NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.
In this column, I will assess current trends through the lens of analytics, as well as spotlight a few of my favorite -- or least favorite -- projections for the coming week's action.
As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
TREND TO WATCH: What to make of fast starts for WRs in new situations
Eleven quarters and 11 minutes.
That's the average amount of regular-season game time -- just short of three full games -- that it took for top-tier wide receivers who switched teams since 1997 to have their usage, production and new benchmarks calibrated (assuming they played at least 65 percent of snaps).
To oversimplify my findings, wide receiver data looks different in a player's first eleven quarters and 11 minutes with their new team. In some cases, it takes time for chemistry to form. In others, wide receivers provide their teams with an early edge because defenses are caught off-guard, with new tendencies, plays and formations to adapt to. Coaches also bring their own tendencies and influences from past experiences to the table as well.
This offseason, several big-name receivers changed teams, while a few had new coaches or quarterbacks join them. And several of these players enjoyed eye-popping debuts.
Let's look a little deeper at three players who were traded (the Raiders' Davante Adams, the Dolphins' Tyreek Hill and the Eagles' A.J. Brown), one who is working with a new head coach (the Vikings' Justin Jefferson, who now plays for Kevin O'Connell) and one who is catching passes from a new QB (the Colts' Michael Pittman Jr., who added Matt Ryan as a teammate).
In Week 1, the league's top three earners in target share were Adams (48.6 percent), Brown (44.8) and Hill (38.7), per Next Gen Stats. Jefferson (35.5) was sixth and Pittman was 26.5 percent. Obviously, not all defenses faced were the same, and the situations and game flows varied, but this pattern is in line with past examples -- like Terrell Owens in Week 1 of 2004, when he scored three TDs on eight receptions (11 targets) against the Giants in his Eagles debut. Furthermore, the top three in air-yard share in Week 1 were Brown (72.8 -- this is absurdly good), Jefferson (70.3) and Adams (57.7), while Hill (45.0, ninth) and Pittman (34.7) also registered among the best in the league. Narrowing this down to air-yard share among wide receivers only, the results are even more compelling: Adams (79.6, first), Brown (76.5, second), Jefferson (67.5, third) and Hill (56.8, fifth) are in the top five. Pittman's percentage (39.4) is a bit closer to a single-game average for a WR1 in a run-heavy offense.
This one-week sample size is obviously very small, and there is a degree of a "get the ball to the best player" strategy. Plus, these guys happen to be among the NFL's very best at their position.
But, with history helping us see how long the advantage lasts for top-tier receivers in new situations, let's together track what might happen next.
A quick note: In the 25-season sample I examined, defensive coverage data appears to be more correlated to QB profiles and alignments than it is to receivers (other than bracketing decisions), especially in the month of September. So, it seems defensive coordinators focus first on preparing for the opposing quarterback before deciding on a strategy and refining their units' looks each week. This can be a big advantage for top-tier WRs who are able to get on the same page with their quarterbacks before defenses catch on -- 11 quarters and 11 game minutes later.
NOTE: The point spread cited below is provided by FanDuel, current as of 6 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 16.
WEEK 2 UPSET PICK: Washington Commanders (+1.5) over Detroit Lions
As a lifelong Lions fan, seeing my model's outcome for this game stung a little, but I pick based on my process, which is done completely blind. (I'm able to cheer after the math and pick are worked out.) The math in this matchup points to big passing plays being one of the keys to the game. Last week, Commanders QB Carson Wentz threw three touchdown passes of at least 10 air yards against the Jaguars, while the Lions' defense surrendered 10 receptions for 155 yards to A.J. Brown alone. With injury questions around D'Andre Swift, who was the strength of the Lions' offense in Week 1, three things emerge for this contest in my model: a strong possibility for a Terry McLaurin touchdown, Wentz tossing at least two passing touchdowns and more than 49 total points being scored (this latter event happens in 54.5 percent of simulations).
THING I LIKE: Bills QB Josh Allen to have a rushing TD against the Titans.
Before the start of this season, Allen was the only QB in NFL history to have at least six rushing touchdowns in each of his first four seasons in the league. He logged his first of this season in Week 1, to start 2022 off with a bang. Also in Week 1, the Titans' defense allowed Saquon Barkley to earn 88 rushing yards over expected, the second-most in a game allowed by Tennessee in the last three seasons (per NGS). Jeffery Simmons and Bud Dupree, who each had six QB pressures against the Giants, can be counted on to bring exceptional pressure. But Allen is one of the best in the NFL at scrambling and playing on the run. Thus, a rushing touchdown has a high probability of occurring. It's worth adding here that Allen averaged 8.5 yards per rush on runs outside the tackles last season, which also helps drive this projection.
THING I LOVE: Jaguars WR Christian Kirk to score a receiving TD against the Colts.
In Week 1, Kirk played 90 percent of the Jaguars' offensive snaps (per NGS) and caught six of his 12 targets for 117 yards, including a 49-yard reception. But he didn't reach the end zone. In addition, the Colts' defense allowed Davis Mills to score twice on throws of 10-plus air yards last week. I also forecast the Colts to be playing with nearly a TD lead in the fourth quarter, indicating more Trevor Lawrence passing attempts throughout the game.
THING I DON'T LIKE: Titans RB Derrick Henry to rush for more than 100 yards against the Bills.
In last year's Week 6 meeting, the Titans upset the Bills 34-31 in large part due to Henry's 143 rushing yards and three rushing TDs. He also had 13 receiving yards. This feels like something defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier won't let happen again. First of all, Frazier deserves another shot to be an NFL head coach because of his elite ability to craft custom approaches and adapt mid-game to what opposing offenses are giving him. With Matthew Stafford having posted a passer rating of near-140 against the blitz in 2021, the Bills blitzed the Rams quarterback exactly zero times in Week 1 this season. More interestingly, the Bills only loaded the box twice, which means the Titans' offensive architects don't have a lot of information on what the Bills' defense -- with some new, impactful pieces (Von Miller, Jordan Phillips, Terrel Bernard) -- might do against the run this season. Given the downgrades along Tennessee's offensive line and pass catchers this offseason, it's logical to think the Bills will have a custom and tailored attack to give them the best odds to stop Henry on the ground.
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