Big News is No News: 8th Circuit Rules, Life Goes On

>> 7.08.2011

Today was supposed to be a very big day for settlement negotiations. Naturally, the 8th Circuit decided to drop a bomb in the middle of the room this morning with its ruling in the NFL’s appeal. Fortunately, after everyone panicked and ran screaming, we learned that the ruling won’t blow up progress after all. For reference, here’s the full text of the ruling.

This judgment was hardly unexpected—and, unlike the ruling in the stay, I found it well-considered and properly placed within the context of the history of the two parties. The 8th circuit had come down so strongly on the side of the owners in its ruling on the stay of the injunction, there was little doubt they’d ultimately vacate Judge Nelson’s ruling. So, as expected, we’re left with the status quo—lockout.

Keep in mind, though: all this recent progress has come during the lockout, so the lockout remaining in place doesn’t change much of anything. Further, the 8th court didn’t touch the Brady v. NFL lawsuit—they purposefully didn’t address the question of whether the NFL has an antitrust exemption if there’s no union. Further yet, they noted that their reading of the Norris-LaGuardia Act bars federal courts from issuing injunctions against lockouts as well as strikes—but not, necessarily, for employers to lock out employees who aren’t in a union or under contract.

The biggest (valid (IMO)) criticism of Judge Nelson’s handling of the injunction was her decision on harms—who’d be harmed more, locked-out players, or owners forced to scramble and sign players to megabuck deals on a tight deadline? Essentially, Judge Nelson took the players’ word for it that they’d suffer mightily, and the NFL didn’t get to refute or cross-examine the testimony.

Now, the 8th circuit has remanded the case back to Judge Nelson, asking her to hold evidentiary hearings, and consider whether the NFL can lock out rookies and free agents. If she rules they can’t, we could have court-enforced free agency within a few weeks—unless, of course, the NFL appeals that ruling, too, and the saga continues . . .

. . . ultimately, this is exactly the ruling the Court promised: one neither side likes. Leverage hasn’t shifted appreciably, and there’s still a long way to go before we even get to the actual antitrust trial—let alone a final verdict. The Court is pushing the parties to settle this before it even goes back to Judge Nelson—and the joint statement released by the NFL and NFLPA shows that’s exactly what they intend to do.


Old Mother Hubbard: Shopping For Linebackers Pt. I

>> 7.07.2011

The Lions’ linebacker shopping is a tricky thing. What the Lions, in theory, need, is an outside linebacker—but the pool at inside linebacker is deeper, and starting MLB Deandre Levy has the tools to play outside. In Part I, I’ll assume the Lions kick Levy outside, and bring in a starting middle ‘backer.


One of the things I noticed about the ILB grades is that they deviate more wildly from popular reputation than other position groups. We fans know we can’t really evaluate secondary play because TV cameras don’t show it well—and analysts can only guess at coverage assignments. Let’s face it, the only reason most fans know Nnamdi Asomugha is good is because so many analysts have said so. Even if we flip to a Raiders game and watch it start to finish, we’ll be unlikely to see what makes him better than most other corners.

However, I’m coming to believe that linebacker play is just as poorly understood. Half of linebacker play is coverage, after all, and LB coverage assignments are even more ineffable than those of safeties or cornerbacks. Beyond that, though, run gap fits are still a matter of observation and guesswork, and without “film study” we’re not looking that closely at LB play anyway. At full speed, all we notice are big stops, broken tackles, and massive whiffs—and not all of them, either. I had to go frame-by-frame to notice this terrible Ernie Sims arm tackle in the hole. The result? We know big names much better than we know who actually had good seasons.

Takeo Spikes is the highest-graded free-agent-to-be, and by all accounts he had a terrific year last year. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the Niners re-signing Spikes should be a “no-brainer,” but last year’s third-rounder, NaVorro Bowman, played well in injury relief (+3.7 overall on 217 snaps). If the 49ers are comfortable with Bowman stepping into the starting role, they could let the 34-year-old Spikes explore the market.

Just how good was Spikes last year? With a +24 overall rating, he was the seventh-best graded linebacker in the NFL. For comparison, his ILB partner Patrick Willis turned in a +31, second-best in the NFL. The 6’-2”, 242-pound Spikes was very solid in coverage, +5.9, and incredible against the run; his +18.2 grade was ranked 3rd overall, surpassing even Willis! He was only called for one penalty, but it was declined or offset. The only grade that isn’t outstandingly positive is his -0.5 pass rush mark; he was the only PFF Top Ten linebacker whose pass rush grade was below 0.

As a pure run-stopper, Spikes was nearly the ideal: he had 92 tackles and 10 assists,  and was only credited with two missed tackles. Counting assists as a half-solo, his ratio of tackles-to-missed-tackles was second-best in the NFL. Sounds like exactly the kind of run-stopper the Lions have been looking for since Stephen Boyd, right? Well . . . maybe not.

I compared the ratio of solo tackles to “stops,” solo tackles that result in offensive failure [I can’t find PFF’s definition of Stops, but here’s Football Outsiders’]. Of Spikes’ 92 solo tackles, only 48 actually prevented offensive success. Of Deandre Levy’s 61 solo tackles, 34 were stops, so their ratios of solo tackles-to-stops are quite similar (ranked 26th and 33rd of 5o, respectively). When we add in assists and missed tackles, to get an every-chance-you-had-to-make-a-tackle-to-stops rate, the gap returns, but not as widely: Spikes had a 12th-best possible-tackle-to-stops rate of 1.8, while Levy’s  was a 37th-best 2.3.

Spikes was playing ILB in a 3-4, and though he’s played in many different alignments and positions throughout his career, that’s probably where he’s best suited. He had the benefit of playing next to Patrick Willis, a benefit he won’t have here. He was fantastic in a narrow window, even in coverage (he had 3 picks and 5 PDs on only 48 targets), but the Lions would expect Spikes to cover a lot of ground laterally. Moreover, at 34, he’d be a short-term player at most, at worst a one-year rental. If Spikes leaves, I don’t expect him to come here.

The most obvious free-agent candidate is the Titans' Stephen Tulloch. Graded the 15th-best ILB by PFF, the 5’-11”, 240-pound Tulloch was drafted back in 2006 by Schwartz’s Titans. Last year, the former fourth-rounder’s fifth season, was his first as a wire-to-wire starter—though he started 13 and 12 games in his fourth and third year, respectively. Incredibly, Tully played 1,222 snaps—the most of any ILB in the NFL, by a long shot. His overall grade of +13.6 was well earned, then, as were his run-stopping grade of +10.5 and +8.3. Like Spikes, though, his pass rush skills left a lot to be desired. Tulloch’s -1.3 rush grade slotted him 41st out of 51 qualifying ILBs.

Still, Tulloch’s run-stoppingness cannot be denied. Tully had a solo, assist, or missed tackle once every 7.1 snaps he played—that rate was sixth-best in the NFL. I don’t have run plays face vs. passing plays faced, so that stat may not be gospel—but he certainly got to the ball carrier an awful lot. His tackles-to-missed-tackles rate was 16.1, 16th-best in the NFL. His 76 total stops were the most in the NFL—though when dividing his aggregate solos, assists, and missed tackles by stops, that total isn’t quite as impressive (2.0 possible-tackles-to-stops rate, ranked 25th).

In coverage, Tulloch held up extremely well, despite being picked on constantly; he was thrown at once every 12.9 snaps, third-most in the NFL! Only Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons and New England’s Gary Guyton were thrown at more often (each once every 12.8 snaps). Of course, since his snap total topped the league, his targets do, too, with a whopping 95. Despite this shelling, Tulloch did okay, allowing 72.6% of those TA to be caught, and holding his assignments to 7.0 YpC. He stopped the bleeding very quickly, allowing a fifth-best 4.0 YAC per catch. He also had five passes defensed and an interception—but with 95 targets, those are actually low numbers, 34th-worst PD-or-INT-per-target rate in the NFL. His passer rating allowed was a middle-of-the-pack 89.9.

Tulloch got to the ballcarrier as often as almost anyone, and was picked on in coverage almost as much as anyone. He had the heaviest snap workload in the NFL, and he was involved in those snaps at very high rates. It’d be fair to say that no one ILB did more for his defense than Stephen Tulloch in 2010—yet, the Titans have already prepared for Tulloch’s departure, drafting Florida ILB Colin McCarthy. They fear Tulloch will “cost too much to keep,” despite his obvious value. Whether it’s because Jim Schwartz will be waiting at midnight with a bottle of vino, or because there’ll be a bidding war the Lions will bow out of, Tulloch won’t come cheaply.

Kevin Burnett, like Spikes, played ILB in a 3-4 last year. However, he and his Chargers partner, Stephen Cooper, are both free-agents to be. From what I can gather, the Chargers will try to bring back Burnett and pair him with backup ILB Brandon Siler and/or U of M 2nd-round draftee Jonas Mouton. Burnett turned in much better PFF grades than Cooper in 2010: +11.3 overall, an astounding +6.1 when rushing the passer, and +6.5 in run stopping. His -1.3 in pass coverage isn’t great, of course, but the 6’-3”, 240-pound Burnett finally emerged as a quality player.

Cooper, for what it’s worth, is practically the opposite: +7.8 in coverage, but -0.8 in pass rush, and -4.7 in run stopping. His +3.3 overall is okay, but the 32-year-old Cooper is not a tantalizing possible solution to the Lions’ run-stopping woes, like Burnett. Unfortunately, while Burnett might be good enough to make the switch from 3-4 ILB to 4-3 MLB, Cooper isn’t, and the Chargers will likely pick the 28-year-old Burnett.

The player that isn’t getting much publicity is the Jaguars’ Kirk Morrison, who the Jaguars were hoping to be able to replace in the draft, but couldn’t. He’s been given the “go ahead and shop yourself but if it won’t cost too much we’ll take you back” speech from the Jags’ brass, mostly due to his flagging coverage. But, while his well-below-average -2.1 coverage grade (and second-worst in the league 137.6 passer rating allowed) looks bad, Morrison was one of the surest tacklers alive in 2010.

With one missed tackle to 69 solos and 9 assists, Morrison had the best missed tackle ratio of any inside linebacker in the NFL. His range may not be great—his ratio of snaps to solo, assisted, and missed tackles was 9.6, below average and ranked 31st—but his ratio of solo, assisted, and missed tackles to stops was 1.7, essentially tied for third-best in the NFL. Ultimately, Kirk Morrison plays the 4-3 run stopper as well as anyone—and if the Lions are okay with his coverage limitations, he could be an excellent value pickup.

Stewart Bradley and Barrett Ruud I’ve included more to pop their bubbles than anything else. Bradley had a rough go of it in 2010 after a breakout junior year, turning in a -4.5 overall grade. He was trying to recover from an offseason ACL tear, and later trying to shake off a horrific in-game concussion. Worse yet, Bradley’s injury replacement, Jamar Chaney, performed brilliantly in relief—meaning the Eagles would like to bring Bradley back, but as an outside linebacker. I’ve liked Bradley, but he’s got a bunch of issues and won’t likely be available.

Ruud, a guy I really hoped the Lions would draft back in 2005 (he went one pick before we selected Shaun Cody), has had an up-and-down ride with the Bucs. Last season, Ruud was the 49th-best (a.k.a. second-worst) PFF-graded ILB, with a -13.3 overall mark. In a year where the average was +8.3, that’s really poor. He might be touted as a value option—but if his 2010 performance was any indication, he’s a significant downgrade from DeAndre Levy; I don’t see him as an option at all.


AnnouncING: The Wild TUrkeys, a USMNT Blog

>> 7.06.2011

Hey all, working on the OMH of the free agent linebackers. In the meantime, I want to point you all to my latest side project: The Wild Turkeys, a USMNT soccer blog. Don’t worry—just like A Beautiful Day for Football, my MSU football blog, I’ll only post every 4-8 weeks or so, and slightly more often when real happenings are happening. It won’t, at all take away from my TLiW posting schedule—in fact, it’ll keep most of that silly soccer stuff off the front page here (I’ll continue to post news about the Silverdome renovation and Detroit’s MLS bid every blue moon or so).

So, yeah. Check out The Wild Turkeys, and lemme know what you think—and keep your eyes peeled for the linebacker OMH!


Free Agency: Riverboat Gambling

>> 7.05.2011


The NHL free agency period opened up right before the holiday weekend, and a slew of teams eager to spend a surplus of cap money pushed prices through the roof. The Red Wings made a couple of decent Plan B and Plan C signings, along with bringing back every current Wing they really wanted back—but fan hopes of blowing through a $16M war chest and landing an impact defensemen, impact forward, and veteran goalie in the opening 48 hours were dashed. Per Nick Cotsonika, the Red Wings’ attempt to see how the market breaks didn’t break their way; they were forced to bring in players they didn’t like because their targets went elsewhere.

The zaniness surrounding the upcoming NFL free agency period will be an order of magnitude worse. First, the salary cap will likely be higher—and the salary floor will be definitely be much higher. It’s likely that the cap will be less “artificial” and more tied to actual cash outlay. Penny-pinching teams (like the Bucs) will have to go out and burn money just to get up to the minimum, pushing the market price for all free agents through the roof.

The question is, are the Lions going to be spenders, or savers? Martin Mayhew famously will not pay more than he thinks a player is worth—and yet he spent lavishly to secure the services of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson. Are there any players who’ll get the Lions to open up the purse strings, or will they be nickel-and-diming it in the second week?

I can't claim to know the thought processes of Mayhew and company, so I’ll just talk it out. First, we’re past the point of stopgaps. The Lions won’t be going out and getting an Anthony Henry or a Grady Jackson on the cheap—hoping an over-the-hill veteran will be able to step in and start. So, don’t expect any of the “need” spots, like cornerback or linebacker, to be filled with penny-ante guys (who’ll likely be paid handsomely in this market anyway). In the Free Agent Cornerback OMH, I said I thought Lions would more likely target a Chris Carr, an Antonio Cromartie—or even both—before laying out the massive cash required for a Nnamdi Asomugha. 

Thinking about it in terms of market forces, though, Chris Carr could make double what he’s actually worth. If you’re concerned about getting value for your money, would you rather back up the Brinks truck for one of the best players on the planet, or pay 70% of that king’s ransom for a B+ starter you’re particularly fond of? It’s an open question. As the negotiations go down to the wire, and both sides talking about when, not if, an agreement is made, the Lions will have to know their targets and pursue them aggressively from the jump—if a third-tier guy is your Plan A, be on his doorstep at midnight with a bucket of money. Get the guy you want, whether that’s Nnamdi or Carr or Cromartie or Eric Wright or Dre Bly. Whoever it is, the Lions can’t be holding their nose as they offer contracts.

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