In my last post, I mentioned that, from my point of view, there’s a relatively significant chance that the Eagles will take a “step backwards” next season. Many people took exception to that, specifically Tommy Lawlor over at Igglesblitz.com. Today I will respond, after I make a few important points.
First, I have not made any projection for this team yet. It’s very possible that after examining each factor in more detail, I’ll come to a different conclusion. However, it’s foolish to do such an analysis now. There are simply too many things that can happen between now and the start of the season. Moreover, we’ll get more information about specific players as we move through the summer and training camp. Once that’s all finished, I’ll have an “official” projection that probably looks a lot like what I did last season.
Second, I’m relying on a number of factors, not just the on-paper roster changes, when I suggest the potential for a step-back. For example: Nick Foles’ regression, injury regression, aging, harder schedule, etc…. Each of those (and there are others) requires an in-depth analysis, and deserves a full post. I won’t do much of that today, but rest assured we’ll take a closer look between now and the beginning of the season.
Third, I am not a pessimist or perma-bear. In fact, prior to last year, I was one of the few Eagles writers/bloggers/analysts/whatever predicting such a good season. I thought Nick Foles should start from the beginning. I thought Chip Kelly was a great hire, provided Lurie was confident he really wanted to be in the NFL. I projected the team to win between 9 and 10 games. How did I do that? An objective analysis of the team, including a deep look into what made the 4-12 team that bad (a lot of bad luck). Here’s the important part though: If you’re truly being objective, the numbers and factors say what they say, and you need to be willing to believe them whether that’s good or bad. Ideally, the team does its own analysis before the season, identifies (objectively) the expected performance distribution for that season, then tries to make specific moves to improve it. Here, we can only do the first part.
Lastly, the rest of this post is done in typical “takedown” form. However, I want to stress that this is NOT a “takedown”. As Tommy said, we’re all better off when smart people look at the same information and disagree, provided we’re each willing to change our stance in light of new evidence or arguments. The biggest virtue of blogs, in my opinion, is that they allow this type of back-and-forth in a public forum. These blogger-to-blogger conversations happen a lot in finance and economics (though they’re not always as civilized as they should be) but rarely in sports. That should change. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, he’s actually provided a response to some of the things I will say below, and I encourage you to go read it at Igglesblitz.com afterwards.
In italics you’ll find Tommy’s words. Mine are in regular type.
First, I don’t get why Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff can’t be expected to contribute. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin both contributed as rookies, and that was in a more complex passing offense.
The questions isn’t “can they contribute?”, it’s “how much can they reasonable be expected to contribute?”. The track record of rookie WRs, unfortunately, is not good. I will do a full post about this with a more in-depth look at the statistics, but for now just note that from 2000-2013, 49 WRs were selected in the 2nd round and played at least 10 games in their rookie years. The average receiving yards of that group is 437. Jordan Matthews was taken in the second round.
That does NOT mean he won’t do better. I’m very confident he will. BUT, when you’re making a projection for him, you need to keep that context in mind. If you say he will register around 800 yards, just know that would be nearly TWICE as good as the average 2nd round WR. Again, I’ll have more detailed stats later, but the upshot is: be very careful in assuming any significant contributions from rookie WRs. There are a number of reasons Matthews might be different, and they are important to note as well. But if you’re analyzing those factors without reference to the context of average rookie performance, you’re not going to end up with very good projections.
Speaking of Maclin, why isn’t he mentioned at all? I know he’s coming off an ACL injury, but that happened last summer and these days players are coming back from standard ACL tears at a pretty high rate.
If the Eagles tried to replace Jackson with just a rookie or just Maclin, I could see some extreme skepticism. Instead, the Eagles brought back Maclin spent 2 early picks on WRs and added Sproles to help the passing game.
I should have mentioned Maclin, though Tommy hits on the primary reason for concern. He’s coming back from a torn ACL injury. I intend on doing a post-ACL injury study to see just what we can expect from Maclin, but for now I don’t have any numbers. Yes, Maclin has come back from a torn ACL before. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The fact is, we don’t know one way or the other, at least until I do the analysis (provided there is good data on WR cal injuries). However, even at 100%, he is a VERY different receiver from DeSean, and the offense will look much different with him as a #1 option.
I explained in two very detailed posts just why DeSean will be so hard to “replace”. I won’t rehash that here, just see those posts. We can argue about why DeSean had such a good year and whether it was him, Foles, or Kelly that deserves the credit; but that doesn’t actually matter! The point is, whatever was going on, DeSean + Foles + Chip = one of the most ridiculous and unique seasons EVER put up by a WR. Again, see the post. If DeSean was still here, we’d have to look at whether that was largely luck or whether it could have persisted. With him gone, though, we can say that it will not persist (it can’t).
While I like Maclin, I think it’s a near certainty that he isn’t putting up a 65% catch rate while going deep 40+% of the time. He’s just not that type of player. So the offense will undoubtedly look different, even with Maclin at full strength, whether it ends up better or worse is a tougher question to answer.
I’m less impressed by the addition of Sproles than many others seem to be. He obviously represents some “addition”, but I think fans are getting carried away a bit. He’ll be 31 at the start of next season and he’s just not the same player he was a few years ago. Over the past three years, his receptions, yards, and TDs have declined. So has his yards per rushing attempt. We can examine the general performance/age correlation for RBs in more detail later, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s not good. The upshot is that I don’t see any good reason to expect Sproles to exceed his production from last year (604 receiving yards) and he will likely do worse, considering his trend. There’s a lot more to look at there, and I haven’t looked at his “advanced” stats like target rate and catch rate, but that’s my hypothesis for now. It’s not as if Sproles is leaving some terrible offense either, he’s been catching passes from a HOFer for the past 3 years.
Combined, Maclin and Sproles and the Rookies certainly COULD fully compensate for losing Jackson. I just don’t think it’s likely, or if it is, I don’t think it will be enough to compensate for risk factors elsewhere. Moreover, while they might match his production on a pure yards/TDs basis, there are additional effects that are harder to account for. For instance: DeSean likely helped open things up for the rest of the offense more than a 100% Jeremy Maclin can. Again, that needs analysis, but I think that hypo is more reasonable than the opposite (saying Maclin will have greater effects on the rest of the offense).
The defense added a veteran Safety in Malcolm Jenkins. That means that Nate Allen and Earl Wolff will battle for the other starting spot. Nolan Carroll and Jaylen Watkins add depth at CB. If you don’t think that is important, just go re-watch the loss to San Diego. Bradley Fletcher missed that game and Philip Rivers threw for 419 yards and looked like Peyton friggin’ Manning.
Of course depth is important, but from a pure points for/against standpoint, the 1s and 2s matter far more than the rest. Malcolm Jenkins is a nice addition, but let’s be clear: he’s not a great player. He’s an OK safety. Last season he registered an Approximate Value of 6. Nate Allen, by comparison, registered a 7. Pro Football Focus says QB’s registered a Rating of 101.8 when targeting him last season. He’s also never played in all 16 games. So the value of Malcolm Jenkins is debatable. I do believe the Safety corps will be better than last season, but I’m not seeing a great leap in performance.
I do like the Nolan Carroll addition. No argument there, he definitely helps the CB depth chart. Jaylen Watkins is a different story. He’s a 4th round pick. It’s possible he contributes on D this year, but I don’t think that’s likely, given the historical performance of later round DBs. Note: I like the pick! I just don’t think it will pay big dividends THIS year (which is pretty much the overall theme of this offseason).
Marcus Smith adds depth up front and gives the coaching staff an athletic option to mix into different packages if they want. He can play on the right or left side. The backup LOLB last year was Casey Matthews. That meant the coaches stuck with Connor Barwin as much as humanly possible.
Marcus Smith is a wildcard. However, if the Eagles do take a step forward this year (record-wise), he really HAS to play a big role. I don’t think the depth chart sets up that way. Long-term, Smith might turn out to be a great pick. However, we’re only concerned with this season. I’m going to put him in the wait-and-see category for now, because we’ll learn a lot more about his potential usage during training camp and preseason. It’s just very difficult to tell how much playing time he’ll get this year. Without a lot of snaps, he obviously won’t be able to make a big impact.
The qualitative benefit of having better depth behind the 1s is real, but the magnitude is difficult to evaluate. If having Smith allows the Coaches to make more optimal strategic decisions, then his impact could be big beyond the snaps he sees. However, how much stock can you put in this? Again, we’re not trying to predict what WILL happen! We’re trying to get a sense of what is MOST LIKELY TO HAPPEN. Just as we can think of hypos benefitting the team, we can also think of hypos working against them. If you’re not looking at both sides of the coin, your analysis is incomplete. For example, maybe Smith isn’t ready to be an impact player but the Coaches want to get him snaps to speed along his development. Sounds reasonable, right? Of course, that would (probably) leave the team with worse on-field performance in the near-term (this season).
Ideally Chip Kelly would rotate his players on defense to limit some of their wear and tear. The Eagles played more snaps on defense than any other team last year. They didn’t have the depth to rotate as much as they wanted. Players like Smith and Watkins and Taylor Hart and Beau Allen can help that situation. They don’t have to start or make lots of plays in order to help the defense.
Might be a valid point, and it’s one I’ll have to take a longer look at. To the extent the additions to the defense allow the 1s to play fewer, higher impact snaps, there could be an increase in overall performance. However, beyond Smith we’re talking about late-round draft picks. Over the long-term, most of these guys (late rd rookies in general, not just these specific players) will NOT contribute anything significant to the team. We know this. It’s possible the Eagles had a great draft and that each of these guys will see the field this season, but it’s NOT likely! The objectively reasonable assumption is that guys drafted from the 4th round and beyond will contribute, if at all, on Special Teams. I do think the Eagles STs will be much better this year than last. BUT, STs just don’t have a very large impact on games. They absolutely matter, but generally speaking, teams do not get a lot better just by improving on STs.
I get that the Eagles lost a star player in DeSean Jackson and didn’t replace him with an obvious star. That fact is going to skew the perception of some folks when it comes to the offseason discussion. I don’t know if Brent is in that camp and I don’t want to try and speak for him.
I’m not sure enough people appreciate the Foles angle in regard to DeSean Jackson. Foles doesn’t have a great arm and he’s not a consistently good vertical passer. Jackson had 3 catches that covered 50 or more yards from Foles. One was a short pass from Foles in the MIN game that Jackson turned into a big play with a long run after the catch. There was the 55-yard TD vs the Packers on a ball that was underthrown. Foles did make a pretty good throw for a 59-yard gain in the Oakland game.
Jackson is a dynamic deep receiver. Foles is not a dynamic deep passer. Jackson was still a good receiver for Foles and the Eagles last year, but his value becomes diminished because of the fit. You’re limiting what makes him special.
I don’t understand this line of argument. Again, see my posts on DeSean’s performance last season. He was spectacular last year. One of the best WRs in the league. That doesn’t mean getting rid of him was a bad idea, perhaps there’s a rational “scheme” or “chemistry” argument there. But that’s LONG-term thinking, not short-term. In the SHORT-term, i.e. next season, the Eagles offense has lost a dynamic weapon. There’s just no way around it. Repeating myself: This might be a long-term positive, but a short-term negative.
There is no denying that losing Jackson will affect the offense, but I think it won’t be nearly the same as if Vick or even McNabb was the QB. They were much better vertical passers. Foles excels on short and intermediate throws. This is where having a WR corps of Cooper, Maclin, Matthews and Huff should be fine. You lose some verticality, but gain some physicality.
As I said above, the offense will definitely be different. The question is: is the “physicality” more than enough to make up for the loss of “verticality”. Also, I don’t quite understand the QB argument. Foles and Jackson did great things last year. Yes, Foles is not the deep passer Vick is, but why does that matter? Foles is still the QB, and he did great things with Jackson last season. Maybe Tommy is saying the Eagles weren’t dependent on the deep game last year. That’s probably true (I need to check), but it doesn’t mean that losing it won’t hurt a lot. The WR corps certainly seems to “fit” Foles better, but just how many WRs/TEs can you really have running short routes? Someone has to go deep, regardless of the QB’s strengths, and Jackson was really good at that. Conversely, I don’t see the huge benefit of “physicality”, outside of perhaps the running game, which was already great.
I think the offense will still be very good (assuming OL stays healthy, another potential issue given age), but last year the offense was great. A small step backwards seems like a reasonable expectation.
It would have been great to see the Eagles land some major impact players this offseason, but the team didn’t miss out on anyone that I coveted. There was no Kearse or TO to go get. Brian Orakpo would have made the most sense, but he got tagged. I admit to being curious about DeMarcus Ware, but age and injuries have started to affect him. Darelle Revis would have been interesting, but I’m guessing Kelly didn’t want a “mercenary”. Revis wanted a 1-year deal so he could turn around and go for another mega-deal in 2015.
There were no slam dunk, can’t miss, gotta have him guys for the Eagles.
Agree completely. But the above explanation is also completely irrelevant. It perhaps explains why the Eagles didn’t make more significant additions. But it doesn’t mitigate the fact that they didn’t. Again, I don’t hate the offseason moves, I just don’t see them translating to big short-term benefits.
Another question some may have is at QB. If Foles gets hurt, can Mark Sanchez or Matt Barkley win games? That is a mystery. But it also would have been with Vick. He was an erratic player for the Eagles and lost his starting job last year. He didn’t want to return as a backup. I’m not worried about Sanchez or Barkley for a game or two. You can argue that having Vick would have helped if Foles went down long term, but then you have to acknowledge Vick’s biggest problem…getting hurt himself. He never stayed healthy for the Eagles and when he got dinged, his performance level dropped quite a bit.
I think Sanchez is a better acquisition than people realize. He failed in New York because the Jets saw him as a franchise QB, which I don’t, and because they failed to keep the right pieces around him. Sanchez has made some big plays in some big games. He’s just not a guy you build a team around. I think he can be a solid backup.
I like Sanchez less than Tommy does, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about next season, and Nick Foles was healthy (mostly) last season. I don’t think anyone would argue that if Foles misses significant time this year, the team will take a step backwards in performance, regardless of which backup plays. Health is always major risk factor, but I’ll have more on that later. The fact that the Eagles got such good QB play last season means they’re more likely to receive worse play this season! Foles’ expected regression is a HUGE issue that I’ll analyze later, but I’m very comfortable saying he will not duplicate his performance (he can play a lot worse and still be really good, though).
While the team may not have gotten the dramatic help many wanted, I do think it got better. I see the loss of Jackson and Jason Avant as a wash when you look at Maclin, Matthews, Huff and Sproles coming in. I realize I’m projecting with the rookies, but they have the size, skills and athleticism to help right away. They also have experience in a similar offense that makes the adjustment easier.
The defense didn’t lose any key players, but added a good FS, some CBs and an athletic OLB. How is that not an improvement?
Tommy’s is ignoring the fact that while some players will improve, others will get worse! I addressed the rookie WRs projection above. I agree that the defense got better, I just think it did so by a smaller amount than Tommy apparently believes.
Overall, what I’m seeing is: Moderate step back on offense, small step forward on defense, and an improvement (potentially large) on special teams.
If you’re stuck on Jackson, that’s fine. I disagree, but I get that.
Not “stuck” on Jackson, I’m done analyzing it as a strategic move. But if you’re comparing last year’s team to this year’s team, it’s impossible not to address Jackson. He’s the biggest piece either added or subtracted. I know people are tired of hearing about him, but he simply MUST factor into any year-over-year comparison or analysis.
I just think the team brought in too many talented players to think that it took a step back. That isn’t to say the Eagles might not go 9-7 this year or something like that. There are no guarantees when it comes to results. We saw that when the 2011 offseason happened and the Eagles added all the big names, but the team got worse.
If you’re asking me whether I like the 2013 roster better than the 2014 roster, no way. I’ll take the current group in a heartbeat. Kelly has brought in another set of players who fit his system and fit his football culture. They also happen to be pretty talented as well.
We’re much closer to agreement here than it might seem. For the long-term, I like this year’s roster better. For this season, though, I think there’s a significant chance of a step backwards, but that also relies on factors beyond the roster.
As I said above, most of these points need more unpacking and research, and I hope to do that over the next few weeks. The possibility for a step backwards is there, though. That doesn’t mean I hate Chip Kelly (I love Chip), or the direction of the team (I like it a lot). We’d be foolish, though, to drink so much Chip-flavored Kool Aid to believe he is infallible, or that EVERY one of his moves will work. They won’t, at least not quickly, and this year that could be a problem.