Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Saints 2017 Draft Preview

            The NFL draft begins this Thursday night and runs through Saturday. For Saints fans, the last few drafts haven’t gone well. Since 2014, Brandin Cooks has emerged has a top-flight wide receiver. The bad news is New Orleans just traded him to the New England Patriots. Saints management justified the trade by claiming that the extra picks (a first and third rounder) would help rebuild the defense. In 2015, the Saints did the exact same thing, trading Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills for extra draft picks and attempt to rebuild the defense.

Maybe this year it will work better than in 2015. Despite their needs on defense, the Saints drafted Andrus Peat, a left tackle, who is now starting at guard. This was a huge overdraft as guards are much easier to find later in the draft than tackles. Stephone Anthony, a linebacker taken with the Graham pick, barely saw the field last year as New Orleans relied on a host of journeymen linebackers. Second round pick Hau’oli Kikaha missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Third round quarterback Garrett Grayson was cut and then later resigned to the practice squad. Third round cornerback P.J. Williams tore his hamstring in 2015 and last year suffered a concussion that caused him to miss the last 14 games of the season. The Saints have exacerbated their draft failures by failing to accumulate extra draft picks by either trading down or staying out of the free agent market to get compensatory picks.

The Saints need defensive help. Now. 

            In 2017, according to Bill Barnwell, the Saints have amassed the fifth most draft capital of any team. They have multiple picks in the first (1-11, 1-32) and third rounds (3-76, 3-103) along with one pick in the second (2-42), sixth (6-196), and seventh (7-229) rounds (picks annotated as round-overall pick). The Saints sent their fourth-round pick to New England as part of the Cooks trade and lost their 5th round pick in a trade from last year. If the Saints want to rebuild the defense, they need to do more than just draft two extra players this year. In 2016, the Saints had the oldest roster in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It was the second time in the last three seasons that the Saints have led the league in this area. It’s the result of the Saints management continually devaluing the draft by trading up and drafting only 5 or 6 players per season. That’s a fine strategy if you’ve a 10 or 11 win team trying to win the Super Bowl every year, not one who has gone 7-9 the past three years. They need to get as many young players on the roster and on defense as possible. They need to trade down or flip their current picks for future ones. Without the constant influx of young talent, New Orleans has relied on veteran players who typically cost more and have their best seasons already behind them.

At the draft this week, the Saints have two glaring needs that they should address immediately: pass rusher and cornerback. These aren’t particularly surprising as they’re the same positions that New Orleans has needed to upgrade for years. Last year the Saints were 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, with the 29th ranked pass defense and 28th in adjusted sack rate, knocking down opposing quarterbacks on only 5% of their dropbacks. This inability to apply pressure or cover opposing wide receivers meant that opposing quarterbacks completed 65% of their passes and averaged 274 passing yards per game. For the Saints offense, this meant they were playing the equivalent of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers every week.

Saints fans better hope that Mickey Loomis and his staff have gotten better at drafting and developing defensive talent since 2015. The rest of Drew Brees’ career depends on it.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Horizons Takes a Nap

            NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is about to take a well-deserved nap. The spacecraft has been in continuous operation since December 2014 as it prepared for its rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015. On July 14, 2015 New Horizons came within 7,750 miles of Pluto’s surface, making it the closest approach by a manmade object to the dwarf planet. Almost immediately, the spacecraft began transmitting its photographs and other data, totaling 6.25 gigabytes, back to Earth. The download process lasted from July 16, 2015 through October 25, 2016. Due to the distance between New Horizons and Earth and slow rate of transmission, it takes approximately four and a half hours to send one image from the spacecraft to researchers.  With this download process finally complete, NASA has put New Horizons into hibernation until September 2017 with another hibernation likely in 2018, before an encounter with a mysterious object in the Kuiper Belt called MU69.        

The 7.2 ft. by 6.9 ft. by 8.9 ft., thousand-pound spacecraft carries seven scientific instruments in total. These include three optical instruments, two plasma ones, a dust sensor and a radio receiver/transmitter. Combined the instruments have made thousands of observations of Pluto’s geology, surface composition, temperature, atmospheric pressure, and atmospheric temperature. New Horizons has two computer systems, one for command and handling of the spacecraft and the other for guidance. A single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) supplied by 24 pounds of plutonium dioxide powers the entire spacecraft. The remarkable photographs, like those shown below, come from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

Pluto, up close and personal
The surface of Pluto 
Pluto's moon, Charon 

Using the data collected and analyzed so far, NASA released a list of the top ten discoveries uncovered by New Horizons so far. These included:
  • The complexity of Pluto and its satellites is far beyond what we expected. 
  • The degree of current activity on Pluto's surface and the youth of some surfaces on Pluto are simply astounding. 
  •  Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and lower-than-predicted atmospheric escape rate upended all of the pre-flyby models.
  •  Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.
  • All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age—adding weight to the theory that they were formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another planet in the Kuiper Belt long ago.
  • Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the solar system and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.
  • Pluto’s vast 1,000-kilometer-wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier (informally called Sputnik Planum) that New Horizons discovered is the largest known glacier in the solar system.
  • Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan in our solar system.
  • The lack of additional Pluto satellites beyond what was discovered before New Horizons was unexpected.
  • Pluto's atmosphere is blue. 

Now as New Horizons heads towards its date with MU69 in early 2019, we say, enjoy your nap little friend, you’ve earned it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Saints 2016 Season in Review

            As the NFL enters its offseason doldrums (free agency is essentially over and the draft isn’t for another few weeks), let’s put the New Orleans Saints 2016 season under the microscope. For the third straight season, the Saints finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. They scored 469 points while allowing 454, posting a positive point differential for the first time since 2013. They underperformed their Pythagorean win expectation by 1.3 wins, suggesting that they were closer to 8-8 rather than 7-9. To review the Saints season, let’s take a look at the offense, defense, and special teams and compare them to the last two seasons. The stats below come from Football Outsiders.


Offensive DVOA
Passing DVOA
Rushing DVOA
15.9% (7)
32.7% (6)
5.5% (3)
10.5% (7)
30.1% (7)
-7.1% (15)
10.6% (7)
21.6% (9)
0.8% (9)

Over the last three years, the offense has not been the Saints problem. In fact, they’ve proven remarkably consistent, finishing 7th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, 0% is league average, on offense positives % are good, negative % are bad, on defense the opposite is true). The power of New Orleans’ offense lays in the passing game, which has improved over the past three years. Despite his advancing age, quarterback Drew Brees has led the NFL in passing yards has averaged nearly 5,000 yards and completed just over 69% of his passes. Even as the Saints have rotated personnel around Brees, the aging quarterback continues to lead a potent offensive attack.


Defensive DVOA
Passing DVOA
Rushing DVOA
13.2% (30)
27.1% (29)
-4.7% (19)
26.1% (32)
48.1% (32)
-2.4% (27)
13.1% (31)
19.2% (27)
6.3% (32)

For all the points that Brees and the offense score, the defense just gives them right back. The Saints have been bad on defense for years and while 2016 was an improvement, it was more of a regression to the mean from a historically awful 2015. It’s really hard to be 26% worse than league average year after year. Luck based events, like fumble recoveries or dropped interceptions, tend to balance out over time. Since 2014, New Orleans has had two different defensive coordinators, Rob Ryan and Dennis Allen. After a stellar 2013, Ryan’s defensive scheme confused Saints players more often than it did opposing quarterbacks. Ryan’s shifting personnel groupings and exotic blitz packages failed to adapt to the league’s increasing reliance on the short passing game. Allen hasn’t fared much better in his first full season at the helm. While the Saints secondary endured injuries to Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann, and Ken Crawley, apart from Breaux, New Orleans did not have the makings of a top-flight secondary anyway.

This offseason, the Saints management has gone all-in discussing the importance of fixing their defense. Yet this is the same story they tell year after year, claiming that they’re just one good draft away from being competitive on defense. The justification in trading away wide receiver Brandin Cooks was so that they could get extra draft picks to fix the defense. This was the same logic, Saints management used to justify trading away Jimmy Graham in 2015. They then spent their first pick on an offensive guard who doesn’t play guard anymore. Stephone Anthony, the linebacker they chose with the Graham pick, could barely make it onto the field last season. Their second round pick that year, has suffered repeated elbow injuries and missed all of 2016. So while the Saints talk about fixing their defense, don’t believe them until they actually pick some useful players.


Special Teams DVOA
Kick Return
Punt Return
-2.6% (27)
-3.2% (26)
1.6% (11)

(Apart from DVOA, the measurements above are expressed in expected points added from each part of special teams, positive is good, negative is bad).

The missing part of the story regarding the Saints the past few years is just how bad their special teams have been. Now special teams are not as important as offense or defense, but they play a key role in field position, ideally giving your own offense a short field and the opponent’s a long one. The only positive for New Orleans over the past three seasons has been Thomas Morstead’s punting abilities, but his effectiveness has declined due to injuries. Last season, the Saints opponents started their average drive around the 29-yard line, 25th in the league. Yes, the defense allowed opponents to score, but special teams didn’t do them any favors either.