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.

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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.

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Here are the bottom 25:

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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:

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

 

 

Editor’s note and some pre-game thoughts.

2As you hopefully noticed, I haven’t posted much this season.  I’m finishing up my JD/MBA program while trying to find full-time employment.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t left much time for posting, at least not enough to allow for the quality of analysis I expect (and you deserve).  However, I consider this to be a short-term problem, and hope to have much more time to post next season.  In order to keep things interesting here, I’ve added Patrick Causey as a contributor.  His posts thus far have been tremendous, and we should all be excited to read his future work.  If you would like to contribute, either on a one-off or regular basis, please email me at eaglesrewind@gmail.com.

Now…to the team.

This is a massively important game for a number of reasons:

  • Most clearly, the Eagles need the win.  As maddeningly inconsistent as the team has been (and as terrible on offense as they’ve been), they’re in the driver’s seat for the division title if they can beat Dallas tonight.  Let’s break it down a bit:
    • Dallas – A loss tonight puts Dallas at 2-6, with another week to go before Romo comes back.  Moreover, they play 4 of their next 5 games on the road, and 5 of their last 8 games on the road.  Their schedule includes games against Carolina (7-0), and at Green Bay (6-1).  Basically, the Cowboys, even with Romo, are not going to win out.  That puts them at no better than 9-7, and much more likely, 8-8 or worse.
    • Giants – The Giants are 4-4, but the Eagles hold the tiebreaker over them right now by virtue of the head-to-head win and a Giants loss to Dallas in week 1.  Here’s the key issue for New York:  According to Football Outsiders, the Giants have faced the 28th hardest schedule thus far.  Heading into this week, they have the 5th hardest schedule going forward.  In other words, the Giants have a .500 record through the easy half of their schedule, so we shouldn’t expect anything better over the rest of the year (I expect worse).  That puts the Giants, at best, at 8-8.
    • Washington – Washington is 3-4, same as the Eagles.  They’re currently getting killed by New England, so let’s just assume they’ll be at 3-5 soon enough.  How do things look the rest of the way?  Well, FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings have Washington as underdogs in EVERY game for the rest of the season.  That could, of course, change in the future.  But right now, it means Washington is very unlikely to string together a few wins.  They’re remaining schedule includes: New Orleans (suddenly looking competent), @ Carolina (still undefeated and winning by 20 over GB right now), 2 games against Dallas w/ Romo, and week 16 in Philadelphia.  Just 3 losses out of those games puts Washington at no better than 8-8, and that assumes they sweep the rest of their schedule (Buffalo, NYG, @ Chicago), which they won’t.

Where does that leave us?  Well, to put it simply, the Eagles have a great chance at the division if they can just get to 8 wins.  They have 3 right now.  Here’s the rest of the schedule, with the current FO rank and ELO win %:

  • @ Dallas (25th, 46%)
  • Miami (20th, 68%)
  • Tampa (26th, 79%)
  • @ Detroit (31st, 60%)
  • @ New England (1st, 17%)
  • Buffalo (14th, 66%)
  • Arizona (2nd, 49%)
  • Washington (18th, 79%)
  • @ NYG (15th, 46%)

They need 5 wins out of that stretch. Based purely on the ELO odds, the win expectation is 5.1 wins.  If the Eagles win tonight, the remaining win expectation is at least 4.64 (so closer to 9 wins than 8), and likely higher assuming the ELO odds improve to account for an Eagles win.

So that’s why tonight is important.  Win, and Dallas is basically eliminated and the Eagles become the clear favorites, needing just 4 wins against a schedule that includes 3 games in which the team is a heavy favorite.

A few other Dallas notes, then I’ll get to a few bigger picture bullets:

  • Matt Cassell has been awful this year.  Matt Cassel has also been bad for pretty much his entire career (save two seasons, the most recent of which was 5+ years ago).  The Eagles defense should be able to completely shut the Dallas passing attack down.
  • Darren McFadden is the Dallas “rushing attack”.
  • The Dallas defense ranks 17th by DVOA, and 20th against the run.  I really hope Ryan Mathews is healthy enough to play, but regardless, Chip needs to run the ball.  The Jason Peters injury hurts, but it shouldn’t dissuade Chip from sticking with the run.  This is not a game where they need to worry about the other team running away from them if they don’t get points up quickly.
  • The Dallas Punt Coverage unit ranks 3rd worst in the league by Football Outsiders.  Combine that with Matt Cassel and the Eagles defense, and we should be looking at a few big return opportunities for Darren Sproles.

The Eagles have been so inconsistent that I’m hesitant to make any prediction.  The Eagles SHOULD win this game.  But the amount of uncertainty around the Eagles expected performance is so large right now there’s just no way to be confident about it.

Now to a few higher-level notes:

Chip – This is a huge game for Chip.  As I explained above, the implications are enormous.  He’s had a bye week to plan/prepare.  Alonso and Kendricks are back healthy (I think). He’s going against Matt Cassel.  Dallas has lost 5 straight games.

In other words, there are absolutely no excuses for a poor performance.  The Eagles are the better team talent-wise, and they’ve had more time to prepare and rest.  If they don’t perform, it’s going to be really hard to blame anyone but Chip, especially because he’s now in charge of picking the players too.

Sam Bradford – He’s been terrible.  There’s no way around it, and if you’re defending him, just know that you’re doing so with absolutely no supporting evidence from his actual play.  Yes, the WRs have also been bad, and the dropped passes make Sam’s job a lot harder.  But remember that every WR drops some balls that should be caught.  The questions isn’t how many drops, it’s how many drops ABOVE what we should expect.  According to SportingCharts.com (full disclosure: I have no idea if this site is trustworthy or not), the Eagles have a drop rate of 6.6%.  That’s 3rd highest in the league.  The median drop rate is 3.9% (not using average because it would take too long to calculate right now and not make a meaningful difference).

So…the TRUE drop rate we’re talking about is 2.7%.  That’s how much worse the Eagles have been than average, according to this source.  Bradford has 272 attempts.  If we normalize the drop rate, that means Bradford should have 7-8 more completions than he does.  Maybe a few more if we adjust for second-order effects as well (additional first downs).  Regardless, still think drops are why Bradford has struggled?

The only reason to have any hope is that Bradford is coming back from injury and is in a new system.  He has a relatively long track record, which he is currently underperforming.  That tells me that MAYBE, with a little more time to adjust/learn, he will get better.  But frankly, “better” doesn’t get you very far when you’re looking at one of the worst starters in the league.

He’s dead last in QBR, he’s 30th out of 33 qualifiers in Passer Rating. He has the 6th worst Interception Rate.  He has the 3rd worst Yards per Attempt (and adjusted Yards per attempt).

I hate to be so pessimistic, but it seems pretty clear to me that Bradford isn’t “the answer”, unless all you’re hoping for is league-average play.  And in that case, he’s far too expensive, and will continue to be far too expensive after this year (my projection, perhaps the market value will be much different).

The Defense – Not much to say here other than I told you so.  Not that anyone was disagreeing, but I made it pretty clear in my preseason write-up that this defense could be a top 5 unit.  Right now they rank #3 by FO.

Eagles vs. Falcons: Week 1 Pre-Game Thoughts

Some brief notes/questions/things to watch for heading into tonight’s game:

  • The Eagles are 3.5 point favorites on the road.  Atlanta went 6-10 last year and ranked 20th in DVOA.  The offense ranked 10th, while the defense ranked last in the league (also DVOA).  The O/U is 55.5, which was the second highest on the board this week.  Expect a lot of scoring.
  • Has Jason Peters’ slowed at all?  He’s still either the best or second best player on the roster, and the anchor of the OL.  His level of play is vital.  There’s no specific reason to expect him to be any worse than last year, but he’s entering his mid-30s, so it bears watching.
  • Are the Guards serviceable? Barbre and Gardner don’t have to be great. They don’t even have to be good.  But if the Eagles can’t get at least average/mediocre play from them, the running game won’t be nearly as potent as we’re all hoping or expecting.
  • How will the Kendricks/Alonso/Ryans rotation shake out?  Relatedly, how good is Demeco Ryans?  This issue is going to evolve over a few weeks (at least), but we need to see how close to 100% Alonso is, and if Ryans is going to be a strict 1-2 down player.  If Ryans is losing it and Alonso isn’t close to his pre-injury form, then what appeared to be a great strength for the team starts looking like a big hole.
  • Has the pass defense improved?  There are a lot of new names in the secondary, but it remains to be seen if there has been any improvement.  Julio Jones is one of the best WRs in the league, so it’s a good early indicator for the defense.  Last year the team ranked 18th in pass defense DVOA, and 7th in rush defense.  In other words, an improvement in the pass defense could place the overall defense comfortably among the top 10 in the league.  Meanwhile, the Falcons had the 8th best passing attack last year.  So this matchup will play a large role in deciding the game.  
  • Sam Bradford should have plenty of time tonight.  The Falcons registered the third worst adjusted sack rate last year (4.5%), and it seems like they’re betting on rookie Vic Beasley and FA signing Adrian Clayborn to fix things.  Maybe they help a bit, but a drastic improvement is unlikely.

That’s all I have time for.  I’m feeling pretty good about this game, but it’s week one, so inherent uncertainty is high.  Eagles win by a TD.