Half-Season Review

Racing to get this one in under the wire (about 2 hours until gametime), so bare with me on any typos.  This is a somewhat abbreviated review, but I’ll try to hit the important points and come back to whatever I miss.

The Eagles have now played 8 games. They’ve gone 4-4.  It’s been a strange season from a narrative standpoint.  The team opened 3-0, and looked like the 2n best team in the league.  Since then, they’ve gone 1-4, and now sit in 4th place in the NFC East.    At the halfway point, it’s a natural time to review our preseason expectations/predictions.  That allows us to keep some perspective and not be whipsawed by the week-to-week developments.

For context: Football Outsides still has them as the #1 team by DVOA.  They also have the 3rd best point differential in the league.

So what gives?

High level – The Eagles are a good team, and almost every statistical measure has their “true” record at better than 4-4.  They’ve lost 4 close games, three of those on the road, and one of those in OT.  Football Outsides has the Eagles playoff odds at 51.9%.  538 has the playoff odds at just 26%.  Either way, playoffs are a legitimate possibility, and frankly, there’s not a single team in the NFC that I don’t think the Eagles could beat in a playoff game.  If the Eagles can get there, they can certainly win a game or two or more.

Here’s my preseason prediction post.

I projected the team to go 6-10, with a point differential of -63 points.  I predicted they’d score 20 points per game, and allow 23.9 points per game.

In reality, they’ve scored 25.25 points per game and allowed 18 points per game.  That’s a very big difference, and MUCH better than I had predicted (+5 points on both sides).  However, there’s a bit more to the story.

Since the bye week, the Eagles have scored 22 points per game.  They’ve allowed 23.6 points per game.  Basically, the Eagles tore through the first 3 games, blowing away pretty much everyone’s expectations.  Since then, though, they’ve looked very much like the team I expected, and a bit better once you consider the schedule and context.

Now let’s dig into the specifics a bit:

  • The schedule has been/is brutal.  The Eagles have played 4 of the past 5 games on the road. They’ve lost all of those road games.  Additionally, all of the team’s divisional road games were group together.  They’re 0-3 in the division and haven’t had a home game yet.  They won’t until December 11.  Each of their last 3 opponents (Vikings, Cowboys, Giants) have been coming off a bye week.  Atlanta is coming off a Thursday Night Football game, so they’ve had 10 days rest.  The data on team performance after a bye week suggest it’s not a big advantage.  However, I haven’t seen any data or studies on a stretch like this, where for 4 weeks straight the team plays a better rested/prepared team.
  • Carson Wentz has been better than expected.   To project Wentz, 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.  The average stat line for QBs taken in the top 5:

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-11-28-33-am

   I’ve taken some heat on twitter for being too forgiving to Wentz.  This is why.  He’s already significantly ahead of what I expected or what was far to expect.  Blaming him for not being better is just greedy.  Obviously I wish he wouldn’t make some of the dumb mistakes he has made recently, but it’s just not realistic to expect him to avoid those.  He’s doing his job as well as he can be expected to at this stage of his career. Especially with such a dreadful lack of talent at WR.

  • On the OL, this is what I said:  “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.”  I think that holds up pretty well.  Peters has been OK, but depth is a huge problem. Kelce is a shell of his former self, whether due to physical decline or scheme change.  Lane Johnson’s absence exposed just how shallow this group was.  The is the top priority for the offseason.
  • On the WRs:  “Could they get any worse? Yes, but that’s unlikely.” Hmmm…I think this is fair too. The WRs have been terrible.  But they were terrible last year too.  I hoped for more from Jordan Matthews, but it’s clear he’s not going to be the #1 guy we hoped he could be when drafted.  I still think he can be a very good WR, but he doesn’t create space for himself/Wentz, and he also doesn’t attack the ball or fully leverage his size.  Meanwhile, Agholor has already contributed more than he did last year, but he’s also been infuriatingly ineffective.  He doesn’t run routes correctly or at full speed, and the drops are maddening.  I don’t think he’s on the team past this year.
  • The 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.”

    The defense currently ranks #1 by DVOA, and Hicks has stayed healthy. He hasn’t been the star I had hoped for, but him, Logan, and Cox have formed a very strong core that has made everyone else’s job easier.  Happy to brag about predicting big things for Graham, but I’m hardly the only one who made that call.  Sometimes it’s nice to see things work out the way you hope/expect.  Graham might be an All-Pro this year.

  • On STs:  “Without significant reason to believe STs will be either great or terrible, there isn’t much reason to adjust the overall projection.” Way off on this one, but there’s a reason I don’t put much time into projecting STs.  The unit has been amazing (#1 by DVOA and 2 return TDs), and has been a huge boost to the overall team performance.

So where do we go fro here?  The team is very much what we thought it was. Playoffs are still in the picture, though the margin for error is small.  The final record will almost certainly be better than the 6-10 I projected, as will the point differential (from which I derive the record).

There are big flaws/holes on the roster, particularly at OL, WR, and CB, but we expected all of that coming into the year.  On the plus side, Wentz looks like a star, Marcus Smith might actually be turning into a contributing player (most shocking development in the entire NFL), and Pederson is definitely competent, though perhaps strategically inept.

The long-term future is very bright.  The team has legitimate blue chippers in Wentz, Cox, and Graham, and the Vikings might just be having the complete collapse that I hoped for/expected, even if it is happening a bit later than we wanted.  That’s a very important draft pick, so keep an eye on how the rest of the year plays out in Minnesota.

That’s all for now.  For today, the public is heavy on the Falcons.  It’s a home game, where the Eagles have played extremely well.  Julio Jones might go for 200 yards, but I think the Eagles have a very good shot at winning this game.  Eagles 31 – Falcons 28.

 

 

 

Week 9 Pre-Game Notes

A few quick notes/thoughts before this afternoon’s game:

  • The Eagles are still in a strong position for a wild card spot.  As of this morning, the standings for non-division leaders in the NFC are (from PFR):

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 10.22.15 AM.png

A win over the Giants, in New York, would keep the Eagles in the lead, and put distance between them and the Giants, one of two teams currently tied for the wild card lead.

  • As far as the divisional race goes, this is a must-win.  It’s the final opportunity to get a division win on the road.  A loss here would force the Eagles to sweep their home games just to get to 3-3.  The Cowboys are 2-1 in the division.  In other words, with a loss today, the Eagles would need to win all three remaining division games AND have the Cowboys lose to either the Giants (Home) or Washington (@) just to equal the divisional record, which is the first tie breaker.  A loss would probably put the Eagles 3 wins behind the Cowboys (they play Cleveland today) with 8 games to play.  That’s a very tough hole to climb out of.
  • The Eagles are still the #1 team by DVOA.  The defense and special teams units are both #1 by that measure, while the offense ranks just 23rd.  Not much commentary to add there, but it’s important to step back and realize that, by most objective measures, the Eagles are a very good team.
  • What will the offense look like without Josh Huff?  That sounds like a silly question. Huff has just 72 receiving yards this year (10.3 yards per game).  However, he’s really the only WR that fits the bubble-screen game Pederson is increasingly leaning on.  JMatt, DGB, Agholor…none of them have the acceleration or quickness required to make those plays work.  We might see Darren Sproles line up in that spot.  However, that would require Pederson to trust Ryan Mathews as the primary RB again.  Needless to say, the offense’s complete lack of weapons will make both Pederson and Wentz’s jobs more difficult today and for the rest of the year.
  • Can Pederson rebound?  Last week was a truly horrendous performance from the 1st year head coach.  He repeatedly made the objectively wrong strategic decision (kicking on 4th and short, punting instead of trying a 53 yd fg, not using TOs to get the ball back in regulation, etc…).  Hopefully, he does some self-scouting, realizes what he did wrong, and gets it right next time.  Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of coaches who get those things wrong persistently, so it’s not as simple as “he won’t make those mistakes again”.   Additionally, while Pederson is in his 1st year as a head coach, he played QB for 11 years in the NFL and has been on coaching staffs for 7 years.  He shouldn’t have to “learn” some of these things…
  • Can Wentz find a way to push the ball downfield?  Over the past few weeks, the Eagles downfield passing game has disappeared.  A lot of that, IMO, is on the WRs and their failure to create separation.  Some of is also on Wentz, as he’s missed chances for lack of vision or willingness to throw the ball.  Today is a good chance to turn things around.  The Giants have the 3rd worst adjusted sack rate in the league. (FO).  That should provide a little more time in the pocket for Carson, which in turn should give the WRs a little extra help creating space.  At the very least, after today’s game we’ll have a better idea of how to apportion responsibility for the lack of a passing game.  It’s a combination of Wentz, the OL, and the WRs, but today the OL should be less of an issue.
  • Prediction:  Eagles win.  The Giants are a very mediocre team.  They have a win against the Cowboys, but that came in week one (Dak’s first game and his worst performance of the year prior to last week).  Beyond that, the Giants’ wins are against Baltimore (#20 DVOA), New Orleans (23), and LA (25).  Those four wins were by a combined 15 points.   

Outside of ODB, there isn’t a single guy on that offense to be worried about.  With the Eagles defense playing as well as it is, it’ll be very difficult for the Giants to score points without a TO or STs touchdown. Meanwhile, the Eagles are a better team than their record suggests, and have played very well in 6 of their 7 games so far. They seemed on the verge of blowing out the Cowboys before Smallwood’s fumble last week and some late-game choking from Pederson.  Those things will happen again, but not this week.  The Eagles finally put a full game together and roll the Giants.  28-13.

 

Injury Risk and QB Highlander

Lots of potential topics to discuss for the bye week, but I’ve chosen one that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else (as usual).  Don’t worry, though, I also included some thoughts on Wentz v. Prescott below.

Pace of Play

The Eagles defense, by virtue of their dominance thus far, as facing far fewer plays per game than they did last year.  Additionally, the offense is playing slower.  On offense last year, the Eagles averaged 22.2 seconds per play, fastest in the league.  This year, the offense is averaging 31.53 seconds per play, slowest in the league.  

I’ve spoken before about how time of possession is generally overrated, and I still believe that. However, the extraordinary differences between last year and this year could have serious implications for another important aspect of the game: injuries.

Coming into the year, one of my biggest concerns was the lack of depth.  At OL, CB, LB, WR.  It is still my biggest concern.   To that end, any aspect of the game that mitigates that risk is very beneficial for the Eagles.

On offense, the team this year is averaging 70 plays per game, the same rate as last year.  How is that possible if they’re taking more than 9 more seconds per play this year?  (1) They’re converting for first downs, so they’re getting more plays per drive and (2) the defense has been amazing.

However, the defense looks much different.  Here is a chart showing the plays per game by the defense both last year and this year.

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-36-32-am

As you can see, the team is playing 17 fewer plays per game.  Over the course of a season, that amounts to 272 fewer plays, or 5 fewer games at current pace.  That has potentially very significant effects on the expected injury rate for the team.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the expected serious injury rate (or survival rate) on a particular play is.  But let’s say it’s a 99.8% survival rate of serious injury (one that would require at least 1 missed game).

For one game, using the data above:

At 54 plays:  The survival rate is .998^54 = 90%.

At 71 plays: .998^71 = 87%.

That’s a 3% difference in just one game.  Additionally, if that injury rate is too low, the difference will be much larger.  At a 99.5% rate, for example, the difference is 6% (76% – 70%).

For an entire season, the current pace on defense would result in 863 plays.  The defense faced 1139 plays last year.

At a 99.8% survival rate, the chances of getting through the season unscathed (assuming independence and a constant rate) is:

.998 ^ 863 plays = 17.7% survival rate.

.998^ 1139 plays = 10.2% survival rate.

So if a defensive player played every snap, he would be 74% more likely to escape injury this year than last (given the assumptions above).  Given the importance of a few key players (Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Fletcher), a significant decline in the odds of injury may play a large, if invisible, role in the team’s success this year.

A few caveats:

  • Most players don’t play every snap.
  • I’ve assumed a constant injury rate.  It is entirely possible that the expected injury rate INCREASES with the number of plays.  As players become fatigued, the odds of injury might increase, which would lead to an even more significant difference than the one I’ve outlined above.
  • I don’t expect the Eagles defense to face an average of just 54 plays per game for the rest of the year.

Wentz v. Prescott

200

That seems to be the general attitude, at least on Twitter.  So which one is it?

Let’s attack this from two angles.  One is conceptually, the other is statistical context.

1) Remember your priors.

Each quarterback has played just 3 games.  Needless to say, we’re a ways away from being able to make any definitive judgements on their relative skill level.  However, we can and should start evaluating the new information, and using it to update our expectations for each.  The updating part, in particular, seems difficult for certain pundits to grapple with.  Put simply, draft position DOES matter.  As each player progresses, his pre-career evaluation will provide less and less information about what to expect going forwards.  This early, though, that information should still be providing a large portion of the evaluative information.

In plain english: Would you rather have a #2 pick that has looked great after 3 games, or a 4th rd pick who has looked great after 3 games?

The answer (and it’s not even close), is the #2 pick.  But why?

Before the season began, the odds that Prescott < Wentz were quite large, based purely on draft position.  We know the historical success rates for QBs drafted in the top 5 are MUCH higher than for those drafted later.

In other words, we should all be looking for false positives.  Prescott is more likely to be showing a false positive than Wentz as of a result of his ex-ante evaluation.  Remember that were just talking probabilistically here.  The could still both be terrible, or future HOFs.  But if you feel compelled to evaluate one vs the other, it isn’t close, despite their performance.  Wentz is still overwhelmingly likely to be the better player.

Somewhat ironically, I think some of the Anti-Wentz people have fallen into a different trap.  Basically, they’re clinging too tightly to THEIR priors.  They thought Wentz was overrated before the draft, and are now looking for confirmatory evidence, rather than evaluating whether their pre-draft assessment might have been wrong.

Here’s the key point though:  For outside fans/writers, it doesn’t matter what you’re pre-draft evaluation was.  Once the draft happens, we know the relative odds of success for each position.  It doesn’t matter if I personally believed Wentz deserved to go in the 7th round (I didn’t, just so we’re clear).  As soon as he was drafted, that became the best evidence for his odds of success.  Same for Prescott.  Basically, value is what the market says it is.

2) The statistics.

Now let’s look at the stats.  Here is a chart, from PFR, showing rookie QBs since 2000 that have thrown at least 40 passes in their first 3 games.  I’ve sorted by adjusted yards / attempt.  These are the top 25.  Wentz is 5th, Prescott 6th.

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-16-34-am

Here are the bottom 25:

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-20-59-am

You can sort by Rating or Y/A and the results are very similar.

What’s the takeaway?  I’m not sure there is one.  However, the only decent QBs to come from the bottom of the list are Matt Stafford and Eli Manning.  So, at the very least, we can be thankful Wentz has shown as well as he has, if only because false negatives seem to be much rarer than false positives.  If a QB looks bad early on, he’s very likely to actually bad.  If he looks good…we still don’t know.

Statistically, you really can’t ask for a better performance from either Wentz or Prescott.  I’ve watched nearly every play of both QBs, and I think Wentz has looked better (aside from the conceptual likelihood of superiority mentioned above).  In particular, Wentz’s deep passing might be a Plus skill.  His ball placement has been amazing, and absent a few bad drops by his WRs, his stats on such throws would be amazing.

This chart, from PFF via this article (http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/carson-wentz-vs-dak-prescott-an-in-depth-look-at-the-stats-separates-hype-from-reality/) helps put things in perspective:

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-11-08-57-am

Wentz is 5/12 on deep throws (20+ yards), including at least 3 drops by my count, Prescott is 1/8, with his one completion coming on an underthrow to Cole Beasley that turned what should have been a TD into a first down on the 1 yard line.  It can be seen here:  https://twitter.com/NFL/status/780214996995223552.

Both Dak and Wentz look great.  But frankly, the comparison isn’t close right now.  Give me the #2 pick with the deep passing skills over the 4th rounder with the foot speed every damn day of the week.

 

Week 2 Notes (Pre-Game)

A few thoughts/notes to add before tomorrow’s game:

  • Obviously, the focus is on Wentz.  The Bears present a tougher challenge defensively than Cleveland (we think), especially on the road in primetime.  Wentz has looked very poised thus far, so I doubt the MNF aspect will matter much.  The real question for me is: Will Wentz continue to throw into tight coverage windows?  The most impressive part of Went’s debut was his willingness and ability to make throws to receivers that were less than wide open.

Not the best angle, but here is the first Wentz TD throw, at the moment of release.    Matthews is the blurry WR in the lower left corner.  That’s relatively good coverage, and Wentz still saw the opportunity, took it, and made a perfect throw.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-6-17-41-pm

Here is a shot put together by @NFLosophy showing the coverage on Went’s 3rd down conversion to Matthews:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-6-24-27-pm

Again, the coverage is good, and many QBs (ahem..Bradford), wouldn’t have made the throw.  Perhaps Wentz made the wrong read here.  However, the fact that the scenario shown above was a conversion opportunity for Wentz suggests there is huge upside for him as a player.  If that’s all the window he needs, he’s going to be extremely difficult to defend, regardless of who his recievers are.

Keep any eye one whether he attempts/completes passes into similarly tight coverage tomorrow night.

  • One of the main reasons I was not too confident in the team this year (I predicted 6-10), is that the OL seemed to be a big weakness. In particular, I was worried about the continued decline of Jason Peters.  However, in week 1, Peters looked close to his old self.  If Peters can indeed bounce back from last year, despite his age, the outlook improves considerably.  On the negative side, Jason Kelce looked awful.  Pay close attention to each of them tomorrow night
  • Is the Eagles WR corps better than I thought?  In other words, was Sam Bradford making them look bad?  As shown above, Wentz was able to create opportunities for the WRs even in tight coverage.  Nelson Agholor looked like a legitimate receiver, if only on go routes, and Matthews looked like a good #1.  I’m still skeptical, but am anxious to see more evidence in favor of this.  Attributing results properly between QBs and WRs is really difficult if you don’t have the time to go through every throw multiple times on replay.  Moreover, even that won’t show you all the counterfactuals; all of the opportunities that existed but weren’t taken. For example, in the above screenshot: if Wentz doesn’t make that throw, nobody reviewing the tape would have called that a missed opportunity.  And yet, it turned into a long completion and a big third down conversion.
  • Can the Eagles cover Alshon Jeffery?  Although Cleveland looked somewhat respectable on offense today versus the Ravens, it seems clear that the Browns are fielding one of the worst offenses in the league.  In particular, they don’t have any players that pose significant individual match-up problems.  Certainly nobody like Jeffery. 6’3″, 218 lbs.  And he runs a 4.48 40 yd dash.  He averages 8.5 targets per game, with a 57.9% catch rate and 15 yards per reception.  We’re all hopeful that the Eagles defense will be a strength of the team both this season and in the near future. The Bears and Jeffery will provide a better measuring stick than the Browns did.
  • Will Doug Pederson stay aggressive on 4th down?  Last week, the Eagles were up 15-10 in the 3rd quarter when they faced a 4th down with 4 yards to go for a first down at the Cleveland 40 yard line.  Pederson went for it and the team converted.  But it wasn’t a hard decision.  Actually, it was a fairly easy one as far as those decisions go. Still, it’s encouraging to see Pederson get the easy ones right, especially in his first game.  But will he make the right decision when it’s not so clear?  With all of the focus on Wentz, Pederson isn’t getting enough attention.  Tomorrow night should be a closer game.  If that’s the case, we should be able to learn a lot more about what kind of coach Pederson really is.

 

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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Eagles WRs – Concentration of Draft Resources

There is a potential disaster looming for the Eagles.  I think we can all agree on that, even though many might want to stay in denial for a little while longer.

I’m talking, of course, about the WRs corps.  Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff, Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Dorial Green-Beckham.  And whoever else you want to throw in there (preseason star Paul Turner, perhaps?)  Of that group, only Matthews has proven himself to be a viable starter.  Beyond that, though, things look bleak.

However, my purpose today isn’t to scout or analyze the players.  Instead, I want to examine how we got here and what it means for the future.  Specifically, the WR corps is so disappointing not because it’s bad (though that certainly sucks), but because of how much the Eagles invested in it.  In the 2013-2015 drafts, the Eagles used a 1st (Agholor), a 2nd (Matthews), and a 3rd (Huff) round pick on wide receivers.  That’s a lot….I think.

It certainly feels like a lot of draft resources devoted to one position, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with that.

But how does the Eagles investment compare to the rest of the league?

I took a look at every player drafted between 2013-2015, and looked to see which teams spent the most resources at which positions.  I used the PFR draft pick value chart to assign discrete values to each pick.  It’s not a perfect method, for reasons I won’t get into, but it as good as any I can think of short of designing my own value system.

In the 2013, 2014, and 2015 drafts, the Eagles spent 1490 “draft points” on WRs.  For comparison, the #1 overall pick is worth 3000 points.  Over that same timeframe, there were 5 teams that actually devoted more draft points to WRs, and how they did it.

1 – Buffalo Bills (2492 2995 draft points)

Sammy Watkins (#4 overall via trade of #9, #19, and #115, 2289 points total), Robert Woods (#41 overall, 490 points), Marquise Goodwin (#78, 200), and Dezmin Lewis (#234, 2).

As you can see, using the #4 pick on Watkins was a huge investment, and counts for more than all of the Eagles picks combined (and then some).  Fortunately for the Bills, Watkins looks like a star.  He has 2000+ yards combined in his first 2 seasons, and registered a 62.5% catch rate last year with 17.5 yards per reception.

2 – Oakland Raiders (1811 draft points)

Similar to Buffalo, Oakland’s investment is comprised mostly (almost entirely) by its use of the #4 overall pick on Amari Cooper.  The team also used a couple of 7th round picks on Brice Butler and Andre Debose (no clue who those guys are).

As with Watkins, though, Oakland seems to have landed a star talent, which is pretty much mandatory for use of a top 5 pick.  In his rookie year, Cooper at 1070 yards on 72 catches and 14.9 yards per reception.  His catch rate was 55%.  Any way you look at it, that’s a very impressive rookie season for a WR.  Anyone who watched him play knows that his ceiling is also much higher than his stat line from last season suggests.

3 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1562 draft points)

Mike Evans (#7 overall, 1500 points), Robert Heron (#185, 17.4 points), and Kenny Bell (#162, 26.6).

Seeing a theme, here?  Tampa’s investment was also a high first round pick, and Mike Evans has been very good (inefficiency is the only knock on him, as he benefitted a lot from high usage and his catch rate over two seasons is just 52.5%).  Still, 2257 yards, 15.9 yards per reception, and 15 touchdowns over his first 2 seasons is impressive.

4 – Los Angeles Rams (1543 draft points)

Tavon Austin (#8 overall, 1400 points), Stedman Bailey (#92, 132), Bud Sasser (#201, 11)

Finally, we get to see what happens when a team misses on a high pick.  The selection of Austin was worth nearly as much as the Eagles total investment, and he’s been a huge disappointment.  He hasn’t gained more than 473 yards receiving in a season (through 3), and his yards per reception is just 9.2.  Stedman Bailey has been similarly ineffective, though he’s received far fewer targets.

5 – Chicago Bears (1502 draft points)

Kevin White (#7 overall, 1500 points), and Marquess Wilson (#236, 2).

White was injured prior to his rookie year, and has yet to play a game.


So that’s it.  Those are the 5 teams that spent more on WRs in the draft than the Eagles did from 2013-2015.  Every one of them used a top 10 pick, which makes up the bulk of their investment.  The Eagles, by comparison, took a more balanced approach:

Nelson Agholor (#20 overall, 800 points), Jordan Matthews (#42 overall, 480 points), and Josh Huff (#86 overall, 160 points).

Matthews has been the saving grace of that group, accounting for 68% of the total Approximate Value contributed by the three players (13 out of 19).

Still, he clearly doesn’t have the high-end potential of the top players listed above.  So while there might be 5 teams that invested more, it looks like at least 3 of them are going to walk away with a long-term star at WR, or at least a strong #1.  The Bears can’t be graded.  That leaves the Rams as the only team that invested as much and got less from its investment.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on the second order effects of such an investment.  The opportunity cost of those picks is huge, especially as we look at the other holes on the team.  That’s also where this analysis is weakest.  The top ten picks count for A LOT, but they’re still just one draft selection (though in theory they could be freely traded for more picks).  The Eagles, instead, used 3 separate selections on the WR position.  While that increased the odds of getting at least 1 starter (Matthews), it also meant having fewer resources to devote to the rest of the team (ahem…offensive line…).

Moreover, the Eagles didn’t stop there.  The team made another concentrated investment in the QB position.  The team used two 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, and a 3rd rounder  to get Wentz (I’m just cancelling the swapped 4th rounders out).  They also used a 4th round pick on Matt Barkley in 2013.  Oh dear, I originally forgot the 2nd round pick used to acquire Sam Bradford. 

So, to make things clearer, over the past 4 drafts, the Eagles have used the following on the QB and WR positions:

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 3.26.19 PM

And they’ve come out with Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews….

That, folks, is how you (potentially) destroy a team for a long time.  It means that if Carson Wentz is anything less than a true star at QB, it’ll be a long time before the team is ready to be a top contender again.

That doesn’t mean all hope is lost.  The defense looks good, and as the Giants showed (twice), even mediocre teams can win a Super Bowl if they get a great string of luck.  However, the days of perennial division titles and conference championships aren’t coming back anytime soon (unless Wentz is great).  Roster management and the draft is just an exercise in asset allocation.  The Eagles were very good at that for a long time, but lost discipline during the Chip Kelly era.  Unfortunately, it’s going to take a while to climb back out of that hole.

Pre-emptive argument note:  I’ve been a strong advocate of “saturation drafting” in the past.  However, I’ve always used that to mean using multiple LATE ROUND picks on the same position, as a way to maximize the odds of getting a rosterable player when your only options are low-probability lottery tickets.  The key to why that strategy is effective is how low the opportunity cost of those picks is.  Hence, applying the same logic to the top of the draft doesn’t work, because the opportunity cost there is huge.

 

 

 

The State of The Eagles

As per usual, I returned from two weeks off the grid to find the Eagles in complete disarray.  I missed Chip’s firing, the last game of the season (a regretful win), and most of the “coaching search”.  However, that does put me in an interesting position, in that I was able to view things from a much different perspective than everyone else who was caught up in the narrative along the way.  What follows are my thoughts on a lot of different aspects of the team.  Lighter on stats/numbers than usual, but I just wanted to get high-level thoughts out there before they get stale.

Chip Kelly

A damn shame.  I still think Chip can be a great coach in this league, but it’s clear he won’t be a great GM.  If he ultimately can’t settle for just coaching, I expect we’ll see him return to college within a year or two.  Much has been written about Chip, so I won’t rehash it all here.  Let me just throw a few main points out and move on:

– I admire the emphasis on “culture”.  As I get older, I’ve found I’m more and more interested in having a team I’m happy to root for, rather than one that’s comprised of terrible people, no matter how often they win.  There are also unquantifiable benefits from having a great culture in place.  However, I don’t think Chip has any idea what real culture is.  As you might imagine, we talk a lot about this stuff in my MBA program, because culture is both really important to have and really difficult to develop.

Chip’s idea of culture looks like the football equivalent of casual Friday or crazy shirt day in a corporate setting.  It’s a shallow artifact.  Yes, it’s important to have players who work hard and buy into the system.  But if you take it too far, you end up with unthinking robots (slight hyperbole).  In a dynamic, relatively chaotic game like football, creativity and adaptability are vital to success.  As should be obvious, in this world unthinking robots won’t win.

This is especially problematic when you sacrifice talent in exchange for the “right” players.  I posted on this a while ago, but to repeat: It’s impossible to optimize along more than 2 dimensions, and it’s close to impossible to optimize along more than 1.  So for every additional point of emphasis placed on culture, there is a necessary tradeoff in talent.  Finding the balance is key, and it seems clear Chip didn’t know where that balance was.

– The GM learning curve – Chip showed no signs of getting up it.  A huge part of getting up to speed is continuous self-evaluation and iteration.  It’s possible for someone without NFL experience to become a good GM, but you have to assume you’re going to make a lot of mistakes early.  That’s ok, in fact it’s important.  What’s more important, though, is recognizing those mistakes, identifying why they were made, and avoiding them in the future.  Chip showed little appetite for self-scouting/criticism, which is extremely disappointing.  That, ultimately, is why he didn’t succeed here.  He didn’t evolve from year-to-year and didn’t seem overly interested in doing so.  EVERY coach/GM has to do that to be successful, as the league is constantly improving/adapting.  As a new coach/GM, it’s even more imperative, because you need to close the experience gap as quickly as possible, lest you wash out before doing so.

As I mentioned above, I think Chip could be very successful, IF all he does is focus on coaching.  Maybe he does that in SF, in which case things are going to get very painful for Eagles fans.  Given his apparent inflexibility, though, I think a safer bet is Chip forcing his way into control or leaving without it.

Job Specialization

Nobody should be both Head Coach and GM.  Honestly, I’m shocked any NFL team still allows this to happen.  Not only are each of those jobs really difficult (and more than full-time roles independently), but they require entirely different skills sets.  Moreover, a key aspect of the GM’s job is objectivity.  He needs to be able to assess each player’s value on an objective basis.  As a Head Coach, you have far too much contact with each player to maintain such objectivity.  So, even if you find someone who has both skill-sets (being elite in both areas should, theoretically, be extraordinarily rare), that person is STILL disqualified from being the GM for lack of objectivity.

In fact, I’d take the importance of specialization even further.  I don’t think the head coach should call the plays.  Let the OC call the plays, the DC call the defense.  The HC should focus on higher-level strategy and oversee the OC/DC, providing insights where he can.

As anyone who has watched Andy Reid can attest, calling the plays while also being charged with things like time management and replay challenges is too much for one person.  I’d want to find a coach who understands this and accepts it (Pederson seems like he does, though perhaps not for the right reasons).

Doug Pederson

Not thrilled, not disappointed.  Coaching hires are perhaps the hardest things for fans to evaluate in real time.  The decision process and data is almost entirely non-public, meaning we have absolutely nothing to base a judgement on.  At least with players we can go watch tape and review statistics, developing opinions based on that.  That’s still a very difficult thing to do well, especially for fans.  Coaching, though, is much more about strategic vision, management skills, player development, etc…  Outsiders just don’t have any evidence to work from, unless we’re looking at a coach with a very long track record.

That’s a long way of saying this: you really shouldn’t have an opinion on Doug Pederson.  If anything, you should be cautiously optimistic.

In that vein, here’s what I like about him:

  • Former QB – That should count for something.  He spent 10 years in the league, and played with McNabb and Favre.  Presumably, he spent a lot of time studying the game and seeing it from the player’s viewpoint.  That should prepare him well to identify with his players, something Chip Kelly might have struggled with.  It also provides him with a lot of credibility, which is really important for any leader to have prior to stepping in on day one.
  • Not talented – Not only was he a QB, but he wasn’t a very good one.  I like that.  I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s a safe bet that Pederson had such a long career in the league because he worked very hard and knew the game very well, and people probably liked playing/dealing with him.  He clearly didn’t stick around because of his physical attributes.  With little else to go off of, we could do a lot worse than a likable guy that works really hard and knows the game really well.
  • Backed up McNabb, Favre, and Couch – Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but Pederson should have a unique perspective on QB development.  He saw a young prospect develop into a star (McNabb), he saw a young prospect fail (Couch), and he worked with an all-time great (Favre).  Hopefully he gleaned some insight into why some guys succeed and others fail and can apply that here when finding/developing a new QB.

So that’s why I’m hopeful.  Of course, if Roseman can’t address some of the roster issues, it’s not going to matter much.

The Coaching Search

The whole coaching search narrative is a joke.  We don’t know who Lurie’s true “#1” option was and, regardless, IT DOESN’T MATTER.  The margin of error for coaching hires is huge.  Just as it’s important to recognize the margin of evaluation error in scouting/draft, we need to do the same with coaches. In other words:

How certain are you that your top choice is a better coach/will be a better coach than your 2nd choice?

As a fan, the answer is almost definitely “not at all”.  For Lurie, who presumably has a lot of info we don’t, the answer is probably “a little”.  Given the qualitative nature of both the evaluation and the job itself, I just can’t imagine a scenario where the top choice and the second choice (and further along), don’t have significant overlap when you apply a confidence interval or margin of error to the process.

So, don’t feel bad about not getting McAdoo or Gase, or whoever you think Lurie really wanted.  1) we don’t actually know who the top choice was, 2) even if we did, we don’t know the margin by which that person was the top choice (really important), and 3) the margin of error for these hires is so large, that it likely doesn’t matter anyway.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other factors that go into getting a “great” coach (ahem…the QB…ahem), and we should spend more of our time focusing on those things than on who the media says was the best guy.  If Roseman is a great GM and they find a QB, the coach suddenly becomes a bit less important.

The QB Position

I don’t particularly like Sam Bradford.  He’s been a bad QB most of his career, with brief flashes of mediocrity.  That said, the Eagles aren’t bad enough to truly bottom out and get a top QB prospect, so we’re caught in no-man’s land.  In light of that, I’d franchise Bradford.  The West Coast offense that Pederson will presumably bring with him should be a great fit for Bradford, so maybe things finally click.  At the very least, you get some stability at the position, and the freedom to take a QB in the draft and get a year of practice/evaluation before deciding to turn things over to him.  Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can even trade Bradford to some QB desperate team.

The only negative is a the cost, but given the roster, the Eagles likely won’t need that additional cap space next year.

Don’t forget the young WRs. The Eagles have invested a lot of resources in the WR corps., which still has a lot of developing to do.  Stability at QB would seem to be helpful in that regard.  Absent a compelling reason to change things, keeping Bradford for another year seems to be the best course of action.

Jason Peters and the OL

Perhaps the most upsetting storyline of the season was the regression of Jason Peters.  The team’s best player for a while, Peters declined before our eyes this year, despite my prediction that he could be expected to play at a high level for 2-3 more years (the aging curve post).  Maybe he can shift inside to G and prolong his career.  In any case, it’s clear the OL is now a huge concern.

I really wish I couldn’t say “I told you so”, but I’ve been warning for several years now that the OL is not a unit that can be built and forgotten about.  It requires continual maintenance and investment.  Basically, if you’re not spending at least a late round pick every year on the OL, you’re doing it wrong.

The Eagles have drafted just one OL in the past 3 drafts (Lane Johnson).  In the past 4 drafts, they’ve selected just two (Johnson and Dennis Kelly).  That’s just terrible draft strategy, especially considering late round OL have, by far, the best odds of turning into starting quality players.  I have a number of “rules” for drafting, generated from my research into draft strategy and history.  Two of my favorites (most compelling given the evidence):  ALWAYS trade 6th round picks for multiple 7th if you can and ALWAYS take 7th round offensive lineman (several if you can).

Most important of all, you don’t want to be in a position where you need to replace multiple OL in the same year.  It’s not that hard to find one new starter in one offseason.  It is much harder to find two, at a reasonable price.  It is extremely difficult to find three, especially without blowing your cap allocation.

The current state of affairs basically means the Eagles are at least 2 offseason aways from having a high-quality OL with some semblance of long-term stability, and that’s assuming they manage to get the right players.

Howie Roseman

It all comes down to Howie, finally.  He is now, unquestionably, in charge of all player personnel. All moves can be attributed to him.  We should know pretty quickly how much of the recent past was with his blessing or over his objections.

What do I want to see from him?

  • Trade with Chip.  I know Chip doesn’t officially have personnel control in SF, but a new coach typically gets some allowance for a few of “his guys”.  The Eagles have a lot of those guys, and Howie should be really anxious to give Chip whoever he wants.  #BadGMTheory is firmly in play here, in that Chip has shown that he undoubtedly overvalues “his” guys.  So Riley Cooper (pleasepleaseplease), Josh Huff, Sam Bradford?, etc…, tell Chip to name his price and ship them out.
  • Trade down in the draft, unless there’s a QB (Lynch) that Pederson loves.  The missing 2nd round pick is a killer, but the Eagles are in a decent position to recoup it by sliding down in the first round.  This will be the true test of Howie’s GM ability.  Can he maneuver at the draft to successfully get the players he wants at a  reasonable price while adding picks in the process.  Joe Banner was really good at this, and it’s the only way to consistently “win” the draft.
  • Use free agency for maintenance and depth, not star acquisition.  Free Agency is not the place to sign “impact players”.  By definition, you have to overpay for them here. That, coupled with the inherit uncertainty regarding fit in a new scheme, means it’s a dubious proposition.  Rather, free agency should be used for middle-of-the-roster players that fill the glaring holes so that the draft process can be used to shoot for the biggest impact.  For the Eagles, in my opinion, that means finding a serviceable offensive lineman (think first guy off the bench or #5 starter), a solid #3 receiver with great hands, a #3-#4 cornerback, and perhaps another safety.  Obviously there are other areas that can be addressed, but that’s where I’d focus.  If there is an “impact” opportunity, it has to be taken at OT position.  It’s just not worth the risk for anywhere else right now.

Reasons for Hope

I said at the top that this isn’t quite the mess some believe it to be, then I proceeded to describe a lot of the biggest problems.  Here are the reasons I’m hopeful:

  •  Track Record – The Eagles, under Lurie, have a very long history of sustained competitiveness.  This is not a bad franchise.  In 21 years of ownership, the team has won fewer than 8 games just six times, with three of those coming in the first 5 years of ownership.  Of course, the long period with Reid and McNabb forms the bulk of that success, but the team also won 10 games twice with Ray Rhodes as coach and Rodney Peete and Ty Detmer at QB, and it won 10 games twice with Chip Kelly at the helm.  I just don’t see any compelling reason to believe the team won’t recover, just as it’s done every time the coach has changed under Lurie.
  • 27 wins in past 3 years – That’s not great, but it’s also not bad.  We’re not looking at a talent-less team here; they’re not starting from square one.  Expectations and the narrative make the performance feel worse than it actually was, but make no mistake: this is not a bad team, it is firmly mediocre.  I know that’s not too exciting, but it’s an important distinction to make as we reframe our expectations for the future.
  • Talent – Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, maybe Agholor.  There is young (relatively) talent on this team, and there are building blocks in place.  Moving to a 4-3 defense might spark a massive improvement on defense, as the personnel has been a better fit for that alignment than the 3-4 since the day the switch was made.  Jordan Matthews, despite the drops, is still putting together an impressive start to his career, especially when you consider the inconsistent/bad quarterbacking he’s had.  The drops need to stop, but they’re not as big a deal as they seem.  Agholor meanwhile, is an unknown.  He was close to invisible this year, which obviously isn’t a good sign.  But it’s too early to call him a bust.
    • He had 23 catches and 283 yards with a catch rate of 52.6%.
    • Demarcusyious Thomas had 22 catches for 283 yards and a catch rate of 56.4% his rookie year.
    • Roddy White had 29 catches for 446 yards and a catch rate of just 42% his rookie year.

I’m not saying Agholor will turn into those guys, there are other players with similar performances that never panned out, or haven’t yet (Jonathan Baldwin, Mike Williams, Matt Jones).  I am saying we should all withhold judgement for another year.

Closing

I’ll leave it there for now.  The Chip Kelly experiment didn’t go like I’d hoped, and there are some big issues to resolve, but the franchise has a long record of success and there are pieces in place for a quick turnaround.  Besides, it can ALWAYS be worse…for example, you could be a St. Louis fan…