Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mailbag: Making Use of Advanced Analytics

This week, we answer a question about Adam Humphries 109-yard return of a mixed field goal using some nifty technology, and we also relive some old-school evaluation in the case of Demar Dotson.

Mailbag

No preamble, this week, just right to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. I've also taken to stealing emails meant for our Salty Dogs podcast, as you may have seen above. As always, if you specifically want to get a question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Hello

Great podcast again this week with Demar. So glad you played Gene Deckerhoff's call on Adam Humphries' return of the missed field goal. I know it's recorded as 109 yards, but as you watch, he runs almost sideline to sideline also: so here's my question...is there any way to get a pretty good guesstimate on how many yards he really ran to get that touchdown?

Rusti of Altamonte Springs

As you can probably tell, this was one of those questions sent in for the Salty Dogs podcast. That podcast, with special guest Martin Gramatica, will be available on the site and the Buccaneers app and on iTunes tomorrow, but this particular answer was so neat (in my opinion – and that's not a pat on my own back because I got the answer from our analytics department), that I wanted to share it here, too. I mean, I would love for you to listen to the Salty Dogs, but in case you don't…

Rusti wants to know how many yards Adam Humphries actually ran during his winding path from one end zone to the other in the Buccaneers' Week Three preseason game against Detroit. Most of you will recall that Humphries collected a missed 62-yard field goal attempt at the very back of the end zone by the pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium and broke off what is technically scored as a 109-yard return for a touchdown.

Humphries catches the ball about a yard to the right of the right goalpost, from his perspective (from the kicker's angle, you would say he missed it to the left of the left upright, and just a bit short). He cuts to the middle of the field on the way to the goal line, then quickly veers back to his right to miss the first would-be tackler down the field.

Humphries starts upfield after getting around the diving Lion, then stutter-steps at the 15 and cuts hard to his left at the 20 to squeeze past a group of four other Lions. By the time he hits the 30, he is just outside the left numbers as he starts going upfield again. Right around midfield, Humphries goes back to his right as one of the bigger Lions on the field tries to dive at his feet. Several other Lions end up bashing into each other and falling to the ground right in front of Humphries, and he continues to veer right to avoid them. The Lions' kicker, Matt Prater had to reverse field quickly when Humphries made that cut and is unable to catch the return man, diving to the ground at the Detroit 35. Prater was the last hope for Detroit and from that point Humphries essentially jogs to the end zone, though he continues to angle to his right with all of the potential pursuers on his left.

So, how far did Humphries really run, and how can we figure that out. As it turns out, it was pretty easy, though I won't say "simple" because there's some very cool technology involved. See, every player in the league is fitted with chips in his shoulder pads for every single game – they're called RFID chips – and they track the players' movement in order to create what the league calls "NextGen Stats." Using the information gathered from the chips on that play, I can tell you (thanks, analytics guys!) that Humphries ran a total of 141.96 yards from the point where he caught the ball to the opposite goal line. I can even tell you that he hit a max speed of 18.78 miles per hour.

See, isn't that neat! I told you so.

Scott & Jeff:

Last week you had Demar Dotson on the salty dogs and he told the story about how a Bucs scout found him and turned him into an offensive lineman. You said Demar played defensive line at Southern Miss, then he talked about the scout taking one look at him and saying he should be an offnesive tackle. Obviously that worked out, but I'm wondering what it is the scout saw? What makes a def linemen a good candidate to play offense? Thanks and good job on the podcast – I listen every week.

Kevin Debord, displaced Bucs fan in Texas!

As you can tell, it's a good thing the podcast generated some questions this week because I haven't gotten much on Twitter this past week beyond, "Why did you cut Player X?" or "Why would you keep Player Y?"

Anyway, Kevin is referring to a story that Bucs starting right tackle Demar Dotson told on the aforementioned podcast. Dotson had mainly played basketball at Southern Miss but joined the football team in his last year, at the age of 22, and saw action in a total of six college football games, playing on the defensive line. He wasn't one of the Golden Eagles prospects who were drawing NFL scouts to Hattiesburg, and it seemed likely that this one brief season would represent his entire playing career.

The Bucs did dispatch a scout to Southern Miss, however, and as Dotson tells the story, a Golden Eagles coach suggested that he go to an office where the scout was talking to another coach and introduce himself. Dotson says the scout immediately sized him up not as the defensive lineman he was but as an offensive lineman.

Now, this is not terribly uncommon across the sport. A lot of offensive linemen started their careers on the defensive side but switched at some point in high school or college. Less common but not unheard-of is the switch after a player's college career is over. One recent starting offensive lineman for the Bucs, J.R. Sweezy, had moved to that side when he got to Seattle after playing defensive line at North Carolina State.

I think this DL-to-OL move happens most often not because of what a scout sees in a player but because of what he doesn't see, most notably top-end speed. A 300-pound player who can run a 4.8 40-yard dash is probably going to be a defensive tackle, at the least, perhaps an end. Offensive linemen still need to be agile and light on their feet for big men, but they don't often have to sprint for more than a couple yards. Being able to anchor is more important than being able to beat an opponent in a footrace.

Now, as told by Dotson, this one's a bit different in that the scout made his proclamation based only on the eyeball test. What did he see in Dotson at the time? Perhaps he had already been through the depth chart and the statistics and the 40-yard dash times and the game tape and hadn't had Dotson jump out at him. But seeing him in person he saw an NFL prospect in terms of size and physique. After all, Dotson is 6-9 and 315 pounds with size-18 feet. He has long arms, his weight is well-distributed on his frame and, yes, he has nimble feet for a man that size.

The scout liked Dotson enough to get him a tryout in Tampa, even working out a plane ticket when Dotson originally said he didn't have the funds to get himself to Florida. The rest is history. After a couple years of getting acclimated to his new position and the NFL (and one season lost to injured reserve), he started playing a significant amount in 2011 and was the starter at right tackle by 2012. Except when he's missed time due to injury, Dotson has remained in that spot ever since.

Well, as always, making a 53-man roster is a balancing act. You may go into it with a specific number of players you want at each position, but you generally aren't able to hit all those goals exactly and still keep your best combination of players. Sometimes a deeper pool of talent at one spot, or a deeper need created by injuries, prompts a team to keep an extra player than originally intended at that position. That means some other position is going to have to go one low.

What you're seeing here is definitely the effects of injuries at both defensive tackle and linebacker. In the spring, the Buccaneers envisioned a primary four-man DT rotation of Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen, Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein. But Unrein ended up on injured reserve (for now, at least) and Vea hasn't practiced or played since suffering a calf injury on the third day of training camp. Unrein won't play in Week One, obviously, and Vea is a big question mark, so now your DT rotation is probably McCoy, Allen, Jerel Worthy (a late-camp addition) and Will Gholston (an end who can play inside). Worthy is probably the extra player on the D-Line that one wouldn't have predicted a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, both Devante Bond and Riley Bullough sustained foot injuries in Week Three of the preseason and ended up on injured reserve. Last year's starter at strongside linebacker, Kendell Beckwith, is starting the season on the reserve/NFI list and won't be available until at least Week Seven. Yes, the Buccaneers kept only five linebackers, but they also only cut one, Nigel Harris, not counting international practice squad player Eric Nzeocha. Linebacker seemed like it was going to be a down-to-the-wire battle for the last two or three spots, but 11th-hour injuries nearly made that battle moot.

So, yes, from a pure numbers standpoint, the Buccaneers are probably as low as they can go at linebacker, with Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Adarius Taylor in the starting lineup, backed up by just rookie Jack Cichy and vet Cam Lynch. To your point, the Buccaneers can't technically put a different backup player at each of the three spots on their depth chart, but they definitely have a contingency plan for all three spots. Cichy might be the backup at both the MIKE (middle) and SAM (strongside). If David was unavailable, the team might Lynch at WILL (weakside) or move Taylor over there and play Cichy at SAM. Taylor played some on both sides last year when the Bucs were dealing with injuries to Alexander and David.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the strongside linebacker spot is really only about half of a starter. When the Bucs go to a nickel defense with an extra defensive back – which is probably at least half of the plays, if not more – they leave Alexander and David on the field and take off whoever is playing on the strongside. If you have what is essentially 2.5 starters and you have five linebackers, you are basically two deep at the position.

Also, this is a somewhat short-term solution. Beckwith will hopefully only miss five games (there's a bye week in there), and when he comes back to the active roster the Bucs aren't obligated to cut a linebacker as a complementary move. They could go back to six at that point and take away from another position where there is excess depth due to players returning from injuries. This kind of thing happens all the time throughout every season.

The Buccaneers did add a linebacker to their practice squad, picking up Azeem Victor over the weekend. They also have the practice-field services of Nzeocha, who will be on the practice squad as an exempt 11th player all season. There is enough depth with those players included to be able to run scout-team defenses without having to make the starters take extra snaps.

Yes, it's fair to say the Bucs are a little thin at linebacker right now, Jake, but that may just be a temporary situation. And, anyway, every depth chart is going to have some spots that are shallower than others. Barring injuries, the Buccaneers will definitely field one of the most talented starting trios of linebackers, though, so that's a good thing.

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