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).
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.