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Assessing free agent value through comparable players: linebacker

Dec 8, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Cory Littleton (58) celebrates at the conclusion of the Rams 28-12 win over the Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-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, defensive interior, and edge defenders have already been published. In this article, we’re forecasting free agents at the linebackers.

Methodology

For each of the off-ball linebacker below, the closest comparable players were found by measuring the similarity between them based on several features — age (within one year), WAR, previous-year WAR, PFF coverage grade, PFF run defense grade, 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. 16: Cory Littleton

Littleton was the seventh-best coverage off-ball linebacker by PFF grade in 2019, making him one of the most valuable at the position in the NFL. Littleton’s WAR by season has grown from 0.02 in his rookie and second seasons, to 0.14 in 2018 and 0.20 in 2019. The expected forecasts have Littleton falling back to earth some in the years to come.

Some of the best historical coverage linebackers are part of Littleton’s comparable players, including some that will be nearly impossible to match like Luke Kuechly.

Outcome 2018 2019 2020 2021 Two-Year Per
Actual/Expected $8.5 $12.9 $9.6 $8.8 $9.2
Ceiling (90th) N/A N/A $15.0 $16.9 $16.0
Floor (10th) N/A N/A $4.8 $1.0 $2.9

Our expected WAR values have Littleton’s production worth $9.2 million per season the next two years, with a significant ceiling of $16.0 million. OverTheCap gave Littleton a 2019 valuation of $8.5 million.

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