The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is taking place this weekend to usher in a new age of dissecting sports and building teams. New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio spoke alongside Houston Rockets general manager (GM) Daryl Morey, Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, and Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers on a panel titled Future of the Front Office, moderated by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan.
Caserio opened up on a handful of topics including why the Patriots stayed out of free agency, moving on from a player at the right time, how the Patriots want to reduce injuries moving forward, why turnovers are so incredibly important, how to scout a running back, and why rookie wide receivers don't work in the Patriots offense.
Sitting out of Free Agency
"Free agency is about what a team is essentially willing to pay a player and you essentially, organizationally, you're going to assign a value to the player of what you think his value is relative to what his role is going to be on your team. And there might be some friendly disagreement among the agent from his perspective, but the reality is you're trying to fit that player within the context of your own individual team, relative to his role.
"And then you have to be conscience of when you bring a new player in especially in free agency relative to other players on the team that maybe have a similar role, relative to their salary, so you're balancing off a number of different measures and metrics.
"But like you [former agent, current Warriors GM Bob Myers] said, you can paint a picture as good as you want in terms of how good a player is or isn't, relative to another player, but essentially free agency... it's market driven and I would say free agency this year, a little bit, there's been a supply and demand element where there's low supply, high demand, so some of the contracts get moved accordingly.
"So as a team you have to have discipline, stick to your discipline, and if there's an opportunity to take advantage of a market dislocation, then you go ahead and do it."
The Patriots do a great job of understanding a player's value, and then sticking to that agreed upon value. What is a wide receiver's role in the Patriots offense? What would Marvin Jones or Muhammad Sanu be for the Patriots? They would be the #3 target, behind tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman. They might even be #4, depending on the health of running back Dion Lewis.
Does paying $7 or $8 million for a player that probably won't see more than five targets per game make a lot of sense? Probably not.
So when negotiations move north of what the Patriots are willing to pay, then that's because the player is moving into a price range that exceeds the role New England has in mind for the player.
Moving on from Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Logan Mankins
"Those are difficult decisions to make, and I think when you're faced as a team...part of being in this business is making difficult decisions, you have to make tough decisions and sometimes they're really difficult decisions, but in the long run, you're doing it in the best interest of this team.
"So if you're able to move a player, or get something in return for the player, you're measuring the short term ramifications versus the long term and it's a fine line really in terms of how you put it all together."
On a similar note, this is why the Patriots were okay with letting Akiem Hicks walk. His price tag exceeded the role laid out (#3 or #4 rotational defensive tackle), and so Caserio had to make the tough choice of letting him walk to the Chicago Bears.
Not turning the ball over
"In football, there's a lot of variables that are involved on the football field, just in terms of there's 22 players in each play, you're dealing with conditions, what's the wind... there's just so many things that are involved.
"But the one statistic from our perspective that's held true I think since 2007, we've won 90 plus percent of our games when we have no turnovers.
"So everybody talks about turnover margin, sometimes you're +2, +3, well in our particular case, it's a matter of not turning the ball over so when we have no turnovers, it gives us a chance...before you can win, you have to keep from losing, we talk about that a lot within our building, and one of those metrics is not turning the ball over, so that's something you have to develop in terms of practice, drill, and understand the mind set as a team of what we're trying to do.
"So there're so many statistics, so much information that's out there, but for us we've found that if we don't turn the ball over, we're going to have a 90% chance of winning and that's held true, even if you look at some of the games this year, in our particular season, so the playoff game against Kansas City, we didn't turn the ball over and it ended up being a one possession game, we ended up winning by a touchdown.
"We go up to Denver, we turn the ball over multiple times and it ends up being a one possession game, but in the end, it's too much to overcome because we turned the ball over."
Caserio also spoke about drilling the importance of protecting the football early in May camps, so the goal is already stuck in the minds of players when the regular season starts. Once players see the results of protecting the football, they will completely buy into the system.
"How do you draft someone not to fumble? Is that possible?" - MacMullan
"It is, which that's one of the things we definitely look at when we go through and watch ball handlers and specifically running backs. I mean, you can chart that. You can chart fumbles and the numbers lost and there's definitely a correlation between players [in college and in the NFL].
"You can try to coach it and correct it and fix it, but we've had examples of players who had fumbling problems in college and then they had fumbling problems in the NFL, so unless you figure out a way to coach that and correct that, it's probably going to continue, but it's something that we can actually study.
"Like if I want to pull a running back from whatever school, Stanford, like Christian McCaffrey just to pick a name everybody kind of knows. If you want to see all of his touches, then you can drill down even more how many times was the ball lost? Okay, not necessarily fumbled, but you can actually pull those plays up and see is it something that, is it open field, was the ball away from his body, is it in the framework, whatever it is...and then you can decide, okay we have a ball security problem, or it's not a problem, it's just the defender made a good hit on the ball.
"There are different things you have to look at, but that's where you kind of look at the video from our perspective and merge that with the data and then try to fuse together your overall opinion of what you have in a player."
NESN's Doug Kyed put together a good list of whether or not a player fumbles the football to see which running backs could interest New England in the draft.
Kelvin Taylor had the most touches per fumble among the top 20 draft-eligible RBs because he, uh, never fumbled. pic.twitter.com/bNz242bJL4— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) March 13, 2016
First round prospects Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry pass the eye test, as do Indiana's Jordan Howard, UCLA's Paul Perkins, and Son of Fred Taylor's Kelvin Taylor. Don't be surprised if a player towards the top of the list is selected by the Patriots at the end of the 3rd round.
Winning Championships with Injuries
"To win a championship, you have to be healthy, " Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers said. "And to be healthy, to get through a regular season without injury probably means you have to have some depth."
"Which football is really unique from our perspective because we play once a week, so the goal is to have the player be at his optimum level on Sunday, so you kind of have to structure and cater the week a little bit differently; how you practice- okay, do we practice in pads this day? Well maybe we need an extra day, maybe it's a lighter practice, and along the same lines, if you have a player who's injured and maybe he's close to returning, does it make more sense to rush the player back and try and get them to play in that next game if you're in week 10 or 11, or resting him an extra week or two, maybe that will make him a little more healthy and preserve him for later in the season.
"We only play once a week, so there's a constant ebb and flow of communication between the player, between the coach, between our strength staff, it's really about health and wellness of your players. And you can measure it, certain ways, but there's also communication back and forth and there's this constant communication top to bottom between a position coach, the head coach, the coordinator, the strength coach, the nutritionist, to figure out what the plan for this player- the trainers they're involved.
"So there's this constant flow of communication and we try and build up the week so that on Sunday the player goes out there and can perform at his optimum level, but we play once a week so we're trying to maximize that one opportunity and that's 60 minutes."
If your eyes glazed over, Caserio is saying that the Patriots are increasing their focus on the "health and wellness" of their players (a phrase he used repeatedly throughout the panel). If you wondered why the Patriots were rotating offensive linemen, perhaps Tre Jackson's knee problems played a factor.
It explains why the Patriots held Julian Edelman out for the back end of the regular season, and it's why players like Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower rested an extra week longer before they were reportedly cleared to play.
Lose the weekly battle. Win the season-long war.
One player that didn't align with statistical projections: Malcolm Butler
"It's not about necessarily great scouting; sometimes you're going to fall into some players. But when the player enters your building and your program, it's about does he have the requisite traits that it takes to be successful:
"Is he coachable?
"Does he improve?
"Does he work hard?
"And if he does those things and he takes coaching, there's a chance that he's going to improve...and so a lot of that is about Malcolm, and not necessarily about what we do with scouting or anything like that."
Effort trumps talent when talent rests.
Wide receivers struggling with the Patriots and Return of Scar
"I think [wide receiver] is one position in college football now that the things that a receiver specifically is going to be- and I would say most skill positions offensively- what they're going to be asked to do when they come into our league are so drastically different than what they did in college.
"I mean you realistically have some colleges and programs where they run five plays. I mean that's all they do. So the college game, that kind of impacts the player evaluation, so you really have to really drill down and spend more time.
"We have a process and a structure that we use where we bring the players in and put them through a receiver school, position school, and you try to test that as much as you can ahead of time to see Does he have the capacity to learn? How quickly is he going to make progress?
"Our players have typically gone through at least two to three years of college football, but even that, they're making such a big jump even though they have experience. There's a patience level and there's a matter of how quickly the player is going to adapt and respond, and that's where the coaching part of it comes in.
"Stephen Neal is a perfect example, a guy never played, literally, former wrestler, never played football and we're fortunate to have, in my opinion, one of the best offensive line coaches in probably the sport, Dante Scarnecchia..." [Caserio was interrupted and then the panel ended. Caserio said something along the lines of "I think that's enough."]
There's a lot to take with this one.
First, it seems that the Patriots "receiver school" isn't really working out. The young receivers aren't fitting into the offense and they're not making progress. Caserio talks about the jump in level of play from college to football, but that doesn't stop the team from further increasing the handicap by selecting athletic players without any real route running or playbook experience.
New England really needs to self-scout this problem and rectify it because it's staring them in the face. They're actively picking players that will have a hard time adjusting to the NFL, regardless of the fact that the Patriots offense is harder than the average NFL offense to learn.
Second, the return of Scar is going to be huge. Shaq Mason has so much potential and will now be groomed by the coach Caserio considers the best in the NFL. Hopefully the young starters like Mason, Jackson, Bryan Stork, and even Josh Kline can take a major jump forward in 2016.