PFF Scouting: An introduction, 2020 review, and Nevada Preview

Let's take a quick tour though Pro Football Focus's 2020 scouting grades and see what we can learn for 2021 and about Cal vs. Nevada.

PFF scouting does provide information that isn’t quite as obvious as ‘Evan Weaver is good.’

As we mentioned in our site announcement on Monday, one feature we’re adding for subscribers is a weekly rundown of Pro Football Focus’s scouting grades for Cal and for the rest of the Pac-12. So, as both an introduction to how PFF grading works and as a taste of what sort of analysis the information will provide, let’s take a look at some of Cal’s 2020 numbers and what that might tell us about the 2021 season.

If you’re looking for an explainer on PFF’s grading rubric and process, here’s the explainer on their site. I’m going to let PFF’s own explanation of what their scouting does stand on its own, and instead offer my own thoughts on the advantages and limitations of PFF grading.

Advantage: PFF grading puts a spotlight on positional play that fans otherwise have trouble identifying

Some plays on the football field are obviously good or bad. A circus catch by a wide receiver, a broken tackle from a running back (or a missed tackle by a linebacker), a throw that’s on target or 10 feet high.

Other play take a lot of repetition to notice. A lineman successfully holding a reach block. A nose guard holding the point of attack against a double team. A linebacker setting the edge and forcing a runner to cut back into the teeth of the defense.

PFF stats can help reveal stuff like that. One obvious example is Michael Saffell. Cal’s center received consistently positive grades as both a pass and a run blocker back in 2019, to the point where I started making a specific effort to ID his contributions as a blocker. He was maybe the #1 contributor to Cal’s crazy lightning win over Washington two years ago, and it was something that PFF grading primed me to look for.

Sure enough, Saffell was Cal’s highest rated offensive player among guys who played a majority of available snaps:

Limitation: PFF is not adjusted to opponent

Not much to add here, but it cracks me up when PFF puts out a Pac-12 team of the week, and half of the lineup are players from a team that played Portland State that week. Opponent adjustment matters a ton, to the point that I’d say a 75 grade game against Oregon or Washington means way more than a 90 grade game against Sac St.

Advantage: Filtering out teammate effects

If a run play is blown up because the backside couldn’t hold but a pulling blocker hits his assignment, PFF grading can pull that kind of stuff out. If a defense gives up 15 yards but an end records a QB hit, that gets credited.

Limitation: Distinguishing between scheme, playcall, and player responsiblity.

If a defense gives up a 20 yard gain on a screen pass because they happened to have called an outside linebacker blitz on the same play that vacated the passing lane, that’s not the fault of any single player and there isn’t a way for the numbers to reflect that problem.

If a coach keeps an overmatched cornerback isolated against a dominant WR and never changes scheme or provides safety help over the top, PFF’s grading might repeatedly ding the CB, which is technically accurate but doesn’t include the context of a coach not putting a player in a position to succeed.

Similarly, if a coach calls all out blitzes on every play, those players might have pretty good pressure numbers. And also all those players trying to play coverage on an island might have ugly numbers in part because their coach put them in a bad position.

In other words, while the grades are generally reflective of what happens on the field, it’s our job to try to put the numbers in the context of the game itself, and the coaching decisions that impact on field play.

Team Strengths and Team Weaknesses

Strength: Pass blocking?

PFF produces a variety of team wide grades across the entire season, and of the various split stats, the single highest rated area was actually pass blocking.

This very much conflicts with both the eye test and other statistics regarding QB protection, so what gives? There’s a part of me that wants to start questioning the grading PFF is doing, but when I see data that conflicts with my perception, I try to use that as an opportunity to challenge my perception rather than dismissing the evidence.

Possible explanations:

  1. Cal’s WRs struggled to get open quickly enough, forcing Chase to hold onto the ball, leading to pressure that’s more due to time rather than line blocking issues.

  2. Garbers wasn’t confident enough in the offense to make quick reads and get the ball out quickly

  3. This is small sample size gremlins since the season was only 4 games long.

I’m not here to make definitive findings, but to point out things worth watching for this year.

Weakness: Receiving grades

Here’s an example of how team factors can sneak into player grades: the WR grades of Cal’s top targets almost universally declined in 2020. Since it’s unlikely that everybody got worse, it’s probably a better assumption that lack of practice time and unfamiliarity with a new offense took its toll. Still, WR might be an area to watch, where younger players might be in a position to push established starters for more reps if Cal doesn’t see early success on offense.

Players to watch

Damien Moore

Running back vision is one of those traits that’s hard to teach, but Damien Moore has it. And here’s a case where the eye test matches the PFF scouting. Moore wasn’t necessarily the shiftiest guy, or somebody who can run you over, but he knows how to identify and hit holes, and that’s pretty dang valuable.

Even better, he graded out strongly in pass protection, which can be rare in young running backs. If he can add a threat as a pass catcher (only one target in 27 snaps) he could be a really dynamic back.

Daniel Scott

Cal’s somewhat unsung safety put up the best coverage grade on the team, in part because he wasn’t tagged with a reception allowed in 169 snaps. With Craig Woodson out for the season, Scott will have to play plenty of reps, but his skills covering the middle of the field may very well be invaluable. If he can improve his support on running plays, all the better.

A quick look at Nevada

As an example of how these grades aren’t opponent adjusted, Nevada’s 2020 team grades are ahead of Cal across the board, because Nevada was a good Mountain West team and Cal was a struggling Pac-12 team.

However, a couple things worth pointing out: Nevada’s offensive line can be had. Here are some game-by-game grades:

That isn’t to say that blowing up Nevada’s line guarantees anything - Carson Strong apparently had the game of his life leading Nevada to 37 points despite being under siege against UNLV. But San Jose State was able to control the line of scrimmage and left Reno with a 30-20 win.

Meanwhile, you can see what Carson Strong can do if he’s not pressured:

Of course, every QB looks way better clean vs. pressured, but that’s still a pretty big gap. And since Strong isn’t particularly mobile, he’s not going to scramble successfully much. Cal’s ability to hold down the Nevada offense may well come down to their ability to bring pressure.