Applying “Moneyball” To The Buffalo Bills’ Free Agency: Defense Edition

Welcome to Part 2 of Robert Quinn‘s two-part “Moneyball” series. Part 1, which looks at the offensive side of the ball, can be found here.

When Russ Brandon took over as President of the Buffalo Bills on January 1, he made the subtle announcement that the team would be employing an analytics department to complement the scouting staff. With the variety of resources available to common fans, with websites such as ProFootballFocus.com, SmartFootball.com, and AdvancedNFLStats.com, there have been various “advanced stats” that have shown that some under-the-radar players could contribute given the opportunity.

“Moneyball” was the term coined when the Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane, who had limited financial resources, found outlier statistics to put together a roster of undervalued players after losing superstars like Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. Instead of looking for “traditional” statistics (i.e. Home Runs, Batting Average, RBI’s), he dug deeper, finding now-common statistics such as on-base and slugging percentage.

With a salary cap in place in the National Football League, teams can’t follow the exact model Beane did while re-vamping his roster, but there’s still is a way to add valuable, relatively inexpensive players that fit specific roles.

In the National Football League, a “Moneyball” concept would be applied as such:

  • Retain your own free agents, only when contract is equal to value of player
  • Build primarily through the draft, and scout well
  • Make minor free agent signings to fill roles (Tier 2/3 Free Agents)
  • Always keep an eye on the trade block

This edition of the Buffalo Bills’ Moneyball Primer focuses on the defensive side of the ball, and lists players at positions/roles that need to be addressed.

If you missed the offensive side of the ball, click here!

Kyle Moore: DE, Buffalo Bills (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Kyle Moore: DE, Buffalo Bills (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Position: Defensive End / Outside Linebacker
Role: Situational Pass Rusher
Player: Kyle Moore (Buffalo Bills)
Projected Contract: (3 years/$6.250MM)

Kyle Moore emerged as a starting defensive end for the Bills in 2012 after Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay went down with injuries. He played 501 total snaps, and while posting below-average statistics (24 tackles, 3.0 sacks), he always seemed to be getting in the backfield and disrupting the quarterback. According to ProFootballFocus, Moore generated 32 quarterback pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) despite being asked to rush the passer 283 times. His 8.8 “Pass Rush Productivity” grade, related to the amount of pressures per pass rushing snap, ranked Moore as the 25th best pass rushing 4-3 defensive end in the National Football League. Moore would be a situational player, because while an effective pass rusher, he struggled mightily against the run. His -7.1 ProFootballFocus grade in that department graded him 55th out of a possible 62 4-3 defensive ends in terms of run support.

Erik Walden: LB, Green Bay Packers (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Erik Walden: LB, Green Bay Packers (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Position: Defensive End / Outside Linebacker
Role: Starting Outside Linebacker
Player: Erik Walden (Green Bay Packers)
Projected Contract: (3 years/ 9.575MM)

Mike Pettine’s defense is based off of the philosophy of pressuring the quarterbacks. Therefore, having multiple pass rushers, that can stay fresh, are necessary for the defense to be consistent.  Walden played 883 snaps at left outside linebacker, and recorded 4 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. The 6’2” 250 pound linebacker generated just 30 pressures, but he graded as the 6thranked 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of run defense. Furthermore, Walden is a sure tackler, missing a tackle just once per 21.5 attempts, good for 10th at his position. Walden would be a relatively inexpensive addition to a weak linebacking corps, and is a great fit for the strong-side linebacker position in the 3-4.

Kaluka Maiava: LB, Cleveland Browns (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Kaluka Maiava: LB, Cleveland Browns (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Position: Outside Linebacker
Role: Coverage/Nickel Linebacker
Player: Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland Browns)
Projected Contract: (2 years/ $2.750MM)

Kaluka Maiava is an undersized (5’11” 226 lbs) but versatile linebacker that has the ability to play both the strong and weakside positions in a 4-3 defense. Mike Pettine stated that the Bills would be primarily operating in “Nickel” defense, and Maiava could be an excellent player, given he assumes a specific role. He’s exceptional in pass coverage, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked overall 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012. Maiava allowed just 13 receptions for 78 yards, without allowing a touchdown.

Rey Maualuga: LB, Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Rey Maualuga: LB, Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Position: Inside Linebacker
Role: Two-Down Run Stopper
Player: Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati Bengals)
Projected Contract (1 year/ $1.750MM)

Rey Maualuga was exposed in 2012 after switching from his traditional strongside linebacker position to the “Mike” in the Cincinnati Bengals 4-3 defense. He was graded as the worst overall inside linebacker in the National Football League, according to ProFootballFocus. In Mike Pettine’s hybrid 3-4 defense, Maualuga would fit a more natural strongside inside linebacker role, where he would play limited snaps, primarily in run defense. At 265 pounds, he doesn’t have the movement ability necessary to cover the ground the Bengals asked him to, but he has the potential to be a solid “thumper” on a one-year “Prove It” contract.

Keenan Lewis, CB: Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Keenan Lewis, CB: Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Position: Cornerback
Role: Starting Left Cornerback
Player: Keenan Lewis (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Projected Contract (4 years/ $15.750MM)

Keenan Lewis finally emerged as a full-time starter on the Steelers’ defense during the 2012 season, and he performed admirably. The former third round pick started all 16 games, recording 69 tackles and defending 23 passes. He was targeted 112 times, and allowed just 59 catches. Opposing quarterbacks posted an 80.7 passer rating when targeting Lewis, and he allowed just 212 yards after the catch, while surrendering only three touchdowns. Lewis’ potential value in free agency will be interesting, as he has only one year of starting experience, but with Miami Dolphins free agent cornerback Sean Smith reportedly asking for $7-7.5 million per year, $3.9 million per year for Lewis is plausible.

Jamarca Sanford: S, Minnesota Vikings (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Jamarca Sanford: S, Minnesota Vikings (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Position: Safety
Role: Alternate Strong Safety/ Additional Nickel Defensive Back
Player: Jamarca Sanford (Minnesota Vikings)
Projected Contract: (2 years/$5.250MM)

Jamarca Sanford is a versatile defensive back that has the athleticism to play coverage as a free safety, in addition to playing the strong side. The former seventh round pick out of Ole Miss finally earned a starting job in 2011, and since then has recorded 134 tackles, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. Sanford was excellent in coverage during the 2012 season, and according to ProFootballFocus, he allowed just 14 receptions and 41 yards after the catch. He stands 5’10” and weighs 200 pounds and is a solid run defender. Mike Pettine has a history of utilizing not two, but three safeties, as we saw him utilize Eric Smith with the New York Jets. Sanford would provide some durability and skill in the secondary, and allow some creative, multiple-safety looks.