The largest improvements and regressions in Player Contribution Rating for NRL season 2022

Last week on the Eye Test I released my Player Contribution Rating, which looks at attributing the statistical impact of players during an NRL game.

If you didn’t read it, I’d highly recommend the explainer that was posted last week. It is very long but gives a good understanding of how I arrived at using this measurement and what goes into it. It also covers what type of players it does evaluate well, and those it struggles with (hookers).

This week we’re continuing with a look at the 2022 season through the ETPCR lens, specifically which players have seen the largest increases and decreases thus far.

Before we get started there’s two factors that are going to play a part in these changes. The first is the statistical inflation from 2021 was very real, and something I incessantly harp on and have documented many times.

Due to the re-introduction of penalties for ruck infringements or being offside inside 40 metres, the momentum that teams would generate by flouting the rules has been wound back and the game looks a bit more like it did in 2019 before the random untested changes were implemented.

Players on teams that flourished in this previous environment will see their numbers decline purely on the rule changes.

ETPCR is also possession adjusted, which means that every player is assumed to be playing in a game where there are 135 play the balls in attack and 135 in defense. There were significantly more play the balls in 2020 and 2021 due to set restarts and some teams had incredibly large possession shares due to this. 2020 and 2021 saw over 290 play the balls per game, well up on the historical average of 272.

By normalizing possession we’re removing the benefit of having more chances to accrue statistics and levelling the playing field.

The other major impact on these ratings is team performance. This metric is measuring contribution to a team’s performance – scoring or conceding points – not just raw accumulation of statistics. If a team is travelling well, all players are deemed to have equally contributed to it. Similarly, if a team is playing badly, we assume all players are equally as responsible. We then adjust that contribution by the players statistical share of their team’s overall production.

What this means is that for Cowboys players will look a lot better this season as one of the best defensive teams in the league, than last season when they were conceding a lot of points. Similarly, with South Sydney struggling defensively, Rabbitohs players will most likely look worse this season.

Before we move on, we’ll first have a look at the top and bottom 10 from Round 15’s games to set the scene.

Not a good week if your coach has labelled you “arguably the best defensive centre in the game” and you get routinely run over by Talatau Amone and Zac Lomax.

Aside from that, the results line up from this week’s results pretty well. Penrith put on a clinic against the Warriors, so it’s hardly surprising to see a number of Panthers at the top and Warriors outside players at the bottom. Similarly, the Dragons ran up a score on Souths, although only Ben Hunt cracked the top 10.

Now let’s move on to the most improved players for 2022.

There are a number of Cowboys players are benefiting from the team’s improvement this season under Todd Payten, with North Queensland players taking up five of the top six spots. Only Brisbane’s Corey Oates breaks up the Cowboys dominance. Peta Hiku and Valentine Holmes also show up later in this chart.

The easy argument is that the Cowboys defense is dramatically improved and that’s the sole reason for there being so many of their players in top spot. And it’s true, the majority of negative ETPCR comes from try causes and line break causes, meaning that conceding fewer points as a team will in most cases reduce your negative ETPCR.

If you keep in mind the positional averages, it’s not only that these players have improved dramatically and are now all above the average ETPCR for their position. Taulagi is the only one conceding more than 1.0 points per game more than the average player by ETPCR.

Payten has also unlocked the attacking ability of the teams’ playmakers. Feldt and Taulagi are averaging roughly the same positive ETPCR as last season, with Felt actually dropping by 0.051 from his positive statistics.

The key parts of their spine – Drinkwater (+1.165 on last season), Dearden (+0.701) and Townsend (+0.216) – have all improved their positive ETPCR in 2021. Drinkwater has the fifth best positive ETPCR average this season, ahead of the likes of Mitch Moses, James Tedesco and Adam Reynolds.

Feldt was having a career year for ETPCR until his MCL tear against Melbourne, as you can see below.

His positive ETPCR was third highest since 2014, at +1.721, only behind 2021 and 2015. The biggest change though comes from his negative ETPCR, which is a career best -0.67, ahead of the only other season below -1 (2016, -0.72). It’s a huge upturn from 2020 and 2021 where his negative ETPCR was over -3.0 per game.  Again, ETPCR rewards players on successful teams but his numbers are even better than those in seasons where the Cowboys made the grand final.

Oates is showing why scoring tries can be a huge boost to your ETPCR. In 14 games in 2022 he has scored 12 tries, after scoring just four in the same number of games last season, giving him a +1.968 increase to his total ETPCR and more than doubling last seasons -1.198 at +0.770.

That +0.770 Oates is averaging places him firmly in the elite for wingers. The average winger ETPCR is -0.237, and the other positions can be seen below. Generally edge players out to wings are slight net negatives as that is where the majority of tries are scored. Middle forwards and interchange players are basically ETPCR neutral whilst halves and fullbacks end up as ETPCR positive players as their contributions in attack far outweigh the negatives they concede.

Back to the chart of improved players, Siosifa Talakai’s breakout season places him inside the top 10 (+1.412 on 2021) largely thanks to 40 minutes of hell for Morgan Harper, whilst Raiders trio Adam Elliott, Nic Cotric and Sebastian Kris are benefitting from a change in scenery, returning home and larger opportunities.

Whilst some players have suffered from the changes to the rulebook from 2021, Ryan Papenhuyzen isn’t one of them. He’s currently leading the NRL in ETPCR this season at +3.618 points per game above the average player, which is an increase of 1.371 points on a team that is running through the competition in a similar way to last season.

Penrith’s Dylan Edwards is having a similar rich vein of form, albeit not to the extent of Papenhuyzen. Edwards was already a net positive player last season at +0.947 but has more than doubled his involvement his ETPCR has been boosted accordingly, up to +2.129, an increase of 1.182 on last season.

The last two are notable examples of how ETPCR can measure individual player changes in contribution, which sometimes can seem tied to improvements to the overall team. All but two of the improvements in this chart came from players who were a net negative in 2021, the only exceptions being Papenhuyzen and Edwards.

And let’s not leave out Kyle Flanagan and Joe Stimson, who have improved from complete liabilities on the field by ETPCR to merely below average or fringe first graders by this metric. Another half season under Mick Potter could see their ETPCR continue to rise.

Now let’s move on to those players who have regressed the most in 2022.

Like the previous chart, the majority of these players are now net negatives after mostly being net positive players in 2021. The exceptions being Patrick Herbert, Braidon Burns and Chanel Harris-Tavita who were net negative last season, and Tom Trbojevic, Cody Walker, Brandon Smith and Nathan Cleary who remain net positive players.

It shouldn’t be a huge shock to see Tom Trbojevic with the biggest reduction in EPCR, but it’s size of the decline that is shocking. His ETPCR of +0.790 is an absurd 86% drop on last season’s +5.671, which again shows how cooked 2021 was and just how much Manly benefited under that style of play.

When you look at the round by round comparison between seasons, it’s even more evident of his drop off.

Trbojevic had multiple positive ETPCR games above 10 last season, whilst in seven games this season his total isn’t even 12. It’s a good time to remind ourselves that ETPCR measures the number of points a player contributes over the average player on the average team, meaning Trbojevic alone was contributing an additional 10 points just by himself in those games last season. This year he has impacted by injuries in his short campaign but at no stage did he look like the player from last season.

The second largest deterioration in ETPCR this season comes from Dane Gagai, who has gone from one of the best centres in the NRL by EPCR at +.781 points in 2021 to a woeful -2.298 in 2022 with the Knights.

Like Trbojevic, Nathan Cleary is also seeing a reduction in his ETPCR, down 34% on last season to +2.664. He’s still dominating games, just not to the extent that he did last season as the Panthers are showing incredible strike power down Jahrome Luia’s left side.

Morgan Harper’s decline in ETPCR is almost solely due to Talakai ruining his life in half a game, whilst Daly Cherry-Evans is suffering the same fate as Trbojevic on a smaller scale, halving his total ETPCR from 2021.

Bulldogs pair Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Burton are unsurprisingly suffering huge declines in their ETPCR, having moved from top four clubs to a cellar dweller. Both are averaging -0.111 ETPCR per game, which makes them net negative players but on a team where virtually everyone was leaking points until Trent Barrett was removed, those numbers actually show their class.

Addo-Carr’s -0.111 might make him a net negative overall player but it’s more than a 50% improvement on the average winger ETPCR of -0.237 per game. And Burton’s -0.111 is only marginally behind the average five eight at 0.033, which if you consider how the Bulldogs struggled under their “attacking genius” coach, again highlights just how talented he is. It only took someone with actual first grade coaching ability to show it.

Watching Cody Walker’s decline in real time this season has been a struggle to see, with his total dropping by 74%. The lack of impact AJ Brimson and David Fifita are having with the ball aren’t helping the Titans this season, and having a player as impactful as David Fifita end up as net negative after being +1.244 last season is diabolical. Also not helping is the “defense” of Patrick Herbert, whose negative ETPCR has jumped from an already terrible -2.132 to disastrous -3.107. That latter number is the third worst negative ETPCR in the NRL this season, only beaten by Gagai and the Warriors Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

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