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Light, Fast & Explosive: Looking at TE Fits in the 2020 Draft

| March 25th, 2020

It’s no secret that the Bears are looking to upgrade the tight end group this offseason, after the position gave them historically bad production in 2019. If past positional overhauls are any indication (RB in 2018 offseason, WR in 2017 offseason), Ryan Pace will likely look to add players both in free agency and the draft.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bears have added Jimmy Graham to this group in free agency on what is essentially a one-year deal.]

Last year, I looked at the Combine performance of every tight end drafted for a Reid offense in Philadelphia (1999-2012, 2016-present with Doug Pederson) or Kansas City (2013-present) to see if any patterns emerged.  Three traits stood out:

  • Light: every tight end was 258 pounds or less, with an average of less than 250 pounds for the group as a whole. That is appreciably lighter than the NFL average of 255 pounds.
  • Fast: the average NFL tight end runs a 40 in around 4.70 seconds. 8 of 10 in this sample size were faster than that.
  • Explosive: explosiveness is usually measured through jumps, and the average vertical jump for tight ends is just under 33″. 8 of the 10 in this sample beat that, with an average of 34.3″.

This then gives us a rough profile of a tight end who would be targeted as a pass catcher in this offense. They should be under 260 pounds, run a sub 4.70 40, and have a 33″ or better vertical jump. These all make sense. The main purpose of a TE in this offense (at least for the U TE) is to be able to catch passes. They need to be athletic and able to challenge defenses down the field.

I’ll note these test results are not a way to say how good or bad a tight end will be, but simply if they match the physical characteristics of previous players who have excelled in this offense. Think of it as a way to identify what players are a priority for evaluation.

Now let’s look at which tight ends in the draft this year fit the profile. The table below shows all of the tight ends from the Combine, sorted by how many thresholds they hit. Misses are highlighted in red, while measurements that player did not provide are in purple.

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What are the Bears Getting in Nick Foles?

| March 19th, 2020

The Bears traded a 4th round pick for Nick Foles, and the Bears officially have their new quarterback.

On the surface it might seem puzzling to trade for a 31 year-old quarterback who hasn’t thrown 200 passes in a season since 2015, but one of the big draws for Foles was his familiarity in Matt Nagy’s offense. He played for Nagy in Kansas City in 2016 and in the same scheme in Philadelphia under Doug Pederson in 2017-18. This could be especially important in this offseason, when team activities might not happen before training camp due to Covid-19.

Let’s take a look at some advanced statistics to see how Foles has performed in this offense. In my view, advanced statistics tell us as much about a quarterback’s approach as they do his efficiency. From them, you can see if he favors holding the ball to make a play or getting it out quickly to avoid taking a sack, pushing it deep or throwing it underneath, and making safe passes or taking chances into coverage.

The table below shows a battery of advanced statistics for Foles from 2016-18. For comparison, I included Mitchell Trubisky’s stats from his time under Nagy, and also Alex Smith’s from his time in this offense in Kansas City (the Next Gen Stats database only goes back to 2016, so I couldn’t make his sample any larger). I’ll note that Foles’ stats include playoff games to make the sample a bit bigger; even with that, it’s barely over 500 passes, and about 1/3 of that comes from the playoffs. I color-coordinated columns into general categories: basic efficienty stats (gray), throwing distance (blue), throwing time (tan), and taking chances (green). All data comes from Next Gen Stats except deep passes, which are from Pro Football Reference.

A few thoughts:

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2020 Free Agency Primer

| March 13th, 2020

Free agency starts this week, so let’s take stock of where exactly the Bears’ roster is at. We’ll start by looking at who they currently have under contract, then move to the cap situation to get an idea of how much money they have to spend.

Offense

The table below shows a rough depth chart for the Bears based only on players who are currently under contract with the team. (disclaimer: these are accurate as of 9:00 am on Friday, March 13).

A few thoughts:

  • Everybody wants to talk about QB and TE on the offense, and with good reason, but right guard is the more pressing issue. Alex Bars was undrafted a year ago and played a total of 12 snaps last year on offense. Rashaad Coward, who started 10 games at right guard in 2019, is a restricted free agent, meaning it will be easy for the Bears to bring him back. Given his poor level of play, however, merely doing that wouldn’t solve the problem.
  • Their depth on the offensive line is also a concern. Sam Mustipher was undrafted last year and spent the whole season on the practice squad. I had honestly never heard of Dino Boyd before putting this together – he’s never appeared in an NFL game – but he’s currently the only backup tackle on the roster.
  • So overall the Bears need 3 solid players on the offensive line: a starting right guard, a swing tackle, and a reserve interior offensive lineman (potentially Rashaad Coward).
  • WR is another under the radar issue. Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller are fine as the top 2 receivers, but Javon Wims was bad last year, and Riley Ridley wasn’t good enough to take snaps away from him. None of these guys but Cordarrelle Patterson are fast, and Patterson has proven clearly on 4 teams over 7 years that he’s nothing more than a part-time player on offense. The Bears don’t have money to spend here, but a cheaper veteran for better depth might be a good option.

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Combine Focus: A Deeper Dive into the Bears Need for Speed

| February 27th, 2020

The NFL gathers this week in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine (or Underwear Olympics, as Jeff prefers to call them), when fans throw out years of game film and focus instead on numbers from a few tests done without pads on watch eagerly to see how well their favorite players perform in a number of drills testing athleticism.

No drill is more popular than the 40 yard dash, the purest measure of straight line speed that we have. While results of these few seconds often get over-weighted, speed is lethal in the NFL, and one of the (many) problems with Chicago’s offense is that they don’t have enough of it among their skill position players – RBs, TEs, and WRs. To better illustrate that, let’s dig into the numbers.


What Counts as Fast?

To start with, let’s figure out what average speed looks like in the NFL.

Defining this is more difficult than you might imagine, because getting an average first requires defining a sample.

I was able to find two different studies that did this, with different samples and thus different results.

  • The first is MockDraftable, which provides the average for all Combine times at every position since 1999. However, not all players at the Combine end up playing in the NFL, and some not at the Combine do.
  • The 2nd study by Topher Doll looked at all players who appeared in at least 5 NFL games since 2000 and found, unsurprisingly, faster averages nearly across the board than just plain Combine averages.

The table below shows the average 40 time for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends for each study.

As we can see, those are quite a bit different. Since the Doll study is based on players who actually made it to the NFL, I think that’s probably a better reference value to use as average speed for a position.


Chicago’s Speed

Now let’s look at the 40 times for every player who recorded a carry or target for Chicago in 2019.

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Self-Scouting Matt Nagy’s 2019 Play Calling

| February 21st, 2020

The Bears’ offense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2019 for a variety of reasons. I have already highlighted issues with personnel at right guard, quarterback, and tight end, as well as problems with how coaches chose to use the personnel available to them.

Today I want to look at down and distance tendencies to see what we can learn about Matt Nagy’s situational play calling. With that in mind, I looked at how effective Chicago’s offense was in various situations compared to the NFL as a whole in 2019. All statistics are from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.


First Down

The table below compares their performance on first down to the NFL as a whole. Success rate data is from Sharp Football.

A few thoughts:

  • The Bears were generally around average in terms of success rate, which is a measure of staying with/ahead of the chains (a successful 1st down play gains at least 40% of the yardage needed for a 1st down).
  • They lagged behind in yards/play both running and passing, which indicates a lack of explosive plays. This makes sense given they were the least explosive offense in the NFL in 2019. Indeed, they had 15 explosive pass plays (2nd fewest) and 6 explosive runs (2nd fewest) on 1st down.
  • The slightly lower run % is partially due to needing to throw it in the 4th quarter while chasing a deficit. If you only look at the 1st-3rd quarter, when that shouldn’t be much of an issue, the Bears ran it on 1st down 49% of the time. This is still lower than the NFL average, which indicates the Bears were generally more pass-happy than the average NFL team. That’s not really a surprise.

Second Down

When it comes to 2nd down, context is needed.

A 3-yard gain is great on 2nd and 2, pretty good on 2nd and 5, and awful on 2nd and 10. With that in mind, I split the data into 4 groups based on the distance required to get a 1st down. The table below shows the results. Numbers in parentheses indicate the NFL average for that group.

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How Much is an Elite Kick Returner Worth?

| February 17th, 2020

Earlier this offseason, I suggested the Bears could release Cordarrelle Patterson to free up just under $5M in cap room. A number of people responded that Patterson was the best kick returner in the NFL in 2019 and thus was worth the money. I wasn’t sold that any kick returner was worth that much, but set out to figure out just how much value they add.

Here’s the general setup:

  • I used the Pro Football Reference Drive Finder to look at every drive over the last 5 years that started with a kickoff and didn’t include any kneeldowns.
  • I split the field into 10 yard ranges.
  • I tallied up touchdowns and field goals from drives that started in each field position range to figure out average points/drive. Note: this assumes all touchdowns net 7 points, which is not technically true, and fails to factor in anything about offensive quality.

Based on that approach, here’s what I found the average points expected for drives off of kickoffs that started in a variety of field positions.



This generally matches expectation, as teams are expected to score more points the closer to the opposing end zone they start. By the time they’re inside the opponent 40 yard line, the expected points are higher than a field goal.

Using this data, I then looked at the Bears’ starting field position off of kickoffs in 2018, when they did not have Cordarrelle Patterson vs. 2019, when they did.


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The Non-Trubisky Offensive Issue: Personnel Usage Remains a Problem

| February 10th, 2020

It’s no secret that I’ve blamed quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for the lion’s share of Chicago’s offensive shortcomings in 2019, while pointing out contributing factors elsewhere: tight end, run blocking, Tarik Cohen…etc. But I truly believe that a competent quarterback would have put the Bears in the playoffs in 2019.

However, it’s important not to get too fixated on one issue and ignore other problems. So today I want to look at offensive issues from 2019 that have absolutely nothing to do with Mitchell Trubisky, but instead are due to what I believe to be poor coaching decisions regarding personnel usage.


Personnel Predictability

How predictable was Chicago’s offense when several of their key players were on or off the field?

The table below shows changes in run percentage when skill position guys who played between 35-65% of the snaps were in the game vs. on the sideline.

  • On the high end, that excludes players who almost never leave the field (Allen Robinson played over 93% of offensive snaps in 2019) because their “off field” splits would be too small to be worth considering.
  • On the low end, it excludes situational players who often only come in for situations where a run or pass is expected (ie the 4th WR in a 4 WR set for 3rd and long, or the 2nd TE in a short-yardage set).

Instead, I want to look at how the Bears deployed their key skill position players as they rotated through in a game.

(Note: This data is pulled from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, which includes sacks and QB scrambles as passing plays.)

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Least Explosive Team in the NFL, or the Story of the 2019 Chicago Bears

| February 4th, 2020

I’ve been working my way through the Bears’ 2019 performance to see what changed from 2018 that caused them to slip from 12-4 to 8-8. Today, I want to look at explosive plays, which I found last season have a strong correlation to overall offensive performance.

There are a variety of definitions for explosive plays depending on who you ask, so I want to clarify I’m using parameters laid out by ESPN NFL Matchup, which counts any run that gains 15+ yards or pass that gains 20+ yards as explosive. Let’s start with a preliminary look at how the Bears did in 2019 relative to the rest of the NFL. All data is from Pro Football Reference, with explosive play information coming from the Game Play Finder. Pass percentages were calculated including sacks and pass attempts as pass plays.



That’s ugly.

If you want to compare to 2018, the Bears slipped across the board. They had 71 explosive plays in 2018, with explosive rates of 7% overall, 5.3% on runs, and 8.4% on passes. All of those numbers in 2018 were slightly below average, ranging from 18th to 21st in the league, while they are all bottom 2 in 2019.

So what happened to cause such a slump? Like I’ve done when evaluating both the running and passing games, I want to break down what it looks like for individual Bears players and/or position groups from season to season. That information is shown in the table below, with all cells formatted by 2018 / 2019 data. (I’ll note the pass rates are a bit higher for pass catchers than QBs because they are only out of targets and exclude sacks and throwaways.)


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What Changed in the Passing Game: Volume III

| January 24th, 2020

Today I want to look back at two areas of concern I noted for Trubisky last off-season: deep passes and performance against good defenses.


Deep Passes

Last year, I noted that Trubisky was really good at short passes (15 yards or less past the line of scrimmage) and really bad throwing the ball deep. I also found that short passing performance tends to be less variable year over year than deep passing, which gave us a reason to be optimistic about Trubisky heading into 2019.

Let’s see how that theory played out in 2019.

A few thoughts:

  • So much for short stuff being consistent. Trubisky’s completion percentage, yards/attempt, yards/completion, and touchdown rate all plummeted from 2018 to 2019.
  • Some of the completion percentage can be accounted for by drops (as I have previously addressed), but not nearly all of it on the short stuff. Despite throwing shorter passes in the short stuff, Trubisky completed fewer of them. The end result was an extremely inefficient short passing game.

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What Changed in the Passing Game: Volume II

| January 23rd, 2020

Yesterday, it was discovered that the pass blocking and drops by pass catchers went from really good to about average.

The hypothesis, then, is that the quarterback was largely responsible for the Bears having one of the worst passing games – and thus worst offenses – in the NFL. So today I want to look at Mitchell Trubisky’s performance more closely to see what it can tell us.

On the surface, Trubisky certainly was awful in 2019. He completed 63.2% of his passes (18th in the NFL), averaged 6.1 yards/attempt (last), and posted a passer rating of 83.0 (28th). This was a big step back from 2019, when he was near average in all of those marks (66.6% completion, 14th; 7.4 yards/attempt, 18th; 95.4 rating, 16th).

Evaluating a quarterback’s play statistically can be tricky, because his stats depend both on his offensive line’s ability to block for him and his RBs/WRs/TEs’ ability to catch his passes, both of which are outside of his control. That’s why I started by looking at the offensive line and drops, both of which were worse in 2019 than 2018 but not nearly bad enough to explain bottom 5 production from the quarterback.

It’s also worth noting that Chase Daniel’s production barely changed between seasons. In 2018, he completed 70% of his passes, averaged 6.8 yards/attempt, threw 3 TD and 2 INT, and posted a 90.6 passer rating. In 2019, he completed 70% of his passes, averaged 6.8 yards/attempt, threw 3 TD and 2 INT, and posted a 91.6 passer rating. To be fair, it’s a small sample size – he played 2 games and threw around 70 passes each year – but still, this is at least anecdotal evidence to support the notion that the offense as a whole didn’t change all that drastically.


Advanced Stats

With that said, let’s look more closely at Trubisky’s performance to see if we can hone in on what changed, besides worse pocket presence and less running impact, which were touched on in previous articles. This is going to focus on passing. We’ll start by looking at a smattering of advanced statistics, which come from a combination of Next Gen Stats and Pro Football Reference.

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