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DBB’s Staff Predicts the 2020 Bears Season

| September 9th, 2020

It has been the strangest off-season in the history of the NFL. Now, the folks around here attempt to predict how the regular season will go. And there’s plenty of reason for optimism.


10-6, Playoff Berth.

This should continue to be one of the best defenses in the league, and the offense should be better than last year, but QB issues still limit their ceiling, and I’ll be surprised if the offense finishes better than around 20th in the NFL.

I’m also seriously concerned about the lack of depth at a number of key spots, including offensive line, edge rusher, inside linebacker, and cornerback.

Still, there’s enough talent on this roster that I have a hard time seeing them fall much below .500.

I’m certainly planning on enjoying this year as much as I can, because I think this is likely their best team until at least 2023.


9-7, Wild Card Loss.

This season could go very wrong or it could go very right, why not split the difference?

There is a world in which the quarterback play is just good enough. Trubisky has learned to read defenses and has made enough fundamental improvements to hit the open receivers. Or Nick Foles comes in and plays like he did for the Eagles.

They have talent around the quarterback and will unquestionably be improved at right guard and tight end. If the rest of the offensive line can play like it did in 2018 and the zone blocking scheme clicks, the running game could be explosive.

Defensively, they have arguably more talent than they did in 2018 when they were the best unit in the league. At the very least, they’ll be able to chase quarterbacks and that should lead to a ton of takeaways.

They can ride their defense to the playoffs and hope one of the quarterbacks gets hot like we have seen many times before.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: Coverage

| July 9th, 2020

I’m continuing to look at Chicago’s defense using advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference (PFR). I already looked at missed tackles, and today I want to look at coverage.


Baseline Rates

There are a whole host of advanced coverage stats available, including completion percentage, yards/target, target depth, yards after catch allowed, TDs, INTs, and passer rating. In order to keep it simple, I’m going to look only at yards/target, as that is a good baseline metric for how effective teams are when targeting a player. I’m intentionally not looking at passer rating because that gets skewed by touchdowns and interceptions, which are notoriously random statistics within a small sample size like this.

I compiled all yards/target stats from the PFR database for 2018 and 2019, the only 2 years it has, and sorted them by position. In order to compare starters to starters and avoid rates skewed by backups, I assumed a base nickel package of 4 defensive linemen (DL), 2 linebackers (LB), 3 cornerbacks (CB), and 2 safeties (S). For all 32 teams over a 2 year span, this would mean 128 LB, 192 CB, and 128 S. This gave thresholds of 30 targets for LB, 40 for CB, and 20 for S.

Looking at those sample sizes, you can see the spread of missed tackle rates in the table below for each position group.

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Ryan Pace Has Gone All-In on the 2020 Season

| June 24th, 2020

After a disappointing 8-8 season, Ryan Pace moved aggressively this off-season to revamp the Bears for 2020.

On defense, he re-signed Danny Trevathan, upgraded Leonard Floyd with Robert Quinn, signed Tashaun Gipson as a cheap replacement for HaHa Clinton-Dix, and drafted Jaylon Johnson to replace the aging Prince Amukamara.

On offense, he traded for Nick Foles to compete with upgrade Mitchell Trubisky, replaced oft-injured veterans Taylor Gabriel, Kyle Long, and Trey Burton with Ted Ginn, Germain Ifedi, and Jimmy Graham, and drafted Cole Kmet to hopefully give Chicago their first long-term solution at tight end since Greg Olsen was shipped out of town a decade ago.

That’s an impressively long list of moves for a team that entered the off-season with surprisingly low amounts of cap space and draft capital. And it has left the Bears with what appears to be a pretty solid roster, at least on paper, though it’s fair to say that questions at quarterback certainly limit the optimism.

But things start to look much more questionable when you gaze beyond 2020. You see, the only way Pace could spend money this off-season was by borrowing from the future salary cap, and he did that quite heavily. Several players have had their contracts restructured within the last year+ to clear up immediate cap space by moving money to 2021 and beyond. This totaled around $20M from a combination of Khalil Mack ($7.8M), Kyle Fuller ($4.5M), Charles Leno ($4.2M), and Cody Whitehair ($3.2M).

On top of that, most contracts Pace handed out this off-season were absurdly back loaded.

  • Robert Quinn has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a 3 year, $43M deal (a 2020 savings of over $8M from the average cap hit for the deal). The downside is he will still have total cap charges of $37M remaining in 2021 and beyond, and will likely only play in Chicago for 2021-2022. To make matters worse, those will be his age 31 and 32 seasons, when his play will likely start to slip. He’s a speed rusher that relies heavily on that one skill, so it’s possible that decline will be very pronounced.
  • Danny Trevathan has a $4.2M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a three-year, $21.7M deal. That saves about $3M in 2020 cap, but means the Bears will still have $17.5M on cap charges for his remaining 2 seasons, in which he will be 31 and 32 and likely start to see his play decline.
  • Jimmy Graham has a $6M 2020 cap hit on what is essentially a one-year, $9M deal. That saves $3M in 2020, but means the Bears will have that cap hit in 2021 when he is likely not on the team (if he is on the team, he’ll have a $10M cap hit, which is not ideal for a player who will turn 35 during that season and has already started showing signs of decline).

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What Should Teams Do at the Goal Line?

| June 9th, 2020


It has become common knowledge that passing is far more valuable than running in the NFL. But I have surprisingly seen very little data about how that changes as teams approach the end zone and the real estate tightens.

I found this excellent article looking at all goal-to-go plays, which found that passing is still more valuable than running and highlighted specific types of runs and passes that work better than others. But that groups plays from the 8 or 9 yard line together with plays from the 1 or 2, and those are drastically different scenarios.

I spent about 15 minutes on Google trying to find something detailing what’s most effective for teams to score a TD from the 1 or 2 yard line, and couldn’t find anything, so I decided to do it myself. I started by using the Pro Football Reference game play finder to get a basic look at how often, and how successfully, teams run vs. pass from the 1 and 2 yard line. The table below shows that information for the years 2016-19. I chose that specific time range to be consistent with available information from later in the study.


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How Consistent are Explosive Players?

| June 2nd, 2020


Recently, I’ve found that explosive plays are really important to overall offensive production and explosive plays are extremely inconsistent from year to year on a team level. Today I want to look at explosive plays on an individual level to see if players can be fairly reliable counted on to be more or less explosive than expected.

The Set-Up

Like with the team-level data, I used performance from 2014-19 as my sample size. I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to identify all players who had at least 200 pass attempts, 50 pass targets, or 100 carries in each season. I chose these numbers as somewhat arbitrary thresholds to get a good mix of a sufficient data sample each year and a big enough sample size within each data point to make the data as reliable as possible.

I then looked up the explosive plays (runs of 15+ yards, passes of 20+ yards) each of those players achieved in those seasons. I used the data in aggregate to get average explosive play rates for each. Full data can be seen here.

  • Passing: on average, 8.7% of all passing plays (including sacks) resulted in explosive passes. This data did not seem to change much from 2014-19, with each year fluctuating between 8.3% and 9.1% and no clear year-to-year pattern. I also double checked that smaller sample sizes didn’t skew the data, but the rate stayed the same when I only looked at player seasons with 300+, 400+, or 500+ pass attempts.
  • Rushing: on average, 4.8% of all running back carries resulted in explosive runs. I’ll note I excluded QBs with 100+ carries in a season from this, because many of those are scrambles and thus have a much higher explosive rate, and the sample size of QBs with 100+ carries was too small to study independently. Again, this number didn’t change much year-to-year or if I had a larger carry threshold for inclusion (I checked 150+, 200+, and 250+ carries).
  • Receiving: I split this one up by position, since WRs, TEs, and RBs are used quite differently in the passing game. Overall, 5.5% of targets to running backs, 11.1% of targets to WRs, and 9.3% of targets to TEs resulted in explosive completions. Again, there was little variation year-to-year.

I then used those rates as a baseline for how many explosive plays an individual should be expected to produce based on their volume for the year. For example, a RB with 100 carries and 100 pass targets should be expected to have 4.8 explosive carries and 5.5 explosive receptions. If they actually produced 6 explosive carries and 4 explosive receptions, they had 1.2 more explosive runs and 1.5 fewer explosive catches than expected.

To save words, from here on out I’m going to refer to that as the explosive differential.

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Nick Foles Will Be the Starting Quarterback

| June 1st, 2020


For the Bears, there is no more important issue looming than which man will be under center receive the shotgun snap when the Bears take the field against Detroit in Week One. Today I want to dig into the stats to see what we can learn about Foles vs. Trubisky, as well as what to expect from whoever wins that derby compared to other QBs around the NFL.

The table below shows basic efficiency statistics for Trubisky and Foles in the Reid offense (so Trubisky in 2018-19 in Chicago and Foles in 2016 in KC and 17-18 in Philadelphia), plus the other three notable recent Reid QBs (Smith 13-17, Mahomes 18-19, Wentz 16-19). I’ll note I included playoff stats for everybody because otherwise Foles’ sample size is just so small (less than 350 with just regular season, just over 500 with playoffs included). I also included the NFL average for 2018-19 as a frame of reference for what’s roughly normal around the league. I split up the data into short and long passes (targeted more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) using Pro Football Reference’s game play finder.

That’s a lot of information to digest, so let’s look at short and deep passes separately.


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How Consistent are Explosive Plays?

| May 26th, 2020

The Bears produced the fewest explosive plays in the NFL last year, and given the importance of explosive plays to overall offensive output, that largely explains their status as one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

So I want to look at how consistent explosive plays are. We’ll start with a team-by-team basis, and then look at it on a player-by-player level in a follow-up article.


The Setup

I used Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder to track explosive runs (gained 15+ yards) and passes (gained 20+ yards) for each team season since 2014. I did this to have 5 years to compare season-over-season consistency (2014 vs. 2015, 2015 vs. 2016, etc.), giving a respectable sample size of 160 data points without going too far into the past, since the NFL is a constantly evolving league.


Results

I started by doing a simple comparison of explosive plays a team had in one year compared to explosive plays they gained the following year. As you can see in the chart below, there wasn’t much of a relationship.

As a reminder, correlation (R²) is a measure of how strong the relationship between two variables is. It ranges from 0-1, with 0 meaning there is no relationship whatsoever. So a value of 0.027 tells us there is basically no relationship between how many explosive plays a team has in one year compared to how many they will have the following year.

I’ll note I did similar looks for explosive runs and passes when separated out from each other and got similar results (R² < 0.07 for both). I also looked at all three in terms of explosive rate (explosive plays/total plays), and got similar results. I don’t feel the need to pepper this article with a bunch of similar graphs that show no results, but if you’re curious, the full data set and graphs can be seen here.

This then, would seem to suggest good things for the Bears. Just because they were unexplosive in 2019 does not mean the same will be true in 2020. 

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Establishing Realistic Expectations for Cole Kmet

| May 13th, 2020


The Bears spent their first pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet, a big tight end from Notre Dame who has a chance to plug a Bears’ roster hole from day one.

It should be noted, however, that tight end is a position where conventional wisdom says it’s hard to make a big impact in your rookie season due to a steep learning curve. In order to establish realistic expectations for Kmet, let’s take a look at how comparable tight ends have fared in their first few years of the NFL.

In order to do so, I looked at all 18 tight ends drafted in the 2nd round between 2010-19. I tracked their playing time and statistical contributions on offense after extrapolating to a full 16 game season to normalize the data since several players missed games with injuries.

The full data can be seen here, but I’m just going to show the range of snaps played, targets earned, passes caught, and receiving yards, which can be seen in the table below.



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Data Draft Thoughts: On Small Schools, Selecting Needs & Not Mortgaging Future Picks (Finally)

| April 29th, 2020

Here are some random musings about the Bears’ approach to the draft last weekend.


Mortgage Paid

This draft marked the first time since 2016 that Ryan Pace didn’t trade away a future day 1 or 2 pick.

Because of these frequent trades – and the  Khalil Mack deal – the Bears have had only two 1st round picks and 5 day 2 picks (out of 8 expected) over the last 4 drafts. That kind of continued deficit catches up to you eventually, and Pace has continually borrowed from the future to make up for it.

This year, Pace finally resisted the temptation to trade a high future pick for instant gratification. This is a good thing, because you always pay a steep interest rate on those kind of moves. The typical rule of thumb is that a pick 1 year away is worth a current pick 1 round lower, which we saw in action last weekend when Pace traded a 2021 4th round pick for a 2020 5th rounder and used it to select edge rusher Trevis Gipson. At least he only traded a future day 3 pick, which while less than ideal is still better than trading away a pick from the first 2 days of the draft. Next year the Bears will have close to their full complement of picks with which to work.


Positional Focus

Prior to the draft, I identified wide receiver, offensive line, cornerback, safety, and edge rusher as the Bears’ greatest 2020 needs, with tight end as a looming roster hole for 2021 and beyond. Given that every pick this weekend was spent on these positions, and all of them besides safety were addressed, it seems they mostly agreed with me.

I also did pre-draft work looking at where value was likely to be found in the draft, and concluded:

  • The best value at defensive back is early.
  • Tight end and interior offensive line have better value late.
  • Wide receiver has value throughout the draft.
  • Edge rusher is unlikely to provide value anywhere in the draft.

Well, Pace’s approach in regards to this wisdom was mixed. They did take a defensive back early, but also late. They took a wide receiver and waited on interior offensive line, but grabbed a tight end early and took an edge rusher. Let’s compare where their selections were drafted with where they ranked on the Athletic’s consensus big board. Note Hambright and Simmons did not appear on the 300 player big board.

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Where is the Positional Value for the Chicago Bears in the 2020 Draft? (Part Two)

| April 21st, 2020

Yesterday I looked at top 50 prospects and found there is likely to be excellent value at WR, with solid value expected at DB, OT, and QB. Today, I want to look at the top 175 prospects to roughly fall in line with the Bears’ 3rd pick, which is 163.

The table below shows how many players were drafted in the top 175 picks at each main Bears position of need in the 2010-19 drafts. Because every draft is different, I provided a range from the least to most players at that position drafted in the top 175 picks within the last 10 drafts, as well as an average. The last column shows how many players from that position are ranked in the top 175 right now according to a composite big board.



 

Look at the ranges compared to how many players are currently ranked in the top 175 to get an idea of what positions are strong or weak in terms of depth for this year’s draft. For instance, 28 WRs are ranked in the top 175 prospects this year, while an average of 21.4 go in that range, and never more than 25 in the last 10 years. That suggests there is likely value to be found at WR in round 5 (though we never know exactly how a draft will unfold). A few other thoughts:

  • Offensive tackle likewise sees a higher number of prospects ranked than have been drafted in the last 10 years. This position was strong in the top 50 as well, suggesting quality options can be found throughout the draft.
  • Interior offensive line and tight end both presented poorly in the top 50 but are above average in the top 175, suggesting the depth is better than the top end talent and the Bears might do well looking to address these spots on day 3.
  • On the flip side, quarterback and defensive back are both below average in the top 175 but above average in the top 50. This suggests the Bears likely want to focus their attention on those spots with high picks if they’re going to be selected.

Let’s go through position-by-position at the likely value spots for the Bears’ 5th round pick and see what players are likely to be options.

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