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On analytics in the NFL and Lorenzo Alexander

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The Bills linebacker was recently used as a modern-day example of analytics in the NFL.

Analytics are prevalent in today’s NFL, and they’ll likely only grow in importance to executives and coaches.

Albert Breer of MMQB recently wrote a long expose on the current state of analytics in professional football, and there was a Bills-related mention:

“On the personnel side, there are clear examples of where the numbers are leading to change. In 2009, Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter had nine sacks, but those sacks accounted for an unusually high percentage of his hurries. The Cardinals signed him, at 33, to a three-year, $24.5 million deal anyway. He regressed (6 sacks total over the next two seasons), as the numbers indicated he would, and Porter was out of football before the third year of the contract.

Last year, Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, at 33, had 12.5 sacks. But similar to Porter, those numbers accounted for a high percentage of his pressures, adding to concerns that a clear outlier season in his career would remain one. He hit free agency, and returned to Buffalo on a two-year deal worth less than $6 million.

That’s not to say the aging Alexander would’ve broken the bank in a similar spot 10 years ago. But it did give teams a clear red flag without having to look at 16 games of tape while assessing hundreds of players in building a free-agent board.”

The 2010 season was uncapped, but in 2009, the NFL salary cap was $123 million. That means, Porter’s APY of $8.1M would’ve accounted for 6.6% of the Cardinals cap. In 2011, NFL’s cap dipped back to $120M, meaning an APY of $8.1M equated to 6.75% of the cap.

This year, the cap is $167M. Alexander’s APY of $2.975M accounts for 1.7% of the Bills cap.

Before free agency, I made it known I didn’t believe Buffalo should re-sign Alexander. After grading his season, I found much of what the analytics showed... many of his 12.5 sacks came on free runs to the quarterback and much of the time he wasn’t able to generate pressure.

(Sites like Football Outsiders and especially Pro Football Focus have been trumpeting the importance of a defender being able to simply “pressure” or “hit” the quarterback for years now. While not as impactful as a sack, disruption of any kind = production for a defensive-front player.)

However, much of my justification for my thought that the Bills shouldn’t re-sign him was due to the rumors that he would receive upwards of $5M-$7M per season. At less than $3M per year, Alexander’s new deal is borderline inconsequential.

While we’ll likely never know for sure, Breer made an astute insinuation that analytics likely played a role in Buffalo’s offer to Alexander, one he ultimately signed.

Analytics — which really, in many cases just represents an advancement in statistics — can help teams make more shrewd decisions and avoid foolish ones. Analytics can also expand fans knowledge of the game and those who play it.