In case you missed it, late last week Pro Football Focus (PFF) and ESPN teamed up to release their ranking of every roster in the NFL. While most in Rams Nation would hope that the St. Louis Rams would finally get some much-deserved recognition for their “competitiveness” in the NFC West, Sam Monson, the columnist at PFF in charge of the piece, has not so kind. In fact, “not so kind” might be putting it lightly, with Monson ranking the Rams roster No.31, barely ahead of the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Even that distinction, in his words, could be considered a stretch, making the comment that, “If there is a team to challenge the Jaguars for the worst roster in football, it’s the Rams.”
To fully understand what went wrong in this ranking, we have to start with a fundamental look at how the analyses were conducted. For starters, all of individual offensive and defensive starters were placed into ordinal categories, including: Rookie, Not Enough Information, Poor Starter, Below Average Starter, Average Starter, Good Starter, High Quality, and Elite. While Monson doesn’t explicitly state the qualifiers for each group, one could reasonably surmise that each grouping coincides with a range, dictated by PFF’s player grades from their site. For example, someone with a -1 to +1 might fall into the “Average” category.
Before break it down, here are the Rams rankings:
As you can see, there are only a handful of players that rank in the “Good Starter” or higher category, which inevitably led to the No.31 ranking in the ESPN article. So, what is wrong with this?
Well, for starter, by ranking only the Top 24 players on each roster, Pro Football Focus has eliminated one of the “key” properties of a NFL roster; depth. For example, William Hayes does not add any “value” to the team in this evaluation, despite the fact that PFF ranked him as their No.11 overall 4-3 defensive end in 2013, which was 12 spots ahead of Chris Long (i.e. a “Good Starter”). Failing to mention depth also removes several of the Rams highly-selected draftees, like Tre Mason and Aaron Donald, from the roster, which leads to our next issue…
The second, and most obvious, problem is that rookies and players with limited snaps do not add any value to their team’s roster. So, in essence, the St. Louis Rams’ “final grade” was based on only 22 players, as opposed to the “full” 24-man starting roster. One could argue that this should even out, as the majority of team’s will likely have at least one rookie projected into their starting lineups. However, that also suggests that all rookies have the same value. So, a player like Greg Robinson (i.e. the No.2 overall pick) would have the same “value” as a Demetrius Rhaney (i.e. the No.250 overall pick), which is obviously inaccurate. While it may have been difficult to justifiably “grade” rookies based solely off where they were selected in the NFL Draft, it certainly makes more sense than completely disregarding their value to the organization.
The third issue is one that is obviously unavoidable, but is significant, nonetheless. All of the cumulative grades are based on a “projected” lineup for each roster, one that may be drastically different than the list each team will post at the start of Week 1. For the St. Louis Rams, that is especially true, with a handful of position still labeled as massive questions marks heading into the second week of OTAs. For example, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, and Rodney McLeod could all start the season on the bench in St. Louis, with players like Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and a myriad of young defensive backs fighting for a starting role.
Lastly, the idea of grading players’ “value” solely on their performance in a single, isolated season seems a tad asinine. Players that saw a spike or dip in performance last year are potentially being judged on an “outlier” season. Moreover, Sam Monson does an inadequate job of explaining what qualifies a player for the “Not Enough Information” category. As a result, someone like Jeremy Lane, currently listed as the Seahawks’ slot cornerback, received an “Average Starter” grade, despite having played fewer than 400 snaps in his two seasons in the NFL (roughly 200 snaps in 2013). For the St. Louis Rams, one would like to tack that same “Not Enough Information” label on someone like T.J. McDonald, who missed the majority of his rookie season with a broken leg, but was still unfairly marked as a “Poor Starter” on the St. Louis Rams roster.
One could make a similar case for players whose production does not match their Pro Football Focus grade and, subsequently, their evaluation on the ESPN rankings. For example, Alec Ogletree finished 9th overall in the NFL in solo tackles and T-3rd in force fumbles last season, as well as finishing 8th among linebackers in pass deflections and being one of only 14 backers to register a defensive touchdown last season. Yet, despite the top-tier production, Ogletree was marked as “Below Average Starter.” One could make a similar case for Zac Stacy, who led the NFL in rushing yards for the majority of the season after Week 5, including an 80.75 rushing yards/game average as a starter (Top 5 in the NFL last season). The figure alone would seemingly rank Stacy, at least, in the “Good Starter” range. However, due to two inexplicably low “receiving” grades last season, Stacy barely managed a positive grade on PFF in 2013, which dropped him to an “Average Starter” heading into the 2014 season. To get even more picky, one could even argue a case for Jake Long, who PFF ranked as their No.7 overall offensive tackle in 2013, with the No.2 overall run blocking grade in the NFL. Yet, despite ranking among the Top 10 in their own grading system, Long was not considered an “Elite” player.
Between flawed roster projections, categorization based off a single-season’s performance, and “undervaluing” rookies and depth players, there is plenty of “error” that could explain why the St. Louis Rams roster ranked No.31 in the NFL. It nothing else, it seem odd that it only takes five “Good Starters” on the Rams roster to compete in the NFC West with the (according to Sam Monson) No.1 and No.2 rosters in the league. Maybe, this can serve as some type of motivation for the young squad heading into the 2014 regular season!