We got the chance to talk to Football Outsiders about their Football Outsiders Almanac, which presents a great primer on the NFL every year. Check out their store to get a copy. In the mean time, Andrew Healy was kind enough to answer all of the questions prompted by the Almanac.
1. Football Outsiders is very, very down on Jameis Winston, mostly because of his short college career and the decline in his second season. Is there any precedent for a college quarterback projecting this poorly in your statistical framework and still turning into a quality NFL starter?
I would say that we're just down on Winston in comparison to most other people who are very high on him. Most first-overall quarterbacks make a Pro Bowl at some point. It's certainly possible that the scouts are right and Winston will do better than his college stats would predict. That said, QBASE does give Winston credit for being the number one overall pick, trying to account at least in part for how much scouts like him.
The projection system is far from perfect. So are scouts. There have been lots of times in the past where college stats could and should have prevented big mistakes (e.g., Akili Smith, David Carr, Kyle Boller). Winston's statistical profile is more hopeful than those, but there are enough red flags that he probably should not have been the top pick.
Still, the stats have been wrong before. Matt Ryan is a notable case. QBASE liked Ryan even less than Winston. Those two QBs had pretty different college careers, for what it's worth. QBASE tries to correct for Ryan's weak supporting cast at Boston College, but it's possible that it just can't quite do so adequately. Anyway, it's worth emphasizing that we give Winston a reasonable chance of being at least an adequate starter. We think scouts are underselling his bust potential, but it's certainly possible the stats oversell it, at least somewhat.
2. The Bucs' defense improved quite a lot over the second half the 2014 season. Do half-season improvements like that generally correlate with further improvement in the subsequent year, or is it more likely to be a statistical blip?
In general, our weighted DVOA (which puts more weight on games late in the season) does not predict future performance as well as DVOA over the whole season. So it's usually better to look at the whole year. In some cases, we might think there is good reason to think improvement would carry over, however. There are some reasons to think the Bucs might hold some of that improvement. Most importantly, Alterraun Verner's early-season struggles might not be very predictive and Lovie Smith's defense might have had some early-season growing pains.
3. One split that struck me was the team's massive decline from first-down defense to third-down defense. Is that mostly an artifact of a pass defense that was worse than the run defense, or is there something else going on?
I think that's basically it. Those defensive ends (Michael Johnson and William Gholston) that did almost nothing against the pass were effective against the run according to stop rate. That played an important part in the defense ranking higher against the run than the pass and being better on first down than third down.
4. Doug Martin has been getting a lot of positive press this offseason, but Outsiders' model is not impressed with similar projections to last year's fairly awful performance. What are the odds that Martin returns to rookie form, or at least turns into a middling starting back?
Personally, I wouldn't be shocked if Martin returns to something approaching his rookie form. If he stays healthy, I think he probably will be a middling starting back. That does not mean he necessarily produces all that much. His numbers will depend at least as much on that highly questionable line as it will on his return to form.
5. Overall, Outsiders isn't very optimistic about the Bucs' chances this season. Is there any reason for optimism, either this year or in the long term?
I think there is some reason for optimism, although less for this year. First, Winston's chances of being the answer are not zero. Even though we think he has a relatively low chance of becoming a franchise quarterback, it is still higher than anyone they have started in the last ten years. Second, while we're bearish on the pass rush since we think it's likely that regression will hit their primary guys, they have two perfect blocks to build around in David and McCoy.
The other big reason for optimism is the lack of long-term dead money that they have due to their contract philosophy. They will need to stop paying for one-year wonders at some point, but things can turn around quickly roster-wise for teams like the Bucs.