Let’s begin with a little either-or exercise.
Below are the basic stats for two defensive backs — tackles, tackles for loss, interceptions and passes defended. If forced to choose Player A or Player B for your team, which one would you want?
Player A: 121 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 8 PD
Player B: 49 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD
Look over the numbers for a minute or 10, but really, it should’t take that long. It’s pretty clear that by any of our regularly deployed metrics, Player A is a clear frontrunner, right?
But here’s where it gets a little tricky. Player A is Duke safety Jeremy Cash, and those gaudy numbers from 2013 earned him a spot on the media’s preseason All-ACC team.
The funny thing, however, is after that happened, a whole host of fans and media erupted in confusion because of the clear oversight that Player B, who happens to be Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, was left off the squad.
So how is it that in the eyes of many experts, Cash seems not just the wrong choice compared to Ramsey, but a ludicrous one?
I’ll admit, I was one of the many offering confusion that Ramsey could miss out on first-team All-ACC status, and my basic rationale was two-fold. On one hand, Ramsey passes the eye test. He looks like a great player, was a five-star recruit and coaches and scouts gushed about his quick grasp of Florida State's defense. He was a true freshman last season and started every game, playing both safety and corner. Secondly, Duke’s defense, which did post some gaudy stats when it comes to tackles and takeaways, was also pretty darned bad. Florida State's secondary allowed 90 fewer yards per game and 11 fewer passing touchdowns than Duke. So shouldn’t the Seminoles’ defensive backs earn the rewards?
It’s an argument that makes sense, too, which only goes to underscore how limited our typical metrics for evaluating defensive backs are.
Cash has more tackles, more interceptions, more passes defended. Ramsey was a key figure in a secondary that was perhaps the best in the country. But maybe Cash benefited from opposing QBs attacking him more often because they weren’t concerned he’d beat them. Or maybe Ramsey benefited from having so many elite players around him. For every argument, there’s a perfectly reasonable counterargument.
Of course, we also don’t have to live with just those basic metrics, either. We wanted to dig a little deeper.
Stats LLC uses a stat called “burn rate” to track defensive backs. It looks at the number of times they were targeted and how many of those passes were completed. This should be a far better way of isolating a single DB, right?
So, using those numbers, how does our theory about Cash being a more ripe target for opposing QBs hold up? Actually, not too well. According to Stats LLC, Cash was targeted 41 times last season, 32nd-most in the ACC. Ramsey was targeted a tick less — 35 times, 47th-most in the ACC. So yes, it does speak highly of Ramsey that a true freshman was targeted, on average, just 2.5 times per game, but the numbers also don’t entirely serve the simple narrative that Cash’s counting stats (tackles, INTs, etc.) benefited from more opportunities.
But if Cash wasn’t targeted significantly more often, surely he didn’t snuff out those targets quite as well as Ramsey. Again, the numbers don’t make the case quite so clear.
Cash’s burn rate (43.9 percent) ranked 22nd in the ACC and was better than Ramsey’s (45.7 percent, 27th in ACC). Cash picked off four passes, the 10th-best rate in the ACC, to Ramsey’s one. Cash defended 19.5 percent of passes, good for 25th in the conference and better than Ramsey’s rate of 5.7 percent (good for 85th). The one area where Ramsey stood out was that, when he was burned, it was rarely for a lot of yards. His 9.7 yards per completion ranked eighth-best in the ACC and his 4.4 yards per attempt was seventh. And, after all, limiting the big plays is the primary job of a safety. Cash allowed 15.2 yards per completion (53rd in ACC) and 6.7 yards per attempt (32nd).
Those last two numbers probably sum the argument up the best. When Cash was good, he was exceptionally good. He made a lot of tackles because his teammates didn’t. He made big plays when he had the chance, but he gave up quite a few, too. Ramsey wasn’t nearly as flashy and clearly had better teammates around him (Terrence Brooks, FSU’s other starting safety last season, had the lowest yards-per-completion rate in the ACC) and wasn’t tested in the running game nearly as often. He didn’t post dynamic numbers because he didn’t have to.
So where has all this gotten us?
I’d argue that the numbers prove Cash certainly wasn’t a bad choice for first-team All-ACC honors. His play in 2013 and the assumption he’ll be better in 2014 more than qualifies him for the honor.
But I’d also argue that Ramsey’s vote total (just 13 votes, nine at safety and four at corner, where FSU had him listed on the ballot) was far shy of any of the winners and appallingly low considering his talent.
But hey, a little friendly debate is really the best part of these preseason lists because, regardless of what the numbers say today, odds are they’ll all look a lot different by season’s end.
And since we tracked down the numbers, here’s a quick look at the best burn rates, defended pass rates, and YPC, per Stats LLC, among returning ACC defenders (min. 25 targets).
1. Ronald Darby (Florida State), 33.3%
2. Maurice Canady (Virginia), 36.2%
3. Breon Borders (Duke), 37.5%
4. Ant Harris (Virginia), 37.8%
5. Justin Simmons (BC), 38.1%
PASS DEFENDED RATE
1. Borders (Duke), 37.5%
2. Harris (Virginia), 31.1%
3. Brandon Facyson (Virginia Tech), 27.7%
4. Hakim Jones (NC State), 27.0%
5. Ray Vinopal (Pitt), 25.7%
YARDS PER COMPLETION
1. Quayshawn Nealy (Georgia Tech), 9.3
2. Cameron Lynch (Syracuse), 9.6
T3. Denzel Perryman (Miami), 9.7
T3. Ramsey (Florida State), 9.7*
5. Brandon Chubb (Wake Forest), 9.8
*Note: Ramsey is the best among returning defensive backs. Nealy, Lynch and Perryman are linebackers. The next best returning DBs were Boston College's Justin Simmons (10.3), Duke’s Bryon Fields (11.7) and Miami’s Deon Bush (11.8).