Michael Nania brings together a multitude of metrics to rank all 32 off-ball linebacker groups in 2019. Where did the New York Jets rank?
Back in March, I conducted a study that blended a bevy of different metrics to get a solid estimate of exactly where the New York Jets’ offensive line ranked amongst the league’s 32 units in 2019.
I decided to apply that concept to the rest of the game’s positions. After ranking the league’s wide receivers, we move on to the linebacker position (this is looking solely at off-ball linebackers, separate from outside linebackers, who are considered EDGE). Where did the unit led by James Burgess, Neville Hewitt, and Blake Cashman stack up?
Here’s how the rankings work – for each statistic, every team is scored on a scale of 0-to-10. The worst team receives a 0, the best team receives a 10, and the other 30 teams are scored relative to those two points. The final ranking is assembled according to each team’s average score across all statistics.
Let’s dig into the metrics that went into the 2019 linebacker rankings.
Passer rating allowed
Statistics are the combined totals of all off-ball linebackers to play for each team in 2019. These numbers are evaluating the 2019 season only and do not account for any moves made since the season’s conclusion.
Here is how the league’s linebacker groups stacked up according to passer rating allowed in coverage.
The Jets landed at 21st with their linebackers allowing a passer rating of 107.1 (position average: 104.5). Opponents targeted the Jets linebackers 170 times and completed 120 passes for 1,323 yards (7.8 per target), 12 touchdowns (second-most behind Arizona’s 14), and four interceptions. Burgess and Hewitt allowed four touchdowns apiece, Copeland allowed three, and Cashman coughed up one.
If you removed C.J. Mosley‘s limited-sample coverage numbers (5/8, 31 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception), the rest of the group combined for an allowed passer rating of 111.5, which would rank 26th on the above list.
Yards per cover snap
Yards per cover snap measures the average amount of passing yards that a player yields per snap in coverage (yards allowed divided by cover snaps). I combined the totals of allowed receiving yards and coverage snaps played for each linebacker group to get a cumulative average.
This stat does a nice job of combining both a player’s ability to prevent targets in his direction and his ability to limit production on the passes that are thrown his way.
Here is how the league’s linebacker groups stacked up according to yards allowed per snap in coverage.
The Jets checked in at 24th with an average of 1.23 (position average: 1.12). Burgess and Copeland were the biggest offenders. Among the 99 linebackers to play at least 100 snaps in coverage, Copeland ranked 85th in yards per cover snap (1.41) while Burgess ranked 83rd (1.40). Hewitt landed at 62nd (1.20) while Cashman did respectably well here with a ranking of 27th (0.95). Mosley recorded a spectacular rate of 0.55 in his limited time (31 yards over 56 snaps), which would have been tops among the 64 linebackers with 200-plus snaps in coverage.
PFF Coverage Grade
Pro Football Focus grades every defensive player’s performance in coverage. I weighted each linebacker’s coverage grade by playing time (coverage snaps) to get an aggregate grade for each group. Here is how the league stacked up.
The Jets tumbled down to 28th with a weighted grade of 48.6 among the six ‘backers. Hewitt is the primary culprit. His coverage grade of 36.0 ranked fourth-worst among the 64 linebackers to play at least 200 snaps in coverage.
The group grades (position average is 60.6): Mosley; 77.1, Cashman; 58.3, Burgess; 55.4, Copeland; 43.3, Hewitt; 35.9, and McClellan; 27.8.
Passing game tackling efficiency
Our final category in the coverage department is tackling efficiency against the pass. It’s quite simple – including passing game snaps only, missed tackles divided by total tackles plus missed tackles.
Here is how the league stacked up according to missed tackle rate in the passing game.
The Jets appeared at 27th with a 16.9% miss rate (position average: 12.5%), whiffing on 20 tackles against the pass while converting on 98.
Copeland struggled mightily in his new off-ball role, missing six tackles and making nine (horrendous 40.0% miss rate). Hewitt was brutal with a 20.7% miss rate (six missed, 23 made), seventh-worst among qualifiers. Cashman struggled (16.0%) while Burgess did a strong job (8.9%). Mosley did not miss a tackle, although he only made four of them in the passing game.
Run game tackling efficiency
We move on to the run game, kicking off with tackling efficiency.
Here is how the league stacked up according to missed tackle rate in the run game.
The Jets fared poorly yet again, ranking 28th here with a 13.8% miss rate (position average: 10.3%). Burgess struggled mightily with nine misses and 36 tackles (20.0%). Hewitt was also a liability with eight misses and 42 tackles (16.0%).
Copeland was dead-on with the position average as he recorded 26 tackles and missed three (10.3%). Cashman did phenomenally with one miss and 19 tackles (5.0%). Both McClellan and Mosley made four tackles without a miss.
Run stop percentage
A “run stop” is any tackle against the run that warrants a negative value result for the offense. For example, a stop for a gain of two yards on 3rd & 1 would not be a run stop, but a stop for two yards on 3rd & 3 would be.
I combined the totals of run stops and run defense snaps played for each linebacker group to get a cumulative rate. Here is how the league stacked up.
The Jets did well in this stat, ranking fifth with an 8.1% rate (position average: 7.2%). However, it does not do much for their overall score, as there was not a ton of variation throughout the league. Most teams were bunched together with similar rates, meaning there were not many points to be gained in comparison to other teams.
Among the 94 linebackers with at least 100 snaps against the run, Copeland ranked fourth with an 11.2% rate (17 stops, 152 snaps) while Burgess ranked seventh with a 10.7% rate (24 stops, 224 snaps).
PFF Run Defense Grade
Pro Football Focus grades every defensive player’s performance against the run. I weighted each linebacker’s run defense grade by playing time (run defense snaps) to get an aggregate grade for each group. Here is how the league stacked up.
Despite their solid run stop totals, the Jets ranked way down at 25th in run defense grade. Most likely, that is primarily due to these two factors – the linebacker groups’ large missed tackle total, and the fact that excellent defensive line play was largely responsible for creating those run stops by opening up easy lanes that the linebackers used to clean up plays in the backfield.
Among 70 linebackers with at least 400 total snaps, Cashman’s 42.5 run defense grade ranked seventh-worst, while Hewitt’s 44.5 grade ranked 11th-worst.
We advance to the third and final facet of the linebacker position – pass-rushing.
There is a huge amount of variation in the amount of rush opportunities that each linebacker group gets. The Packers only used their off-ball linebackers for 42 rush snaps. The Patriots used theirs for 480. This is why we will be weighting these scores according to snap counts later on.
For now, we continue ranking teams by efficiency, starting with pressure rate (total pressures divided by rush snaps). Here is how the league stacked up.
The Jets deployed their linebackers for 254 rushes, significantly above the league average of 180. The group was fairly average at converting those opportunities, ranking 22nd with a 14.2% pressure rate (position average: 14.5%).
Hewitt led the pack with 12 pressures on 73 opportunities for a team-best 16.4% pressure rate. Burgess and Copeland each went 7-for-47 (14.9%). Cashman went 9-for-69 (13.0%) while Mosley continued his historical pass-rushing struggles as he went 1-for-13 (7.7%).
PFF Pass Rush Grade
Here is how the league stacked up according to Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing grade.
The Jets ranked seven spots higher in this category than in pressure rate, likely due to the quality of the pressures. Of the linebacker group’s 37 pressures, 14 were either sacks or hits.
Hewitt led the way with a 73.4 grade (position average: 63.4).
The complete and final ranking
We’ve made it. Combining all nine of the metrics shown above, we get a fairly solid ranking of all 32 linebacker groups in 2019.
A team’s final score is calculated through a weighted combination of its coverage, run, and rush scores. Each of those three scores is simply the average score of all statistics in that facet:
- Coverage: Passer rating, yards per cover snap, pass game tackling efficiency, PFF Coverage Grade
- Run defense: Run game tackling efficiency, run stop percentage, PFF Run Defense Grade
- Rush: Pressure rate, PFF Pass Rush Grade
Those three scores are valued according to the distribution of each linebacker group’s snap count. For example, the Jets’ linebacker group played 49.2% of its snaps in coverage, 39.2% against the run, and 11.6% rushing the quarterback. Each phase is weighted accordingly to get the final score.
Drum roll, please. Here are all 32 linebacker groups of 2019 ranked from best to worst.
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