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Division Links: Punters, receivers and tackles are tap this week in the NFC East

Big Blue View

Do punters matter in today’s NFL?

Maybe more in a negative than a positive way

Increasingly, NFL teams are going for the first down on fourth down rather than punting, as analytics says is the smart play much of the time when a team is in the opponent’s territory. So we might expect that the most analytics-driven teams are the ones who go for it most often, and that these are usually the most successful teams. Here is a chart courtesy of StatMuse showing the teams that went for it on fourth down the most in 2021:

Actually the majority of the teams that went for it most often were bad, including the Giants - not exactly a highly analytics-driven team - at No. 7. Only the Los Angeles Chargers, led by the ultimate follow-the-analytics head coach Brandon Staley, are high on the list. Eight of the nine teams who went for it the least were playoff teams, including the two Super Bowl teams, the Rams and the Bengals.

If we sort the StatMuse numbers in another way, we can better see what is happening. The league leaders in percentage of successful fourth-down attempts were Baltimore (66.7 percent), Kansas City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, Las Vegas, and Tennessee, all but one of them playoff teams. And more importantly, all of them teams with good offenses. The Giants were seventh from the bottom in success rate at 43.3 percent. Losing teams are generally the ones that find themselves in positions where they have to gamble and go for it but don’t have the offensive personnel or coaches to make it work. Winning teams generally face those situations less often but have the offensive skill to fare better when they have to do it.

Viewed in this light, the conservative choices often made by Joe Judge in 2021 may be a bit more defensible - when you have an offensive line that can’t protect the quarterback and can’t move the pile, perhaps you’re better off punting.

An Expected Points Added approach to evaluating punters

Just as for other positions, Expected Points Added (EPA) per play can be calculated for punters to tell us who the best punters in the NFL are. But the usual way of calculating EPA does not work well for punters. EPA uses historical information on down, distance, field position, and game situation (score and time) to determine whether a particular play call and result added to or subtracted from the team’s probability of scoring.

The project Puntalytics explains that many of the factors that go into calculating EPA are out of the punter’s control, For example, any punt on fourth-and-1, no matter how good, is a bad choice statistically compared to going for the first down according to historical results. Such a punt automatically grades as a negative EPA. The punter should not be penalized for the coach’s choice to punt in that situation. Likewise, a punt from the opponent’s 40-yard line that goes 35 yards and is downed at the 5 should not be penalized relative to a punt from one’s own 20 that goes 50 yards. And a punt returned 20 yards may be the punter’s fault, or it may be the punt coverage team’s fault.

Puntalytics attempts to correct for all the factors outside the punter’s control and creates a “punter’s EPA” (pEPA) that isolates just the punter’s performance. Here are the results for 2021:

A slightly different metric has been created by The Philly Cover Corner. It uses the Puntalytics database, but excludes punt plays with a fumble or a penalty. The resulting metric, punter EPA+, is fairly well correlated with the product of punt distance and hang time, two factors we generally associate with a good punt:

This metric has an even larger difference between the best and worst punters (0.6), but no punter has an EPA+ greater than about +0.1, less than half the EPA of the best QBs. On the other hand, most punters have a negative EPA+.

This seems to pass the smell test - a good punter can be an asset, though not nearly as much as a good quarterback is, but a bad punter can have a significant negative impact on a team’s chance of winning. Put another way: In today’s explosive offense-driven NFL, if a punter is not providing a dramatic change in field position, what is lost by giving your opponent’s offense another chance to make big plays against you outweighs what little advantage you get by increasing the distance that opponent has to go to score.

Blogging the Boys

4 questions about the Cowboys that the minicamp will not answer

Will the receiving corps be good enough?

We know that Michael Gallup is expected to miss multiple games as he continues to rehab. That leaves CeeDee Lamb as the one proven receiver. The likely WR2 and WR3 are rookie Jalen Tolbert and free agent James Washington, and that is another level of uncertainty.

Meanwhile tight end now has the shadow of the Dalton Schultz contract negotiations hanging over it. He held out of the latter part of the OTAs. Given the history of such negotiations under Stephen Jones, this may drag out into training camp. With questionable depth behind Schultz, that is not good.

Philly Voice via Bleeding Green Nation

Eagles News: Andre Dillard “did not play as well in 2021 as previously perceived”

Andre Dillard is heading into his fourth season with the Eagles after they selected him in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In his time in Philly, Dillard has only started nine games. The Eagles had a decision to make this offseason on whether or not to exercise Dillard’s fifth-year option, which they declined. That was the correct choice, in my opinion.

Dillard had a bad rookie season (and not just at RT) in 2019, before being lost for the season in 2020 with a torn biceps. He entered 2021 training camp in a competition with Jordan Mailata for the starting LT job, but it was crystal clear after only a small handful of practices that Mailata was going to run away with the job.

Dillard started five games at LT in 2021 (two in relief of an injured Mailata, two when Lane Johnson was out with his personal issue, and the meaningless Week 18 game against the Cowboys). It has just sort of been accepted as truth that Dillard played well whenever he was called upon to fill in. I was curious to take a closer look, however, so, you know, I watched him.

Dillard’s 2022 outlook with the Eagles

There isn’t really a good fit for Dillard as a starter with the Eagles going forward. Mailata will be the starting LT for the foreseeable future, and Lane Johnson is coming off an All-Pro season at RT. Dillard has shown so far in his career that he can only play LT, so he doesn’t really even have value to the Eagles as a swing tackle.

At the 2022 NFL Combine, Howie Roseman pushed back against the idea that Dillard can’t play RT, however, as noted above, when Johnson was missing for several games during the 2021 season, Mailata started at RT and Dillard filled in at LT. The Eagles have shown in the past that they would much rather substitute an offensive lineman off the bench directly for the injured/missing player instead of having multiple positional changes along the line. They made an exception with Dillard, even in-game.

Offensive line depth is kind of a big deal in the NFL, though, as we have seen with this Eagles team, and who knows — the 2022 Eagles could maybe be contenders. If they almost certainly weren’t, it would be an easy decision to take, saaaayyyy, a fourth-round pick for Dillard. But the 2022 season has value, and thus, so does Dillard to this team, and the Eagles shouldn’t be quick to trade him, even with his many glaring flaws. After all, it’s not as if the Eagles have an obviously good answer at tackle on their bench otherwise.

If I’m Roseman, I’m probably not settling for anything less than a third-round pick for Dillard. At the same time, if I were the GM of some other team around the league in need of a left tackle, I’m probably not paying that price for a player that has overrated upside and high continued bust potential.