The biggest misconception I had about "Moneyball" was that I thought it was all about money. I am not a baseball fan and hearing about it from friends and media always seemed like a nice little story, but not something that would apply to football. The salary cap and spending floor/ceiling would be enough to keep teams from trying a similar system in the NFL. Of course, that was when I only saw Moneyball as a formula for spending money on your roster. Moneyball is really about exploiting the market.
Everyone wanted to copy the Yankees, so the A’s exploited the player market to find guys other teams were missing in their quest to duplicate successful franchises. The NFL also has its fair share of copycats. Often many teams adjust their rosters trying to be like the most recent Super Bowl winner or the hot team for the last few seasons. This creates similar market conditions that Moneyball used to help the A’s, so now it is about finding where to exploit said markets. Instead of thinking of the market solely as acquiring talent, let’s take a look at exploiting how the roster to put together.
If the market is roster spots, the NFL is primed for a Moneyball-style takeover. Or at least, prime for experimentation. Most NFL teams carry the same number of quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers, cornerbacks, etc. when making up their 52. The biggest shifts from this on most rosters depends on what your team’s defensive scheme is or whether the GM likes having more of a specific position on the roster. Receivers, however, are pretty uniform across the board. Every team is looking for the same specific talents to play the X, Z, & Y. This is where teams could exploit the player market to their advantage.
Traditionally, NFL rosters average six wide receivers and four tight ends. Since the creation of the forward pass, football teams have favored WRs to move the chains and keep the passing game working. The TE position has evolved from extra blocker to dynamic receivers, but NFL teams still look to fill their rosters with just one dynamic TE and a stable of WRs. Part of this is a lack of dynamic TEs, but recent and future drafts (and the 2013 especially) could give an NFL team a chance to flip their WR/TE roster and challenge defenses by finding a way to win every match-up on paper. Match-ups are the biggest reason TEs have become predominate in the NFL.
The reason most defenses struggle to stop the Gronks, Grahams, and Gates (Joker TEs) is because most defenders can’t match their athleticism or their size. Few if any cornerbacks, safeties, or linebackers can match either the size or speed and even fewer can match both. These Jokers are also athletic enough to line up in each of the traditional wide receiver positions, run the same routes, and catch the ball just as well. They’re just physically so much bigger on average than the average WR and the average sized CB/S/LB.
So why do teams attempt to carry only one of these kinds of talents? It is easy to say there aren’t that many talented Jokers TEs out there, but I disagree with that notion. Every team has at least one Joker-type TE and some teams, like New England have many who can play the part. There is enough talent out there. It is now a matter of making the commitment to acquiring that talent and determining how it fits into your roster.
Flipping the roster numbers (going from 6Wrs/4TEs to 7TEs/3 WRs) is pretty drastic and much like when building a traditional roster, it’s important to have a variety of talent to be able to perform at a high level. Joker TE’s make for great match-up WRs that can line up anywhere, but they may not be the best run blockers. In-Line TEs aren’t the best in space and H-Backs that can block in space aren’t necessarily the best pass catchers. Finding balance is important. Because we want to take advantage of the size and we are committing to using TEs over WR, we’re going to diversify our roster with 3 Jokers, 2 In-Liners, and 2 H-Backs.
Even with the advantage Jokers give, something they have trouble doing is challenging defenses deep. The lack of deep speed gives defense a schematic advantage, but one that can be helped when filling the new WR corp. With three WR spots to fill, speed (both lateral and deep) is the number one quality to be looking for. Adding the WR speed component to the size advantage of the Jokers gives teams offensive weaponry a look defenses won’t see week-to-week and difficult to scheme for with no obvious advantage on paper. Flipping the roster in such a manner is not usually the kind of thing you can do in one year (pretty easily over two or three drafts, but who has a job that long?), but I have an example to show it can be done.
Minnesota Vikings roster will be used as our example. They are an organization that wants to find weapons for their quarterback and their talent at WR isn’t great and in good shape to be gutted. The Vikings also happen to stock their TE roster like most teams: 1 Joker (Rudolph), 1 In-Line (Carlson), and 1 H-Back (Ellison). The advantage for the Vikings is that they have two WRs (for now) who can challenge defenses with speed in Harvin and Wright. Here is a sample mock that would change their roster numbers as described:
Rd 1 (#23 Overall). Zack Ertz TE, Stanford 6’6" 252
Rd 2 (#54). Travis Kelce TE, Cincy 6’5" 260
Rd 3 (#85). Tharold Simon CB, LSU 6’2" 193
Rd 4 (#101). Brandon Williams DT, Missouri Southern State 6’2" 328
Rd 4 (#119). Kiko Alonzo LB, Oregon 6’3" 242
Rd 5 (#150). Michael Williams TE, Alabama 6’5" 272
Rd 7 (#199). Marquise Goodwin, WR Texas 5’9" 180
Rd 7 (#215). Philip Lutzenkirchen H-Back, Auburn 6’4" 250
This mock allows the Vikings to not only get those weapons we’ve discussed, but also address some defensive needs. Rudolph (6’6" 260) combined with Ertz (Who is a WR in TE body) and Kelce (Who can block very well along with his WR skills) would give the Vikings their 3 Jokers. Add Williams (a virtual 6th OL who is a big target over middle/redzone) to compete with Carlson for snaps at the In-Line spot and the versatile Lutzenkirchen (can catch as well as block in space) to compete with Ellison at H-Back. Goodwin won’t challenge Harvin and Wright in height, but his track background shows his potential for not only downhill speed, but speed to take short passes to the house. The Vikings now have a unique set of weapons with which to attack NFL defenses and needed youth at key defensive spots. If the 3 Jokers, top In Line, and top H-back were on the field, the QB would have an average receiver height of 6’5 2/3" with an even bigger catching radius.
It’s a heavy investment and there is plenty of risk, but most personnel decisions require those attributes. The number of big, athletic TEs isn’t diminishing. There will be more next year (notably Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins) and in future years, so once having made the switch it’s about maintaining talent same as you would if your roster still carried traditional numbers. The risk is the same if you make no changes at all: will the talent pan out? While impossible to tell, the match-up advantage it gives them on paper is tempting. While other teams are signing up any WR with talent, the team employing this strategy would have its pick of top TEs and becomes an attractive place for other dynamic TEs when their contracts are up. While I don't expect any team to make these kinds of changes to their roster, with the ever evolving role of the TE, some lucky team could find a way to exploit the talent in that market.