Looking Back (At When We First Met)
Now that the Super Bowl has passed, and the off-season has begun, we can take the opportunity to look back and review our performance this season. What better way to do this than to borrow our opponent preview format, add some detail, and employ it to analyse our team? I promise I will make a conscious effort not to waffle on about stats (though I am cheating a bit by putting them in lovely tables instead).
As is tradition for these pieces, we start our look at the team with the most important position: QB. The good? By Football Outsiders, he was the 2nd best QB by DYAR, 3rd in EYds and 5th in DVOA and ESPN's QBR, and was the 4th best QB in the league by EPA/dropback. The meh? Goff was the 19th-best QB by PFF passing grade, 20th in PFF offence grade, and 26th in turnover-worthy play percentage. The bad? He ranked 27th in CROE, 28th in FO's ALEX metric, 30th in big-time throw percentage, and 30th in ADoT. What this suggests to me is that Goff made the most of his surrounding cast but still has some improvement to do in terms of making the big plays that are perhaps needed to elevate his standing in the league. This will hopefully come with stability on the line in front of him, an off-season to develop chemistry with Jamo, and a healthy option at the X spot. It also suggests that Goff has good turnover luck this season, so we shouldn't be surprised if he throws more interceptions next year.
Next we turn our attention to the RB room. We had two top 32 RBs in PFF offence grade in Swift (19th) and Jamaal (28th), with Jamaal's grade clearly being brought down by his low receiving and run-blocking grades. A fun factoid is that ST ace CJ Moore has the second-highest PFF rushing grade on the team at 77.7. As for DVOA, Swift narrowly missed the 100 carry threshold for ranking by FO, but Jamaal ranked 26th in DVOA, 22nd in DYAR, and a surprising 6th in EYds. Swift also doesn't qualify for ranking by NFL Pro, but Jamaal does. He is 13th in rushing success rate, 14th in NGS rushing efficiency, 30th in xYPC (expected yards per carry), and 33rd in rushing EPA/attempt. Overall, the backfield has been good this year, even without considering the impact Justin Jackson has on special teams. Jamaal should be a priority re-sign given his success as a power back and consistent ballcarrier, as well as his locker room presence. However, I would not be opposed to drafting a back as insurance for Swift and as a long-term investment to keep the offence churning in future years.
Our offensive line is supposed to be the strength of our attack. However, given the revolving door we had at RG and Jonah Jackson missing a few games, it perhaps missed our lofty expectations. By FO, it was the 7th best line in run blocking and 8th in pass protection. Ragnow was still an elite center, posting a top 5 PFF grade (77.9) despite having a foot injury for most, if not all, of the season. While both Jackson (66.1) and Brown (64.8) both posted starting level grades, both were in the middle of this tier (28th and 33rd out of 77 respectively). Backups Awosika (50.4, would be 69th) and Skipper (44.2, 72nd) both posted grades in the middle of the backup tier. Unfortunately for fans of his, only two guards who met the snap count threshold posted worst grades than Logan Stenburg's 39.6. Both Decker and Sewell posted top-tier grades. Sewell was PFF's 10th-best OT with an 80.6 grade, including a team joint-second-best 76.3 receiving grade. Decker was the 22nd-best tackle in the league by PFF with a 74.4 grade. Similar to Stenburg's situation, only four tackles ranked by PFF graded worse than backup Matt Nelson. Four of the five starters are locked in, but we need a stable consistent option at RG. One can hope it will be one of Vatai or Kraemer, but it might have to come in FA or from the draft. The backups need to be revamped as most of them are out of contract and/or are not good enough, and given the impacts that linemen take, injuries will happen and we need people who can step up and play without too much of a dropoff if we are to challenge next season.
What was a weakness for us last year was turned into a strength this year. Headlining our WR room was the Sun God himself, who was the NFL's SECOND highest-graded WR in the league (90.7 offence grade, 90.4 receiving grade). He was also FO's 9th WR in DYAR, 21st in DVOA, and 6th in EYds. By PFF grades, we had two WR 2 level players in Kalif (72.1 grade, 37th in the league) and Chark (69.6 grade, 45th) and a WR 3 level player in Josh Reynolds (64.1 grade, 79th). Something that perhaps went under-the-radar (due to his injury problems) is how good Cephus played. He got a 68.0 grade from PFF which, if he kept this level of play up across the minimum level of snaps, would have been 55th best in the league. WR 2 level production from someone who is still on their rookie deal is not to be sniffed at, hence why I said on our salary cap podcast that I'd keep Cephus around to fight for a roster spot in training camp. Looking forward to next season, two of the receiving positions are sorted with St. Brown and Jameson Williams presumably locked into starting roles. What the room really needs is a consistent option at the X, whether this comes in FA with a Chark re-signing or getting another player, by drafting a long-term option, or maybe even some combination of the two.
One room that unfortunately perhaps underperformed (at least in comparison to the rest of the offense) is the tight ends. I am grouping Jason Cabinda in this group as he is also classed under the tight ends by the coaches. By PFF grade, only one player posted at least 60.0, which was rookie tight end James Mitchell with a 66.9, which would have been good enough for 22nd in the league if he met the minimum snap count, and was the 4th best grade from a rookie TE this season. The only TE to meet PFF's snap count minimum was Wright, who posted a 54.2 grade (58th out of 73). Ironically, despite being billed as only a receiving threat, Zylstra posted the best run blocking grade of the bunch with a 74.9. Out of the 19 FBs that PFF have graded, Cabinda was the 4th worst in the league with a 48.5 grade. Overall, while most of us can agree that the Hockenson trade was the best move for the team, that tight end is a low-priority position for the team, and that the people mocking us a tight end at 18th overall in the draft need to stop, we need better play from this position next season if our offence is to take the next step.
To ask a silly question with some obvious answers: What went well for the offence? Playcalling for the most part was on-point and innovative. Sewell cemented himself as an elite OT. The Sun God blessed us with over a thousand receiving yards. Jamaal was what Adrian Peterson, CJ Anderson and Blount were supposed to be. Goff was a top 10 QB (and was the best QB in the NFC North).
What needs to improve? We need consistent answers at the X and at RG. Swift needs to remember to follow his blocks. Our tight-end play needs to improve to give us another option when teams focus on our other weapons. Jamo and Goff need to get on the same page. A lifetime contract for Ben Johnson wouldn't go amiss either.
Aside from the Panthers game, our run defence improved as the season went on. Football Outsiders ranked us 18th in run defence for the season. Surprisingly (at least to me), our highest-graded run defender was CB Mike Hughes with an 81.1 grade on 196 run defence snaps. Only ten players posted an above-average grade, though the last of this group only played 1 run defence snap, on which he got an assisted tackle (Saivon Smith, 62.2 grade). The others were the aforementioned Hughes, Barnes (76.8 grade on 153 snaps), Okudah (74.0/324), Hutchinson (68.4/360), Elliott (66.5/321), Rodriguez (66.4/278), Board (64.5/28), Julian Okwara (64.4/73) and Cominsky (62.8/183). Perhaps unsurprisingly given his struggles overall this season, our worst run defender who has more than 100 run snaps was Amani Oruwariye (37.9/175). Given what the coaches want the identity of this team to be, this is something that needs to be worked on in the off-season, especially given how key running the ball is to the offensive identities of the other teams in our division. One can hope that with more time together to build trust, players can focus on their own assignments and keep gap control rather than worrying about what the player beside them is doing. An addition of another tackle who can affect the run as an upgrade to Brockers will hopefully also improve this area of the defence.
According to FO, we were the 19th-best pass rush in the league. The team had 18 players post above average pass rush grades. I'll give you one guess as to who our best pass rusher was according to PFF. If you said Hutchinson, congratulations, you are wrong. The answer is of course James Houston IV, with an 88.2 grade, 26.1% win rate and 17 pressures on 92 rushes. On true pass sets, the best pass rusher was Alim McNeill with a 78.4 grade, 16.1% win rate and 15 pressures on 135 rushes in these situations. Unfortunately for fans of his who are hoping he doesn't become a cap casualty this off-season, the worst pure pass rusher on the team was Romeo Okwara with a 53.5 grade on 69 rushes (6 pressures and a 9.7% win rate). While this can partially be attributed to his coming back from a torn Achilles, given his cap hit and the relatively high number of players on the roster who can play the closed-end spot, Romeo could not be long for the team in my eyes if the team needs to make more room. For the sake of comparison since he is also seen as potentially on the roster bubble, Charles Harris posted a 64.3 grade with 11 pressures and an 8.5% win rate on 152 rushes, and plays the open end spot where the team is comparitvely weaker. Overall, I think we can be happy with the pass rush production from the team, especially from our rookie linemen (Paschal did post a below average 56.0 grade though). If they can build on that and avoid a sophomore slump, and if the team could add another pass rushing threat from the interior, the QBs we face next year may have to pray to be saved from pain.
As for our pass coverage, this is something that needs a lot of work in the off-season. Our best cover player this past season according to PFF was... rookie edge Aidan Hutchinson with a 84.7 grade, allowing 1 catch for 5 yards, nabbing 3 interceptions, and allowing a passer rating of 2.8. The best secondary player (since Cominsky had the second best grade on the team) was Tracy Walker with a 75.4 grade, closely followed by one of my favourite Lions in CJ Moore with a 75.0 coverage grade. Kerby got a 65.0 cover grade, and Elliott got a 64.1. Who was our highest graded coverage corner, I hear you ask. Are you sure you want to know? Can you live with that knowledge? Because it's Will Harris. Yep, that Will Harris. No, I'm not making it up. He led all of our corners with a 66.9 coverage grade. Okudah graded out at 55.4, Jacobs at 54.5, Mike Hughes at 51.4, and Chase Lucas at 31.8. Seeing these numbers, it is perhaps no shock that we're all calling out for at least two additions at corner, maybe even three if one of these is a slot/safety hybrid like a Brian Branch, Chris Smith or Jammie Robinson. We desperately need to overhaul this room like we have the WR, LB and DL positions over the past few years. This could be a make-or-break year for Aaron Glenn. If he is able to turn this secondary around, he could finally get the HC position he wants next year. If not, he could be out of Detroit and into the queue at the Job Centre.
What went well? We saw considerable improvement as the season went on. We got production out of most of our rookies and our FA acquisitions (including Chris Board who I feel gets unfairly dogged on because he didn't play many snaps when he was actually our highest graded linebacker and was a contributor on ST as well). We had good gameplans for some teams like the Giants and Green Bay. We have a pass rush for the first time in nearly ten years. We have two safeties capable of starting and could resign Elliott to make this three.
What needs to improve? There were games where we couldn't stop a nose bleed, or we let teams back into games because we switched off (Week 2 against Washington springs to mind). We really need to improve the cornerback room if we are to take the step to being a decent defence. We need to get another starter in the interior of the defensive line as well as re-signing Buggs and Jones to provide depth. We need to work out who on the staff could replace Glenn if either the best or worst case scenarios happen.
Our snap leaders on special teams were our aces Chris Board (356 snaps, 78.1 grade), Antony Pittman (358, 62.3 grade), and Josh Woods (319, 91.0 grade). These were the only players to log over 300 snaps on ST, and the only players to get over 200 special teams snaps were Justin Jackson (251, 42.1 grade) and CJ Moore (222, 81.5 grade). Only nine players who were on the 53-man roster at one point or another did not log a single ST snap; Goff, Sudfeld, Swift, Jamaal Williams, Chark, Benson, Hockenson, Demetrius Taylor, and Saivion Smith.
Our relatively poor performance kicking between the posts could be put down to the inconsistency we've had at the kicker position. Both Badgley (33 attempted, 63.5 grade) and Seibert (12 attempted, 58.2 grade) were perfect on extra points, but Eberle missed 2 of his 4, dragging the percentage down. Inversely, Eberle was perfect on field goals, but Seibert made 60% of his 5 field goals, and Badgley made 83.3% of his 24. The only thing that could improve the kicking game moving forward is consistency in personnel that we have been missing over the past two seasons.
Fox earned himself a 55.3 punting grade on his 52 punts. 15 of these landed in the 20, 3 went for touchbacks, 3 went out-of-bounds, 7 were downed by the coverage team and 9 were fair caught. 57.7% of his punts were returned for an average of 10.4 yards. He averaged 4.23 seconds of hangtime on his punts. Despite his relatively poor grade, Fox is still one of the best Field Position Optimisation Specialists in the league and should be viewed as such. Proof of this is his 77.7 grade on his 65 kickoffs, more than 10 points higher than the next highest (Seibert with 63.6 grade on 18 attempts). Badgley earned a 60.0 grade on his 2 kickoffs for context. Keeping Fox on kickoffs is probably the best move for the team next year.
Kalif returned 20 punts this season, earning himself a 74.1 grade from PFF. PFF credits 8 players with at least 1 kick return, though 3 of these were for no gain and were by players I cannot remember actually lining up to return a kick so I will disregard these. The highest-graded kick returner was also Kalif, who returned 2 kicks for 65 yards and a 73.4 grade. The most used kick returner was Justin Jackson, who took 23 kicks for 613 yards and a 69.3 grade. The worst-graded returner was USFL star Maurice Alexander, who took 6 kicks for 146 yards and a 56.5 grade. Overall, we can perhaps get an upgrade on Jackson in free agency or perhaps grab a rookie late to fill this role, but Kalif has solidified himself in the punt return role at a bare minimum.
There were definite positives to this season, even if we hadn't tripled our win total from the previous season. To settle for what we have would be to go backwards though, especially with how open the North appears to be for us next season. The Bears are still largely devoid of talent, the Vikings are massive frauds, and Kaaron is keeping Green Bay in the dark while he sits in the literal dark. If we can add some more talent and our young pieces take the next step, a first divisional title in thirty years is not out of the question, and a first playoff win since 1991 would also not be impossible. We make it to the postseason dance, anything is on the table. I'm not saying book your tickets to Nevada for the Super Bowl now, but our chances of making it are a lot better right now than they were twelve months ago. That's all we can ask for though, right?
How do you think our season went? Do any of the stats surprise you? Who or what is the one thing you think needs to be Dan and Brad's main priority in this off-season?
What should be our main priority in the off-season?
- Shoring up the secondary
- Stability on the interior of our lines
- Retaining internal free agents
- Something else (let us know below)
Explanations of Terms Used:
EYds- "Effective Yards (EYds) translate DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. This provides an easy comparison: in general, players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate, while players with fewer Effective Yards than standard yards played worse than standard stats would otherwise indicate. Effective Yards are not the best way to measure total value because they are more dependent on usage than DYAR."
ALEX- "ALEX represents Air Less EXpected on third downs, the average difference between the length of the quarterback's throw and the distance needed for a new set of downs. The number listed here only includes third downs and is not adjusted for passes thrown away or batted down."
True Pass Set- (I really wish PFF would put out a sentence or two to explain this better than I can...) A true pass set is a play where the offence does not throw a screen, use play action, roll out the QB, the QB has between 2 and 4 seconds to throw, and the defence sends 4 rushers.
Note: EPA/pass rate in @JosephJefe charts calculated by formations shown, filter of >4% of plays used
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