Attempting to pinpoint exactly how good C.J. Mosley was in 2021
Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a polarizing figure for the New York Jets in 2021. Some observers were highly critical of his performance. Others thought he was fantastic.
Which side is correct? Was Mosley actually good in 2021?
Well, it depends on how you define “good”.
Old-school measures claim Mosley was fantastic, but those are archaic
By traditional measures, it can be easily be argued that Mosley had a tremendous season. He ranked fourth in the NFL in total tackles (168) and won the Jets’ Curtis Martin Team MVP Award, as voted on by his teammates.
Those two methods aren’t great ways of measuring impact, though.
Firstly, we need to stop using the “tackles” stat as a method of player evaluation. Tackle totals tell you nothing about a player’s performance quality.
The stat’s main flaw is simple: Tackles are often made by a player who did not perform well on the given play. Whether they gave up a catch in coverage, got dragged by the ball carrier, or missed a tackle and then caught back up to the play later, there are many ways to earn credit for a tackle despite being a net-negative on the play.
Not all tackles are noteworthy. What if a player just chases a runner out of bounds after he already gained 30 yards, and the player was partially responsible for giving it up due to taking a bad angle in the trenches? That’s not something that deserves any special praise. But statistically, that “tackle” is worth just as much in the box score as a tackle for a five-yard loss in which the linebacker destroyed his blocker and made a bone-shattering hit.
With this in mind, a tackle means nothing in a vacuum. Every tackle has to be contextualized for us to know whether it was worthy of praise. Any given tackle could have occurred on a good play, a bad play, or a ho-hum play for that defender.
The impact of a player’s scheme is another factor that makes tackle totals obsolete. Some players naturally make more tackles because their role in their particular scheme lends them the opportunity to do so. Not all players at the same position are handling the same assignments, so they all get different amounts of opportunities to make tackles.
All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard ranked 19th in the NFL with 122 total tackles this season, fewer than barely-known players like Kyzir White, Alex Singleton, and Tae Crowder. I don’t think anyone will argue Leonard is the worst player of that four-man bunch.
Another important flaw is that raw tackle totals do not account for mistakes, such as missed tackles, blown coverages, bad angles, and other blunders. Evaluating a football player is never solely about deducing how many total positive plays they make – it’s about figuring out their ratio of good plays to bad plays. What percentage of the time do they do their job correctly?
By looking only at a player’s tackle total, we are not taking into account how many mistakes they make.
If one linebacker has 150 tackles and 30 missed tackles while another has 100 tackles and five missed tackles, the second guy is clearly better at executing his assignments, but the standard box score will tell you the first one is.
The bottom line is that we cannot use Mosley’s excellent tackle numbers to evaluate his performance in 2021. There are some great things he has going for him, which we will get into later, but that particular stat is not one of them.
As for the team MVP award, it’s a prestigious honor, but it’s certainly not an objective evaluation tool that helps us stack Mosley up against all other linebackers in the league.
So, by the most basic of measures, Mosley was amazing this year. He racked up a ton of tackles and was the team MVP. Do more comprehensive measures agree with that conclusion?
The answer is no, they don’t.
Pro Football Focus despised Mosley in 2021
Pro Football Focus’ grading system was not a fan of Mosley’s performance in 2021 by any means of the imagination.
Mosley earned an overall defensive grade of 40.5 at PFF, which ranked 65th out of 74 qualified linebackers.
To rank Mosley that low is completely bonkers in my opinion. I don’t think he was anywhere near that bad.
Nevertheless, we have to take PFF’s opinion into account if we are trying to be completely objective. If we are going to use PFF grades when we agree with the takeaway, we have to use them when we don’t agree, too.
Mosley likely falls in the middle
Traditional measures like total tackles and the team MVP award tell us that Mosley was elite. PFF says he was awful.
Who are we to believe?
Well, when we dig deeper and look at Mosley’s performance in a few different particular areas of the game, it turns out that our best bet is to say he falls directly in between those two claims.
Here are a few of Mosley’s numbers and where they ranked among 74 qualified linebackers in the 2021 regular season:
- Run stop rate: 9.5% (9th of 74) – 89th percentile
- Total stop rate: 5.5% (15th of 74) – 81st percentile
- Total stop/missed tackle ratio: 3.5 to 1 (25th of 74) – 67th percentile
- Missed tackle rate: 9.2% (26th of 74) – 66th percentile
- Yards per target allowed: 7.8 (41st of 74) – 45th percentile
- Pass stop rate: 2.7% (45th of 74) – 40th percentile
- Yards per cover snap allowed: 1.07 (47th of 74) – 37th percentile
- Pressure rate: 7.9% (68th of 74) – 8th percentile
Let’s break down what these stats mean.
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PFF tracks a stat called “stops”, which are tackles that constitute a failed play for the offense.
Basically, stops are any tackles that finish off a play that yields a good result for the defense. They have to be made short of the first down marker, and if it is first or second down, it must be a modest gain. However, they can be any gain on third or fourth down as long as the stop is made short of the sticks.
It’s a good way to weed out the meaningless tackles we were discussing earlier.
Mosley ranked third among linebackers with 60 stops in 2021, trailing only Roquan Smith (67) and Denzel Perryman (61).
However, Mosley played a ton of snaps, ranking fifth at the position with 1,098. So, we want to contextualize his stop total by translating it to a per-snap number.
Mosley recorded a stop on 5.5% of his defensive snaps, which is excellent, ranking 15th out of 74 qualified linebackers (81st percentile).
Looking solely at run plays, Mosley led the position with 43 run stops, doing so over 463 snaps against the run (third-most). That’s a run stop on 9.5% of his run-defense snaps, ranking ninth-best (89th percentile).
Mosley was credited with 17 missed tackles this season, tied for eighth-most among linebackers, but of course, we know that he ranked third in total tackles with 168. That means he missed the tackle on only 9.2% of his tackle opportunities, which is a good number. It ranked 26th out of 74 qualifiers (66th percentile).
Mosley’s ratio of stops (60) to missed tackles (17) was 3.5 to 1, placing 25th (67th percentile).
Coverage, pass stops, pressure
When it comes to getting downhill and making plays, Mosley was solid. He made a lot of clutch stops – particularly against the run – and finished tackles efficiently.
It’s in the passing game where Mosley had some issues.
Mosley was credited with allowing 598 yards into his coverage, the seventh-most among linebackers. That occurred while he faced the seventh-most targets (77) and played the 11th-most snaps in coverage (559).
Looking at Mosley’s efficiency, he allowed 7.8 yards per target, which ranked 41st (45th percentile), and 1.07 yards per cover snap, which ranked 47th (37th percentile). Those are not terrible numbers, but they are certainly below average. The positional averages for linebackers this year were 7.5 and 1.00, respectively.
Mosley was also credited with allowing four touchdowns (tied for fourth-most) while picking up no interceptions and just two pass breakups. Tampa Bay’s Devin White (79 targets) was the only linebacker who faced more targets without recording an interception.
As a blitzer, Mosley really struggled. He rushed the passer on 76 snaps, ranking 16th among linebackers, but created only six pressures, ranking 48th. His pressure rate of 7.9% placed 68th (8th percentile). The positional average was 16.8%.
Overall, Mosley was not as active at making plays in the passing game as he was in the run game. He had only 17 stops against the pass over 635 passing-game snaps, a rate of 2.7% that ranked 45th (40th percentile).
The final say on Mosley’s 2021 season
I think the best way to sum up Mosley’s 2021 season is “solid”. He was definitely not “bad”. But he was definitely not “great”, either.
Mosley made a lot of plays, and he finished his tackles with good (although not great) efficiency. He was especially active against the run, doing his best to bail out the bevy of struggling run defenders around him.
However, Mosley was not his old self in coverage, coughing up yardage at a below-average rate while not blowing up many pass plays. He was also abysmal as a blitzer (although blitzing only makes up less than 10% of his snaps, so that’s not a huge deal).
Pretty good in the run game, mediocre in the passing game.
Mosley is on the hook for a $17.5 million cap hit in 2022, which the Jets cannot escape. That is currently poised to rank fourth among linebackers.
In 2023, Mosley’s cap number will rise to $18.5 million. The Jets can get out of the deal at that point. Cutting Mosley in 2023 would net them $15.5 million in cap savings, although they’d have to take on $3 million in dead money.
Mosley is certainly not playing up to his pay grade. With that being said, he is still an above-average starter. The Jets can live with that. It certainly beats uber-bust free-agent signings like Trumaine Johnson, who was utterly abysmal in New York. Joakim Noah with the Knicks is another example.
Paying a player elite money to be “above-average” certainly isn’t ideal, but things can be a lot worse. Either way, this is the bed that Mike Maccagnan made for Joe Douglas and Douglas will just have to lay in it for now.
Great article. Couldn’t agree more. I would add to the issue with “tackles” is that you get fewer opportunities if you go 3 and out, but more opportunities if you let the offense go on l
Thanks! Absolutely that’s another good point. The Jets defense faced the 3rd-most plays in the league, which is obviously a product of their own inability to get off the field, so that just creates even more opportunities to get tackles
Pretty good evaluation. Consider, that Moseley was surrounded by poor Defensive Tackle play, and very inconsistent play from our Safeties. Quincy made some spectacular plays, but was out of position many times. Talent upgrade is required at linebacker.. When you look at CJ’s supporting cast, “solid “ is a pretty good rating.
Really good breakdown on CJ. Do you think the Jets should consider a restructured deal to lower his cap number and bring him more in line with his play? Maybe 12.5 million per year with some more guaranteed money?
I think they will let it play out. At this point they can afford the money, and with only $3m in dead money next year, they can let him go if they choose to move on. My feeling is they see him as a player they need for now to help build the team but should be trying to “do better” than in actual talent on the field. I think they would rather let it play out then see what happens than lock in to something at this point. But…I’m just a fan.
They could, but I think they’ll probably just swallow the pill for this year, and then next year restructure talks could happen since they’ll have the leverage to release him.
Overall, you laid it out nicely. I do have a slight issue with your thought that tackles are made by players who failed on a play. LB’s are supposed to make tackles. Plays are funneled to them to actually make the stop so in their case I think number of tackles carries more weight than let’s say a CB. I thought Mosely was good this year, as you point out not great. I think his coverage concerns were mostly caused by him being in this 4-3 for the first time. I also thought he left a good number of “big or important” plays on the field. He can’t be dropping INT’s that seal a game, or missing a tackle on 3rd and 1 when your team needs the ball late if you’re paid as a guy to make those plays. It was that area he left me thinking he should be doing more. The last thing isn’t measured by PFF or # of tackles and that’s leadership ability and integrity. Mosely is off the charts and with a team rebuilding like the Jets his worth goes well beyond the field. My feeling is he will be better next year for two reasons, one: more talent around him, 2: his second year in the system. Overall, I think he’s worth the money to this team at this point in time based on their rebuild. If it looks the same next year, it will be time to move on from him.
That’s true, it’s definitely at CB more so than LB or any position where tackles can be misleading. Agreed on the leadership, it goes well beyond the on-field impact with Mosley. The big plays are a key point as well. From that dropped INT he had to other misses in key spots, it definitely did not feel like he was coming up big when they needed it most.
Overall I agree with your synopsis. He’s a fine piece to have going into next year considering good on-field play and great off-field leadership. But once they get the chance to escape this deal, they have to take it unless he jumps back up to truly elite level.