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Bigger, Better, Stronger - Part II

Why Brandon Boykin is the biggest player on the Eagles roster.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I recently discussed how being a "big" player in the NFL matters, just not in ways that we think. I tested Chip Kelly’s "bigger guys beat up little guys" quip by using BMI to define "bigness" and found two significant, somewhat counter-intuitive results. During the 2013 season, a team increased its chances of winning when 1.) its offense was smaller than the opponent’s defense, and 2.) its linebackers were bigger than the opponent’s tight ends. I received a lot of constructive criticism and feedback about my use of BMI, some of which was warranted, so I took another stab at testing Chip’s "big guy" theory and found more cool results. But first, some quick points about the use of BMI from my previous post.

I chose Body Mass Index as a means to measure "bigness" for a few reasons. First, it combines two readily available measurements for every NFL player: height and weight. There are other metrics we can use to define bigness, like arm length, bone density, and muscle mass, but I couldn’t find anyone who kept those measurements for everyone (at least measurements that included players drafted before 2010). Second, BMI is familiar. Everyone who has taken a health class or been to a doctor’s office has come across it. For this reason, I intentionally avoided any reference to health or obesity because, frankly, there was no need to. The post had nothing to do with either. Third, NFL players are not representative of the general population, so, removed from that context, I ultimately decided that BMI comparisons across like-NFL bodies seemed to make sense.

However, not everyone agreed with me (#Merica). I failed to fully address my reasons for using BMI in favor of another, untested, and unproven metric (which I have used below), and failed to anticipate the resulting connotations. But whatever your feelings on BMI, it’s necessary to reiterate that, when using BMI to define bigness, there are still statistically significant findings. Granted, the findings are not easy to interpret, but that doesn’t change the fact that they exist. The interpretation is half the fun.

Moving on, I’m no stranger to creating my own metrics (see Offensive Efficiency Rate) so I tried with bigness. Rather than use BMI, I used the product of height and weight to define bigness. Here’s the actual formula:

(Player Height x Player Weight) / (Avg NFL Height x Avg NFL Weight) x 10

If you can decipher that, you’ll notice bigness values greater than 10 are above the NFL average and bigness values less than 10 are below the NFL average. More importantly, the bigness values are what you would expect to see. For example, Mychal Kendricks (5’11", 237), who was nearly two BMI units bigger than Connor Barwin (6’3", 253), has a "bigness" value of 9.17 (below the NFL average) and is smaller than Barwin, who has a value of 10.34 (above average). Using this metric, the biggest Eagle is Todd Herremans (6’6", 321) with a bigness score of 13.65, and the smallest is Brandon Boykin (5’9", 183) with a score of 6.88. Team-wise, the three biggest teams in the NFL are Baltimore (10.47), Arizona (10.45) and Tennessee (10.44), and the three smallest teams are Green Bay (9.75), Detroit (9.79), and St. Louis (9.79). The Eagles are the 22nd biggest team. If you look at this on the surface, it doesn’t seem like bigness values have much to do with team wins. And according to linear regression, indeed they don’t. There is no correlation.

Rank Team Bigness Tight Ends Linebackers Secondary Running Backs Eagles
1 Baltimore Ravens 10.47 BUF 11.44 NYJ 10.55 NYJ 8.51 TAM 10.98 Todd Herremans 13.65
2 Arizona Cardinals 10.45 NOR 11.20 NWE 10.48 SEA 8.47 NWE 9.75 Jason Peters 13.59
3 Tennessee Titans 10.44 WAS 11.08 KAN 10.41 DAL 8.13 ATL 9.46 Isaac Sopoaga (traded) 12.95
4 Miami Dolphins 10.34 NWE 11.08 BAL 10.37 NOR 8.12 CHI 9.29 Lane Johnson 12.88
5 San Francisco 49ers 10.26 MIN 11.01 HOU 10.19 SFO 8.11 PIT 9.28 Evan Mathis 12.76
6 Kansas City Chiefs 10.24 JAX 10.84 ARI 10.18 TAM 8.09 MIN 9.27 Bennie Logan 12.47
7 Carolina Panthers 10.23 PHI 10.81 CLE 10.12 ATL 8.08 OAK 9.20 Cedric Thornton 12.39
8 New England Patriots 10.19 CAR 10.80 STL 10.09 KAN 8.06 NOR 9.14 Fletcher Cox 12.35
9 New York Jets 10.18 CIN 10.79 PHI 9.98 NYG 8.02 NYG 9.10 Jason Kelce 11.53
10 Cincinnati Bengals 10.16 DET 10.79 WAS 9.95 IND 8.01 SFO 9.10 Trent Cole 11.04
11 Seattle Seahawks 10.16 PIT 10.75 CIN 9.93 MIA 7.97 GNB 8.94 Brent Celek 10.81
12 San Diego Chargers 10.15 SEA 10.75 IND 9.92 ARI 7.95 WAS 8.92 Zach Ertz 10.45
13 New York Giants 10.15 CHI 10.68 SEA 9.89 CIN 7.93 IND 8.86 Connor Barwin 10.34
14 Pittsburgh Steelers 10.13 IND 10.63 PIT 9.89 TEN 7.83 NYJ 8.84 Nick Foles 10.24
15 Chicago Bears 10.13 DAL 10.61 BUF 9.87 PIT 7.82 HOU 8.76 Najee Goode 9.75
16 Oakland Raiders 10.12 DEN 10.54 GNB 9.86 JAX 7.82 SDG 8.76 James Casey 9.61
17 Indianapolis Colts 10.08 ATL 10.54 MIN 9.79 PHI 7.77 CLE 8.76 DeMeco Ryans 9.35
18 Jacksonville Jaguars 10.05 KAN 10.47 SFO 9.78 DET 7.75 JAX 8.70 Mychal Kendricks 9.17
19 Denver Broncos 10.04 SDG 10.43 MIA 9.75 BAL 7.73 KAN 8.64 Bryce Brown 8.87
20 Buffalo Bills 10.03 OAK 10.37 OAK 9.74 CAR 7.72 BAL 8.56 Riley Cooper 8.75
21 Cleveland Browns 9.99 NYG 10.36 TEN 9.74 DEN 7.69 DAL 8.52 Michael Vick 8.56
22 Philadelphia Eagles 9.95 NYJ 10.32 NOR 9.71 OAK 7.67 CAR 8.46 Jason Avant 8.36
23 Atlanta Falcons 9.95 ARI 10.31 SDG 9.65 CHI 7.65 BUF 8.33 LeSean McCoy 8.20
24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9.92 GNB 10.28 CAR 9.54 MIN 7.63 SEA 8.32 Nate Allen 8.16
25 Minnesota Vikings 9.92 STL 10.27 NYG 9.52 NWE 7.62 MIA 8.32 Earl Wolff 8.09
26 New Orleans Saints 9.90 SFO 10.22 DAL 9.46 BUF 7.56 CIN 8.32 Patrick Chung 8.01
27 Dallas Cowgirls 9.88 CLE 10.16 TAM 9.43 GNB 7.49 DEN 8.20 Bradley Fletcher 7.80
28 Houston Texans 9.83 BAL 10.11 DEN 9.43 CLE 7.47 PHI 8.20 Cary Williams 7.36
29 Washington Lolskins 9.80 MIA 10.02 JAX 9.29 SDG 7.42 ARI 8.13 DeSean Jackson 7.08
30 St. Louis Rams 9.79 TEN 10.01 ATL 9.26 WAS 7.31 STL 8.13 Roc Carmichael 7.06
31 Detroit Lions 9.79 HOU 9.48 DET 9.09 HOU 7.24 DET 7.96 Brandon Boykin 6.88
32 Green Bay Packers 9.75 TAM 9.12 CHI 9.00 STL 7.19 TEN 7.55
Average 10.08 10.47 9.88 7.82 8.83 9.95

Next, I used logistic regression to compare individual game outcomes to bigness values (more accurately, bigness margins) across similar, competing position groups: offenses to defenses, offensive lines to defensive lines, wide receivers to cornerbacks, linebackers to tight ends, etc. And there are only two competing position groups that yielded significant results.

Tight End versus Linebacker

This was the most statistically significant finding (p-value less than .01). On average, NFL tight ends (10.47) are larger than linebackers (9.88). Picture Denver’s TE Julius Thomas (6’5", 251 lbs) or Philly’s Zach Ertz (6’5", 249 lbs) versus Carolina’s Luke Kuechly (6’3", 242 lbs). So what kind of advantage do teams with big tight ends have? For every one bigness unit increase in a team’s tight end position group relative to its opponent’s linebacker position group in 2013, a team improved its chances of winning by 51%.

Running Back versus Secondary

I was hesitant to include this because I wasn’t sure if running backs and secondaries were relevant competing position groups. How many times during a game do running backs and corners/safeties actually interact? Not exactly sure (maybe more often than I think?), but the result is still statistically significant (p-value less than .05), so here it is. For every one bigness unit increase in a team’s secondary relative to its opponent’s running backs, that team improved its chances of winning by 30%. On average, NFL secondaries are relatively small (7.82 bigness units) and running backs are slightly larger (8.82 bigness units). Picture Bradley Fletcher (6’1", 196 lbs) and LeSean McCoy (5’10", 215 lbs), both average-sized or below with respect to their position groups. If McCoy breaks free into the secondary, who would you rather have available to stop him, Fletcher or Seattle’s Kam Chancellor(6’3", 232 lbs)? Trick question though… no one can stop Shady!


So what about Brandon Boykin?

That last example leads into a nice point. Obviously, for shits and giggles, I’m taking what Chip Kelly said quite literally. In the NFL, big people don’t always beat up little people. Yes, there do seem to be advantages for bigger tight ends and bigger secondaries, but there is no causation here. Big players may not breed team success any more than team success breeds bigger players. At some point, talent, speed, quickness, intelligence, and technique come into play and limit any advantages afforded by size alone. At some point, David beats Goliath. Which is why, with six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), two forced fumbles, and of course that game-saving interception against Dallas, Brandon Boykin(g) might be the biggest player on the Eagles roster.

Play big or go home.

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