Friday, April 18, 2008

Positional Flexibility

We're not talking Yoga here. As I keep reading Mock after Mock have the Lions take Mendenhall, I have reached that point once again that I need to step away from the "who will we take" aspect of the draft. Last time, we looked at my vision of the Detroit Deuce D-Line. One of the main elements had to do with something that Rod Marinelli really preaches: Positional Flexibility.

What exactly, though, is positional flexibility? I've seen several different ways to approach it, and in the end, have found that they are all correct.

The first form of Positional Flexibility is the typical one we think of -- "he can play DE and DT" or "He is a 3-4 OLB and can rush the passer as a DE". In other words, the ability to play more than one position -- LB and DE, DT and DE, OT and OG, CB and S, S and LB, WR and QB, RB and Return Man, etc.

The second form of positional flexibility is more subtle - it is the ability to play more than one facet of your position. For example, Paris Lenon is a good SLB, but an average MLB at best -- yet he can play both positions. Boss Bailey was a passable SLB but couldn't play in the MLB or the WLB with any proficieny. Keith Smith was passable with flashes at CB, but he absolutely unraveled when they tried him at nickel back. While Redding can be the UT and a proficient DE, he is really not a good NT. This type of positional flexiblity, while often overlooked, is actually as important, or in many cases, more important than the first type.

Opportunity Cost and Specialization Cost are two of the basic principles of all economic thought (along with Animal Spirits, which really don't apply to my example.).

Opportunity Cost is basically the cost in time, money, or lost opportunity to make one choice over another. We have a cost for everything we do because we have finite resources - money, time, intelligence, physical limitations, etc. For instance, if you have $100,000 and you are Matt Millen, you can use it to either:

  1. Buy a really kick-ass Lionel Train Set that is an exact replica of the Detroit People Mover, including a scale-model replica of Ford Field with little scale model fans holding "Fire Millen" signs.

  2. Use it to hire some real pro-scouts

If you choose option one, the opportunity cost is option two, and vice versa. If you spend $5.00 on lunch everyday, you are giving up spending $25.00 on a nicer dinner once a week. You can fill up the gas tank now, or put a half tank in and wait to see what gas prices do. Every time we take action thousands of times a day, we are making a choice between two actions (It always comes down to two through the process of elimination humans use mentally, but I figure I won't make everyone stop reading by trying to get into it here.) There is no right or wrong for opportunity cost -- it is merely the second option you didn't take.

Opportunity cost is also not just measured in money, as I mentioned, but in time and talent. I spend my time with my family, writing a Lions Blog, and working (primarily). I am not in very good physical condition because I do not spend time on it. Were I to spend time on it, then I would have to sacrifice something else that I am doing -- the opportunity cost.

When we are discussing limitations on talent, or the opportunity cost of performing one task over another, that is referred to as Specialization Cost. Even if two people are very close in skill level, each person specializing in what they do best leads to better results. For example, lets say that 5BakerStreet and I go into business -- I can bake 8 loaves of bread, or catch 10 Fish in a day whereas 5BakerStreet can bake 10 loaves of bread, but catch only 8 fish in a day. If we each spent half the day fishing, and half the day baking, at the end of the day we would have 9 fish and 9 loaves of bread. But if we each spend all day doing what we do best, we get 10 loaves and 10 fish. Not only that, but as we specialize in our fields - baking and fishing - we get better at our specialty, but not so good at the other. So by specializing I end up being able to catch 12 fish, and 5BakerStreet can bake 12 loaves -- but we are now only able to bake 6 loaves and catch 6 fish, respectively. This is because as we focus on practicing what we do best, we lose some of the skill and speed that comes with doing something frequently. We haven't forgotten how to do those other things, and can often get back to a high level -- but only if we stop specializing and go back to doing more than one thing.

Essentially then, the opportunity cost of not specializing is the extra fish and bread, whereas the cost of specializing is the loss of flexibility and increase in dependence on one another.

[I hope that all made sense -- I was really trying to condense it. If not, sorry fellow fans. ]

Now lets apply those ideas to a football team. As to the opportunity cost -- there is only so much practice time, and time with position group -- so someone practicing returning kicks, isn't practicing with the other RB, for example. Someone practicing at DT is giving up time practicing as a DE.

Last season, and even now, I see many people ask why it "took them so long" to realize Woody would be a better tackle than Blaine Saipia (since my 3 year old can likely block better, the questions has some merit). He was practicing as a RG, and they had him taking snaps at C to back-up Raiola and since that is the position he played in NE. He was already practicing 2 positions -- when exactly were they supposed to be trying him at tackle? Not like it was camp -- the opportunity cost of trying him at tackle was him losing practice time at G and C -- also, he didn't play tackle since HS, so it wasn't exactly the first thought in their heads. The opportunity cost wasn't too bad trying him at T after they came up with the idea. I don't fault them for waiting too long -- I credit them for taking the risk and trying! After all, I'm sure the first thought in every fan's head when Foster got benched for Scott, and then Scott got injured was "Try Woody!" -- If you take the example above with DetFan the baker/fisher -- I can bake bread and catch fish -- does that mean I can suddenly make great fish sandwiches since it incorporates elements of both -- fish and bread? Ummm....nope. And I would have to give up something to try -- Woody was the same way -- Woody got beat out at RG (bread), Center (fish) so they figured what the heck -- lets try him making fish sandwiches (RT). It may be harder, but Saipia can only make 1 a day, so what have we got to lose?? That was a desperation attempt to find a new "specialist" from someone who had "positional flexibility."

Football Team starters need to primarily be composed of Specialists -- it allows each starting position to be honed in on what they do best, and perfecting their craft. That way, the lowest cost (time wasted practicing a position they don't play, time lost honing primary skill) is producing the highest benefit (more production from each position). That is 25 players --(22 starters on O and D, 1 K, 1 P, 1 LS). How about the other 28? Sure, they need to practice their primary positions, and rotational guys take up about a half dozen slots or so. That still leaves what Marinelli refers to as the "last ten guys on the roster being the most important".

[as I go through here, I will be rating players on a fictional scale of 1-10 for explanatory purposes]

Roster Size is the biggest limitation (other than the cap) an NFL team faces. So the opportunity cost of keeping a player is the loss of the next best player for that slot. The more things that a person in the last 15 spots on the roster can do well, the stronger the roster will be. For instance, lets say you have the final spot on the roster. While it would be nice to have an extra CB and S, you only have 1 spot. Someone who can play both at say, a 6 (out of ten) is of more value to the team then either a CB or S at a 7 -- you don't know which you will need. Where it gets more complicated for coaches is lets say that CB-7 is also a ST-10 versus CB-S-6 who is only a ST-7. Is the 3 points of ST play and one point of CB play worth not having access to an additional S at 6?

While we love to analyze and critique a teams' moves (in the draft, and regarding the roster) we can now see a glimpse how even in this cursory look the variables that need to be considered, and the gambles coaches have to take when putting their roster together can get out of control and pile up very very quickly.

What the Lions have lacked in the first part of the Millen era has been not just in the starters, but the "rest" of the roster -- a 9 goes out and is replaced by a 5. Ouch. Having quality depth is one of the most important, and hardest, things to do in the NFL. Guys that are too good aren't happy as back-ups, and cost too much against the cap. However, get too far down the scale, and next thing you know you have too big of a drop off from your starter to your next-in-line.

So...back to specialization. If the primary backup to, say, the SLB can also play WLB that is great. Or, if the SLB-9 can play MLB-7, then the team can carry a second SLB-8 and know that if the MLB-9 is injured, the SLB-9 can become a MLB-7 and they will end up with MLB-7 and SLB-8 versus MLB-9 and SLB-9 as usual. Only a 3 point total drop off with just one player. If the SLB can't play MLB, then you need to take up and extra roster spot with a player who is just a ML-7 to get the same quality on the field in the event of an injury. The Lions have been very bad at this in the past, but seem to be progressing the last couple of offseasons. They still have a long way to go.

This all entered my mind as a result of an email with JJLions in which we were discussing a "what-if" the Lions take Mayo in one, and Dizon falls to them in 4 and they take him as well. In the 3 player scenario you have Mayo as the MLB-9, Dizon as the SLB-9, MLB-7 and Lenon as the SLB-8, MLB-6. Here you only have to keep 3 LB, but have 2 backup MLB, and 2 starting level SLB. They start with Lenon at MLB, Mayo at SLB, and Dizon at SLB. Whoever ends up as the better MLB out of Dizon and Mayo ends up winning that job entering next season, but the other will likely still be able to play at a good level in the middle as well. This would allow the Lions to keep 3 LB where they had been keeping 4. That opens up a precious roster spot for another player.

Take Safety as another example -- Bullocks and Alexander will be the likely starters, with Smith as the backup. But they also have Pearson who can play S, Nickle back, and is a 10 in ST. Even if he ends up as the 4th safety, he has great value. Blue is primarily a run-stopping S, but again a great ST player. So if you save on a LB spot and backup Nickle Back spot due to Dizon and Pearson, there is room to keep a player like Blue, or a LB like Johnny Baldwin last year that they wanted to develop. The more roles that the lower-end players on the roster can fill, at as high a level as possible, is what separates a Detroit from a NE almost as much as the starters themselves. Due to substitutions, injuries, and the high importance of special teams, those players are vital to the health of an NFL franchise. Due to the limitations of the cap and the roster size, teams must make the most of each contract dollar and roster spot available. While they have excelled at screwing that up in the past, it seems with the last 2 off seasons, this off season especially, they are replacing the lower level people on the roster with higher quality players, and upgrading starters -- which leaves the guys they replaced as better backups, and the former back-ups unemployed. Its a start.

Special Teams is an area where I have seen the most improvement from the Lions this off season -- I think Marinelli knows he didn't place enough emphasis on the ability of his "last ten guys" to play ST last year, and that is why Kwan still has his job. When you look at the roster cuts when Marinelli arrived, and made before 07, an unintended side-effect was essentially gutting the ST units. This was because the guys who they had on ST, while they were good at ST, were pretty much mediocre to a man at their positions. So as Rod upgraded the starting players, he missed out on the ST aspect. It is an error I can see they corrected this off season as nearly every player they brought in for depth and competition are also excellent ST players.

Watching the games last year, the schemes (especially against Hester) were often good -- but the execution by the ST units was awful. If they are that bad next year, I think Kwan will be looking for work, but don't bet on it. Now that he has the ST contributors he needs, my gut says we see a big improvement next season.

you may have noticed I put LS as an essential position -- from an opportunity cost standpoint, the difference between a TE who snaps, or a dedicated long snapper may be missing on 1-700 versus 1-1000. But in the context of the NFL ask the 2006 Cowboys how much of an effect one bad long-snap (from a non-dedicated LS, BTW) can have if it comes at the wrong time. Better safe than sorry on that score.

What do you fellows think? I know there are more examples, and I'm sure there must be better ways to explain this, or nuances I missed. This is an involved and complex topic. Post away and we shall look into it further together!


Anonymous said...

Wha_? Can you say that again?
Actually that was pretty good. It made sense, when I finished reading the whole comment.


Anonymous said...

Broiled whitefish please.

And the best bread I have ever eaten was something called "brown bread". When I went to Ireland, every restaurant served it. It was semi-sweet and very good; not a pumpernickel and never found in recipes here. I've found some bakeries that have things I like, but I can't find anything close state-side. Some things may be 80% as good, but not quite there. Not a cracked wheat, not a rye.

What we need is to find our "brown bread". The perfect match. We have certain pieces; we are close to 80%, but don't have the right blend on our defensive line.

We have the shifty speed back (Calhoun) if he can stay healthy; we have the cut back guy (Bell);we don't have the pounder.

I'm still looking for the "brown bread", and I think the chef's are getting close to the right recipe. We'll see what ingredients get added next week.

PS Where could I find that Lionel/"People Mover" train. That would be COOL!


Anonymous said...

The other thing you miss, and I know you would cover it is...necessity ("The Mother of All Invention"). The reason positional flexibility is SO important is because of the things you can't dictate during the course of the season. The injuries. The Lions did a really great job of bringing guys up from the practice squad and having them know there assignments. The reason you may need two or three people knowing one spot is to fill in for injured bodies. Every year it seems one position gets hit hard (usually the DB's or WR's)with the injury bug, and they'll need to step up to that challenge when it comes.


JJLions20 said...

This blog gives some interesting insight. The question becomes is how much does Rod value Personal Flexibility over the value of a highly rated specialist. Lets look at some of the players rumored to be a fit for the Lions.

Harvey - I'd say there is very low amount of Personal Flexibility. He's a DE, maybe he could play both sides, but that's not that much flexibility.

Mendenhall, he's basically a tailback. I have not seen him mentioned as a ST player, or pass catching abilities that are that special, you can use him as a slot receiver. Once again Personal Flexibility pretty low.

Mayo is an OLB who has the speed and skills to play MLB. High flexibility. Flexibility high.

Connor, he played OLB most of his career and moved to ILB in his senior year. Good flexibility as he is forecasted as a ILB, but he could also play OLB. Lofton, Pretty much an ILB, not as much Personal Flexibility.

When it comes to OT there are a lot of Personal Flexibility issues. Who can only play RT, who can be moved to LT, who can also play Guard.

I think most LB's can play special teams because they are typically hitters who can run, and they have decent size. But the ones that are a little more crazy and intense will excel at special teams.

So the question is how much does Rod weight Personal Flexibility on his draft board. Is it worth enough to stretch and take Mayo at #15? CJ gave very little in the Personal Flexibility area, yet there was little debate in the Lions camp on that pick. Sims is only a WLB although he did play some special teams, and he was Rod's first pick. So I have to conclude Personal Flexibility is not an essential characteristic, especially with the first pick. But it does come into the thought process. I still think Harvey is the Lions best option if he is available at #15, but drafting both Mayo and Dizon is still very intriguing to me.

I think sometimes that Personal Flexibility comes down to athletic ability and football character. A great athlete, one with plenty of speed, has more potential for Personal Flexibility. But that athleticism has to be combined with the attitude that the player is willing to learn as much as they can, and will play where ever they are asked, just to get on the field.

One week to go,,,,

Anonymous said...


I see what you're saying about positional flexibility, but I think the issue at hand is that you're only evaluating 1st round talent.

Generally, I think Marinelli wants his 1st rounders to be specialists because they are expected to be starters in this league (which I think you touched on, but I'd like to expound on it). They should be the absolute best they can possibly be at one position. So if they're playing both DT and DE then you have a problem because they can't focus all of their mental capacity on one or the other (which is basically the subject of DF1979's article). A better way to evaluate Rod's outlook on flexibility would be to evaluate who he picks in the mid rounds, (i.e.: 3rd-5th round picks) or possibly even 2nd rounders. For instance, G. Alexander is primarily a safety but he could probably fill in at CB if absolutely necessary. Also, 5.0. sounds like he may be switching between DT and DE. So it's not as if flexibility isn't valued, it's just that first rounders have a different set of expectations.

Also, I think one thing that wasn't covered is that flexibility isn't as important at some positions as much as others. This is especially true of offensive skill positions. RB, WR, and QB don't really offer too much flexibility. Sure, some of them can return punts or kickoff's, but flexibility between your natural position and special teams is a bit different from being flexible between two different positions on offense and defense (in my mind at least, maybe some others disagree).

I'm not saying there aren't cases where players can go back and forth and are 'skill position' players. For example, many think Reggie Bush would be better off as a slot receiver, and we all know that Furrey converted to WR from a safety position. However, even when these players have the ability to play a different position, this doesn't usually translate into actively playing those positions. You never see Furrey practicing with the defense.

So for me, it basically comes down to this. Positional flexibility is valued and deemed necessary by Detroit's coaches. But too much flexibility renders a team useless because everyone can do the same thing but no one is particularly good at any one position. Also, there are two general areas where flexibility is deemed as counter-intuitive.

1) First round draft picks.

This is because they are supposed to become starters in this league and generally starters don't need to be all that want them to be the best they can at the position they play.

A general rule to follow (which I think was outline by DF1979) is that as the value of the pick decreases (i.e: goes into later rounds) flexibility becomes a more highly valued asset.

2) Skill position players.

In this case it's not so much that they aren't able to play other positions, it's more that the traits of skill positions are incompatible with other areas of the offense. a QB is too valuable to try any other position. a WR is generally too tall and lanky to be a RB, and RB's are usually too small and beefed up to play WR.

Also, it's difficult to translate those skills over to the defense because you don't want them too worn out to play their natural position.


CHIEFGER139 said...

remember-the lions have had there backup qb's play receiver more than far as bradly goes-look how he changed position-wonder if they ever thought of using him at linebacker? and with furry as bad as our secondary was wonder why they dint try using hom with our umpteen receivers we had-i think alot of this flexibility comes when someone gets hurt or isnt doing the job-thats how woody got his shot-and hopefully they give a backup guard a shot at tackle if hes not starting-need to have your best guys on the field as much as possible-hated it when they wouldnt play cj-thats just dumb to not have your best out there

JJLions20 said...

When you look at the big picture, where the flexibility comes in is that it allows additional roster spots for special team players and young kids to develop. DetFan1979 was making the point if there was a little more player flexibility, just one more position not used for (lets say a back-up CB or S) then Baldwin would not have been cut.

Getting Alexander reps at CB in the preseason could allow the Lions to keep a young CB to develop this year, because they have two depth positions covered. I agree player flexibility is more important in a back-up then a starter. But sometime the later round picks are later round because the player is limited. So that is why it is nice to have starters who have flexibility. Also if you have younger players as back-ups they typically only learn one position in the first year. Do being able to move a starter over and drop a rookie into the position they know would be advantageous.

I think we are all saying the same thing. It is nice to have, and you need some players with position flexibility, but you need a lot of players who are really good at the one position they are playing.

DetFan1979 said...

Great comments and discussion - keep it going! Mayeb I wasn't real clear wehn I was talking about how wher eis has the most impact is the 28 guys who are not starters, and even moreso in the last 15 spots. It is not that the last 15 spots ahve the most flexibility, but that if the ten above them do, it opens up more options for who to keep and develop.

Indy is able to develop players to fill holes because those "next ten" on their roster have good versatility -- which allows them to fill the bottom 15 with ST, young developmental guys, and further strengthen need areas and situational/rotational players.

I was definately stating that if there was just a bit more flexiblity -- a pearson versus an Idress Bashir and Lamarcus Hicks, - they don't try sneaking Baldwin on the practice squad, and he doesn't get picked up by another team. They subsequently hid him on IR just so the Lions wouldn't have a crack at getting him back. Too bad he didn't get injured here or the Lions would be looking at needing one less LB this offseason. You win some, you lose some.

I totally agree that most starters are/should be specialists, and that it is in the backups that are between the starters and last guys on teh roster that the flexibility adds to the options a coach has with their roster.

nobsnubber -- I'm thinking we'll all be enjoying one heck of a fish sandwich next week, and you are right about the "brown bread" from Ireland - I have a friend from there who got some for me one time, and I can't find anything exactly like it either.

also agree with you on the injury front -- as you guys may have ntoiced, the post got a bit lengthy as it was, so I knew I was missing some things. Lvoe the additions, and I'm looking forward to seeing some more!

Well, off to the next Soccer Game! Go Lions!

Anonymous said...

Positional Flexibility is very nice to have. But the desire and "high motor" are first. The first two-four rounds should be guys that are anchoring into starting spots soon. When you are teaching a young Derrick Harvey, you want him to get one spot and absorb it quickly. Same with CJ.

You let your vets cross-train. Alama-Francis last year---DE. This year, maybe some more info.

CJ---"Z". This year, maybe some "X" or "Y" stuff. The backup for "X" was McDonald and Furrey. They knew the offense, they are vets to the league and to the system.

Jared deVries, will need to know both DE spots and both DT spots and pray he can still be strong enough, and make an impression enough at one spot that he can stick. Or be good enough to be seen as the catch-all; the "Brandon Inge" type guy in case of injury or rotational needs.

Each guy is situational as well.
Take Greg Blue.
Lights out hitter; doesn't cover well. Good special teamer.
He's the fourth safety (or fifth). He makes this team right now just as a special teamer. What a great guy to switch with one of your safeties on the goalline. He can play the pass better than a backer, and hits like one, too. Those are the nuances of having a full, healthy roster during teh season. What a great luxury to have soemone like that. It's like a situational lefty in baseball that you bring in to pitch to one or two batters.


steamroller78 said...

Hey you guys, I know every time I come back here it is the same old thing with this Dallas Trade scenario, but if you want to hear all about it from the Boys perspective, go to , and go to the Truth's mock draft. In the comments, there are multiple Dallas fans discussing it right now. Get over there, and tell them what you think about it. I did. And speaking about positional flexibility. Akin Ayodele played defensive end in college, outside linebacker for the Jags, and inside for the boys. He isn't needed in Dallas anymore, and that is one of the points I have brought up there. Go check it out. I brought up Akin Ayodele plus #22 and #28 for your Roy Williams and the #15, and these guys are all over it. I just want all them to hear your thoughts on it too, so I thought I would tell you about it. See you there! Great posts by the way DetFan1979, but I would like for you to go back and see my updated mock draft along with todays post. I am starting to think Mendenhall doen't make it to #15. You guys might get Akin Ayodele and possibly Branden Albert and Jonathan Stewart with the Dallas picks though. Would that be worth Roy Williams from the Lions?

steamroller78 said...

Roy Williams from Detroit and a late round pick for Dallas's Bobby Carpenter ILB, and the #28 and #61. That is the Draftek scenario. Mayo would likely be available at #28. Mendenhall, or best available player at #15. Devin Thomas? Keith Rivers? Chris Williams? Kentwan Balmer? Branden Albert? I hope Dallas does it. I know you guys might not be too excited in talking about this, but as a Cowboys fan it is pretty exciting to think about getting another good target for Romo.

Anonymous said...


With all due respect; I don't think the Lions pull the pin on a Roy -Dallas trade. I would say it is a low probability.

If anything WERE to happen, I would rather see just Roy for the two #1 picks.

That could possibly give the Lions Harvey at #15, Connor or Mayo at #22, Balmer or Laws at #28, a back in the second (Forte, Smith), and then go tackle and wide receiver in the third.

On the Trevor Laws subject; what a great kid. I just heard ESPN radio interview a bunch of the draftees.

John Clayton was asking all the kids, "What are you going to buy with your first NFL pay check?" Most were coached and said jewelry or cars for them or for their parents.

LAWS: "A Tempur-pedic bed."
He was a VERY down-to-earth, quick witted, good kid with a great sense of humor.

He would also qualify as a Marinelli guy; smaller DT, strong, high motor. He wrestled in high school and loves lifting weights.


flipdskrip said...

Hey guys I checked out the Landry Hat website. They have a lot of scenarios for a possible trade or Roy. I want to say up front that I do not condon losing Roy to Dallas however, I did give them this response on their site.

Hello Dallas fans,I am a die hard Detroit fan and would like to give a fans perspective on the proposed trade of Roy Williams. Rod Marinelli and Company are very excited about the posibilities with our big trees at wide receiver and not going to give Roy up unless it is a deal that they just can’t pass up. Your trade ideas are ok but if I were Matt Millen, I would ask for 22 and 28 and DeMarcus Ware in exchange for Roy and our 5th. Why Ware, you might ask? He would play DE and give us the pressure we need up front to make that damn Tampa 2 defense work. I know you guys probably think that is a crazy proposal. I’m sure Jerry Jones will think so too. So in a nutshell, this trade will never happen.

DeMarcus Ware had 84 tackles, 14 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles last season. He would be our answer at DE. They play a 3-4 where he is an OLB, but in a 4-3 that we play he would be an end. I don't know, some new fat to chew before the draft.

JJLions20 said...

I'm not a proponent of trading Roy unless you get a lot for him. Many are talking two lower #1's for Roy and our #1. I would not give Roy up for that. But, the Lions have to gauge how much they feel they can keep Roy. If they are willing to franchise him next year as a worse case scenario, then I would not let him go for the above trades.

Now if your proposing the #22 & #28 & Ware, for Roy and our 5th rounder, then I'd have to take that one, because that is like 3 - #1's. You'd get the speed rushing DE, and heading into the draft with the #15, #22, & #28, You could get the some great talent at MLB, OT, CB, and then get a good RB in round #2, then follow that up with another LB and DT in the 3rd round. Ok, take a WR with the 4tyh rounder.

Here is a problem with a proposed trade of any kind. You have to take the cap hit and eat Roy's portion of his bonus for the season, take on any players salary (which would be offset by loosing Roy's salary). So at that point the trade would be a wash, maybe the lions a little ahead if Roy’s salary was larger than any player they would receive. But you have to have cap space to sign the draft picks. The Lions are a little restricted by the cap. But if they got two #1's and Ware for Roy and a 5th rounder, you'd have to try to make the cap work.

With your proposed trade the Lions would be robbing the Cowboys, and I’d take a trade like that.