If you're a regular reader of Blogging The Boys, you're probably familiar with a metric called Approximate Value. If not, consider this post your introduction.
We've used Approximate Value (AV) and the closely related Career Approximate Value (CAV) on and off for the last four years or so, and particularly often during our draft coverage. And as we ramp up our draft coverage again this year, we'll likely feature the metric repeatedly. So in order to get everybody on the same page, we'll use this post as a detailed introduction to AV.
"Approximate Value" was developed by Doug Drinen at Pro-Football-Reference.com and is designed to assign a value to any player at any position for any given year. The algorithm behind AV weights position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team's primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizes all this at a team level. Drinen left PFR a while back, and the 2013 numbers come courtesy of Mike Kania at PFR.
There are many ways to use the AV metric, one of them is to look at the 2013 Cowboys roster through the AV lens, which is what we'll do today. Before diving into the Cowboys' numbers though, a little more explanation by Doug Drinen:
"Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like 'number of seasons as a starter' or 'number of times making the Pro Bowl' or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between."
And like every stat, AV has its limitations.
"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."
This is an important aspect to keep in mind: The AV numbers are relative. Players on good teams will score higher than players on bad teams, some positions (e.g. QB) will score higher than others (e.g. safeties), position groups (e.g. offensive linemen) will score roughly the same even if there are differences in actual performance.
The AV number starts at 0 and has gone as high as 26 only once in the Super Bowl era: In 2006 Ladanian Tomlinson reached that mark when he set the NFL record for rushing TDs (28) and also topped the league with 1,815 rushing yards.
Topping this year's list a with 19 AV points are Peyton Manning, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and Denver right guard Louis Vasquez. AV points are fluid from one year to the next, but a rough scale for this year would look something like this:
|AV||Description||No. of players 2013|
|19-25||MVP- or Player Of The Year level performance||3|
|12-18||All-Pro/Pro Bowl level performance||65|
|3-5||Backup player or limited playing time||414|
Note that there are only 486 players in the league with an AV of 6 points or more, an indication of starter quality. That's an average of only about 15 players per NFL team, and that's an important take-away here: No team in the league has starter quality at every position, especially not in the salary cap era. Keep that in mind as we review the Cowboys roster below, sorted in descending order from 16 points to zero.
Sixteen Points - The All-Pro
1. Tyron Smith
The Cowboys' offensive line cornerstone is just starting to receive his just dues from the public. Smith has now followed up his first Pro-Bowl nomination by being named Second Team, AP All-Pro. KD Drummond gives us more good news about Smith:
The greatest part of it all is that Smith just turned 23 last month. Dallas' first first-round offensive lineman selection in over a decade looks like he should be a perennial candidate for this and many other post-season awards for years to come.
Twelve & Thirteen Points - The Pro Bowler and the Pro Bowl snubs
1. Tony Romo (13 points)
2. Dez Bryant (12)
3. DeMarco Murray (12)
By his own lofty standards, Tony Romo had a good season; compared to many other NFL QBs, he had a great season. Overall though, his 13 AV points rank him a joint 10th in the league, and that has him just shy of a Pro Bowl nomination.
Dez Bryant did get his first Pro Bowl nod, as befits a wide receiver who is ranked a joint 6th in the league in AV among wide receivers. By that logic, DeMarco Murray should also have been a Pro Bowler: he ranks 6th among all running backs in AV points, despite missing two games (and despite playing for the run-shy Cowboys). Murray didn't get a ticket to Hawaii, but hopefully he'll figure more prominently in the Cowboys' plans next season.
Eight Points - The Franchise Cornerstones
1. Jason Witten (8 points)
2. Travis Frederick (8)
3. Ronald Leary (8)
4. Doug Free (8)
Jason Witten didn't make the Pro Bowl this year despite being ranked joint 3rd among tight ends in the AV metric. But irrespective of any postseason honors, Witten remains an extremely valuable player whose contributions to the team go way beyond some simple stats.
The AV metric obviously likes the play of the Cowboys O-line and basically lumps all four main starters in one group. You could argue that Leary may not belong in the same group as Frederick and Free, but with the way the AV metric is calculated, there isn't as much differentiation between linemen as you would get from Pro Football Focus for example. Tyron Smith ranks above the remaining linemen on the strength of his post-season accolades.
Overall though, it is unusual but nonetheless welcome to see a Dallas Cowboys offensive line rank this well (Bernadeau and Waters are ranked lower only on technicalities). And considering that Doug Free at 29 is by far the oldest of last season's starters, Cowboys fans should feel all warm and tingly about their O-line going forward.
Seven Points - The Other Rookie
1. Terrance Williams
Travis Frederick has gotten a lot of accolades as the standout rookie that he's been, so much so that Terrance Williams has become little more than an afterthought. Yet his 7 AV points are tied for the 19th spot among all 2013 rookies, not bad for a third-round draft pick.
Six Points - The Veteran starters
1. Brandon Carr
2. Jason Hatcher
3. George Selvie
4. Mackenzy Bernadeau
I was initially surprised to see Jason Hatcher ranked this low, but the AV for linemen on both sides of the ball is determined in part by the overall performance of their unit, which drags Hatcher down. George Selvie, underrated even by Cowboys fans, put together quite an improbable season, considering that he was a street free agent prior to signing with the Cowboys.
Also, AV rewards one specific trait among NFL players, and that's the ability to stay healthy. Selvie played and started in in every single game, as did Brandon Carr. In the AV metric, that's a positive even if you're playing as part of a subpar unit.
Bernadeau should be ranked with the other linemen at eight points, but because he only started in 11 games, he doesn't get quite the same number of AV points. This technicality also applies to Brian Waters, who only got 3 points for his five starts in seven games.
Backups: The Borderline Starters
Five Points: The Injured Starters and Borderline Starters
1. Sean Lee
2. DeMarcus Ware
3. Barry Church
4. Orlando Scandrick
5. Bruce Carter
6. Nick Hayden
Lee and Ware both missed time with injuries, with Ware playing through some injuries, and it shows in the AV figures. While both are so much more than middle-of-the-pack players, their 2013 production was just that, and that's what their AV number reflects.
Church and Scandrick show up here as members of one of the more disappointing secondaries in the league, and they are joined by Carter and Hayden who rank just shy of being classified as starter-level, although their individual performance would probably rank them a bit lower.
Four & Three Points - Backups
1. Jeff Heath (4 points)
2. Brian Waters (3)
3. Morris Claiborne (3)
4. Kyle Wilber (3)
5. Cole Beasley (3)
These are players who either missed significant time with injury (Waters, Claiborne) or backups who received playing time due to injuries.
Two Points - The Marginal Contributors:
1. Dwayne Harris
2. J.J. Wilcox
3. Jermey Parnell
4. Joseph Randle
5. Lance Dunbar
6. Miles Austin
7. Ernie Sims
8. Justin Durant
These are all players who received limited playing time for different reasons. The question in this group is about trajectories: Are their arrows pointing up (probably the first five) or down (Austin, Sims and Durant)?
One Point - The Role Players:
1. B.W. Webb
2. Cameron Lawrence
3. Danny McCray
4. DeVonte Holloman
5. Everette Brown
6. Gavin Escobar
7. James Hanna
8. Jarius Wynn
9. Kyle Orton
With the exception of the two tight ends, these are next-man-up players who got some playing time in 2013 after being called up from the darkest recesses of the depth chart. This is usually a group where you would find rookies who get some limited playing time in their rookie season, and for most of the players here it's up or out: They need to show that they belong on the 2014 roster or they'll likely be gone.
Zero Points - The Scrubs:
This list contains all players who were active on the game-day roster at least once in 2013 (and are not on IR) but did not record any significant stats or playing time. Note that special teams play is not included here or any of the metrics above.
1. Corvey Irvin (119 snaps)
2. Sterling Moore (87)
3. Edgar Jones (74)
4. Tyler Klutts (49)
5. Phillip Tanner (42)
6. Martez Wilson (36)
7. Frank Kearse (35)
8. Jakar Hamilton (17)
9. Orie Lemon (6)
10. Phil Costa (1)
11. Jon Kitna (0)
12. Darrion Weems (0)
Before anybody starts hyperventilating about who the AV metric is calling a scrub, keep in mind that this is a measure of the performance in 2013, and most of these players did not accumulate any significant playing time as you can see by the snap count behind each name.
So there you have it, the entire 2013 Cowboys roster at a glance. In case you lost track, that's 193 AV points for the Cowboys and 13 players with an AV of six points or more. Keep in mind that the Cowboys injuries play a role in these numbers: A healthy Sean Lee would have likely received more AV points than all his replacements combined, and the Cowboys would have had more than 13 players at 6+ points if more had stayed healthy.
With that in mind, a look across the NFC East shows that the healthy Eagles predictably look a little better than the Cowboys in this metric with 226 points and 18 players with 6+ points. The Giants are only slightly behind with 184 points and match the Cowboys with 13 players at 6+ points. The Redskins are a bit further down with 163 points and 14 players with 6+ points.
Also for your reference, the top four teams as measured by AV are Seattle (263), Denver (258), New Orleans (244) and Cincinnati (242), while the bottom four are Houston (165), Oakland (165), Washington (163) , and Jacksonville (148). The Seahawks, Saints and Bengals also have the most 6+ players with 19, while the Jaguars have the least with 8.
If you want to check out the AV numbers in more detail, here's the link.