Draft Talk and Chip Kelly’s Alpha

Sorry for the silence recently, haven’t had much time to get a post up.  However, the draft is approaching quickly, and there’s much to do in preparation.  I do intend to compile the PVM rankings again this year, with a few updates to the formula.  For now, though, I want to look at things from a higher level.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a lot of mock drafts and projections.  Many of them have the Eagles selecting a WR in the first round.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past explaining why it’s foolish to project a specific position for any team, assuming their drafting the correct way, but this particular projection has other issues as well.

First, there seems to be a pretty big inconstancy in some of the logic.  The basic story seems to be:  Without DeSean Jackson, the Eagles really need another weapon on offense.

To me, that makes very little sense.  Perhaps if the Eagles were an incompetent organization.  But they’re not.  The Eagles did not NEED to cut Jackson.  There was no deadline or legal problem or imminent salary cap issue.  I disagree pretty strongly with how the team handled that whole situation, but I think it’s safe to say the Eagles would NOT have released Jackson if they felt it would create a huge hole in the roster.

The counter to that is to suggest that the Eagles felt comfortable cutting Jackson precisely BECAUSE they knew they could get a good WR in the draft.  On the surface, it makes sense.  At least it does until you remember that the Eagles can’t KNOW ANYTHING about the draft.  It’s impossible to project who will and will not be available when the Eagles pick.  Banking on a certain player or one of 2/3 players to be there when you pick is an absolutely terrible strategy.  Nothing Howie or Chip has done to date suggests they’re that stupid.

Morevoer, if the Eagles felt they could replace D-Jax in the draft, why wouldn’t they just wait and make sure?  Again, the Eagles didn’t need to cut Jackson WHEN they did it.  To my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there was no bonus or salary cap impact that would have ben different had they waited until draft day.

Put simply, if the Eagles felt that they needed to:

a) Get rid of Jackson

AND

b) replace him with another weapon at WR

then they would have been much better served by waiting until the draft.  There just isn’t a good reason to believe the front office wouldn’t have realized this or wouldn’t have cared.  Therefore, it’s likely NOT an accurate read of the team.

Instead, I think there’s more credence to the asset allocation theory behind Jackson’s release.  Basically, the Eagles may have decided that they do not wish to tie up a lot of cap space in the WR position.  Paying Jackson $12 mil a year obviously kills that goal.  Instead, Roseman might be looking to teams like the Patriots and Saints for a template.  Of course, both of those teams have HOF QBs, so it’s a tough template to match, but the basic logic is sound when you consider the main point of today’s post:

Chip Kelly’s Alpha

Let’s start with a straightforward question:  What is Chip Kelly’s competitive advantage (if any)?

The real answer, at this point, is “we don’t know”.  However, we can probably all agree that if he does have an advantage, it’s the result of his offensive abilities.  Assuming that’s the case, it raises another question:  In a salary-capped league, what’s the best way to leverage that advantage?

If Chip’s competitive advantage is the ability to outperform on offense, does that mean the team should devote more resources to that side of the ball, or less?  The answer, at least as I see it, is very clearly LESS.

Remember that each team, by virtue of the salary cap, has a finite allotment of resources with which to build a roster.  Given the same allocation on offense, we’re assuming Chip Kelly can squeeze more production from it than an average coach.

This needs a more detailed treatment (which I intend to give it), but the key is that there is an upper limit to how good offenses can be.  I will fill this in with data later, but conceptually, we’re talking about diminishing marginal returns.  Adding a great player to a mediocre offense will have a larger marginal effect on production than adding that same player to an already great offense.  There is only one ball, and only so many plays an offense can run (even when going at a high pace like the Eagles).  Think back to the 2007 Patriots.  Adding another Pro Bowl WR to that team would not have made much of a difference in terms of points scored; they simply could not get much better.

Applying that to the Eagles situation, it raises an interesting strategic question.  If we assume Chip can utilize offensive resources at a higher rate than other coaches, what’s the optimal allocation for him?

As I said above, I need to revisit this point with data, but my guess is it’s a relatively low amount.  The Eagles, because they have Chip Kelly, can achieve an above-average offense while spending just an average amount.  That’s Chip Kelly’s alpha.  If he’s as good an offensive coach as we hope, it could be a MASSIVE advantage.  Every dollar saved on the offense can be applied to the defense.

The upshot is, the Eagles probably don’t need to be using 1st round draft picks on “weapons”.  Naturally, the team needs to reach a minimum threshold of talent on that side of the ball, and perhaps they’re no there yet.  But in theory, we should be seeing a lot more spending on defense than on offense.

Looking at it from that perspective, the Eagles should probably NOT take a WR in the first round of the draft.  There’s certainly some BPA/relative-value analysis that has to go into that, but barring something crazy, a WR is unlikely to be the “optimal” pick.

That assumes the Eagles don’t think they’re far from the optimal offensive allocation point. We don’t know that, but the Jackson release might provide some insight here.  Specifically, the Eagles just got rid of a star WR because he was a) an asshole and b) expensive.  While rookie WR are much less expensive than Jackson would have been, the fact is in a few years they’ll be right back where they started.  I think they avoid it and rely on Ertz’s development, Maclin’s return, and Chip Kelly’s alpha to get by on offense, allowing them to over-allocate to the defense.

That’s the theory at least.

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6 thoughts on “Draft Talk and Chip Kelly’s Alpha

  1. I think that there are a couple of other factors involved. One, the abundance of talented receivers in this draft leave a greater probability of one being at the top of the eagles board when their pick comes. Remember, they drafted a tackle with their first pick last year when they didn’t need to. The hole in their line was at guard, which could’ve been filled later in the draft or in free agency. Second, Kelly seems to prioritize offense over defense. Starting over on defense and changing schemes last year, they signed bargain free agents and used only one of their top four picks on defense. This offseason has taken a similar route. I believe his philosophy is that the offense wins games and the defense should be ok enough not to lose it. So, offense seems to trump defense and there just aren’t other offensive players going to be available at 22. Wide receiver seems likely, but by no means a definite. It will come down to who’s at the top of their board at 22.

  2. Jackson is a high variance WR who is very small and relies on one extreme talent (his absurd speed) to compensate for all his failings and that talent is inevitably going to diminish over the next few yrs leaving him with nothing else. Kelly desires a large low variance WR who can consistently beat man coverage, break tackles and block in the run game. That’s what just happened.

    Kelly saw that the preferred way to defend his team was to put 7-8 in the box play press man w one safety shaded to DeSeans side and he didn’t like the our lack of ability to counter that on offense.

    Kelly would rather have a player that can consistently beat that look than one who can be taken out of the game for long periods and then make up the difference on that stat sheet w a big play. Low variance over high variance.

    Just ask yourself what type of RB you’d like to have, one that was guarantees to gain 0 yards on his first 19 carries then bust off an 80 yd td on his 20th run or one that gained 4 yrds on every carry 100% of the time? Obviously the examples are not quite realistic, but they show the effects at the extremes of variance. Both these players average 4 yards per carry, but I and every other coach would take the low variance 4 yrds guaranteed player every time.

    Don’t kid yourself, with only Cooper and a rehabbing Maclin on a 1 yr deal, and us checking out every WR in the draft with a 1st round grade (except Brandon Cooks) chip wants a weapon at WR, he just wants a different kind of weapon.

    • Great analysis on the best defense to match up against the birds offense. I think Eagles fans (myself included) love having a guy who can decide games with one play (Giants PR), but even anecdotally that Giants game was an aberration as the punter f-ed up and did the opposite of what he was told to. The Eagles shouldn’t count on other teams committing such gross errors to win football games.
      I also agree with your assessment of D-Jax value, as he has a high variance unidimensionality (speed)…but as Chip has explained, big guys beat up little guys, and when you are being defended with press coverage you have to have somebody who can fight through.
      In Philadelphia, Jackson lacked both the size and the long-term attitude (his bursts of fiery impetuousness notwithstanding) to fight through the line of scrimmage, and he would lose to every corner in the game in a run-blocking situation.

  3. Brent- and off topic question to consider when you have time: Is it possible to predict if next year’s draft is going to be deep/weak before this draft? If the universal opinion is that last year’s draft was weak, and this one is deep, then it would have been beneficial to know that beforehand when trading picks, and GMs could have traded back their picks to this year at a premium.

    I imagine that there really wouldn’t be any easy way to figure this one out.

    • I’m sure GMs think about it at the margins, but it’s so hard to project a draft class that far in advance that I doubt it plays any significant role. It would be interesting to compare draft class evaluations taken a year in advance with those taken just before the draft. However, I don’t know of any that give ratings that far in advance (obviously those ratings would be meaningless anyway), so we’d have to rely on qualitative descriptions.

  4. ** “Again, the Eagles didn’t need to cut Jackson WHEN they did it. To my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there was no bonus or salary cap impact that would have ben different had they waited until draft day.” **

    You’re wrong, so here’s the correction. Once the Eagles decided (for whatever reason) that they wanted Jaccson off the team it was in their best interest to trade or release him before team workouts began on April 21.

    Six-time NFL Executive of the Year Bill Polian had an explanation on SiriusXM NFL Radio’s Late Hits for why DeSean Jackson was released now instead of later.

    He said that when a team wanted to move on from a player they used to keep them longer while trying to arrange a trade. But after a 2006 grievance filed by Steve McNair against the Tennessee Titans for preventing him from working out with his team was ruled in his favor, players under contract must be allowed to participate in off-season team workouts. Polian said because of that, April 21 – when team workouts begin – has become a new “demarcation date” for teams getting rid of undesired players. Polian said if a team keeps an undesired player after that date the team takes the risk the player will be injured during training camp, and then the team “buys that player for the rest of the year.” If a team has decided to move on from a player it is in their best interest to do it before April 21.

    Also notice that the TItans released Chris Johnson and the Raiders traded Terrelle Pryor before workouts began for the same reason.

    The risk of injury during training camp is real. Last year, two Eagles wide receivers (Maclin and Benn) had season-ending injuries during training camp. If Jackson had suffered a similar injury during camp and before the draft, the Eagles would have been stuck paying a player they no longer wanted $10 million to go through months of rehab at their facility.

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