"A book that any self-respecting NFL fan needs to purchase." -- Bill Simmons, ESPN.com
You might think Bill Simmons sucks, like so many other people, but he's right about Pro Football Prospectus 2008. It's a great book. If your looking for something to buy for the fantasy draft, it's got a great ranking and projection section in the back. Then read the rest of it to learn what really happened in the NFL last season.
Mike Tanier is a frequent contributor over at Football Outsiders.com and he wrote the chapter in PFP 2008 about the Packers. He wrote the book on the Packers! I sent him an email and got him to answer a few of my questions:
1. In PFP 2008 you wrote that Rodgers is the biggest enigma in the league and history provides mixed signals whether he will succeed. Still the projection on Rodgers seems encouraging. Did you look at the week 13 game vs. the Cowboys as a true indication of his talent and base his 2008 projection on it?
1) It wouldn't be very responsible to make a statistical projection based on 28 passes! Our projection system for inexperienced passers is based largely on the quality of the offense, the expectations of the defenses they will face, and how often the guy will throw. It's the same method we use on guys like Matt Ryan, though Rodgers does get credit for not being a rookie and for having several years in the offense. Also, keep in mind that the projection is always a 16-game projection, even if we know the player is injury prone. We use a color-coded "warning" system to indicate that a player like Rodgers has an injury history to be concerned about.
Of course, I did watch the Cowboys game intently and review it in slow-mo after the game. It verified that Rodgers is capable of running the offense, that he does go through his progression well, that he can handle the rush. He showed enough then (and in the preseason) to make me feel that the projection is on target.
The big variable that makes the Rodgers projection look so good is the quality of the receivers. The Packers led the league in YAC, and in YAC by wide receivers, a stat which is more likely to be consistent from year to year. It's a sign that the scheme is quarterback friendly and that the receivers are going to make plays for their quarterback. The pass protection also grades very well. Heck, we plugged Brian Brohm into the system and got some very good numbers. It's a great offense that can help an inexperienced passer.
2. You said in a chat back in July that writing the Packers' chapter in PFP 2008 gave you an appreciation for what Ted Thompson has done as GM. What is something that he does that you don't see other GMs around the league doing?
He made some very tough cap decisions early in his tenure, and he showed a 100% commitment to developing young players and to giving opportunities to middle round draft picks and budget free agents. The Packers draft better under Thompson and McCarthy, and more importantly they develop their draftees better. You get a lot less Ahmad Carroll and Jamal Reynolds situations, where the team selects a guy they know has holes in his game and then they don't find ways to improve him. I think I am impressed by how integrated Thompson's approach is: it's not just cost cutting, it's not just scouting, and it certainly isn't thinking one year at a time.
Of course, the Favre situation could have been handled a lot better. A lot of that public relations nightmare needs to be laid at Thompson's feet.
3. You wrote that the Packers have an aversion to the blitz and a high percentage of sacks came from defensive lineman. The Packers seem determined to do something different in 2008 to improve their pass rush. They've tried out a 2 down lineman formation a few times this preseason on passing downs, but I expect they intend to blitz Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk more. What do you think they could do to improve their pass rush?
I think the Packers expected their front four to provide most of the pass rush last year, and while they ranked 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate, I think they did a pretty good job considering how rarely the Packers blitzed. The 2-down linemen wrinkle is interesting, and both Barnett and Hawk can make things happen on a blitz, as can Brandon Chillar and the safeties. When I look around that division, I think it might be better to set Kampman, Jenkins, and KGB loose, mix up the coverages and keep extra guys in zones, and wait for Orton, Tarvaris, and Kitna to do something stupid (or in Kitna's case, something that would be smart if he was a better athlete). You blitz, you risk a lightning strike play to Hester, Berrian, or the Lions receivers. You drop Barnett and Hawk into zones, keep the safeties deep, you get three interceptions. An oversimplification, of course, but I think they can get ample pass rush without going too blitz crazy.
4. You wrote that only Charles Woodson graded out as above-average in the secondary. Giving Aaron Rouse a starting job might help since he graded out well last season. Should he replace Atari Bigby or Nick Collins at safety? Is there anything else they could do that might immediately help the secondary?
If I were defensive coordinator, I would keep Bigby in the box as much as possible, use him the way the Cowboys use Roy Williams. That might mean nickel packages where Rouse and Collins are the safeties and Bigby is playing a linebacker-type position. I haven't checked the game film, but I wouldn't be surprised if the team was using Bigby like that more late in the year.
The cornerback situation is really as big a worry as the quarterback issue. If Woodson and Harris age quickly, and they weren't that sharp last year, the Packers are going to get beaten by the out-of-division powers with good passing games. Patrick Lee is apparently having an awful preseason, meaning one of the other young guys like Tramon Williams or Will Blackmon will have to do the job in the nickel. So yeah, having a better pure cover guy like Rouse out there should help. I wouldn't replace Collins, though, because he's a "right place at the right time" guy.
5. You wrote the offensive line didn't get a good push in short-yardage situations last season. The Packers have been starting rookie Josh Sitton at right guard this preseason instead of Jason Spitz in part because Sitton is 319 lbs. while Spitz is 300 lbs. Sitton's size might help in short yardage, but do you think it might hurt the team's zone blocking scheme?
I have only seen a little of Sitton, but I am worried about his pass protection. You don't sacrifice pass pro to get short yardage running. I haven't taken a long look at him zone blocking. There are a lot of ways to improve the short yardage running game without inserting bigger linemen. The Packers had rookie/second year fullbacks blocking for rookie running backs last year, and I think experience is a key to short yardage rushing.
6. A.J. Hawk is out right now with a chest injury. Nick Barnett and Hawk are good in coverage, but none of the other linebackers appear to be. Vernon Davis had a good first half a couple of weeks ago when he got to go up against Brandon Chillar instead of Hawk. How badly might Hawk's injury, assuming it keeps him out the first few games, hurt the Packers defensive projection?
I am more worried about the loss of Hawk's run defense against the Vikings in the opener and against the Lions (who plan to run-run-run no matter what) in Week 2. Hawk graded out in our stats as a very good pass defender, but I think of Barnett as the great coverage linebacker on the team and Hawk as more of a guy flying around, making tackles, still learning. I would want him out there chasing Adrian Peterson and company around. I think once the games matter, the Packers will be able to scheme to keep Chillar (not a bad player overall) from having to cover guys he can't handle.
The loss of a guy like Kampman, Barnett, or Al Harris would hurt the Packers defensive projection more than the loss of Hawk. Outside linebackers may not be "easy" to replace, but they are more replaceable than cornerbacks or top D-linemen.