The Art Of The Interception: Good Hands And Randomness

Morris "Good Hands" Claiborne.

So I wanted to take a further look at the topic I stumbled into last weekend: individual defenders' ability to pick off a pass.

I am using this idea to build into my 2012 team profiles, but let's spend a few minutes looking at individual players. Below are players who 1) ranked in the nation's Top 50 in Passes Defended last year and 2) are returning in 2012. I simply took a look at the number of passes they defended per game in 2011 and projected how many interceptions they should have had if they had pulled in 21.9% of their passes defended. This comes with some obvious disclaimers:

  1. Not everybody has the same set of hands. Some defensive backs have great hands, while others are defensive backs (and not receivers) because their hands leave something to be desired.

  2. If we were to use this as "projections" for 2012 -- as in, how many passes might they intercept next year? -- we would have to assume that they will see the same number of passes in 2012. That might be a faulty assumption because, quite simply, you develop a reputation after a while. Players on this list got quite a few opportunities to prove what they could do. Next year, someone like Merrill Noel, E.J. Gaines or David Amerson (i.e. a player who came out of nowhere in 2011) might not get as many opportunities to break passes up, simply because opposing quarterbacks might be choosing to look toward the other side of the field. That is one of the limitations of using individual Passes Defended data -- a lot of the country's best defensive backs didn't make this list because quarterbacks did not try to throw at them very much (because they're among the country's best defensive backs). Still, consider this a thought exercise as much as anything. It suggests that players like David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo may have been a bit lucky in both the opportunities they received and the balls they actually pulled in. Meanwhile, players like Merrill Noel, Josh Robinson, Najja Johnson or Marc Anthony either have awful hands or might pull in a couple more picks next year (if given the chance).

When I looked at the list of last year's top pass defenders, my thought was that, for most of them, their percentage of interceptions would regress back toward the mean of around 22%. Now I'm going to investigate that assumption.

After the jump is a look at 89 players who, between 2007-11, ended up on the Top 100 Passes Defended list in back-to-back seasons. I listed them in order of their %INT (the percentage of their passes defended that were interceptions) in their second of the two seasons. While they defended a similar number of overall passes from one year to another, what can we learn about the number they intercepted?

As you'll see, there is but a small correlation (about 10 percent) between a player's percentage of interceptions in one year with their percentage in the next. Someone like Kent State's Brian Lainhart, who picked off 55 percent of his passes defended in 2008, then picked off 64 percent in 2009, may have had really good hands. Meanwhile, someone like Alabama's Kareem Jackson (nine percent in 2008, seven percent in 2009) may have had a decent set of stone hands. But players like Vanderbilt's Myron Lewis (8 percent in 2007, 46 percent in 2008) or Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (31 percent in 2009, zero percent in 2010) illustrated that there really is quite a bit of randomness involved.

To further illustrated this point, let's look at some averages. Here are the 89 players below, grouped in order of their second-year %INT.

  • Top 9 -- 52.2% INT in second season, 40.4% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 41.3% INT in second season, 25.3% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 32.7% INT in second season, 39.6% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 27.3% INT in second season, 28.7% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 23.2% INT in second season, 17.9% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 18.8% INT in second season, 26.8% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 14.1% INT in second season, 28.1% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 9.7% INT in second season, 18.7% INT the previous year
  • Next 10: 4.7% INT in second season, 23.7% INT the previous year

At the very top, we might see evidence of certain players having really good hands/instincts. But outside of the very top names, last year's %INT has, basically, no bearing whatsoever on next year's %INT.

This is good news for players like Merrill Noel of Wake Forest or E.J. Gaines of Missouri, who combined to pick off five passes and break up 35 (combined %INT: 12.5%). It is also probably bad news for N.C. State's David Amerson, whose 72.2% INT rate was easily the highest of the past five years; even if he does have great hands, he probably won't have a %INT higher than about 40% or 45% this fall.

Bottom line: there is most certainly skill in defending a pass. It means you have great anticipation skills and agility, and each are quite obviously key components to playing well as a college defensive back. But the art of picking off a pass, as opposed to simply breaking it up, is a bit of a mystery and cannot be counted on from one season to another.

Year Name Team Pass Def. %INT LY Pass
Def
LY %INT DIFF in
%INT
2009 Brian Lainhart Kent State 11 63.6% 11 54.5% +9.1%
2010 Sean Baker Ball State 10 60.0% 16 37.5% +22.5%
2010 Mana Silva Hawai'i 15 53.3% 10 60.0% -6.7%
2010 Domonic Cook Buffalo 12 50.0% 11 9.1% +40.9%
2011 Morris Claiborne LSU 12 50.0% 11 45.5% +4.5%
2009 Tyler Sash Iowa 12 50.0% 11 45.5% +4.5%
2010 Ahmad Black Florida 10 50.0% 12 58.3% -8.3%
2009 Earl Thomas Texas 17 47.1% 13 15.4% +31.7%
2008 D.J. Moore Vanderbilt 13 46.2% 16 37.5% +8.7%
2008 Myron Lewis Vanderbilt 11 45.5% 13 7.7% +37.8%
2008 Weldon Brown La Tech 11 45.5% 11 36.4% +9.1%
2008 Victor Harris Va Tech 14 42.9% 16 31.3% +11.6%
2009 Sherrick McManis N'western 12 41.7% 13 15.4% +26.3%
2011 Casey Hayward Vanderbilt 17 41.2% 17 35.3% +5.9%
2010 Patrick Peterson LSU 10 40.0% 15 13.3% +26.7%
2010 Shaun Prater Iowa 10 40.0% 10 20.0% +20.0%
2008 Troy Nolan Ariz St 10 40.0% 13 46.2% -6.2%
2009 Leon Wright Duke 13 38.5% 11 27.3% +11.2%
2009 Walter McFadden Auburn 16 37.5% 10 20.0% +17.5%
2010 Rashad Carmichael Va Tech 11 36.4% 12 50.0% -13.6%
2011 Johnthan Banks Miss St 14 35.7% 10 30.0% +5.7%
2008 Alphonso Smith Wk Forest 20 35.0% 18 44.4% -9.4%
2009 Brian Jackson Oklahoma 12 33.3% 12 16.7% +16.7%
2009 Myron Lewis Vanderbilt 12 33.3% 11 45.5% -12.1%
2008 Rashad Johnson Alabama 16 31.3% 14 42.9% -11.6%
2011 Rashad Jackson Marshall 13 30.8% 10 30.0% +0.8%
2011 Keith Tandy WVU 13 30.8% 17 35.3% -4.5%
2008 Johnell Neal UCF 13 30.8% 16 37.5% -6.7%
2008 P.J. Mahone BGSU 10 30.0% 11 63.6% -33.6%
2009 Joe Haden Florida 14 28.6% 15 20.0% +8.6%
2008 Mike Mickens Cincinnati 14 28.6% 12 50.0% -21.4%
2011 Nick Sukay Penn State 11 27.3% 13 15.4% +11.9%
2010 Janoris Jenkins Florida 11 27.3% 14 21.4% +5.8%
2009 Ras-I Dowling Virginia 11 27.3% 14 21.4% +5.8%
2011 Micah Hyde Iowa 11 27.3% 11 36.4% -9.1%
2011 Chase Minnifield Virginia 11 27.3% 10 60.0% -32.7%
2008 Trevard Lindley Kentucky 15 26.7% 14 21.4% +5.2%
2008 Joe Burnett UCF 15 26.7% 18 33.3% -6.7%
2011 Isaiah Frey Nevada 19 26.3% 13 7.7% +18.6%
2008 Jairus Byrd Oregon 19 26.3% 22 31.8% -5.5%
2011 Brodrick Brown Okla St 20 25.0% 10 20.0% +5.0%
2009 Brandon Brinkley Houston 16 25.0% 19 21.1% +3.9%
2009 DeQuan Bembry Marshall 12 25.0% 12 8.3% +16.7%
2011 Deron Wilson USM 17 23.5% 15 20.0% +3.5%
2010 Markelle Martin Okla St 13 23.1% 11 0.0% +23.1%
2009 Bryan McCann SMU 13 23.1% 12 33.3% -10.3%
2008 Brandon Brinkley Houston 19 21.1% 12 16.7% +4.4%
2008 Joe Haden Florida 15 20.0% 13 7.7% +12.3%
2009 Miguel Graham Akron 15 20.0% 10 20.0% +0.0%
2011 Jayron Hosley Va Tech 15 20.0% 17 52.9% -32.9%
2010 Josh Pleasant Kent State 10 20.0% 12 8.3% +11.7%
2010 Brandon Burton Utah 10 20.0% 11 9.1% +10.9%
2009 Traye Simmons Minnesota 10 20.0% 18 22.2% -2.2%
2008 Vontae Davis Illinois 10 20.0% 12 33.3% -13.3%
2009 Davon House NMSU 16 18.8% 12 33.3% -14.6%
2010 Emanuel Davis ECU 11 18.2% 14 14.3% +3.9%
2008 DeAngelo Smith Cincinnati 11 18.2% 16 50.0% -31.8%
2010 Peyton Thompson SJSU 12 16.7% 11 18.2% -1.5%
2011 Jamell Fleming Oklahoma 12 16.7% 19 26.3% -9.6%
2011 Josh Pleasant Kent State 13 15.4% 10 20.0% -4.6%
2009 Joshua Moore Kansas St 13 15.4% 15 20.0% -4.6%
2008 Jamar Wall Texas Tech 13 15.4% 11 45.5% -30.1%
2010 Stephen Harrison Kansas St 14 14.3% 11 0.0% +14.3%
2009 Emanuel Davis ECU 14 14.3% 12 33.3% -19.0%
2011 Leon McFadden SDSU 15 13.3% 14 14.3% -1.0%
2011 Richard Crawford SMU 15 13.3% 12 33.3% -20.0%
2011 Trevin Wade Arizona 15 13.3% 14 35.7% -22.4%
2010 Josh Robinson UCF 15 13.3% 14 42.9% -29.5%
2008 Jacob Lacey Okla St 16 12.5% 14 35.7% -23.2%
2011 Josh Robinson UCF 17 11.8% 15 13.3% -1.6%
2009 Jamar Wall Texas Tech 17 11.8% 13 15.4% -3.6%
2008 Alterraun Verner UCLA 20 10.0% 19 21.1% -11.1%
2011 Ross Cockrell Duke 10 10.0% 10 30.0% -20.0%
2010 Brandon Harris Miami (Fl) 11 9.1% 17 11.8% -2.7%
2010 Davon House NMSU 11 9.1% 16 18.8% -9.7%
2009 Syd'Quan Thompson California 11 9.1% 18 22.2% -13.1%
2009 Aaron Berry Pittsburgh 11 9.1% 13 23.1% -14.0%
2008 Rafael Priest TCU 11 9.1% 13 23.1% -14.0%
2011 Demontre Hurst Oklahoma 12 8.3% 12 8.3% +0.0%
2008 Brandon Hughes Oregon St 12 8.3% 14 14.3% -6.0%
2009 Brandon Hogan WVU 12 8.3% 10 30.0% -21.7%
2008 Justin Thornton Kansas 12 8.3% 14 35.7% -27.4%
2009 Devin Ross Arizona 13 7.7% 16 18.8% -11.1%
2009 David Pender Purdue 14 7.1% 13 7.7% -0.5%
2009 Kareem Jackson Alabama 14 7.1% 11 9.1% -1.9%
2009 C.J. Bailey USM 13 0.0% 12 16.7% -16.7%
2010 Prince Amukamara Nebraska 13 0.0% 16 31.3% -31.3%
2011 Markelle Martin Okla St 11 0.0% 13 23.1% -23.1%
2009 Patrick Robinson FSU 11 0.0% 12 50.0% -50.0%

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