Armchair GM: Clear Hindsight or Blind Foresight?

By Max Partlo

Each week, some team building decisions become painfully more and more obvious as to whether they were correct or disastrous, and I will attempt to use advanced statistics to explain why we all could have predicted their outcome. This week, I will look at Jerry Hughes, who came up with two crucial sacks and a forced fumble in the Bills’ week 5 win over the Lions, his career in Indianapolis and Buffalo, and the lopsided trade that broke the heart of this armchair GM.

In the summer after the 2012 season, the Colts traded pass rusher, and supposed draft bust, Jerry Hughes to the Bills in exchange for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, and I, as a devoted Colts fan[1], was enraged. Mind you, Hughes had done nothing to live up to his status as a first round draft pick, at least according to traditional statistics, but I was frustrated with general manager Ryan Grigson none the less. There were two main reason why I was upset with this trade: Primarily, with Dwight Freeney’s contract expiring that same summer, I had made plans to pair Hughes’ athleticism with Robert Mathis in my Madden Franchise, and the roster update would rob me of this speedy pass rushing duo[2]. The second, and far more important cause for concern, was my subscription to Pro Football Focus (PFF), and the advanced metrics leading me to believe Hughes had potential for double digit sacks, which he accumulated in Buffalo last season.

I am not going to sit here and tell you, with the vast knowledge that hindsight provides, that I saw this version of Hughes during his first two seasons. Hughes, who was labeled as a tweener between DE and OLB coming out of TCU, struggled in Jim Caldwell’s 4-3 front, and picked up only one sack in his first two years, essentially just providing rest breaks for future Hall of Famers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But in year three, under Chuck Pagano’s hybrid front but still behind Freeney and Mathis, Hughes’ career sack total swelled by 400%![3] Even then, his sack totals were underwhelming to say the least. But this disappointment failed to take into consideration Hughes’ low snap count, and the other forms of pressure that a speedy edge rusher such as Hughes could provide. The sack total alone is not a convincing enough statistic, so I will direct your attention to PFF’s formula for Pass Rushing Productivity:

Sacks + 0.75 (Hits + Hurries)/ Number of Snaps Rushing The Passer * 100

This formula acknowledges the superior benefit of a sack, but also gives credit for forcing a quicker throw through hits and hurries, all on a per snap basis in order to calculate efficiency. Because of these considerations, PRP is more indicative of value as a pass rusher than mere sack counts. That being said, let’s look at why I would have slotted Jerry Hughes in opposite Mathis once Freeney’s mammoth contract came off the books.

Hughes Mathis Freeney Walden
2012 9.4 (23rd) 8.4 (35th) 8.8 (27th) 4.9 (60th)
2013 15.4 (1st) 11.2 (11th) 12.6 (7th) 8.3 (43rd)

A couple things to clear up about these numbers before I go on. The ranking in parentheses is the ranking of each player’s PRP among 3-4 OLBs and 4-3 DEs (Players who are primarily considered edge rushers) who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps that year[4]. Hughes did not play in 50% of the Colts’ snaps in 2012, but I have considered his PRP against this group in order to keep the numbers consistent. Similarly, Freeney has great numbers for 2013, but his sample size falls under the 50% threshold because of his injury in the fourth game.

In his one season at his more natural position as a hybrid edge rusher, Hughes outperformed his two highly regarded teammates on a per play basis, albeit by an underwhelming margin. This is not the most overwhelming of evidence, and it lacks the strength to justify putting Hughes on Mathis and Freeney’s level in terms of reputation, pay, and playing time. But Freeney’s albatross of a contract[5] necessitated his release in the offseason following 2012, and the colts were faced with a decision between promoting Hughes in the hopes that he could translate his efficiency into mass productivity in a starting role, or dipping into free agency for a player such as Erik Walden, whom the colts signed in the same offseason that they traded away Hughes[6]. Walden, even with the benefit of rushing opposite Clay Matthews (PRP: 11.3, 6th among edge rushers in 2012) rushed the passer with less efficiency than almost any other edge rusher in the league. The Colts, after only two years, gave up on an athletic specimen who had been efficient in his limited reps for a player was decidedly on the wrong side of the stat sheet in one of the most essential skills for his position. Hughes, for good measure saw increased snaps opposite a player of similar caliber to Mathis (Mario Williams, PRP: 10.1, 21st among edge rushers in 2013), and turned in the most efficient season of any pass rusher, while compiling enough traditional stats to earn 10 sacks on the year. On Sunday, in Detroit, Hughes earned his two more sacks for his total, and played a key role for his team in a big win, while the other half of the trade, ILB Kelvin Sheppard, now plays for the dolphins after the Colts cut him this August. Hindsight is always 20/20, and the Colts came out on the losing end of this trade.[7]

[1] The idea for this column actually came to my while watching Darren Sproles steal a game from the Colts, all for the cost of a measly fifth round pick.

[2] Fortunately, the computer didn’t value Hughes that much, and I was often able to snag him back in exchange for Erik Walden and a late round pick.

[3] Obviously the small sample size skews this number, but percentages are fun. 4 sacks was a really good season for the amount of snaps that Hughes got to play.

[4] This, unfortunately leaves out players such as Von Miller, who are technically 4-3 OLBs, but rush the passer often and with great success. PFF is great, but my one biggest complaint is their binary description of what type of defense a team plays.

[5] Freeney’s final year carried a cap hit of $19.035 Million, taking up 15% of the team’s salary cap, during which Freeney produced only one more sack than Hughes

[6] Granted, for the Packers and the Colts, Walden has been used more as a run stuffing SAM LB than a pass rusher, but he was still an edge defender in both schemes, and offered little in terms of a pass rush in a league in which such skills are always at a premium.

[7] Hey, but at least the running back they gave up a first round pick for last year is averaging more YPC than LeSean McCoy. Which is strange, true, and not all that impressive this year.

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