NFL Moneyball – Is the Tight End the Position to Exploit?Posted: January 24, 2013
Note – this was written by Josh Deceuster, a friend of the blog, a friend of ours and all-around good guy. You can find him on Twitter @joshmtd (give him a big follow) along with his work here on YouTube. After I read his fanpost on The Daily Norsemen, I asked if he would want to do a version for the Hawks.
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 shift on most
rosters depends on what your team’s defensive scheme 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 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 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 sized WR and the averaged 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 6TEs/4 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 matchup 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.
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 it can be done, especially if your team’s roster is
already close to this set up.
For some teams, it is as much about upgrading the talent already there as much as it is
re-working the roster. The Seattle Seahawks have already shown an interest in Joker TEs, even
at the expense of employing blocking specialist at the position. After acquiring Zach Miller from
the Raiders, drafting Anthony McCoy last year, the ill-fated signing of Evan Moore, and back-up
Sean McGrath are all in the mold of Joker TEs. This use of their TE roster spots and a penchant
to take risks is something to keep an eye on because they might be one of the few teams in the
NFL who might be slowly making this transition on their own. The Seahawks are also blessed
to have good talent at WR in their starting three of Rice, Tate, and Baldwin. Injuries are still a
concern for Rice, but he has the size/speed/athleticism combo needed to be a top WR and both
Tate and Baldwin have speed and moves to spare.
For a team like the Seahawks, making this transition is as much about upgrading the
current talent as much as it is flipping the roster. They have Joker TE’s, but not enough talent
at the spot to justify playing them more that the 2nd and 3rd WR. Not that the 2nd and 3rd WRs
don’t have value (both schematic and talent), but they don’t create the same match-up issues
and can all be used in rotation with the rest of the WR/TEs. Seattle currently splits their roster
5WR/3TE and flipping that puts them in a spot where they don’t need to target any WRs as
their top 3 are already well established. Here’s a mock for the 2013 Draft that would allow
them to fully upgrade their Joker TEs while still getting help at other positions of need (Editor
Note: Seahawks are still waiting to hear what conditional compensation they received for
trading Barrett Ruud to New Orleans and Tarvaris Jackson to Buffalo. Whether or not they
still owe the conditional 7th for getting Winslow from Tampa Bay is also up in the air as of this
1. DT John Jenkins, Georgia 6’3” 358
2. TE Jordan Reed, Florida 6’3” 243
3. LEO Jamie Collins, Southern Miss 6’3” 240
4. OT/OG Kyle Long, Oregon 6’7” 312
5. TE Levine Toilolo, Stanford 6’7” 265
6. SLB/LEO Travis Long, Washington State 6’4” 245
7. TE Jack Doyle, Western Kentucky 6’6” 253
With this mock, the Seahawks can get a big guy who can anchor on their DL if they lose
Alan Branch to FA, competition at LEO/OL/LB, and enough Joker TE talent to make Russell
Wilson even scarier. I hate to compare Reed and Aaron Hernandez because they both went to
Florida, but I bet after the combine their testing numbers aren’t too far off and Reed could be
used in a similar way. Toilolo could use some MMA lessons in leverage to help his blocking, but
he also spent a lot of time flexed out at WR at Stanford and his natural height advantage is nice
when dealing with a short field. Doyle has the potential to be another Zach Miller. In this
scenario Reed/Toilolo/Doyle replace Kearse/Butler/McGrath on the 53 roster. Each is more
talent and potentially more useful than the three they replace and are even more helpful to the
offensive coordinator. That’s a lot of big weapons that can be played at any TE or WR spot on
the field and a lot of options when it comes to planning the week to week strategies. They
could even start cutting into the snaps Rice, Tate, and Baldwin get, especially if any of them are
injured again. Maybe tough to get back onto the field if that where to happen.
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 matchup 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 when dynamic TEs on other teams’ when contracts
are up. With the ever evolving role of the TE, some lucky team could find a way to exploit the
talent in that market.