One of the great quests of football analytics is to come up with a good way to compare the values of positions in the NFL. This is quite difficult, and there is shockingly little consensus as to just what makes an offense or defense tick. In 2006 Michael Lewis followed up “Moneyball” with “The Blind Side,” which blended the story of offensive tackle Michael Oher with support for the notion that left tackles were extremely important, perhaps second only to the quarterbacks they protect. Subsequent research, however, has shown that sacks correlate more with who the quarterback is than who is playing on the line.
I don’t doubt that left tackle is extremely important, but it’s probably not as important as Lewis’s book posited.
There are also a lot of very smart analysts and thinkers who claim that pass rush is the most important aspect of defense, and that edge rushers are consequently the most important players on defense. This makes a lot of sense intuitively, but there is some research that suggests the secondary actually aids the pass rush more than pass rush aids the secondary, which would make corners more important. I happen to believe that corner is more important in the current NFL, but I could be wrong, and in reality you need both aspects to succeed for a defense to succeed.
The various pieces of a football team work as an integrated unit, and it’s difficult to analyze those pieces as separate entities, but even though we don’t know everything, we do know a few things.
- Quarterback dwarfs the value of all other positions.
- Running backs are the least valuable players by a substantial margin.
That’s all I’d say we know for sure. We think safeties are less valuable than many other positions (mostly because as corners age they often become safeties, meaning there is a healthy supply of safeties available), inside linebackers seem to be less valuable, and offensive guards are less valuable than offensive tackles, but that’s about it, and if research overturned any of this, I wouldn’t be too shocked.
The position that you almost never see discussed is wide receiver. I suspect receivers are underrated, and that they are almost certainly the second-most important position group on offense and maybe overall. The 2018 Packers had holes at outside linebacker, safety, and tight end, but the biggest issue for the offense (after Rodgers) was a lack of depth at receiver behind Davante Adams. Receiver has been an issue since 2015, and when the offense has rebounded, it’s because they have had at least three above average receivers. When they’ve struggled, it’s been a one man show.
The One Man Show
The worst year of Aaron Rodgers’ career wasn’t actually 2018, it was 2015. The primary cause of those struggles was the loss of Jordy Nelson. This, in and of itself, should lend a ton of support to the idea that receivers are extremely important. The loss of Nelson left Rodgers with Randall Cobb, who had a terrible year as the go-to receiver, a still-green Davante Adams who missed time with injuries, and the return of James Jones, who was fine. That’s a bad group. The following year, in 2016, Rodgers had his best recent season. His completion percentage jumped from 60.7% to 65.7%, his Y/A jumped from an awful 6.7 to 7.3 (which still isn’t great), and his TDs jumped from 31 to 40, with no real uptick in interceptions. The reason for that jump in production has almost nothing to do with Rodgers, and everything to do with the return of Jordy Nelson, the growth of Davante Adams, and late in the season, the addition of Jared Cook at tight end. Randall Cobb saw his catch percentage shoot up as well, as the defense’s attention focused elsewhere.
Rodgers was hurt for most of 2017, but it’s clear that the loss of Cook and some decline from Nelson hurt, even in limited action. In 2018, the failure of Jimmy Graham to replace Cook’s production combined with the injury to Geronimo Allison left the team without enough real weapons. While Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown had nice seasons for late-round rookies, they were not true “number two” (or “number three”) receivers. Rodgers relied heavily on Adams in the passing game, and while Adams is great and produced nice counting stats, he wasn’t efficient as he finished 30th in DVOA. There is a cliche that defenders/defensive coaches use with great wide receivers: “We’re fine if they get their yards, but we can’t let them beat us.” That’s exactly what happened with Adams in 2018.
When Lewis wrote “The Blind Side” he focused on all of the positive externalities produced by a good left tackle. He gives the quarterback time which allows receivers to get open. He keeps the quarterback from taking hits, and therefore from getting hurt. He is also crucial to the run game. In short, Lewis claimed that left tackles make everyone better. Receivers are, debatably, more responsible for each one of these. A receiver who flashes open early in his route will allow the quarterback to throw before the pass rush becomes an issue. A group of good receivers will drag defenders out of the box, opening up the running game. And the more good receivers you have on your team, the better each one’s matchups will be.
This season, Adams found himself facing top corners with routine. Darius Slay, Kyle Fuller, and Xavier Rhodes all play in the division, and generally speaking, a team’s best corner is much better than their second best corner, their second best corner is much better than a their third best corner, and so on. Depth at receiver not only puts pressure on the defense’s depth, it also makes it easier to scheme your best receiver against substandard defenders, and that leads to better efficiency for everyone, including the quarterback.
A receiving corps is a bit like a major league pitching staff. If you add an ace to the top of the staff, you don’t replace the previous ace, you replace the 5th starter. The previous ace just gets knocked down a spot, but still pitches almost as much, and may find himself up against non-aces more frequently. Adams is a great weapon, but without any other weapons, his ability to occupy a defense is being wasted.
My One Wish
If the next coach of the Packers can’t fix Aaron Rodgers, nothing else they do will matter. But one thing that would help and my one offseason wish for the team is a free agent veteran receiver to play opposite Adams. I don’t even think it needs to be a particularly great or expensive receiver, but that spot is secretly the biggest hole on the team and fixing it should be relatively inexpensive. If they can plug that hole and if the rookies can take a step forward as reasonable third and fourth options, the offense can turn things around in a heartbeat.