2012 Pro Bowl by the Numbers: NFC

Roddy White and Julio Jones may both be good receivers, but the wrong Falcons wideout is going to Honolulu this year.

Yesterday, we took a look at the ideal AFC Pro Bowl Roster, but now it's time for the boys on the National Football Conference side. (That last line is best said in a Jon Gruden voice.)

We decided to take a look at who should have actually made the final Pro Bowl roster, and to do it, we used our Net Expected Points (NEP) formula. I explained it in a past MVP Watch article thusly:

Every single situation on the football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation. For example, the Chiefs may be facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a third and two on the 50 yard line. That's a ton of variables, but luckily, numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be "expected" to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the "expected" point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That's Net Expected Points.

Since passing is often more efficient than running the ball, you'll often see running backs with negative NEP per play scores, meaning that they are losing their team expected points every time they touch the ball. Receivers and tight ends, meanwhile, will usually have high, positive NEP per play scores, since receivers don't touch the ball unless it's a high-yardage completion. Quarterbacks can be in the middle, either positive or negative: completions typically help their score, while incompletions lower it. So when you're looking at NEP, it's important to look at the numbers based on position.

So what did we find for the NFC? A pair of New Orleans snubs, and the plain old wrong Falcons receiver.


The Actual Roster: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III
The Ideal Roster: Ryan, Rodgers, Drew Brees

Oh, so close, NFL. You actually got the first, second, and fourth quarterbacks in the NFC on your team. But just like Alex Trebek, I give no credit for partially correct answers. Thus, you FAIL.

Matt Ryan may come back to deserve the MVP trophy this season, and Aaron Rodgers ranks as the third-best player in the entire NFL in adding value to his team. Both players have added an average of more than 12 points per game over expected value to their teams this season. That's good.

RGIII is barely over the double-digit average plateau too - he has 146.98 NEP in 14 games played - but his value doesn't compare to that of Drew Brees. The fourth-best overall player in the league according to our analytics, Brees has added 166.61 NEP to the Saints this season. Brees has averaged 0.25 points added to New Orleans per throw as compared to Griffin's 0.22, and although he doesn't have RGIII's running ability, Griffin's 58.43 NEP added on the ground doesn't come close to making up the difference.

Sure, it didn't translate into the wins that RGIII has, but New Orleans' No. 25 opponent-adjusted defensive ranking may just have something to do with that. The numbers don't lie, and Brees should be headed to Honolulu. It's about all he'd have going for him this year.

Running Back

The Actual Roster: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore
The Ideal Roster: Peterson, Gore, Lynch

After the NFL so badly mangled the AFC running back situation - a tragedy henceforth known as the Chemical (C.J.) Spill(er) - it's nice to see that they at least can see who's effective in the NFC.

Peterson's a no-brainer, and our analytics reflect that. Along with Spiller, he's one of only two NFL backs with at least 150 carries this season to be averaging a positive NEP per rush mark. Sure, it may be only 0.02 points per rush for the Vikings and he may have only gained them 6.95 points total on the season because rushing is so darn inefficient, but hey, it's the thought that counts, right? And then, of course, there was this. I'd like to think it counts for at least some value.

Right behind Peterson is Frank Gore, who in 241 rushes has only lost the San Francisco 49ers 4.09 expected points on the season. That's what sadly passes for successful these days, my friends. He doesn't have the high NEP marks in total because he's not much of a pass-catcher - he's about a touchdown's worth of points behind Ray Rice, for instance - but his efficiency rushing the ball means he has to be there.

Marshawn Lynch would have been out of our ideal roster had this been written seven days ago; Doug Martin had previously been holding down the third spot for the past couple of weeks. But Week 16 brought the hammer down on Martin's chances. He lost the Bucs 1.04 NEP against the Rams with only 62 yards on 18 carries and no TDs. Lynch, meanwhile, activated beast mode and gained 2.53 expected points for Seattle against the Niners. That was enough to send him flying past Martin and up to 6.04 NEP total on the season.

Wide Receiver

The Actual Roster: Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, Victor Cruz
The Ideal Roster: Johnson, Roddy White, Marshall, Marques Colston

Let's do a nice side-by-side comparison here, just for fun. These are the main analytics that actually determine a player's value... along with the mostly-random touchdowns variable, just for kicks.

PlayerNEP GainedNEP Per CatchTotal TargetsCatch RateTouchdowns
Player A81.020.9913365.4%7
Player B69.250.9212362.3%10

Player A's the obvious choice, right? Other than the random touchdowns total, Player A wins in every single category. Not for the Pro Bowl selection committee, though. And you can't even use the "Different teams!" excuse, because Player A is Roddy White, and Player B is Julio Jones.

But that isn't the only place where they messed up. Victor Cruz may have gained the Giants 111.55 NEP when only taking receptions into account, but that's because he doesn't catch that many passes. With a catch rate at only 59.9 percent, Cruz has slightly below average hands for an NFL receiver. That's why, when missed targets are taken into account, Cruz has only gained the Giants 44.68 NEP this season, or under a field goal per game. That's good for only 21st among NFL receivers.

Marques Colston, on the other hand, has been lighting up the charts as fellow snub Drew Brees' main target. He's gained the Saints 70.65 NEP this season, seventh best among NFL receivers. And that number's bolstered by a healthy 63.9 percent catch rate. I'm not sure why he's not getting the publicity this year, despite having over 1,100 yards and eight TDs. Perhaps it's because that catch rate is miles below his insane 74.8 percent rate from last season; he simply doesn't look as dominant.

Tight End

The Actual Roster: Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten
The Ideal Roster: Gonzalez, Witten

Just like their AFC counterparts, the NFL got this one perfect too. And really, it wasn't even close.

Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end this year by miles with Gronkowski's injury, and as I wrote on Wednesday, he might even be one of the top five tight ends since the year 2000. He's gained the Falcons 72.17 NEP adjusted for targets - that's three points more than Julio Jones. And he's done it with a career-best 76.5 percent catch rate, the second-best mark of any NFL player with at least 50 receptions behind Randall Cobb.

Jason Witten, meanwhile, was an easy choice for the second tight end spot. He's gained the Cowboys 50.19 NEP this season, a mere 0.17 more than Miles Austin for the second-highest amount on the team. Some may try and argue for Jimmy Graham, but this season, he wasn't even close. Graham gained New Orleans only 38.17 points above expectation, about half of his 2011 total.