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Can Justin Fields Upgrade Chicago’s QB Performance in 2021?

| May 17th, 2021

Recently, I looked at Andy Dalton and found that he is not likely going to improve on the production the Bears got from their QBs in 2020. That means any improvement in the QB room likely has to come from rookie Justin Fields.

This is a more difficult projection to make because Fields doesn’t have years of NFL production to look at for an apples-to-apples comparison like I did with Dalton. Instead, I’m going to look at all rookies drafted in the last 10 years (2011-20 drafts) who attempted at least 300 passes in their rookie NFL season, with the idea being they played the majority of the year. This gives a sample size of 29 QBs; how many of them performed better than Chicago’s QBs in 2020?


The Setup

To do this comparison, I’m going to look at 3 stats, which I want to briefly explain here:

  • Yards per attempt + (Y/A)+. Yards per attempt is a simple enough metric, but the + indicates it is adjusted for era. Since this is comparing QBs over a 10 year sample, and league-wide yards/attempt has fluctuated year-by-year, this scales them all accordingly. 100 is a league average mark, anything higher is better and lower is worse.
  • Adjusted net yards per attempt + (ANY/A+). This takes yards/attempt and factors in touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks, and then scales according to league averages that year. A full explanation of the formula for adjusted net yards/attempt (which is from Pro Football Reference, just like Y/A+) can be seen here. The scaling is the same as Y/A+ above; 100 is average, and higher is better.
  • Expected Points added (EPA/Dropback). This attempts to account for the value of each individual play by comparing expected points on the drive (based on down, distance, and field location) at the start and finish of a play. Generally speaking, higher values here indicate that QB’s team is expected to score more points over the course of the season. A more detailed explanation can be found here. EPA data is pulled from this website.

The idea here is simple enough: how many of the 29 rookie QBs in the last 10 years with 300+ pass attempts have outperformed Chicago’s QBs from 2020? I also threw Andy Dalton’s 2020 season in just as a point of reference. Full data can be viewed here. 


Results

The table below shows how the Bears did in all 3 stats in 2020, how Andy Dalton did in all 3 stats in 2020, the average for all 29 rookies in the sample, and the number of rookies who outperformed the better of the 2020 Bears/2020 Dalton in each stat.

A few thoughts:

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Does Andy Dalton Upgrade Chicago’s QB Room?

| May 11th, 2021

The Bears completely overhauled their QB room this offseason, letting Mitchell Trubisky leave, signing Andy Dalton, and trading up in the 1st round to draft Justin Fields. The goal is obvious: improve a passing attack that finished last year ranked 28th in yards/attempt, 18th in passing TD, threw the 4th most interceptions, and had the 24th passer rating among 32 NFL teams.

With that in mind, I want to look at each of the additions compared to who they replaced to see how likely it is that they actually provide the desired upgrade. I’m starting today with Andy Dalton, who the Bears have insisted is still their starter.

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Basic Stats

Let’s start with a surface-level view of Dalton’s passing stats compared to Trubisky and Nick Foles, the 2020 QBs.

Since playing time has been spotty for all of them over the last few years, due to a combination of injury and sometimes being the backup, I’m going to use cumulative 2018-20 stats for all of them to give a decent sample size (600+ pass attempts for each). I’ll include the NFL average over that time period to see how each QB stands relative to their peers.



As you can see there, a first glance makes it look like Dalton doesn’t provide much improvement over the status quo. The three QBs vary quite a bit in completion percentage, but all come up well below the NFL average in both yards per attempt and TD to INT ratio. If anything, Trubisky was the most productive QB of the three (though this is not an argument for keeping Trubisky. They are all bad NFL QBs). If you’re really curious about the 2020 Bears specifically, they completed 66% of their passes, averaged 6.4 yards/attempt, and had 1.6 TD for every INT.

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Short/Deep Split

However, we can take a closer look to see if there’s something we might be missing. Let’s split up passes into short (less than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) and deep (15+ yards past the line of scrimmage). Here’s the same table as above, only with that split applied. Short passes are highlighted in orange, deep passes in blue.

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Using Historical Trends to Guide Chicago’s Draft Approach

| April 28th, 2021


The 2021 NFL draft starts tomorrow, so I want to take a look at historical trends to see where the Bears can expect to find positional value at various points in the draft. This builds very closely off a study I did last year, so here’s a quick recap of the approach:

I looked at every draft from 2010-20 to see how many players at each position were drafted in the top 50 (their 2nd round pick is #52), top 85 (their 3rd round pick is #83), and top 175 (their 5th round pick is #164). I didn’t bother looking at their 1st round pick because the top of the draft is more about a small pool of individual players as options, and the heavy focus in draft media on the 1st round means most fans are already pretty familiar with those names.

  • My source for this data did not differentiate between CB and S, so I combined the 2 into DB.
  • They did differentiate between interior offensive line and offensive tackle, so I kept those separate.
  • They had LB and DE as separate, with some edge rushers on both lists. I included all DE as edge rushers (even though some were more 3-4 DEs, not true edge rushers) and manually went through the LB list, looked up scouting reports for every player, and included anybody who was talked about as an edge rusher.

I then used The Athletic’s composite big board, which averages rankings from a number of different draft sources, to compare to historical trends. I focused especially on positions which I identified as needs for the Bears. The idea here is that positions with more players than usual ranked in a given range are more likely to have somebody highly rated slip through the cracks, while positions with fewer players than usual ranked in a given range are more likely to have somebody reach for them to fill a need.


Round Two (Top 50)

Here is the data for players drafted in the top 50.

  • Because every draft is different, I provided a range from the least to most players at that position drafted in the top 50 picks since 2010, as well as an average.
  • The last column shows how many players from that position are ranked in the top 50 right now according to the composite big board linked above.
  • Positions that are particularly good or bad are highlighted in colors (red for historically low, orange for near the low end of the range, light green for near the top end of the range, and green for historically good).

A few thoughts:

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Analyzing Pre-Draft Roster Needs and Resources

| April 12th, 2021

The NFL draft, which begins on April 29, is just a few weeks away, and free agency has quieted down significantly. That means we know roughly what the Bears’ roster will look like heading into the draft, which can be seen in their current presumed depth chart below.

With that depth chart in mind, let’s look at Chicago’s biggest needs as they prepare for the draft. I’m going to start with immediate needs, spots where the Bears need to find somebody who can step in and start on day 1.

  • Cornerback. Teams need 3-4 good CBs, and right now the Bears might have 0. Sure, Desmond Trufant was good in 2018, and Jaylon Johnson played well for a few games in his rookie year before falling off hard down the stretch, but there’s not a single CB on the roster you can confidently rely on. This is easily the biggest immediate hole on the team. The bad news is that a rookie is unlikely to help much in the here and now, as the adjustment to the NFL is a steep one. Still, Chicago should be looking to invest a premium pick in this premium position to make up for the loss of Kyle Fuller.
  • Offensive Tackle. Charles Leno is nothing special, but he’s an adequate left tackle, especially when the guard playing next to him is good (his play noticeably improved in 2020 after Cody Whitehair moved back to left guard). Germain Ifedi is ideally suited to be a swing tackle, just like current swing tackle Elijah Wilkinson. This is a group that looks like a weakness right now, but could easily be a strength if the Bears draft a tackle somewhere in the early rounds in what is supposed to be one of the best OT draft classes in years. Given that Leno, Ifedi, and Wilkinson are all free agents after 2021, double-dipping with a developmental prospect on day 3 wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

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Stop Talking About Chicago’s Defense as a Strength

| April 8th, 2021

There seems to be a prevailing consensus among Chicago fans that the Bears still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that is true.

The Bears had a great defense in 2018, but that was 3 years ago, an eternity in the NFL. They led the NFL in pretty much every defensive stat imaginable that season, but we’ll track their decline since then with a simple one: points allowed.

  • 2018: 17.7 points/game, 1st in NFL
  • 2019: 18.6 points/game, 4th in NFL
  • 2020: 23.1 points/game, 14th in the NFL

That’s right, Chicago’s defense was more average than good in 2020 (with 32 NFL teams, 16th is exactly average). That feels weird to say, right? I know I certainly didn’t think of them that way last year. But a broader look at the statistics paints exactly that picture, as you can see in the table below. DVOA is a measure of total defensive performance from Football Outsiders, and net yards/attempt (which factors in sacks and pass attempts) is from Pro Football Reference.



The only major stat where the defense ranked in the top ten was yards/run allowed. Everywhere else was mostly middle of the pack besides forcing turnovers, which they were bad at.

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Deja Vu: Bears Need to Be More Explosive

| February 16th, 2021

I’ve been tracking explosive plays for a few years now because they have a strong relationship to points scored. To put it simply, good offenses produce plenty of big plays. Let’s look at how Chicago did in this department in last season.


Basic Overview

The table below shows how many explosive passes, runs, and total plays the Bears produced in 2020, as well as how those results ranked compared to the rest of the NFL. Explosive passes are those that gain 20+ yards, while explosive runs gained 15+ yards. All data is from Pro Football Reference, and explosive play data is from the Game Play Finder.

A few thoughts:

  • If these results look awfully familiar, it’s because they are. The Bears were the least explosive team in the NFL in 2019 with 49 explosive plays. If you want to look on the bright side, this year actually showed a slight improvement, though they were still one of the least explosive offenses in the league.
  • You can view the full results here, but Chicago’s totals put them right in line with teams like the Washington Football Team, Giants, Jets, and Bengals. Yuck.
  • I found last offseason that there is very little year-to-year correlation for explosive plays. Based on this, you could argue that finishing horribly in this category 2 years in a row is random bad luck, but I’m more inclined to think it’s an indictment on the personnel and/or scheme.

Explosive Players

I also want to look briefly at who produced the explosive plays. I want to caution that I’ve found there is very little year-over-year consistency in these results, so a player having an explosive or non-explosive 2020 doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will repeat in 2021.

Let’s start with a look at the quarterbacks, and I want to note that passes here include sacks for a more accurate reflection of total pass plays.

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Numbers Prove It: Losing Robinson Not An Option

| January 29th, 2021

After yesterday’s piece highlighting the Bears’ need to prioritize keeping Allen Robinson around this offseason, today will build on that with a closer look at Robinson’s value to the Bears. I’ll start with examining his individual performance, and then look to the importance of that performance in context to building a roster.


High Volume

To start with, Robinson is the team’s highest volume pass weapon by a wide margin. More than 1 in 4 passes the Bears threw last year went Robinson’s way, and he finished 3rd in the NFL in targets with 151 (9.4/game). Nobody else had more than Darnell Mooney’s 98 (6.1/game). Replacing that kind of volume would be difficult.

However, you could reasonably argue that high volume is not indicative of quality. In fact, if Robinson drew a lot of targets but had limited production with them, it could be argued that distributing those targets elsewhere is a good idea. And at first glance, Robinson was not a terribly efficient target.

  • Although Robinson was 3rd in the NFL in targets, he was 6th in receptions and 9th in yards, which means other players around the league out-produced him while needing less volume to do so.
  • Of the 42 players who saw 100 targets in 2020, Robinson ranked 21st in both catch % and yards/target, meaning he was middle of the pack in efficiency.

It is important to remember, however, that a pass catcher is dependent on their quarterback, and Robinson was working with bad quarterbacks last year. The players who caught more passes than him were catching balls from Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, and Patrick Mahomes. Those who finished with more yards caught passes from those QBs plus Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, and Matt Ryan.


High Efficiency

With that in mind, let’s compare Robinson’s efficiency to the rest of the team’s pass catchers. The table below shows the basic statistics for every player with at least 10 targets in 2020.

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Bears Must Address Imbalanced Roster Construction

| November 20th, 2020


Yet again in 2020, we see that the Bears have one of the best defenses in the NF,L coupled with one of the worst offenses. This combines to give them a team that is not good enough. It’s Groundhog Day all over again, a continuation of 2018-19, all of the Lovie years, and the 1980s after Jim McMahon got hurt.

Normally I’d use the bye week to do an in-depth look at the numbers for Chicago’s offense and defense, but honestly I don’t see the point. Their defense is really good, their offense is really bad, and you don’t need advanced stats to tell you more than that. I’m sure I’ll still do some of that analysis in the offseason but for right now I want to focus on a bigger question: WHY is the defense so much better than their offense?

The answer here is really not that surprising: the Bears are investing more in the defense. The table below shows how much money they have invested in the defense compared to the offense, as measured in 3 ways:

  • 2020 cap dollars. How much current money is being spent.
  • Average yearly salary. This accounts for the fact that contracts don’t have even distribution of cap hits every year. For instance, Robert Quinn has an average salary of $14M per year in his contract, but only has a 2020 cap hit of $6M. This will give a better picture of true spending.
  • % of salary. This looks at how much of your total spending is focused on one side of the ball, based on the average annual salary of players. It’s a good measure of how lopsided your investment is on offense vs. defense.

The table below shows the Bears’ values for offense and defense in each category, as well as the NFL average and where the Bears rank. All data is from Spotrac.

A few thoughts:

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Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume III: Defense & Playoff Odds

| October 15th, 2020

I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays, and explored how Chicago has deployed their skill position players. Today I want to look at advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference and think about Chicago’s playoff odds.


Missed Tackles

I highlighted missed tackles as a concern in the secondary heading into the season. As a team, the Bears are actually doing quite well with missed tackles right now; they rank 7th in the NFL with 22 through 5 weeks. The table below shows missed tackle stats (from Pro Football Reference) for all players with at least 10 tackle attempts, as well as cumulative totals for each position group.

For context, here’s how the positional averages compare to NFL peers over the last 2 years:

  • The median starting NFL DB misses right around 11% of their tackles, so Chicago’s secondary is about average here so far. That’s actually pretty good for them given the tackling concerns heading into the season with Kyle Fuller, Buster Skrine, and Eddie Jackson. Fuller in particular has struggled so far this year, but everybody else has been ok.

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Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume II: Offensive Personnel Usage

| October 14th, 2020


I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays. Today I want to explore how the Bears are deploying their skill position players, using lineup data from the NFL Game Statistics Information System. This tracks how many plays the Bears have played with different combination of 11 offensive players, and splits the data into runs and passes, with yards gained for each. Combing through this data can provide valuable insights into how the Bears are deploying their personnel, and what packages have been most and least effective.


Tight Ends

The Bears completely overhauled this position in the offseason, following a disastrous 2019 campaign in which no player even hit 100 receiving yards. They gave Jimmy Graham a big contract, spent their 1st pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet, and brought in veteran journeyman Demetrius Harris.

I want to start by looking at Cole Kmet, who has been very quiet so far as a rookie despite receiving a good bit of training camp hype. Through five games, Kmet has played 102 snaps, seen 3 pass targets, and caught 1 ball for 12 yards. This is hugely disappointing, and worrisome for his future; when I looked at rookie seasons for TEs drafted in the 2nd round this offseason, I found that tight ends who are going to be good are typically involved in the offense right away. The only tight ends drafted in the 2nd round over the last 10 years to receive fewer than 30 targets in their rookie seasons are Vance McDonald, Adam Shaheen, Gavin Escobar, Drew Sample, and Troy Niklas. Of those, only Vance McDonald has done anything in the NFL. Kmet is currently on pace for 10 targets.

It’s fair to argue a rookie should see their production increase as the season wears on, so I looked at all 19 players in that study through the first five games of their rookie season. You can see the full list here, but Kmet has the 3rd fewest targets, least amount of catches, and the least number of yards through that time period. And for all of those categories, the bottom four (not including Kmet) are from the list of five names above. It’s early, but right now Kmet most closely resembles Troy Niklas and Adam Shaheen, which is very not good.

Because I was curious about Kmet, I split out lineups involving him vs. those who don’t, and also sorted by the number of tight ends on the field. The results, as you can see below, are certainly illuminating.

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