Predicting how the 2018 Buffalo Bills will be penalized using data analysis

Predicting how the 2018 Buffalo Bills will be penalized using data analysis


After an offseason of disappointing everyone by focusing on player analysis, I return to the glamorous world of advanced penalty analysis! To kick off the season in true signature “me” fashion, let’s try to predict how the 2018 Buffalo Bills will fare with penalties.

Last year, I ultimately predicted that fans shouldn’t set their expectations too high. And then, the Bills improved in this department a significant amount and made me look bad. Hopefully I do better this year. All data is courtesy of NFLpenalties.com.

Coaches

Coaches arguably have some influence over the penalty situation for a team. Seattle stands as the poster child for this theory, as they’ve remained on the higher side of flags during Pete Carroll’s tenure despite the usual roster turnover in his eight years with the Seahawks.

The 2017 season was the first of the Sean McDermott era in Buffalo, and it brought some encouraging signs. Buffalo was the ninth-best team for flags thrown on a per game basis. Buffalo lost the tenth fewest yards per game to penalty in 2017. Notably, seven of the ten most penalized players in 2016 returned under McDermott, yet the team still made strides.

The offensive side has shuffled a bit, with Brian Daboll replacing Rick Dennison. I’m not about to do the research necessary to adjust for coordinator changes, though, so this is only me acknowledging that some changes were made. It may only be one year, but the data suggests McDermott has had a positive influence.

Players

Returning players

The top ten most penalized players for a team will usually give you a great idea of a team’s overall performance with regard to limiting penalties. Based on past dives, players do tend to remain somewhat stable. With that said, here’s the top ten (based on penalty count) from 2017:

  1. Jordan Mills
  2. Adolphus Washington
  3. Leonard Johnson
  4. Jerry Hughes
  5. Richie Incognito
  6. Deonte Thompson
  7. Eric Wood
  8. Lorenzo Alexander
  9. Dion Dawkins
  10. Jordan Matthews

The Bills only return five of their top ten this year. A disclaimer is in order, though. Overall, the team did well avoiding flags last season. None of the top ten were drastically out of whack with expectations based on position, etc. Incognito tended to be higher than average for his position, but only a marginal improvement should be expected, if any.

New faces

We’ll look at notable new faces (players expected to see significant time) and make some guesses. Rookie are omitted for this exercise.

  • While not technically new, injuries limited Kelvin Benjamin last year. In three years, he has 15 accepted penalties (17 total). Expect his name on the top ten list after the season.
  • Jeremy Kerley averages one flag thrown per year.
  • Corners are typically among the more penalized positions. Vontae Davis has 46 accepted penalties in eight years. It’s a safe bet his name will replace Leonard Johnson’s on the list above.
  • Phillip Gaines has ten accepted penalties in three years. He’s had 15 flags thrown, and eight were last year. Hopefully this is a result of him being out of his comfort zone in a mostly man coverage role, and his numbers will fall back down in the Bills’ zone defense.
  • Russell Bodine has 16 accepted and 18 total penalties. He’s only had two flags in each of the last two seasons. If he starts, there’s a good chance he draws fewer flags than Eric Wood did. Ryan Groy, who is also battling for the center position, has only two in his career, but he has a much more limited sample size than Bodine.
  • In seven years, Marshall Newhouse has accumulated 39 total flags (29 assessed). If he plays a prominent role for the team, he’s likely to mirror Richie Incognito’s penalty performance.
  • Finally, Trent Murphy has had eight accepted penalties and eleven total. If he takes over for Shaq Lawson, the team could see a slight uptick in penalties.

Remember that last year’s top ten didn’t have too many outliers when accounting for position. While it appears the new faces shouldn’t be expected to be better than who they’re replacing, it’s also not a death knell. The official guess here is that the player side will shake out very similarly to 2017.

Penalty Disparity

User “Ron from NM” put the idea in my head that a major facet of penalties should be the difference between a team and their opponents. Now this is impossible to know ahead of time, so we need a predictor. A full rundown of my penalty disparity metric can be found here. Briefly, this metric uses the rank of each team the previous year in yards per game assessed (this is the closest stat to penalty harm). Buffalo’s rank is then compared to their opponents’ rank, and then we can come up with a general idea of how their opponents performed last year.

There is one major change this year; instead of the cumulative scores, we’ll be using averages. This means the Bills simply use their rank. The rank of each opponent is added (twice for division rivals) and then divided by 16. This places the range at 1-32, with 16.5 being perfectly average.

The Bills’ rank falls in at ten. The average rank of their 2018 opponents is 17.1, or slightly worse than average. The prediction is that the Bills should do a little better than opponents when it comes to penalties in 2018.

Conclusion

Looking at three major factors (past performance, coaching stability, and player trends), there’s nothing that suggests the Bills should deviate wildly from their 2017 performance. Last year’s team was in the top third of the league in avoiding penalties, performing slightly better than opponents.

The only worry is the offensive line, which is in the midst of a major transition. NFL offenses are always the most frequently penalized, and the linemen traditionally lead the way. Aside from that, there’s no indication that a major change should be expected compared to 2017.

Here’s the official prediction, which you’re free to hold over my head in February. The Bills will still be better than average at avoiding penalties, but they won’t be in the top third of the league. Compared to opponents, the Bills will find themselves neck and neck.


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