The IDP Metric System: Tackle Frequency
In the first feature in this series, I took a look at sacks and showed that there’s more than meets the eye when we evaluate IDP player value. Like sacks, raw tackles serve as a poor measuring stick in player evaluation.
For example, in terms of raw total tackles numbers, Perry Riley finished the 2012 season with 129 total tackles, while Vontaze Burfict came in just behind him with 127. Outwardly, it appears as though Riley was slightly more productive, but we know better than that.
A closer look shows that Riley played 1016 actual snaps, which refers to total snaps minus penalty snaps. Burfict, on the other hand, didn’t take over an every-down role until Week 4, and consequently played just 858 snaps. Some quick math shows that Riley recorded a tackle on 12.7% of his tackles. While that’s certainly nothing to bat an eyelash at, Burfict’s frequency of 14.8% is certainly more impressive.
The raw tackles numbers could lead us to believe that Riley and Burfict are close in fantasy value, but the tackle frequencies tell another story entirely. In an every-down role from day one of the season, Burfict is much more valuable that Riley.
So like QB Pressure frequency, tackle frequency is an important metric we need to take into account in player evaluation, especially for the linebackers. Here are the top-30 linebacker tackle frequencies among players who saw at least 400 snaps in 2012:
Luke Kuechly’s numbers are off the charts, but it should be noted that Sean Lee recorded a tackle on 19.1% of his 303 snaps before landing in injured reserve. With Kuechly almost certainly manning the middle for the Panthers in 2013, he’ll be an elite LB fantasy option. Lee should also be high on your draft board, though his inability to stay healthy is a concern.
You may be surprised to see A.J. Hawk sitting just behind Kuechly in the No. 2 spot. This doesn’t mean that you should rush out and grab Hawk. His tackle frequency numbers are higher because he was not an every-down linebacker for the Packers. Playing primarily on running downs inflates a player’s tackle frequency.
Craig Robertson, Mason Foster, James Anderson, Akeem Dent, and to some degree, Brandon Spikes also played in two-down roles. It’s a good idea to not read too much into their tackle frequencies. Snaps are still the name of the game, so we want to focus our attention on every-down linebackers. Foster could sneak into this group. Of these five, he’s the name to keep your eye on. With Dont’a Hightower being used in the Patriots’ nickel packages toward the end of the season, it looks as though Spikes will again be limited to early downs.
Kelvin Sheppard played a two-down role in all but the Bills’ Week 5 contest against the 49ers, where he saw 65-of-73 snaps. Unlike the previous two-down thumpers, Sheppard is much more interesting for 2013 following Nick Barnett’s release from the Bills. It would appear that Sheppard is in line for an every-down role, and that’s something dynasty owners have been anticipating for the last two years. Sheppard’s production in a two-down role is all the more reason to like him in a three-down role.
There are a number of big name linebackers who make the list, including NaVorro Bowman, Jerod Mayo, Chad Greenway, James Laurinaitis, Derrick Johnson, Darryl Washington, Patrick Willis, Paul Posluszny, and Karlos Dansby (also Ray Lewis who is retiring). These players have all been LB2 options or better in the past and will continue to be so this upcoming season.
In addition to Kuechly, four other interesting rooking names make the list. The aforementioned Burfict, Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David, and Zack Brown. 2012 was the year of the rookie linebacker, and a closer look at all of their tackle frequency numbers shows just how productive these guys actually were. A case could certainly be made for Wagner as an LB1 along with Kuechly, and I have no problem with Burfict and David in the LB2 range. Brown is much more tricky to rank, as his production was sporadic and mainly came in a two-down role. It’s likely we’ll see the Titans use Colin McCarthy in an every-down role, with Brown likely seeing some nickel snaps. At best he’s an LB2, but that may be a generous spot.
Three players who leave us with a little uncertainty here are Thomas Davis, Dannell Ellerbe, and Russell Allen. Davis excelled in the nickel packages along with Luke Kuechly. It’s tough to say exactly what Carolina will do with Jon Beason back, but we should keep Davis up our sleeves. Ellerbe was extremely productive when healthy this season, but his future is still uncertain with free agency looming. In an every-down role, he’s a strong LB2. Allen put up impressive tackle numbers playing in the nickel for the Jags, but with Daryl Smith back we could see Allen move back to a two-down role. That is, if the the Jags decide to re-sign Smith. We’ll have to revisit these situations after free agency wraps up.
Just as we saw in the pass rush production piece, there are also some common IDPs who didn’t make the cut. Below are some of the bigger names that fell outside of the top-30:
Rey Maualuga didn’t do himself any favors in 2012. His tackle frequency of 12.3% isn’t that far outside the top 30, but his play on the field was atrocious. The staff here at Pro Football Focus graded Maualuga out as the worst inside linebacker for 2012. This was due in large part to his lackluster performance in coverage. Maualuga almost certainly won’t be back in Cincinnati this season, which will open the door for Burfict to take over in the middle.
Perhaps the biggest linebacker name entering the 2012 season, D’Qwell Jackson let a lot of fantasy owners down with is disappointing year. The Browns are a team in transition, and some have suggested Jackson’s value will decline in a 3-4. Let’s not forget that Jackson does have previous experience in a 3-4, and put up 154 total tackles in that system in 2008. While he’s not an elite option this season, his ceiling still makes Jackson a viable LB1 consideration.
Former teammates Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton posted similar tackle frequencies in 2012. Both put up somewhat low numbers despite being in strong situations. This lack of production gives me pause, and I’m reluctant to consider either anything more than mid-range LB2s this season.
Lawrence Timmons didn’t set the world on fire with his tackle production, but unlike Weatherspoon and Lofton, he does offer big play upside. He recorded three picks on the season, and charged down the stretch with five sacks in the Steelers’ last three games. His tackle numbers likely won’t be much higher, Timmons’ upside is a rare quality that is tough to ignore. That sort of big play ability is a nice bonus out of your LB2.
I’m also not ready to rule out Donald Butler just yet. Sure, I was way off with my prediction for Butler to break out in 2012, but he’s still young and will continue to get the every-down role. I’d much rather roster someone with Butler’s upside than have to rely on high-floor, low-ceiling options like Brian Urlacher, DeMeco Ryans, or David Harris.
While tackle frequency isn’t the be-all and end-all in IDP player evaluation, the metric gives us a much better sense of player production than by just looking at the raw tackle numbers. In the ever-shifting landscape of the NFL, tackle frequency can help us get a jump on players who are poised to break out, and also allow us to avoid overhyped, low-ceiling IDPs. In the final installment of this series, I’ll take a look at how we can better evaluate our defensive backs.
Jeff Ratcliffe is the Assistant Managing Editor for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @JeffRatcliffe