Lack of Attention to Analytics: How a Team Misunderstood a Starting-Caliber Player, Cut Him and Overpaid to Replace Him

By Warren Sharp

{This article contains excerpts from the Amazon bestseller, Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview. Get a copy of the 252-page full color book from Amazon or the PDF here.}

We all have been guilty of misplacing something.  But it’s rare for a NFL team to misplace a starting-caliber player.  To have him lost in a heap of reserves.  Even more rare would be to cut a player just one year after drafting him, when he was their #1 most successful player in that year.  There is only one way this possibly happens:  if that team isn’t properly studying analytics.

The Seattle Seahawks drafted RB Alex Collins in the 5th round of the 2016 draft.  One week before the start of their 2017 season, the Seahawks cut Collins.  In his rookie year with the team, Collins averaged 4.0 YPC and caught all 11 of his targets.  But he shared a busy backfield which featured Christine Michael, Thomas Rawls, Collins and CJ Prosise.  In 2016, the Seahawks spent their 3rd round pick on Prosise.  The following year, the Seahawks spent a 7th round pick on RB Chris Carson and acquired RBs Eddie Lacy and Mike Davis in free agency.  If it sounds confusing, it was.  Seattle didn’t have much of a clue as to who was coming or going.  They stuck players in there, hope they played well, but didn’t properly evaluate their performance, and then rolled the dice on a new crop.  Which brings us back to Collins.

Using just traditional stats, Collins averaged 4.0 YPC and 7.6 YPA.  The only RB with more YPC was Prosise.  The only RB to record more YPA was Prosise.  Collins’ per-play metrics outperformed starters Michael and Rawls, albeit on fewer attempts.  But its not until we dig into more advanced metrics as well as take some slices through the data that we discover the true value of Collins which Seattle never understood.

Seattle probably didn’t realize that Collins led the team with a 75% rushing success rate in the first half of games during the regular season (63% including the playoffs).  They probably didn’t realize that because they gave him 21 carries in the 4th quarter of games (2nd most on the team) and in these games when Seattle was up big (they went 10-5-1 that year), Collins gained just 3.1 YPC and posted a 24% success rate.

Seattle also probably didn’t realize that Collins was their most successful early down target last year (min 3 targets),  producing an 88% success rate and gaining 8.1 YPA.  But Seattle rarely threw to RBs on early downs, so they likely didn’t value this production.

Collins rolled over his productivity into obvious passing situations, delivering a team-best 63% success rate on third-down targets.  And he averaged 5.9 YPC on third-down runs.

In the first three quarters of games, Collins led the 2016 Seahawks in combined run-catch success rate, recording 58% success.  He was more successful than all receivers or running backs.

But because Seattle likely didn’t study the analytics as much as they should have, they signed Eddie Lacy, re-signed Rawls, drafted Chris Carson and returned Prosise as the four backs on their 53-man roster.

Collins was snagged by the Ravens, first to their 2017 practice squad, then to their active roster after week 1.  It still took time for the Ravens to realize how valuable Collins so quickly became. Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Ravens faced the NFL’s 13th-toughest schedule of run defenses.  Collins didn’t play on third downs, but he recorded 6.0 YPC and a 45% success rate on early down-runs in Weeks 1-7.

The tide turned in Week 8 against the Dolphins, when Collins torched Miami for 6.1 YPC and a 59% success rate compared to starter Buck Allen’s 3.0 YPC with 43% success. Collins took over from that point forward, averaging 4.1 YPC with a 53% success rate on 150 attempts despite facing the NFL’s seventh-toughest run-defense schedule from Week 8 on.

Overall in 2017, Collins’ 50% rushing success rate ranked fourth among 32 running backs with at least 150 carries, trailing only Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dion Lewis. And Collins faced the league’s eighth-hardest run-defense schedule. Elliott and Lewis both faced easier-than-average slates. Collins’ 4.6 YPC average ranked fifth among those 32 backs.

It was tremendous efficiency relative to Collins’ situation. He wasn’t playing with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, or the Cowboys’ offensive line. Collins tore it up with Joe Flacco, Marty Mornhinweg, and the league’s most-injured line blocking for him. And their tight end corps – a big factor in run blocking – was sixth-most injured across the league.

These factors also hurt Baltimore’s passing game, which was so inept it ranked seventh worst in efficiency despite facing the NFL’s third-softest pass-defense slate. Thanks to Collins, however, Baltimore didn’t need to throw as often as it had in recent years. The Ravens dropped from passing on 67% of plays to just 56% and finished 5-2 after their Week 10 bye. And the Ravens got Collins for free after just one year in the league, in which he was Seattle’s most efficient offensive player.

The Seahawks simply didn’t know what they had.

Seattle’s Run Game in 2017 and 2018 Draft

While both Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael had over 45% Success Rates and 3.7 YPC in 2016, none of Seattle’s 2017 backs with 50-plus carries had anything better than a 31% success rate or 3.3 YPC. Seattle’s early-down run game was terrible with a 31% success rate, which was the league’s worst rate and 13% below average.

Despite their early-down rushing inability, the Seahawks called run plays within 2% of the NFL average, which inevitably put them in difficult positions on third down, where they had the league’s fourth-worst to-go average at 7.9 yards.

Working behind a poor offensive line, the Seahawks run game was absolutely miserable.  Newly acquired starter Eddie Lacy delivered 2.6 YPC and a 29% success rate, including 26% success on early downs.  Mike Davis was moved from the practice squad to the active roster in mid-November, and delivered 3.3 YPC and a 28% success rate.  Thomas Rawls averaged just 2.7 YPC and a 31% success rate.

Both Lacy and Rawls are no longer with Seattle.  With only one pick inside the first 75 players, the Seahawks took that single pick and used it on RB Rashaad Penny.  We won’t discuss the other holes Seattle has, both offensively and defensively, merely the fact that because Seattle botched the 2017 offseason RB market, they felt compelled to spend such a high value pick on Penny.

Collins’ 2018 Outlook

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, reports are there isn’t much question that Alex Collins is their feature back.  He added five pounds of muscle and has reported to camp at 205 lbs, and unlike 2017, in 2018 Collins will get to run behind All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda.

Collins finished 2017 at RB16 despite not even being on the Ravens’ roster until Week 2, and not becoming Baltimore’s starter until Week 10. OC Mornhinweg showed last year that he won’t pass just to pass, dropping from the 2nd highest pass rate in one-score games in 2016 to league average in 2017.

Collins went from averaging 15 snaps per game in Weeks 2-7 to averaging 32 from Week 8 onward. The Ravens faced the NFL’s seventh-toughest run-defense schedule during that stretch, yet Collins registered a sturdy 53% success rate while handling 150 of the Ravens’ 235 carries.

The Ravens finished 9-7 despite going 2-5 in one-score games.  The Ravens project to have a softer 2018 schedule – increasing the probability of more run-friendly game scripts – and Baltimore’s run-defense slate goes from eighth toughest to tenth easiest.

Check out the 2018 Football Preview book now at Amazon or in PDF to see more ways for the Seahawks and Ravens to improve their efficiency, dive into my outlook for their 2018 season, and to check out the player Evan Silva thinks has the best fantasy outlook in 2018.

“There are so many preseason NFL previews available that offer fans insight into the season, however, few dig as deep as Warren Sharp’s Football Preview, with a unique view of what really matters during the season.  Sharp’s detailed approach is a must read for any football fan–and it’s one of my main summer reads.”

– Michael Lombardi, 3-time Super Bowl Champion, working with Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh & Al Davis

 

“Warren’s preview exemplifies the use of analytics and information in a way that should be interesting to any fan.  It is more in depth than many teams in the NFL are using today. Every GM and coach would serve themselves well to read the analysis of their team. They would both learn something and immediately appreciate the benefit of the information. Some still live in a world where they don’t know what they don’t know. This has become a crowded field, but no one presents it better, and breaks down what it means better than Warren.”

– Joe Banner, Longtime Philadelphia Eagles President and former Cleveland Browns CEO

“Warren Sharp’s Football Preview is the only book that will have something for everyone. It has illustrations and graphics for the visual person. It covers the analytical part of the game in many ways differently than I have seen. It has trends for people who like to bet the games, as well as philosophical thoughts on things that have happened in the past and how they might affect the future of the game. This book breaks down each team by every category imaginable and describes exactly what they did in every situation. If you coach any level of football, from youth to the NFL, you will assuredly receive valuable information… You won’t want to put it down.”

– Kevin Kelley, Head Football Coach & 7-time State Champion at Pulaski Academy

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