Tomorrow: Final Pre-Draft DBB Spaces!

| April 19th, 2024

We hide in spaces,

Dark and disturbing spaces.

Discussing the draft.

Tomorrow, at 2 PM ET, Robert Schmitz and I will be hosting a listener-driven event on Spaces. We’ll do a brief introduction but then we’ll “open up phone lines” and let the listeners take over with questions. All topics are on the table; this is the Spaces equivalent of a Reddit AMA. But, you know, let’s try and stay on the draft topic.

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Jayden Daniels Looks Hauntingly Familiar

| April 16th, 2024

I’m happy to host this piece by Kyle Morris, a football statistician and a personal friend of mine, as he explores the dangerous details within Jayden Daniels’ advanced scouting profile.

If you’re a football fan who loves data, this is the article for you. If you aren’t a football fan who loves data, this article is still well worth your time — the insights held within it are core in discussing the ever-raging Bears’ QB debate, and Kyle does a great job numerically illustrating what I think the tape shows about each QB mentioned.

Kyle also has a podcast, which I’ll link right here. Enjoy the article, and let me know what you think in the comments below.

The NFL is a copycat league — each year the best teams’ philosophies and schemes are copied by desperate imitators. This desire to imitate leaks into personnel as well, where teams will use player comparisons (also known as “comps”) as a shorthand for talking peers into (or out of) college prospects each year within the NFL Draft cycle. Throw an Aaron Rodgers “comp” on Zach Wilson and people salivate — after all, it’s easy to get excited when you envision Aaron Rodgers playing for your team.

But has Zach Wilson been Aaron Rodgers to the Jets? Of course not, because these comps can often become misleading — one player might resemble another player physically, but have a completely different playstyle. Two players might have the same weakness, but may compensate for it in different ways. Stretch your comps too far and you run the risk of disaster, ultimately committing to a prospect based on who you believe he might be without an accurate assessment of who he actually is. 

One of the more popular comps in this year’s NFL draft class is that LSU’s Jayden Daniels is the next Lamar Jackson. On the one hand I consider this progress as we’re not that far from Lamar Jackson entering his own NFL draft derided as a one trick pony whom some executives suggested should move to wide receiver. Even a year ago Lamar’s contract demands were deemed excessive and many felt he wasn’t “quarterback-y” enough to sustain his success over the terms of that contract. The fact that Lamar is now a two-time MVP winner that’s inspiring teams to turn over every stone looking for the next iteration of him is undoubtedly progress for the game and NFL front offices.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Jayden Daniels is the next Lamar Jackson. 

Sure, there are superficial similarities between the two — no one can deny that Jayden is an electric runner, managing almost 4,000 rushing yardss in his (excessively long) college career (I’m using PFF rushing data, which does not do the archaic NCAA method of removing sack yardage from a player’s rushing total). Both are Heisman Trophy winners. Sadly, that’s about where the resemblance ends.

Let’s start with the rushing, since that’s clearly what drives this comp for most — to put it simply, we have never seen any quarterback in history run the ball like Lamar Jackson has. During his college career Lamar Jackson averaged 126 Yards Per Game on the ground and 8.6 Yards Per Carry. Those numbers are simply preposterous. Daniels has averaged 71.9 Yards Per Game and 7.5 Yards Per Carry. Those numbers are very good, in fact those numbers rank Jayden 5th in Rushing Yards Per Game out of 114 drafted or draft-eligible QBs.

However, the gap between Jayden at #5 and Lamar at #1 is greater than the gap between Jayden and former Purdue quarterback David Blough, who is 71st on the list. Daniels is in the territory of guys like Josh Dobbs, Trey Lance, and Marcus Mariota — all guys who can certainly be an asset for an NFL offense on the ground, but don’t even come close to affecting defenses to the extent of Lamar Jackson. 

More concerning to me than the difference in their raw production on the ground, however, is the difference between the two’s running styles. Lamar is a notorious home run hitter, his breakaway speed and ability to outrun NFL defenders with sub 4.3 speed has allowed him to remain healthy as he’ll often avoid the crushing blows that looming linebackers would love to subject him to. In college, Lamar’s Breakaway Run% (percentage of rushing attempts that went at least 15 yards) was 42.3%. For Jayden Daniels, that mark was just 17.7%. Jalen Hurts, another largely successful NFL running QB, managed a Breakaway Run % over 30%.

Hurts and Lamar also averaged fewer Yards After Contact than Daniels, who averaged over 4 Yards After Contact per carry (Lamar was at 3.9 and Hurts was just 2.9). At first glance Daniels’ willingness to fight for yards after contact is an admirable trait, but the difference in Yards After Contact and Breakaway Run % tells is that Daniels is taking hits significantly more often when he runs than Lamar and Hurts, and that’s not a recipe for NFL longevity. This is especially concerning when you consider that Daniels has a slight frame with considerably less mass to absorb those hits compared to Hurts and Lamar. And when you watch Daniel’s tape, to borrow from The Athletic’s Nate Tice, you’ll see Daniels take jaw-dropping hits that resemble Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame. 

Once you move beyond rushing statistics and into throwing the football, the difference in playstyle between Daniels, Lamar, and Hurts is even more drastic. Lamar’s much lambasted “inaccuracy” in college was largely a function of his extreme aggressiveness — Lamar had a career ADOT (Average Depth of Target, i.e. how many yards in the air the ball traveled on a per throw basis) of 11.9 yards, 4th highest of the 114 QBs mentioned before. Daniels was much, much more conservative, with a career ADOT of 9.1 yards ranking 76th.

Lamar also loved to pound the intermediate and deep middle of the field, with 24.5% of his non-screen passing attempts going between the hashmarks at a depth of at least 10 yards down the field, the 11th highest rate of any of the first or second-round QBs taken since 2015 along with the presumed top 5 of this year’s QB class. Jayden Daniels targeted the same area of the field just 18.1% of the time in his career, the 5th lowest rate among QBs in that group, above only Christian Hackenberg, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, and Justin Fields. Attacking the middle of the field is a vital skill for almost any successful NFL passers, as that is where defenses are often most vulnerable and where big chunk plays are available. Middle of the field passing requires throwing with anticipation and without hesitation, however, and many more conservative passers are unwilling to navigate that heavily-trafficked area. In that regard, it’s hard to find two players more dissimilar in terms of aggression than Lamar and Daniels.

So if Jayden Daniels isn’t Lamar, is he someone else? While no two players are exactly alike, there are a few players I think resemble Daniels more closely than Lamar, and neither comp is probably what Daniels’ fans (of which there seem to be far more than I expected in the league) want to hear. 

One major warning sign with Daniels is that when under pressure in the pocket throughout his college career, Daniels primarily does two things — he either either takes a sack or he takes off running. Often, the latter has led directly to the former.

Pressure to Sack Rate, a measurement of how often a QB turns pressures into sacks, has become of the most important & stable statistics for college prospects over the last few years. Generally QBs want to keep this number under 20% in college, as there are very few successful NFL passers who survive long while operating above that mark. As I mentioned, this stat is very stable: whatever a guy does in this department in college is very unlikely to improve in the NFL (though it may get worse). Daniels pressure to sack rate for his career is 24.5%, which is 108th out of the aforementioned 114 QBs in our data set. The list of passers in his neighborhood is not particularly encouraging:

While many of the QBs in this area were late round picks who haven’t received significant NFL playing time, the ones who have played have all been below average starters or worse so far in limited action, and all of them have taken an above-average amount of sacks. Given everything we know about Pressure to Sack Rate and history, it is almost certain that Daniels will struggle with taking sacks at the next level. 

On plays where he doesn’t get sacked, Daniels primary response to pressure is to scramble. Daniels in his career scrambled on 25% of his pressured dropbacks, tied for the highest of any would-be first or second round pick since 2014 with Trey Lance, who had almost 1500 fewer career dropbacks than Daniels, so Daniels had the highest number of total scrambles overall by far. Scrambling in response to pressure is not an inherently bad thing for a runner of Daniels’ ability, as Lamar Jackson (17.2%) and Jalen Hurts (21.1%), and Kyler Murray (16.1%) are successful NFL QBs with top 10 Pressured Scramble Rates in that time, but Daniels scrambling at a significantly higher rate than those three (and even more than Justin Fields (19%)) while being as noted as a less elusive runner opens him up to increased hits from defenders. 

While scrambling under pressure may not always be a problem (though I strongly suspect scrambling more often than Lamar Jackson, the greatest scrambler in history, is a problem), scrambling from clean pockets is a much more troublesome sign. Unfortunately Daniels has the highest clean pocket scramble rate of any prospect I’ve studied, taking off running without being pressured on almost 1 out of every 10 dropbacks, at 9.4%. Jalen Hurts (9.1%), Jacoby Brissett (8.5%) and Justin Fields (8.2%) are the only prospects to even hit 8% in that department, and while Hurts has largely mastered that impulse behind an outstanding Eagles offensive line in his career, Brissett and Fields have both run themselves into trouble at a fair clip. Scrambling from a clean pocket in order to create when receivers aren’t coming open downfield isn’t an inherently bad trait, many of the successful mobile QBs in recent memory did so about 5% of the time on average in college, but scrambling almost 10% of the time from a clean pocket is almost certainly the result of a QB growing impatient or skittish within structure and breaking the play before allowing it to develop. 

Combine the Scramble Rate with the Pressure to Sack Rate and you find that Daniels only attempted a pass on just 50.6% of his pressured dropbacks (and that number actually fell to 48.1% in his final season). I was only able to find six college QBs since 2014 that were drafted in the first three rounds or received significant NFL playing time who attempted a pass under pressure less than 60% of the time: Sam Howell, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Jayden Daniels, Hendon Hooker, and Malik Willis. While all of these quarterbacks are relatively early in their playing career (and Hooker has yet to see the field at all), those that have played thus far have taken an obscene number of sacks, suffered injuries from countless hits, or both thus far in the NFL.

Willis’ insane sack rate in limited playing time is largely why Tennessee immediately pivoted to drafting Will Levis as their QB of the future and why Levis won the job over Willis when Ryan Tannehill went down this year. Frustration with sacks and a refusal to throw from the pocket on time led Kyle Shanahan to abandon the Trey Lance project despite the enormous price the 49ers paid to acquire him. Fields’ poor pocket presence and high sack rate is a large part of why the Bears moved on this spring. Sam Howell has taken 68 sacks in just 18 career starts. This is not a group that can be associated with anything resembling acceptable pocket presence.

Have you figured out the mystery Daniels comp yet I’m referring to? If you’ve been paying close attention you’ve seen his name pop up a few times. You’re probably very, very familiar with him. I’m talking about Justin Fields. 

Both Daniels (24.5%) and Fields (23.6%) had historically high Pressure to Sack Rates in college. Both Daniels (18.1%) and Fields (17.7%) targeted the intermediate/deep MOF at a well below average rate. Both Daniels (50.6%) and Fields (57.4%) attempted passes at a well bellow average clip when pressured, preferring to scramble (or take sacks). Both Daniels (9.4%) and Fields (8.2%) scrambled almost twice as often as an average first or second round QB from a clean pocket. The similarities are quite eerie, and yet there’s one more comp that I think maybe fits Daniels even better. 

The one area in which Daniels and Fields are very different is their level of aggression downfield — Justin Fields in college ranked 7th in career ADOT out of 114 QBs at 11.6 yards. He went deep on 18.8% of his college attempts, 6th most of any first or second round QB in that timeframe. In total, 42.7% of Fields college passing attempts went beyond 10 air yards, 10th most of the first/second round group. Daniels however went deep just 13.9% of the time in his career, 7th lowest of the group, and his total % of 10+ air yard attempts was just 35%, also 7th lowest.

Despite Daniels’ pretty deep passing statistics this year in his 5th year breakout campaign, the conservative deep passing approach we’ve seen from him throughout his career likely says more about his NFL potential. Guys who aren’t willing to frequently push the ball downfield in college, instead waiting for their receivers to cleanly win outside before pulling the trigger, are unlikely to throw deep a lot in the NFL where 1 on 1 matchups outside are much harder to win and the occasional risk is necessary. The list of highly drafted QBs who went deep as rarely in their careers as Daniels is not a pretty one: 

Now you might see that Patrick Mahomes’ name is on one of those lists and decide to rely on the outlier for hope. I can’t stop you, but I’d strongly argue that if you think Daniels and Mahomes have any tools in common or that Mahomes’ situation at Texas Tech resembled anything like what Daniels has enjoyed during his career, I think you are being dangerously generous. What should concern you is every other name on those lists, and most importantly the presence of Marcus Mariota. 

Mariota, like Fields, appears on basically every list with Daniels. He scrambled from a clean pocket at an above average rate (though not as often as Daniels and Fields), scrambled at an above average rate overall (again not quite as often as Daniels and Fields), targeted MOF less often than those two, and like Daniels was an overly conservative deep passer. His NFL career is a tale of maddening inconsistency as he looked like a surefire star early on only to see his career disintegrate under a parade of turn downs, hits, sacks, fumbles, and injuries. A QB who takes too many sacks and won’t take chunk plays over the middle of the field but also won’t compensate by pushing the ball vertically is just not a very valuable NFL starter, unfortunately. 

In the end, comps in the NFL Draft are a valuable tool — there are only so many ways to operate at the quarterback position and it is likely we have seen similar versions of players before. It’s important however that these comps be grounded in data and reality, and when you do so it’s obvious that we have seen players like Jayden Daniels before, just not in the form of a guy like the reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. Daniels slots much more comfortably into the archetype established by guys like Marcus Mariota and Justin Fields, and if you’re not comfortable with the likelihood of ending up with the next version of those guys, I’d say Jayden Daniels may not be the top 10 QB pick for you. 

As mentioned above, check out Kyle’s podcast! Here’s his episode on Jayden Daniels — enjoy!

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Caleb Williams, A Draft Big Board, And More Waiting

| April 15th, 2024

We’ve got a few scouting reports coming later this week, but for today I’ve got a pair of Caleb Williams clips:

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Lance Zierlein’s “Postcards from the Edge”: A Draft Survey of a Major Position of Need

| April 12th, 2024

Dallas Turner, Edge, Alabama

Zierlein Comparison: Brian Burns

Zierlein Overview: “Long and athletic with the explosive traits needed to become an impactful NFL pass rusher. Turner’s first-step quickness and elite closing burst are important building blocks, but he still needs to work on his process from Point A to Point B. He hasn’t learned to create the space and angles needed to consistently attack the edges, but that should come with better hand development and a more diversified approach. A team would be wise to widen him out and allow him a better runway to ignite his burst and overwhelm tackles with his speed. He’s added 20 pounds since coming to Alabama, but he struggles at times to stack and shed run blockers or set a firm edge. Turner’s frame and game are much less developed than Will Anderson Jr.’s coming out of Alabama last year, so it could take time for him to make his mark as a starting 3-4 outside linebacker.”


Jared Verse, Edge, FSU

Zierlein Comparison: LaMarr Woodley

Zierlein Overview: “Talented edge defender with the field demeanor, athleticism and skill set to rack up statistics in key categories fairly early in his NFL career. Verse dominated at Albany and then showed an ability to do the same at Florida State. He’s twitchy and compact, with explosiveness featured at the point of attack and in his upfield burst as a pass rusher. He’s great with his hands and does a nice job of diagnosing plays quickly and staying out of the clinches of offensive linemen looking to snatch him up. Verse’s ability to threaten the edge only bolsters his hellish speed-to-power bull-rushing ability to run tackles deep into the pocket. He can play up or down and should be in consideration for all defensive schemes looking to add a safe, high-impact edge.”


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Lessons From Ryan Poles’ first two drafts

| April 9th, 2024

Ryan Poles is just a few days away from running his 3rd NFL draft for the Chicago Bears. Now that we have two years of draft history to go on, let’s dive in to see what lessons might apply for 2024.

Targets athletes

The first and most clear trend is that Ryan Poles likes to draft athletic players. We see this through a few different metrics:

  • Relative Athletic Scores (RAS): This scales athletes on overall athleticism from 0-10, with 5 being average, 9 being the 90th percentile, etc.
    • Through 2 seasons, the average Poles draft pick has had an RAS score of 8.6, in the 86th percentile for their position, and that increases to over 9 – top 10% of athleticism – if you look only at picks from Days 1 & 2.
    • Overall, only 1 of 13 players drafted in the first 5 rounds have had an RAS below 8, indicating they are not in the top 20% of athletes at their position.
      • Side note: S Elijah Hicks and P Trenton Gill, both 7th round picks, did not test to qualify for RAS, so they are excluded from the numbers above.
  • Athleticism Score: This athleticism metric from Next Gen Stats is less clear about how it is calculated, but generally is grouped from 50-99, with 50s being below average, 60s average, 70s + 80s above average, and 90s elite in terms of overall athleticism.
    • Of the 16 players with an athleticism score published on their NFL draft profile, 15 have a score above 70, indicating they are above average. Once again, this trend is even stronger if you look only at the higher and more meaningful picks, as all 13 players drafted in the first 5 rounds score in the 70s or 80s.
    • Overall, the average athleticism score is a 76.
      • This data set is missing a host of 6th-7th rounders: S Kendall Williamson, S Elijah Hicks, P Trenton Gill, DT Travis Bell, and C Doug Kramer

To be fair, most of the high draft picks in the NFL are athletic players. Thus, this lesson doesn’t really tell us specific names the Bears might target. But it does let us look for players at need positions the Bears might avoid.

The overwhelming majority of players projected to go in the top 2 rounds have a high RAS, but there are a few highly rated guys who aren’t super athletic, like DE Darius Robinson (3.97 RAS) or C Zach Frazier (6.46 RAS), and it seems unlikely the Bears will be interested in a player like that.

Once you start to get into the middle rounds, there are more guys who aren’t great athletes, and I will be surprised to see the Bears target anybody from this list of mid-round players at positions of need:

Not afraid to trade

Through 2 drafts, Poles has pulled off 8 trades that involved pick swaps. In 7 of those, he moved down to create extra picks, which seems to be his preference. Given that the Bears currently only have 4 draft picks for this year, I anticipate we will see him trade down at least once to pick up extra selections, and I won’t be shocked to see multiple trade downs.

The Bears’ pre-draft actions also hint that they are heavily considering trading down early in the draft. Teams are limited to bringing in 30 players for pre-draft visits, and the Bears have used several of them on players projected to go in the 20-50 range despite not currently having a pick between 9 and 75.

  • OT JC Latham (20th on consensus big board)
  • C Jackson Powers-Johnson (25th)
  • C Graham Barton (27th)
  • DE Chop Robinson (28th)
  • OT Tyler Guyton (30th)
  • WR Xavier Worthy (35th)
  • C Zach Frazier (47th)

That’s a whole lot of players – more than 20% of their allotted visits – who are projected to go in a range where the Bears have no picks, which indicates to me they are seriously considering trading back from the 9th pick.

To be fair, Chicago has also done their homework on potential fits if they stick at number 9, as they’ve brought in with players ranked 5th (WR Malik Nabers), 6th (WR Rome Odunze), 8th (Dallas Turner), and 10th (Brock Bowers) on the consensus big board. My guess is that the Bears will have 1-2 guys they would take at pick 9 if they are available, but otherwise will look to trade back a bit and pick up an extra pick or two in the draft.

It’s also worth noting that Poles also showed a willingness to move up in the draft for a guy he covets last year, when he gave up a 4th round pick to move from 61 to 56 and secure CB Tyrique Stevenson. Given the small number of picks this year, a trade up seems less likely, but Poles could get creative and look to move up with 2025 draft capital. They currently have an extra 2nd round pick for next year, and that could be packaged with pick 122 this year to get into the 2nd round (this is what the Bears did to trade up for WR Anthony Miller in 2018).

Double dipping 

Another trend we’ve seen clearly through Poles’ first two drafts is the willingness to draft 2 or even 3 players at the same position.

  • In 2022, he selected S Jaquan Brisker in the 2nd round, and then S Elijah Hicks in the 7th.
  • In 2022, he selected 3 interior offensive linemen – Zachary Thomas, Doug Kramer, and Ja’Tyre Carter – in the 6th and 7th rounds.
  • In 2023, he took DT Gervon Dexter in round 2, DT Zacch Pickens in round 3, and DT Travis Bell in round 7.
  • In 2023, he  took CB Tyrique Stevenson in round 2 and CB Terell Smith in round 5.

It’s hard to envision a double dip this year with only 4 picks, but if they pick up a few extra selections via trade down, then it could be a real possibility. The two positions I could see that most realistically happening at are DE and WR. In both cases, the Bears need another starter, which could prompt a high pick, and there’s also room for a later pick to push for a roster spot against pretty weak depth.

Once again, the Bears have already hinted at this possibility. Head coach Matt Eberflus was caught on mic telling Ryan Poles they should “take two of them” while watching defensive linemen work out at the Combine.

Defensive (over)investment

Another clear trend we see is that Poles loves to invest in defense early in the draft. Five of his seven day 1-2 picks have been spent on defenders, despite the Bears having just as many (if not more) offensive needs over the last two years. This trend has carried over to veteran signings as well, where the Bears have handed out significantly more money to the defense ($115M/year, $226M guaranteed) than offense ($58M/year, $89M guaranteed).

This is what happens when you double down on a defensive head coach who likes to run a simple scheme that requires high level players to work (rather than winning schematically), and I fully expect the trend to continue in 2024. Outside of QB, which is obviously going to be the #1 pick, Chicago has 2 clear holes in their current starting lineup: WR3 (currently Tyler Scott) and DE2 (currently DeMarcus Walker). I fully expect them to prioritize defensive end as being more important. Depending on how they view Gervon Dexter, they might also see 3-technique defensive tackle as a huge need as well.

Wrapping it up

In short, here are the four main lessons we have learned from Ryan Poles’ first two drafts:

  • He only wants to draft plus athletes.
  • He likes to trade down to accumulate more picks.
  • He likes spending multiple picks on one need.
  • He generally invests more in the defense than the offense.

The last three trends all seem to be aligning nicely, in my view. If Ryan Poles trades back from pick 9, he will be in range to invest a first round pick on a pass rusher (DEs like Jared Verse or Chop Robinson or DTs like Byron Murphy or Johnny Newton feel like possible targets), and then have extra picks he can spend to further bolster the pass rush later in the draft.

There is no saying for sure how the draft will unfold – I am sure the Bears’ ultimate action at 9 depends on what happens between picks 2 and 8 – but my read of Poles’ draft history, plus Chicago’s moves so far this offseason – makes me think that is his plan A.

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Catching Up On The Weekend’s Audio

| April 8th, 2024

Last Friday saw the latest Bear With Us launch, covering Caleb Williams and the #9 overall pick…

And then over the weekend, Jeff and I caught up on what he’s hearing about #9 overall (plus a full mock of the craziness that may lead up to Chicago’s pick.

More Nine at #9 tomorrow.

Your Turn: Does the draft still feel far away? Or does it finally feel around the corner?

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