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Big Cat Country sits down with Football Outsiders

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I don't know how many of you are familiar with Football Outsiders, but it's a wonderful website chalk full of NFL information. It takes statistics to a new level. Each season Football Outsiders releases their annual almanac prior to the NFL season.

Big Cat Country was able to sit down with Football Outsiders writer, Thomas Gower, the man responsible for the Jacksonville Jaguars portion of the Football Outsiders Almanac. Click the jump to find out what he had to say.

For those unfamiliar with football outsiders, could you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?

Football Outsiders was founded seven years ago as a site that did statistical analysis of NFL games. We do and have done more than that, but that's the base of it. Our core statistic tool is DVOA, which compares how well each NFL team does compared to a league average baseline on a per-play basis, adjusted for opponent, down and distance, time left in the game, and score. For instance, in 2009, the Ravens were the top-rated team in DVOA at 30.5%, meaning on an average play they did 30.5% better than an average team. Last year, the Jaguars ranked 23rd at -8.5%, meaning DVOA didn't rate them very highly even though they were a playoff contender until Week 17.

We can also break down that DVOA by individual skill position players, so Maurice Jones-Drew had a DVOA of 3.5%, 22nd among running backs, when he ran the ball and a DVOA of 4.9%, 27th among running backs, on passes intended for him. Obviously, individual DVOA values will be greatly affected by a player's use and the quality of his teammates; I'm pretty sure everybody at FO would rank MJD among the league's 5 best running backs, even if that's not where DVOA says he was in 2009.

We also have on the website a list of our basic findings, including that teams tend to run a lot when they win, not win because they run a lot, and recovering fumbles is primarily luck, not skill.

You can find our work on our website, where we put up about 12 articles a week during the regular season. That includes our college material, where we use statistics like DVOA but different. We also write a couple columns a week for ESPN Insider during the season and occasional content during the offseason which Paul Kuharsky normally writes about on the ESPN AFC South blog. We write an annual book, and this year's version, Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, is now available in PDF form and in print. We also have KUBIAK, our fantasy football projections which are updated regularly and are downloadable from our site and can be customized for your league's scoring settings.

Jacksonville started rookie offensive tackles last season, how much did that attribute to David Garrard being so oft hit?

It had a lot to do with it. Eugene Monroe was really lousy at the start of last season. Our game charting project ranked him second in the league in blown blocks leading to sacks, behind only Jeremy Trueblood of the Buccaneers. He played much better the second half of the season, minus another stinker at San Francisco. If he can maintain that second half level of play for the entire year, Garrard should take fewer hits.

On the other side, Eben Britton had 5.5 blown blacks for sacks, which while not as bad as Monroe's still isn't very good. I'm less optimistic about his long-term future than I am Monroe's. I think he tried overcompensating for getting beat outside and left himself vulnerable inside. That's something he should be able to correct with coaching and technique, but if he can't, his long term future may be at right guard.

How would you grade David Garrard amonst the NFL's quarterbacks, given Football Outsider's DVOA system and what are his strengths/weaknesses you can see on film?

Garrard ranked 23rd among QBs in DVOA last year, and 19th in DYAR, which measures total value. In 2008, he was 15th in DVOA and 14th in DYAR. In 2007, he had a great year, ranking 3rd in DVOA and 7th in DYAR. That 2007 season, though, looks very fluky. Again, those aren't "David Garrard," but "David Garrard, playing behind the Jaguars offensive line, handing off to Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and throwing to the Jaguars receivers, with Dirk Koetter calling the plays." 2007 looks like a fluke year. He had the second-best season in NFL history in terms of interceptions per attempt and did insanely well on third downs, with a DVOA over 100%. 2009 was a much more normal year, I think-he still did a good job of avoiding interceptions and was very good on third downs (DVOA over 30%).

General disclaimer: I'm not a scout, and I don't have a great eye for player technique. Garrard I'd say has a reasonably strong arm, decent mobility in the pocket, but he doesn't seem to be very consistent in form and performance and seems to default to checking down too often. The first and second down checkdowns, whether to Taylor or Jones-Drew, don't tend to be productive, but MJD is one of the best backs in the league on third-down passes and has been for a couple seasons. If he had somebody less proficient at that role, maybe he'd do things differently, but that's just speculation. The other problem with Garrard is he's now 32, and our research says that's about the age where quarterbacks tend to start their decline.

Overall, I'd say he's about an average-quality starter, but one who won't ever be more than that and is unlikely to have another year where he's in the top 10, which is what you really need if you want to make the playoffs.

As far as offensive weapons, aside from Maurice Jones-Drew, what did you see that Jaguars fans can get excited about in 2010?

Mike Thomas was really productive as a rookie and led Jaguars wideouts in DVOA. I'm not sure if he's more than a slot receiver, but that's what Wes Welker is. All Zach Miller did was get open and catch passes. He was tied with Heath Miller in catch percentage among the 49 tight ends we ranked and was 14th in DVOA. With Lewis around, he won't start, but he had a great rookie year. The challenge for him is probably getting bigger and stronger and learning to block without losing his explosiveness.

You should also be excited about Mike Sims-Walker, and seeing what he can do in what should be his second "real" season. He only played five games his first two years, and he ended up stealing lots of passes we expected to go to Torry Holt (sorry, 2009 KUBIAK buyers). Right now, I'd say he's ideally a #2 wideout, but he needs to show that 2009 wasn't a fluke and he can play well for all 16 games.

On the defensive side of the football who was the Jaguars best pass rusher, knowing they were all bad?

Even though Derrick Harvey only had 2 sacks, our numbers said he was the Jaguars' most productive pass rusher and was close an awful lot. We credit him with 7 quarterback hits and 16 hurries. Compare that to Aaron Kampman, who only had 10 hurries when he had 13 sacks in 2008. The other guy who stood out as a pass rusher was Daryl Smith, who ranked second on the team with 11 hurries to go with 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits. Watching the Jaguars, Smith really good out as somebody who was a plus player at everything he did. He rushed the passer well, he had more than twice as many Defeats as any other Jaguars linebacker, and he was also very good in pass coverage.

 Is there room for someone like Derrick Harvey to make significant improvement in 2010?

The strong Hurries total really suggests that with a little better coverage in the secondary and with somebody who's more of a threat rushing on the other side, Harvey could really explode for 8-10 sacks. On the other hand, he could just be a guy who doesn't have the required burst and is doomed to never being able to translate hurries into sacks. Personally, I lean to the latter and SackSEER, our new college edge rusher projection system, agrees with me.

Given Jacksonville's safety play, would you expect Reggie Nelson, who was benched late in 2009, to be a starter for the Jaguars again?

I really, really, really can't figure out Reggie Nelson. I thought I had him figured out-he had a great year as the Eraser for Florida in 2006 and then a strong rookie year, but since then he's been mediocre or worse. I think he clearly has the physical talent to be an above average free safety, but he's not. Given the other safeties the Jaguars have (Alexander is ok, the rest are eh or worse), I can see him as the starter, but are the Jaguars are looking for an upgrade if he does end up starting? I'd guess so.

 What acquisitions that the Jaguars made in the off-season be it free agency or draft, do you think can make the biggest impact on the team?

In terms of immediate impact, I think Kirk Morrison is the player to watch. He's been stuck on an awful Oakland defense, but we have graded him out as a very good player who makes a lot of impact players. Durant was more of a just another guy at middle linebacker, but Morrison could be a standout player.

I'm also excited to see how Tyson Alualu does. Like almost everybody else, I thought he was a big overdraft in terms of value. I was thinking of him as a 3-4 one-gap defensive end going to somebody like Dallas or San Diego at the end of the first round, but he should be good next to Knighton as a 4-3 under tackle. He probably won't have the biggest impact as a rookie, and I don't think he has the long-term potential of Warren Sapp, but I think there's a chance he could have La'Roi Glover's career and I think Gene Smith would be very happy with that.

I have lesser expectations for Aaron Kampman, just because he's an older player coming off a serious injury. He certainly fit a big need and has been a good player in the past, but I think his addition will help because it helps guys like Harvey and the secondary more than because he puts up big numbers himself.