Each year, immediately after the NFL draft, I write my annual Fanpost entitled "Reading Between the Lines". You can see last year’s post HERE and the one before HERE.
The premise of this post is quite different from what you usually see on NN. I go beyond the futility of second-guessing individual decisions made by paid professionals at 4949 Centennial and try instead to read between the lines of those moves. My objective is to better understand the logic of Lynch-Shanahan in their efforts to rebuild this franchise.
To most fans, rebuilding a sports enterprise must seem simpler than rocket science. But, in reality, building rockets is kids' play by comparison. The visible part of the team rebuilding process may be straightforward enough — you have the draft, you have free agents, you have trades, and all of that obvious stuff must happen and be dutifully reported by beat writers. But what really determines success in building a franchise goes far beyond the things that beat writers analyze and fans opine about. It lies on a roulette wheel of thousands of small bets that get placed along the way, most of which will never work out or catch the public eye. These are the intangibles that go to all those essential things like teamwork and culture: front office, coaching staff and locker room. Rebuilding is, most of all, about quantifiable progress that requires metrics beat writers don’t seem to know much about.
So let’s start there.
Simple predictive models estimate 4, 8 and 12 team wins in years 1-3 of the perfect rebuild. Such models do not account for injuries such as the ones the team has endured. So is there some other quantitative metric we can use to measure team progress?
I will present one such metric and two other examples in support of the claim that Lynch-Shanahan do, in fact, know what they are doing.
One old adage in the football business is that a championship-caliber team must have above-average starters (preferably with a sprinkling of elite talent at key positions like QB and EDGE) and "solid" backups. Teams are merciless at attacking even a small chink in the armor, so the adage sort of makes sense. But how do we assess quality? PFF ratings? Potential in a drafted player based on their performance in college? Your next-door neighbor’s opinion?
I say this as a disclaimer. I can offer you a system for rating and put in some numbers that make sense to me or that PFF came up with. But you can take that framework and change the numbers if you do not like them. Your choice.
First I take the various positions and rank them into 4 tiers based on current market values. For example, it is virtually impossible to obtain an elite QB or EDGE in free agency or via trade (Tier "A"). In rare cases you may find an elite WR, CB, LT or interior D-lineman for sale, but the price tends to be exorbitant (Tier "B"). Tier "C" includes a second CB, WR, OT, EDGE and interior DL, as well as any positions that are of particular importance for the scheme you’re running. In our team’s case this might include FS, C and a particular kind of RB. Everyone else is Tier "D".
In my scoring system I give a different score for each Tier. And only to those players that are significantly better than league average for starters and no worse than league average for backups. If a player qualifies, he gets scored, otherwise not. Starters get twice as much as backups. As I said, feel free to change this system to your tastes, but if you retain the basic logic you will probably reach the same conclusions.
Below is the scorecard for Shanahan’s 49ers the first time they took the field in 2017.
Note the percentage progress towards the final goal of building a championship-caliber team. In Year 1, both for Tiers and for starters and backups as a whole the scores are roughly 20-30%.
Now look at the start of the 2019 season, based on team personnel on board as of today.
Starters have improved from 28 to 89%, backups from 19.5 to 75.6%. Remember, this is a scoring system where 100 is a championship-caliber team. Hardly any real-life NFL teams actually reach that level, by the way. Try scoring some other team’s personnel, if you don’t believe me. Try the last five SB champions. None of them reach 100.
A word about the color scheme: Red is elite talent, dark blue is well-above average. Remember, only starters above league average get scored at all. I have taken the liberty of assuming the best prospects for players like Trent Taylor and Deebo Samuel. Feel free to haircut those numbers if you find them too rosy. It won’t change the picture much.
One of the more impressive achievements of the Lynch-Shanahan regime is the progress in upgrading the hardest categories, Tiers "A" and "B" (100% and 91.7% respectively). This means the remaining upgrades will be relatively easy to execute.
ADAPTING TO MODERN TRENDS
It is a proverbial "given" that all teams will do their best to adapt. But few teams succeed entirely. There are always chinks in the armor and, thus, favorable matchups to be exploited. Kyle Shanahan is this generation’s wizard at that, just as Walsh was in his day. Yes, I just said that. In essence, football has become a passing game stretching the middle of the field horizontally. Look at how New England beat a dominant Seattle defense in the SB some years ago: steady, methodical short passes for 7, 5, 8 yards at a time, all game long. As pass rushers become more ferocious, this is the only sensible counter. In essence, your pass-catchers and defenders in the middle of the field decide the modern game.
Shanahan plays this modern game with savvy. He (unlike Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh) has stayed at the top of the offensive game for over a decade because he sticks to a very simple plan: find favorable matchups in the middle of the field on every play. If you want to understand why the 49ers’ franchise makes the moves it makes, start there.
Like any arms race, you do something and defenses find a way to counter. There was a time when hybrid safety-linebackers like Fred Warner were the exception. Not any longer. Every smart team now drafts for it. So, what next?
The difference between success and failure in the NFL is measured in milliseconds of reaction time, and there is a cumulative effect. This is what lies at the root of pre-snap motion, tempo, play-action passes, RPO concepts and so on. But Shanahan is going a step further: he is leading the league in the use of Swiss-Army-Knife players like RB-WR hybrids (we have three high-caliber examples on the roster), FB-TE hybrids like Kyle Juszczyk and now a potential RB-WR-TE (Hurd). This is the next evolutionary level in pre-snap motion. Now 11 personnel, 21 personnel, it won’t matter. Shanahan will someday be able to run pretty much any play from any personnel grouping, and defenses will only find out what’s coming after the ball is snapped.
Even a defense composed of superheroes who fly cannot do wholesale re-shuffling of personnel in the middle of the field in two hundred milliseconds, particularly if they don’t have a clue where to go. This means that Shanahan can dictate the matchups he wants by pre-snap motioning of his multiply-skilled personnel. He already enjoys a quick-release QB who is dead accurate gunslinging into intermediate range. He has a nominal deep threat to prevent the centerfielder from cheating down. He has WRs like Pettis, Taylor and Samuel that have the toughness, footwork, route-running acumen and short-area quicks needed for a middle-of-the-field passing game. (Samuel led all receivers in college in executing slants, and his toughness is Anquan-like.) George Kittle is now a weapon that can draw the crowd wherever Shanahan wants it to go. Kyle has even gotten himself one Jalen Hurd, raw but potentially unique in a scheme that Shanahan is inventing on the fly, just as he did for Juszczyk, back when.
If you see the evolution of the game in this way the team’s rebuild is more than just adding players with good PFF ratings. It is about something far more exquisite. And, if you are a true fan, I suggest you don’t deny yourself the pleasures of anticipation. Don’t get thrown off by some bonehead comment about how a punter should have been picked in the fifth rather than fourth round of the draft. Beat writers, bless their hearts. Keep your eye on the ball.
If you’re like me, your first reaction when you hear that the 49ers won’t pay out 15 mil a year to make Earl Thomas our free safety you organize a short meeting between your fist and the nearest wall. It would have been so perfect, your heart says and, of course, it would have been a transcendent move for a secondary that had its challenges last year.
But when you start thinking like a business, the decision the 49ers made is obvious and sane. What I applaud, most of all, is the fortitude to stick with that fiscal discipline. It makes me more confident that the success this regime builds now will sustain itself until I’m too old to care. Paraag Marathe is a lot younger than I am.
Each position group on a team can sustain a certain dollar amount in outlay. If you look at the league figures, there are averages for each position that teams tend to spend. In order to maintain player excellence within budget, the formula is something like what you see with our EDGE rush group now: one big contract for 5 years (Ford), one drafted stud (Bosa) under our control on the cheap for 5 years who will become the one big contract 5 years from now, and some other player, yet to be drafted, to be Ford 2.0 in 4-5 years. This is how you keep position costs civilized.
Another example is the offensive tackle position: Staley has the big bucks for 4 years (yes, I expect him not to retire before then), then McGlinchey gets the big bucks and some young stud gets drafted. This is why they were only looking for a low-rent late-draft swing tackle this year. Else the timing would be off. As any spreadsheet guy will tell you, timing is everything.
Now look at the DB group. Sherman has the big bucks there, but there’s room for one more big contract. If Earl Thomas had been signed, that would have been it. But what if Witherspoon returns to form? What if Colbert does the same? The clock is ticking on their second contracts next year. Do you let them walk?
You can look at each position group and predict what happens next. Buckner and Kittle are legit superstar contracts about to hit the books. So, what happens to the rest of the interior DL? Solomon Thomas happens. Kentavius Street happens. Armstead may be traded this year. What happens with tight ends? Kaden Smith happens.
This is the kind of discipline that anyone who has run a business instantly understands. You’re constantly making these kinds of choices in a well-run business. If you don’t make such choices, you may not be running a business for long.