Jeremy Werner

Applying WAR to Illini football, 2016 edition

Wins above replacement stat doesn't exist in football, but what if it were applied to the Illini football roster?

CHAMPAIGN - Some media outlets rank players from the bottom of the roster to the top. I love rankings as much as anyone, but sometimes tiers are a better way to display player value to a team.

Last year, I experimented in a column, "Applying Wins Above Replacement to Illini", with the goal of showing how valuable certain players are to a team. Let me quote that column a little bit for reference.

I love baseball.

Baseball was the first sport I played. Baseball was the first professional sport I witnessed live.

Despite giving up the game at age 13 because I couldn’t catch up to Tanner Roark’s fastball or have a chance at hitting his curveball -- true story -- I make it a priority to visit a Major League Baseball game or two or five every year. A few years ago, my wife and I made it a priority to get to all 30 MLB ballparks in our lifetime. We’re close to halfway done after visiting Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh last month.

So while football was my favorite to play and basketball remains my favorite to watch, baseball might be my favorite sport to follow.

I’m one of the minority who likes fantasy baseball WAY more than fantasy football. I love the grind. I love the best trade deadline in sports. I love the prospects (2015 rookie class, best ever?). I love checking the daily standings and the waiver wire in my fantasy league(s).

And I really love the plethora of statistics, the analytics that allows us to really get nitty gritty on the game.

Now, I know some old-schoolers revolt against sabermetrics. No, they aren’t the answer to everything. Scouting -- what your eyes see during play -- still is a big part of the equation. But sabermetrics and analytics provide us a bevy of information. More information makes us smarter. It’s why you’ll see me reference KenPom.com and hoop-math.com in my basketball reporting/analysis.

One of the more interesting baseball sabermetrics is WAR, or Wins Above Replacement.

This is how Fangraphs.com explains WAR: “Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. You should always use more than one metric at a time when evaluating players, but WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players. WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins, which means it is highly likely that Player X has been more valuable than Player Y.”

Basketball analysts use a stat called win shares to similarly calculate player value (James Harden led the NBA last season) with one number. Some football sites use “approximate value” as a single-number measure of a player’s impact.

For fun, I wanted to attempt to translate baseball WAR to Illinois football.

I believe this is worth repeating as well.

There is no science here. This is absolutely subjective and just for entertainment purposes, basically doubling as a player preview for the season. Also, side note, I assume health for all 12 games for this exercise. Of course, the biggest variable in my evaluation is talent, but position matters (quarterback gets the biggest bump, of course) and depth at the position influences value as well.

The only slight calculation I employed in this exercise is dividing a 162-baseball season to a 12- game football season. So while the elite baseball players average between 5.0 to 10.0 (Trout level) wins above replacement, even very good football players would average about 1.0 due to the smaller sample size.

Also, adding up the WAR on a baseball doesn't equal the number of team wins (so, please, no e-mails telling me I'm projecting the Illini to win more than 10 games). Plus, I don't list the players I think could be negative WAR (just not nice).

Remember, this is just for fun. Agreed? OK. Without further ado...

2.0 WAR or higher

Most important player on the team

Wes Lunt, QB - 2.25: No player is more important to this Illinois offense and the team than the senior signal caller. Few college quarterbacks can make the passes he does and as accurately as he does it. His production at Illinois has been good -- with a healthy season, he likely will finish top-six in career passing yardage at Illinois in basically two and a half seasons as starter -- but his production at Illinois should be greater to this point. Injuries limited him his sophomore season. Ineffectiveness around him last season (the Big Ten's worst rushing attack and 60 receiver drops) limited his effectiveness as a junior. You can't help but think what he'd do at a place like Michigan State. Strong-armed, smart and extremely accurate, Lunt has pro pocket-passer potential. Lunt gives the Illini a chance to make a bowl game. Without him -- and with one of the unproven, limited backups on the field -- Illinois may finish at the bottom of the Big Ten (in both scoring offense and wins).

1.0 WAR or higher

All-Big Ten candidates who opponents must scheme for

Mikey Dudek, WR - 1.25: Though I valued him similarly last season, I thought Illinois had enough talent at receiver to still have a successful offense. But the Illini receiving corps proved unreliable (60 drops) and ineffective (5.6 yards per pass attempt, down from 6.9 yards per attempt in 2014). Dudek -- who had 76 catches and 1,038 yards as a true freshman -- is just a special dude. He's one of the fastest and most athletic players on the team. He's both a safety blanket for Lunt and his top playmaker, who can simply get open and make plays -- either in open space or in tight windows. But sadly, Dudek will miss most of -- if not all -- of his second-straight season after he suffered yet another ACL tear this spring. Expect Dudek to return later this season, if he is cleared by doctors, but Illinois surely will miss its top playmaker during the first half of the season, which features more winnable games than the back half.

Dawuane Smoot, DE/LEO - 1.25: This is a pretty high number for a defensive lineman (I had Jihad Ward at a 0.75 last year), but that's how good Smoot is. He's the best Illini defensive lineman since Whitney Mercilus -- who probably was a 2.0 WAR during his historic 2011 season. Could Smoot duplicate that type of season? It'll be tough, but he has that kind of potential. For my money, he's the best pass rusher in the Big Ten and can be just as disruptive against the run. He dominated training camp. Offenses always must account for where No. 91 is on the field, and Smoot will demand double- and triple-teams, which should open up opportunities for the rest of the defense. The Illini don't have another defender like him, and there are few in the Big Ten like him -- which is why an NFL team likely will invest a first- or second-round pick in him next April.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB - 1.00: With Vaughn, the Illini have a Big Ten bellcow back. Without him, they'd have a bunch of complementary backs who'd have to form a running back by committee rotation. Vaughn may only play two more seasons at Illinois because the sophomore has the overall skill set NFL teams want: above average strength, great one-cut ability, good top-end speed and plus vision. He must continue making strides as a blocker and receiver but Vaughn should be the first Illini back to top 1,000 yards rushing since Mikel LeShoure did so in 2010.

0.5 WAR or higher

Possible All-Big Ten candidates who will likely play in the NFL

Hardy Nickerson, LB - 0.50: Following the departures of Neal (transfer) and Mason Monheim, the Illini were expected to have a huge question mark at middle linebacker. While sophomore Tre Watson likely would have done a solid (though maybe inconsistent job) at middle linebacker, Nickerson gives the Illini one of the most experienced and best middle linebackers in the Big Ten. Nickerson is quick and a sure tackler (112 last season at Cal) but most importantly gives the Illini a leader in the middle of a defense he knows so well (it is his father's defense, after all).

Chunky Clements, DT - 0.50: The senior defensive tackle probably should be talked about more. Some may focus on his lack of sacks (0.5) last season, Clements finished third on he team last year in tackles for loss (11.5) behind Smoot and T.J. Neal (14.0). Clements has the traits Smith wants in his three technique tackle, especially his quick burst off the line. Simply, he's a disruptor behind the line of scrimmage and he should get plenty of NFL looks.

0.25 WAR or higher

Above average Big Ten starters.

Carroll Phillips, DE - 0.40: This may be a higher spot than many would have thought. But Phillips broke out toward the end of last season, forcing his way into the starting lineup. He's always had the quickness to be a good pass rusher, but he's added more of a power element that could make him a premier pass rusher in this conference. Playing opposite Smoot, Phillips should have many one-on-one opportunities. Judging by his work against the Illini's experienced offensive tackles during the spring and fall, he could be in for a big senior season.

Malik Turner, WR - 0.35: The 6-foot-3 receiver is one of the Illini's top athletes and provides a physical presence on the perimeter (both in the pass game as a receiver and run game as a blocker). He showed flashes of No. 1 ability late last season (39 catches, 510 yards, 3 TDs). He looked like the Illini's best receiver in camp. He has the potential to replicated Geronimo Allison's production (hopefully with fewer drops).

Austin Schmidt, OT - 0.25: The senior (16 career starts) quietly has emerged as the Illini's most reliable offensive lineman. He's done a great job of protecting Lunt the last few seasons and has added a bit more power in the run game.

Taylor Barton, S - 0.25: The senior safety really has become an underrated player. He's versatile, providing a punch in the run game and athleticism and range against the pass. He provides a much-needed veteran presence on the back end of the defense.

Jaylen Dunlap, CB - 0.25: Lovie Smith immediately took a liking to the long, physical, athletic cornerback who will match up against most opponent's best players.

Other positive WAR players

These are players deemed to be average to solid Big Ten starters.

Christian DiLauro, OT: A minor ankle injury has limited DiLauro a bit this fall, but the redshirt junior tackle is experienced (19 career starts), agile and tough. He was really close to being in the group above.

Nick Allegretti, OG: The redshirt sophomore guard took a huge leap since the spring and at times looks like the Illini's best lineman, especially in the run game. A possible big gainer heading into next year's preseason WAR rankings.

Rob Bain, DT: Strong-as-an-ox run stuffer will be solid, though unspectacular. He leaned down about 15 pounds and looks a bit quicker.

James Crawford, WLB: The junior linebacker adds a much needed element to the Illini defense: speed. The weakside linebacker position usually piles up tackles in Lovie Smith's defense.

Jamal Milan, DT: The redshirt freshman will be the Illini's best defensive lineman next year. For now, he adds a great mix of burst, athleticism and strength in a deep DL rotation.

Desmond Cain, WR: He doesn't provide many big plays (9.3 yards per catch), but the sophomore sure was sure-handed last season (53 receptions vs. three drops).

Joe Spencer, C: The senior can be overpowered but he provides an intelligent, reliable leader to the middle of the offensive line.

Question marks

Could be negative or positive WAR.

Gabe Megginson, OL: The redshirt freshman has the best tools of any offensive lineman on the team, but the former four-star prospect is still untested and (as expected) has shown inconsistency early on. He'll likely have some ups and downs in his first season as a starter.

Justin Hardee, WR: The senior returns after missing last season with a broken foot. He has elite speed and solid size (6-foot-1) but he's never caught 20 or more passes in a season. Can he be the reliable, big-play threat the Illini need?

Tre Watson / Julian Jones / Justice Williams, LBs: Each of the three options at strongside linebackers is unproven but has upside. Watson has a lot of similarities to former Illini T.J. Neal. Jones has NFL-like athleticism. Williams is long and fast.

Caleb Day, SS: The senior is a great athlete but hasn't proven to be a solid football player. He was competing with Darwyn Kelly for the starting spot during training camp.

Zach Grant, WR: Could the senior walk-on be this year's version of Cain? He was Lunt's most trusted target this fall in the slot and even made some big plays running down the seam.

Special teams: The Illini could be negative WAR with their specialists with big question marks at kicker and returner.

Tight end: Tyler White is coming off an ACL injury and hasn't shown consistent hands. Andrew Davis is still skinny. Caleb Reams is a very good receiver but a tad short and still a subpar blocker. The Illini have multiple, different options here but are they going to be effective during Big Ten play?


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