quarterbacks in the league over the last few years in the fourth quarter of close games — unless those games are on national television. However, he’s also going to be 33 years old this season.
  • Quarterbacks with good advanced stats who aren’t as popular with scouts and likely benefit heavily from talent around them.
  • Quarterbacks who scouts really like, but who are in terrible situations. As a stat analyst rather than a scout, it’s difficult for me to figure out how much of their struggles are their fault versus the issue of lack of talent on the rest of their offenses.

I guess I just didn’t feel comfortable picking any of those guys over any of the other guys, so I’m going to hope that at least one quarterback who does not suck is still there when we come back to me in round two.

So what then? Well, I’m a great believer in “building from the lines out.” However, there isn’t an offensive lineman in the league who I believe is dominant enough to be chosen this early. I considered a couple of war daddies and a couple of great pass rushers, but in the end I had to go with the position (other than quarterback) where there is the biggest gap right now between the best player in the league and an average starter. Before the ACL injury to Darrelle Revis, it would have been cornerback. After the Revis injury, it’s wide receiver. Calvin Johnson totally changes the defensive game plan. He has led the NFL in value over replacement by our DYAR stats for two straight seasons and he’s still just 28 years old. Detroit was eighth in offensive DVOA this year even though:

  • Their offensive line is unimpressive.
  • Their running backs are unimpressive.
  • Matthew Stafford regressed with some weird mechanical problems.
  • Their young, promising, second-year receiver (now gone) was a jackass who, to be blunt, needs psychotherapy and medication.
  • By the end of the year, injuries left the Lions doing things like starting Kris Durham and throwing passes to Brian Robiskie.

I had an NFL exec tell me at the Sloan conference that he thinks that wide receivers may be just like running backs — they’re fairly interchangeable except for a handful of transcendent talents. Calvin Johnson is the most transcendent talent at the position.

Aaron Schatz believes in the intangibles of football players. His second pick, Patrick Willis, is an example. Photo by The Brit_2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/26686573@N00
Aaron Schatz believes in the intangibles of football players. His second pick, Patrick Willis, is an example. Photo by The Brit_2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/26686573@N00

Round 2, Pick 47: Patrick Willis, Linebacker

My favorite remaining pass rushers and defensive tackles are over 30, so I’m going to build my defense around the best linebacker in the NFL, who will still be only 28 years old next year. I don’t think I need to go find advanced stats to explain to people how good Willis is, right? He can easily play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, depending on the direction I decide to go once I see how the value in the draft is shaking out.

I also can see Willis as the locker room leader of my team for a decade, much like Ray Lewis before him. Just because I’m a stat guy doesn’t mean I don’t believe in intangibles. I just don’t let them overwhelm the objective metrics.

Schatz goes with, Claiborne the second-year corner from LSU as his future shutdown guy. Photo by Crawford Orthodontics.
Schatz goes with, Claiborne the second-year corner from LSU as his future shutdown guy. Photo by Crawford Orthodontics.

Round 3, Pick 79: Morris Claiborne, Cornerback

My original plan was to go cheap on corners and try to build a Tampa-2 defense; with so many teams playing 3-4 now, it seemed like there was a market inefficiency there. But after pondering the players chosen while I was en route to Hawaii (eat my sunshine, suckers) I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to go cheap on corners. There were no established shutdown corners left, but there was still one player with a very good chance of becoming a shutdown corner: Morris Claiborne. Last year’s sixth-round pick out of LSU was considered the hands-down best defensive player in the draft by a lot of scouts. Do I have fancy Football Outsiders game charting stats to show you how good he was as a rookie? Nope, because he wasn’t that good as a rookie.

But that’s okay. Occasionally rookie cornerbacks have a breakout season right away, but it usually takes them time to mature and learn how to play against NFL-quality receivers. By Football Outsiders game charting stats, Darrelle Revis was an average cornerback in his rookie year, and Patrick Peterson was below average. Each one was among the top ten corners in the league by his second season. It’s hard to think of an NFL position with a steeper learning curve than cornerback, other than maybe quarterback, and if 2012 was any indication, you learn how to pass to NFL receivers faster than you learn how to cover them.

So add to my defense a player who by 2014 will be just 24 years old, very likely to be one of the top ten corners in the NFL and reasonably likely to be one of the top five. In fact, I would say that between age and injury status, there’s a 50-50 chance that Claiborne will be more valuable than Darrelle Revis by 2015. As for advanced stats, well, they’re more likely to help me pick off value in the 15th round than they are in the third.

The face may belong on a soap commercial but Schatz values Kerrigan for his relentless motor. Photo by Keith Allison.
The face may belong on a soap commercial but Schatz values Kerrigan for his relentless motor. Photo by Keith Allison.

Round 4, Pick 113: Ryan Kerrigan, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

Once I had an anchor in the middle of my defense and a (hopefully) shutdown-cornerback-to-be, the next thing I needed was some pass rush. Ryan Kerrigan had 8.5 sacks this year despite not having Brian Orakpo to draw attention on the other side. We haven’t finished cleaning up our game charting from the season yet, but as of now his 28 solo hurries put him tied for fourth with J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith. (The shock here is that there is a category this year where J.J. Watt did not finish in first place.) Kerrigan was also just 24 last year, giving me another young piece as I’m concentrating on building a long-term winner here even though my team might not be a Super Bowl contender in the first year or in any Madden simulation.

Round 5, Pick 144: Mike Iupati, Guard

Yes, I would have loved to have taken a tackle before a guard, but a run on tackles meant that when we hit this pick, 17 different tackles were off the board. Iupati is probably one of the five best interior linemen in the league, and he’s definitely the best interior lineman in the league under the age of 27. Good luck to left defensive ends and left outside linebackers around the league, because when it’s time to move the ball on the ground, we’re going to pull, pull, pull, and pull some more.

Schatz focuses on youth with Nick Perry (above) and Riley Reiff. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.
Schatz focuses on youth with Nick Perry (above) and Riley Reiff. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.

Round 6, Pick 179: Nick Perry, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

Did he have a great rookie year? No. But he wasn’t lousy either, with two sacks in six games. And what, you want to judge a pass rusher solely on six rookie games playing through a wrist injury? He wasn’t a slam-dunk perfect prospect like Von Miller, but Perry still came out as the best pass-rushing prospect in the 2012 draft according to our SackSEER projection system.

Round 7, Pick 207: Riley Reiff, Left Tackle

Continuing a theme, here’s another player who wasn’t fabulous as a rookie — in fact, he played primarily as a sixth lineman in heavy packages — but has tons of promise as an athletic left tackle, the consensus second-best tackle prospect from the 2012 draft. You want to bug me about arm length? Yeah, his arms aren’t very long. They measured 33 1/4 at the combine. But while short arms are a detriment, but they are far from a deal breaker

  • Michael Roos: 33 5/8
  • Rodger Saffold: 33 5/8
  • Sam Baker: 33 1/8
  • Jake Long: 32 7/8
  • Joe Thomas: 32 1/2

Yeah. Not a deal breaker.

Blackmon opposite Calvin Johnson looks like a great situation in the the making for a quarterback. Photo by ShutterkingIKT
Blackmon opposite Calvin Johnson looks like a great situation in the the making for a quarterback. Photo by ShutterkingIKT

Round 8, Pick 242: Justin, Blackmon, Wide Receiver

FO assistant editor Danny Tuccitto and I were at the Week 10 Indianapolis-Jacksonville game, and watching the way the Jaguars used Justin Blackmon was mind-blowing bordering on hilarious. Blackmon literally ran the same eight-yard out pattern over and over all game. By the fourth quarter, we were calling it before the snap… “Here comes the eight-yard out by Justin Blackmon!” And there it was!

Well, apparently, someone in Jacksonville got the memo. The next week, the Jaguars started to use Blackmon all over the route tree instead of having him do the same thing over and over. The average “air yards” length of his targets went from 9.3 yards to 12.1 yards. It turned around his season, which was awful before that point.

  • Weeks 1-10: -34.6% DVOA, 8.6 yd/rec, 44% catch rate, 2.1 YAC.
  • Weeks 11-17: 1.2% DVOA, 14.5 yd/rec, 52% catch rate, 6.0 YAC.

I suppose this could have something to do with the switch from Blaine Gabbert to Chad Henne in Week 12, but I don’t think so. Take out Blackmon’s numbers, and Gabbert was better than Henne last season.

Megatron plays flanker for my team, and Blackmon split end. Facing either single coverage or a zone, Blackmon should be able to use his strength to shield his defender and consistently move the chains with 8-15 yard gains.

Blackmon goes with my general strategy of building a team for the long term. In fantasy baseball, there’s this idea of the “year-after prospect.” Players bid up big-name minor leaguers, and those players often disappoint as rookies. But it isn’t like their talents went anywhere. The second or third year, those same players are often underrated, can be had relatively cheap, and often will finally live up to their potential. Four out of my first eight players are 2012
first-round picks, in what is essentially a football version of this strategy. You can find value up and down the NFL draft, but there’s no doubt that significantly more Pro Bowl-level players come out of the first round than any other round. These players could bust, sure, but there’s also a very strong chance that Claiborne, Perry, Reiff, and Blackmon will be better than half the players picked ahead of them at the same positions, maybe even as early as 2014.

Finley may be a problem, but he presents his share. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.
Finley may be a problem, but he presents his share. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.

Round 9, Pick 271: Jermichael Finley, Tight End

Nobody’s quite sure if his head is screwed on straight, but Andy Benoit wrote here about how Finley gives defensive coordinators headaches. Figuring out how to cover both Megatron and Finley will give them horrible nightmares, and should also open up tons of room for Justin Blackmon to do his thing and be the league’s best possession receiver.

Finley struggled early last season but, like Blackmon, improved significantly in November and December: he had -11.5% DVOA and 63 percent catch rate before Green Bay’s bye in Week 10, but 27.5% DVOA and 78 percent catch rate afterwards.

I was considering Kyle Rudolph, who is a better blocker and was FO’s big breakout pick going into last season, but I decided to jump at the chance to add Finley’s raw talent here. I should be able to get a good blocking tight end later in the draft to add to my two-tight end offense, and I’ll trust the FO advanced stats to find me a good blocker who is quietly an above-average receiver.
Round 10, Pick 305:  Devon Still, Defensive Tackle

More young talent. This sets my defense up as a standard 4-3 with Kerrigan and Perry playing defensive end rather than linebacker, although Kerrigan can still use a two-point stance if he prefers. Still will play three-tech and if he develops properly we should be bringing pressure with the front four without blitzing all the time. I was planning on taking Bryan Bulaga until he went one pick before this. Still gives me more value over replacement than the remaining right tackles I could take here.

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One response to “Aaron Schatz: Football Outsiders”

  1. The question of how much to value receivers this day is really interesting to me; in a pass happy era even small differences in caliber of receiver could make a big difference. And keep in mind how hard scouting and projecting receivers coming out of college is, notoriously one of the harder positions to project. That would drive the value of a receiver you know is elite even more. But at the same time, are these great passing offenses really because of unheralded receivers like James Jones or Lance Moore or to a lesser extent Wes Welker. Also, how much do qb’s influence how good receivers are(what doesn’t get talked about with someone like Eli Manning is how much better he makes his receivers—Victor Cruz is a great ex and someone like Plaxico Burress who was largely thought of as an underacheiver before his last few years in New York)

    It’s incredibly difficult to separate how much an elite passing game is due to a quarterback and how of it is due to the receivers? We all agree quarterbacks make receivers better, but it’s the reverse that is a bit more in question when it comes to great receivers and good quarterbacks. I tried looking at some good qb/great wr and great qb/good wr combos of the past few years to see the results but its a) incredibly subjective b) hard to determine how much of each determined the success or lack their of a team

    2012 Falcons: We can all agree the receivers were amazing(Gonzalez, Julio Jones, Roddy White) and the QB is very good but not at the level of Brady or Rodgers: result— a very very good passing game and offense but not at the level of the top tier.
    2012 Packers: Great QB, good not great receivers due to injury—Jennings never the same, Nelson hurt much of the year—lots of Randall Cobb and James Jones, not exactly whom people would call top tier receivers before the season–result: Very good passing game but not great(and Rodgers not playing like he did in 2011 had something to do with it).
    2010 Patriots: Great QB, receivers with flaws(no deep threat, rookie tight ends, tons of Deion Branch on the outside)—result—phenomenal offense the 2nd half of the regular season but one that got “figured out” if you want to call it that in the playoffs.
    2010 Chargers: Great year from a QB, injury prone Antonio Gates, no Vincent Jackson most of the year, injured Malcolm Floyd, lots of Sevi Ajuritotuu: Result: A really good passing game, one that feasted off an easy schedule, but nonetheless, a really good passing game.
    2011/2012 Steelers: Some very good receivers with Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, and a very good QB but not a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers: Result: A good passing game but an inconsistent one.
    2009 Saints: Phenomenal year from the QB, lots of weapons but a group that nobody by itself would call great; Reggie Bush, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston: Result: An offense that was unstoppable most of the year en route to an SB(sean payton’s influence was also major).

    So what I can say is a great QB and good not great receivers can still do alot of damage. Also the biggest thing I can take away is that really good receivers but good not great quarterback means often a good not great passing game. But how much is the impact vs a great QB and great receivers vs great QB and good receivers? It’s really hard to say, so many factors. Ultimately here’s what I take away from all this; good receivers with a superstar quarterback won’t gurantee a consistently dominant top top tier passing game. You can certainly win a super bowl without one, but if your building around your QB and offense you often don’t have the defense to compensate if your offense isn’t super. So I think receivers are important, I don’t think they are RBs, but the degree to which you can get away without great receivers I’m still not sure and I’m not sure there is a great way to analyze it as of right now.

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