Fisking Football Outsiders: I. Mediocre Manny?

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Over the next week or so, I'll be fisking Football Outsiders' review/preview of the 49ers in their recently released Almanac. Being that I'm a devotee of theirs, you'd think I'm going to agree with everything they wrote. Stick with me through these articles, and you might just find yourself (un)pleasantly surprised.

On Tuesday, Fooch detailed his thoughts about the Niner chapter in Football Outsiders' (FO) Almanac 2009. He pretty much covered all the bases, so I'm not going to rehash what's already been said. Rather, I'm going to evaluate some of FO's arguments from a statistical point of view. Today, in Part 1 of this series, I'm going to address an assertion they made - in the context of McCloughan draft failures - about the potentially mediocre career potential of Manny Lawson. Here's the relevant passage in full (emphasis mine):

Manny Lawson, the 22nd overall pick, missed most of his second season with a torn ACL, but over three years he has just 5.5 sacks in 32 games. That's not what a team desperate for a pass rusher was hoping for. When the team went to a nickel package as their defensive base last year, Lawson went to the bench, a sign of his lack of development. Even if we pretend that those 32 games only came over two seasons, there's not a lot of hope for Lawson; of the last 32 linebackers to be drafted in the first round and produce fewer than six sacks in their first two years, only two - LaVar Arrington and Jamir Miller - have produced a ten-sack season afterwards.

After the jump, I'll use statistics to show you why FO's argument is like comparing apples and oranges...

Let's dissect the last sentence in that paragraph. The associations FO is drawing here involve (a) LBs drafted in the 1st round, (b) the number of total sacks such players have produced in his first two years, and (c) the maximum number of sacks in a season that such players have produced after their first two years.

When I read this, I immediately thought of a couple of questions the answers to which might be useful to know:

  1. How many LBs drafted in the first round have produced 6+ total sacks in their first 2 years?
  2. How many LBs drafted in the first round have produced a 10+ sack season after their first 2 years?
  3. How many of the LBs drafted in the first round whom produced 6+ total sacks in their first 2 years actually went on to have a 10+ sack season later in their career?
  4. Is there really something else going on here that quickly explains away LB sack performance that doesn't lead you to conclude Manny Lawson is a bust?

I'll address the last question first because its answer gets the ball rolling for the other 3. Those of you who've been around for a while should have come across my free agency previews this past spring. One of them specifically addressed the question, "Where do sacks come from?" Essentially, what I found - based on 2008 stats - was that the overwhelming majority of sacks are dependent on a pass rusher's position and the type of defense in which he plays. Specifically, on a team that plays a 3-4 defense, the OLBs get the lion's share of sacks. In contrast, on a team that plays a 4-3 defense, the DEs are the sack masters.

This little tidbit of information comes in handy when trying to understand (a) why Manny Lawson hasn't had 6+ in his first 2 years, and (b) why Manny Lawson may or may not have a 10+ sack season in the future. Namely, Lawson has been a 4-3 OLB his entire career save the latter part of last season when Singletary and Manusky moved to a base 3-4.

Now, with this in mind, let's look at the career sack performance of every LB drafted in the 1st round from 1995-2005. Here's the table:

Player

Position

Yrs

Yrs Inj

G

Sack

Sack/G

Sack Max

Powell

--

3

2

14

0.0

0.000

0.0

Farrior

3-4 ILB

12

0

184

24.5

0.133

6.5

Merriman

3-4 OLB

4

1

43

39.5

0.919

17.0

Ware

3-4 OLB

4

0

64

53.5

0.836

20.0

Ellis

4-3 DE

11

0

162

77.0

0.475

12.5

Wilson, R.

4-3 DE/3-4 OLB

6

0

93

24.0

0.258

9.0

Urlacher

4-3 ILB

9

0

137

37.5

0.274

8.0

Lewis

4-3 ILB

13

2

178

33.5

0.188

5.0

Wilson, A.

4-3 ILB

8

0

125

21.5

0.172

5.0

Barnett

4-3 ILB

6

0

87

11.5

0.132

3.5

Morgan

4-3 ILB

7

3

59

7.0

0.119

3.0

Harris

4-3 ILB

7

0

100

8.5

0.085

2.5

Morris

4-3 ILB

8

2

99

7.0

0.071

3.0

Vilma

4-3 ILB

5

1

69

3.5

0.051

2.0

Boulware

4-3 OLB

9

1

126

69.5

0.552

15.0

Peterson, J.

4-3 OLB

9

1

127

46.0

0.362

10.0

Pollack

4-3 OLB

3

2

16

4.5

0.281

4.5

Arrington

4-3 OLB

7

2

84

23.5

0.280

11.0

Hardy

4-3 OLB

9

0

134

36.0

0.269

10.5

Fields

4-3 OLB

10

1

136

34.5

0.254

8.0

Johnson, D.

4-3 OLB

4

0

59

12.0

0.203

4.5

Davis, T.

4-3 OLB

4

0

62

9.5

0.153

3.5

Spikes

4-3 OLB

11

1

156

23.5

0.151

6.0

Bulluck

4-3 OLB

9

0

143

18.0

0.126

5.0

Simmons, A.

4-3 OLB

7

2

87

10.0

0.115

4.0

Rudd

4-3 OLB

7

0

109

11.5

0.106

5.0

Mobley

4-3 OLB

8

2

105

10.5

0.100

4.0

Brown, Reg.

4-3 OLB

2

0

26

2.5

0.096

2.5

Williams, D.J.

4-3 OLB

5

0

75

6.5

0.087

2.5

Brooks

4-3 OLB

14

0

224

13.5

0.060

3.0

Thomas, R.

4-3 OLB

7

1

84

2.0

0.024

2.0

Simmons, B.

4-3 OLB/4-3 ILB

10

1

137

24.0

0.175

6.5

Brooking

4-3 OLB/4-3 ILB

11

1

161

17.0

0.106

3.5

Katzenmoyer

4-3/3-4 ILB

3

2

24

3.5

0.146

3.5

Total

252

28

3489

726.5

0.208

 

For your convenience, I've organized the table by the primary position these LB draft picks played during their careers. If there's more than one position listed for a player, it means he played an equal number of years at each position.

Of the 34 LBs, only 3 have played the majority of their careers at what can be considered the pass-rushing positions, 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE. Low and behold, these 3 LBs - Merriman, Ware, and Ellis - just happen to have had 3 of the top 4 highest sack-per-game ratios of the entire bunch. The lone exception: Boulware, who played 4-3 OLB on (arguably) the greatest defense in NFL history. So the moral of the story here is that the only 1st-round LBs who might actually provide that "much-needed" pass rush that Lawson is supposed to have provided are those that play 3-4 OLB and draft picks named Peter Boulware.

For a comparison, let's look at what the average sack season for each of the various positions has been for these 1st-round LBs:

Position

Yrs

G

Sack

Sack/G

Sack/Yr

4-3 OLB

117

1663

315.0

0.186

2.69

4-3 ILB

63

886

148.5

0.175

2.36

4-3 DE

10

154

56.0

0.367

5.60

3-4 OLB

19

270

151.0

0.545

7.95

3-4 ILB

24

345

42.5

0.115

1.77

3-4 DE

1

16

8.0

0.500

8.00

Total

234

3334

721.0

0.214

3.08

Well, look at that! Seasons from 3-4 OLBs have produced over three times as many sacks as those from LBs in a 4-3. Similarly, seasons from 4-3 DEs have produced twice as many. Not to mention that, interestingly enough, if you take the average season for Lawson's position, 4-3 OLB, and double it to reflect 2 seasons' worth of sacks, you get a value (5.38) that is almost exactly Lawson's 2-year total of 5.5.

OK, so I've pretty much shown here that you can't compare the sack production of 1st-round LBs without taking into consideration the position at and defense on which they play. By failing to do just this, FO compared apples to oranges when citing Lawson's 2-year sack production as an indicator of his bust status.

With this in mind, let's answer my other 3 questions. To do so, we'll need a table that compares each LBs sack production in his first 2 years to that of his subsequent years. Here's such a table:

First 2 Years

Rest of Career

Player

Position

Sack

Sack Max

Position

Sack

Sack Max

Powell

--

0.0

0.0

--

0.0

0.0

Simmons, B.

3-4 ILB

6.0

3.0

4-3 OLB/4-3 ILB

18.0

6.5

Spikes

3-4 ILB

5.0

3.0

4-3 OLB

18.5

6.0

Merriman

3-4 OLB

27.0

17.0

3-4 OLB

12.5

12.5

Ware

3-4 OLB

19.5

11.5

3-4 OLB

34.0

20.0

Wilson, R.

3-4 OLB

9.0

6.0

4-3 DE

15.0

9.0

Farrior

3-4 OLB

1.5

1.5

3-4 ILB

23.0

6.5

Ellis

4-3 DE

10.5

7.5

4-3 DE

66.5

12.5

Urlacher

4-3 ILB

14.0

8.0

4-3 ILB

23.5

6.0

Wilson, A.

4-3 ILB

6.0

5.0

4-3 ILB

15.5

5.0

Barnett

4-3 ILB

5.0

3.0

4-3 ILB

6.5

3.5

Vilma

4-3 ILB

2.5

2.0

3-4 ILB

1.0

1.0

Harris

4-3 ILB

2.5

2.0

4-3 ILB

6.0

2.5

Morris

4-3 ILB

1.0

1.0

4-3 ILB

6.0

3.0

Bulluck

4-3 ILB

1.0

1.0

4-3 OLB

17.0

5.0

Simmons, A.

4-3 ILB

0.0

0.0

4-3 OLB

10.0

4.0

Boulware

4-3 OLB

20.0

11.5

4-3 OLB

49.5

15.0

Pollack

4-3 OLB

4.5

4.5

--

0.0

0.0

Hardy

4-3 OLB

8.0

5.5

4-3 OLB

28.0

10.5

Peterson, J.

4-3 OLB

7.0

4.0

4-3 OLB

39.0

10.0

Rudd

4-3 OLB

7.0

5.0

4-3 OLB

4.5

3.0

Johnson, D.

4-3 OLB

6.5

4.5

4-3 OLB

5.5

4.0

Mobley

4-3 OLB

5.5

4.0

4-3 OLB

5.0

2.0

Arrington

4-3 OLB

4.5

4.0

4-3 OLB

19.0

11.0

Davis, T.

4-3 OLB

3.0

1.5

4-3 OLB

6.5

3.5

Brown, Reg.

4-3 OLB

2.5

2.5

--

0.0

0.0

Fields

4-3 OLB

3.0

2.0

4-3 OLB

31.5

8.0

Brooking

4-3 OLB

2.0

2.0

4-3 ILB

15.0

3.5

Williams, D.J.

4-3 OLB

2.0

2.0

4-3 OLB

4.5

2.5

Brooks

4-3 OLB

1.0

1.0

4-3 OLB

12.5

3.0

Morgan

4-3 OLB/4-3 ILB

2.0

1.0

4-3 ILB

5.0

3.0

Thomas, R.

4-3 OLB/4-3 ILB

2.0

2.0

4-3 OLB

0.0

0.0

Lewis

4-3/3-4 ILB

6.5

4.0

4-3 ILB

27.0

5.0

Katzenmoyer

4-3/3-4 ILB

3.5

3.5

--

0.0

0.0

Total

191.5

535.0

Now, let's answer Question 1: How many LBs drafted in the first round have produced 6+ total sacks in their first 2 years? As you can see from the left side of the table, only 13 of the 34 1st-round LBs since 1995 have produced 6+ sacks in their first 2 years. Here's what that means: Simply by being drafted in the 1st round, the odds were already 3-to-2 against Lawson having 6+ sacks in his first 2 years. The odds for Lawson got even longer when he was slotted in at 4-3 OLB, a position from which only 5 of 14 1st-round LBs reached the 6+ sack threshold during their first 2 years.

Here's Question 2 again: How many LBs drafted in the first round have produced a 10+ sack season after their first 2 years? Looking at the right side of the table this time, you see that only 7 of the 34 fit the bill. Here's what this means: Regardless of how many sacks he had in his first 2 years, the odds are 4-to-1 against Lawson having a 10+ sack season during the remainder of his career. Not to mention that 3 of the Super-7 had already recorded a season with double-digit sacks during their first 2 years.

Let's take this one step further by answering Question 3: How many of the LBs drafted in the 1st round whom produced 6+ total sacks in their first 2 years actually went on to have a 10+ sack season later in their career? As we've already learned, 13 of the 34 1st-round LBs had 6+ sacks in their first 2 years. Comparing the two sides of the table, we now learn that 9 of those 13 actually didn't have a 10+ sack season later in their careers. Here's what that means: Even if Lawson had the required 6+ sacks in his first 2 years, the odds would still be 2-to-1 against him parlaying that success into a 10+ sack season later in his career.

So I think I've made my point here. The whole idea that Lawson is somehow doomed to mediocrity by virtue of the fact that he's had only 5.5 sacks in his first 32 games totally ignores the fact that (a) most 1st-round LBs don't have 6+ sacks during their first 2 years, (b) most 1st-round LBs don't ever have a 10+ sack season, and (c) most 1st-round LBs who have 6+ sacks during their first 2 years don't go on to have a 10+ sack season later in their careers. And finally, all of this is complicated further by the fact that Lawson was miscast at 4-3 OLB his first 2 years, which, unlike 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE, is not a position where the proverbial sack artists are likely to play.

Just a couple of more apples-and-oranges-related things before I'm done with Part 1...

  • If you look back at the first table, you'll see that only 28 of the 252 total seasons played by 1st-round LBs have been short-circuited due to injury. Not shown in the table is that only 5 of the 34 1st-round LBs lost one of their first 2 years due to injury.
  • In the last table, I've displayed in bold the instances in which a player switched from one primary position to another after their first 2 years. As you can see, there have been no instances in which a 1st-round LB switched from primarily playing 4-3 OLB during his first 2 years to playing 3-4 OLB for the rest of his career.

So if we map this all out. Manny Lawson's specific situation heading into 2009 is represented by the following:

  • He was drafted in the 1st round.
  • He lost a season due to injury during his first 2 years.
  • He had fewer than 6 sacks while playing 4-3 OLB during his first 2 years.
  • He switched to 3-4 OLB for the last 5 games of 2008, and will remain there in 2009.

Simply put, no LB that was drafted in the 1st round from 1995 to 2005 has encountered the same set of circumstances as Lawson's. Therefore, it's totally invalid to compare him to the rest of this LB group. In fact, there appears to be no valid comparison whatsoever.

Does all this mean I think Manny Lawson is going to blossom into the sack artist we all hope him to be? No. If anything, by virtue of Lawson playing a more sack-friendly position, I'd anticipate his sack total increasing substantially this year, perhaps up into the high single-digit range.

What this article does mean, however, is that, although FO may ultimately be correct in their prediction for Lawson, the statistical comparison they cited to prove their point was akin to saying that Kentwan Balmer will never have a 100+ tackle season. It totally ignores the expectations of the position being played -- which really surprises me because one of the things I think is great about FO is that they go to unprecedented lengths (e.g., game charting, football consultants, scouts on the payroll, etc.) to incorporate the actual physical, strategic, and tactical aspects of football into their statistics.

Stay tuned for Part 2...

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