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Assessing free agent value through comparable players: edge defender

Jan 5, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) is hit by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) during the first quarter in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With only two teams remaining to compete in the Super Bowl, the offseason is in full swing for the rest of the NFL and football pundits. We at PFF are also getting into the action with the launch of our 2020 Draft Guide and new Free Agency Rankings tool, which allows you to sort by position and team needs and includes contract projections from OverTheCap as well as historical grades and wins above replacement numbers for the past three seasons.

I am also doing a series of articles that will go through our top-4 ranked free agents at each position (excluding QBs), using their past stats to match them with historical players. Once we have a sample of similar players, we can see how those similar players performed in subsequent seasons to get an idea of the current player’s range of outcomes.

This system is similar to FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections, only it is applied to football and uses PFF’s WAR metric as the proxy for player value.

In earlier research, I looked at historical WAR and salary cap figures to derive the approximate cost of a win. Adjustments to our WAR calculation and the ever-rising NFL salary cap has moved the current estimate for the price of a win for spending on unrestricted free agents at 34.2% of the cap, or $68.4 million based on an assumed 2020 cap of $200 million.

Buying wins in free agency is an expensive proposition, but the value of each incremental win for a playoff-caliber team cannot be understated. This year, teams are going to have tough decisions on how to spend that money. The first installment on wide receivers, then running backs and tight ends, offensive linemen, and defensive interior have already been published. In this article, we’re forecasting free agents at edge defender.

Methodology

For each of the edge defenders below, the closest comparable players were found by measuring the similarity between them based on several features — age (within one year), weight, WAR, previous-year WAR, PFF pass rush grade, PFF run defense grade, nose tackle snap percentage, and WAR per snap the past two seasons.

The most similar players across these metrics are grouped together to calculate the expected WAR numbers for 2020 and 2021, with the weight of each comp reflecting the level of similarity. I didn’t use the same number of comps for all players, as it is more difficult to find a wide range of comparable seasons for older and particularly unique players.

The first plot displays past and future performance for the free agent based on the comp, the next shows the relevant WAR numbers for each of the comps and the final table gives the dollar-based value figures for 2018-2021, with assumed per-team salary caps of $200 million in 2020 and $215 million in 2021. I decided to restrict the forecasts to the next two years in order to maximize the number of comparable players we have in the dataset, reduce error for longer forecasts and reflect the fact that all but the top-tier free agent contracts in the NFL are glorified two-year deals that give teams the option to continue.

No. 13: Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney’s projections aren’t nearly as inspiring as his performance the last few years, especially in comparison to the 0.32 WAR he generated in 2018 and 0.30 WAR in 2016.

It’s difficult to find proper comps for Clowney, so the headline forecasts probably underrate his potential. One of the issues for teams signing Clowney is his more advanced age coming off of a fifth-year option. Clowney will be 27 years old entering 2020, and some of his comp group saw their performance dip in the late 20s.

Outcome 2018 2019 2020 2021 Two-Year Per
Actual/Expected $19.4 $11.6 $7.5 $8.8 $8.2
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $12.3 $20.6 $16.5
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $2.7 $1.0 $1.9

OverTheCap sees Clowney signing a five-year contract worth roughly $21 million per season, making him one of the highest paid defenders in the NFL. As of now, Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald are the only defenders making over $21 million per season. The comp-based projections put the ceiling for Clowney right at $20.6 million in his top season, implying a lot of risk for any team willing to meet his likely contract demands.

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