The NFL has a penalty problem, and it’s not really a secret.
Up until now, most of the discussion has centered on the referees, and justifiably so. But using data from Sports Info Solutions, we can also get a good sense of which teams and players have been affected the most by this year’s penalty boom.
To see which teams have benefitted the most overall, we can calculate a team-level plus/minus. Essentially, what is the difference in Expected Points Added (EPA) of the penalties a team has taken, and penalties taken by teams against them, through Week 10 (so the Steelers-Browns Thursday Night Football game is not included).
The Lions’ minus-17.4 EPA differential on defense is far and away the worst mark in the league, a full seven points worse than the next closest team. The Lions defense has taken the fifth-most penalties in total, but opposing offenses have only been called for 22 penalties against the Lions, tied for the lowest number in the league.
And things get even worse on third and fourth down. The Lions defense has been penalized 15 times on third and fourth down this season, the most in the league, compared to five for opposing offenses. Overall, this has netted a little over 18 EPA for opposing teams.
None of this is to say that the league is out to get the Lions. From year to year, there’s little to no correlation in a team’s Penalty +/-. The Lions have just been on the wrong end of a strange year in penalties.
The center of attention in the offseason and the crux of the NFL’s current problems is pass interference. While PI hasn’t seen the jump other penalties have, the constant slow motion replays have made it a consistent talking point all season.
Most Value from Drawing Pass Interference, 2019
Mike Evans has been the best in the league at drawing PI in terms of total penalties, yards, and total value, and seeing his name at the top isn’t surprising. His 1,369 intended air yards are far and away the most in the NFL, with his average target coming almost 16 yards down the field. His average pass interference occurred almost 19 yards down the field. Evans is the poster child for the ancillary benefits of being aggressive downfield.
Rounding out the top five, Deon Cain is probably the biggest surprise on this list. His 99 yards gained from drawing pass interference almost double his total season output from catching the ball (4 for 52), and he has done so on only 16 targets.
Most Value Lost From Called Pass Interference, 2019
On the defensive side, Carlton Davis of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers takes the top spot. His 7.2 EPA on called Pass Interference is almost a full point higher than Darryl Roberts, and his 70 yards conceded is second highest to Xavier Rhodes. Davis hasn’t had a bad season overall, but playing on a defense that is among the league’s best against the run has caused teams to target him downfield more regularly.
Rhodes’s inclusion is also notable. After tallying 32, 38, and 22 Points Saved in his last three seasons, Rhodes has struggled mightily in 2019. His completion percentage when targeted of 78% is the worst among corners, and his two Points Saved ranks 78th. Tack on the league-leading 75 yards conceded on pass interference and it’s been a forgettable season for Rhodes.
Maybe the most frustrating development has been the increase in holding penalties in 2019. Especially early in the season, there was a clear emphasis from the league to crack down on holding. This has also spread to things like illegal blocks, illegal shifts, and ineligible player downfield, all of which have seen some of the most dramatic increases among penalties in 2019.
With that in mind, we can look at which players on offense have taken the brunt of it.
Most Value Lost on Offensive Penalties, 2019
The regression of the Rams’ offensive line has been well-documented this season, and is exacerbated by the struggles of Jared Goff, so it’s not entirely surprising to see Rams tackle Rob Havenstein atop the list. His linemate Andrew Whitworth also landed just outside the top five losing 7.2 EPA on eight penalties.
If you look on a per-snap basis, the leader becomes Bills tight end Lee Smith, who has managed eight penalties for minus-6.5 EPA on only 230 offensive snaps. Taylor Lewan, who was notably critical of his own penalty-taking following a win against the Chiefs last weekend, comes in second with nine penalties and minus-7.8 EPA on 363 offensive snaps.
Most Value Gained from Drawing Holds, 2019
On holding calls in particular, SIS also charts which defensive player drew the penalty. Chandler Jones has been incredibly disruptive all season. Through ten games, Jones has racked up 11.5 sacks, 36 pressures, and leads all defensive linemen in Total Points Saved. His 7.9 EPA from drawn penalties is more than two points better than Cameron Jordan, and his 5.4 EPA from drawing penalties on third down alone would still rank as the second-highest. It’s yet another stat to consider in Jones’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy.