Projecting the Eagles 2016 Record

It’s that time of year again. Fortunately, I waited until just about the last possible moment to post this, so now I can account for Carson Wentz.

First, thoughts on the trade:  Obviously a fantastic deal.  Bradford is a marginal QB, and clearly didn’t have a long-term future with the team.  Getting a 1st round pick back for him goes a long way towards digging the team out of the draft resources deficit they’re in.  It’s not as if the team was a SB contender with Bradford, so the opportunity cost isn’t large either.  Yes, the team might have been better with Bradford (though more on that in a second), but a slightly higher chance of eeking out a 9 win division title and losing in the first playoff game isn’t worth forgoing a 1st and 4th.

Additionally, the Vikings have serious collapse potential this year, so the 1st round pick could be more valuable than the conventional wisdom suggests.

1) They weren’t actually that good last year.  Minnesota ranked 11th by Overall DVOA.  16th on offense, 14th on Defense, 4th on STs.

2) Teddy Bridgewater played better last year than Bradford is likely to play this year.  Forget the fact that Bradford has just 1 week to get up to speed.

Here is Bridgewater from last year: 88.7 Rating, 62.71 QBR, 7.2 Y/A, 3.1% TD, 2.0% INT

Here are Bradford’s from last year: 86.4 Rating, 41.83 QBR, 7.0 Y/A, 3.6% TD, 2.6% INT

That was the best “full” season Bradford has ever had.  Even in his best year, the 7 games Bradford played with the Rams in 2013, he registered a QBR of just 52.33 and a Rating of 90.9.

That’s a long way to go to show that Minnesota’s QB play will likely be worse this year than it was last year.  It’s hard to improve on offense if that’s the case.

3) Adrian Peterson is 31 years old.  Terrence Newman is 38.  Can’t assume either of those guys will decline, but it’s certainly reasonable to suggest they might.

So while we’re having fun watching the start of the Wentz era, we’ll also be able to enjoy rooting against Bradford and the Vikings.  If the wheels fall off, the Eagles could actually have a chance to add another key piece in the first round next year (as well they should since we’re hosting).

Enough about Minnesota, what’s going to happen with the Eagles this year?

Welp, that’s a tough one.  New Coach, new system, rookie QB, multiple new starters on offense and defense.  The basis of accurate predictions is taking what we know (i.e. performance last year and recently) and adjusting that performance given what has changed.  Every bit of change means more uncertainty, making it harder and harder to gauge what will happen.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Let’s start with the QB.  What does starting Wentz mean for the offense?

To begin answering that, I pulled all of the high-drafted (top 5 and all 1st-2nd rounders) QBs from the past 10 years that started 10+ games during their rookie year.  Here is the list:

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Then I took their rookie stats and compared them to what Bradford posted last year.  Here is the comparison:

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So…that’s pretty encouraging.  Bradford was certainly more efficient than the rookies, but the differences aren’t as big as you might assume.  Overall, rookie QBs starting immediately have performed better than I would have guessed prior to looking up the data.

A note on the sample: I think the Top 5 picks is the correct comparison for Wentz.  I’ve seen some concern about the fact that he played at North Dakota and that his learning curve will be steeper.  I don’t agree.  My current way of think is that the background of each player is unique and extremely difficult to parse with any accuracy.  Moreover, that is all factored into draft position anyway.  The entire league evaluates all of these quarterbacks, and each one of them has a different set of experiences and abilities upon entering the league.  If the league says Wentz is worth a top 5 pick, then it means either (1) the strength of competition doesn’t actually matter or (2) he has other traits that make up for that weakness.  Regardless, both explanations lead to the same place: Wentz was drafted in the top 5, and he should be judged based on how similarly judged prospects have played.

The only adjustment I considered making to the sample was dropping Weeden (age), but avoided it for fear of starting to bias the sample unnecessarily.

Now, it’s not enough to just look at Wentz and what the average rookie QBs have done recently.  What happens when we take a look at team offensive performance?  Below is a chart showing each of the teams from the sample above (Top 5 picks).  It shows Points Scored in the year before drafting the QB, and Points Scored during the QB’s rookie year.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.54.23 PM

Every team, save one, either performed in line with the previous season or improved dramatically.  Ironically enough, the only significant decline was Mark Sanchez, and that team went to the AFC title game that year.

So starting a rookie QB isn’t a death knell for team offense.  Of course, the reason those teams drafted these QBs was because they were terrible enough to get such a high pick.  If you look at the base level scoring (Year -1 column), you can see that it’d be pretty hard to get worse for some of these teams.

By comparison, the Eagles scored 377 points last year.  Some of that was due to the pace of the offense (more plays = more pts).  But by DVOA the team ranked 26th and was 22nd in points per drive.  Not good, but not dreadful either.   In other words, the team is in a relatively unique situation.  We just haven’t seen teams as good as the Eagles were last year draft top 5 QBs.

The closest analogue is Mark Sanchez and the Jets.  The Jets were a 9 win team with Brett Favre the year before drafting the Sanchize. The team traded up from #17 to #5 to take him.  The offense declined significantly by points scored and marginally be DVOA (18th to 22nd).

The bad news is that I don’t think the Eagles are making the conference title game this year.  The good news is that Wentz has a chance to be a much better player than Sanchez.  That’s a trade I’ll gladly take.

Still, the 2009 Jets seem to be our best (only reasonable) comparison.  Combined the rookie expectations and the Jets experience, and we’re looking at a small step back for the offense based on the QB position.

The OL

The OL was a major problem last year.  Jason Peters declined significantly. The unit overall ranked 30th by DVOA.  This year, Brandon Brooks replaces Matt Tobin at RG.  But Peters is another year older, and Lane Johnson might miss time to a suspension.

Given that, I just don’t see a good rationale for expecting significant improvement.  The good news (I guess), is that they were so bad last year that the bar is set really low.  I haven’t done a study on OL performance persistence (that I remember anyway), but my guess is there is enough year-to-year variability to allow for improvement this year absent any other factors.  That’s a really weak basis for prediction, but it’s possible.

Overall, I expect worse OL play this year.  Hoping for better, obviously, but betting on a resurgent season from Peters at nearly 35 years old seems overly optimistic.  The long-term neglect of the unit will really show itself this year.

The WR

Could they get any worse? Yes, but that’s unlikely.  Jorden Matthews returns and is should be right in the middle of the steepest incline of his performance curve.  Ertz is there as well.  Nobody else gained more than 400 receiving yards last year.  Celek was closest at 398.  After that?  Nothing encouraging, but at least there’s no Riley Cooper or Miles Austin.  That alone should be worth a few karma points (half-joking).

Overall, I see a small improvement from last year’s very low base.  Agholor really couldn’t be any worse.  Huff as well.

The RBs

Well they’ve basically swapped out Demarco Murray for Wendell Smallwood on the depth chart.  Taking carries from Murray and giving them to Mathews should be a net improvement, but we can’t assume Mathews will actually play enough to capitalize.  Meanwhile, Sproles is another year older (33 years old now) and his game is based on quickness.  RB is a position with a LOT of variability, so it really wouldn’t surprise me of Barner or Smallwood stepped up and surprised people this year.  But with the OL as it is, it’s tough to see any high-end upside here.

Overall, treading water seems to be an appropriate expectation from this group.

The Whole Offense

I think the offense will be worse this year than it was last year.  Weaker OL, weaker QB play, and nobody on the WR/RB side that can pick up the slack or help hide the holes.  That’s an ugly combination.

The Eagles scored 377 last year.  The league averaged 365.  So the team was 3.2%+.

Pace helped a lot though, as the team was just 23rd by yards per drive and 22nd by points per drive.  Turnovers hurt last year’s team, with 1.1 interceptions thrown per game (27th) and 0.8 fumbles lost per game (30th), but don’t forget that a high pace increases those rates as well.  With a rookie QB and a higher-than expected INT rate, I don’t foresee a big benefit from turnover regression.

Overall, I think a base-case projection of -10% to -15% for this year is reasonable.  Let’s call it -12.5%.  

Without any scoring inflation, that would put them at approximately 320 points scored.

The Defense

The Eagles ranked 17th by DVOA on defense last year.  The pass defense was 14th by DVOA, the rush defense was 28th.  They allowed 430 points, 28th in the league.

I think the defense will be much better this year.  I think the scheme fits the personnel much better than it did last year.  The DL, especially, is worth getting excited about.

The DL

Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan in the middle could be among the league’s best interior combos.  Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry get to rush the QB from the edge, with Cox likely to give them plenty of 1-0n-1 chances by drawing double-teams.  Barwin’s coverage abilities could allow Schwartz to do some creative things, but at the very least, it’s hard to see Barwin not finding a way to contribute consistently one way or another.

That should be a tougher front to rush against than last year, which was a huge weakness for the team.  The Cox/Logan combo, in particular, provides an anchor that will make everyone else’s job a lot easier.

The LBs

Thin, but intriguing.  Jordan Hicks could be great…or he could miss most of the season with injuries.  That’s worrisome because there really isn’t any depth.  As of this moment, there are just 4 LBs on the roster.  Honestly, I have no idea how to project this group.  Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but his inconsistency is frustrating and the coaching staff appears to be losing patience with him.  This will be his 5th year, so he’s basically out of excuses.

Stephen Tulloch is a nice piece to have on the roster, especially given the injury concerns of Hicks/Kendricks.  Nigel Bradham should be a solid SAM.  If any of those guys goes down, though, it’s unclear what happens.  My guess is the team is working on adding another LB, but obviously can’t account for that now.

Overall, the corps of Hicks/Kendricks/Bradham/Tulloch could form a strong unit, but it is VERY dependent on Hicks staying healthy.  That’s a tough bet.  Still, the LBs struggled last year (especially Demeco), so from a benchmarking standpoint, improvement is definitely possible.  If Hicks stays healthy, the LBs could prove to be MUCH better than last year.

The DBs

McKelvin and McLeod are significant additions, but I’m not sure a wholesale improvement is in order here.

Maxwell was maddening last year, but a lot of that was failing to live up to his contract.  Had he been paid less, I’m not sure everyone would be as down on him as they were.  Meanwhile, Walter Thurmond turned in a very serviceable season at S.  While McLeod will hopefully be an improvement (especially in run support), a significant increase seems unlikely.

In fact, the corps might benefit most from increased DL pressure, rather than from personnel changes.  In general, though, a slight improvement can be expected, though depth is an issue.

Total Defense

The scheme change is as big a factor as any of the personnel changes.  The 4-3 alignment fits the DL extremely well, and if Hicks can put together a healthy season, the Cox/Logan/Hicks pyramid can anchor the defense and let everyone else play downhill.  Better pressure from the DEs (I expect Graham to have a big season) will make the DBs jobs a lot easier.

However, given the lack of depth and the injury concerns, there is a LOT of uncertainty here.  The unit could be among the best in the league.  Or it could suffer 1-2 key injuries and the entire house of cards could collapse.  Imagine if Cox and Hicks missed significant time.  In other words, there is an extremely wide range of potential performances for the defense this year.

Last season, the team was -18% by points allowed.  On a per drive basis, the team was a bit worse than average (22nd and 23rd by yards and points per drive).  A big improvement has them close to league average.  Given the depth problems, though, that seems a bit aggressive.  -5% is where I’m at on a base case.  That amounts to 383 points allowed.

Special Teams

Unlikely to have a significant impact this year.  The unit was 10th in the league by DVOA last year, but was dead last in “Hidden Points”.  That means they were fairly unlucky.  The main contributors are all back (Jones, Sturgis, Sproles), though the coverage team’s ability remains to be seen.  However, even a good season from STs won’t have a huge effect on overall performance.  Without significant reason to believe STs will be either great or terrible, there isn’t much reason to adjust the overall projection.

The Prediction

That puts us at 320 points scored, 383 points allowed.  With a 2.67 exponent, that’s a 38% win percentage.  In practical terms, that’s a 6-10 season.

Below are my previous predictions. As you can see, last year really hurt the track record I was building.  Ex-ante, I would assign a LOT more uncertainty to this year than I would have for last year.  So at the very least, it’s a good reminder of just how much variability there is in exercises like this.

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5 thoughts on “Projecting the Eagles 2016 Record

  1. Great read as always Brent.

    I’m a bit more bullish on the defense so I’m really curious if you think a better defense might really change the point differential and prediction, given particularly that you are being pretty conservative of it here. If this ends up being a top 10 defense how drastic does that change the outcome?

      • Beat me to it, but yes, a defense in that range would put the Eagles in 7 to 9 win territory. As I mentioned above, depth is really the key issue. If Hicks plays the whole year and the CBs stay healthy, I’d be comfortable projecting a top 10 defense. I don’t think that happens though.

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