Eagles Bye Week Review

I desperately need a non-preview post, and with the Eagles heading into the post-bye week part of the schedule, now seems like a great time for a high level look at how this season is progressing.  Rather than attempt to follow a consistent thread, I’m just going to do bullets so that I can touch on everything I think is important and interesting about the season so far.

- Let’s first check in with my preseason projection.  My base-case had the Eagles scoring about 425 points and allowing 366, for an “expected” record of 9.6 wins.  At their current pace, the Eagles will score 488 points and allow 352.  So the defense is largely where we thought it would be.  The offense is pretty far ahead, though.  It’s important to note that the Eagles’ schedule gets tougher from here on out.  We’ll likely see the scoring rate (30.5 per game right now) decline and the points allowed rate (22 per game) go up.  Meanwhile, the current win projection has to be 10-11, meaning the Eagles are slightly ahead of where I thought they’d be.

Blue Chips Watch – The most important part of the season.  Do the Eagles have any players that can truly be considered “Blue-Chip” or “top-tier” talents?  The answer to that question is a bit mixed.  First, the good news:

Fletcher Cox has become the player we all hoped he’d be.  I was worried about the transition to the 3-4, and the adjustment did take some time.  However, Cox now looks comfortable in his new role and has been a very disruptive player this year.  Here are the Top 15 Defensive Ends by Expected Points Added Per Game (from advancedfootballanalytics.com).

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First, I have to mention JJ Watt.  If you’re not watching this guy play, you’re missing out on something special.  It’s really tough to project really high-level play into the future, but I’m completely comfortable saying that JJ Watt is currently playing about as well as any defensive player EVER.

Notice who is #2 on that list, though.  Fletcher Cox has had a very big impact this season. That’s a great sign for the Eagles’ future.  The team needs a few cornerstone players, and Cox is playing like one.

One more note about that chart.   Check out #12.  Cedric Thornton has pretty quietly become a really good player.  Maybe it won’t last and maybe he’s just taking advantage of favorable match-ups as a result of the attention Cox draws.  But, he’s also 26 years old and in just his 3rd season.  I mentioned pre-season that the Eagles have to hope for a “surprise” impact player to emerge.  Thornton isn’t quite there yet, but he’s certainly worth keeping a close eye on.

The rest of the “Blue Chip” breakdown isn’t as positive.  Kendricks looked really good to start the season, but his injury prevented us from seeing if that was actual growth or a short-term performance bump.  Lane Johnson had his suspension, and two games isn’t enough of a sample to make any large judgments.  Brandon Boykin seems to have pissed off somebody behind the scenes, because his usage rates don’t match up to his apparent skill level relative to other players on the team (he’s been playing about 1/3 of the snaps, basically only in the nickel package).  With Chip Kelly’s “culture” focus, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some friction between Boykin and the coaches.  In any case, it’s a big disappointment to not see him on the field more.

Marcus Smith has been a non-factor.  That’s not a surprise, but it certainly doesn’t do much to quiet those who pegged him as a big “reach” in the draft.

Jordan Matthews has 23 catches and 226 yards receiving.  That doesn’t sound exciting, but remember that rookie WRs rarely make significant contributions.  This year’s class is a very strong one, with Kelvin Benjamin and DeAndre Hopkins making a big impact so far.  We shouldn’t let that overshadow the fact that Matthews performance thus far is a good indicator for next year and beyond.

Zach Ertz has been underwhelming in terms of raw stats, but I think that’s due to factors outside of his control.  He may need to improve his blocking ability in general, but with the O-Line injuries, it’s no surprise Chip has leaned more heavily on Brent Celek than I was expecting pre-season.  Still, Ertz ranks 12th among TEs in receiving yards (20th in targets).    His 61.3% catch rate isn’t good, but that’s largely due to Foles’ accuracy issues.   Meanwhile, he ranks FIRST in the league in Win Probability Added and 8th in Expected Points Added Per Play.  In other words, Ertz is still very much on pace to be a high-impact TE, assuming Celek doesn’t play forever and Chip starts to trust Ertz in the run game.

Don’t jump ship on Nick Foles just yet.  Nick Foles is not having nearly as good a year as he did last season.  But we knew that would happen.  Several of his statistics from last season were undeniably unsustainable.  As a result, I think he’s suffering by comparison.  For example, Nick Foles’ interception rate this year is 3.0%.  That’s not good.  It’s also not catastrophic.  Andrew Luck’s Int rate this ear is 2.3%.  Given Foles’ history, I expect that rate to come down.  If he can lower it by 1% (one fewer INT every 100 throws), he’ll be right in line with the best starting QBs in the league.

Meanwhile, everyone who was complaining that Foles took too many sacks last year is now yelling at him for throwing too many picks, apparently ignorant of the fact that they two might be linked.  While Foles’ interception rate has jumped this season, his sack rate has declined from 8.1% to 2.9%.  This year’s O-line also hasn’t been as good.  It’s entirely possible that Foles has been trying to limit his sacks by throwing the ball in areas he would have avoided last season.  Hopefully there’s a better balance to be struck, but we can’t ignore the fact that Foles has dramatically improved an area of the game most people were not satisfied with.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the biggest difference between Foles last year and this year is his TD Rate.  Last season, Foles threw TDs on 8.5% of his throws, the highest mark in the league.  This season, he has thrown TDs at a rate of just 4.2%.  Forget the interceptions, THIS is the real difference.  Relatedly, his Average Net Yards per Attempt has dropped from a league-leading 9.18 to 5.98.

Now….what in the world could be the cause of such a decline?

Let’s tip-toe into this one.

On deep throws this year, Foles is 15 of 48 (31%) with 7 TDs, 4 INTs, and 2 drops.  He’s attempting deep throws on 20.3% of his passes (all from profootballfocus.)

Last season, Foles was 25 of 55 (45%) with 14 TDs, 1 INT, and 0 drops.  He attempted deep throws on 17% of his passes.

That’s the difference between last year and this one for Foles.  The deep passing game hasn’t been nearly as effective.  Note that despite worse results, he’s actually attempting such passes MORE often.  Yes, the causality might run the other way, but the basic takeaway is the same.  For some reason, the Eagles deep passing game this year is not nearly as effective as it was last year.

Oh, by the way, the Eagles released the league’s premier deep threat in the offseason.  Again, this is not a judgment of that decision.  I really don’t want to argue about DeSean Jackson anymore (besides, I think I’ve definitively won the argument already).  However, if you’re going to be hard on Foles, you have to at least try to account for the fact that his receiving corps this year is nowhere near as good as it was last season.  Not only is Jackson gone, but Riley Cooper isn’t the same player he was last season.

The upshot, of course, is that Nick Foles needs to play a bit better, but we might also just be seeing the effects of a subpar receiving corps.  That’s a very fixable problem, at least over the long term.

So, on perhaps the most important Eagles question of the year, “is Nick Foles an answer?”, I’m advocating for a measured approach.  Foles needs to dial back the interceptions a bit, but the rest of his game isn’t nearly as bad is it seems.  Much of the decline can be attributed to the decline in the WR talent.  Additionally, the lack of the run game hasn’t helped.  Last season, teams were loading up the box on McCoy nearly every play, leaving a lot of room for Foles to take clear shots downfield.  That’s not happening as much this year.  Watch closely as Kelce and Mathis return.  If McCoy really is healthy, I think we’ll see a pretty big jump in Foles’ passing performance once those guys get back. Foles isn’t the type of QB who is going to win the game by himself, but I still believe he’s good enough to win consistently when he has a little help.

Let’s also not forget that the team is 5-1.

That’s all for now.  I’ll post my odds breakdown article tomorrow, but the short story is: if Darren Sproles plays, I see a narrow Eagles victory.  If he doesn’t, a narrow loss.  In any case, the teams appear to be pretty evenly matched, so a single big play could swing the outcome.

Season Overview

It’s finally here.  The season starts in less than 48 hours, which means it’s just about the last chance I’ll get to set expectations for the season before we start getting actual data.  I still plan to release a Points For/Points Against “true” win forecast before Sunday at 1 pm, but today I wanted to take a much broader perspective.

Above all else, I wanted to stress the following:

This is just season 2 of what looks to be a 3-4 year roster construction phase.

 Yes, it’d be nice to see the Eagles do really well this season, but I’m much more interested in the long-term development of the team.  With Chip Kelly, it’s possible the Eagles can become a perennial contender.  It’s also possible that he’ll flame out more quickly than anyone expects.  In that sense, there are much more important things to watch for than just the win/loss record this season.

With that, let’s run through a few of the things I’ll be watching closely:

Blue Chips – This might be the most important aspect of this season.  Put simply, the Eagles will not grow into a consistent SB threat unless they develop a few true “star” players.  Moreover, signing star players is a very difficult way to go.  First, you’ve got the winner’s curse, which means you will nearly always overpay in free agency.  Second, free agents don’t always fit nearly as well as you think they will (cough…Nnamdi…cough….puke).  High-level talent is a prerequisite for winning a Super Bowl, and drafting a player and developing him within your system remains the best way to source high-level talent.

So…do the Eagles have any?

Well McCoy obviously fits the bill.  The concern here is whether anyone else will develop quickly enough to overlap with Shady’s “prime”.  As I’ve demonstrated a number of times, top-level NFL talent comes almost exclusively from the 1st and 2nd round of the draft.  Here are the recent Eagles picks from those rounds:

2014: Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews

2013: Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz

2012: Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks

2011: Danny Watkins, Jaiqwuan Jarrett (oh god)

It doesn’t make much sense to go farther back than that (not that it’d help anyway), since players who’ve been in the league since 2010 are most likely hitting their peak and so should already be stars if they’re that good.  McCoy clearly is.  I guess it’s possible  Jeremy Maclin can become a star, but I’m very skeptical.

From above, we’re really left with six players to depend on.  I was a big believer in Cox, but the transition to a 3-4 defense may have robbed him of his chance at high-impact status. Kendricks flashes star ability, but consistency is a huge problem (as is his tackling).  Johnson – same story (plus he’s suspended).  The other guys are too young to really judge.  Beyond these guys, I it’s worth adding Foles and Boykin to the mix as well.  Similar to the others, each appears to have the ability to be a true impact player, but we’re really far from being able to depend on it.

That’s why this year is so important.  If you could only look for one thing this season, it should be the development of this core group.  If a few of them become stars, the future is very bright.  If not, the Eagles ceiling might be much lower than any of us are hoping for.

Nick Foles

I mentioned him above, but he deserves his own section.  We don’t know how good/bad Nick Foles really is.  Last season was amazing.  It was so good, in fact, that it suggests the odds of Foles being a “fluke” are quite low.  League-average looks to be the floor.  Of course, league-average isn’t going to get anyone excited.  After this season, we’ll have a big enough sample to start making some conclusions regarding Foles’ ability.  In every sense of the phrase, this really is a “make or break year” for Nick.

Specifically, pay close attention to his ability to push the ball downfield.  Last season, Foles benefitted tremendously from the attention Shady drew.  Foles’ Play-Action numbers, in particular, were off the charts.  For the Eagles to be effective, Foles must continue making defenses pay for loading up against McCoy.  This is why losing DeSean Jackson is such a big deal.  If the Eagles can’t take advantage of the attention McCoy draws, things will go downhill very quickly.

Cody Parkey

This is a relatively minor issue in terms of actual impact, but a huge issue in terms of my sanity.  Remember David Akers?  Wasn’t it nice to never have to worry about the kicker?  Every kicker is going to miss field goals every once in a while, but being nervous for every single kick just isn’t healthy.  I’m glad Henery is gone, it’s time to try someone new.  However, I harbor no illusions that the Eagles have already solved their kicking issues.  The field goals are obvious; you don’t need me to tell you to pay attention to those.  Do look for the distance though.  Henery is not a very strong kicker, and was therefore rarely trusted with a 50+ yard kick.  In a perverse way, this may have actually forced the Eagles to make the correct decision (going for it instead of kicking) more often than they otherwise would.  Or maybe Chip knows the math.  Parkey’s usage will go a long way towards answering that question.

Less obvious are the touchbacks.  Casual fans don’t pay much attention to them, but they’re important, especially with a defense that still has a lot of weaknesses.  If Parkey can kick the ball through the end zone, he’ll already be giving the Eagles a boost.

Chip Kelly

One of the reasons Chip Kelly was such a risky hire was his complete lack of NFL experience.  As with any other position, we should expect a learning curve at Coach, especially for someone with no previous time in the league.  So, beyond watching the actual players for improvement, we should also be watching Chip.  It’s a bit tougher to judge, but things like TO usage, game clock management, 4th down decision-making, etc., are all easily quantified and/or analyzed.  He did some very good things last year, but has plenty of room to improve in each of the areas I mentioned, as well as in others I didn’t.  Unfortunately, projecting a coach to improve isn’t nearly as easy as projecting a player to improve.  As all Eagles fans know, just having experience doesn’t mean you’ll get better at managing the clock (this is, actually, a shocking feature of the NFL and coaching in general).  My hope is that when Chip looks around for areas in which to get an edge over other teams, he’ll include himself.

Health

This ties into the last point above (segue!): the Eagles were a very healthy team last year.  History says that’s mostly luck.  Chip, though, has taken a much greater interest in the nutrition/conditioning side of the game.  Hence, it’s reasonable to believe that the Eagles are more likely to remain healthy (relative to other teams) than pure luck would suggest.  If that’s the case, it’s a very big advantage.  Tremendous parity in the league means one or two injuries really can make the difference between winning a division/making a playoff run and missing the playoffs entirely.

This is especially true for the Eagles.  Depth is much improved over last year, but there are still some glaring holes, at least from my point of view.  In particular, I worry about the LBs and the Ss.  If Ryans or Barwin goes down, for example, how confident are you in Najee Goode or Marcus Smith to fill in?  The answer is not very.  Similarly, many fans are banking on Malcolm Jenkins to make a big impact in the secondary.  Beyond the fact that he’s not as good as his fame would suggest, if he goes down we’re looking at Chris Maragos?  Did you even know he was on the team?  If any of these backups have to play significant time, the hoped-for improvement in the Eagles defense will be much less likely to occur.

Conversely, if the Eagles have another relatively healthy year, then we can start ascribing more credit (slowly) to Chip Kelly’s #sportsscience.

That’s All

Those are the long-term keys to watch this season.  Once things get going, it becomes much harder to take the long-view, which is why I highlight these issues now.  Just remember, the Eagles are not really a SB contender right now.  Granted, even mediocre teams can win (see NY Giants…), but the fact is the Eagles are still very much a developing team, and likely not ready to mount a strong challenge for the Super Bowl.  I’m much more interested in a sustained run of high-performance (like the Andy Reid era) than I am in a 3 year supernova of Chip Kelly madness followed by another restart.

Notes on Nick Foles

Been swamped the past few days, hence the lateness of this post.  I originally intended to just post my normal post-game notes, but I think at this point everyone has already read enough about that game.  It was awesome, encouraging, etc.., but it was also against the Raiders, so let’s try to contain ourselves just a bit.

I do, though, want to talk more about Nick Foles (of course).  A few points:

- First, I promised to update this chart (Foles’ rating by game), so here it is:

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You can come to your own conclusions.  Remember, I only included games in which Foles threw at least 10 passes.

- Nick Foles DID play last year.  In some of the write-ups about him that I’ve seen, its as though the kid’s first action came this season.  It didn’t.  He played in 7 games last year and had 265 pass attempts.  He finished with a QB Rating of 79.1, which as I’ve showed, is VERY good for a rookie.  He did benefit from some dropped interceptions, so have to discount the rating, but he ALSO played behind a bad O-Line and, at times, didn’t have his best “weapons”.

So it’s not as if his performance over the past few weeks came out of nowhere (both good and bad).  Over the entire offseason, I tried to emphasize that Foles’ performance as a rookie was strong, and while he wasn’t (and still isn’t) the definite “answer”, his play certainly should have earned him a chance to start.

- What exactly are Foles’ strengths and weaknesses?  Coming into this year, I thought we had Foles pegged.  He showed good pocket awareness and was very accurate on the short-intermediate throws.  The big question marks involved his arm strength.  He struggled a bit on sideline throws and while he was able to get the ball downfield, his accuracy on those throws was poor.

Well….the past two starts for Foles have completely undercut those assumptions.  Against Dallas, his short-throw accuracy was terrible and his awareness was severely lacking.  Conversely, against the Raiders, he clearly demonstrated an ability to not only push the ball downfield on deep throws, but to do so with good accuracy.  I mentioned at the end of last year and over the offseason that the deep-throw accuracy was something he SHOULD be able to improve upon, whether through better technique or actual strength-training.  It’s possible what we saw against the Raiders was an outgrowth of that type of improvement.

Overall, we essentially have to completely rebuild our assumptions about him.  Barring another Cowboys-like performance, I’d be surprised if Foles didn’t start the rest of the way, so we should get plenty of chances to refine our expectations, but for now we’re back to square one.  Theoretically, he CAN do everything (except run fast).  But we need to know which parts of his game are consistent enough to be called “strengths” and which ones are inconsistent enough to be called “weaknesses”.

- How does he stack up when compared to other notable QBs?  I wanted to do a full post on this, but it looks like ChipWagon beat me to it, at least partially.  However, let me take an abbreviated crack at it.  Here is Nick Foles, in comparison to notable quarterbacks over similar Pass Attempt samples to start their careers.  Note, this is by no means a representative sample.  I picked QBs who are both successful and had a similar number of attempts their first year in the league (so I didn’t have to calculate).  Big note here is that Foles’ numbers are over parts of the first 2 seasons, whereas the rest came from 1 season (I did include the 3 attempts Brady had his rookie season).

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So…yeah, pretty good.  The interception rate in particular is phenomenal.  Remember that Foles benefited from a relatively high number of dropped INTs last year.  However, this year I don’t recall seeing many, though I haven’t seen the actual count from Football Outsiders (I don’t think it’s available until year-end, if I’m wrong about this please tell me).  Also, despite Foles famous lack of speed, his sack rate is either better or comparable to every player in that table other than Matt Ryan.  To beat a dead horse, POCKET mobility and awareness is much more important that straight line speed or rushing ability.

The biggest caveat, of course, is that we’re looking at these numbers after perhaps the greatest statistical performance by a QB in the history of the NFL.  That’s  a bad time to do it, but I didn’t want to wait.  To rectify, I’ll update Foles’ numbers after this week and maybe each week from here on so we can get a continuing look at how he stacks up.

Pre-Season Review

The final preseason game has been played, roster cuts are finalized, and barring any last-minute surprises, the team we see now is the team we’ll see on opening night,  Consequently, it’s a good time to review the preseason.  Basically, I’m looking at what units/players surprised and disappointed and how that might affect the overall team’s performance.  I’ll start with what I felt were the biggest surprises.

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Special Teams – Terrible last year, this unit looks to be SIGNIFICANTLY improved.  The kick/punt coverage looks like it could actually be a STRENGTH of the team, though we’ll need to see the regular season play before we know that.  Regardless, I’m now confident it will be much better than last year.   Similarly, the return game looks solid.  Remember that for the Eagles, just getting league-average play from this unit would be a big improvement. As a reminder, here is Football Outsiders’ Special Teams Rankings from last season:

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Click to enlarge if you want.  I’ve highlighted the Eagles in green.  I’ve also highlighted two specific measures, “Punt” and “Hidden Pts”, by bolding them in red.  Both of these stand out as the 2012 Eagles’ biggest ST weaknesses.  The “Punt” category is self-explanatory, and we’ve seen significant improvement in the preseason.  The “Hidden Pts” measure refers to elements of the game that are outside the Eagles’ control.  So things like opponents’ field goal %, opposing kick distance, etc… That category is likely to improve as well.

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Defensive Line

Throughout the preseason, the defensive line looked a lot stronger than I thought it would be.  Perhaps I had lower expectation than everyone else, but I did not think the team would make the 3-4 transition as well as it has along the line.  We knew Cox would be good (despite some early issues), but beyond that, there were a lot of question marks.  Now, aside from Sopoaga, I’m legitimately happy with the overall group.  In fact, I think it’s the deepest unit on the team.

Vinny Curry still confuses me; he’s consistently disruptive but the coaches didn’t seem to even consider elevating him on the depth chart.  He must not be doing something he’s being asked to, but that’s hard to see on the tape.

Bennie Logan, if you recall, was the Eagles draft pick I liked the least.  From all accounts, it seemed like the Eagles chose him almost a full round early.  However, he’s definitely showed signs of being a valuable contributor.   I don’t know if he can hold up as the starting NT over a full season, but if he can, he’ll supplant Sopoaga by the end of the year.

Regarding Sopoaga, I’d like to remind everyone that he is exactly as we expected him to be.  HE WAS NOT GOOD LAST YEAR.  We knew this.  Nobody should be surprised by his underwhelming play.  However, the team was converting to the 3-4 and it was imperative that they added someone with NT experience.  That’s what they got.  I’ve seen some speculation that he’s “saving it” for the regular season, but that seems like wishful thinking to me.  At best, he’s a mediocre NT.  Rather than be disappointed by that, remember that he’s just a place-holder until the team can fill his role permanently (maybe with Logan).

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Starting Linebackers

Again, we’re talking about performance relative to expectations.  Essentially, I expected very little from this group.  Barwin was a “big” addition, but is recent play didn’t seem to match his reputation.  He’s looked good, and should provide at least competent play at the OLB position.  Mychal Kendricks might be the team’s biggest potential “surprise” this year.  We all saw his potential last year; at times, he looked GREAT.  However, he also struggled with poor tackling.  Shifting to the 3-4, he’s now moved to the ILB role.  As of right now, it looks like it suits him pretty well.  Depending on how the D-Line plays, I think Kendricks can be an EXCELLENT pass-rusher/blitzer.  Outside of Cox, Kendricks has the most “upside” of any defensive player on the team, and nothing he did this preseason has changed that analysis.

The Cole/Graham experiment has worked out about as well as everyone thought it would.    Both guys can be passable OLBs.  However, given Graham’s potential as a pass-rusher, I still believe his “future” lies with a 4-3 team.  He’ll be a valuable DE in Nickel situations, but I just don’t see him playing a big role in the team’s OLB plans beyond this year.  Trent Cole, by virtue of his age, doesn’t really have a “long-term”.  He’s in a similar situation to Graham, in that his best use is clearly as a 4-3 DE.  The good news is that attempting to shift both from DE to OLB could have been a DISASTER.  The preseason dispelled some of those concerns.

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Offensive Line

I don’t think this unit is getting enough press for underwhelming play.  To be clear, they’ve been mostly GOOD, and nothing to be concerned about.  HOWEVER, I thought this would be a real strength of the team.  Getting Jason Peters back healthy, adding a top 5 OT in the draft, and moving Herremans back to guard all seemed like very positive moves.  All told, I thought we might be looking at one of the best OLs in the league, depending on how well Lane Johnson played.  I think it’s time to ratchet those expectations back a bit.

Peters didn’t play much in the preseason, so he’s got the most “uncertainty” regarding his expected level of play.  Still, I think everyone might be putting too much weight into his 2011 performance.  He was DOMINANT, especially in the run game.  Is it possible that a ruptured Achilles tendon robbed him of some of his explosiveness?  Absolutely.  I still expect a very good year from him, but it’s dawned on me that expecting him to again be among the best OTs in the game may be too optimistic.  Hopefully I’m wrong, and he’s just gearing up for the regular season, but it’s possible.

The Herremans/Kelce combo is a larger concern.  Everyone seems to remember Kelce as a very good center, but in fact, his rookie season was fairly inconsistent.  He certainly showed the ability to be consistently good, but I think his “rep” surpassed his actual play.  Similarly, Herremans at G was expected to be VERY GOOD, not just solid.

Lane Johnson is too tough to evaluate at this point, but he looks to be playing in-line with expectations.  He’s going to look great at times, and struggle every now and then as he adjusts to the NFL.

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The TEs (really Chip Kelly’s use of them).

This might be premature, since it’s likely that Chip Kelly hasn’t even come close to revealing his main playbook.  However, I have to say I was disappointed by the overall use of the TEs throughout the preseason.  I expected that to be a focal point of the offense, and it wasn’t. I really liked seeing Harbor/Ertz lined up in the slot (and targeted), but it just didn’t happen as often as I thought it would.  Ertz, in particular, seemed underutilized in the passing game (6 catches total), though it was hard to tell if that was based on coverage or play-design.

On the other hand, Celek looks good, and could finally put up statistics that match his purported “ability”.  With D-Jax on the outside and a heavy rushing attack with Shady/Brown, I doubt many defenses will be able to pay much attention to Celek.

Finally:

Just 7 Days until Game #1…

Preseason Game #3: What you should REALLY be watching for…

The third preseason game is tomorrow night.  It’s standard at this point for Eagles commentators/beat writers/bloggers to put up a “what I’m watching” post, and I’m no different.  I will say, however, that I tend to look at things a bit differently.  For example, at Birds 24/7, Tim McManus is watching:

- Kenny Phillips

- Cole/Graham

- Watkins

- Herremans

- Russell Shepard

Click the link to see his rationale, but none of those strike me as particularly meaningful, though they’re all of some interest.

Defensive Line, especially Logan/Curry

So far, the defensive line is FAR ahead of where I (and most others) expected them to be.  Preseason performance obviously has to be discounted, but there’s no doubt the group looks stronger than I thought they’d be.  Of note here are Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry.  Both players have shown signs of being very good players in this defense.  However, both have also been predominantly matched up against backups.  I want to see what they do when playing against #1s.

Logan, in particular, is an important piece, by virtue of Sopoaga playing in front of him.  Sopoaga isn’t exactly a world-beater at NT, and isn’t likely to produce anything beyond mediocre play.  Every team needs some draft luck in order to contend, and hitting on a 3rd round NT would certainly qualify.  If Logan can contribute, it eliminates a big hole in the defensive roster.

Rumor has it both Logan and Curry will rotate in early tomorrow night.  If we’re talking long-term (and we should be), that’s the biggest thing to watch.  Can either player be a significant contributor?

Nate Allen

It’s looking more likely that Nate Allen will be starting for the Eagles this year, at least in Game 1.  The question here is, can he be average?  With what is expected to be a very good offense, the Eagles don’t need a GREAT defense, just a passable one.  Last year, the team’s Safety play was horrendous.  Missed tackles and bad angles against the run and broken coverage in the pass game.  I’m confident that Patrick Chung (while he’s healthy) will provide solid, if unspectacular, play.  If Nate Allen can do the same, the Eagles will have filled the biggest hole on the team.

Michael Vick

Now that he’s the unquestioned starter, I hope to see a better representation of Chip’s playbook.  We won’t get it all (he’ll save a lot for the regular season), but we should get a much better feel for how the offense will function.  Beyond that, I’m looking for one thing from Vick:  Can he hit throw the bubble screen accurately?  So far, it looks like the WR screen will be a foundation of the offense.  However, it’s not as easy a throw to make as it looks.  To be successful, the ball has to be delivered quickly and with precise accuracy.  If the throw ends up on the WR’s back shoulder, it essentially ruins the play.  With DeSean especially, it can mean the difference between a huge gain and a negative play.

TEs in the Slot

There might not be an area of this offense I’m more excited about.  With the TEs the Eagles have, specifically Clay Harbor and Zach Ertz, this should be a consistent source of positive match-ups.  I want to see a lot of it.  At the highest level, it forces the defense to change its personnel.  Normally, the defense would be in a Nickel alignment, with 3 CBs to cover the offense’s 3 WRs.  However, a CB won’t be able to consistently cover Harbor/Ertz.

There are a few options for the defense, but none of them are that attractive.  It also plays to both Harbor and Ertz’s strengths, namely the Size/Athleticism combination.

Health Insurance

I’m not overly concerned with the bottom of the roster.  It’s obviously important for the players, but for the team’s overall performance, the last few spots on the roster aren’t going to matter much.  However, I want to remind everyone that a few of the Eagles’ offseason additions and presumed starters must still be considered injury risks.  Specifically:

- Patrick Chung.  He’s missed 14 games over the past 3 seasons.  In all likelihood, he won’t play 16 games this year.  Someone has to be able to step in and provide adequate play.  I’m not sure that person is on the roster.

- Bradley Fletcher. He played all 16 games last year and in 2010, so I’m more confident in him than I am in Chung.  Let’s not forget that he’s torn the ACL in his right knee TWICE (as well as the MCL once).  The Eagles aren’t exactly deep at CB.

Therefore, if you want to watch what’s really important during the second half of the game, keep your eyes on the DBs.  It was the team’s biggest weakness last year, and while it should improve based on the current starters, there’s very little depth.  If the wheels are going to come off this year, it’ll likely have something to do with this position group.

Whether its Wolff, Coleman, Phillips (not likely), Whitley, Lindley, etc… doesn’t really matter.  The Eagles just need SOMEBODY that can step in and deliver non-catastrophic play.

 

Quick Thoughts on Vick

Much of what needs to be said about Vick as the starting QB has been.  I just wanted to add a few things to the discussion:

- I thought Foles was the better choice, but that’s because I’m more concerned with the long-term than near-term.   No doubt Vick earned the spot, and I think he’ll perform well.

- However, keep Vick’s skill/ability in perspective.  If he plays like he has over the majority of his career, this could be a shorter stint than many realize.  Kelly won’t put up with poor decisions and inaccuracy when he has a backup QB he has confidence in.

- In that vein, the obvious question is: How long is Vick’s leash?  Kelly said Vick doesn’t need to “look over his shoulder”, but frankly, I don’t see how that’s possible.  The world now knows that Foles has some ability and can play in this offense.  If the Eagles drop 3-4 games in a row (maybe that Denver, NYG, Tampa away game stretch?), will Kelly still be as confident?

Almost by definition, selecting Vick is a choice of “Win Now” over “Develop for the future”. Therefore, if the team is around .500 and Vick falters a bit, how do you not pull him for Foles?  You’ve already stated you’re trying to win this year.

Basically, the pressure is on Vick to play very well.  However, if he plays to his long-term averages, I think we’ll see Foles get a shot.

- The key to Vick playing very well?  For me, it comes down to two things, which I’ll be watching closely for every game.  (Health is a given, but it’s not something Vick really controls)

1) Patience.  Does Vick have the discipline to consistently take 5-6 yard gains?  Put another way, can Vick consistently lead TD drives that don’t involve 20+ yard passes?  I hope so, but I’m skeptical.  His entire career has suggested he looks for the big play first, the smart play second.

2) Short throw accuracy.  Can Vick consistently put the ball exactly where it needs to be, hitting receivers in stride?  Yards after catch figures to be vital in this offense.  “Catchable” is not good enough.  I anticipate seeing a lot of WR screens and slants.  Those will fail if not delivered perfectly.

- What about the rest of the offense?

This is good for DeSean and Shady.  Vick’s deep throw ability is his clearest advantage over Foles.  As a result, DeSean will likely be much better off with Vick at QB.  Any time the defense wants to stack the box (for instance with a multi-TE set), DeSean will have an opportunity for a home-run, which Vick will undoubtedly be happy to throw.

Conversely, the presence of the deep threat (Vick-DeSean combo) will stop defenses from consistently bring safeties down to the LOS.  That should give Shady the space he needs to get past the first level, at which point he’s more dangerous than any back in the league. The one area this might hurt Shady is in the passing game.  I think Foles would be better at throwing to Shady out of the backfield.  Naturally, that’s a secondary option, so the tradeoff is still overwhelmingly positive for Shady.

This is bad for the O-Line, the TEs, and Damaris (if he gets playing time).  Perhaps Vick’s worst attribute is his inability to intelligently navigate the pocket.  He’s too quick to roll out, which is extremely harmful to the OLs ability to block.  The short drops should help, but that assumes Vick will actually deliver the ball on-time.  His history suggests he’ll be prone to holding the ball after the 3-step drop, looking for a downfield option.  Vick creates a lot of sacks, and is unquestionably harder to pass-protect than Foles.

The TEs and Damaris figure to be hurt as well.  This goes back to the “ball-in-stride” point. I have no idea how much playing time Damaris will get, but I hope it’s a lot.  His game, though, requires pinpoint accuracy from the QB.  If he has to hesitate or break momentum to catch the pass, it negates his best attribute (his quickness).   It’s a similar story for the TEs, though probably not as big of a difference from Vick to Foles.

One could argue that Vick’s deep throw ability and his ability to draw a defensive spy will give the TEs more space to work with than they’d have with Foles.  That’s positive.  On the other hand, the TEs are worse than WRs at both catching the ball and adjusting their speed/routes.  Vick’s combination of inaccuracy and power (he throws the ball very fast) will likely lead to more difficult catches for the TEs than they’d have with Foles at QB.

- Lastly, if you were a backup QB and could hand-pick any NFL starter to sit behind, Vick would be high on the list.  “Staying healthy” for Vick means playing 14-15 games.  In all likelihood, Foles will get a chance to start a game or two this season, at which point we’ll really be able to tell how different the offense is with each QB (we haven’t seen anything close to the whole playbook yet).

 

Preseason Focus

I was hoping to do a full All-22 Rewind (like I did for each game last season) for the 1st preseason game.  I’ve got some new ideas regarding format that I wanted to try and I was anxious to see a few of the younger players on tape.  However, apparently the NFL Game Rewind subscription does NOT include All-22 film for preseason games.  As you can imagine, that throws a fairly large wrench into my preseason plans.  As a result, until the regular season, I won’t be able to post play or player diagrams.  If any of you know an alternate source of All-22 film, please let me know.

In light of that, here is a quick review of the first preseason game.  First, though, I want to remind everyone of the overall goals for this season.

Goals for 2013

- Install the offense and prove that it can work.

- Install the new defensive scheme.

- Fix the special teams, ideally bringing the unit at least close to league average.

- Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

That’s really it.  Obviously the goal is also to win, but considering how bad the team was last season and the fact that there is a new coach and entirely new system to install, this season’s main purpose is as a stepping stone to future success.  This is the filter through which I’m viewing the preseason.  I encourage everyone else to do the same.

So…Preseason game 1, through the lens that I just described:

Install the offense and prove that it can work.

The Eagles were successful with both Vick and Foles at the helm on Friday.  Not only that, but we also saw perhaps the perfect distillation of the QB battle overall.  Vick led a very quick TD drive, built around 2 great throws, one to Avant and the other the bomb to DeSean.  That’s the explosiveness and deep-throw ability that has tantalized coaches since Vick entered the league.  We saw a bit of the option game, but not enough to get a great feel for how it will be run.

Foles, on the other hand, also looked great, though in a much different way.  The first drive turnover was obviously a low-light.  Remember that Foles knows he’s in an intense QB battle, and likely sees himself as slightly behind.  Therefore, throughout the preseason, I expect to see Foles “force” things more often than we saw last season.  The first turnover was a prime example.  The protection broke down (most of the blame lies here), at which point Foles has to either hit a check-down/someone’s feet or pull the ball down and take a sack.  He did neither, and fumbled.

The next drive though, was as perfect a view of the “Foles Offense” as the first scoring drive was of the “Vick Offense”.  More methodical, more first downs.  Reliant on short-to-intermediate throws.  Foles was very accurate on this drive, especially his throw to Avant on the 3rd down out.  I’m not sure Vick makes that play.  The ball was delivered in-stride, allowing Avant to turn upfield and get the first down.  I think this will be a VERY important aspect of Chip Kelly’s offense, and Vick does not do this particularly well.

Overall, it was a positive night for the offense.  We did not see anything close to the full “system”, but both QBs looked comfortable, and the O-Line looked decent, especially considering Jason Peters (the best OL) did not play.  Add a healthy LeSean into the mix, and this “goal” looks very achievable.

- Install the new defensive scheme

This side of the ball didn’t go so well.  However, I think many are overreacting.  Having your first test in a completely new defense against Tom Brady is not exactly an ideal measure of progress.  There are a lot of players (in the front 7) changing positions, meaning this will likely take longer to install than the offense.

Also, we can’t overlook the fact that NOT EVERY PLAYER IS GOING TO WORK OUT.  Shifting from the 4-3 to the 3-4, we can expect that at least a few players will not make the change successfully.  This year, hopefully this preseason, is about identifying which players can’t make the switch so that they can be replaced.

So, don’t be disappointed if the defense looks like crap for a few weeks (and possibly for this season).  In fact, expecting anything better than league average this year is way too optimistic.  This is the defensive progression:

Terrible —> Bad —> Mediocre —> Solid, if unspectacular —> Good —-> Great

After last season, we’re just looking for at least “Bad”.

- Fix the Special Teams

Looking good on this account.  Still some weakness obviously, but very encouraging.  The punt coverage/return looked at least competent, which is a HUGE improvement over last year.

Remember that the Eagles had, by far, the WORST net starting field position in the league last year.  That was partially due to turnovers, but was also largely the side effect of terrible special teams.  Fixing this unit will, by itself, help both the offense and defense A LOT.

On the offensive side of the ball, in 2012 the Eagles were actually about average in terms of yards/drive.  The problem was that the team started farther back than everyone else.

It won’t be as popular, and I don’t expect to see beat writers focusing on it, but bring the STs up to average would be a major accomplishment for this year.

- Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

Lastly, we have what may actually be the most important long-term goal.  Basically, the Eagles have a lot of holes/question marks right now.  Some of these are being filled by older players who will not be here much longer (Trent Cole?).  The team needs to start filling positions with players who can hold their spots for at least 4-5 years.  Once those “core pieces” are identified, it becomes much easier to improve the roster, simply because there is something to build from.

So, the guys who are MOST IMPORTANT to the Eagles long-term future are:

Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, Mychal Kendricks, Bennie Logan, Jason Kelce, Brandon Boykin, Vinny Curry, etc…

Lane Johnson and Fletcher Cox stand out as perhaps the biggest “pieces”.  The Eagles really need both of these guys to be stars.  I’ve been very surprised at the lack of attention Johnson has drawn.  Considering he was the 4th OVERALL pick, you’d think Eagles fans would be all over him.  As I have shown before, it’s near impossible to become a title contender in the NFL if you don’t hit on your 1st round picks, ESPECIALLY if those picks are in the top 5.

Without the All-22, it’s tough to do a fair evaluation, but:

Lane Johnson looked promising.  Given what we heard pre-draft, I was mainly looking for how “comfortable” he is.  He did not look lost, which is a big plus.

Zach Ertz was mixed, but we should have expected that.  Good receiver, suspect blocker. If I were Chip, I’d think about essentially making Ertz a WR this year.  Teach him how to block during practice and put him on the line occasionally during non-competitive games.  In the meantime, use him out wide to supplement the depleted WR corps.  Putting Ertz in the slot and asking a CB to cover him on a slant seems like a tall order for the defense.  I’d force that matchup all game long and see how the defense reacts.

Cox did not have a good game.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him to see if it was an aberration or if the scheme change will affect him more than any of us thought.

Kendricks was also mixed, which is more troubling.  We got a full season of up-and-down play from him last year.  The hope for this season is for him to find some consistency.  The scheme change might slow that progression down, but the leash just can’t be as long this year as it was during his rookie campaign.

Boykin was tough for me to see, so I’ll defer to other evaluators here.  Sounds like he was solid, though he spent most of his time in the slot.  I’d love to see him get a change outside, even if it’s just temporary to see if he can hang.

Curry and Kelce both looked good from my vantage point.  Curry, in particular, stood out.  Not sure what he did in the offseason, but he looks about 50% larger this year.  Of all the players making the D transition, it looks like Curry made the biggest actual physical adjustment.  Wasn’t expecting much from him, so this might be a nice surprise for the long-term roster.  Just one game though, so we’ll have to see if he can keep it up.

I don’t expect all of the players I listed above (and any similar profile guys I left off) to become long-term starters, but for the Eagles to return to prominence, at least a few of those guys have to pan out.  If you’re wondering what to watch for during the rest of the preseason action (and throughout the regular season), this is it.  Can any of these guys turn into valuable starters or even star players?  If not, it’s not going to matter what kind of system Chip Kelly runs or who the QB is.