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What I learned at the PFF offices

CINCINNATI, OHIO – The Purple Daily show on SKOR North traveled to the Queen City for three days to broadcast from the epicenter of analytical work in football. Here are five things we took away from trip…

WAR will change the game

In baseball Wins Above Replacement statistics are widely accepted but we have not yet seen a formula that can estimate how many wins an individual football player is worth. Pro Football Focus is currently working to perfect a WAR model which will ultimately give us an idea of how players at each position impact winning. For example, is a great pass rusher worth as much as a great cornerback? How many losses is a poor left tackle worth?

The data will very likely change the way teams look at positional value. In a salary cap league, organizations will use these numbers to decide whether the investments in certain players are truly worth the cap space spent.

The question is whether fans will be able to use this data any time soon. PFF works with all 32 teams and provides a great deal of information that is not privy to the public. For example, there are metrics that tell teams whether a player in the draft will be a fit for their scheme. We currently as media and fans do not have access. So whether we realize it or not, WAR will be changing the game.

Team analytic usage varies

On Wednesday’s show PFF’s Sam Monson broke down how PFF’s 32 NFL clients are using data. Teams essentially fall into a few categories: There are some who have exceptional analytic departments within the organization who work closely with the data and have a strong influence over decision making both in the front office and on the field. For example, if a team wanted to draft a guard, they would ask for data on that guard’s pass blocking efficiency and whether they fit in a zone or power scheme. Those numbers would likely sway whether the team would draft that particular guard. On the field, the coaching staff would receive data about the guard’s performance and where his strengths and weaknesses may be. That would be taken under consideration when gameplanning and creating a scheme.

These “top” teams would be using PFF data to do internal studies of their own and making strides that the outside world would not be made aware of.

There are other teams that have analytic departments who provide reports to the front office and coaching staff but might not have the same level of influence over decision making as the clubs who have bought in the most.

Surprisingly there are still teams who buy into the PFF data but have either front offices or coaching staffs that aren’t interested in the conclusions that can be drawn from their numbers.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been critical in the past of PFF’s grading system but based on statements from GM Rick Spielman, the Vikings are much closer to the top teams than the bottom.

Also notable: The questions that teams ask behind the scenes often lead to analysis and conclusions that we never would have expected.

Running back value is a hot topic 

If you have been on any social media platform recently you have probably noticed that former NFL players are arguing with analytics experts about the value of running backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon who are looking for new contracts. PFF has done an incredible amount of work researching the subject and has drawn a few interesting conclusions:

– Running backs’ success or failure is most often determined by the circumstances around them like offensive line play and scheme.

– There are definitely running backs who are better than others — sometimes by quite a bit with talent — but the question is whether they can be replaced by one or two other players who could provide the same production. For example, Gordon’s backup had a higher yards per carry average.

– The future of running backs will be fascinating because some players like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCafffrey are playing the role of wide receiver as well as running back. Isolating the value of a RB who is great in the passing game is challenging because many backs can catch flat and underneath routes but only a handful can become a threat down the field. The numbers might ultimately push high school and college backs with NFL potential to learn how to run a complete route tree.

You will be seeing more PFF numbers 

You might have noticed that Pro Football Focus grades began showing up on NBC Sunday Night Football broadcasts. Those aren’t going anywhere and it’s highly likely you will see PFF’s stats show up in many other places, including regularly on NFL Network and other broadcasters like CBS and FOX.

Over the past few seasons there has been a widespread acceptance of using advanced stats in traditional media and that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

The NFC North is extremely hard to forecast 

Many times your sense for football things can be confirmed (with added precision) by PFF’s research. We know that the NFC North is going to be a tough division with a different offense in Minnesota, improved Lions defense, new coach in Green Bay and the potential for Mitch Trubisky to improve on his 2018 season. PFF’s analysis projects all four teams between seven and nine wins and gives the Vikings a 43.5% chance at the playoffs, 42.7%, a 36.3% shot for the Packers and 22.1% odds for the Lions.

Download Purple Daily on iTunes or listen at SKORNorth.com to all of our shows from the PFF offices.

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