Why PFF Rankings of Cardinals Players Don't Add Up

Howard Balzer

First off, apologies for taking this long to react to colleague Mason Kern’s roundup story yesterday detailing the rankings by Pro Football Focus of Cardinals players and their evaluation of how the roster stacks up against the rest of the NFL.

It took this long to clean my brains off the floor and walls after my head exploded upon reading it.

This purported evidence is exactly why Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries recently criticized PFF for simply not understanding what they are watching. He is not alone.

"I have such a hard time with outside (sources like) PFF and stuff like that," Humphries said at the time. "It's like, how do you know that was a negative right there? Maybe I wasn't supposed to block that guy. Maybe it was a trap. When you watch the film, it's hard to break down film when you don't have a football mind."

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer once said, "I have a hard time with people grading my players who don't know what they're doing."

Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach, and current Arizona State co-defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis called PFF “some dumbass website that doesn’t have any idea of what football is.”

PFF bases its grades on how players perform on each play. The biggest issue is that many different people grade games, so who knows how many different people grade individual players during the season. In addition, those doing the work simply do not know the assignments on each play, much less the adjustments that often occur at the line of scrimmage that the coaches often do not know until later.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once explained it best: 

“I think we need a little closer analysis a lot of times. Sometimes the play calls or what was called on the line of scrimmage might be something that we’re not aware of. That could happen in any game. You think a player did something that he shouldn’t have done but maybe he got a call, a line call or a call from a linebacker or he thought the quarterback said something so he did what he thought was the right thing or maybe it was the right thing but that call shouldn’t have been made or should have been on the other side."

Knowing all this, it is shocking that PFF rankings are reported by many in the media as if they are gospel.

So, let’s look at the Cardinals’ rankings of projected starters, understanding that the numbers are from last season, but also are said to include the totality of the player’s career.

The ratings correlate this way: 90.0 and higher, elite; 80.0-89.9, high quality; 70.0-79.9, above average; 60.0-69.9, average; 50.0-59.9, below average; 49.9 and below, poor.

According to PFF, the Cardinals have one elite player. Is that linebacker Chandler Jones? No, no, no, no. It’s defensive end Zach Allen, at 90.9! Jones is listed at 84.9.

Overall, the Cardinals have three high-quality players: Linebacker Isaiah Simmons, 88.5, who has yet to play an NFL down after getting drafted in the first-round out of Clemson; wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, 87.8; and Jones.

They have three players in the 70s, a staggering 12 in the 60s, three in the 50s and one below 50, cornerback Byron Murphy.

Some true stunners:

*Quarterback Kyler Murray, the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, is merely average at 64.5 and has the eighth-best ranking among the team’s offensive players.

*Tight end Maxx Williams is second on offense and fifth on the team at 79.1.

*Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who did have a subpar year in 2019 after missing the first six games of the season due to suspension, is considered average at 68.6 despite being ranked 54th among all NFL players in the decade ... by Pro Football Focus!

They even wrote that Peterson “was regularly given assignments that were much tougher than the ones most corners were given, which had the knock-on effect of dragging down his PFF grade compared to some players.”

Well, shouldn’t that be taken into account when grades are assigned?

*What’s truly remarkable is that inside linebacker Jordan Hicks is rated as average with a grade 61.0 that is ninth on the defense and 1.1 points from falling to the below-average group. All Hicks did last season was never miss a defensive snap, accumulated 158 total tackles, with 11 for loss, to go with seven quarterback hits, three interceptions and six passes defensed.

It also appears that scheme also is not factored in.

In defending having the Cardinals ranked 24th overall in the league, for biggest weakness, they wrote: 

“The pass-rushing options on this team outside of Chandler Jones leave a lot to be desired. Jones' 90.5 pass-rushing grade since joining the Cardinals in 2016 ranks 10th among all edge defenders, but Devon Kennard — the projected edge defender on the other side — hasn't earned a pass-rushing grade above 60.0 since 2014. Jordan Phillips (despite what the sack numbers last season might suggest), Corey Peters and Zach Allen can't be relied on for much pass-rushing push, either.”

Well, duh. The Cardinals are a 3-4 defense, so linemen usually are not relied on for a pass rush, especially a nose tackle like Peters, who did have 2.5 sacks in 2019. Do I need to point out Allen was also mentioned, negatively. Yet, he has that 90.9 grade after playing in only four games.

Then, there is the point made about Kennard. In his first six seasons with the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, he was a strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense. He had 4.0 sacks as a rookie, none in 2015, one in 2016, four in 2017 and then seven the last two seasons after signing with Detroit. Last year, he was second on the Lions with 15 quarterback hits.

On the Cardinals, he will be a traditional edge rusher in the 3-4.

Keep all this in mind whenever you see grades for players. Especially on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, considering that outstanding analyst Cris Collinsworth is an owner of Pro Football Focus.

Register today or log in to access this premium article.