Reviewing 2014: Experience, continuity, and luck

This is the first in a series of articles that look back at the 2014 season with a focus on trends in team building and roster construction. These articles will not include any analysis of individual player performance. That will be left to such entities as Pro Football Focus, and they do a fine job of it.

In this article, team roster construction will be reviewed for each team to see if there are any significant trends in roster construction that impact 2014 team performance. As always, the analyses are undertaken with the premise that there is no magic formula for building a successful team.

Both the number of games started and the number of plays from scrimmage, depending on which best fits the subject matter, will be used in this analysis. The source of both measures is the Weekly Game Book published by NFL.

For purposes of this article, players are placed in one of three categories:
• Players returning to the same team they played for in 2013 (referred to as Holdovers)
• Imports, representing players who changed teams after the 2013 season due to either a free agent signing, waiver pick up, trade, etc.
• Rookies, including both draftees and undrafted free agents

Immediately after the 2013 season ended the roster re-shuffling began. The biggest sources of off-season player movement are players whose contracts are expiring and players who are cut in order to stay under a team’s salary cap. Additional sources are player retirements, players cut due to lack of performance and trades. This process leaves holes to be filled through free agency or the draft. This does not happen evenly across the league.

Initially, these player movements will be viewed in the context of games started. While this is less than ideal, every team has the number of starts (352, which is 22 playing positions times 16 games) and this facilitates comparisons.

The 2014 opening day rosters provide a good look at offseason player movement.. The opening day rosters show that the average NFL team had players who started 300 games in 2013, 245 of which were for that team. Intuitively, more players with starting experience are better than fewer players with starting experience. The analysis that follows provides an interesting result though. Teams that were ranked highest in starts from Holdovers experienced much better results (measured as number of wins) than teams ranked highest in Holdovers plus Imports. The following chart demonstrates this point:

The top five teams in terms of number of Imports on the opening day roster were the Raiders, the Bucs, the Dolphins, the Bears and the Browns with only the Dolphins reaching a .500 record. The Broncos were the exception to this rule as they ranked seventh in starts from Imports, adding Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Will Montgomery to their roster and all contributed to Denver’s successful season.

The Bengals, the Cowboys and the Seahawks were the three teams that brought in the fewest Imports and all made the playoffs. The Chiefs, Chargers and Bills made up the remainder of the bottom six and all won nine games, but missed out on the playoffs.

Roster construction ends up very dynamic as the season progresses, primarily due to injuries, suspensions and below-expected performance. Number of plays from scrimmage during the 2014 season was used on analyses from this point forward.

One interesting note from comparing 2013 and 2014 plays from scrimmage is that the percentage of plays from scrimmage for each of the three categories is virtually unchanged from 2013 to 2014. The percentage of plays by Holdovers was exactly 71.0% for each year. The percentage for Imports changed only slightly from 18.1% in 2013 to 17.8% in 2014 and Rookies moved from 10.9% to 11.2%.

The following table shows the breakdown by category:

This table shows that teams with the highest level of plays from scrimmage by Holdovers are the highest achievers. As was mentioned earlier, 71% of the average NFL teams plays from scrimmage are from Holdovers. The percentages by team range from the Raiders (48.7%) to the Saints (87.0%). Imports average 17.8% but range from the Bucs (39.0%) to the Bengals (4.0%). Rookies average 11.2% but range from the Jaguars (25.55) to the Steelers (4.7%). Complete rankings by category by team are attached to this article. There are always exceptions to the general conclusions. The Saints were, of course, were one of the league’s major disappointments while relying more heavily on Holdovers than any other team. The Ravens, on the other hand, had a low level (ranked 25th in the league) of plays from Holdovers but found their way into the playoffs. The same could be said for the Cardinals.

Most of the teams that had a high level of scrimmage plays by rookies had rough seasons. The Packers were one of the few that rated highly in plays by rookies (ranked 7th) and had a successful season.

The conclusion here is that, while there are exceptions throughout, maximizing the number of Holdovers is good and a large number of Rookies is bad.

I also reviewed the number of players for each team that participated in players either from scrimmage or special teams. The average for the NFL was 64 players with the range from the Steelers (54) to the Giants and Bears (71 each). This is where the luck element comes in. While some players seem to be injury-prone, injuries are largely a matter of luck. The injury factor combined with being good assessors of personnel would manifest itself in a fewer or greater number of players being used.

This table shows the number of wins by teams that used more players versus those that used less. This shows that teams that used the greatest number of players won far fewer games than the other 22 teams.

Injuries were also the primary reason for the disappointing season by several teams. The Bears, for example, ranked 13th in starts by Holdovers on the opening day roster but only 26th on the season in scrimmage plays from Holdovers. For all the talk of the Giants’ hard luck and the large number of players on Injured Reserve their starts from Holdovers were going to be low even before the injury bug struck. So maybe they weren’t as disappointing as the consensus would suggest.

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