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Projecting running backs, receivers and spread quarterbacks with Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders

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This year's Football Outsiders Almanac has hit the stands and it as great as ever. I've already pored over much of the massive book and highly suggest it. The FO gang teamed up with the SB Nation platform again this year for a series of Q&A posts. With that in mind, I hit up Doug Farrar. You probably know his Cover-3 column for FO and his work for Yahoo! Sports. He is undoubtedly one of my favorite football writers, so I was stoked he took time to answer my questions. I'm in bold, he's in regular typeface.

Based on FO statistical analysis in addition to the team they were added to, which of the running backs selected in the first two rounds have the best chance for success the quickest and why? That would be C.J. Spiller (Bills), Ryan Mathews (Chargers), Jahvid Best (Lions), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Toby Gerhart (Vikings), Ben Tate (Texans), Montario Hardesty (Browns).

We actually do have a running back projection statistic called "Speed Score," which was designed by Bill Barnwell, our Managing Editor. The formula is explained here, and has a few caveats that Bill explains – it doesn’t account for injury and scheme, nor does it account for blocking and receiving abilities. But it’s a pretty good indicator of running back success, and this year, it likes Tate most of all. Then Mathews, Best, Gerhart, Spiller, and Hardesty. McCluster actually has the worst Speed Score of any qualifying back in 2010, but I don’t know how seriously one can take him as an NFL running back – he’s more a multi-purpose guy in this league, if he pans out as anything. I think that Mathews will be the best back in this class – he can run inside, he has decent lateral agility, and his second-level burst for his size is truly exceptional. Of all the backs in this class, Mathews is the one who best comprises what I perceive to be optimal NFL characteristics.

Same question with wide receivers in mind. That's Demaryius Thomas (Broncos), Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Arrelious Benn (Buccaneers) and Golden Tate (Seahawks).

Well, here you’re talking about scheme. Bryant, to me, is the only one of those guys who is absolutely scheme-transcendent. He’s going to be a star in any system because he’s so tough in traffic, and he can contort his body so well to adjust for bad throws – he’s like an evolutionary version of Michael Crabtree. Not that top-end speed, but Romo doesn’t throw 40 yards down field – certainly he doesn’t with that offensive line in front of him. Thomas is a 7- and 9-route guy with a team that ha no deep-armed quarterbacks, so that’s going to be interesting to see. Benn is an undefined guy in an undefined offense, and Tate could really benefit the Seahawks if he’s used the right way. I really like that kid. He reminds me of Steve Smith a bit. I don’t get the Percy Harvin comparisons, but I do like his overall skill set. He was a tailback in high school, and he runs like that. But as much as I’m all about stats, all I have to do is watch tape, and it’s easy for me based on that to project Bryant as the best receiver in this class.

How wary should talent evaluators be on evaluating quarterbacks from the spread offense? How much do you think their evaluation process of quarterbacks has changed? And given the scheme's propensity to balloon stats, how hard is it to project a quarterback's NFL success based on numbers?

Again, we have to go back to scheme, and it depends so much on what position we’re talking about, and what team the player goes to. I wrote a piece in Pro Football Prospectus 2008 (the precursor to the Football Outsiders Almanac) detailing the difficulties in the transition for spread players in the NFL. Based on my own analysis, and the experts and scouts I talked to, I came to the conclusion that quarterbacks were the most affected by the change, then offensive linemen (particularly tackles), then receivers, then running backs. Quarterbacks because their release points aren’t optimized and they’re not used to throwing all the routes needed; offensive linemen because they’re used to two-point stances and they rarely block inline with power; and receivers because they have to learn those routes they didn’t run in college. I’m of the belief that running backs actually benefit from the transition at times, because they get the kind of blocking in the NFL that they didn’t get in college, though the elimination of wide line splits affects their abilities to make big plays. At worst, it’s probably a wash.

But the difference between the NFL in 2007 (when I wrote that piece) and now is graphic, and it’s pretty amazing just how much the NFL has moved to meet spread concepts at least halfway. In 2007, the New England Patriots were the first documented team in NFL history to run at least 50 percent of their plays from the shotgun formation. We can assume that some single-wing teams, or the Red Hickey 49ers, did so, but we don’t have numbers to back it up. In 2008, Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, implemented the Pistol formation just to get his offense going after his first two quarterbacks were lost for the season due to injury. And of course, we all know about the Wildcat. The percentage of shotgun snaps in the NFL has tripled in just the last five years. So, while I think there are still talent and scheme issues when it comes to spread players, those concerns are not what they used to be, because I think the NFL realized that if things didn’t swing around a bit, a lot of college talent was going to go wasted. The NCAA is not going to stop running spread and option offenses, because their coaches are not NFL minor league coaches, Their job is to win college games by any means necessary.

From a statistical standpoint only, how hard was it to project Tim Tebow in particular? Further, in the book he's compared to an "underdeveloped Vince Young." To you, is that an accurate comparison, and do you think it will take Tebow as long to round out as Young?

Well, I think that the statistical projection of Tebow is difficult as much because of what he is as what he isn’t. He is a potentially dominant red-zone threat, but he’s said that he doesn’t want to be that; he wants to be a pure quarterback. And because he’s so far away from being a pure quarterback; it’s tough to know where to begin. It’s all well and good to show film of his "new delivery" when he’s wearing shorts and no pads. It’s quite another matter when the bullets fly. And we don’t know what that looks like yet, though I suspect that it’s going to look pretty horrible for a while.

Part of the reason that Young did so well last season is that Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger didn’t force the issue – he know that he didn’t have a prototype NFL quarterback, and he also knew that his team had just been waxed, 59-0, by the Patriot before the bye. At that point, it’s all about baby steps and getting things going. Heimerdinger started calling a bunch of counter option stuff, which put Young in a familiar series of looks. And of course, they had the best outside threat in the game in Chris Johnson, so what they had in the second half of last season was like a turbo version of the old Vick speed option with the Falcons. At the same time, Young started to develop as a pocket passer. What the Titans did last year was one of the better – and more unheralded – examples of fitting spread concepts into the NFL offense and making it work. Whatever Tebow is going to be, Josh McDaniels is going to have to strike a similar balance between the Urban Meyer spread and whatever the Broncos feel like running from an offensive standpoint. And until we see what that is, I don’t know how anyone can project what the hell Tebow is going to do. Is the "undeveloped Vince Young" comparison apt? Yes, with the proviso that Young may not be as developed as we think – it’s more that the offense met him in the middle.

This is always a debate among draft nerds, so I'm wondering if there is a statistical definition on this one. What defines a "bust?"

A statistical definition? I don’t think that’s possible because a player can be a bust for so many reasons. You could call Deion Branch a draft bust for the Seahawks, because he cost the team a first-round pick and didn’t live up to it. Jay Cutler would have to be the second coming of Peyton Manning to be worth the picks the Bears gave up for him, and that’s never going to happen, because you need the picks they gave up to build the offense around him. If there’s one common denominator among recent actual draft busts … I’m just amazed at how often teams select players that don’t fit their schemes. The Chiefs and Jaguars keep switching between 3- and 4-man fronts, and they keep drafting the guys on the wrong end of the scheme curve. Bill Belichick always talks about "situational football," but it amazes me how many teams aren’t aware of the concept of situational drafting.

Thanks again to Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders, Yahoo! Sports and several other ventures. You can purchase the Football Outsiders Almanac on Amazon here. If you're on Twitter, follow Farrar here.