It’s hard to definitively predict anything year to year in the NFL. This is one league where parity reigns above all. With that said, the beauty of numbers is that they can still allow you to get a general sense of the landscape.
The New Orleans Saints, my hometown team, are walking into this season with their heads held high. And for good reason- they’ve had an aggressive offseason and bolstered both sides of the ball. Walter Football puts them at one of six teams that could realistically win the Super Bowl. As such, I wanted to explore some key statistics to try and understand where they stand, less than a week from opening day.
The biggest headliner was the Saints’ acquisition of Jairus Byrd in free agency. The motive behind the move is simple; he’s the ball-hawking, rangy free safety we haven’t had since Darren Sharper. We can delve deeper to understand it by looking at 3 key defensive statistics from the past 10 Super Bowl winners (because let’s be serious- our only goal is to win the Super Bowl).
ANY/A (or Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt) looks at the quarterback’s efficiency while accounting for touchdowns and interceptions. The lower allowed ANY/A, the better. This helps us measure how fundamentally solid the pass defense is. The other two statistics are turnovers forced (how opportunistic is the defense), and sacks (a rough measure of the pass rush).
Looking at that table, it’s clear that any team with Super Bowl aspirations needs to have a defensive identity in at least one of those three key metrics1. Except for the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, every other Super Bowl winner ranked at least top 10 in one of the three categories. Of that 9, apart from the 2006 Colts, the other 8 teams finished in the top 5 in at least one of those rankings. Defense may be taking a backseat to offense these days, but it’s clear that it still holds tremendous value.
Now how did the Saints perform last year in those areas? They were 8th in the league in ANY/A allowed, 4th in sacks, and an abysmal 29th in turnovers. I’ve already explored in an earlier piece that “progression to the mean” alone should bring the Saints out of the cellar in terms of turnovers forced. But with Byrd in tow and the continued growth of Kenny Vaccaro, along with some expected positive impact from 2nd round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, not only should the pass defense continue to improve, the turnovers number should see a big spike as well. The Saints could be brewing something really scary. If Wolfman Rob continues his magic, the Saints could boast a defense on par with the Steelers and Patriots championship teams.
Defense is just one side of the equation though. In the Payton-Brees era, the Saints have been defined by a record setting offense. And they made a splash on that side of the ball too, trading up in the 1st round for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They wanted to inject some youth into an aging receiving core. Once again, we can go further and look at the history of highly drafted (1st or 2nd round) wide receivers on Super Bowl winning teams from the past 10 years.
Apart from the 2005 Steelers, every team has had meaningful contributions from their highly rated wideouts. And the passing game today certainly holds much more weight than it did in 2005. Even the Saints, famous for the success of low-drafted (or undrafted) skill players on offense got valuable contributions that year from Meachem and Henderson2. If you wanted to get more rationale for the Falcons’ blockbuster Julio Jones draft-day trade, that graphic is basically the answer.
If Cooks is as good as advertised this coming year though? The Saints could continue rewriting aerial records with a receiving core headlined by stalwarts Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston and young Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Brandin Cooks. If the Saints offense returns to 2011 or 2009 form, there’s little to no hope for NFL defenses.
The last bit that I looked at was the most important position on NFL rosters – the quarterback. We know Drew Brees is key to any Super Bowl aspirations. However, after pondering the Seahawks and Ravens titles the past two years, an intriguing thought hit me. What was the age of each of the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks the past 10 years?
One thing should immediately stick out. Look at the relative youth of each quarterback, at the time of the Super Bowl. Only two were over 30 years old, Eli Manning in 2011 and Brees in 2009, and they capped out at 31. The average age is 27.6 years. There could be a couple of reasons for this. One is that younger quarterbacks are usually on lower salaries, which allows for better quality depth across the rest of the team. They haven’t hit the megabucks level yet. Another possibility is that younger quarterbacks are in their physical prime, as opposed to their older counterparts. It’s harder to play at an elite level with declining physical skills (although there are of course exceptions).
With Brees now 35 years old, that worries me a little. And it should worry the Broncos and Patriots too. Plus here’s the short list of QBs on the right side of 30 who have Super Bowl aspirations: Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson. You could whittle that list down to just Luck, Foles, Rodgers, Kaepernick, and Wilson if you wanted. The bright side is that the Saints, Patriots, and Broncos have 3 of the deepest rosters in the NFL this year, even with their highly paid, elder statesmen quarterbacks. The other good news is that Brees, Manning, and Brady are still performing among the league’s elite at the position, declining physical ability and all.
Ultimately, it should be a great season coming up. The evidence is promising. There’s no reason why the Saints can’t win their second Super Bowl this season. With a deep roster, an explosive offense, and a defense to match the offense, the Saints should run roughshod over the rest of the league. Who Dat? Two Dat.
This is not to suggest that if you perform well in one of the statistics, you are guaranteed a shot, but rather if you want a shot, you should aim towards these areas.
Granted, this is not to say that the receivers weren’t underwhelming for the draft position. Meachem was certainly disappointing. But he had over 700 yards and 9 TDs that year. That is most certainly valuable.
-Statistics and Info courtesy of Pro Football Reference and ESPN