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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

30-stack - Secret Defensive Formation?

I've heard a lot of speculation on how the team will use Shaq Thompson.

Let me provide you with a new perspective, one I hope we see this season and on into the future - the 3-3 defense, or the 30 stack in slang.

I first brought up the 3-3 way back in 2011 - before a Ron Rivera/Sean McDermott defense ever stepped on a field.  And a fair amount of time happened before it became the dominant force you may consider it today.  Some of it works better in a Denver style setup, where one OLB is a blitz guy on a high level.  While Luke Kuechly made that a 2014 focus, and both he and Thomas Davis are efficient, make no mistake, neither are Greg Lloyd or Von Miller.

But, in a coverage setup, even in man, a 3-3 makes sense.  

In personnel, it brings all three linebackers on the field - Thompson, Kuechly, and Davis.  The concept being, Davis and Kuechly were excellent at coverage (bears out in metrics, too), but they struggled a bit to deal with a slot TE.  Or, to use a Saints style conundrum, they couldn't cover easily both Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles.  Luckily Sproles was let go in New Orleans, and that had an easy time against Graham with Davis,

In true man, it's a matchup situation.  By having all three LBs on the field, you have some size - maybe not perfect against the run, but you're not exchanging a 3rd corner for either a SS or your SLB (which is, once again, Thomas Davis).  You have a LB that can go in space, and a LB that can cover a player that comes out either side of the backfield.  

You can still play Cover 1 Robber, a two - zone, levels defense that has the FS in deep zone, and usually the SS or MLB in under zone (i.e., you play man, but you have help inside no matter what), a good play against 21 or 12 personnel (2 backs 1 TE, 1 back 2 TE), but a danger against either personnel with a split TE or back (the back isn't often crucial, but consider that Matt Forte last year had more targets than Greg Olsen, and almost as many as Kelvin Benjamin, on an offense that had Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall).
This graphic is out of base, and that'll happen a lot, but consider that zone with nickel, too. 

So, I don't know.  A 3 man line diminishes a bit of what Carolina does best, rush the passer, but if they play as much man as they had in the 2014 year, and have added a matchup piece in Thompson, why not a 3-3?  You keep your nickel, you keep your SS, and you keep your matchup piece.  

A 3 man line rotation, along with Carolina's tricky double-A Gap pressure (along with its fakes), seen below: 
and suddenly you have a lot more options than McDermott or Rivera have ever had. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Unpacking PFF's Targets

Happy Father's Day!

We're in a lull, post - OTAs, pre-camp, but I had something on my mind to throw out there.

We knew last year, after a point, that Kelvin Benjamin would get a lion's share of the WR targets - I don't know that I saw him getting two games' worth more than Greg Olsen, but that's how it ended up happening (145 v/s 123).  Some of that also came from Olsen helping block, and I'm sure someone with more PFF data than I currently have could dig that up, if it really required 'proving'.

One neat bit of free PFF content out there right now is in types of routes run, and that's where we really see some staggering facts about how the team uses a number of players from 2014, and I'll attempt to fit that into what they have for personnel in 2015.

Benjamin shows noticeably high in post and go routes.  It's not shocking at all, really.  I would've expected the post, and his ability to run the post is predicated by his deep threat.  That deep threat was conspicuously and unexpectedly good.  Benjamin, in go routes, doesn't show up high in # run, but he does show up in targets.

That tells me, when Cam had him deep, he chose him. 43 targets on go routes, with 145 targets total, means 31% of the time Newton (or Anderson, 1/8th of the time) looked at Benjamin, it was deep.

With the post, the necessary staple in the cupboard of intermediate to deep passing in this offense, Benjamin ran the second most (to Brandon LaFell oddly enough).  That's where things get interesting, not only because both of those players top that list, but because LaFell wasn't used that way, and it's a strength.  Given that Carolina did want LaFell back, and had Jerricho Cotchery in mind from the start, it makes me wonder if LaFell would've played Benjamin's role in 2014 in that alternate world.

LaFell had a much better year - eventually - than I figured he'd have in New England.  I'll note an underinflated ball is also easier to catch when your hands are small.

Olsen, for what it's worth, shows up only on corner routes and outs.  In that, he shows up in efficiency more than volume.

Cotchery, most often the third target in an otherwise ever-changing rotation, on a team that used 2 TE 50% of the time (and therefore, a 3rd WR less than 50% of the time once you add in some fullback snaps), shows up twice.  The 'in', probably as a combination route with another receiver and/or a quick route with 5 or less yards to go (but all speculation on my part), and then the WR Screen, which I can only assume comes from packaged plays.   He didn't get targeted that often, mostly on my recollection, which is why I assume that - you have a read option up front, you make your run/pass read, then you might hit the WR screen or a comeback to Olsen (for instance) based on where the LB is - where the WR screen is a safety valve.

So you have Cotchery running a lot of one route because it's a strength (and I'd necessarily assume that most were), and a lot of another route because other options weren't available.  Now they are.

So now let's unpack that data.
*Benjamin was almost impossible for Newton to pass up, going deep.
*Olsen ran the necessary intermediate routes around the bunch formations Carolina runs.
*the Z/flanker receiver didn't stand out, excepting what I'm assuming to be within packaged plays. and a route to best fit Cotchery.

So - we also know that Corey Brown came on last year, that Ted Ginn is a deep ball specialist, and that Ginn was their go-to screen guy.  So in concept, you could see that Benjamin's role might or might not change, but players on the other side have more capacity to play the roles required.

It's safe to suggest on first look, Devin Funchess can take up some of the Cotchery route roles.  If he can clean it up with his hands, and get the little details down, he could be a king size Cotchery, and I don't mean that as an insult - the team wants that role, the little things done well.  Having that in a 6'4 package could be amazing.  He might hit some of those WR screens, not because they're his strength, but because that's what the packaged play dictates as a safety valve.

Of course, all of this is a myopic look at the whole thing.  I don't buy PFF right now, so the only relevant data you get becomes what they give you - in this case, the top ten in a category.  For Olsen, a Pro Bowler, it gets more cloudy because he will obviously have difficulty cracking a top ten that'll be mostly receivers.

And all of this, don't forget, Carolina was 19th in attempts.  If that feels like a low set of data points, it is (and add in the clipping that comes from only getting to see the top few).  But, we're in 'luck' I guess, in that Carolina was 29th in pass attempts in 2013, in which none of those stats had any real value.

So, in a lower volume situation, seeing a Panther on these lists is something to notice.  There are ghosts of Steve Smith in this article, too - I'm certain he was both the post/go and screen guy for years.  But that's a separate discussion, and how he was used in the West Coast in Baltimore isn't as relevant.

Friday, June 19, 2015

He's Not Heavy - He's My Split End

Kelvin Benjamin's a little overweight.  And has hamstring issues.

I'd love to say I know how that'll play out - that Dave Gettleman and Ron Rivera (the source of the news) have no real concern, they just want him out there.  That Benjamin has done this before (at FSU) with weight, and that I don't get how the hamstring is really related, unless the whole thing's conditioning.  And none of us have any way of knowing that.  The hope is, regardless, his hamstring injury doesn't continue to be a thing.

But, in the mythical fat folds of Benjamin's early summer, come ways for other receivers to get open.

Devin Funchess needs reps.  He's good, and he can help you.  Preseason might let him play more split end, the isolated receiver to formation left/weakside (they do flip it, most often Benjamin lines up at the X so if you're seeing him to formation right, chances are he's still isolated/not bunched/etc and they've called a Left formation, making him to the right).   Funchess can play any role out there, not to say that Benjamin can't - he's been used as a slot, too - but you use Benjamin's sheer size out there on the edge.

At any rate, Funchess can get reps anywhere if Benjamin's ailing, so it can be a short term positive situation.  Other guys, who might 'fit' better in a world without Benjamin, can show that.  Brandon Boykin's not had a good OTA from a few reports, but he could fit as an X here, and that was where Stephen Hill worked best for the Jets (in this offense, anyway - feels like he'd have been a better flanker in WCO, don't know if that's what they did).

And while many are tired of him after his playoff-run punt returning, Brenton Bersin is a guy who, like Funchess, has both size and versatility.  A guy Cam likes, whether we do or not.  A guy who makes more sense to keep as a #5 (i.e., doesn't get a jersey) receiver instead of a vet.

And that's without going into Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn Jr, or Corey Brown, all of which who are more likely to be on the flanker/slot side earning their living over there.

I don't know if Benjamin is still a little too man-child out there, still expecting to dominate based on physical attributes but maybe not putting in as much work.  I don't think that's the case honestly, and I won't know, so I won't say.  People that know something they can't possibly?  That's a refined ignorance.  But, potentially, lesson learned on that.

Benjamin looked irritated at practice, potentially sore at the media for taking this on as a cause or even a little sore his coach mentioned it.  It goes on too long, he's going to have Thomas Davis (and potentially Thomas Davis' stepladder - I don't often get to make TD size jokes) to deal with, another reason I'm not going to sweat Benjamin's long term conditioning or work.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Curious Case of Brandon Beane

Carolina promoted Brandon Beane to Assistant GM.

And I'm mixed on that.

The media likes it. Far as I can tell, you would assume the team itself is tremendously pleased. Fans are going to be either ambivalent, or outright hate it. In this meandering article, I'll try to weigh the options - if you don't like administrative stuff, this might not be an article for you.

Beane has no real coaching or scouting experience, and was essentially unknown until Marty Hurney was fired (and I felt good about knowing Mark Koncz, Jeff Rodgers, and a few scouts). Beane was apparently Hurney's right hand man, interviewed to replace him, and in the interim, did.

His background, not unlike Hurney's, is definitely far different from the man who just promoted him. Dave Gettleman is a football man. He coached, he college scouted, he pro scouted. He was with a number of teams, and absorbed things from a number of tremendous football men.

Hurney was a writer, though there was never much info out there - and then he became a front office guy, potentially a guy with an opportunity who 'got' the salary cap and the money side, and rode that upward. Beane, coincidentally, might've done the same thing.

Brandon started out with the team administratively, and just kinda worked his way up. To the average person who follows the team, that might not be good enough. And certainly, if I look at his resume versus a guy who has spent 20 years in scouting, I have a hard time disagreeing. It didn't help the public image of Hurney, which while the average person finding a scapegoat isn't doing a lot of depth
analysis, I doubt that those complaints did much to help him in a mid-season firing.

I'll say this. To this point, Dave Gettleman hasn't done a ton to give me pause. His 2014 free agent class could've worked better at times, but he was working with all but nothing. His drafts have been very good, his moves in general I have no complaints. He's worked out of the mess that Hurney left him to a point (once Hurney started to go off the rails with the massive deals and odd draft trades), with Hurney's staff. So if he says Beane is his man, that's OK. That's a point in their favor.

I've wanted an assistant GM for a bit. I've made no bones that I'd expand the scouting staff, or the analytic staff. I can't say that this is what I envisioned, that Gettleman would keep together the full
staff, add one pro scout and not much else. I kinda wanted new blood - if everyone's earned a job, fine by me, but still, expand. Part of that was that the assistant GM would be a hire, not a title change of an existing employee.

Beane will absorb plenty from Gettleman, Don Gregory, and plenty of others. I guess he'll learn the Polian, Accorsi type lessons by working with Gettleman, but he will get them as folklore - which is a tougher lesson to learn. Of course, football men with more experience in that same building will get the same lessons.

For what it's worth, some media types have come out in favor. That can be self serving, it's easier to push the idea of "hey this is a good guy" if you're not trying to lose future access or stories. Don't
think that it escaped me that Marty Hurney got the 'scoop' on the Cam Newton contract talks, given that he hired the guy who probably fed it to him. But, those media guys - including Darin Gantt, who does not at all hold his tongue on this franchise when he doesn't agree - do know more of him than I do.   They get why he progressed faster than, say, Rodgers, who I like.   They might have insight on why he's going up the ladder now, and why he's not been inserted into the scouting circles to gain experience there. 

I also don't know if this truly puts Beane in place to be the future GM. It's no secret that Gettleman is aging (*he's 64 as of now), and he's not in top shape (John Fox, who led a mass staff weight loss in 2008, and then ironically a mass staff exodus that started in 2009, remarked to him about his weight last year). Gettleman's a football man. He loves his family, he might die at the stadium watching film, though. I don't want that, or soon either, but it's plausible. When you hire the 60+ year old guy in a sea of 30s and 40s guys (based on the hiring process in early 2013), that's a thing you have to do.

What I do know? This could look better, because Beane's paid his dues in different wants than Gettleman did. This is a modern NFL, and you have to do more than watch tape, eat fast food on your way to Wichita to see a guy with your own eyes. So I'm mixed on this. This could work. He'd have to keep the same support staff in place, but that's likely.  The

And this is obviously not about me, but I put myself in both ends of it. I'd love that job, and I'd get it the way Beane inevitably will. Right place, right time, with just the right circumstances. He's earned the opportunity, and I'm OK with that, but he'll still have to prove himself. In a billion dollar business, he's been handed the second key to the building. It's OK to scrutinize the kid that gets that chance.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Chris Houston Added - Thomas Davis Extended

Linebacker Thomas Davis is extended three years - $18 million.  Happy to see it happen.  Carolina likely has more money under the cap at this point, though I don't know if they'll use much of it at all.  They'll likely want to move it to next year as credit.  Either way, glad he's on for longer.

They also added Chris Houston, a CB who sat out last year with a toe injury.  The 31 year old, 5'11, 180 lb corner was a 2nd round 2007 pick by the Falcons, traded to the Lions in 2010 for a conditional 6th; he played there until 2014, cut because of lingering issues with that toe.

He'd run a blazing 4.32 40 at combine, along with a 27 x 225 bench. In seven seasons as a player, he'd racked up 376 tackles, 4 FF, 1 FR, 13 INT, 3 TD, 80 defensed passes.   He'd been a good starter, so he's a player who could have impact if he's healthy.

And that could be a big 'if'.  He's over 30 and wasn't touched by anyone last year.  Along with Charles Tillman, the Panthers have a vet pair of corners well past median age that could really make a difference, or be on IR a lot of the year.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tim Shaw: No Regrets

I remember being excited about Tim Shaw in 2007.  He was a 5th round pick - not unlike many other 5th or later picks that were linebackers that looked like steals (you could argue similarities with the current, David Mayo, but you could argue the same for most drafts).

Tim Shaw has ALS. This great story from the Free Press tells his story.

It's a reminder - this is a vicious game.  Carolina hasn't been spared.  There have been many sentinel moments in Carolina's 20 year history where head injury has played a part, where the after-affects of football remind you that not everyone walks away safe and the percentage of players that do, may be dwindling.

Shaw isn't alone.  His story here may be unremarkable, a part of a revamp in the LB corps that starred Jon Beason from the same class, Shaw got washed out when the team took his former Penn State teammate Dan Connor in the 3rd in the year following.  Shaw played here a year, and bounced around for five more.  Connor himself put in 4 years here, two more elsewhere.

To that end Carolina isn't spared.  Carolina won't be spared.  Guys who played on the first playoff team in 1996 would be anywhere from 40 years old to their 50s.  Sam Mills, whose death was a decade ago this April, would have been 55, Greg Kragen is 53 now.

The 9ers' Anthony Davis taking a year off, along with the retirement of LB Chris Borland, is multifaceted.  I get that.  Honestly, I wouldn't play for Jim Tomsula if I had options and the 9ers are going to be a disaster.  But here, where people love the owner and the coaches (swing a dead cat if you haven't heard of how big a deal it is that people buy into this area, too), Carolina suffered 4 lineman retirements in 2014.

Were they, to some end, guys who'd finished their careers without offers?  Somewhat.  Jordan Gross knew Carolina couldn't pay him what he was worth but didn't want to go elsewhere.  Travelle Wharton, Geoff Hangartner fit definitively into the "without offers" group, though Jeff Byers was (I believe) under contract.

Looking at pictures from OTAs, I was heartened to see pictures of consecutive Walter Payton Man of the Year award winners Thomas Davis and Charles Tillman doing hand-eye coordination drills together with a tennis ball.  But these over-30 warriors are facing a common test of being able to stay on the field, each having struggled with the one thing their talent can't change - health.  How far will their time off the field help their post-50 year life?

Past that, what do we make of a career so many are willing to be able to walk away from?

Carolina isn't immune.

And now that we have our first player signed to the year 2020, the deep future of the team becomes real - in a form that much of the world hasn't grasped.  Not a ton of people think much farther, outside of massive public works projects like the Second Avenue Subway or NASA's Great Magellan Telescope.  It makes you wonder, what that 2020 signed player, Cam Newton, will have endured by 2050.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Funchess, CJ Moving Around?

The talk of OTAs has been, as much as Cam Newton's big deal, the movement of a few players.

Charles Johnson has played some right end - he'd done that last in 2011-12, when he and Greg Hardy flipped around (and other players were working into the rotation still).  2013, and parts of 2012, Johnson was a left end, Hardy was to the right.

Johnson feels to be a natural left end, but can do either.  This may just be an experiment, and it's hard to say how that works longterm.

Kony Ealy, a second year, and Frank Alexander, a 4th year, both have every-down capability.  Both find themselves as having made the '14 roster but looking to contribute a great deal more, whereas last year's combo of Wes Horton and Mario Addison were a run/pass duo.   It'll be interesting to see what happens to Johnson - I'm not as in favor of this as a potential move, honestly.

Devin Funchess has gotten a lot of press for playing the split end/X, the flanker/Z, and slot roles.  F in our terminology, that slot role is the piece that tends to move most, being the most "position fluid" role that can be a tight end, fullback, or slot WR. In this offense, the Z is the guy most likely in motion/off the line, and then with a slot, that player's often the motion man as necessary.  The way Mike Shula plays in 3x1/2x2 bunches, instead of having space between outside and slot WRs, the Z and F are blurred.

To extrapolate that info - Funchess can be the X, that static position in this offense that you most often see far left of formation, on the line.  Last year that was Kelvin Benjamin, and in years past, Steve Smith.   But the obvious idea of Benjamin being there and being essentially only the X?  Keeps Funchess out of that spot.  The amount of times that Benjamin wasn't an isolated outside receiver to that side came in situations where the Panthers flipped formation (left formation flipping sides for everyone) or they did a 2x2 bunch formation with another receiver with/potentially outside Benjamin.
Or, if too long/didn't read, Benjamin is the X so Funchess isn't.  But that leaves Funchess potentially in the 2014 Jerricho Cotchery role, and the one played by Brandon LaFell prior to that - the Z in base formation, the slot/F in 3+ receiver formations.   It's not required that you play F if you play Z, but the two are more similar.  Some teams obviously have two outside WR, bring in that 3rd guy to play a more dedicated slot role (think Smith/Muhsin Muhammad, then Smitty/Moose/Proehl).

But, for now, it looks like Funchess has that ability.  He can get on the field no matter what, and while most assume he'll start eventually, him having a jersey and a role is a certainty.  What it would look like in this offense if he's not a starter is harder to say - whether it'd be Ted Ginn (essentially an incumbent, and the speed not seen on the field otherwise), Cotchery (the incumbent Z/F), or the rest of the field, is a mystery.  I'm OK with any - want the best - but Funchess will obviously be on the field as much as possible as soon as possible.