BGA Weekly: Braylon’s Blocking

During the offseason, I’ll be looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. I will be tackling as many diverse topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

Let’s begin this week with a quote from the Head Coach:

The thing that is not noticed about Braylon is, I think he is the best blocker in football at the receiver position. Each week you watch (him), he’s knocking DBs down. (We mark him on) the bracket guy and (the bracket guy) is like, “What are you doing blocking me?” We take advantage of him. (Edwards) and Hines Ward are the two guys that really get after it probably better than anybody.

- Rex Ryan, January 2011

As Jets fans, we’ve all seen this. The imposing Edwards has five inches and 30 pounds on some defensive backs and can often be seen making dominating blocks downfield. However, while analyzing film this year, I noticed that Edwards often misses blocks too and he was heavily penalized during the year. Even more intriguingly, according to PFF’s player ratings, he ranked 103rd out of 110 receivers in terms of blocking during the 2010 season.

So, is Edwards one of the best blocking wide receivers in the NFL or is he actually one of the worst? Without even doing any research, we can be pretty confident that the answer falls somewhere in between. There must be some truth to Rex Ryan’s assessment, but equally if PFF have rated every player on every snap and over 90% of wide receivers ended up with a better grade than him then there must be some areas where he could improve or needs to be more consistent.

After the jump, I look at the data and try to pinpoint where Braylon might be underperforming or where his contributions may be being overlooked.

Making the Grade

Before we analyze Braylon’s performance, it may be useful to briefly explain how PFF arrives at their grades. As you’ve probably heard, they rewatch every single play several times so that they can assign a grade to each player. Many players will simply get a 0.0 grade if they just do their job and their performance has little bearing on the success or failure of the play. However, if there is a broken tackle, somebody sheds a block, a pass is well thrown, caught or defensed or a lineman drives back his opposite number to affect the play, then positive and negative grades from -2.0 to 2.0 are distributed accordingly to the players involved. Note: a grade above 1.0 or below -1.0 on any given play is pretty rare.

In the context of wide receiver blocking, a 0.0 grade would be the norm, because most running plays either go up the middle or don’t gain enough yards for downfield blocking to affect the success or failure of the play. However, by making a block at the line or downfield, a wide receiver can potentially earn himself a positive or negative grade. The success of the play also has an impact on the grade. For example, a great block to free up a runner for four yards on 3rd and short is typically going to get a better grade than a great block that springs a runner for six yards on 3rd and long.

Most importantly of all, every player is graded on the same criteria. So, once we’ve looked at Braylon’s performance, it might not seem to be that bad. However, in terms of netting off positive blocks against blown blocks, most of the receivers in the league will have performed better, being judged on the same criteria. Edwards might have made more key blocks than a lot of less-talented blockers than him, but they could still have a better grade by more consistently doing their job and avoiding negatively graded plays. You may feel that Edwards should have received more credit for some of his downfield blocking, but then again the same could probably be said for everybody else, so that may not have tipped the overall balance in his favor very much.

Breaking Down Braylon’s Blocking in 2010

Despite the fact that his overall ranking was so low, Edwards actually had more positively graded plays (eight) as a run blocker than negatively graded plays (seven). He also had two positively graded blocks on screen passes and no negative plays for screen blocking.

Let’s look at the positive plays first:

1. Week 3 (at Miami) – 1st and 10, early 2nd quarter. Edwards blocks Quentin Moses and LaDainian Tomlinson gains 21 yards

2. Week 3 (at Miami) – 1st and 10, late third quarter. Edwards again blocks Moses and the run goes for seven yards, setting up 2nd and 3

3. Week 5 (v Minnesota) – 1st and 10, middle of the fourth quarter. Edwards blocks Ben Leber to the ground, but the play just goes for a gain of one

4. Week 9 (at Detroit) – 1st and 10, late third quarter. Edwards blocks Cliff Avril and the run goes for five yards, setting up second and five

5. Week 11 (v Houston) – 3rd and five, middle of the second quarter. Screen pass goes for 26 yards, as Edwards makes a good downfield block on Troy Nolan

6. Week 12 (v Cincinnati) – 1st and 10, early third quarter. End around to Brad Smith for a 53 yard TD, as Edwards makes a good downfield block on Reggie Nelson

7. Week 13 (at New England) – 1st and 10, late first quarter. Run goes for 13 yards, as Edwards makes a good downfield block on Devin McCourty.

8. Week 16 (at Chicago) – 1st and 10, late second quarter. Run goes for 11 yards as Edwards makes a good block on Charles Tillman

9. Week 17 (v Buffalo) – 3rd and 16, early first quarter. Brad Smith keeps for 40 yards, as Edwards drives back Leodis McKelvin on the outside and shoves him out of bounds

10. AFC Title Game (at Pittsburgh) – 3rd and two at the eight yard line. Edwards makes a good block on Ryan Clark, as Jerricho Cotchery gains six on a screen pass.

Those were the ten plays that earned Edwards a positive grade. Just over one every two weeks, although that isn’t too bad for a wide receiver. If there were other plays you felt should have earned him a positive grade, bear in mind that under PFF’s grading criteria, an equivalent block by somebody else would also not have received a positive grade.

Breaking down the ten plays, seven went for more than ten yards, although Edwards received credit for a downfield block rather than blocking a guy at the line or at the second level on four of those.

Let’s now look at the seven plays which saw Edwards given a negative run blocking grade:

1. Week 9 (at Detroit) – 2nd and 7, late first quarter. Edwards missed his block on Chris Houston, who should have made the stop to force a third and long. He ultimately missed the tackle and the play went for a 12 yard gain, but Edwards still gets marked down

2. Week 9 (at Detroit) – 1st and 10, early first quarter. Edwards tried to cut block Ashlee Palmer, but Palmer hurdled him. Again, the damage was averted, as Damien Woody was able to pick him up, but the play went for a two yard gain to set up 2nd and eight

3. Week 11 (v Houston) – 1st and 10, late second quarter. Edwards tried to block Mario Williams, but got beaten and the play was blown up. A safety made the tackle for a one yard loss

4. Week 13 (at New England) – 1st and 10, early second quarter. Edwards got beaten by Patrick Chung and the play was stuffed for a gain of one to set up second and nine

5. Week 14 (v Miami) – 1st and 10, late third quarter. Edwards got beaten by Sean Smith and the play was stuffed for a gain of one to set up second and nine

6. Week 17 (v Buffalo) – 2nd and 6, early first quarter. Edwards got beaten by Arthur Moats and although Joe McKnight was able to turn the play into a five yard gain, this was because Wayne Hunter committed a holding penalty when McKnight was forced to cut back.

7. Wild Card Game (at Indianapolis) – 1st and Goal at the three. Edwards was called upon to make a key block on Pat Angerer from the slot. He missed the block and that redirected the runner into two tacklers at the goalline

It’s interesting to note that he didn’t actually have a negatively graded play until the eighth game of the year. This could be due to the fact that he was not as focused on his blocking in the second half of the season, although he was more reliable as a receiver. You might think that this shows that they started giving him tougher assignments at that point, but he actually lined up as a tight end 36 times all season and 26 of those were before the bye week. Only one of the seven negatively-graded plays was remotely successful and that was in spite of Edwards missing his block.

Paying the Penalty

One key factor in Edwards’ blocking performances is his penalty count. Edwards was the most penalized wide receiver in the NFL this season, although only four of his penalties were in the act of run blocking. (His others were two false starts, one offensive pass interference, a taunting penalty and a running into the kicker penalty). Let’s consider these plays individually, because they might show signs of Edwards being able to make some key blocks with slight refining of his technique or perhaps more favorable officiating.

1. Week 3 (at Miami) – 2nd and three, late third quarter. Edwards was called for tripping on a play that went for six yards and a first down in the red zone. If you recall the play, Edwards kind of whiffed on his block and made contact with the defender by whipping his leg at him as he rolled over. The call was perhaps a bit dubious. Although I think the play would probably have gone for a first down if he didn’t trip the defensive player, Edwards would probably otherwise have been graded negatively there.

2. Week 10 (at Cleveland) – 2nd and 10, middle of the fourth quarter. Brad Smith runs for 25 out of the Seminole package, but Edwards is called for a hold. He seemed to turn his man but then held on for a split second too long. I don’t know if the play would have worked without the hold, but it did look like if Edwards showed slightly better technique it could have been a key block and would certainly have received a positive grade.

3. Week 11 (v Houston) – 1st and 10, middle of the second quarter. Edwards is called for an illegal block above the waist and the play still only goes for a gain of two. It’s difficult to say whether Edwards would have been given a negative grade if he didn’t commit the penalty.

4. Week 12 (v Cincinnati) – 1st and 10, early first quarter. Edwards is called for an illegal block above the waist and the play still only goes for a gain of three. It’s again difficult to say whether Edwards would have been given a negative grade if he didn’t commit the penalty.

In terms of his PFF grade, these penalties won’t have had an effect on his rating, because penalties are separately tracked. In fact, if you combined the run blocking and penalty grades, Braylon would be last in the league, although that isn’t strictly fair, because not all of the penalties relate to run blocking, as noted above.

Just Doing His Job

So, on the whole, Edwards makes a strong contribution as a run blocker. If a play that receives neither a positive or negative grade is considered “just doing his job” then Edwards “just did his job” on all but 15 plays where he was employed as a run blocker. That was 464 plays in total, so Edwards can be said to have done his job 97% of the time. Of course, on many running plays, that doesn’t involve much more than getting up out of your stance and walking back to the huddle, but it’s still worth bearing in mind.

On those other 15 plays, he actually had more plays where he made a positive contribution, which suggests he is at least competent as a run blocker. This is especially true if – as Rex Ryan’s quote at the beginning of the article suggests – Braylon was given assignments above and beyond those that a regular wideout might be granted. PFF’s ratings wouldn’t take that into account, since they are just a measure of how well you do your job. If you are given a tougher job to do, then that is a reflection on your ability, but you still need to perform well at it to be successful. It’s up to analysts like myself to derive added meaning from any anomalies that this will throw up.

In that respect, the value isn’t seen in terms of the 15 plays where he was positively or negatively graded, many of which were of the routine variety. Instead, it’s hidden within the 97% that he “just did his job” because if he held his own in those situations and most other receivers wouldn’t have been able to, then he is adding tremendous value to his team, in terms of them being able to run with passing personnel on the field and increasing the potential in terms of being flexible enough to run the no-huddle or call audibles to cash in on the versatility.

For fear of accidentally writing the conclusion before I’ve finished the research, let’s take a step back at this stage. Edwards’ run blocking performance doesn’t seem so bad that 90% of the receivers in the league would grade out better, so why is that?

It’s All Relative

You can watch every snap of every Jets game – multiple times, if you want to – and it gives you a pretty good idea of how well a player has played, but not necessarily how well they are playing in comparison to the rest of the league. For example, in 2009, I repeatedly wrote how Kerry Rhodes – despite all the criticism he was getting – wasn’t actually playing that badly, on balance. However, even I was amazed to find that he ended up number two in PFF’s rankings that year. That’s where the value of PFF comes in, because instead of just knowing that your guy made X good plays and Y bad plays, you can see how that stacks up against the rest of the league. In Kerry’s case, it was a down year for safeties, apparently. How about Braylon? Was this a banner year for run blocking wideouts or something?

Not exactly. In fact, only 22 of the receivers (one-fifth) with over 25% snap counts graded out positively for blocking. So what led to Braylon being so far down the list?

Remember, Braylon had eight positively-graded run blocks and two positively-graded screen blocks, but also had seven negatively-graded run blocks. Let’s compare that to the benchmark for run blocking wide receivers: Hines Ward.

Ward has long since been regarded as one of the best blocking wideouts in the league, if not THE best and, unlike Edwards, this time his reputation IS backed up by his PFF grades. Consistently in the top three, he placed 1st again this year, if you include playoff games. How do his blocking numbers compare to those of Edwards?

The difference is quite striking. He had 26 positively-graded run blocks and five positively graded screen blocks, as opposed to 12 negatively-graded run blocks and just one negatively-graded screen block. Not only is he more consistent in terms of making more positive than negative blocks, but Ward also seems to get more opportunities to make (or fail to make) a key block.

Why could this be? One reason is that the Jets only run to the outside 21% of the time and the Steelers do 30% of the time (perhaps to capitalize on Ward’s abilities). Also, Ward is in the slot more often than Edwards, so he is more likely to be directly involved in running plays. One key difference is that Ward had ten positively-graded blocks at the second level. Edwards had zero.

Clearly Ward – who had five positively-graded blocks in the Superbowl alone – is still an elite run blocker and Edwards eventually needs to show the same level of consistency.

Not everybody that was above Edwards in the rankings is as involved as Hines Ward in the running game. You need look no further than Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery, each of whom graded out better than Edwards in 2010. Holmes had just two positively-graded run blocks and two negatively-graded run blocks, as well as two positively-graded screen blocks and only one negatively-graded screen block. He was just a couple of places above Edwards, whereas Jerricho Cotchery only just graded negatively and actually had just one negatively-graded run block on the year. He had nine positively graded run blocks, but clearly the results of these plays were not good enough to garner him a positive grade.

Arrelious Benn was in a similar position to Cotchery. He had 13 positive blocks and only one negative one, but still found himself below Ward in the rankings. Terrence Copper (14 positive blocks, five negative) rounded out the top three. Copper and Benn are notable because they played less than half as many snaps as Ward, so may have ended up with a better grade if they played as much as him.

Just to complete the picture, at the bottom of the pile was another Steeler, Mike Wallace, who had four positive and eight negative blocks (including screen blocking).

Does Size Matter?

One theory I had was that perhaps the likes of Ward might be more likely to get a positive grade on a play because they are blocking somebody of a similar size, whereas Edwards is often bigger than the guy he is blocking and therefore it tends to look more effortless.

I’ve decided to throw out that theory, though, because guys like Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall were near the top of the ratings. That doesn’t mean that size is important though, because guys like Danny Amendola and Eddie Royal were also near the top.

In any case, it’s clear from the plays that I broke down earlier that Edwards was often charged with blocking a guy of equivalent size or bigger.

2009 and 2008

So, is Edwards capable of being a more consistent blocker? It would certainly appear so, based on the two seasons prior to this one. In 2009, he still graded out negatively, but was much higher up the list, near the middle of the pack. Back in 2008, playing for the Browns, he may have been one of the league’s worst receivers overall, thanks to his 19 dropped catches, but he actually graded out positively and in the top 25 for his blocking. Maybe he had easier blocking assignments in those days, though. Note: He also had seven penalties in 2009 and 11 in 2008.

Conclusions

Based on this research, I’d suggest that Braylon Edwards is capable of being an elite blocker, although he does tend to have the occasional lapse in either judgment, technique or focus. If he can improve in these areas in the same manner as he seems to have corrected his issues in terms of catching the ball, then there’s every chance he could become an even more dynamic and productive player over the next few seasons.

Although his PFF rating was poor, that can perhaps be explained away by the fact he was given tougher assignments than many of his peers. While it does underscore how he must become more consistent, I don’t feel that his bottom-ten ranking truly reflects his ability and contribution.

Was Rex Ryan jumping the gun slightly to call him the best in the league? Of course he was. Then again, talking up his guys is not out of character for Rex and if it motivates Edwards to continue to take pride in his blocking, then that can only be a good thing…if Edwards remains a Jet, of course.

Note: Exclusive data provided by ProFootballFocus.com have been used in the compiling of this analysis. This information is not available to the general public, so we are grateful to have been granted exclusive access. Off-season subscriptions are still available at their website and you can follow them on twitter (@profootbalfocus) where one of their analysts is always happy to respond quickly to any questions you might have.