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Football by the Numbers: Changing environment

You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

People generally judge performance at key offensive positions by simply looking at last year's numbers and expecting similar production.

This works much better in baseball than in football. Baseball is a game of individual matchups, while football has far more moving parts. Team and environment play a huge role in determining which players thrive and suffer relative to innate skill.

Isolating individual ability is an enormous challenge. Let's attempt to do just that as we begin our preseason tour of the offensive skill positions by looking at quarterbacks.

The more confident you are in the static nature of the player's environment, measured both by the talent around him and the offensive system in which he operates, the more reasonably you can project stats similar to 2008. But where the environment is significantly different, there's much greater chance for the QB to rise or fall to his individual skill level.

Kurt Warner(notes) is a guy with average skills by NFL starting standards who is being elevated by his playing environment. Let's look at two simple stats: air yards per completion (AYPC) and gross yards per pass attempt minus yards after catch (YPA minus YAC). I understand that many believe that accuracy impacts YAC – the yards a receiver gains after catching the ball. Note, though, that the 10 YAC leaders of 2008 were barely more accurate (62.34 completion percentage) than the 10 YAC trailers (61.37 percent). Some guys are getting the ball to better players with greater speed and running ability.

Warner last year was 22nd in AYPC and 12th in YPA minus YPC. He was fifth in the stat we care about much more – TD pass percentage – because of the elite playmaking ability of his receivers. This is not a revelation. And it's not especially relevant to ranking fantasy QBs because Warner's receivers are the same, as is his system (though not his coordinator). But what if we applied the same criteria to other QBs?

The anti-Warner, someone much better than his fantasy stats, was the Falcons Matt Ryan(notes), a mere rookie in 2008. He was second in both AYPC and YPA minus YAC. But he was 20th in TD passes. It's reasonable to think that Ryan was making his receivers better. If the same supporting cast was in place, this wouldn't matter. But Tony Gonzalez was acquired to play tight end. Also, the Falcons are likely to throw more than in 2008 with Ryan given freer reign off last year's impressive results.

Let's look at these numbers to make more QB recommendations.

Buy

Matt Schaub(notes), Texans: Ryan is the No. 1 buy for the reasons stated above. While Gonzalez could suddenly decline, he sure looked peak last year. Schaub, though, was right between Peyton Manning(notes) and Tony Romo(notes) in isolated ability as we measured it (10th overall). Schaub has an elite weapon in WR Andre Johnson(notes), a capable No. 2 in Kevin Walter(notes) (eight TDs while averaging 15 yards per catch) and a exciting receiving threat at RB, Steve Slaton(notes). He's often hurt and has disappointed, but expect a 25-plus TD year in that friendly, Broncos-based passing system.

Jay Cutler(notes), Bears: People are unfairly docking him for leaving the Broncos. The stats say Cutler played the dominant role in the development of the Denver receivers. He was eighth in AYPC and seventh in YPA minus YPC. Do not expect him to finish lower than 13th in TD percentage, his rate last year in Denver. And the Bears are now clearly his team.

Hold

Aaron Rodgers(notes), Packers: He was third and fifth in our key stats and fourth in TD percentage – exactly what we'd expect. He's really good, likely getting better and should be at least as productive as last year even if Donald Driver(notes) continues his decline.

Philip Rivers(notes), Chargers: He was fourth and third in our individual stats. Maybe he won't be No. 1 in TD percentage again this year, but he'll be top five. Plus the Chargers should throw more with LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) fading after all those career touches.

Jake Delhomme(notes), Panthers: He's No. 1 in both individual stats. But Carolina is a running team with nothing of significance at wide receiver other than the great Steve Smith (out for the preseason with a shoulder injury). Keep Delhomme slotted as a backup, but don't pass by Smith because you fear a Delhomme drag.

Sell

Matt Cassel(notes), Chiefs: He was 31st and 30th in our individual stats. Dwayne Bowe(notes) is very good, but is not Randy Moss(notes). Gonzalez will be sorely missed.

Tony Romo, Cowboys: He was 11th and 15th in our individual stats, but second in TD percentage. The Cowboys, though, want to run in the red zone. And Romo loses Terrell Owens(notes), who is still good and made reads easier by always being double-teamed.

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