With a large portion of people locked down in quarantine, I’m sure many are using this as a time to get introspective about their life. Thinking about what they love, what their aspirations for the future are, what they’re thankful for.
I, on the other hand, am enjoying my time reflecting on the things I hate.
I hate when the remote falls in that crack in your couch, and you can feel it with your fingertips but you just can’t reach it.
I hate when you go to take a crap and the water splashes back up and hits you. I call it “Poseidon’s Kiss”.
I hate every movie in which Nicolas Cage plays a “badass”. Ghost rider? Con Air? Next? Do people voluntarily watch these movies?
And I hate – I HATE – when teams mismanage their draft capital.
Over the past week or so I have been compiling data from the past 20 Super Bowl winning teams looking for similarities in personnel and play style.
I feel like Charlie Kelly in ‘Always Sunny’ looking for Pepe Silvia In the mailroom.
“Can we talk about the data please? I’ve been dying to talk about the data with you all day, okay?”
If I wanted to write a 50-word article, I would simply put “Draft an elite quarterback” – because that is the obvious answer – and that would be the end of it. But where’s the fun in that?
So, I will not be mentioning quarterbacks, and I will not be mentioning the offensive line. The offensive line is a very important aspect of a football team, but I found the 20 most recent Super Bowl winning teams averaged 13th in both pass protection and run blocking. It seems that having a competent offensive line is critical – but it doesn’t necessarily need to be elite.
Another final important distinction – these are steps about how to draft based on trends.
This isn’t a guideline for free agency. This isn’t a guideline for staffing decisions or schemes. This isn’t a guideline for roster construction (outside of the draft, that is). Those play a major part in team success but not what I’m focused on here.
This is a guideline for how best to use draft picks based on trends from past Super Bowl winners. Got it?
STEP 1: DON’T DRAFT A RUNNING BACK UNTIL LATE IN THE DRAFT – IF AT ALL
At this point it has become blatantly obvious that investing in a top-earning running back has major drawbacks.
Everyone watched as the San Francisco 49ers ran all over the competition last year, utilizing a well-constructed zone-blocking scheme that highlighted the offensive line talent rather than the running backs. Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and I think the guy that made my sandwich at Quiznos two months ago all had breakout games at one point in the 2019 NFL season.
Todd Gurley was recently released by the Los Angeles Rams not even two years after signing a $60 million contract extension with $45 million in guarantees, and you can almost see the regret on Melvin Gordon’s face after holding out last year and getting only a two-year $16M contract with the Broncos this off-season.
We all know about recent trends, but what about historical trends?
Out of the past 20 Super Bowl winners, only four of those teams had a running back that finished top-10 in league wide rushing yards.
|SB||WINNING TEAM||LEADING RUSHER||YARDS||LEAGUE RANK|
|54||Kansas City Chiefs||Damien Williams||498||39|
|53||New England Patriots||Sony Michel||931||15|
|52||Philadelphia Eagles||LeGarette Blount||766||22|
|51||New England Patriots||LeGarette Blount||1161||8|
|50||Denver Broncos||Ronnie Hillman||863||14|
|49||New England Patriots||Jonas Gray||412||48|
|48||Seattle Seahawks||Marshawn Lynch||1257||6|
|47||Baltimore Ravens||Ray Rice||1143||11|
|46||New York Giants||Amhad Bradshaw||659||29|
|45||Green Bay Packers||Brandon Jackson||703||33|
|44||New Orleans Saints||Pierre Thomas||793||25|
|43||Pittsburgh Steelers||Willie Parker||791||26|
|42||New York Giants||Brandon Jacobs||1009||16|
|41||Indianapolis Colts||Joseph Addai||1081||18|
|40||Pittsburgh Steelers||Willie Parker||1202||12|
|39||New England Patriots||Corey Dillon||1635||3|
|38||New England Patriots||Antowain Smith||642||30|
|37||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Michael Pittman||718||32|
|36||New England Patriots||Antowain Smith||1157||12|
|35||Baltimore Ravens||Jamal Lewis||1364||7|
LeGarrette Blount, Marshawn Lynch, Corey Dillion, and Jamal Lewis were the only Super Bowl winning running backs that finished top-10 in rushing yards.
There are a couple things to note from this:
Number One: Out of these four players, only Jamal Lewis was drafted by his team. LeGarrette Blount, Marshawn Lynch, and Corey Dillion were all traded for or picked up in free agency.
If the very unlikely event occurs that a Super Bowl winning team has a top-performing running back, they were most likely not drafted.
Number Two: The average league ranking for these running backs was 20th.
That means, on average, 19 running backs finished with more rushing yards than the Super Bowl winning running back every year, and what does that count for? An early trip to Cabo.
Using a high draft pick on a running back seems to be a complete waste of an asset.
STEP 2: DON’T DRAFT A WIDE RECEIVER IN THE FIRST ROUND – AND MAYBE NOT THE SECOND, EITHER
When a person decides to pursue a career as an NFL wide receiver, I believe in that moment they have a 30% chance of being infected with a disease. I call it the “Willie Beamen” virus.
Instantly they are infected with a rabies-like affliction which takes over their mindset, their play-style, their attitude. What started as a respectful and diligent approach to the game ends in the player screaming at coaches and teammates, and appearing shirtless in a rap video talking about “Keeping the ladies creamin'”.
Recent players like DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones managed to avoid contracting this disease, but players like Randy Moss, Odell Beckham, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens are just a few of the players on the laundry-list of individuals who test “Willie Beamen positive”.
Regardless of attitude, star receivers always manage to bring the house down. Consistently reliable for an electrifying play or a highlight-reel catch, having an elite receiver on the roster always gives a team the chance to win week in and week out.
But are they necessary to win a Super Bowl? Or can a team be more successful with a more well rounded receiving corps?
Let’s go back to the historical data yet again.
Out of the past 20 Super Bowl winners, only six teams had a receiver or tight end that finished top-10 in league wide receiving yards.
|SB||WINNING TEAM||LEADING RECEIVER||YARDS||LEAGUE RANK|
|54||Kansas City Chiefs||Travis Kelce||1229||4|
|53||New England Patriots||Julian Edelman||850||29|
|52||Philadelphia Eagles||Zach Ertz||824||30|
|51||New England Patriots||Julian Edelman||1106||13|
|50||Denver Broncos||Demaryius Thomas||1304||7|
|49||New England Patriots||Rob Gronkowski||1124||15|
|48||Seattle Seahawks||Golden Tate||898||31|
|47||Baltimore Ravens||Anquan Boldin||921||27|
|46||New York Giants||Victor Cruz||1536||3|
|45||Green Bay Packers||Greg Jennings||1265||4|
|44||New Orleans Saints||Marques Colston||1074||18|
|43||Pittsburgh Steelers||Hines Ward||1043||15|
|42||New York Giants||Plaxico Burress||1025||21|
|41||Indianapolis Colts||Marvin Harrison||1366||2|
|40||Pittsburgh Steelers||Hines Ward||975||22|
|39||New England Patriots||David Givens||874||32|
|38||New England Patriots||Deion Branch||803||32|
|37||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Keyshawn Johnson||1088||16|
|36||New England Patriots||Troy Brown||1199||10|
|35||Baltimore Ravens||Shannon Sharpe||810||32|
Travis Kelce, Demaryius Thomas, Victor Cruz, Greg Jennings, Marvin Harrison, and Troy Brown were the only players that finished top-10 in receiving yards.
Once again, there are a couple things to note from this:
Number One: Almost half of all recent Super Bowl winning teams did not have a receiver that finished inside even the top-20.
Number Two: In terms of draft position, all the top-10 performing receivers on this list won the Super Bowl with the team they were drafted with – but there are only two first rounders (Marvin Harrison and Demaryius Thomas) and one second rounder (Greg Jennings). None of these receivers were drafted in the top-15, Marvin Harrison being the highest at #19 overall.
Let that sink in – just about half of all recent Super Bowl winning teams did not have even a top-20 performing receiver the year they won the title, and if they did, chances are the receiver was drafted in the second round or later.
Drafting a wide receiver appears to be a better move in the mid-rounds.
It is right around this point in the argument that I can hear some people saying, “Well, what about top performing receivers or running backs on a winning team that just had an off-year?” To that I say: If the player had an off-year they didn’t perform like a top player and didn’t help the team win any more than, say, a second-string player with the same stat line.
The next question I usually get is: “What about running vs. passing teams? Surely most Super Bowl winning teams had either an elite running game or an elite passing game.” Well, that is not necessarily the case.
|SB||WINNING TEAM||LEADING RUSHER RANK||LEADING RECEIVER RANK|
|54||Kansas City Chiefs||39||4|
|53||New England Patriots||15||29|
|51||New England Patriots||8||13|
|49||New England Patriots||48||15|
|46||New York Giants||29||3|
|45||Green Bay Packers||33||4|
|44||New Orleans Saints||25||18|
|42||New York Giants||16||21|
|39||New England Patriots||3||32|
|38||New England Patriots||30||32|
|37||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||32||16|
|36||New England Patriots||12||10|
As you can see from the combined stats, 10-and nearly 11 or 12-of these teams had neither a running back nor a receiver that finished top-10 in their respective yardage stats. And no, not all of those teams were propelled by elite quarterback play.
Shockingly (or not), Super Bowl winning teams tend to have a balanced team. This means instead of spending valuable early-round draft capital on the shiny toys of star receivers and running backs, a team should….
STEP 3: LOAD UP ON DEFENSE – SPECIFICALLY THE SECONDARY
There is one thing after doing all this mindless research that stood out above all others.
Yes- most Super Bowl winning teams had at least a good quarterback, but I already said I was not going to talk about that.
Yes- most Super Bowl winning teams had at least a good offensive line, but like l said at the start, having an elite offensive line didn’t seem to be necessary.
Most Super Bowl winning teams had an elite secondary.
|SB||WINNING TEAM||D.PTS/GAME RANK||PASS Y/G RANK||EXPECTED POINTS – PASS||RUSH Y/G RANK||EXPECTED POINTS – RUSH|
|54||Kansas City Chiefs||7||8||8||26||30|
|53||New England Patriots||7||22||8||11||15|
|51||New England Patriots||1||12||2||3||8|
|49||New England Patriots||8||17||20||9||19|
|46||New York Giants||25||29||24||19||19|
|45||Green Bay Packers||2||5||1||18||21|
|44||New Orleans Saints||20||26||2||21||27|
|42||New York Giants||17||11||18||8||15|
|39||New England Patriots||3||17||3||6||4|
|38||New England Patriots||1||15||1||4||21|
|37||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1||1||1||6||9|
|36||New England Patriots||6||24||7||19||16|
As you can see, the average Super Bowl winning team finished top-15 in all of these defensive categories, but what really stands out is the points allowed – specifically the Expected Points contributed by the pass defense.
The average finish for Super Bowl winning teams in Expected Passing Points was 6th in the league, with 60% of teams finishing in the top-three.
Never heard of “Expected Points”? Not to worry, neither did I before having minimal human contact for the past week or so.
Expected points is a metric (which you can read more about here) that does a better job of evaluating defensive and offensive units rather than just looking at points scored/allowed or yards. It adds or takes away points based on in game situations, like converting a first down or throwing an interception.
Confused? I’ll run through an offensive example from the article I just referenced.
The Vikings are on their own 20-yard line and are facing a 3rd down.
Situation A: It is 3rd and 10. Kirk Cousins throws for 8 yards. This play is worth about -0.2 points because the team failed to get a first down deep in their own territory.
Situation B: It is 3rd and 8. Kirk Cousins also throws for 8 yards. This play is worth about 1.4 points because the Vikings converted a long third down deep in their own territory.
Both situations resulted in a pass play of eight yards, but situation B is much more valuable because it resulted in a first down and kept the drive alive.
The expected points metric keeps a tally game by game and gives a final number for the year. Elite teams have a positive number, and average to bad teams have a negative number.
For even more perspective, for the 2019 NFL Season, the Arizona Cardinals defense finished last in expected passing points with -190.81 and had the 5th most points allowed. The New England Patriots defense, with their elite secondary, finished first in expected passing points with 117.74, more than doubling second place and giving up the least amount of points in the league.
Now that we understand the concept better, we can go back to our data. The average expected passing points for teams was 6th in the league, and the average expected rushing points was 14th.
This tells us recent Super Bowl winning teams, on average, have a good rush defense and an elite pass defense.
Having stable, consistent play from the secondary and other coverage personnel seems to be the biggest factor of success out of anything I was able to dig up. Teams seem to be better off investing early draft capital in the hopes of finding the next Jaylen Ramsay, Richard Sherman, or Harrison Smith, rather than the offense (outside of the quarterback) or the defensive line.
So, if any GMs are out there reading this, stay away from the shiny toys of the star receivers and running backs early in the draft and instead focus on a well-rounded team with an emphasis on defense.
What a surprise, huh?